Algorithms vs. Humans: What's the Better Path to Book Discovery?
An algorithm recently bought me a Father’s Day present I didn’t need or ask for, using my own money.
You see, my wife was buying sheets from Amazon when they presented her with the book The Arm by Jeff Passan (HarperCollins) as a Father’s Day suggestion. $27.95 later my charge card was hit with the purchase.
There is no way I would have paid $27.95 for a hardcover title not on my radar. A book I had never heard of. But she bought it with my money and I have to say . . . I love the book! It’s all about the mysteries of the baseball arm, and my wife knows I love baseball and was once a pitcher. (Does Amazon know this, too?) So I highly recommend it to you. Oh, wait . . . you don’t even know me so why would you care about any recommendation I might make? Possibly you loathe baseball.
Which brings me to my bookstore visit yesterday. I entered the store and no one acknowledged my existence. The two people behind the counter were busy chatting about his new puppy. Now, as a former bookstore clerk myself, I realize book buyers like to be left alone. So no need to pounce, but after I had spent ten minutes aimlessly circling the store, maybe ask if I need some help? Nope. I just walked out untouched. I could feel their relief. Ringing up that cash register is such a pain.
I did see their nice table of “We Recommend” books. All bookstores do this. It was a HUGE innovation in bookselling when it first occurred way back when. But guess what? Your recommendation table doesn’t know me from a hill of beans. All you’re doing is telling me what you like. It’s no different than giving someone a gift because you want it. “Oh, honey, a jackhammer! You do love me!” How many times have you seen the chaos this can bring to a loving relationship?
My bookstore experience was truly depressing. Most of my recent ones have been similar (with the notable exception of Shakespeare and Co., which I wrote about). More magazines and used books than new titles. Old carpeting. Very few customers. I asked my librarian wife if she felt bookstores had become stale unexciting shopping experiences. She quickly answered yes followed by “I love Amazon.” Her answer truly surprised me.
My wife probably acquires as many print books as anyone I know. Hundreds a year. Our cars are littered with books. We have books in every room of our house. Where does she find them? Not at bookstores. She buys new titles on Amazon using “my free money” and then is always prowling GW (Goodwill) and church fairs. She very much enjoys the experience of finding and collecting books but no longer does this in an actual bookstore.
So, right on cue, I read last week where Barnes & Noble is focusing for their future bookstores -- new smaller café formats that should be better places to hang out than the independent store I just visited. Yet, when I think about my most recent experience at a Barnes & Noble, once again I had to go seek help from someone not overly eager to provide it. Sort of like going to Best Buy with a bunch of blue shirts all talking to themselves. Retail training programs have gone to hell. Underpaid workers are not incentivized to offer great service. And the store collections are badly lacking in the titles formerly required to always keep in stock. It’s gotten so bad that the U.S. postal service is offering far better service than many of our struggling retailers!
The B&N announcement states as fact that bookstores are the preferred places for book discovery. Is this actually true or wishful thinking? Can a lowly paid store clerk possibly compete with a highly intelligent algorithm? Who sees my wife is buying sheets so offers her a baseball gift book as a Father’s Day suggestion? The algorithm knows me. Loves me. Cares deeply about me. The bookstore clerk? I’m just another body intruding upon their puppy story.
If I were a betting person, I’d put my money on the algorithm.