That might seem like a ridiculous statement. It’s never been easier than now to just jump online and type a few keywords in a box and find thousands of books that meet your criteria. Amazon and BN.com make it effortless to find books and buy them with a few clicks. But there’s a problem. Online booksellers can’t tell you if a book is any good.
Oh, they try. They get readers to review books, usually on a star system, and they even let them write little mini-essays about why such and such a book is great or terrible. But that system is way too easy to game. Nefarious people even pay for reviews, which makes the star rating hard to trust. And there’s another problem: if you find a list of a thousand books, how many of them do you actually click on before buying something? Five? Maybe just the first one. And that’s a terrible way to browse for books. Just because Amazon thinks that you really, really want to read the new Dan Brown novel doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy it. I know for a fact that most fans of my gruesome, very non-romantic vampire novel 13 Bullets won’t enjoy Twilight, but that’s the next book you’ll see on most sites. Their recommendations are usually based on - at best - sales numbers. Five hundred places down that list there might be a fantastic book that you’d really love, but your never going to find it. Even if you really wanted to you would have to waste a ton of money working down the list. You’re going to stick with what you know, instead, reading just authors you know won’t disappoint you. Safe inside your comfort zone. But that’s no way for a reader to live.
So where do you turn? There are a bunch of recommendation websites out there.
Whatshouldireadnext.com asks you for the name of an author and spits out twenty more authors you might like. Sadly, there are no ratings - just links that go to Amazon. Literature-map.com gives you a fun graphic of author names flying around your favorite author, moving constantly so you have to chase down the links. Fun, but again, no ratings, and the only criterion here is how many people bought books by two given authors. You know what? Last year I bought non-fiction history books, science fiction novels, and children’s books (as gifts). Does that mean that every science fiction fan wants to read Good Night, Moon?
No, a real recommendation engine wouldn’t base its results on sales data, or who bought what, or five star reviews written by the author’s grandmother. It definitely shouldn’t base its results on reviews written by somebody who doesn’t like Amazon’s return policies and thought that a random book page was the place to complain. A good recommendation engine should come from a place of understanding books. Of understanding why people read. Ideally each book would be matched up with others by someone who loves the genre, or the themes, or what have you. That’s a tall order because it’s so labor intensive. But would it be so hard to write an algorithm that can tell you that if you liked Master and Commander you might enjoy Moby Dick?
I don’t have time to build such an engine, because I’m too busy writing my own books. But there’s a huge talent pool out there who could help - readers, in all their millions. Hardcore genre experts who can be impartial. And there are organizations that should definitely be in charge of hosting the engine, namely the International Thriller Writers, the SFWA, the Horror Writers of America, and so on—groups that exist purely to advance the careers of working writers.
It could be done.
But if somebody does it, they need to own it. They need to trumpet to the far corners of the earth that they have such a thing. It needs to be honest, with no chance for authors to buy good reviews. And perhaps most importantly, whoever runs the engine needs to demand that authors put a link at the end of every ebook, a listing at the back of every hardcover, saying, “Now that you’ve enjoyed this novel, head to www.blahblahblah.com to find another book.” NPR and the New York Times should do features on this great new service. Because nothing is sadder than a vital resource nobody knows is there.
In the meantime, may I recommend a book? It’s called Chimera, and it’s fantastic—you’re going to love it. A rollicking spy yarn full of action and thrills. Trust me. It’s by my favorite author.
David Wellington is the author of numerous horror novels, including the 13 Bullets and Monster Island series. His newest book is his first thriller, Chimera, which is available July 23rd. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.