The Bookseller as Curator

Last week a post by the Ajitvikram Singh, the owner of Fact & Fiction, an indie bookstore owner in Delhi, about his decision to shut down his store, created a minor kerfuffle in our blogosphere / twittersphere (or at least in the cerebral regions of these).

The post is here.  Link.

The news itself, that of an indie bookstore shutting down due to declining footfalls in the digital age, is nothing new. Yet, Ajitvikram Singh’s article is interesting from the viewpoint of his description of the bookseller as a curator. I excerpt relevant passages from his article

  • -  I remember the first question most distributors asked me when I started: How was I going to choose the books? To most of them, my selection was esoteric.
  • - Owning a small bookshop had some advantages. It forced me to be excruciatingly selective about the books. This allowed the bookshop to be more eclectic, as opposed to others who would house a collection thrust on to them by the distributors.
  • - The broad consensus among publishers was to send me books no one else could figure out. Till date, unsuspecting clients still walk in and ask where I get my books, why the selection is different from other bookshops, and who chooses the books for me. Some are still quite unconvinced that I got my books from exactly the same source as every other bookshop in the city, and that I personally choose to keep the vast majority of books out of the shop. Perhaps it reflects my biases. Mostly, it’s to do with being a reader.
  • - …the role of a bookseller, I believe, can, at best, be described as a kind of curator. A function rendered redundant today when every book is a mere listing on the internet.
  • - I maintain books are highly tactile objects and cannot be sold on the internet alone. The art of browsing and the serendipity of finding unconnected books are hard to emulate in the virtual world. The number of people who come in to find books, then to compare prices on their smartphones, while the slightly sensitive ones merely photograph the book and then order from home, only goes to validate my point.

 

From Ajitvikram’s description of Fact & Fiction, it reminds me of Mumbai’s wonderful (and defunct) Lotus Book Store, which had a similar eclectic collection. That was the store in which I first sighted Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (and I remember gasping at the sight of it, and perhaps the price as well!) and many other unusual books, which I have never seen anywhere.

Both these bookstores had an owner with taste (or idiosyncrasies) which resulted in a distinct collection, as opposed to the blandness that you find in a chain bookstore such as Crossword. These quirky bookstores sell not only books but they also sell discovery (more specifically, a high probability of serendipity, of chancing upon interesting books). Historically all bookstores typically sold some amount of discovery with their books. The more indie the bookstore the more they sold discovery and curation.

Books thus are the currency through which we paid for discovery time. Just as coffee is the currency through which you pay for seat time at Starbucks. Now with the delinking of discovery and books, than to the rise of Amazon, book sellers are at a loss. It is almost like you can bring in a cup of coffee from your house and get a seat at Starbucks.

How do booksellers, assuming they last, charge for discovery? Some thoughts.

  1. 1. Can you created a completely curated book store and charge consumers Rs 100 / $2 per hour for time spent? Say akin to how a museum charges? Unlikely i think, though you can look at a cordoned-off special section where you get an expert or celebrity to curate books. Get a Nassim Taleb or Steven Pinker to send you their recommendations and then you stock the bookshelves thus. Strand Book Store of NYC has a concept they call Author’s Bookshelf, where they ask writers to share what their bookshelf of say 50 books looks like. Strand then sets up a shelf in their store which readers can buy from.
  2. 2. Can you charge for discovery as an extra service, and over time build it as a separate revenue line? Daunt Books and Heywood Hill are two independent book stores in London that have built a service around curation. Will this service work outside of a global city like London or NYC, in a Mumbai or Delhi? I am less sure.
  3. 3. Could you sell discovery as a B2B service to online book stores? Echo Nest, a music discovery technology startup, now acquired by Spotify, provides a parallel. Is there a similar one for books? Strictly no, though there are attempts in the book discovery tech space such as Bookvibe (which uses twitter data to generate recommendations), BookLamp (trying to create a BooksGenomeProject a la Pandora, and now acquired by Apple), WhichBook etc, but really nothing on the scale or breadth of a Echo Nest. However I am not sure if a bookseller (steeped in the world of physical books) will be able to put together a crack tech team to take on this space. But I do see possibilities for someone like Ajitvikram Singh or a ur-bookstore owner to be a consultant to a book discovery tech startup or even help curate books for a digital storefront. Why couldn’t Fact & Fiction’s online bookstore be hosted on Flipkart, getting an affiliate payment (for curating)?

Now that Ajitvikram Singh is free and has time on his hands, perhaps Flipkart could get Ajitvikram to curate a storefront for them?

Book Discovery Heats Up!

Book Discovery has had a terrific last few weeks. Clearly the highlight was the ‘it’ app / tech product discovery site Product Hunt’s expanding to books.

Just before Product Hunt Books launched, Jordan Koschei launched fivefootshelf, a website devoted to curating essential reads by topic. And before that there was the Bookstck v Bookicious war (each curating entrepreneur-recommended books) on Product Hunt.

Clearly book discovery is seeing a lot of action. Why?

I like to think of book discovery as a subset of discovery problems in general. Thus far we have been using search engines to find what we know we want. And search (Google Search, really) is a terrific tool for doing this. But what about finding or discovering what we didn’t know we wanted. How do you search for something you dont know? This is the challenge facing text search as the dominant paradigm for discovery.

To add to the above, we are witnessing Google gradually losing its indexing land mass – more and more time is spent on sites (Facebook, Pinterest) or on apps (mobile, or desktop apps such as Slack / Quip) where googlebots are banned, affecting Google’s ability to index the site. This affect search quality, which further heightens the discovery problem.

Silicon Valley hasn’t been sitting still. Pinterest, Siri (or Cortana or Google Now) etc are all attempts to take on discovery head-on. However like all grand challenges, discovery isn’t going to yield with one particular line of assault. It will need attacks from multiple directions. And this is where book discovery comes in. Book discovery is a great training ground – akin to what the playing fields of Eton did for Waterloo – for that grand assault to come. Further, there are advantages to books as a category too – books are a reasonably finite closed set, there is lots of meta data, and they attract a lot of passionate readers, who can always be counted on for feedback.

Book Discovery thus far

Up until now, book discovery sites have used either crowd-curation or code-curation to attack discovery. Crowd-curation uses social book shelving (a la Goodreads, the ur-company of this era) to attack book discovery. Typically such sites are free to users, who add books to their shelves, comment on the same, follow their friends and see what they are reading to determine what they should read.

In code-curated sites, algorithms are used to determine what you should read next, basis your past history and preferences. Typically these sites involve less friction (and set-up time than social book shelving sites) but also result in unwieldy recommendations (as you see with Amazon recommends).

The rise of expert-led curation

What scale giveth, relevance taketh away. Given the tradeoff between scale and relevance, it was just a matter of time before the lack of relevance pushed entrepreneurs to look at new routes. And that is what the emergence of sites such as Bookstck / Bookicious and even Pinax tell us. Each of these uses expert-curation (or human-curation as Mark Watkins refers to in a series of LinkedIn posts).

Interestingly, Product Hunt for Books is a twist on expert-led curation itself. In the case of PH for Books, the community is highly curated, even though the books aren’t. Through discussions, there is scope for recommendations to emerge, but it is also likely that you will see books that aren’t recommended by any expert. The books’ presence in the curated community is in itself the recommendation!

As these sites gather steam, increasingly they will have to move beyond the present stage of manual aggregation of expert recommendations, where someone needs to physically collect recommendations, or ask someone trusted or knowledgeable to recommend. The challenge here is really the relevance of the expert to the reader. Sure I get to know the very best books that Marc Andreessen has recommended, but if I don’t know who he is, what impact does the curation have? Thus relevance of subjects / experts become key to maintaining the experience.

To meet this, and simultaneously bring in some degree of scale, we will begin to see algorithm-led aggregation of expert recommendations – here you could use some sort of algorithm or automation to collect recommendations, but more critically, crunch the recommendations of the people you follow on twitter (as a proxy for relevance), to come up with a definitive list (Bookvibe comes closest to this but is still miles away) of books that you are bound to like. This is what the present bookstck, fivefootshelf or pinax have to move to, and this is where the future of book discovery is leading to – machine-driven expert (human) curation.

***

As I conclude, it might also be interesting to keep in mind that the recently launched Apple Music is also a clear bet on curation through their curated playlists feature. Music is actually the category that has maximum metadata – Pandora classifies a song under as many as 450 attributes including moods, making it easy for its algorithms to parse your present playlists to suggest the next song. Still Apple Music thinks the future is human curation. Fascinating!

Hello World. Or Why Pinax?

In an old post on my personal websiteI had analyzed the book-discovery startup landscape, classifying approaches to solving book discovery into five broad buckets.

Book Discovery Startup Buckets

A key finding that emerged was that most ventures that emerged to attack book discovery chose one of the first three models. These three approaches had one point in common – code that could scale. They were all scalable models as opposed to expert-led approaches, which involve considerable human effort in curation.

The focus on scalable approaches however obscured one essential truth – the consumer is not worried about scale. She is only interested in a solution to her problem. To the extent that scale enables a solution to her problem – better choice resulting from more alternatives – she is happy to use a scalable approach. However if the best solution to her problem involves a non-scalable approach then she will prefer that.

Then why have most discovery startups looked at scalable approaches? One reason is perhaps venture funding, who prefer to back startups that can scale. This forces startups to exclude non-scalable approaches such as expert-led approaches, and exclusively focus on tech-led approaches.

However if there is any one truism about book discovery, it is that there is no one definitive solution. Rather we need a plurality of approaches to attack discovery from various ends. Goodreads puts it wellOne of the major takeaways of our research is that book discovery happens in a multitude of ways, and there is no single magic bullet that will work for every book.”

Pinax is my attempt at approaching book discovery from a non-tech perspective, one that should throw up interesting questions around curation and discovery. It targets expert-led book discovery by manually aggregating expert recommendations into a directory. These recommendations are sourced from anywhere I find them – books, twitter feeds, other websites, magazines, interviews etc – to create a bookshelf of favourites for each expert. Think of Pinax as a curated Goodreads, where only some (expert) people can create shelves.

The need to manually curate Pinax makes it inherently non-scalable. But if it can result in interesting recommendations of books that people didnt think they wanted to read, which is the fundamental challenge in book discovery, then it would be serving its purpose, scale or no scale.