Tag Archives: amazon

Prediction Algorithms: You Might Also Like…

Amazon is a fairly poor predictor of what I might like to read next. For some reason, their algorithms just don’t work well on me. I am trying to think of a time when Amazon suggested a book, and I thought, Yes, that is exactly what I need.

I’m thinking about this today for two reasons: first, because I’m in one of those in-between states, where I can’t quite figure out what to read next; and second, because of an Amazon email that’s been sitting in my inbox since yesterday with a subject: “Discovery your next read.”

The email was well-timed, what with me at sea between books, so of course I took a look at it. The list offered ten possibilities broken into five groups. They are as follows:

Recommended for you

  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I suspect this is because I recently read The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life by Richard Russo. Okay, maybe this is a fair recommendation, but there is a little luck involved here, as I will explain shortly.
  • The Pioneers by David McCullough. This would be a great recommendation, right up my alley, if not for the fact that I have already read it.

Based on your reading

  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. This is a better recommendation than the Anne Lamott because I just finished reading Empire Falls. See, I went from reading about Russo to wanting to read his writing, not more about writing. That’s the problem with the Lamott recommendation–well, one of them, anyway.
  • Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation by Dennis Tenen. I suspect this is because I am partway through a fantastic book called Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum, a history of the word processor. The only problem is, I’ve stalled on that book, not because it is bad–it is fantastic. But I am looking for something else at the moment. That makes Plain Text interesting, but not right for the moment.

Inspired by your wishlist

  • The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. It does sound interesting, but no, not now.
  • Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life by Steven Strogatz. Order certainly emerged from chaos here, where I got not one but two books by Strogatz, someone I’ve never heard of. What is on my wishlist that inspired these recommendations?

For you in biographies and memoirs

  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook. Okay, I have this audiobook, and it is downloaded to my phone, which is what I do for books that I plan on reading in the near future. This is a good prediction and recommendation, and I’ll give Amazon credit for this one.
  • For the Good of the Game by Bud Selig. Interesting that both recommendations are related to baseball. This would be a good recommendation as well, yet once again, I have already read this book. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I sent Selig a note, and even got a response from him!–Although it is possible the response I got was a form letter.

For you on Amazon charts

  • Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it’s not up there on my radar anywhere.
  • The New Girl by Daniel Silva. Not sure why Amazon would recommend the 19th book in a series when I haven’t read the first 18.

Okay, so if I were generous, I’d say that generally speaking, Amazon made 3 good recommendations: The Pioneers, Ten Innings at Wrigley, and For the Good of the Game. The problem is that I have already read two of those, so in practice, Amazon made only one good recommendation. One is better than none, I suppose, but it doesn’t encourage me to take their recommendations seriously.

There are two problems, as I see it:

First, Amazon doesn’t seem to know which books I have read and which I haven’t. I mark books “Finished” on Goodreads, which Amazon owns, so they have access to that data, and could, in theory, use that to eliminate recommendations and replace them with others. Moreover, I have finished 365 audiobooks on Audible, which Amazon also owns, and from which, they should be able to tell what I have finished and what I haven’t. That seems like a simple problem to fix.

The second problem is more complicated. Predictions work better, I suspect, for readers who read primarily within a set genre or two. But what of an eclectic reader, someone who reads, say, a classic collection of sportswriter interviews, and follows that up with a Hollywood memoir, after which he reads a book about NASA engineers, and then just for kicks, a book on the White House chiefs of staff. I suspect Amazon’s algorithms are good at saying, “If you liked the Kingkiller Chronicles, then you should try…” But how good are they at making recommendations for someone like me, whose whimsy is often guided by the butterfly effect of reading? Given that series of four books I j just listed, what direction does an algorithm take?

I empathize with Amazon’s prediction bots at times like these, when I am floating on an ocean with no interesting books in sight. Today, just to read something I started The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins. Maybe this one will take.

Amazon reviews

I was glancing at the reviews of various books that I’d posted on Amazon, looking to see whether they are particularly helpful or not based on on the feedback that people can give. The results seem mixed and I decided to take a look at reviews by others for a book I’d recently reviewed to see why some are rated very helpful and others not very helpful. In doing so, I looked at reviews that rated the book itself very highly and very lowly. And I made a discovery which surprised me:

People rate books low (e.g. 1-star) because of the price of the book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was. This is probably old news at this point, but there were dozens of people who, for instance, gave 1-star to Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for the sole reason that they felt the Kindle version of the book was overpriced. People are free to express their opinions as they see fit and I have no problem with that, but it did bother me that a rating system was being used as a kind of protest mechanism against the publisher and not to rate the book on its actual literary merits.

I gave this a bit of thought. People should be able to express whatever opinion they have about a book (or any product) for whatever reason they choose. But a rating system should also be designed to be helpful to those interested in the quality of a product above and beyond just the price. Giving a book a 1-star rating because of price alone games the system in a way that makes it difficult for people looking for opinions on quality to easily find them. I wondered if there was a possible solution and thought of at least one:

Why not two scales for ratings: 1-5 stars for quality and 1-5 stars for value. The quality rating would be used (in theory) to rate the book on its merits, completely separate from how it is priced. The value rating provides a mechanism for someone to rate the overall value (including price) of the book. In this way, a person could say that they thought a book was phenomenal (5-stars for quality), but thought it was outrageously overpriced (1-star for value). This seems like a perfect compromise but I suspect it has two fatal flaws:

  1. People would still protest overpriced books by hijacking the quality rating. That’s just human nature.
  2. Publishers might balk at such a rating system (although its hard to imagine what they could do about it) because it would expose too much about their pricing practices.

In the end, it is easy enough to simply filter out the noise of 1-star reviews based solely on price. And I’ve been marking these reviews as “Not helpful” as I find them, because for me, they aren’t helpful at all. They tell me nothing about quality. I just wish there was a better mechanism for separating out quality from value in these reviews.

Apple’s in-app purchase policy

I read today that Amazon finally caved to Apple’s in-app purchase policy. I can understand Apple’s desire to get its cut, but the desire to enforce this policy puts an unnecessary burden on customers and creates usability issues that are extremely annoying. For instance:

Right now, if I want to buy a book from the Kindle app on my iPad, I can click the Kindle Store button and it will open a web browser to the Amazon Kindle site so that I can make my purchase. If I decide to upgrade to the latest version of the tool, the button will no longer exist, meaning that I will have to navigate to Safari, and then navigate Amazon. This adds two additional steps to a process that was almost as efficient as you can get. Adding steps to a process? Really?

This might be good for Apple’s bottom line, but I have a question for Apple: how it this useful to consumers?

Where does a fan’s responsibility lie? Amazon’s screw-up with A Dance with Dragons

It is by no means any secret now that Amazon in Germany screwed up and shipping about 180 copies of George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons to people who had placed orders. Martin is furious about this, as he should be. A Dance with Dragons is book 5 in the Song of Ice and Fire series, and a long-awaited addition to the series, particularly after HBO completed its airing of the first season of Game of Thrones. I have read the first two books (my thoughts here and here), and I’m partway through the third book, A Storm of Swords, and I am enjoying the series quite a bit. Like many people out there, I don’t to know what is coming next until I have the book in my hands and can read it myself. Put another way, I want to avoid spoilers.

But what I find most interesting about this recent Amazon debacle is that it feels like regardless of what Amazon’s responsibility is in the matter, it will be the fans who have received the book early that we will depend on to hold their tongues for another couple of weeks. It seems as if it is implicit on fans in this situation to keep their mouths shut, despite the fact that mistake that was made was not their own. Should one of these fans write a post about the book, others might react negatively to it, and I’m not sure that is right.

Continue reading Where does a fan’s responsibility lie? Amazon’s screw-up with A Dance with Dragons

Learned Astronomer now available on Kindle

As I promised in the earlier post, I have also made my first published science fiction story, “When I Kissed the Learned Astronomer” available on the Kindle for people who want to read it there. You can find it in Amazon’s Kindle Store. It’ll cost you $0.99 there, but remember, the story is also freely available on my website.

This is the first thing that I’ve made publicly available on the Kindle so if you notice any formatting issues or other problems, let me know and I’ll try to correct them if I do this again in the future. I used Scrivener to do the conversion to Kindle format, and with the possible exception of a reference to a page header which I didn’t catch, it looks like it came out pretty good as far as I can tell.