Saturday, October 11, 2014

Algorithms, preferences, word of mouth- oh my!

Okay folks- I will let you in on a little secret: many marketing efforts we indie writers employ are all about getting Amazon to highlight us, however briefly, on one of their landing pages so that you, the reader, will say, "hey, catchy cover/title/author's name...let me go check out that blurb...ooh, interesting...hey, not a bad price [especially if we're running a sale]...oh look, the reviews are pretty good...I am here, so why not?"

I'm going to spare you everything that (we think) goes into inducing you to have that conversation with yourself, but it is all contingent on the magical algorithms that power Amazon. It is, for the most part, a complete crapshoot, because we don't really know how Amazon makes its determinations as to what you like. We know that the more you sell, the more you sell, and we have seen some evidence that more reviews get you more visibility than those with fewer reviews (maybe!). And if we can get even eyeballs on our title after someone has looked at something else, that can give us a little bump too.

But maybe the algorithm is a crapshoot too.

As I've mentioned before, I've reviewed on Amazon for over a decade. I've also been known to create Wishlists and Lists for Listmania. Sometimes, I get great suggestions from my purchases, because I've rated something or because I've added something to a Wishlist. Because Amazon knows I like Thelonious Monk (you know, more than the average person with functional ears), they suggested a slew of other Jazz Artists and titles, many of which sat on my Wishlist for years until I recently added them to my Spotify list. And you know what? I found some great titles I wouldn't have found otherwise, certainly not through something like Spotify's Discover engine.

I've also come across a number of resources on cooking and fitness that I wouldn't have found without them. Also, because my sons love the Amulet series, I added the latest title to my Wishlist, and now I have a number of recommendations for age-appropriate graphic novels. Thanks, Amazon- you do a good job in some things.

However, I recently reviewed a Korean movie that was over a decade old. Sort of kind of obscure, but not unheard of- at least ten other people had reviewed it as well. Strangely, I did not see one suggestion when I went through the Recommended For You list that Amazon generates. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they, despite being an international juggernaut, really don't do well with things that don't "speak" to an American or Western audience? (I tell you, that Pankaj Ghemawat is onto something!)

Maybe...but then how do we explain Amazon's lack of recommendations to me for anything related to mythology? You think I talk about it a lot here? You should see how many items I've reviewed on their site. I would LOVE to get recommendations for more books on the topic, especially if it's anything along the lines of George O'Connor's awesome Olympians series. But, on Amazon, utter silence.

(Let's not even talk about how it hasn't had any foreign policy recommendations worth noting since I randomly picked up Arab Spring Dreams and Invisible Armies- or got and loved Lawrence in Arabia through their Vine program. I've got Twitter to scratch that itch. Right...)

Unfortunately, I'm picky: just because I liked one thing an author wrote doesn't mean I'll like everything. The last author I binged on was Agatha Christie- and even she got on my nerves after a while with some references that struck me as simply racist in the 21st century. (And of course I'm only talking about the Poirot series; I've never wanted to read Miss Marple.) So an algorithm like Amazon's can actually be useful to me, both as an author and as a reader, but it's not.

So how do I find things to read? The old-fashioned ways: word-of-mouth from like-minded friends...and browsing the library shelves. What are you going to do?

Excuse me, I'm going to do some research into the genealogies of Greek mythology now. (Are you listening, the internet?!)