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With ebook growth mostly flat, publishers, retailers and a smattering of start-ups are testing new ways to help readers discover content that interests them. One key question they’re all trying to answer in the process is what methods lead to the most meaningful recommendations.
Designed to help authors boost their work in a crowded market, iAuthor puts readers in the driver’s seat. Users can create “book themes,” similar to song playlists, that are sorted algorithmically by how well other readers on iAuthor like them. Themes can include titles promoted by authors on the platform as well as those that aren’t.
As founder Adam Kolczynski puts it, “genre-driven discovery is no longer enough. Gaps are left, subtle layers missed,” and in his view, passionate readers are best equipped to fill them in.
The model is something of a rebuke to the alternative discovery approach, which Kolcynski says is too reliant on “editorial whim.”
Amanda Close, SVP of Consumer Marketing Development at Penguin Random House and co-founder of Brightly, might not characterize the site’s editorial strategy that way. Before launching, she says, “we surveyed parents and learned they wanted fun and friendly resources that provided inspiration around a family’s reading life.”
The editorial team driving the site—Brightly lists sixteen contributor profiles so far, including one for the New York Public Library—aims to deliver those insights by enlisting expertise that can’t be crowdsourced. The hope is that the conversations fostered on Brightly around children’s reading practices lead parents to buy relevant Penguin Random House titles.
“Some of the site’s content calls out specific books,” says Christine McNamara, who is heading up Brightly with Close, “and we are testing affiliate links as an efficient path to purchase should our user community be interested.”
Penguin Random House isn’t the first publisher to attempt building an online vertical to boost discovery in key content areas. Others have found gaining an audience for new editorial ventures can be an uphill battle and expensive to sustain. Simon & Schuster launched 250 Words, a site focusing on business books, in February last year. Eight months later, it suspended operation and has yet to return.
In any case, user-driven and editorial discovery mechanisms aren’t mutually exclusive.
The ebook subscription service Oyster added a “Book Lists” feature similar to iAuthor’s themes in November last year, the same month it launched the web magazine The Oyster Review, bulking up on reader- and editor-curated discovery simultaneously.
The number of Book Lists on Oyster’s platform is now in the tens of thousands, and while the company declined to say what share of discovery they currently drive, Oyster co-founder and CPO Willem Van Lancker says the feature has become “an integral part” of the process. Oyster has also “seen a lot more readers discovering new books from our editorial features,” especially since incorporating Oyster Review content into the new home screen it rolled out last month.
But for Oyster, more important than either approach individually is how well the insights from both inform its data-driven recommendation system. Van Lancker explains that because Oyster has “data that spans the whole process of reading, from discovery to finishing a book,” its algorithm can personalize recommendations more precisely for individual users.
“Users don’t want to see all books, so you need to narrow it down,” Rhomberg adds. Whether it’s readers, algorithms, editors or a combination of all three that are doing the whittling may matter less than the precision Van Lancker and Kolczynski both agree are key, and an idea that Brightly’s targeted approach is likewise premised on.
For his part, though, Rhomberg remains circumspect on discovery projects at large. “My observation still stands: users don’t have a discovery problem.” It’s discoverability, as he sees it, that the growing plethora of titles is hampering even more.