Monday, 13 January 2014

What if there was a Netflix for Books? (the recommendations engine not the business model)

By Candy Gourlay

Here we go again. The success of Netflix, the subscription-based, all-you-can-watch streaming media provider, has got everyone talking death.

The death of divd rentals, the death of dvd itself, the death of TV, the death of cinema.

We in the book industry know what that's like. With the technological revolution in full swing, respected book critics are getting the elbow from fading newspapers, award winning authors are only as good as their sales, libraries are falling like dominos, and bookshops watch helplessly as Amazon chomps at their customers. Winner takes all.

So I was intrigued when my son turned to me the other day and said, 'Mum, I love reading but I never know what to read. I wish there was a Netflix for books.'

He didn't mean Netflix as in the media provider's all-you-can-watch business model - A model that has been adopted by eBook platform Oyster to push e-books - he was referring to Netflix's powerful recommendation interface.
If you liked 1960s Star Trek, the first non-Trek title that Netflix is likely to suggest to you is the original Mission: Impossible series (the one with the cool Lalo Schifrin soundtrack). Streaming the latest Doctor Who is likely to net you the supernatural TV drama Being Human (the UK version). Watch From Dusk Till Dawn and 300 and say hello to a new row on your homepage: Visually Striking Violent Action & Adventure. Trying to understand the invisible array of algorithms that power your Netflix suggestions has long been a favorite sport, but what’s actually going on in that galaxy of big data, those billions and billions of ratings stars? Turns out there are 800 Netflix engineers working behind the scenes at their Silicon Valley HQ. The company estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven by recommendation. The Science Behind the Netflix algorithms that decide what you'll watch next

The question got me thinking. What if there really was such a thing as a Netflix for books?

Instead of writing a chapter or cleaning the living room or ironing another mountain of shirts, I spent a few hours trying to visualise what such a Netflix-for-Books app would be like.

Here's a Slideshare of what I came up with:

In my fantasy, my Netflix-for- Books app - lamely called Bookfix - combines a powerful recommendation engine with reviews.

Professional critics will be differentiated from the hoi polloi in the style of Rotten Tomatoes, the movie database with its tomatometre. Perhaps Bookfix could build a reputation by paying top critics to review books in addition to the usual reader reviews.

But most fantastical of all, when you press the 'buy' button, you get a gamut of booksellers to buy books from, in whatever shape or form you want it.

In my fantasy, this app helps steady the industry. And because the industry is steadied, publishers find themselves taking more risks.

And because the publishers are taking more risks, the body of work they produce turns out wider, deeper, richer.

In my little fantasy, we not only save the book industry, we save the culture.

*cue triumphant blast of trumpets*

Having done all that, I thought I ought to do a Google search to see if anyone had ever come close to my brilliant idea.

Here's the good news:

In 2011, Goodreads acquired Discoverbooks to create its recommendation engine.

So my fantasy isn't a fantasy. A Netflix recommendation engine for books already exists! You can read more about it here.

And the bad news?

Goodreads is now owned by Amazon.


Here's a little video to cheer you up.


  1. Sounds like a great idea! Sigh! We don't even have a Netflix for videos here and the DVD libraries are STILL closing down.

    1. The best place to source difficult to find foreign DVD titles in my neighbourhood is Archway Library. Long may it last!

  2. "a gamut of booksellers" - haha ha ha

  3. I'm liking Bookfix - it has a great selection!

    1. LOL Under the Netflix algorithm your book would be listed with "Gripping dystopia fiction for young adults with authors who like cake" ... along with a few thousand others.

  4. Replies
    1. If only publishers would get together and build this ...

  5. It looks fantastic! However, being the technophobe that I am it also fills me with fear - the problem that I find with Netflix is that it's only got a limited number of films and they're just a popularist selection - however, a site like that makes you feel that that's all there is out there and people then get dependant, lazy and stop looking?! Would have to make sure that it's much more adventurous and tasteful than Netflix...

    1. Hey Shane I thought that too but I've been retraining my Netflix and now I'm getting a lot of foreign films and other weird non popular things I enjoy ( as well as trashy romantic comedies). But yes it's limited because the providers seem to have a deal ... what you get on Sky and Lovefilm you can't get on Netflix! In my fantasy Bookfix will list EVERYTHING. Imagine doing research on 19th century literature and having it served up to you so easily (mind you, already does this!)

    2. Sorry Shana ... my autocorrect thinks you should change your name to Shane.

  6. Sounds ideal. I like Goodreads anyway. It's sort of happening anyway in a clunky uncoordinated way. What I wold really love is the buy button giving you so much choice of where to buy form. That would be really cool.

    1. Amazon had the vision to see the power in Goodreads.

  7. I need this! I never know what to read next. Bookfix is a great name too. I haven't really investigated goodreads even though I am on there so I'll do that soon. I liked the layout of Oyster. Thanks for the links.

  8. It would give indy books a fighting chance too.

  9. Genius procrastination! You are a force for writing good in this world.


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