“Discovery” (by Mike Cooper)

 The pseudonymous Mike Cooper has been published several times in EQMM. His new post is timely in that a lot of people may be having the very experience he describes as they search for books as gifts or for reading over the holidays. This would be a good opportunity for readers to reply with book recommendations—not only in the category in which Mike laments not being able to find what he’s looking for, but in the mystery genre. Mike Cooper’s latest thriller novel, from Viking, is Full Ratchet.Janet Hutchings

There are two million books out there. Why can’t I find anything to read?

At least two million—that’s just a rough estimate of what’s available on the Kindle, in English. Read one a day for fifty years and you’d get through fewer than one percent. But of course by the end of fifty years there would be another ten or twenty million titles, or more. We’re a long, long way from the chained libraries of the Middle Ages, where a diligent monk could easily work his way through all the written texts in his world.

And yet, with all this selection, I still find myself, all too often, staring at the stack of books near my desk thinking, “Naahhh . . . nothing there I really want to pick up now.”

Naturally, most of the problem is me. For example, I like great, universe-spanning science fiction grounded in known physics—“hard SF,” I suppose—which seems to be largely out of style. PI novels, sure, you can find a few now and then, but the mystery world has moved on. Swashbucklers? Pirates? Adventure stories? Good luck trying to find one without vampires, or ancient gods, or some other supernatural element.

Conversely, having read widely and enthusiastically for decades, here are a few sorts of novels I’m really, really tired of: serial killers. Sadistic murders of attractive young women. Military thrillers where every politician is a spineless appeaser, every civilian a hopeless rubbernecker. Dark, headbanging noir with too much booze and cigarettes, a few torture scenes, and no sense of humor whatsoever.

Even granting that I’m an irredeemable crank, there just don’t seem to be very many good books being published.

But that’s nonsense. Of course there are great books. The supply has expanded enormously, and in that vast ocean any reader’s tastes can be satisfied. The problem is how to find them—or, in the jargon, “discovery.”

In the old days we had reviewers. Lots of them, in newspapers and magazines and even on radio (not so much on television, Oprah notwithstanding). Paid a modest but livable wage, they performed a public service, pointing readers to worthy new titles. But cost-cutting, the death throes of print journalism, and, more than anything, the rise of customer reviews on the internet have together decimated the professional reviewers’ ranks.

In theory, crowdsourcing should easily replace all the book reviewers who’ve been laid off. The wisdom of crowds should lead to unbiased, broad-based evaluations, with a broader reach and a genuine sense of what most readers think.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

One reason is that even honest reviewers tend to rate high. The average Amazon review is 4.3 stars. YouTube? 4.6. It’s like Harvard, where anything less than an A- is below average. Lake Wobegon ratings don’t help much.

Second, sock-puppetry is, if not rife, definitely present. Some authors create their own fake personas, others get their friends involved; either way, some books are notorious for the blatantly absurd nature of their five-star reviews.

More discouragingly, people have figured out that if you want good reviews, you can simply buy them. The going rate for a 5-star Amazon review is still five dollars, which you can easily see at the online microlabor site Fiverr. And while it might strike some as a dubious practice, even unethical, paying for reviews is apparently now widely accepted. The president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America(!), quoted in The Third Degree, recommends Fiverr “if you need a quick review [or] blurb.”

Why five dollars? Why aren’t the Chinese gold farmers offering fake reviews at, say, ten cents? Partly because bad English would be a tip-off, but more because Amazon now requires “verified” status before letting you post a review (i.e., you need a legitimate account and a purchasing history).

Amazon knows they have a problem.

Five dollars a pop adds up fast, however. What’s a poor author to do? Well, especially on the self-published side of the business, the practice of “exchanging” reviews is far from unknown. You review my book—five stars, maybe?—and I’ll review yours. Everyone understands there’s no expectation of actually reading either one.

It’s difficult to say how widespread this practice is. Amazon, which knows it’s crucial that their ratings at least be seen as objective, will shut you down immediately if they find out, so people tend to be discreet. Still, I’ve been approached more than once; and simply reading the reviews of certain books is a giveaway.

Furthermore, Amazon is apparently in the business of trading favors for good reviews of the books it publishes itself:

Amazon is looking to revolutionize the process of getting author blurbs: provide a review for a book on an Amazon imprint and Amazon will give the reviewer—and his or her book—extra promotion as a thank you.

I haven’t even mentioned the various “legitimate” paid-review services like PW Select—legitimate in the sense that everyone understands the content is bought, but hardly legitimate in their exploitation of authors, readers and the process generally.

E-publishing has certainly smashed the gates open; anyone can now publish their work. Smashing the existing infrastructure of reviewing has not been so helpful. On the results, internet reviews are simply not providing a reliable substitute.

But we are in a transitional period, and there are—finally!—some signs that even a pessimist like myself might find hopeful.

For one thing, the decline of independent bookstores is leveling off. It turns out many readers still appreciate the browsing, the selection, and the personal advice from real people. Perhaps booksellers can take advantage of the need and leverage themselves into a larger “review and recommend” role.

Second, communities of readers keep popping up online. Goodreads has been subsumed into Amazon, so the jury remains out there, but how about Biblionasium? LitLovers? Some will be publisher fronts, many will fade away, but eventually someone will figure it out.

Finally, we may simply all end up reading more of the same books. Anita Elberse argues in Blockbusters that the long tail hasn’t worked out, that for all the micropublishing, sales continue to be dominated by a few mega-sellers. Which means that millions of authors can sell a few copies, and a few authors will sell millions.

And maybe that’s no bad thing. The loss of shared community, of collective interests and common pursuits, is part of a dangerous fragmentation of public life—especially in this country, which depends on knitting together a single polity from exceptionally diverse strands. Four hundred television channels lets everyone splinter off into their own interest groups, so to speak.

But if we’re all reading the same popular novels, or histories or Malcolm Gladwell or whatever—maybe we’ll draw back closer together.

And meanwhile, I continue my search for a good space opera.

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One Response to “Discovery” (by Mike Cooper)

  1. David Grace says:

    You were correct when you used the word “Discovery.” I can’t find good books either.

    One of the main pillars of the Long Tail Model is “search and sort” which is sadly missing. I begged Smashwords to improve their search and sort tools and the response was, essentially, that they aren’t needed because good books will somehow be found without them.

    I contacted the Amazon ebooks team and made specific suggestions including asking for the ability for a three level deep sort, e;g. first by rating, second by price and third by author. They never even acknowledged my email.

    And good luck even contacting anyone at the B&N site. I’m told that the B&N site’s programmers are all in the Philippines and that middle-level managers have little to no interaction with them.

    So, unless and until someone decides to let users set multiple search criteria and several levels of sort the Discovery problem won’t improve. BTW, I actually designed a UI that would do all that in one screen if anyone would like to actually try providing better book discovery tools.

    –David Grace

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