Bookselling in the 21st Century: On the Difficulty of Recommending Books
Vanessa Martini of City Lights Does Not Employ an Algorithm
In part three of our recurring series, Bookselling in the 21st Century, City Lights bookseller Vanessa Martini gets into the complications of book recommendation in the ear of monolithic search engines and consumer-driven algorithms.
The question gets asked in a few different ways: What’s your favorite book? What should I read right now? Can you make me a recommendation? It never comes with a preamble, instead it arrives like an unexpected volley, which I, never athletic, struggle to return. There is no way to answer this question without knowing who’s asking. At this point, the question asked, all I know is that you’re the type of person to ask it without forethought.
I think some customers know this process is painful. They want to see me flounder, or they want to pick apart my favorite, or often enough they simply want my attention. These customers usually don’t end up buying anything I recommend anyway. I hedge because of customers like this. I ask what they have read and liked and why they liked it. I ask if they want to continue reading something similar or try something different. Do they want short stories, a long chewy novel, some essays? How ok are they with sci-fi? I almost always lead them to books that are not my favorites and not my staff picks. I am gracious and noncommittal when they ask if I like these books. My coworkers do and I trust their taste, I say. I don’t want to give them a favorite of mine and have them dislike it. Too vulnerable. Too known.
Yet my favorites are, in fact, all over the store. My shelf-talkers have my name on them. The books are faced out so their covers beckon. I wrote a pithy and enticing little blurb to describe their appeal. So what is the barrier to telling people this face to face? Sometimes customers know about the staff picks display and they ask which are mine. They want to know my name. (I am endlessly grateful we do not have to wear name tags at City Lights). But that’s too much. I demur. I repeat that any staff pick is sure to be good.
I swing between wanting to press my dearest books into strangers’ hands and wanting to hide. I may as well be handing over a piece of my psyche: here is something important to me, this helped me during a painful time, this made me cry. In opening a book I recommend a person opens a window onto who I am. If they dislike the view it feels like a rejection. I know it is not personal, I know that any interaction with a stranger has minimal effects on us both, and yet the fear lingers, similar to telling someone your real feelings.
This has only gotten worse the longer I am a bookseller. At the beginning it was all exciting. I felt powerful, legitimized by my name beneath a book or that someone would ask me—me!—what to read, as though I could give them the exact right thing they needed. Of course, they do not necessarily ask me, personally, but rather me, a face of the bookstore. Frequently I am told by customers how happy they are we are still here and how they wish they had a store like ours in their town. It just isn’t the same, you know, shopping online, they say. Usually these customers have an assortment of staff picks in their hands, and the sales numbers do pan out: make something a pick and its sales will almost always spike.
To see these numbers was to realize I had some form of responsibility. Yes, it is hard to share something treasured, and sometimes it is aggravating to pick books every season if nothing has really lit a fire inside me, but if a brightly colored piece of paper with my blurb on it can sell dozens more copies of a book, then I might as well try to make what I chose something that—forgive what I am about to say—maybe needed some help. A book published by a small press, or one that wasn’t just one thing or the other, or one with a bad cover or bad jacket copy, or one that looked boring to the casual browser. Great books come from houses big and small, but when a customer can make a trust fall into a small press book or something old and unglamorous of cover that I love, why not prioritize these? Part of the reason customers tell us they are glad we’re still around is because we carry and even prioritize books they don’t necessarily see reviewed in their local Sunday paper or books that reflect a reality big house publishing is often unwilling or slow to depict. City Lights is very lucky in that it has capital both literal and cultural to act as a cushion beneath these more left-field titles, but it is our responsibility to use that capital in a way that is both progressive and intellectually enriching.
All of this is to say that people want to be told what to read, at the very least so they can then decide not to. Algorithms tell us we may like this if we liked that. Our tastes are micro-analyzed and refined down to the wordiest descriptors that still somehow pull up dozens of films. Browsing on one website leads to near-lookalike objects haunting our banner ads for weeks. Yet it is harder and harder to decide what to watch or buy. Choice cripples us.
So when someone asks me to recommend a book to them, I think there is an unspoken expectation that I will somehow glean what a code written by dozens of engineers that cost millions culled from their browsing habits in a single moment, and I will produce the Perfect Book for Them. I can’t do that. All I can do is point out a certain direction to go, hopefully a little further left and a little more strange than they might otherwise decide. When a customer comes to the counter with a pick of mine I keep quiet. But I watch them leave with it and know they’ll be seeing some fragment of me, even if they don’t know what that fragment is. What they do with it is up to them.