Tertulia & Touch

Customers in Bookmongers of Brixton, a book store in London. Apps have struggled to reproduce online the kind of real-world serendipity that puts a book in a reader’s hand. Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Yesterday’s post notwithstanding, my favorite book review in ages was published five days ago. A couple weeks earlier I had read an essay that riffs off the book, written by the book author himself.  And I was all in–hook, line and sinker as they say–after reading the author’s punchy riff. The reviewer, one of my favorite cultural commentators, filleted the book such that I had to question my susceptibility to the book author’s riff essay.

One reason I read book reviews in a variety of publications is to get the next best thing to in-store browsing; comparative criticisms. But finding and holding a book is a whole other thing. Alexandra Alter’s article, about how technology may afford that in a new way, is of interest; Tertulia, if you can simulate that sensation of discovery, I will be all in:

A New Way to Choose Your Next Book

Most books are sold online, where it’s impossible to replicate the experience of browsing in a brick-and-mortar store. Book-discovery apps aim to change that.

By some measures, the book business is doing better than ever.

Last year, readers bought nearly 827 million print books, an increase of roughly 10 percent over 2020, and a record since NPD BookScan began tracking two decades ago.

But all is not as rosy as it seems. As book buyers have migrated online, it has gotten harder to sell books by new or lesser known authors. With the exception of surprise runaway best-sellers (“Where the Crawdads Sing,” for example) and books by celebrities or brand name authors (Matthew McConaughey, James Patterson), most writers fail to find a much of an audience. Of the 3.2 million titles that BookScan tracked in 2021, fewer than one percent of them sold more than 5,000 copies.

The gap points to what is perhaps the most intractable problem in publishing: How to reproduce online the serendipity of walking into a bookstore and discovering new books and authors. Several companies have attempted to tackle the issue, with mixed results. Now, a new app, Tertulia, launched this week, is trying a different approach, by measuring and distilling the online chatter about books to point readers to the ones that are driving discussions.

When bookstores were the main purveyors of books, an interesting cover, a prominent display in Barnes & Noble or a passionate endorsement from an independent bookseller could nudge a reader to pick up something new. But online, the old methods for creating buzz and driving sales no longer work. On the internet, industry experts say, it is easy for readers to click on something they know they want, but they are less likely to encounter something unfamiliar.

“Everyone knows you can sell books online,” said John Ingram, the chairman of the Ingram Content Group, the largest book distributor and wholesaler in the United States. “The question is, how do you get content in front of people who might be interested in it?”

Several companies have tried. Two years ago, Ingram launched a discovery website, Bookfinity, which offers users customized recommendations after giving them a survey and assigning them a “reader type,” including beach reader, cool mom/dad and spiritual seeker.

Others include Booqsi, a platform that bills itself as a “community-focused, Amazon-free alternative to Goodreads,” and Copper, a new author-centric book discovery app that is designed to connect readers with writers. (So far, around 500 authors have signed up.) Another company, Open Road Integrated Media, markets e-books of older titles. David Steinberger, its chief executive, said that in aggregate, it doubles the sales of its clients’ titles.

“There’s an endless appetite among the tech people and publishing industry people to find the Holy Grail of book discovery, but I don’t think anyone has found a tool or an algorithm or an AI platform that does the job for you,” said Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, which analyzes the book industry.

The latest arrival in this increasingly crowded niche is Tertulia, a sleek new app that takes a novel approach to online discovery.

Using a mix of artificial intelligence and human curation, Tertulia aggregates book discussions and recommendations from across the web, drawing from social media posts, book reviews, podcasts and news articles to generate reading recommendations that are tailored to individuals’ tastes and interests.

To get personalized recommendations, users answer questions about which genres they like and what types of people they want to hear about books from (options include space explorers, poets, chefs, historians, entertainers and book critics). Users can also sign in with their Twitter accounts, which allows the app’s algorithms to sift through their feeds to pull out book recommendations from people they follow.

Each day, Tertulia generates a personalized list of five books. Elsewhere on the app, users can browse lists of notable titles in different genres, which are ranked according to buzz, rather than sales. Currently, Tertulia’s “most talked about” lists feature a mix of older and newer titles — on the fiction list, Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” appear along with recently released novels by Jennifer Egan and Emily St. John Mandel…

Read the whole article here.

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