Netflix knows something that libraries haven’t figured out yet: how to create categories that help people browse online in an informed yet serendipitous way.
Right now, browsing for books online involves an algorithm that looks at the books you have interacted with—viewed, purchased, reviewed. A recommendation engine compares your activity with that of other users. If reader A (you) and reader B both viewed or purchased the same book, other titles reader B has viewed or purchased will likely appeal to you. The relationship is strengthened by the number of titles you have in common. The problem with this approach is that the more reader A and reader B have in common, the more likely it is that reader A has already read, or knows about, reader B’s choices. Furthermore, the algorithm provides depth but not breadth, so it fails readers whose tastes defy easy categorization.
Stay in your lane(s)?
Netflix is the front-runner in online browsing for TV and movies. In addition to new releases and recommendations based on things you’ve viewed, it created “browse lanes” such as “Dark Suspenseful Miniseries,” “Binge-worthy British TV Mysteries,” and “Witty Comedy Featuring a Strong Female Lead.” These niche categories are built by a team of viewers armed with a controlled vocabulary, looking at hundreds of thousands of TV shows and movies and tagging them with words describing pace, tone, characters, setting, etc.
This is informed browsing; I believe a similar experience is possible for books.
Publishers provide some basic information about a book: its length, genre, general subject, form (short stories, essays, poetry), and age level and whether it’s part of a series. What’s missing is what we in libraries call the appeal terms. (Netflix’s appeal terms are words such as dark, binge-worthy, and witty.) Librarians use these in readers’ advisory all the time—why not help readers use them directly?
Doorways to discovery
Enter Book Lust author Nancy Pearl and her concept of the four doorways to a book: story, character, setting, and language. Every book contains all four elements but to varying degrees. A reader who likes fast-paced, taut, suspenseful novels will tend to enjoy works in which the strongest element is story; a reader who wants to live inside the mind of a book’s characters will tend to prefer novels in which the strongest element is character, and so forth.
These doorways aren’t difficult to determine because book reviewers use common words—appeal terms—to describe the books that fit into them. Reviews from publications such as LJ, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, the New York Times, and NPR Books often reveal a title’s doorways. To a lesser extent, user reviews found on sites like Goodreads and Amazon help as well.
For example, reviews for story-driven books will contain the code words fast-paced, gripping, page-turner, riveting, exciting, suspenseful, thrilling, or can’t put it down. For character-driven books, they’ll include the appeal terms authentic, flawed, introspective, relatable, or well-developed. Reviews for setting-driven books include postapocalyptic, historical, medieval, dystopian, or worldbuilding. Reviews for language-driven books might feature conversational, literary, poetic, stylistic, lyrical, experimental, or gritty.
Once we know a book’s dominant doorways, we can add information such as subject headings, form, and genre to group it with other books and create literary browse lanes. Some examples:
- Impossible-to-put-down fiction set in World War II
- Suspenseful literary fiction with flawed narrators
- Dystopian novels about totalitarianism
- Dark and funny fiction about the 1970s punk rock scene
- Linked stories of characters living in a small town.
If a book isn’t reviewed, browse lanes can begin with genre or form followed by subject.
Beyond the obvious
Using appeal as the first division broadens a reader’s awareness of titles by cutting across genres. Romances can be just as suspenseful as thrillers, fantasy titles as subtly written as literary fiction. Browse lanes also allow debut authors and backlist titles to take their place alongside popular titles, exposing them to more potential readers.
Sometimes readers know what they want to read—everyone is reading a particular title and talking about it, or it’s their book club assignment. But sometimes readers want to be surprised by something new. They might be in the mood for a leisurely lyrical novel or a suspenseful headlong rush to the finish. Oftentimes the thrill of the chase—unearthing a book they didn’t even know existed—is the best part.
Browse lanes will help readers find books that pique their interest. I’m not suggesting we do away with search or personalized recommendations, but we should throw informed browsing into the mix for readers who want to discover something new that’s right up their alley.