This is what we are talking about, isn’t it, when we worry about the future of publishing companies? Publishers choose to publish this or that book, and implicitly chose not to publish these others. We can comfortably assume these others are not so good then, can’t we?

On a trivial level some of this is obviously true, but it’s a truth with very little meaning. Publishers chose to publish the books they do for all sorts of reasons, prominent among which is the belief that they can make money by doing so. No publisher gets to survey the entirety of current writing before making their selection. We all have specialisms and contacts: authors who have written for us before, literary agents we habitually deal with, friends who may refer a writer to us. If we have a strong list in say military history, a new writer of such a book may seek us out. But for every book a publishing company decides to do, to put their imprimatur on, there are thousands that they’ve never even heard of. With lots of publishers fishing in the same pool it’s not utterly unreasonable to assume that all the good fish will get caught, with the tiny ones being thrown back. So the assumption that the publishing industry as a whole somehow curates current book culture is easily made.

I don’t believe it though. The strong argument against the idea is the existence of a vigorous and rapidly growing self-publishing business. But another argument is the fact that very few people are able to name more than a couple of book publishers. When a customer choses a book surely the very last consideration would be the name of the publisher. So our curation is rather diffuse and done at a distance on an industry-wide basis. The sense in which it would have relevance is the old-fashioned and possibly disappearing sense that only books published by regular publishers get into bookshops. To that extent we curate the offerings shown to the public. Now of course Amazon has hit that one on the head with a sledgehammer.

How do we find our way around the masses of stuff available on Amazon? Obviously Amazon itself struggles with this issue, and has one or two solutions to offer. I wrote about algorithmic book recommendation recently. But what everyone craves is that almost mythological encounter: the bookstore clerk who directs you to the book that changes your life. I don’t know about you, but this never happened to me. Maybe I’m so antisocial that I avoid conversation with bookstore clerks, maybe I know my own mind, or maybe I like my serendipity unmediated. I’ve nothing against a friend recommending a book to me — many have and many of their recommendations I have enjoyed — but I feel reluctant to being talked into laying my money down. Clicking around Amazon seems entirely pleasant to me. I know I’ll never see everything: but is the illusion you’re seeing it all in a bookstore really tenable — all of a rather small subset of the whole.

Goodreads just seems too much to me. Too much sharing maybe. Or maybe too many options. Somehow NPR’s Book Concierge seems more manageable. They introduced 2014’s edition on this morning’s Morning Edition. Maybe I like it because, as a regular listener, I feel I can trust their judgement — that they are almost friends. You can filter by clicking on the categories on the left, then filter more finely by clicking other categories still showing there. Maybe this is what book curation will look like in future: groups of the like-minded, special-interest groups, clubs maybe, pooling their knowledge and making it available to others who care.

Later: Here’s a Penguin site offering a similar service — but you have to give them parameters yourself.

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