Discoverability for books is not enough — a case for better reading list tools

I want to read So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. At least five people have told me to. And every time they did, I said, “yep, I’m on it.”

I still haven’t read it.

I don’t want to make excuses. But I am saying my tools don’t make it easy to distinguish this book from the other 2,000 on my list. (Not a typo. Yeah, I have problems.)

In researching for BookTrackr, I’ve talked to dozens of people about their book lists. Three tools dominate: Amazon Wish List, Goodreads, and Evernote.

Evernote is the least suited to the task — it’s a general-purpose, all-encompassing piece of software. You have to manually manage your list: adding links, cut-and-paste sorting and categorizing, remembering to add new books you learn about. On the plus side, if you’re an Evernote power-user, you’re in there a lot anyway — and you can integrate your list with the rest of your data.

Amazon Wish List is better, especially for people — including the majority I spoke with — who buy most of their books on Amazon. Once you’re on the book’s Amazon page, it’s one click to put it on your list. You can share it. It’s easy to buy stuff — or have friends buy you stuff. It’s got filters and search. You can use preset priority levels and add your notes to each item. And recently Amazon added drag-and-drop sorting.

A lot of benefits. But you don’t get built-in categorization: you have to create separate lists, which is a chore. Even worse, all that data is locked inside Amazon’s walled garden. The biggest drawback, though, for the serious reader: the Wish List is not made specifically for books. So any improvements Amazon makes must always account for all their other products.

Goodreads shelves are made for books. You can put the same book on multiple shelves at once. You have one-click access to profile pages. You can sort by rating and date read. But sorting is a pain: no drag-and-drop, and you have to do it shelf by shelf. And all that putting books on shelves is completely manual, although you can do batch editing once a book’s on one shelf. There aren’t any helpful widgets, and using the mobile app for any serious tweaking is impracticable.

All these tools are solid, and you can get by with them. But why just get by when it could be so much better.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I want in a digital reading list — things that I can’t get that with any of the tools listed above. For now, I don’t want to discuss features — maybe I’ll do that later. Instead, allow me to expound the characteristics of my ideal app.

  • Context. Right now a lot of information gets lost. Who recommended the book; how I heard about it; how many times I heard about it; why I even want to read it in the first place: all worth tracking.
  • Helpfulness. A helpful list sends me reminders. A helpful list checks in with me and offers suggestions. A helpful list notices when a blogger I like, or a friend who has given me great recommendations, posts about a book on a blog, or on Facebook, or on Twitter.
  • Intelligence. These lists don’t actually know anything about the books. A good list comes up with a suggested order for me. It calls me on it if I rank a book high and never read it. It knows when a bunch of people who read similar stuff have all added the same book — one I haven’t heard about yet.
  • Simplicity. If I’m with a friend and she mentions a book, I want to add it to my list without bringing the conversation to a standstill.

What’s the common thread? These are ways to help you organize the books you already know about. Whereas most book-related services only care about discoverability.

Here’s the problem with that. Any serious reader has plenty of books to last them a lifetime. Yes, it’s always good to discover new books, and there are always new books coming out that I want to know about. But in a world of information oppression, that pain pales in comparison to the difficulty of making sense out of the hundreds of books I have on my list now.

Which of these books will I enjoy the most? Which are most relevant to me right now? Which are highly regarded by the people I respect? There are no easy answers to these questions. But existing offerings don’t even try.

The mistake they make is their hidden assumption that if they keep throwing new and different books at me, I’ll simply read them all in the order I hear about them and go on to solve all of my problems.

No. Books are complicated. It’s hard to know which books are good and which are not. It’s hard to know which books are helpful for me and which are a waste of time. It’s hard to know what a book is actually about, and what I can learn from it. It’s hard to remember all the recommendations I’ve received and which ones are high priority vs. low. It’s hard to apply the lessons from a book once I’ve finally read it.

These problems go way beyond discoverability. Solving discoverability alone will not help people read more. It won’t help people enjoy books more. It won’t help them use the knowledge to make their lives better. It’s not good enough. We need more.

P.S. If you missed the semi-shameless plug earlier, here’s a completely shameless one: I’m already building this app — it’s called BookTrackr.

Photo Credit: callumscott2 via Compfight cc