Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.

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September 10, 2012

I’m a pretty voracious reader and have been since I was but a wee child; I can still feel the sense of wonder that came along with the first time I was given books of my own (Little Golden Books, Christmas 1979). I’d regularly burn through everything in the bookmobile in the summers and when I lived in Nebraska, I was at A Novel Idea several times a week to get new reading material (it’s been 10 years and I still miss that place, the used bookstore here is a scary firetrap run by a guy with no social skills)–the staff were aces at recommending new things for me to read.

While I’m pretty good at figuring out what sorts of science fiction and fantasy novels I’m likely to enjoy–eight years of reviewing has made it pretty obvious to me what I do and don’t like–I’m a bit more at sea when it comes to the other genre I love: romance. So I rely on recommendations and reviews and it’s pretty challenging sometimes because there’s a lot of really bad romance novels out there.

Romance readers, in general, read a lot. They tend to look for specific things in their reading and will read a lot of problematic and poorly written material in their quest to get to that specific thing (see: Harlequin’s Presents line–there is a reason why they all have such formulaic and cringeworthy titles). It is really interesting to talk to romance readers because they will almost always have a very specific criteria for what they want in a romance–the biggest thing, of course, is the Happily Ever After at the end, but there will also often be specificity around setting, type of hero and heroine, how explicit the sex scenes can or should be, et cetera.

Romance readers also tend to be at the front of the curve when it comes to new ways to find reading material–they were among the earliest adopters of e-readers and the sheer number of small e-presses in romance is astonishing. There are way more small e-presses in romance than there are in SF/F. The success of 50 Shades of Grey is driving some interesting shifts in the romance market, including re-packaging older titles as well as possible renewed interest in the alph-hole here on the part of publishers (please, no), according to this post over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Which is why I think the whole Kindle Serials thing is really interesting.

Amazon has a metric ass-ton of data on their customers. Their recommendation algorithm is reasonably good–it’s always reccing books that I would be interested in if I hadn’t already read them–and I fully expect that they do collect data on the reading patterns in ebooks, too.  But I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of authors tailoring their stories to those datasets.

Actually, Fran Wilde says it a heck of a lot better than I do:

But here’s the problem – from my single data point perspective. I don’t know what I will like. Only what I have liked. And, despite the algorithms’ best efforts to recommend things I might like, I quite often find that my favorite discoveries are things I never expected to like, that I read or heard by accident, or because someone mentioned them in passing. I find that the story I put down once because it was the wrong day for me to read it, I often pick up again, much later and love, because it is a different day, and I, a different reader.

There is totally an element of serendipity to reading and it’s that element that you can’t get from mining datasets (as someone who works with financial data at her day job, there are sometimes things going on that cannot be captured in a spreadsheet or in a transactional system). A few months ago, I couldn’t find anyone to review K.J. Parker’s Sharps for the August issue of RT Book Reviews and I ended up having to read and review it myself. It turned out that I really, really, really liked it. And I never would have picked it up on my own–serendipity and necessity put me in a position to read it and I’m so glad I did. I’m planning on checking out more of Parker’s work in the future.

At the RT convention this past spring, I picked up Grace Burrowes’s The Virtuoso from the goody bag room–again, on a whim. Turns out that the book is absolutely fantastic and I proceeded to tear my way through the rest of her books shortly thereafter. Those happened to be the right books for me at the right time. Another book I picked up at the same time definitely wasn’t and that’s okay, too. I’m sure it was the right book for someone else.

One of the things I want to do with this blog is revisit old favorites and look at them through new eyes. I am not the same person I was when I read these books for the first time. What I thought was a good book 20 years ago is somewhat different from what I believe now. Reading is a liminal activity and while the printed words may not change, the mind reading them certainly can and does. And there is no algorithm that can account for that experience–which is why I think tailoring stories to what you think the reader wants based on data is ultimately reductive and not likely to be particularly successful.

Serial stories are one thing, serial stories written based on market analysis are something else entirely and, to me, that something else comes up short. I don’t always want to read a story that is just like every other story I’ve read over the last week or month or year (there are times when I do want that, of course–comfort reads are a wonderful thing) and that is guaranteed to hit certain buttons–I often want to be challenged or be made to think by my reading. I want to discover new books and new writers. I treasure that moment when I slide into a story and come up for air three or four hours later–and I even have respect for those stories I bounce off of and can’t engage with because figuring out why something doesn’t work is often as interesting as figuring out how it does.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this–it just feels wrong, somehow, to reduce something so powerful as story to a product shaped by data analysis.

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