Writing over on Boing Boing, Michael Underwood, the head of marketing at Angry Robot Books, proposes a solution to a problem no reader has with a system that no one wants and does not work.
He thinks tags would be a great addition to online bookstores:
Walk into a bookstore, and chances are you’ll see books divided into sections by genre. Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Mystery, and so on. It’s the most common system of categorizing books, conversationally and from the data-management perspective of the book world. Genre is also incredibly limiting at times.
There are dozens upon dozens of subgenres across the genres of popular fiction (Romance, Crime, and Science Fiction/Fantasy, plus some others). Science Fiction gets sliced up into Space Opera, Mundane SF, Hard SF, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, etc. These subgenres can get hard to keep track of, especially since their boundaries are often porous, and even life-long fans often disagree on the borders between sub-genres, policing them inefficiently but with gusto. At times it’s fun to argue classifications, try to find exactly the right place to frame a piece so that its cultural and narrative context is most clear. And narrow sub-genres can be useful for putting works into clusters for conversation, but it’s also really easy to slice so thin that the discussion becomes obscure or self-serving rather than practical.
Ultimately, a hardline This-or-That, pigeonholing system of defining genre and works is far more trouble than it’s worth, and can do a great disservice to works that defy easy categorization. …
But there is hope. And unsurprisingly, it comes from the internet.
The Tag. You know, this little thing: #
So what’s wrong with this?
For one thing, Underwood is trying to solve a publisher, or industry, problem by mucking about in the structure of the bookstore.
For all that he calls this a solution to “the discovery problem”, in reality that doesn’t exist. Readers don’t have a problem with discovering their next work, so what Underwood is really talking about here is the publishing industry’s “discoverability problem”, which also doesn’t exist.
Discoverability is another word for the problem of helping readers find the books you want them to buy (your books, in other words). It’s not a problem so much as it is just the latest buzzword for marketing, which is simply a standard business activity for publishers and authors.
To label it a problem is to make a mountain out of a molehill, and solving said problem by changing the organizational schema of a bookstore would be like solving a car engine problem by changing the upholstery.
Furthermore, the proposed solution has been tried before and it ultimately proved to be useless. We know this because Amazon used to have one, and removed it several years ago, because, as David Gaughran reminds us, it was abused by authors, readers, and activists.
That is exactly what was going on with the tag system in the Kindle Store.
Defective by Design, for example, encouraged people to tag all DRMed ebooks in the Kindle Store with the tags kindle swindle, defectivebydesign, amd drm. Price protesters spammed the tags with complaints about expensive ebooks, and readers were also confusing the issue by adding purely subjective opinions.
In short, the tag system simply didn’t work, and what’s more it still wouldn’t work even if access were limited to only authors and publishers.
Authors and publishers would have a financial incentive to add as many tags as possible. This would lead to tag spam, just like what we had before.
So rather than this clean set of tags proposed by Underwood:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the the Philosopher’s Stone) #Fantasy #Middle Grade, #Magical School, #Friendship #Prophecy #Rags to Riches #England #Hidden Magical World #Series
We would actually see something more like this:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the the Philosopher’s Stone) #Fantasy #Middle Grade #Magical School #Friendship #Prophecy #Rags to Riches #England #Hidden Magical World #Series #Too many tags #Lost prince #Wand as phallic symbol #Dumbledore is gay #Train #Magic mirror #Cloak of invisibility #Purloined letter #Broomstick #Quidditch #Muggle #Ginger #Cupboard #Petunia #Dudsley #Magic #Voldemort #Neil Gaiman #Neil Stephenson #Neil Diamond #Neil Armstrong #Neil Patrick Harris #Neil deGrasse Tyson #Neil Simon #Neil Young
So no, this “solution” simply won’t work.
It solves a problem that doesn’t exist by creating a system that would be rendered useless through the inevitable abuse.
image by Alexandre Dulaunoy