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Breaking: Publisher Tries to "Fix" the Bookstore With Tags/Keywords

2124178869_2b7dc1c49f_bWriting 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.

Do you know how authors sometimes pack keywords into their titles or descriptions, or how activists use reviews to promote their pet causes?

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

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Wilmot Brown November 22, 2015 um 10:09 pm

Disagree. Underwood’s suggestion should be examined more because current genre labels are too restrictive. Modify, experiment, put limits on the amount of tags that can be used but don’t dismiss something because it didn’t work once.

poiboy November 23, 2015 um 12:40 am

yes.. please don’t hashtag my literature. its there to keep us from falling all the way in to short attention span media hype trending fads.
a book store is a sacred place.. please don’t mess with it. lol


How a publisher tries to “fix” the online bookstore with tags/keywords | Liquid Newsroom November 23, 2015 um 1:53 am

[…] Read Nate Hoffelder, […]

puzzled November 23, 2015 um 3:49 am

Unfortunately, limiting the number of tags will leave the tags as:
#Friendship #Dumbledore is gay #Train #Neil Gaiman #Neil Stephenson #Neil Diamond #Neil Armstrong #Neil Patrick Harris #Neil deGrasse Tyson #Neil Simon #Neil Young

LeCorback November 23, 2015 um 6:08 am

You may not have the problem, but it does exist. Electronic bookstores are a huge mess of mostly-unsorted books, and discovering (that word again) a book that did notmjust come out in the last few weeks is nearly-impossible.
Well-defined tags are actually a great solution and already supported by the standard (the dc:subject tags in your epubs, thank you Dublin Core)
The trouble is getting those well-defined tags, and that is the real problem. Many publishers use them horribly, including Angry Robot, if at all (most others).
Still, the idea is sound, if done well (only from a set vocabulary with one or two free-form tags, maybe?)
I will be watching whether anybody really does something about it.

puzzled November 23, 2015 um 6:59 am

You know, there used to be a branch of science dedicated to this problem.

Library Science.

Nate Hoffelder November 23, 2015 um 8:10 am

@ puzzled

Yes, but that branch of science was outlawed after a mad library scientist tried to cross 629 with 612. She accidentally turned herself into a 1241, went mad, and tried to take over the world.

So you can see why we might have this discussion now, right?

C.E. Kilgore November 23, 2015 um 8:15 am

I have to disagree with you on a couple points (which is rare). As a reader, I’d prefer to see tags on books. They do help readers find books and discover more information about what’s actually in a book than what the author thinks is a good marketing blurb. For example, I used to use the Amazon tag system to avoid reading romance books that contained Dubious Consent, or to find books that were friends to lovers stories (my favorite trope). Now, I’ve had to turn to Goodreads for this. I do, however, know the system was abused by certain author groups in the hopes of promoting certain books while hurting other books. I think the system could be functional if Amazon provided a list of allowable/selectable tags for a book, instead of letting someone just add a random #thisbooksucks tag… The issue with Amazon’s tag system was that it was free-range instead of properly managed.

Nate Hoffelder November 23, 2015 um 10:14 am

@ C E Kilgore

But if you can find those tags on Goodreads, wouldn’t it mean we don’t need them in the Kindle Store because they would be redundant?

Thomas November 23, 2015 um 9:32 am

Agreed. Tags on books would devolve into the sort of keyword stuffing that websites used to do to get Google to link them for every search. It doesn’t work. Eventually, search engines started banning sites that used it.

Scott G. Lewis November 23, 2015 um 10:29 am

Mass tagging open to anyone can be messy, but it doesn’t eliminate tags from being useful. Amazon could tag books through an editorial board. Publishers could tag books, but with a 5 tag limit. Certain Amazon reviewers could be pegged to tag things based on their review history and positive feedback from other Amazonians.

What I find most amazing about this article, was that I was greeted by a plea to disable my adblocker. Then I remembered this:

Do you still use your adblocker? I’d certainly be curious to the answer to that before I’d even consider disabling mine on your site.

Nate Hoffelder November 23, 2015 um 10:47 am

Yes, I still use the ad blocker, but I have also started disabling it on some sites.

And in case anyone is wondering, around 30% of my visitors use an ad blocker. Less than 1% will disable it on request.

Scott G. Lewis November 23, 2015 um 10:49 am

Disabling it now for your site. Had to make sure you’re eating your own dog food on this one Nate. Incidentally, just unblocking ads. I’ve made a decision to block all analytics / privacy trackers regardless of the heart of the web site operator. It’s not you… it’s Google I don’t trust. Bad enough I still use Gmail, but the pain of changing email addresses is how I ended up there (and away from an ISP email) in the first place.

C.E. Kilgore November 23, 2015 um 11:02 am

@Nate – The problem is, I don’t want to have to open another source (Goodreads) when searching for books on Amazon. And Goodreads has it’s own set of issues (including a review system rampant with publisher and author-group abuse). Goodreads is even more free-range, but at least it has tags that helps me avoid content I don’t want and find stories I do.

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