Will recommendation algorithms always be trumped by the personal touch?

Back in the early days, Amazon recommendations were decided by human beings. The company went on a hiring spree, bringing in editors to manage the site. Typically these were not the kind of West Coast engineers that typified the company; rather they were Manhattanites, steeped in the world of books and culture. Well-read, opinionated, they would read hundreds of books and write individual reviews. They were the gatekeepers that managed what was already (and self-consciously) the world’s biggest bookstore.

It wasn’t to last. Amazon wanted an automated solution, one that could scale up, that was measurable. But getting it right was proving more difficult than expected. It turned out getting recommendations that made sense was a hard problem. One staffer, Greg Linden, went for a different angle. Prior to him the main approach had been to look at an individual’s purchasing history and extrapolate out from that. Linden took people out of the equation. All he looked at were the products and the relationships between them. Was product “a” often bought alongside product “b”? If so, regardless of who I am, it suggested there was a high probability that if I bought product “a”, I would also want product “b”. The technique was known, paradoxically, as personalisation, and led to a new team called P13N.

Amazon tested Linden’s new system against the human recommendations to see which sold more books. No surprises: the automated version won decisively.

Yet that isn’t the end of the story. Have our own human recommendations gone away? They haven’t. In fact, they’ve only grown in importance. Book bloggers, tweeters and old-fashioned reviewers have all become increasingly influential. It turns out that because there are so many books on Amazon we need the machine-driven system, but then we also want something subjective and partial on top of it.

The real point of all of this is that because we have so many books, who chooses what and how matters as never before. It’s always been a central part of publishing and bookselling; now it’s becoming the central part. Making decisions, saying no, putting together lists and ranges; curating, for want of a better word, is at the heart of the book business.

Take imprints. There are, most of us would acknowledge, a lot of them. What value a new imprint? An imprint is only as strong and distinctive as the choices it makes. At root, imprints are defined by which books they publish. Without a strongly put-together list, imprints are worthless. Or take bookshops. What are bookshops about these days?

As the technology analyst Benedict Evans has written, bookshops are about tables, not shelves. His point is that in a digital age, inventory is meaningless as a unique selling point. However, a front table, books face-up, with a strong, coherent, interesting range of very visible books; that’s something valuable. Behind Waterstones’ recent resurgence is a recognition of this. Few of us head to Waterstones Piccadilly for an obscure shelf on the fifth floor, but most of us will happily browse the downstairs tables for hours. It’s this ethos, for example, that lies behind new bookshops such as Libreria.

The truth of publishing today is that, thanks to the rise in self-publishing and new platforms and models, anyone can be published at any time.

As a consequence, and more than ever before, the entire chain of publishing is about the choices we make. It’s a huge engine for saying: “Read this book, not that book”. Curation may be a strange word with pretentious overtones, but it’s also the word we’ve ended up with for managing markets and cultures defined by excess.

It goes much further than books, of course. Whether it’s people putting together playlists on Spotify, the controversies around news on Facebook, the design of new shopping malls, the curious internet-based blends of algorithm and human, to the way in which museums are used to anchor urban development, this whole sense of curation has gone a long way from a few art galleries. Curation, which I see as selecting and arranging to add value, is everywhere a core part of propositions we don’t usually associate with the word.

To me, this is excellent news for publishing. Expert and considered selection? That’s something the book world has always been good at.

Michael Bhaskar is co-founder and publishing director at Canelo. His book, Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess, is published by Little, Brown imprint Piatkus on 2nd June.