Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

LibraryThing/Random House Early Reviewers

This is a done-up re-announcement of Early Reviewers. We blogged it last week, but tentatively. Since then we’ve refined it a bit, particularly on “our end” (ie., the stuff you don’t see). I also want to explain what’s nifty about it—for members and particularly for publishers.

The idea is simple. Basically, LibraryThing and Random House will be giving out free pre-publication books in exchange for reviews.

The first batch includes:

What’s cool here? Many publishers distribute “Advance Readers Editions” (AREs) to booksellers, journalists and—increasingly—bloggers. A few have formalized programs, like HarperCollinsFirst Look program–register and from time to time you’ll get a book. LibraryThing builds on these, but it takes it a whole new step.

AREs are a tricky business. It’s hard to get them into the hands of the right people, and harder to make those hands open them. Most are simple wasted. And they’re not cheap. Although usually pretty flimsy, they’re made in small batches, so they generally cost more to produce than the final hardcover.

LibraryThing Early Reviews solves this problem. Books aren’t distributed randomly, but to the right people. The algorithm we’re using has a bunch of factors, including plain luck. The core, however, is what LibraryThing knows that nobody else knows—the books in people’s libraries.

If you saw this list clearly, we’d have to kill you.

To kick things off, Random House gave us a list of “similar books” for each title. We then washed these through a new recommendations algorithm, “sorting” the LibraryThing library according to their statistical proximity to these titles. We ended up with a 200 “similars” for each book. All things being equal, the more of these you have—and the higher on the list—the better your chances of getting a book.*

It turns out, this is a pretty powerful thing to do. Some reviewers pop right out—the ones reading lots of similar books. They’re not guaranteed to like the book—nothing ever could—but they’re the right people to review it. At the other end, it found members with hundreds or thousands of books, none of which are in the 1,000 similar titles. I’m not actually worried about bad reviews—bad reviews are fun!—but nobody is happy when books go to the wrong people. For starters, unlike professional reviewers, “regular” people don’t usually finish and review books they aren’t enjoying.

We thought hard about “exposing” the similarity information to users. But we decided against it. The lists are uncanily good, but they’re ultimately subjective. I don’t want to argue that X is more like Y than Z. And I don’t want users to despair that they’re never going to get books. If this thing works, they will. We’ll get more books. Every book its reader, as they say.

I did, however, calculate every members “affinity” to the books on offer, and send invitations to the most eligible .5% who aren’t already signed up for Early Reviewers.

Anyway, we think we’ve added a new twist to ARC distribution. We think this going to become something really big—big and “not evil” (in the Google pre-Chinese censorship sense).

Early Reviews does some other new things:

  • We promise not the let the *content* of a review affect your chances of getting subsequent books. I suspect this isn’t always true when publishers send bloggers books–why keep sending someone books when they keep trashing them? LibraryThing is different here. First, we hope to match books and reviewers better in the first place. Second, our reviewers are our members, and LibraryThing stands or falls based on them, not on anyone else. If we started blacklisting members, we’d fall apart.**
  • We’re starting with two batches of books from Random House. Starting in October, the program will be open to other publishers.

Anyway, check it out here: http://www.librarything.com/er/list .

*By the way, we only consider books added before Early Reviewers was announced. So, you can’t spam this.
**Indeed, my greatest fear is that pure randomness makes a few people feel blacklisted, and they raise hell about it. Anyway, you have our word on this. Anyway, I’ve always felt that the best reviews were negative ones. It is, after all, much harder to be creative in “I love yous” than in “your mothers” and other put-downs.

Update: As explained before we have to stick with US members for now. But I’ve opened up registration to everyone. When we get a batch that can be distributed more widely, we’ll let you know.

Second update: My friend, author Kevin Shay linked to a great blog post of his, The ARC of the Covenant.

Third update: Jessica Mulley shot me this link to an article she wrote about collecting galleys, proofs and advance copies. Actually, I’d already seen it; it ranks high in Google, but a read-through convinced me of it’s value. I’m glad, however, that I’m not a book collector per se. It would get exhausting.

Labels: early reviewers


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