THE BLOG
02/20/2013 01:22 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Bookish's Dirty Little Secret

After eighteen months in development, Bookish (bookish.com), a website backed by publishing houses Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group (USA), and Simon & Schuster, went live on Feb. 4, 2013.

The email I received inviting me to visit Bookish describes it as "A New Destination For Book Discovery." Bookish's ostensible purpose is to help readers discover new books in their personal range of interests. "Discoverability," of course, is the latest favorite buzzword in publishing. Bookish also boasts of exclusive content from major authors.

I didn't take long for me to discover Bookish's dirty little secret. Hint--Bookish isn't there to help you discover new books.

On Feb. 4, USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer wrote, "Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei says its seven-person editorial staff will be 'completely independent and autonomous' in selecting books and themes to write about. 'We know we can't be a mouthpiece for a specific publisher.'" (USA Today and Bookish plan to share content with each other.)

The top stories at Bookish when I first visited it on Feb. 5 were Elizabeth Gilbert's take on Philip Roth's advice to a novelist to quit writing, an interview with novelists Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta, the editors of The Onion reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey and The Art of War, and an exclusive excerpt from Harlan Coben's latest novel, Six Years. There were additional interviews with Po Bronson, Rhonda Byrne, author of The Magic, her second sequel to The Secret, and children's book author Lucy Hawking.

An ad on the right side of Bookish's main page, for Jojo Moyes' novel, Me Before You, displaying Penguin Books' iconic logo, set my Spidey sense tingling.

"Hmm," I asked myself, "I wonder how many of these authors are published by the publishers behind Bookish?" A little sleuthing on my part quickly provided the answer: all of them.

The exclusive author content Bookish offers, consisting of canned interviews with authors, book excerpts, and short essays, which gets refreshed periodically, is invariably written by or about authors whose books are published by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints.

Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book is published by the Viking Press, an imprint of the Penguin Group. And who do you suppose publishes Michael Connelly's books? Little, Brown and Company, which became part of Hachette Book Group in 2006. Are we detecting a pattern here? Little, Brown also publishes The Onion's compilations of hilarity. Harlan Coben's novel is published by Dutton, another Penguin imprint. Po Bronson is published by Twelve Books, an imprint of Hachette, Rhonda Byrne by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and Lucy Hawking by Simon & Schuster.

In addition to its exclusive author content, Bookish presents Top Stories, featuring a group of books under a single subject like "What Do Men Want? Guides From Relationship Experts;" and galleries of five New Releases, Bestsellers, and Gift Books. Slightly more than half of the books mentioned in the top stories and galleries on February 13, when I last visited Bookish, were all published by one of the companies behind the site.

Every page at Bookish features at least one ad for a book, all published by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints. Clicking on an ad directs you to the book's product page at the publisher's website, where you can order the book from them at a discounted price inferior to Amazon.com's or from several online bookstores, except for titles from Penguin, which can only be ordered from them at full price, bypassing Amazon and its discounts altogether.

Judging by Elizabeth Gilbert's essay, Bookish's content hasn't got a lot to offer. Her 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing.

"I would quit while you're ahead," Roth told Tepper, shortly before announcing his own literary retirement. "Really, it's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it's not any good. I would say just stop now. You don't want to do this to yourself."

Gilbert's response is to call Roth and other successful authors who complain about the difficulty of writing drama queens, because nobody forces you to write, so lighten up, ya old grouch! Gilbert admits that writing really is difficult, but its difficulty pales by comparison to grueling jobs like working in a steel mill or fixing sewers.

"Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it's f*cking great," Gilbert writes. "Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work." Her lightweight essay touting the joy of writing could double as a sales pitch for the old Famous Writers School, a notorious correspondence course. In one of the ads for The Famous Writers School, J. D. Ratcliff, a member of the school's Guiding Faculty, opined, "I can't understand why more beginners don't take the short road to publication by writing articles for magazines and newspapers. It's a wonderful life."

The difference of course, is that even when you're doing the worst job imaginable, you know where your next paycheck is coming from. The overwhelming majority of writers run an unending marathon paved with uncertainty, cryptic rejection letters, and a paucity of recompense that a hobo couldn't live on.

Aside from its exclusive content, the signature feature of Bookish is its book search engine, which they call a "recommendation tool," whose poorly-documented operation may mystify users accustomed to all other search engines.

"It's Never Been Easier to Find BOOKS YOU'LL LOVE," proclaims the big blue box surrounding the search window, which instructs you to "Type in a book you love or recently read . . ." I entered the title of my book, Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel, published in 2011, and nothing happened. There is no button to click on to initiate a search. Hitting the ENTER key on my keyboard did nothing.

I then typed in Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan's 2011 biography of Ray. Still nothing happened. I typed in "Nicholas Ray." Bookish finally coughed up one result, the title Nicholas Ray, with its authors' names, Bernard Eisenchitz, Tom Milne (Milne translated Eisenschitz's book into English) underneath. Clicking on Nicholas Ray produced a gallery of four recommended books: Jonathan Rosenbaum's Movies As Politics, Dennis O'Neil's The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, Ian Christie's Scorsese on Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich's Who the Hell's In It: Conversations With Hollywood's Legendary Actors.

Those are pretty weak recommendations. The DC Comics Guide has no relevance to Nicholas Ray or the subject of movies. Even Christie's book is only relevant to a biography of Ray in the sense that Ray and Scorsese are both directors. Evidently, Bookish's search engine--er, recommendation tool--thinks that books about movies are all about the same. A competent recommendation engine should have recommended at least one biography of James Dean, the star of Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray's best-known film, as well as the two books written about the making of Rebel, both published in 2005.

At least at Amazon.com, the menu of books also bought by purchasers of McGilligan's biography of Ray turned up Eisenchitz's book, Michael Michaud's biography of Sal Mineo, and my biography of Dennis Hopper, both of whom acted in Rebel Without a Cause.

I soon discovered why Bookish's recommendations for me were off the mark. When I clicked on the button labeled DETAILS on the title bar above the recommended books, the cover of Eisenchitz's book popped out on the left. Glancing above it, I noticed that the search engined suddenly looked different. It now said, "RECOMMENDATIONSBETA," and "boasts 251,029 BOOKS AND ADDING MORE EVERY DAY." That's a terribly limited database to draw from. Unfortunately, more new books than that are published annually.

For a site that prides itself on its ability to guide you to just the right book for your tastes, the gift books Bookish recommended for for Valentine's Day didn't seem particularly well chosen for the occasion: they included Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, not exactly famous for his romantic exploits, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, a thriller about the disappearance of a wealthy man's wife, and The Genius of Dogs.

Bookish also offers a conventional search engine, where users can search for a specific book by author, title, or keyword, which doesn't work quite as smoothly as Amazon's. Entering the full title of my book returned no results. Simply typing in "Dennis Hopper" produced a page for the e-book edition of my book (sans cover image) published by the Robson Press, my publisher in Britain and the UK. The second result Bookish provided turned up the domestic hardcover and e-book editions of my book. Both the U.S. and British editions were out of stock at Bookish, which raises the question, "Why not just go to Amazon in the first place?"

For all their hoopla and the effort that went into its development, Bookish is nothing more than a promotional vehicle for books produced by the three publishers funding the site, with an underpowered book recommendation gadget that's not ready for prime time. As playwright Clifford Odets once wrote, "You're selling fish four days old."

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