It’s Now Safe To Talk About Christmas

October’s behind us, which means my birthday is also behind us. You can stop sending me gifts for my incept date and start planning my seasonal loot haul.

What do you mean, this isn’t about me? Okay, okay. Let’s take a slight tangent toward retailer recommendations and see where we end up. You might be feeling a little lost if you’re an Amazon shopper, wanting books for a loved one. You look in the genres. You try and find something in the top ten that looks rad. In sci-fi, you find nothing but bare-chested romance. Cyberpunk is a trash fire of lit-RPG romance. Hell, romance is everywhere. Here, I’m going to:

  • Show you the problem, then
  • Give you my top five solutions.

Let’s rock.


A good friend and I were having wine (and beer, and…) the other night. We agreed there was a deep and abiding level of fuckery evidenced within the Zon’s recommendation engines. Back in the day, your Kindle would recommend next in series, or if you tapped out on that particular ride, an adjacent book. Things are a little less specific now, because we get this:

Imagine you’re a reader wanting legal books (I don’t know, maybe you were dropped on your head as a child). Your genre is now cluttered with a bunch of sci-fi because authors are trying to game the system to get that elusive orange bestseller tag*. Retailers don’t police their genres (that’s the publisher’s job, and in independent publishing, that’s the author). This problem isn’t exclusive to Amazon, but Amazon are the ones with a giant computer making recommendations based on perceived popularity. The current author trick is to find an underserved genre, tag your book in there, and then as your book’s popularity dwarfs others there, Amazon will do a lot of the hard work for you, shilling your book because it’s super popular in a niche. If enough shoppers of non-US Legal Systems buy your sci-fi book, you’re winning, but even better, as a “bestseller” in a category they’ll give it a nudge they wouldn’t otherwise.

* It’s worth noting in this case it might not even be genre stuffing. The keyword-loaded subtitles trigger algorithms authors can’t control. The author here might be writing a sci-fi John-Grisham-in-space book and Amazon’s machinery thought, “Oh, outer space isn’t the US, I have just the category!” and bam, everyone’s confused. It’s difficult to know! But it definitely shows a problem!

This means a general increased reader resistance to the mighty Zon’s recommendations. Because they recommend success above all other metrics, authors who want to pay their mortgage are gaming for success. The net effect as a reader is a wash of shitty books outside the lane you want to read. What do you do? Switch bookstores? Well, not quite. But there are people serving the public good, and they’re here to help. Real humans, helping other folks make better informed decisions. Madness? No. But it is a little bit magical.


5. Heroic Girls

This site might appear to be about pop culture, but it’s really one of the best recommendations services you’ll find for the women in your life*. They showcase things like the 10 best graphic novels for kids and teens, through to the movies you should keep an eye out for. If five to ten minutes of scrolling this site doesn’t give you a hundred or more gift ideas, I’m not sure you can be helped.

* You can buy me pretty much anything you find on that site despite me being a dude. The exceptions would be, say, clothing for kids or the women’s-cut Captain Marvel jacket. I want it, but it won’t fit. FML.

4. Mighty Ape

In little ol’ New Zealand, one of our coolest retailers is Mighty Ape. They stared out as Gameplanet selling video games, but as time’s marched on they’ve branched out into a retail empire that’s kind of like a baby Amazon. Unlike Amazon, they have humans who answer the phone, email, and even curate their recommendations.

Check out [Mighty Ape’s Book Blog]. This is a great resource populated with book ideas than updates seasonally. You can expect to find great Father’s Day ideas, Christmas gift options, and so on. They provide suggestions for most of their other departments in editorialized form.

3. Barnes & Noble

Wait, don’t go.

We hear a lot about how the once-mighty B&N are losing ground to Amazon, but news flash: everyone is losing ground to Amazon. The real differentiator is in how retailers chose to compete. Barnes know they have a group of loyal customers who want a good read, and they’ve charged a group of humans to deliver a recommendations service to the same.

Their excellent [book blog] has a bunch of rabbit holes you can fall into. I’ve got some of the best reads of 2018 from their [Sci-Fi and Fantasy] section. They regularly do wrap-ups of the best books of the month, which a human puts together. It’s based on an amalgam of sales numbers and editorial oversight. It’s very difficult to, say, get your military sci-fi book recommended within the non-US legal systems section of this site. Just, you know, in case you’ve seen that kind of thing elsewhere.

2. Tor

Publishers feel weird to recommend for … recommendations, as you figure they’d be heavily biased toward shilling their own shit. Tor are no exception to the general rule of companies wanting to make money, but they seem to do this by filling their blog with rich content in adjacent areas. They’re wanting fans of the genres they serve, and assume you’ll go on to make sensible decisions with your dollar after you love them.

[Tor’s newsfeed] has been full of content on Black Lightning, advice on reading the latest in a series when you don’t know the author or the previous books, hot reads, and they often showcase older material and how it relates to current audiences.

Putting Tor’s main page in my feedly gives me a constantly updated set of thoughts and ideas about the reading world waiting for me out there.

1. Goodreads Choice Awards

The ultimate recommendations engine is your fellow organics.

Goodreads conduct a reader’s choice award each year, culminating in e.g. the [Best Books of 2017] (…or 2016, or 2015, or…). It’s hard to not find excellent reads in there, arguably enough to keep you in clover until the next reader’s choice series.

My wife benefited from this on more than one occasion; for example, she reads far more thrillers than I do. Magically, she got a handful of excellent thrillers on her Kindle from last year’s nominations.


There we have it. I hope you can enter the festive season more prepared for gifting loved ones with a good book or two. You don’t have to fall prey to algorithm-driven recommendations from your retailer. A few minutes with any of the above sites will enrich your reading. Go forth. Turn those pages like a boss.

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