A new way to choose your next book

In some ways, the book industry is doing better than ever.

Last year, readers purchased nearly 827 million books in print, an increase of about 10% from 2020, and the highest since NPD BookScan began tracking two decades ago.

But all is not as rosy as it seems. As book buyers have migrated online, it has become more difficult to sell books by new or lesser-known authors. With the exception of surprise bestsellers (“Where the Crawdads Sing”, for example) and books by celebrities or marquee authors (Matthew McConaughey, James Patterson), most writers don’t find much of an audience . Of the 3.2 million titles tracked by BookScan in 2021, less than one percent sold more than 5,000 copies.

The gap points to perhaps the most intractable problem in publishing: how to replicate the serendipity of walking into a bookstore and discovering new books and authors online. Several companies have attempted to tackle the problem, with mixed results. Now a new app, Tertulialaunched this week, tries a different approach, measuring and distilling online chatter about books to direct readers to those who are fueling the discussions.

When bookstores were the main suppliers of books, an interesting cover, a prominent display in Barnes & Noble, or a passionate endorsement from an independent bookseller could entice a reader to buy something new. But online, the old ways of creating buzz and driving sales no longer work. On the Internet, industry experts say, it’s easy for readers to click on something they want, but they’re less likely to encounter something unfamiliar.

“Everyone knows you can sell books online,” said John Ingram, president of Ingram Content Group, the largest book distributor and wholesaler in the United States. “The question is, how do you get content in front of people who might be interested?”

Several companies have tried. Two years ago, Ingram launched a discovery website, Bookfinity, which offers users personalized recommendations after submitting them to a survey and assigning them a “reader type”, including beach reader, mom/dad cool and spiritual seeker.

Others include Booqsi, a platform that markets itself as a “community-based, Amazon-free alternative to Goodreads”, and Copper, a new author-centric book discovery app designed to connect readers with writers. (So ​​far, about 500 authors have signed up.) Another company, Open Road Integrated Media, markets e-books of older titles. David Steinberger, its managing director, said that in total, he doubled the sales of his clients’ titles.

“There’s an endless appetite among techies and people in the publishing industry to find the holy grail of book discovery, but I don’t think anyone has found a tool, an algorithm, or a platform. -form of AI that does the work for you,” said Peter. Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex group, which analyzes the book industry.

The latest arrival in this increasingly crowded niche is Tertulia, a sleek new app that takes a fresh approach to online discovery.

Using a mix of artificial intelligence and human curation, Tertulia aggregates discussions and book recommendations across the web, drawing on social media posts, book reviews, podcasts and news articles. to generate reading recommendations tailored to individual tastes and interests.

To get personalized recommendations, users answer questions about the genres they like and the kinds of people they want to hear about books (options include space explorers, poets, chefs, historians, artists and book reviewers). Users can also log in with their Twitter accounts, which allows the app’s algorithms to scour their feeds to pull book recommendations from people they follow.

Every day, Tertulia generates a personalized list of five books. Elsewhere on the app, users can browse lists of notable titles in different genres, which are ranked by buzz rather than sales. Currently, Tertulia’s “most talked about” lists feature a mix of older and newer titles – on the fictional list, Toni Morrison’s “Sula” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” appear with recently published novels by Jennifer Egan and Emily Saint Jean Mandel.

By mining online conversations about books and refining them into digestible lists, the founders of Tertulia hope to replicate the “word of mouth” recommendations that once drove sales in brick-and-mortar stores. The name Tertulia, which means gathering in Spanish, refers to the tradition of informal literary salons and artistic gatherings.

“There’s Netflix for movies, there’s Spotify for music,” said Sebastian Cwilich, CEO of Tertulia and co-founder of artsy, an online marketplace for fine art. “But there really wasn’t an equivalent discovery experience for the books.”

Cwilich – who co-founded the app with digital product design and development specialist Robert Lenne and former Foreign Affairs magazine editor Lynda Hammes – said the initial idea was to create an app that generated suggestions of books based on “approved voices”. from experts, rather than regurgitating what’s on bestseller lists. This idea morphed into a more ambitious one: “What if this was all the book talk in the world, all the book talk?” he said.

In addition to being a recommendation engine, Tertulia functions as a vast online bookstore, with around 15 million titles. Ingram, a Tertulia partner and investor, will fulfill and ship orders placed through the app. For now, only paperbacks and hardcovers are available, but the company plans to start selling e-books and audiobooks in the coming months, Cwilich said.

Some are skeptical that an app will solve the online discovery problem. Readers are already bombarded with social media recommendations, endless best-of lists, celebrity book clubs, reviews and other prompts. Tertulia and other new businesses face significant hurdles, like convincing people to download the app and take a survey.

“It’s an industry problem,” said Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at NPD Books. “But are people on the hunt every day, waking up saying, ‘I need to find a book discovery tool?’ They don’t.”

Still, some publishers, authors, and agents who got their first taste of Tertulia say the app is a promising addition to the online retail landscape, especially if it becomes a hub for smart book recommendations that go beyond the usual one to five star rating. system.

“What the app could do is drown out the chaos and lowest common denominator opinions with something that resembles actual book discourse,” said essayist and novelist Sloane Crosley, who was among the 40 authors and agents recruited to test the application before its launch. launch. “If Tertulia can elevate the average speech on the books, may they reign long.”

Lance B. Holton