I found out from a guy I follow on Twitter (the excellent Chicago Sun-Times general columnist Neil Steinberg, for the record) that Mark Kurlansky, one of my favorite non-fiction writers, has a new book out.
This post isn’t about that book, although I’m gonna burn a graf or two here on a recommendation; the new book is called Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas, and I’m recommending it even though I haven’t read it yet and it doesn’t even come out for a few more weeks. Why? Well, because I read his prior books, Cod, Paper, and Salt, and greatly enjoyed each of them.
In case you can’t tell by the titles, he picks a single thing that is immensely important to human history and development, and then writes about the how and why of that importance. He’s a great writer, finding ways to work in all sorts of fascinating and interesting little human vignettes into these long-arc stories of the history of physical things. The books are highly entertaining, and I’ve learned a shitload I didn’t know about the topics from them. Go buy them.
That said, I want to bitch about, well… how I found out about this book.
You see… I’ve been an Amazon customer (don’t get me started on their evilness and how much Bezos sucks; they are, he does, but there’s no such thing as ethical consumption under Capitalism so it is what it is) since they were still just an amazing online bookstore. My first purchase there was in 1998 and, natch, it was a book.
I’ve since bought, let’s see… checks Amazon account
I’ve bought, um, five hundred and fucking seventy books on Amazon since then.
Sure, some were gifts, but most of them were for me, me, me. There’s also been at least a few hundred books I didn’t buy on Amazon as well, given that I blew a few paychecks a year at Borders until they closed, and also was a steady user of the Chicago Public Library throughout this period, too. But, point being: Amazon has 570 points of fucking data on me regarding what kinds of books I buy, who my favorite authors are, etc… they have thousands of points of data on me if they’re tracking which books I’ve added to wishlists but not bought, which books I’ve spent time looking at the store pages of but then neither bought nor wish-listed, etc… and I’m sure they ARE tracking that data, too.
I bought each of the three Kurlansky books I’ve read previously through Amazon as well, just to be clear.
And yet… in no way, shape, or form, did Amazon figure out a way to say “hey smr, that guy you’ve bought all of his previous books from from us, usually immediately when they come out? He’s got a new one coming soon; interested?”.
This has happened recently with other authors, too. Authors I love, whom I’ve bought tons of books from Amazon by, and they have huge, important new works come out and I find out about them via sheer happenstance because Amazon’s algorithms are apparently as smart as a three-year old on a sugar high who just got kicked in the soft spot of the skull.
This seems kind of insane to me. Everybody touts these algorithms, that Amazon and Google and whoever can predict what we want before we even fuckin’ want it, yet the most reliable ads I get from them are, like, for toilet seats but only after I JUST FUCKIN’ BOUGHT ONE and in complete ignorance of the fact that modal number of toilet seats an individual purchaser on Amazon probably buys per decade is without a doubt: one.
You have way north of 50% of the data on my book purchases for the last two decades. You also own Goodreads, which I’ve been fairly well-integrated with for years, too. You know exactly how much and how quickly I’ve read each of these fucking books, because I read them in your apps or on your e-reader. So you know if I’ve punted on a given book after 20 pages, or if I’ve devoured a given author’s huge door-stopping brick of a book in a frankly embarrassingly short period of time right after it comes out.
In short: YOU KNOW WHAT BOOKS I LIKE, AMAZON.
So why in the fuck don’t I get an email or something from you, or a prominent ad or placement on your website during my basically weekly visit to the book part of your website telling me that this guy has a new book dropping very soon?
You’ll happily show me books by authors I’ve never read before but who’ve written books even vaguely related to subjects I have read books about before.
You’re MOST likely to show six books on exactly the same exceedingly narrow topic I just finished a book about, even though you have my ENTIRE ADULT READING HISTORY and therefore could easily determine that one thing I don’t do, ever, is read two books about basically the same topic back to back, ever, ever, EVER. That’s NOT HOW I READ. AND YOU KNOW THIS ABOUT ME. As much as I may love the topic of Roman governorship during the Principate era, nobody who ain’t paid professionally to study that shit is gonna read TWO books on that topic in the same year. Yet the most prominent placement I get when I go to the History Books section of your website while I’m reading a book on that exact topic will be six more books on the exact same goddamned thing.
But a brand-new book from a guy whose every other book I’ve bought the instant it came out and read basically immediately in a very short period of time? All of which are facts you have in your data about me?
THAT book, you never tell me about.
Apple Music figured this out, and I haven’t been using that service even a year yet. Every week I get an email that basically says “you have albums by these artists in your library, and they all have new shit out this week. Click here to get it, enjoy”, and it’s sorted with the artists I have the most of and listen to the most upfront.
But this is somehow beyond Amazon. The closest they can get is “hey man, you bought a mattress last week, want six more right now? Are you sure? Are you SURE SURE?!?!?!? Okay, that’s cool, don’t buy one now, but we’re going to show you nothing but mattress ads across the entire internet for the next, say, oh, six weeks. That cool? Cool”.
I don’t get it.