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Editorial June 2001
Book Webs

By Hilary Williamson

I've been puzzling over book genres lately. There are Historical novels that are also Mysteries like Ode to a Banker or Sold Down the River, tales of Fantasy with a Historical flavor like Household Gods and, of course, many that could be argued into either Fantasy or Science Fiction genres (which, I suppose, is why the catch-all Speculative Fiction category has become popular), like the early volumes in Sharon Shinn's Samaria series.

Of course, assigning a genre to a book is less critical in a virtual bookstore, where one can simply link one book into multiple categories ... somewhat like having strings that pull up the same title from different spots in the store - you don't have to plunk a book down onto a particular wooden shelf. The benefit for the reader is that (in the electronic world) there are many more strands of information that can lead someone to a book that might fit their interests.

There are already all kinds of strings attached to books in the Internet, in the form of hyperlinks, the underlined text that will take you somewhere else if you click on it. There are some in the first paragraph of this article. Click on them and you can follow links on succeeding pages to eventually order a book online, or buy and download it directly.

Amazon have implemented a useful set of hyperlinks, indicating that 'Customers who bought this book also bought ...' followed by a list of titles. The interesting thing about this is that the words imply the links are dynamic, based on collection of information on site visitors' behavior, rather than on someone's judgment of which books are similar. So if clusters of visitors buy both Chocolat and The Hobbit, then presumably those would get linked. These Amazon strings have led me to new authors of interest as well as to books new to me by authors that I enjoy.

There are other interesting ventures in this area. Book Forager have implemented a set of twelve sliding scales such as Happy - Sad, Expected - Unpredictable, or Easy - Demanding. Set any four of these scales to your preferences, make further optional selections for Character, Plot and Setting, and it will forage for you a list of recommended books. This is fun to play with, though it didn't find too many books of interest to me.

Another, Reader's Robot, uses a set of multiple choice questions rather than sliding scales to pick appeal factors, and also uses traditional keyword search. I didn't have great success with this one as my searches on appeal factors came up empty, and when I tried 'serial killers' as a keyword for Mysteries, a list came up with every Mystery summary that had the word 'killer' in it. But it was interesting to see what the robot unearthed.

Where is all this going? Imagine clever little scavengers that have nibbled around the edges of your literary feasts and now roam the web in search of similar tastes to lay out in your private book market. That's where we are heading with intelligent web agents. The first ones probably won't have too high an EQ, but they will evolve with time so that not only will books have electronic lines attached to them, but agents that represent our interests will be able to reel them in. I can't wait.
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