Nice Try

Today Amazon suggested The Last Colony to me for purchase.

Yeah, you know, I’ve read that. But it’s nice to know Amazon’s algorithm thinks I might like my own stuff.

40 Comments on “Nice Try”

  1. That’s the funniest ever, John! When I was making fun of Amazon the other day, it popped in my mind that their recommender was like “Clippy” in Word. “Looks like you want to commit suicide. Would you like me to start the project for you?”

  2. I assume that you clicked through and checked the box that says “I own this”. How many stars did you give it?

    I should talk to my friends in the Recommendations team (I work at and suggest that they add in a check for “customername == authorname” ;-)

  3. Their recommendation algorithms leave a bit to be desired. Currently they are recommending I buy a 40gb Playstation 3. I gather the algorithm thinks I’ll like this because I gave the 60 gb Playstation 3 I bought from them last year 5 stars.

  4. What a coincidence: also suggested “The Lost Colony” for me yesterday. Though, in my case, I didn’t write it myself, I have already read it.

  5. changterhune – Before you hear lies from Chang Terhune himself, we thought we’d tell you the truth: without us, his old action figures, he’d be nowhere. He loved science fiction from way back and began reading it at an early age, but it was through us that he acted it all out. That’s what led to the writing. He watched a lot of science fiction shows like Star Trek, U.F.O, and movies, too. But we were always there to do his bidding. And it’s like they say: you always forget about the little people on your way up. Oh, the 70’s and early 80’s with him were good times! He’d use these blocks and make all the crazy buildings for us to be in his stories. I gotta say the kid’s imagination was pretty damn fertile. Oh, he had friends, but they just weren’t into it like him. He was like the Lance Armstrong of action figures. And of science fiction. At first, when he began writing in the eighth grade, we didn’t mind. He still made time for us. And we knew that when he was holding us in his sweaty little hands and he got that far off look in his eye, he’d come back to burying us in the back yard or - god forbid! – blowing us up with firecrackers. But it was worth it for a part in one of those stories. We loved him for it. He kept us around even when we were minus a leg or two - or even a head. In that mind of his, he found a use for all of us. Then he discovered girls. October, 1986. It was like the end of the world. One day we’re standing in the middle of this building block creation he’d pretended was some marble city on a planet near Alpha Centauri and the next we were stuck in a box in the closet. Not even a “See ya later!” Nope, it was into the closet, then we heard some high-pitched girly-giggles then silence. We didn’t see him for years. We got word about him once in a while. Heard he took up writing, but it was crap like “The Breakfast Club” only with better music. We couldn’t believe it. Not Charlie. What happened to those aliens with heads he’d sculpted out of wax? Spaceships? Those complex plots? All gone. For what? You guessed it: Girls. Emotions. “Serious fiction.” I tell you, it was like hearing Elvis had left the building. During our two decade exile in the closet, we heard other things about him. He went to college. He wrote a lot, but not much he really liked. We knew it even then. It was like he didn’t dare write science fiction. Some of us had lost hope and just lay there. Others kept vigil, hoping for a day we didn’t dare speak about. Then we heard he’d stopped writing in 1996. Did he come to reclaim us? No. He took up music for ten years or so. He took up yoga. Once in a while, he’d visit us in the closet. But it was half-hearted. His mind was elsewhere. Then one day, he really did come back for us. One second we’re in the dark and the next thing we know we’re in a car headed for Massachusetts. Suddenly we got a whole shelf to ourselves out in broad daylight! Then he bought a bunch of others form some planet called Ebay. He’d just sit and stare at us with that old look. But why were we suddenly back in the picture? He had a wife now, who didn’t mind that he played with us. So what had happened? Turns out he’d never forgotten about those stories. He’d been thinking about all of us and the stories he’d made up and then remembered he’d been a writer once. From the shelf we could see him typing away. Before long he’s got a whole novel together! Then he’s working on another one. Word is there are two more in the planning stages! Some short stories, too! It’s good to see him using his imagination again. Its good to know he never abandoned us. He returned to his true love of science fiction. We hear the stories are pretty good. Someday we’ll get one of the cats to score us a copy of the manuscript. Man, it’s good to be out of the damn closet! --- I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me
    Chang, fan of boobs

    That book suc-

    Oh, I thought you said The Last Colonoscopy.

    Seriously, you’d think they’d avoid this kind of thing.

  6. Amazon is constantly recommending I buy books which in fact I acquired and edited for Tor. They’re convinced I really, really need to discover the work of Jo Walton, John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, and Ken MacLeod. I figure this means their recommendation algorithms are pretty good…

  7. Well, they got it right, didn’t they? You know, maybe their algorithm is smart enough to figure out, “John Scalzi especially likes books that he gets a cut from.”

    Seriously, though–has Amazon given you good recommendations? It pitched Campbell/Hemry’s “Lost Fleet” series to me (“People who like every damn thing Scalzi wrote also like…”), and I’ve been enjoying it a lot, as well as the sadly aborted “JAG in Space”. So props to Amazon’s data-mining sk1llz, at least from where I’m sitting.

  8. Heh, I never had that problem when my book was on ca. 2000 or so. “…currently 251,535th best seller!!” or something equally depressing.

  9. I mostly get good recommendations form them, though I have gotten a few very odd ones, like them suggesting that since I bought Pan’s Labyrinth from them (and gave it 5 stars), I might like Borat.

  10. @Andrew: I use Amazon’s recommendations a lot myself, I discovered several authors I never heard about () that way… Starting with Ian Banks and if I’m not mistaken, including John too.

  11. “I bought Pan’s Labyrinth from them (and gave it 5 stars), I might like Borat.”

    Well, you know the ‘p’ in “pan” and the ‘b’ in “Borat” are both bilabial stops, so certainly this fits into their algorithm. Of course it really should have recognized that one was a voiceless bilabial stop.

    Damn that master’s in linguistics…

  12. Of course, it really shoots the recommender in the head when you have books for several different people with wildly divergent tastes being ordered on the same account. I won’t go into details about how it happened, but for a while there Amazon evidently thought that my ideal book would be one about lesbian beekeepers homesteading on the moon.

  13. Your in luck Tim — Scalzi’s next book just happens to be about lesbian beekeepers homesteading on the moon (in another ripoff of homage to Heinlein)…

  14. Bilabial stop sounds like some kind of lesbo porn terminology…

    That was the only thing interesting about the entire master’s program…

  15. SCALZI refuses to purchase own boook! What does he know we do not? Is it full of Suck?

    Investigative reporters are en route to discover the answers.

  16. Sort of like telling someone a funny story, then hearing it from them a month later preceded by “I can’t remember who told me this, but…”

    You may thank Amazon’s algorithm for suggesting I purchase “Old Man’s War” last year.

  17. Almost as much fun as multiple people ordering from the same Amazon account is any polymath’s recommendations list…

    My current Amazon recommendations, in order:
    0: sidebar recommendation for author of nuclear weapons history books who I correspond with regularly, John Coster-Mullen
    1-4: Scalzi books (that I own already, and it should know 3 of those…)
    5: Cooper’s “Introduction to the Technology of Explosives” (the beginners book he wrote, I have had the grad student / professional engineer version for a decade plus)
    6: “Building collective intelligence: Web 2.0 Applications”
    7: “Competition car composites: A practical guide”
    8: “Dauntless: The Lost Fleet, Book 1”
    9: “RESTful Web Services”
    10: “Beautiful Code: Leading programmers explain how they think”
    11: “Welders Handbook” (which I own)
    12: “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10”
    13: “Fearless (The Lost Fleet, Book 2)”
    14: “Hydrodynamic and Hydromagnetic Stability”
    15: “Courageous (The Lost Fleet, Book 3)”
    16: “Advanced Sheet Metal Fabrication”
    17: “Engineering Magnetohydrodynamics”
    18: “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites ”
    19: “Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior”
    20: Tufte’s “Envisioning Information”

    It keeps on going for a while like that…

  18. Part of my problem with their algorithm is that it picks up on everything you’ve ordered before… ignorant of the fact that some of it may be gifts, even though they were delivered to your own home. Understandable… but I don’t need any more German Dark Wave music, I’m not certain I even want my teenage sons to have any more of it.

  19. Amazon recommendation pet peeves for me:

    1) What do I do when it recommends something that I already essentially own? I bought Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle in hardcover, and gave it good ratings on Amazon. For a good year afterward, it kept recommending the trade paperback and mass market paperback versions to me. I wish they had a “no opinion, but don’t put this on any more lists” button.

    2) It’s not as fully integrated as it could be. If I go directly to my recommendations pages, it’s true that I don’t find anything I’ve already indicated that I own. But if, for instance, I put Mr. Scalzi’s next book to be published on my Wish List, it’s very fond of taking me to a “people who liked this also liked” page that’s useless because it’s full of things I already own.

  20. My biggest problem with Amazon’s algorithm is that I’ll indicate that I’m not interested in a book and some time later, It will reappear on the recommendations list when I purchase something else. Shouldn’t they remember when you say, “Not interested?”

  21. To be fair, amazon does have an option to let you toss things out of the recommendations list. Just hit the “fix this” link under whatever nonsense it suggested and then “don’t use this for recommendations.”

  22. John: Clearly, Amazon notices you never purchased your own book. Patrick has a similar problem (if one allows that acquiring for Tor is different from purchasing).

    joelfinkle: Amazon understands that, but can’t read minds; that’s why you can mark a book to be excluded from the algorithm for you. I mark a handful of books & DVD (and all non-book/DVD items) like this, since I primarily buy F/SF books & DVDs from Amazon, so other recommendations would be way too spotty.

    Robert Hutchinson: Some books seems to be tied together in the Amazon system despite different formats; others do not. It’s annoying. ;-( They do have a ‘not interested’ (which as far as I can tell simply excludes that book). Or you could mark it as something you owned (I’ve done that) if you want recommendations of books like that book/purchased by people who bought that book/etc. Use the system’s options to push the recommendations in the direction you want! E.g., rate the extra version, if you want to give it extra weight. ;-)

  23. Yeah, I figure that just saying I own the other version would be the best workaround. (If I say that I’m not interested, I would worry that it would be interpreted as a negative response rather than an indifferent one.)

  24. If you don’t like the hardback, then surely we can recommend the paperback [no], oh all right, the audio book [no!], well then this reprint [no!!!].

    Or you must want the omnibus edition of Scalzi since you bought the individual copies.

  25. Amazon’s algorithm also has an annoying (well, it was funny the first time, since it happened on April 1st. But then it kept on happening, and I realized they were serious) habit of treating writer’s names, without bothering to check if it’s the same writer or not.

    I bought a few of Sharon Lee’s and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe books through Amazon. So they started to give me recommendation for other books by Steve Miller. Which would have been fine, except this new Steve Miller is a completely different Steve Miller and Amazon apparently thinks I would really like illustration advice books.

  26. Well, we wouldn’t want the recommendations to become too good, now would we? I’m remembering a particular passage from The Android’s Dream

  27. Yaron: There’s no author tracking number like publisher codes in ISBNs, so it’d be tough to be sure these books by Steve Miller are by a different guy than these other ones…all they have to go on is the name. But that sounds annoying, nonetheless!

  28. Somewhat OT: I wish I had had my camera on me yesterday during the intermission of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, because one of the principals was backstage reading The Ghost Brigades.

    In costume. Which consisted of a pretty-pretty pink and gold princess dress complete with Barbie tiara. (The tiara was the actress’, and matched the costume so well that the audience had never noticed the Barbie face in the center.)

    I *really* wish I had that picture.

  29. Your purchase of your own book may just be the sale that puts you over that Grisham bastard for a particular day. I’d buy the whole catalog up.

  30. Kendall, that sounds like a missing and much needed feature. Some way for book stores and catalogues to differentiate between authors with the same name.

    It will nicely solve the problem of trying to run a search for all books by a an SF/Fantasy/Thriller/whatever author, who wrote about 5-10 books, just to get back a list of 80 titles by some dude who published many psychology/art/law/engineering articles and books.
    Surprisingly enough (at least for the first few times), that happens a lot.

    Especially annoying when I don’t just search by name from scratch, but specifically click a link with the authors name inside of a book’s page. To me it signifies that I want the person who wrote this particular book.

    Anyone up for a standard international governing body of book authors? That way it can run like in movies and TV. The sooner you sign up, the better your chances of being “Name (I)” rather than “Name (IV)” !

  31. It happens in the technology section all the time, because the pool for any particular technological subject is pretty small. Most of us who write tech books buy existing books in the subject as source material. So when our own book comes out, it’s almost certain that Amazon will recommend it to us. I still get a kick out of it, though.

    More bizarre is when Amazon recommended an ottoman because I bought a pair of shoes. And I agree that some of their recommendations are silly, because owning one product pretty much assures you don’t need another model of the same product. Plus I bought three pairs of jeans and got recommended every brand of jeans made. Heck, three pairs will last me for five years at least. The recommendation engine apparently thinks I need two dozen pairs of assorted brands.

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