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January 21, 2020

Reading Challenge: Overcome the Algorithms

Swirly colored lines with text: Reading Choices & Algorithms: Find the Pattern

During this time of year, Goodreads often prompts users to sign up for their annual Reading Challenge. The idea is to state how many books you plan to read over the year and then keep track of each book as you go.

I’ve participated in the challenge for the last couple of years and have had fun “beating” the numbers I listed. In 2017, I read 87 books (lots of time in doctors’ waiting rooms with all my health issues that year!), 2018 was 64 books, and last year’s total was 71 books. This year, I’ve challenged myself to read 50 books, but given my recent history, that number might need to be bumped up during the year.

Some people do additional types of reading challenges, such as only reading books by women and/or authors of color during a year. Either way, keeping track of what we read can be useful—in addition to just being fun. *smile*

The Benefit of Tracking Our Reading Choices

As I mentioned last month, paying attention to our reading choices can tell us something about our writing. But even if we’re not writers, we can still learn from our reading choices.

Our choices can illuminate what makes a genre appeal to us. Or we can figure out what we want a story to deliver by focusing on which stories feel most satisfying. Both of those insights can help us pick future stories that are even more likely to land on our keeper shelf.

But if the books we’re reading aren’t capturing our imagination, paying attention to our choices can also help us escape a reading rut. Without realizing it, our reading choices can quickly fall victim to algorithms.

Wait…Algorithms and Our Reading Choices?

On any platform, algorithms determine which search results to show first. Google pays attention to the recency of a news article, the reputation of the source, the depth of information in the article, etc.

How do algorithms influence our reading choices? Click To TweetOn a sales platform like Amazon, they want to show you books they think you’re most likely to buy so they can make more money. That means their algorithms are tuned to show you popular books similar to those you’ve already read.

That “more like this” approach is great for many situations, but if we’re stuck in a rut or looking for something different, their suggestions won’t be as helpful. It’s especially not helpful if we’re trying to broaden our reading choices, such as exploring a new-to-us genre or reading more books by women and/or authors of color (or any other underrepresented group).

Algorithms Limit Our Exposure

Maybe we don’t care about consciously trying to broaden our reading choices because we assume that if a book is “good enough,” that “cream will rise to the top” and we’ll hear about the book. Somehow.

But that’s not how the system works.

Systems can—and do—hide books from us. And like the rest of society, the systems of algorithms often uphold sexism and racism in hidden ways.

As Kari Dru explained in a Twitter thread, algorithms make choices for us that we’re not even aware of: (Warning: Language)

Traditional Publishing Limits Our Exposure Too

Those of us in the publishing business know there’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy aspect to the industry. They don’t take on all stories that are good—only those they think they can sell. And they don’t try to sell books beyond what fits their assumptions, so their idea of “what will sell” is never challenged.

Advertising and big marketing budgets are rare for books that fall outside the usual, and self-published authors who avoid the traditional lane can’t compete with their budgets either. As a result, books from different voices fall low on a search results page—without any correlation to how good the books might be.

Publishing is a business, and the books we “come across” aren’t random or a reflection of all the “cream” available. Instead, it’s all about assumptions, advertising, and algorithms.

Or as Shree C. Aier discovered (emphasis added):

“My purchases are thus automatically influenced by publishers and site designers, whether I like it or not. The chances of me choosing an unknown author, an LGBTQIA, an author of color, new books, radical thoughts, are all low. The chances of me picking up “randomly” a popular book are much higher; even if I don’t look at names and reviews. Let me be perfectly clear, book sales have nothing to do with how beautifully the story is written, or how gripping the new story is, or the talent of the writer, but everything to do with advertising based on what sold previously.”

How to Escape the Rut: A Reading Challenge

I know plenty of people who might scoff at the idea of a reading challenge to choose books by authors of a certain gender or race or other marginalization. But as we’ve seen, if we don’t consciously seek them out, we’re unlikely to randomly come across books beyond the usual—even just for a new-to-us genre—no matter how good the stories are.

How can a reading challenge help us overcome retailer algorithms...and get us out of a reading rut? Click To TweetSure, we might rely on word of mouth from friends for recommendations, but where did they come across it? How diverse or varied are the voices we listen to for those recommendations?

For reviews we pay attention to, how diverse or varied are their voices? Where and how do they get their submissions? Is it only from publishers or authors with the money to submit? The cycle starts somewhere, and it’s not random or all about “the best of the best.”

Last year I shared several suggestions for how we could find book recommendations beyond “the usual.” If finding those types of recommendations is difficult for us, that might be a sign that we could benefit from diversifying the voices we listen to overall.

We won’t just “happen” to come across books by authors outside our usual choices, not when Amazon treats an author’s gender or race like a genre. The only way to escape the force-feeding from the industry is to consciously seek out books beyond our usual sources. And that, my friends, the act of consciously seeking out books to read, is a reading challenge.

How Can We Do a Reading Challenge?

Personally, I don’t approach a diverse-voices type of reading challenge as an all-or-nothing to-do list. Rather than saying that I’ll only read books by authors of whatever group, I simply do more to seek out the alternatives.

I don’t want to create a situation where I feel resentful of a book I’m currently reading because I’d rather read the new release by one of my favorites. *smile* So instead of a quota or a hard-and-fast “rule,” I just try to balance my choices.

For example, my typical process is:

  • Follow diverse voices (and those who often recommend books by diverse voices in the genres I like) in my Twitter stream.
  • Check out any books they recommend.
  • Buy recommended books if they sound interesting (which to me, often means the story features a favorite trope).
  • Weigh those recommended books more heavily when deciding what to read next (which means rereading those descriptions before others in my towering to-be-read pile to see if any fit my current mood).

Is That Really All It Takes?

That process above has led me to experience a good mix of author voices, styles, and ideas. Of the 71 books I read last year, 26 qualified for my “inclusive characters or authors” list. Of the 64 books I read in 2018 (when I first started “seeking out” diverse books), 25 books qualified for the list.

So a bit over a third of my reads qualify (which feels about right to me) and didn’t require any special work beyond what I outlined above. Having a good, diverse Twitter feed has been the most important point in that process, as I follow a ton of authors of color, especially Black romance authors, and now I have lots of options in my to-be-read pile to choose from.

Most importantly, in each of those years, about a third of those diverse books ended up on my picky Keeper Shelf. Spending any amount of time to seek out these books I loved would have been well worth it, so the fact that it’s so easy is just a bonus. *smile*

The Value of Keeping Track

Those statistics bring up another reason why it’s beneficial to do a reading challenge where we keep track of the books we read. If we don’t keep track, we won’t know how well we’re doing in our challenge—whether we’re aiming for a number or to expand our usual choices.

We can’t ensure we have a good balance or mix just by following our feelings. Some books will make a heavier impact on us than others, and that weight could throw off our internal sense of the balance. And as my statistics above illustrate, we won’t learn as much from the experience if we can’t dig deeper into the results.

Those of us who are writers can also benefit from the extra information our reading list reveals, especially if we’re expanding our reading choices.

For example, maybe we…

  • gain insights into the types of books Amazon might think is similar to ours,
  • shelve books on a “writing inspiration” list (I came up with the idea for my debut after reading my first dragonshifter story), or
  • learn about algorithms by studying how our suggestions change as we diversify the types of stories we read.

However we approach reading, paying attention to the choices we make can help us learn more about ourselves and the world around us. But we’ll learn even more if we keep in mind the hidden bias inherent in the system and work to counteract that effect by expanding our reading choices beyond the algorithms. *smile*

Have you ever thought about the books you don’t see suggested to you? Or have you wondered why you see the suggestions you do? Does it make sense how the publishing industry and algorithms create a suggestion list that have nothing to do with writing quality? Do you try to expand your reading choices beyond the usual, and if so, how? If you’ve consciously sought stories beyond the usual, have you come away with any insights?

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Bella Sikes
Bella Sikes

I was also trying to read more diverse books starting last year and it is hard to find good books! The algorithms really shove certain books at you. Thanks for the suggestions. For this year, in order to get out of my reading rut (grin), I signed up for ArmedWithABingo. I’ve already read books that I would never otherwise have picked up and it’s been fun. https://www.armedwithabook.com/armedwithabingo/
Cheers,
Bel

April Hayman

Hi Jami,

Thank you for voicing something that I have not been able to put into words. I noticed this year, after looking at my GoodReads challenges, that the stories and the authors I’ve read in the past are not as diverse as I thought (or liked). When I sought authors out to add to my reading list this year, I was hard-pressed to find someone other than award winners where the author’s age, race, creed, and sexual orientation were already be known. Easy to check off that box that says “read a book by a POC author” or “read a series by an LGBTQ author”. But that’s not the point, is it?

Unfortunately, this leaves out a swath of good stories to read and the reading groups I belong to, admittedly mostly Christian, do not offer a variety of authors or content. Some of the non-Christian groups I belong also focus on genres that, in my opinion, don’t have a wide variety of authors, e.g. POC, LGBTQ, (mostly cozy mysteries).

It makes me sad that someone else, like Google or Amazon, is making a choice for me on what I should read. But more, it makes me sad that when I do try to find those books, they are much more difficult to find. Not because they don’t exist, but because I don’t know where to look.

Best,
April Hayman

Tina Marie Jude
Tina Marie Jude

Hi Jami, thank you for the insightful information. You put to light, as a reader and writer, just how the system really works. I appreciate your time and research to address this issue.

Deborah Makarios

I only joined Goodreads this last year, but already I have noticed some things – some patterns.

Fiction I tend to re-read, and most of my comfort-reading is by dead Brits (Christie, Wodehouse, Austen etc). But I do try to read something unfamiliar reasonably often, and sometimes find a new favourite.

Non-fiction I don’t often re-read, but I read more widely. I discovered the NF books currently waiting for my weekly collection at the library include ones by LGBTQ and African-American authors, for example, and I tend to have a new obsession to read up on every few weeks. (Thank God for libraries, because I couldn’t afford to buy 1% of the books I read.)

But I’d like to read more by NZ authors (other than Ngaio Marsh whose mysteries I read frequently). We’re a bit under the cultural dominance of the UK & US here, and it’s easy to pass NZ books by on the shelf under the mistaken impression that they’re only here because they’re by NZ authors and if we don’t read them here in NZ, who will? But NZ has produced some great writers – Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, Ngaio Marsh, Katherine Mansfield, Emily Gee etc etc.

That said, I don’t think I want to read books solely because they’re by NZ authors. I dipped into The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Man Booker winner 2013) and happened upon a torture scene – entirely not my cup of tea!

Dawn

Interesting take. It never occurred to me that algorithms unfairly limit the exposure of certain groups. I’m doing the Goodreads reading challenge for the first time this year and will keep this in mind. My current preference is to find sci-fi novels written by self-published authors. As a self-published author myself, I’d like to give new writers the same chance that I hope others will give me.

Thanks for opening my eyes!

Sieran

That’s a great point that the Also Boughts on Amazon, and the book recommendations from Goodreads, can restrict our choices to what we’re used to reading. I also don’t believe that “the cream will rise to the top”, though I haven’t thought of the point that books that get more exposure, are less likely to be books by minority authors. This may explain why a lot of my LGBTQ friends, are unaware of a lot of queer and trans books. I’m relatively aware of these books, because I keep seeking them out, and as a result of me buying these books, I get recommendations for more queer books, LOL. However, I admit that most of the recommendations I get, are romances between two cis white men. This isn’t bad per se, but I miss out on, e.g. lesbian romances, trans romances, romances between POC, etc. Also, even with POC queer characters, I find that it’s usually between a white character and a POC character. Rarely are both protagonists POCs. We really need to actively search for books outside of our usual! Last year, I participated in the Toronto Public Libraries 2019 Reading Challenge, where you need to read books from some specified categories. The aim of this challenge is to diversify your reading. https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/bookbuzz/2019/01/join-our-2019-reading-challenge.html From this challenge, I got to read books outside of my usual, too. For instance, I read a book on a love story between two black girls. There was another book, which was a collection of…  — Read More »

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

There are three anthologies you might like to take a look at, published in 1997, 1998 and 2001. Nicola Griffith and Stephen Pagel were the editors of Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Bending the Landscape: Science Fiction and Bending the Landscape: Horror . All are LGBT short-stories. Some have haunted me (and not just the horror volume!) to this day. I highly recommend them — especially as a way to locate more authors, though I do not know if the authors of the short stories are part of the LGBT community themselves.

Happy Reading!
Anne

Sieran

That looks cool! Thanks for the recs. 😊

Anne Kaelber
Anne Kaelber

Jami, I rarely browse brick-and-mortar bookstores anymore, sadly. Why? Because I’m almost exclusively an ebook reader these days. But your post has reminded me of how I found some of my favorite books in the past: by browsing the shelves, which are grouped by genre and shelved alphabetically. Despite the tightly packed, spines-only shelving, there’s still enough to catch my attention and cause me to pull a book out to examine further. (Granted, I’m still being swayed by color, font, name, title… but I feel more “in control” at a brick-and-mortar store.) I wish ebook sellers would bring the “browse authors alphabetically” option to their websites. Sometimes, I can drill down on Amazon to get to the right “shelves” or sections, but not always. And yes, I see a lot of the same authors/series/titles pushed to the front. I try to change the sort away from “featured” or “promoted” or even “best seller”, since what sells isn’t always what I want to read. This brings me to the “blurbs” on book covers (or descriptions, online) and reviews by other authors. I recently received an email from Bookbub, with recommendations/reviews by authors I follow and/or have in my wishlist. In that email two different authors recommended a book, using the exact same text. It made me leery of “listening” to either author in the future. Many years ago, I spoke with one (now-deceased) author who said she would either read OR blurb a book, which effectively made any blurb of hers…  — Read More »

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