Digital Culture

Amazon Recommends… The Same Book as Yesterday

Eleanor Sivins

Amazon has millions of titles to recommend to the modern reader, so why are we all reading the same books?

When Amazon recommends a book, do you trust it? Offering over 44 million titles, the world’s biggest bookseller seems like the most trustworthy source to get a recommendation. With so many genres, authors, and themes to choose from, you would think our reading preferences would expand with each Amazon order. But we often find ourselves browsing the same section of the virtual bookshelf. 

It is a tale as old as the internet that recommendations will be pushed to us based on the things may like and what ‘Customers who bought this item also bought’. The recommendations targeted towards us are fascinating, they show us things that we are (almost) guaranteed to like, but these recommendations have become entangled with issues of repetition. On Amazon, we may order a couple of books by the same author for ourselves, as a gift, for our degree, or a regrettable impulse purchase.

These book buying decisions come back to haunt us in our recommendations. We buy one obscure book for our degrees and all that is recommended to us  for the next six months are similar novels we would never read unless we had to. Then, the books we do want to read, the ones that were sought out with or without an Amazon recommendation are thrown back to us, because Amazon knows we will like it but has not quite figured out that you don’t need another copy of The Shining.

The recommendations are intuitive, they tell us what we might want to read (or what we have already read) but they do not allow us or help us to expand our reading. It has become a habit of recommendations to play it safe, making sure to tell us what they can guarantee we will buy instead of showing us something different. Recommendations prevent us from diversifying our reading away from the Amazon book bubble we have found ourselves in. When we continue to read the books recommended to us, we are driven around in reading circles and pushed into becoming narrow readers. We are reading similar things over and over again instead of more books that the world has to offer outside of a brown box with a smile. 

Changing our reading habits is different in a physical store, where displays, varying sections, and deals encourage readers to try something new, something Amazon wouldn’t dare to do. The question becomes, does the world’s biggest bookseller have a responsibility to diversify our reading? The reality is that we have a responsibility to be conscious of our reading habits, but modern readers enjoy the convenience of recommendations. Readers do not want to hunt through over 44 million books on Amazon for something different, we want a recommendation with the personality of a friend who knows us well enough to suggest something different instead of the same thing we read last week.