Testing Out HarperCollins’s New Book-Recommending Bots

I take pride in my ability to match readers with books they love. I’ve had a lot of training in the art and science of recommending books. Readers’ advisory (what we in the library world call book recommending) is literally a skill on my resumé.

When HarperCollins announced that they would be offering virtual readers’ advisory, I was a bit skeptical, but also intrigued. Can an algorithm or a robot offer nuanced recommendations? How ‘intelligent’ would this artificially intelligent book recommendation bot on their Facebook account be?

I tested it for myself.

You can get adult recommendations from the HarperCollins Facebook page. It asks for either a book or author to get started.

harper collins book reccomendations from bots

I had just finished The Story of My Teeth, which I read while developing this list of Mexican authors, so I chose that book to start.

HC book rec 2

Okay, maybe that was a little more challenging than if I’d said, say, Gillian Flynn, but it legitimately was the last book I’d read and enjoyed.

It first recommended A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi.

The Story of My Teeth is an offbeat, witty story of an auctioneer; it’s fast-paced but experimental in style.

A House Without Windows is an intricately-plotted, moving story about a woman in an Afghan prison accused of murdering her husband.

While it sounded like a good story, I couldn’t fathom the connection to The Story of My Teeth.

No worries, though. The first try for even the most seasoned readers’ advisor is hardly ever perfect. I was ready to try again.

The next suggestion I received was for A Thief of Time, the eighth installment in a police procedural series by Tony Hillerman that my father read when I was a kid.

I can’t fathom the connection any algorithm could find either thematically, tonally, or stylistically between my request and this title.

I decided to give the bot one more try.

Finally, a book I might be interested in! Carry Me Like Water by Benjamin Alire Saenz is about “Diego, the deaf-mute son of Mexican migrant workers, and his pseudo-yuppie sister, Helen, [who] find their lives transformed when Helen’s roommate, a dedicated AIDS nurse, discovers she has the ability for out-of-body travel.”

So, we’ve got the Mexican connection, at least, and the out-of-body travel requires a suspension of belief. I loved Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and have read some of the author’s nonfiction. While this sounds a bit heavier than Teeth, it didn’t feel like it was a completely randomly generated suggestion.

Still, I’d have a long list of recommendations using my own knowledge and the amazing library database NoveList to suggest before arriving at Carry Me Like Water. 

(If your interested, check out Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue or some of the other offbeat Mexican authors).

Not only is HarperCollins rolling this out for adults, but they are offering YA book suggestions on their Epic Reads page. They have more options with which to begin your conversation with the bot about what kind of book you want to read. You can also ask for recommendations based on mood, in addition to book or author read-alikes.

Plus, you get gifs from Margot Wood, the always entertaining and enthusiastic manager of the Epic Reads community, who offers pretty good readers’ advisory herself (we’re friends on Twitter).

But it became quite clear that it wasn’t actually Margot offering book recommendations.

I picked “mood” the first time around, because I was in the mood for something upbeat. (Seriously, I’m having a hard time reading fiction lately.)

The first suggestion was The Duff by Kody Keplinger. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen the movie, and while I thought it was an okay suggestion, it didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, so I tried again.

You for lesbian romances! Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit is totally on my TBR. And how nice is it to find a feel-good lesbian YA romance? This seemed okay. Perhaps mood is easier for a bot to comprehend than any number of reasons a reader might like a book or author.

Satisfied with my exploration of mood, I decided to try an author.

Is there a book that can fill the hole that Strange the Dreamer left in my heart?

It definitely isn’t The Last Star by Rick Yancey. Action-packed alien invasion isn’t the same as fantasy with rich world-building and characters who feel deeply human, even if they are gods or monsters. (I’ve read The 5th Wave, and it was fine for what it was, just doesn’t hit anywhere near the same emotional notes as Laini Taylor’s books with their dreamy prose).

So I kept going and got like 5 James Dashner books in a row. Obviously, this bot doesn’t learn and readjust based on what I pass on.

Then it offered this super old book: Water Sky by Jean Craighead George, which is historical fiction that I might hand to a much younger reader than your typical DOSAB fan. How did it come up with this seemingly random book? (Well, it IS a Harper book).

The last suggestion was Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, which may not have the romantic themes of Laini Taylor’s books, but at least has the fantasy world-building.

(For fans of Laini Taylor, I’d suggest Brenna Yovanoff and The Raven Cycle series, or maybe Wink Poppy Midnight or The Careful Undressing of Love. I think the appeal of Laini Taylor lies is the imagery and language and the way she captures longing—which are perhaps not elements of a story this bot has been taught to appreciate).

I wanted to give it one more shot, so I tried one of my favorite contemporary YA authors, Cath Crowley (I loved, loved, loved Words in Deep Blue).

And then I got Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. A sci-fi thriller set in space written in an unconventional style. Basically a 180 degree difference from the romantic contemporary YA that Cath Crowley writes. 

The only connection I could see was that Amie and Cath are both Australian, but if I was looking for other Australian authors, Laura Buzo or Melina Marchetta would spring to mind first.

That’s not to say these books couldn’t possibly share a fan base. Many readers have wide and eclectic tastes. But, it certainly wouldn’t be my first suggestion and doesn’t seem based on similarities in plot, writing style, or any other appeal factor.

Reader’s advisory is personal, and I just don’t think a robot will ever be able to offer the same type of thoughtful, personalized recommendations that a real human reader can.

When I’m stumped for what to recommend for a particular reader, I have a cadre of fellow readers’ advisory professionals to consult, and often draw on the incredible wealth of knowledge that our own team at Book Riot has to give the best suggestions to readers. (Seriously, the Book Riot back channels are the best place to get reading advice). I’ll continue to use those resources to expand my own knowledge of books and to best match readers with stories they’ll love.