Amazon has introduced a new feature that promises to be more useful than the Statistically Improbable Phrases feature that launched a few months ago. The “SIP” feature finds distinctive phrases inside books and then linked users to other books that contained those same distinctive phrases. For example, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World contains five instances of the distinctive phrase “deer poaching,” which Amazon tells us also appears in several other books, including Deer and Deer Hunting Book 2: Strategies and Tactics for the Advanced Hunter. Amusing, but not terribly useful. Amazon’s new feature, Capitalized Phrases” or “CAPs,” links books by proper names and places, so by clicking on “King Lear” from among the CAPs for Will in the World, you get a list of books that mention “King Lear.” This seems like a potentially very useful research tool – especially if Amazon decides not to limit the results to twenty or so books as they are currently doing. These “phrases” features by Amazon also represent a foray into the relatively new Internet phenomenon of tagging, which sites like del.icio.us use to categorize Web sites. Since the process is external – in the case of del.icio.us, the tags are applied by users – and has a human element to it, sites that employ tagging have the potential to be “smarter” than those that rely on old-fashioned search engines. It will be interesting to see if Amazon begins to allow user submitted tags in addition to its Search Inside a Book data to create a deep and highly intuitive way of organizing its massive inventory.
Filthy magazine is debuting at the Los Angeles Times Book Fair this weekend. And it will also be available at the lovely internet book store First Cut Books. The hippest online book store ever. The debut issue of this pitching quarterly includes a piece by yours truly about the seaon I spent as a ghost in Little League… Sounds intriguing, eh? Believe me, this is one good looking magazine; think McSweeney’s but all about Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, and countless other fireballing luminaries. Also, yesterday George Plimpton was joined by Maile Meloy and Bernard Cooper at the book store to present the new Paris Review. Plimpton is fascinating, a throwback to a literary culture that has likely disappeared, both times I have seen him speak he has told stories about his sporting (and writing) youth that are as entertaining as they are valuable as artifacts of a different time. I should add that the new Paris Review book is a really fantastic collection.
Jerome Weeks has an interesting post up at his blog about the impact of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s novels Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan on the work of Kurt Vonnegut.Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine’s fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).And in the Philly Inquirer, Carlin Romano tries to explain just why Vonnegut has been such an enduring novelist, “why Vonnegut’s leaps of inventiveness satisfied so many, why his political stilettos estranged so few.”
Amazon reviews are kind of silly. One has to wade through lots of cranks to get to a useful review, and even then it’s hard to put that much faith in a few sentences penned by a complete stranger (although I have been known to pen Amazon reviews, on occasion). Still, they undoubtedly do have an effect on sales and on peoples’ perceptions of particular books, so when instances of unfair play come to light it can piss people off – like when it was revealed that authors were pseudonymously reviewing their own books (scroll down). With these same concerns in mind, I reprint this email that I received from an eagle-eyed Millions reader today.If you go to this page and scroll down to reviewer #235 (who calls him/herself “nyy”) you should notice that this reviewer has not reviewed any books. Zero. I emailed Amazon about it, and just got a canned reply about how their reviewers are rated. What do you think — a typo or a hack or something else?I have no clue, and I’m sure Amazon would explain it away as a glitch, but it does make me wonder if the customer review system is completely on the level.Update: The original New York Times article about authors reviewing their own books at Amazon.
I only took the train one way today – Mrs. Millions was kind enough to pick me up this afternoon – but I still spotted at least three people reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in various stages of completion while riding the El this morning including one young man who was vigorously finishing the final pages. I wasn’t surprised to see Harry Potter on the train this morning, nor will I be surprised to see it a lot in the coming weeks considering the astonishing sales numbers the book generated this weekend. According to Scholastic Books, Potter sold 6.9 million copies over the weekend – that’s 250,000 copies an hour, more copies than 99.9% of books will sell in a lifetime. Barnes and Noble reported selling about 105 copies a second. You can get all the numbers here. Here’s my favorite stat, though. From the Guardian: “Retailers said that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had sold more copies in a day than The Da Vinci Code sold in one year.”All of this reminded me of my days selling Harry Potter books when I worked at a bookstore. As I recall, the day Part 5 came out, we sold more copies of that book than all the other books we sold that day combined, and this was at an independent bookstore on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, not exactly the kind of place that caters to kids. People can banter back and forth about whether or not Harry Potter books are any good – or whether or not adults should read them – but I know that they were good for our bookstore. For an independent, a big seller like Harry Potter can subsidize that less profitable business of trying to supply good literature to a dwindling group of interested readers.