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There’s no such thing as a good books app


Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

Ben Williams looks askance as another app hoping to capture book lovers’ interest tries to get off the ground.

This is an appreciation column for all the efforts undertaken around the world on behalf of books and literature that are not related to the creation of yet another doomed books app.

Ok, that’s not correct. It’s really an exasperation column, occasioned by my bewilderment at the recent, rather splashy announcement of, you guessed it, a new app for books, whose promises are as empty as a public library at midnight. 

We’ll get into the particulars of why this new app will never take flight, but the main reason is that there’s simply no such thing as a good books app. There never has been, and there probably never will be.

By “books app” I don’t mean, of course, an app for reading books. There are several good reading apps, not least those made by Kindle and Kobo. Thanks to these apps, reading a book on a screen — even one as small as one’s phone — is now at least as pleasurable as watching a symphony in a cinema. 

Nor, by “books app”, do I mean apps that have been fashioned out of works that previously came in book form, like dictionaries. I use several such apps, including — one of my favourites — the Newman’s Birds of Africa app. With the Newman’s app on my phone, it’s never a case of too late the Cisticola. (That’s an extreme South African literary-twitcher joke that I really oughtn’t to have attempted, but on the other hand, why not download the app and get to know the sweet family of Cisticolas, also known as tinktinkies and klopkloppies, a bit better? Go on, it’s never too late, pace Paton, to make some new feathered friends.)

No, by “books app” I mean an app whose aim is to replicate the strange, mazy magic by which a new book appears on your radar and, eventually, in your hands. The two main ingredients that go into producing this minor miracle are curation, usually supplied by booksellers, and word-of-mouth recommendations, usually supplied by family or friends.

In the last fifteen years, many, many digital initiatives have striven to find an algorithmically-enhanced formula for replicating this miracle online. Most have failed and are no longer with us. Of the three that have come the closest – and don’t appear to be going anywhere – two have books nowhere near their core business models. These three are, in order of importance: TikTok, Facebook and Goodreads.

There’s your competition when entering the books app space. Fairly stiff.

Goodreads probably comes the closest to providing an in-the-round concierge discovery service for book lovers, but since its acquisition by Amazon in 2013, it has become unpleasantly promotional, with authors and readers constantly striving to shout the loudest. The app will do, but it’s a poor substitute even for the small-stakes serendipity offered by an indie bookshop’s modest “New Arrivals” table.

TikTok and Facebook, meanwhile, enjoy the conversational authenticity that Goodreads lacks. Much as we might dislike the companies that run them, these two apps are quite successful at forging human connections. At the core of these connections, of course, is trust. We trust a recommendation from a Facebook friend or a TikToker we follow as much as if it were to arise in a real-life chat over a cappuccino. 

And there’s the rub. Any successful book app must seek to foster human connections first. The design must prioritise the interpersonal over the product. But the latest major-league attempt at such an app — which hasn’t even launched to the general public yet, though it’s already enjoyed a feature in The New York Times — remains product-centric. Its aim is to connect people to books, or, in its own words, to “serve up book talk from across social media, podcasts, and the web — all in one app which incorporates seamless book purchasing”. 

For pity’s sake, people don’t want seamless book purchasing. People want seamless kinship with other people, which is why TikTok is the current undisputed heavyweight books app champion of the world. Folks connect there; book buzz is the happy byproduct.

The new app hoping to generate buzz of its own, called Tertulia, is backed by the Ingram Content Group, a book distribution behemoth that provides the backbone for dozens of book retailers, including Amazon itself. For my money, Ingram would have been better advised to invest in a web-based online bookseller than what seems to amount to Goodreads 2.0.

I’ve mentioned Tertulia only at the end of this column because I don’t want to encourage the folly, and you’ll probably never hear of it again, so no real notice of what the app is called needs to be taken. There’s just no such thing as a good books app. Trust me, a reader who has signed up for literally all of them over the years, then discarded them one by one, in favour, always, of returning to the human spark. DM/ ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.


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  • Is there a “Books app” in which the subscriber names 3 or 5 books one has really enjoyed, and (after asking you whether you have read and would rate out of 10 another 5 or 10 “probable” likes), gives you a list of books (algorithmed from your own list and your rating of its possibles list) which it has worked out you should enjoy reading?
    There are music sites like this, and Netflix tries its best with movies etc.
    Who does this for books?

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