Friday, December 17, 2021

The Recommendation Algorithm

One of the down sides of an Amazon account is the slew of “you may like” messages that deluge my e-mail account at the rate of half a dozen or more per day. It beats me why anyone, even a computer programmer, might decide that because I just spent $50 on a salad bowl combo that wasn’t even shipped to my house, I must be in perennial need of salad bowls. But this is the world we live in, and most of the time I just click delete and move on.

There are other reasons why I don’t put a lot of stock in Amazon recommendations. Most important is that I often search books for work, so I have no desire to read them for myself. I also buy books—and other items—for family members, who have quite different tastes from mine. Those purchases, understandably, mess up the algorithms and result in a lot of suggestions in which I have no interest.

That said, the Amazon recommendations have had their uses. The best example is the time I searched for a particular book on the French Revolution (again for work), which generated a “you may like” for Baroness Orczy’s classic, The Scarlet Pimpernel. My grandfather gave me an illustrated copy of that book for my fourteenth birthday, and I loved it, but the copy itself had vanished long ago. I bought the book, re-read it from the perspective of a long-married adult, and seven years later that chance find led to my first published novel—The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, which simultaneously paid homage to and gently critiqued Orczy’s original.

Recently, for whatever reason, the Amazon recommendations have been on a roll. First, when I was looking into Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series for a New Books Network interview, the computers directed me to Andrea Penrose, whose Wrexford & Sloane (and Lady Arianna Hadley) books I love every bit as much as Lady Sherlock. My interviews with Sherry Thomas and with Andrea Penrose can be found at New Books in Historical Fiction (just click on the authors’ names in this sentence).

Then the recommendations threw up Irina Shapiro’s forthcoming Murder on the Sea Witch, book 7 of her Redmond & Haze mysteries. Again, I read the first one, enjoyed it thoroughly, and am working my way through the others, in preparation for talking with the author sometime next spring.

Most recently, the recommendations directed me to Pam Lecky, the author of three mysteries (so far) featuring Lucy Lawrence. I’ve yet to dive into those, so I don’t necessarily have plans to do more than enjoy them, but the opening of the first one looks good. I look forward to reading them as soon as I’m caught up on Lady Arianna and Redmond & Haze.

So the story has, at least temporarily, a happy ending. Three out of three is pretty good results, although if we go beyond the last few weeks, the rate is more like three out of three thousand.

Now, if I can just convince the algorithms that, honestly, one salad bowl is enough …

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