March 4, 2016

Book-tech startup promises “unparalleled insight into your content,” which sounds gross and probably unnecessary


Image via FutureBook

Image via FutureBook

Neil Balthaser is “harnessing machine learning … to exploit the rich data hidden inside billions of books,” reports FutureBook’s Molly Flatt.

Basically, Intellogo—Balthaser’s company and FutureBook’s startup of the week—is offering booksellers, publishers, and self-publishers some tech that helps to “crack open books and understand their content—themes, writing styles, pacing, emotions, etc.— [and] then use that data to better match books with readers.” Which seems okay, if not vague (and definitely not surprising), but is also pretty weird, considering that is part of what book industry people—in particular, booksellers, who are total pros—are paid to do every day. And they’re pretty good at it.

So, okay, for bookselling, Intellogo is a tool that helps booksellers recommend this or that title (which we maybe haven’t read because there are lots of books in the world) to customers that liked this or that other title.

But for publishers, Intellogo may, in the long term, provide a negative outcome. Balthaser goes on to state:

Publishing needed to be better equipped to understand what is actually in these books. We need to understand the reader and content better, and we also need to create new opportunities to bring in new readers. With big data we can match content and create new content that readers are interested in.

Startups in publishing should be data driven: don’t try to mimic existing publishing practices, but focus on resolving pressing business needs, and find a way to connect the right content to the right person.

Yes, publishers should understand the books they publish. That goes without saying. But the fear is that, using Intellego’s data, publishers will change the way they publish, not just the way they market—and that’s a problem.

And while all of this may seem a bit alarmist (it probably is), Balthaser’s message seems to come from a place where the book—excuse me, the “content”—is a mere commodity to be bought and sold, a place where anything that stands in the way of that transaction is a problem to be solved.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.