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My Bookstore is Stalking Me (And I Like It)

detective2Without realizing it, I reached a tipping point recently. Have you seen those newsletters from booksellers that alert you about books you might be interested in? Last year, I subscribed to a number of those. Imagine my surprise when I opened a Borders newsletter with the subject line “New from an Author You Love.” It was announcing a James Patterson release. (Do I really need a newsletter to know James Patterson has a new book out? He always has a new book out.)

Inside the e-mail, I found this: “Since you’ve bought something by James Patterson in the past, we thought you might enjoy this new release: The Murder of King Tut: The Plot to Kill the Child King — a Nonfiction Thriller, available now. Get it at a Borders store near you, or buy it now at Borders.com and enjoy it in no time!”

Sheesh. You buy one James Patterson thriller (hey, it was on sale), and they think they’ve got your number. I also got similar messages announcing new books by P. C. Cast, Nora Roberts, Iris Johansen, Stieg Larsson, and others. At least those made sense. I also subscribed to newsletters from Amazon and B&N, not wanting to miss out on news books or discounts. Of course, I also checked the recommendations on Amazon and B&N (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”).

The recommendations poured in. Sometimes off-target, sometimes so on-target that it was creepy. At times, I felt like a heroine from a James Patterson thriller. Just when I thought it was safe, another e-mail would show up in my inbox, or Amazon would tell me about the latest historical romance. upcoming paranormals, or the new Warhammer book, all based on my wishlists and purchases. Besides the feeling of being watched, this has its drawbacks. My brother borrowed my computer while visiting and added a watch to his shopping cart. Only it wasn’t his shopping cart, it was mine, and it took a couple of weeks to persuade Amazon to stop sending me love letters about watches.

One day, it happened. Call it the “tipping point.” I became a convert. I opened a Borders newsletters to see the latest coupon. And the recommendations were something that actually interested me! Holy cow, how did that happen? I was in the middle of my “Children’s and YA adventure glom,” and they recommended books like the Tunnels series and the Pseudonymous Bosch series, and a book about a school-aged supervillain. They all sounded … fun. OK, it’s not something everyone would get excited about, but it beats another e-mail about James Patterson. Now that I have finally read Pride and Prejudice and started buying P&P sequels, the recommendations should bring an interesting mix. (What next? The Adventures of the Hooded Darcy?)

My first thought was “Why didn’t Borders start doing this sooner? Customers might have paid more attention to them.” My next was “I’d better pay more attention to their newsletters.” Maybe that was the point all along.

Then something even more shocking happened. I got excellent recommendations from the Barnes & Noble NOOKbooks newsletter. This shouldn’t be so shocking, should it? Here’s the story. While I love my Nook and my B&N, the recommendations on their web page stink. There is a “Suggestions for You” area on my personalized “My B&N” page, but it lists only ten books, never seems to get updated, and is currently recommending a book by a politician I don’t like. Yuck! Compare that to Amazon, which can’t help recommending things to me, and lets me refine those recommendations. (Just because I bought a part for Dad’s electric razor doesn’t mean I want to learn about every new Remington device.)

Whoever is doing the B&N newsletters must be from a different department than the Web page people. If only they were on the same page. I opened up a recent B&N newsletter, and under “NOOKbooks You Might Like,” it recommend Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll, as well as The Man Who Loved Jane Austen by Sally Smith O`Rourke, Nothing But Deception by Allegra Gray, and a Kasey Michaels book. Another one recommended Elizabeth Chadwick books to me. It’s great to learn that her books can be found in the U.S. again, and in eBook form at that!

The suggestions have all started making sense. Maybe I should be frightened of how much information the bookstores have about me. Just as some people refuse to use customer loyalty cards at their grocery store, because they don’t want the invasion of privacy, maybe I should stop using my Borders and B&N cards. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Besides, I’m more than my purchases. Sure, stores can tell a lot about me from what I buy, but they can’t tell everything. And I dare them to decipher me based on my purchases. Just the other day, I bought a Pride and Prejudice sequel called Darcy and Anne at the same time as I bought a Warhammer novel called Blood Gorgons. Analyze that, demographics people!

Instead of worrying that companies are going to figure me out, I’m having fun screwing up their software. Whenever I make a purchase that completely goes against the grain, a little line of software code cries softly in its sleep. Besides, I’m glad they are at least trying to use this information to try to target my interests (good luck with that), instead of assuming every customer wants the same books.

So what about you? Are the recommendations from booksellers ever useful to you, or do they keep suggestions authors you dislike? Are you worried about the invasion of privacy, happy they are listening to your likes and dislikes, or all of the above?

– Anne Marble

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