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Bookish's Dirty Little Secret

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After eighteen months in development, Bookish (Bookish.com), a website backed by publishing houses Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group (USA), and Simon & Schuster, went live on Feb. 4, 2013.

The email I received inviting me to visit Bookish describes it as "A New Destination For Book Discovery." Bookish's ostensible purpose is to help readers discover new books in their personal range of interests. "Discoverability," of course, is the latest favorite buzzword in publishing. Bookish also boasts of exclusive content from major authors.

I didn't take long for me to discover Bookish's dirty little secret. Hint----Bookish isn't there to help you discover new books. 

On Feb. 4, USA Today's Bob Minzesheimer wrote, "Bookish CEO Ardy Khazaei says its seven-person editorial staff will be 'completely independent and autonomous' in selecting books and themes to write about. "We know we can't be a mouthpiece for a specific publisher.' " (USA Today and Bookish plan to share content with each other.)

The top stories at Bookish when I first visited it on Feb. 5 were Elizabeth Gilbert's take on Philip Roth's advice to a novelist to quit writing, an interview with novelists Michael Connelly and Michael Koryta, the editors of The Onion reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey and The Art of War, and an exclusive excerpt from Harlan Coben's latest novel, Six Years. There were additional interviews with Po Bronson, Rhonda Byrne, author of The Magic, her second sequel to The Secret, and children's book author Lucy Hawking.

An ad on the right side of Bookish's main page, for Jojo Moyes' novel, Me Before You, displaying Penguin Books' iconic logo, set my Spidey sense tingling. 

"Hmm," I asked myself, "I wonder how many of these authors are published by the publishers behind Bookish?" A little sleuthing on my part quickly provided the answer: all of them.

Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book is published by the Viking Press, an imprint of the Penguin Group. And whom do you suppose publishes Michael Connelly's books? Little, Brown and Company, which became part of Hachette Book Group in 2006. Are we detecting a pattern here? Little, Brown also publishes The Onion's compilations of hilarity. Harlan Coben's novel is published by Dutton, another Penguin imprint. Po Bronson is published by Twelve Books, an imprint of Hachette, Rhonda Byrne by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, and Lucy Hawking by Simon & Schuster.

The exclusive author content Bookish offers, consisting of canned interviews with authors, book excerpts, and short essays, which gets refreshed periodically, is invariably written by or about authors whose books are published by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints.

Elizabeth Gilbert's 997-word essay begins as an exercise in finger wagging at Philip Roth, for having advised novelist Julian Tepper to quit writing. "I would quit while you're ahead," Roth told Tepper, shortly before announcing his own literary retirement. "Really, it's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it's not any good. I would say just stop now. You don't want to do this to yourself."

Gilbert's response is to call Roth and other successful authors who complain about the difficulty of writing drama queens, because nobody forces you to write, so lighten up, ya old grouch! Gilbert admits that writing really is difficult, but its difficulty pales by comparison to grueling jobs like working in a steel mill or fixing sewers.

"Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it's f*cking great," Gilbert writes. "Writing, I tell you, has everything to recommend it over real work." Her lightweight essay touting the joy of writing could double as a sales pitch for the old Famous Writers School, a notorious correspondence course. In one of the ads for The Famous Writers School, J. D. Ratcliff, a member of the school's Guiding Faculty, opined, "I can't understand why more beginners don't take the short road to publication by writing articles for magazines and newspapers. It's a wonderful life."

The difference, of course, is that even when doing the worst job imaginable, you know where your next paycheck is coming from. The overwhelming majority of writers run an unending marathon paved with uncertainty, cryptic rejection letters, and a paucity of recompense that a hobo couldn't live on.

In addition to its exclusive author content, Bookish presents Top Stories, featuring a group of books under a single subject like "What Do Men Want? Guides From Relationship Experts;" and galleries of five New Releases, Bestsellers, and Gift Books. Slightly more than half of the books mentioned in the top stories and galleries on February 13, when I last visited Bookish, were all published by one of the publishing conglomerates behind the site.

For a site that prides itself on its ability to guide you to just the right book for your tastes, the gift books for Valentine's Day didn't seem particularly well chosen for the occasion: they included Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, not exactly famous for his romantic exploits, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, a thriller about the disappearance of a wealthy man's wife, and The Genius of Dogs.

Every page at Bookish features at least one ad for a book, all published by Hachette Book Group, Penguin Group, and Simon & Schuster, or one of their imprints. Clicking on an ad directs you to the book's product page at the publisher's website, where you can order the book from them at a discounted price inferior to Amazon.com's or from several online bookstores, except for titles from Penguin, which can only be ordered from them at full price, bypassing Amazon and its discounts altogether.

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Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: the Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011). Filmmaker Philippe Mora says, "I knew Dennis Hopper in his wild days and his sober days. Winkler's deeply researched biography is the (more...)
 

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