The apparent difficulty of genre classification

Or: The utility of occasionally judging books by their covers

My nearest local library recently closed for an 18-month renovation project, leaving me with a sudden distressing lack of access to fiction I hadn’t already read. (Not that I’m averse to rereading books, since my policy is not to buy it if I don’t want to read it more than once, but sometimes I do want something new.) The solution was obvious: place an Amazon order.

I was quite pleased with my Amazon order. I ended up with books from 3 new fantasy/sci-fi/speculative fiction series, all of which turned out to be good. Two of them had similar themes: a female main character mediating between members of different supernatural races. This would seem to put them definitively in the fantasy category, urban fantasy if you want to be even more specific. One series, the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, has three books so far that all follow a murder mystery storyline, which the main character ends up needing to solve for the werewolf, vampire, and fae communities respectively. The other series, the Negotiator Trilogy by CE Murphy, is more like Law & Order meets the supernatural realm, because the main character is a lawyer with a strong tie to the police detective who inevitably ends up investigating all the crimes involving the gargoyles, vampires, and so forth that the lawyer is trying to negotiate with.

But this post is not actually meant to be a book review. This post is meant to be a rant. Because what did purchasing these books from Amazon cause to happen? It caused me to get an Amazon ad in my email telling me that based on my purchasing habits, they think it is clear that I would enjoy the following titles on the vampire romance theme. Their algorithm tells them that I am now a woman who reads vampire romances. And I object.

Mostly I object because instead of just deleting the email right away, I actually scrolled down to see if they had actually turned up interesting books under an unfortunately termed group heading. No, no they had not. What they had sent me were suggestions of books with covers clearly indicating that they were romances that happened to have vampires as love interests for added flavor. They had titles written in cutesy curlicue fonts, and cartoon-y drawings of women’s feet in high heels, or overblown couples looking rapturous. Some of them even had hearts sprinkled on them. And punny names playing on blood and kissing. Now behold, if you would, the covers of the books I read.

The Mercy Thompson novels:

mooncalled1 bloodbound ironkissed1

The Negotiator Trilogy:

heartofstone1 houseofcards handsofflame

Now, while I’ll admit that the Mercy Thompson covers tend to make the main character appear a bit more buxom than necessary, she is still depicted as a tattooed mechanic who seems like she can handle herself (although maybe she should wear more clothes.) I also like the fact that the covers of the books add more and more tattoos, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with the books; the pawprint on her stomach is the only one ever mentioned, so I doubt the other ones are anything more than artistic license on the part of the cover artist. But still! Tough girl.

The Negotiator books don’t get to look quite as tough, since the main character is a petite lawyer rather than a car mechanic, but even so, they do manage to get across the feeling of “here is a lone woman doing something probably dangerous.” Both series convey that the story will focus on the main character. In both cases, the main characters are women. Neither woman is swooning, or leaning on a vampire’s arm, or baring the neck rapturously. There are no i’s dotted with hearts. Even from just the covers, (you’ll have to take my word about the other ones, I deleted the message before it occurred to me that it might be otherwise useful, but take a walk down the romance aisle the next time you’re in a bookstore and you’ll get the idea,) these are not books in the same category.

So why are they being categorized as romances? Presumably because both of these main characters have relationships that feature prominently in side-plots. And I admit that I enjoyed those side-plots. But they were side-plots, not, I repeat, NOT the main plot. Why were they even in the books? Because these are books featuring adult main characters, and the only fiction books I can think of that I’ve read lately that contained no elements of romance for the main character featured characters who were monks, nuns, or rather misogynistic detectives of bygone eras.

I admit that this mostly stuck out to me because it was the most off-target thing I’d ever gotten from Amazon, aside from the ones that I get because some other customer was buying both textbooks and fiction in the same order, so I end up with the suggestion that I might like a history of the Anglo-Saxons because I bought a mystery starring an ex-military policeman-turned-hobo. Normally I get suggestions that are too on-target and I’ve already read the books. But what about the rest of you out there on the internet? Ever run into amusingly mismatched suggestions?

-posted by Dana

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9 Responses to The apparent difficulty of genre classification

  1. Alex Rudnick says:

    Recommendation is an interesting problem. There are several things that Amazon could be doing here — and they’re probably combining results from several approaches.

    I expect that the data set they’ve collected is really big, though. Big enough where they feel comfortable estimating the probability that you’d buy a specific given title, given the other things you’ve bought or looked at. This is to say, they may have found that there are a number of people who bought “Hands of Flame” and also particular vampire-romance titles. (so, y’know, don’t take this personally. it just fell out of the numbers)

    In my case, I haven’t bought any fiction on Amazon — so how should they know to recommend me Neal Stephenson? Well, I bought those programming and data mining books…

    (alternatively, they’ve got some dumb setup with a tag that’s like “+VAMPIRES”)

    More on this!
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_basket_analysis

    Great online introductory course from Stanford, taught by a Google statistician:
    http://www.newstats202.com/

  2. Dana says:

    This does indeed appear to be a problem of an overly enthusiastic cross-selling attempt. I just went into my Amazon recommendations page to see if any of the stuff from the email had ended up in there, and it seems that the “paranormal mystery with female lead” and “paranormal romance” books have a historical problem on Amazon of being too closely equated, as evidenced by this bit of a customer review of Magic Bites (amazingly NOT a vampire romance, despite the title):

    If you are a paranormal romance reader, this book may not be for you. Despite its title, “Magic Bites” falls strongly on the fantasy end of the continuum. “Magic Bites” is both a very good fantasy and mystery and you can get easily drawn in–as long as you are not too disappointed there is not a strong romance line in the novel.

    Another warning, if you are someone who thinks vampires are dead sexy, this book does not ascribe to this point of view. Vampires are nobody’s erotic fantasy in this novel and that makes them particularly interesting.

    I will investigate further to see if any of the really silly looking ones made it into the queue. So far all marginal ones I’ve found are ones with questionable covers (the women are in lingerie, but alone and not doing anything too stupid) and not-blatantly-bad plot summaries.

  3. Marsha says:

    My comment isn’t to do with Amazon but WordPress. When you look at a post, WordPress suggests some other blogposts that may be similar. I was checking my blog one day and wondered why someone had come to one of my posts via a guy’s blog about motorcycle. The mystery was solved when I read his post, which was about how to steer your bike around track corners when racing. And my blog entry that WordPress took up as a close match? It was my review of sci-fi writer Ursula LeGuin’s how-to book on writing, called Steering the Craft of Fiction! Marsha http://www.writingcompanion.wordpress.com

  4. Dana says:

    I too have noticed those weird links, Marsha. I’m more forgiving of WordPress, though, because they haven’t had nearly as much time (or investment) in fine-tuning their system to not turn up so many false positives.

  5. Jennie says:

    The problem is that vampire romance is HOT HOT HOT right now (Thank you Twilight!) and so, not matter what you buy, a large number of people who bought that book have bought some vampire romance, the trend is so big, it’s skewing the numbers all over the place. And, what you bought is close enough in genre, that I’m guessing your numbers all over.

    I mean, I get vampire recomendations all the time because I read and buy so much YA. Realistic fiction for teens? OF COURSE you want vampire romance! Because so many YA fans read Twilight and are branching out to other types of vampire romance, so surely I must be as well, right?

  6. Dana says:

    Sadly, Jennie, it didn’t even occur to me that Twilight might have been responsible for this until yesterday afternoon, when I was reading a review of the books. I mean, yes, I knew they were huge and everyone was reading them, but I wasn’t making a connection at all. Duh. Interestingly, though, the Twilight books have never been one of Amazon’s suggestions for me.

    It is interesting to look back at the series of vampire posts sonetka and I did earlier this year, where sonetka commented on one book (The Historian, I think) that it was kind of a relief to hear about a book that actually looked at vampires as plain evil again. The “vampire with a heart of gold” thing is becoming mundane and cliche now.

  7. Chere says:

    Dana,
    I have had similar issues, because I enjoy paranormal fiction – which seems to be completely merged with paranormal romance by Amazon. Nicely enough, in my brick & mortar B&N store they put the para-fic in the Sci-Fi section, which makes me very happy. PS I would recommend the entire Kate Danie’s series, beginning w/ Magic Bleeds if you haven’t read it; worth buying!

    • Dana says:

      Hi Chere! I actually started the Kate Daniels series earlier this year. I wasn’t sure about the first one, but kept going, and Kate has certainly grown on me.

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