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Visual Bookshelf - John C. Kirk

Jun. 9th, 2008

11:43 pm - Visual Bookshelf

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Yesterday I posted some thoughts about book reviews, looking at some of the websites which try to help you with that. One of the Visual Bookshelf developers commented on the post, and I was impressed by his enthusiasm, so I installed the application to try it out. (On reflection, I really should have done that before I mentioned it in my previous post.) Unfortunately, I was less impressed by the application itself.

I decided to start with one of my reviews from Saturday, namely "Star Trek: Vulcan's Glory". When I searched for "Vulcan's Glory", it came up with four matches: these were all for the same book, but just different covers. The cover scans are a bit small, but I was able to pick the one that looks like the library copy.

When I mentioned LibraryThing's tagging system, I said that I'd prefer a more rigid system, and Visual Bookshelf does provide that. There are three options for ownership: "Own it", "Want it", and "Don't want". In this case, since I don't own it, I had to say "Don't want", which is a little harsh; the alternative is to avoid answering that question altogether. I'd prefer to say that I don't own it, but leave the "Do I want it?" question up in the air. The related question is "Your interest", which has four options: "Not interested", "Already read", "Want to read", and "Reading now". (Again, you can choose not to answer that question at all.) This is similar to Flixter, where I can mark a film as "Want to see it" or "Not interested", but I don't have to click either button if I don't have strong feelings about a film. ("Might watch it if it was on TV and I didn't have anything else to do.") Presumably the point of the ownership question is to build a wishlist; that might be useful to some people, but I'd prefer it to be a separate option.

Anyway, once I'd added my rating and review, I went back to the results page. Unfortunately, the info I added is specifically linked to this edition. Out of the four versions of the book, two of them each have one review, and the other two don't have any reviews at all. This is the same problem that Amazon has, and that LibraryThing deals with better. As a related issue, the top book in the list has three stars next to it (out of five), which I assume is the average rating. However, if I click on that book then there's no way to see what rating other people gave it.

An odd thing about the list of books is that three of the four versions say "No 44", but the cover of my copy says "20". I now realise that this is because I have the Titan (UK) edition, and they're numbered a bit differently to the Pocket Books (US) editions. When you search for a book, you can choose which database you want to search: "Living Social" (the default), or the six country-specific versions of Amazon (.com, .co.uk, .ca, .de, .co.jp, .fr). Just to clarify, that's seven different options, not just two (Living Social and Amazon). So, maybe I should have searched Amazon.co.uk, to get the Titan edition. However, now that I've entered my review for the "wrong" copy, I'd have to copy it all over to the other page. And should I really have to do several searches each time I add a book? As a related problem, there are nine versions of the book listed for Amazon.co.uk, but only four of them have pictures, and none of them say "#20". So, how do I know which one is right?

Perhaps the solution is to search by ISBN; after all, this number should uniquely identify a book, anywhere in the world. Sadly, no: you still have to select the right database, otherwise you won't find it. (In case I haven't made it obvious, I think that the search tool should do that automatically.) For instance, this book has the ISBN "1-85286-098-7". If I search in Amazon.fr, it doesn't return any matches. If I search in Amazon.co.uk, it identifies the book which I originally selected; that's good, although it means that the meta-data is wrong.

I tried searching for another book that has several editions: "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix". That produces 13 pages of results (from the Living Social database): the first one has 3,920 reviews and the second one has 2,759 reviews. Those two editions both have the same cover illustration, so would I choose the same edition as one of my friends? Flip a coin... This basically negates the social aspect, which I mentioned as a key advantage of Flixter. Also, they include DVDs and calendars in their results, so I think they've lost sight of the "bookshelf" concept there.

As for the Facebook link, I want something that will automatically update my mini-feed to say "John's reviewed a new book", and Visual Bookshelf does that. However, it actually posts three messages: one for saying that I'd read it, one for the rating, and one for the review. That's a bit excessive, so I'd prefer just to get one message in the feed (like Flixter does). A related issue is that it keeps nagging me to invite all my friends, and I have to explicitly click "Skip" to get past that (rather than just ignoring it). Finally, there's the problem of visibility. The developers say that they're working to make the reviews available to a wider audience, and I believe that they have good intentions. However, lots of my friends aren't registered on social networking sites at all, so (for now) they won't be able to read my reviews unless I copy them elsewhere. That's quite a duplication of effort, so for me it's better just to put them in a public place from the start. Still, there may be other people who fit the target audience better; if all your friends are on Facebook and/or MySpace then this wouldn't be a problem for you.

So, looking at the advantages of Flixter, how does Visual Bookshelf compare?

a) I have some friends who are only on Facebook, so they see whenever I've added a new review.

It does post the information, but it also spams a bit, so ½ mark.

b) People who aren't on Facebook don't miss out.

Fail.

c) There's a social aspect, where I can easily see what my friends thought of a particular film (rather than manually cross-referencing several different websites).

Fail.

d) Each film is treated as its own entity; there's no distinction between the cinema release and the DVD.

Fail.

e) The site itself has a clear goal.

I think it started out with one, but it's suffered from feature creep, so ½ mark.

Total score: 1/5.

All in all, I'm giving it the thumbs down.