The lament of the bibliophile – too many books, too little time – now sounds like a plea for help. Forget about reading them all, how is the time-starved reader supposed to even keep track of the latest offerings from the publishing industry? Like a proactive assistant, the Hawaii Project promises to cast a wide net and alert book lovers to titles they might not have found on their own.
The app makes recommendations based on a person’s favorite authors and books. Mark Watkins, a Boston-based entrepreneur and avid book reader, is currently raising funds for the Hawaii Project on Kickstarter; the name comes from his frequent trips to Hawaii.
So how does it work?
“Sophisticated personalization algorithms crawl a curated, high quality slice of the ‘bookish’ web, determine what books people are writing about, and what books best match your interests,” he explains.
As the former chief executive and co-founder of Goby, a travel website and travel app, Watkins has had some experience making sense from the cacophony of the web. Before that, he was the Vice President of Engineering for Cambridge-based information discovery company Endeca, which Oracle acquired for $1.1 billion in 2011.
While Americans shop online for books, research reveals that most still depend on family and friends for book recommendations. Watkins points to the results of a recent Goodreads poll that asked how people found the last book they read. Perhaps not surprisingly, close to 20 percent relied on Goodreads (a site where readers list, rate and review books), while 8 percent of people discovered books on Amazon.
But Watkins argues that what a friend likes may not always be the right book for you. And Amazon is passive, he said, “it just sits there waiting for me to visit their website or finish a book on Kindle, before offering me tepid, boring recommendations.” In contrast, his app can tell him when an author he follows has published a free chapter of his forthcoming book online; Amazon doesn’t offer such things, Watkins said, because it doesn’t have a stake in the chapter’s sale.
With the Hawaii Project, the basic service is free (no ads). Once users follow 10 authors or save 25 books, they’ll be asked to subscribe. “Our interests are aligned,” says Watkins. “I bring you great books, you pay me a subscription. I don’t care if you want to buy the book on Amazon, a local bookstore, or get it at your local library.”
Karen Jordan, a former librarian who worked in Connecticut, is one of the beta testers for the Hawaii Project. “It works like a super librarian who sifts through all the award lists, catalogs, and articles on books in the world, then lets me know exactly what I will truly want to read,” she said. In short, it’s like a dream come true for her and for her patrons.
Watkins said he does not want to go the venture capital route this time, as it will give him freedom to donate 10 percent of the revenue to literacy non-profits, which will create more avid readers in the future. But whether that will happen is still unclear: The Kickstarter has raised a bit more than $8,000 toward its $35,000 goal, and has just over a week left in its campaign.
Photo: Flickr users Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon.