One hour on Amazon to find the definitive book on a subject.
July 26, 2006 12:26 AM   Subscribe Ninjas: You have one hour to find the definitive book on a new subject you are interested in but know very little or nothing about. You may use only the features of Amazon (e.g. search, purchase circles, ultimate buys, customer reviews etc). What's your strategy?

The light has finally come on and I'm acknowledging my simplistic Amazon search skills are very primitive given all the functionality and information they provide and would like to become more effective.

What's your secret formula?

(Ok if you think my efficiency would be a lot greater by using non-Amazon means, please feel free to include. Just remember my attention span is only one hour.)
posted by zaebiz to Shopping (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Sadly, I've got a whole page on this topic: Online Shopping, a discussion of strategies found while looking for a phone.
posted by jwells at 6:11 AM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: I definitely think Amazon alone is not a very good tool. It's chock full of reviews by people who love or despise what it is they review. The recommendations system is loaded with 'featured' items placed their by Amazon's kind and giving sponsers.

Tools needed to find definitive book on any subject:

1. Wikipedia : Search for your subject, browse some of the related pages and note down some names and books mentioned.
2. Google : Search for the same subject plus the names you noted down a make a note of how many searches pop up for each. If you end up finding the same book pop up with similar searches you might already be heading to a final choice.
3. Amazon : Finally look up your book in Amazon and read as many customer reviews as you can handle. Like what you see, buy the thing.

This method of course has as many holes as any other. When all else fails, Ask.MeFi to the rescue!
posted by 0bvious at 6:11 AM on July 26, 2006

Best answer:

Search by keyword or subject to get you started with actual titles. Amazon isn't really the most reliable forum for judging excellence. Too many shills and cranks. Then again, it matters also on the type of subject matter.

Or you could just ask here.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:14 AM on July 26, 2006

What's the first topic you'll be hunting for?
posted by 0bvious at 6:20 AM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: if you think my efficiency would be a lot greater by using non-Amazon means, please feel free to include

Well, duh. Sit and home and fire up your chat client. IM ten librarians at ten different libraries and ask "What is the definitive book on X subject?" Ask them what sources they used so you'll have them for next time. Spend the remaining 45 minutes trying to figure out how to buy the damned book from Amazon, or surfing for porn.
posted by jessamyn at 6:23 AM on July 26, 2006 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If this is an academic topic the answer is basically:

(a) Find any academic-looking book on the topic, either a textbook if it's a scientific field, or perhaps a penguin classics or university press type of softcover.

(b) Look at the 'customers who purchased this also purchased' list very carefully, and see what else looks closely related.

(c) Look for related listmanias and 'so you'd like tos' that show up while browsing these topics, and make note of what's there.

(d) Once iterating (a) through (c) ceases turning up further books on the same topic, read all the reviews of all the books you've found. You're in particular looking for reviews that acknowledge the question you're asking here -- what is the most definitive book in this field -- and, failing that, explicit comparisons between them.

(e) You should now have a couple candidates. If there's only one, you're done, otherwise do your best to narrow it down to a single option.

This works for academic subjects because the relative hierarchy of books is fairly well established in most such fields, and because the primary purchasers are students picking up their required reading lists, thus making sure the 'people who purchased this also purchased' list is fairly useful.

You're better off following the non-amazon suggestions, of course, but for a certain class of books this should give you one answer to the original question.
posted by little miss manners at 6:39 AM on July 26, 2006

You may use only the features of Amazon (e.g. search, purchase circles, ultimate buys, customer reviews etc).

Why are you limited to only these features instead of being able to use suggestions above like wikipedia, etc?

Is it because you're looking for the best way to use the Amazon API to pull up relevant links on a website so you can get associate credit from sales when other people do said searches? I only ask because I can't imagine another reason you'd be solely limited to Amazon's available tools.

If that's what you're after, you might want to frame the question differently as there are people who are experts in that area.
posted by twiggy at 8:09 AM on July 26, 2006

Isn't this the exact motivation behind Amazon's "people who bought this ultimately bought" thing? Lets you see whether you're looking at the definitive book or an also-ran.
posted by reklaw at 9:45 AM on July 26, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers.

jessamyn - a true internet Ninja. There ought to be some sort of award for sharing this type of nouse.
posted by zaebiz at 12:39 PM on July 26, 2006

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