Good reads for all
(by Philip Jones, deputy editor of the Bookseller)
The acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon serves as a reminder of how bifurcated the book business now is. As bookshops waited for a busy Easter weekend, on twitter and other social networks the commentariat declared ‘game over’ in the battle for the future reader, after Amazon announced that it had bought the bookish social network late Thursday.
As Porter Anderson details in his fine column at Publishing Perspectives: “The Amazonian Apocalypse indeed was upon us. We were up to our digital derrieres in that greatest of all booky community blessings: reach out and share the hysteria.”
But while some wrung their hands in despair (or simply turned on publishers), others travelled the other way. Wool writer Hugh Howey responded so breathlessly about the deal to Amazon’s smart PR team that it added his reaction to the press release: “I just found out my two favorite people are getting married. The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books.” He later wrote a blog about it.
The acquisition struck a nerve because for many Goodreads had come to be seen as the antithesis of Amazon. A website for book lovers that held your hand rather than rifled through your pockets looking for small change. It was also exploring a bit of the world that Amazon was NOT doing well, the area we now define as discoverability. As Goodreads founder Otis Chandler put it in his blog about the sale: “Our team gets out of bed every day motivated by the belief that the right book in the right hands can change the world.”
It was also sharing data, or starting to, about what readers wanted to read and how much they wanted to read it. As Amazon’s press release stated: Over just the past 90 days, Goodreads members have added more than four books per second to the ‘want to read’ shelves on Goodreads. It was talking and publishers were listening.
But Goodreads’ influence may have been overstated because it was NOT Amazon, and actually like most social networks it was most likely struggling to turn users into cash. There are no publicly available figures about its financial performance, its business strategy, or its reach into the UK. How many books were actually sold because of Goodreads, no-one seems to have a clue. I don’t mean to detract from what Goodreads has achieved, but from so little information much has been pronounced. Indicative of this was how the sale price dropped from $1bn to $150m in a matter of hours.
Whatever Goodreads has so far achieved Amazon will now super-charge. It saw the opportunity, and publishers may wonder why they did not. In fact if publishers had the kind of ‘group-brain’ many pundits believe they do, this mind might reflect further on Bookish and Anobii, but I doubt publishing works like that anymore.
The truth of it is that Amazon and Goodreads looks like a compelling match. Whatever is missing from Goodreads, Amazon will now add. Whatever is lacking from the Kindle, Goodreads can now repair. Yet, to borrow Howey’s analogy, how Amazon and Goodreads live together will be interesting: despite their protestations of independence it is rare for a marriage to leave both sides unchanged. Amazon runs a number of third-party websites such as loveFilm and IMDB where any overlaps are hidden beneath the bonnet. It will be harder for Goodreads, of course, as the promised benefits (integration with the Kindle reader) will only make sense if they are publicly visible. Howey says that “everyone I know at Amazon, from top to bottom, loves books. They love readers. They love authors,” in which case I look forward to Amazon integrating Goodreads’ multi-bookseller buy-buttons and comparison tools on the Kindle. In this scenario, ownership may actually prove more troublesome, than deal-making. For Goodreads not to turn bad, Amazon will need to play a straight bat, in a way it clearly does not on its Kindle platform.
How publishers respond now will be equally interesting. I have doubts about whether publishers, particularly publishers as big as Penguin Random House will want to use Goodreads as they do now, knowing that what they do may well end up benefiting Amazon in both the short and long term. Amazon may love readers and authors, but it doesn’t love publishers nearly so much, and that agitates the publisher brain, even if doesn’t worry Howey.
At Bertelsmann’s annual conference, held last week in Germany, Markus Dohle, who will run the largest trade publishing business there has ever been, said that the merged company would set creative and commercial standards and would “strengthen the position of publishing in the value chain of the book“.
This deal sure pulls in the opposite direction, but not emphatically. There are millions of books sold each year without the commercial intervention of Amazon or the guiding voices at Goodreads. Odd that we keep forgetting this.