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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Thoughts on Amazon buying Goodreads

Last Thursday my Twitter feed erupted with people talking about Amazon buying Goodreads. As I read the first few, sporadic tweets, I blinked incredulously. Was I reading that right? I scrolled down and saw that I had missed a tweet from the official Goodreads account making the announcement. I followed some links and landed in the feedback forum’s official announcement topic. Two days and more than 800 posts later, a particularly vocal portion of the Goodreads member base has voiced its concern and disappointment over this turn of events. There has been quite a bit of rage-quitting and table-flipping in the past few days.

I had to admit that, after those first few confused moments, my reaction was similar. Amazon has not exactly had a stellar track record in terms of good corporate citizenship. (To be fair, unlike Google, it has never claimed it wouldn’t be evil.) In particular, Amazon has made no secret of its desire to achieve a monopsony in the book trade. Its acquisition of Goodreads seems like yet another step along that path, a path that I don’t think really benefits consumers. Finally, I share many of the reservations expressed in that topic about how Goodreads might change now that it is under Amazonian control.

Fortunately, that knee-jerk evaluation of the situation didn’t lead to me flipping the table, taking my books, and going home. I’ve taken the time to give the situation some thought (or rather, to formulate several thoughts.)

As I pointed out above, Amazon buying Goodreads makes sense from Amazon’s perspective. It’s a relatively inexpensive buy, all things considered. A lot of members are worried that Amazon will use the information they’ve given to Goodreads to try to market things to them. This is, if not short-sighted, then at least missing the point—Amazon is always going to look for ways to get information from you in order to better target its marketing. The Goodreads acquisition seems more likely to be about control rather than information. Amazon finally decided it didn’t want anyone else potentially snapping it up, so it stepped in.

Additionally, Amazon recognizes that ebooks are finally bringing social, sharing-oriented opportunities to reading. If it can leverage this on the Kindle, it further enhances its grip on a burgeoning sector of publishing. Goodreads is very good at the social side of reading, and I suspect that acquiring the talent and feature set behind that puts Amazon in a better position to expand the reach of Kindle beyond simple e-reading.

The other common feeling was one of disgust and betrayal directed towards Goodreads. Lots of comments complaining about the lack of a response (on a holiday weekend), or that the responses given were full of qualifiers, weasel words, and in general weren’t very reassuring. I can totally understand why people are feeling that way. Unfortunately, the Goodreads acquisition seems to make sense from a Goodreads perspective as well.

The site seems fantastically difficult to monetize. There are ads. I don’t notice them—they aren’t all that obtrusive. It seems like Goodreads gets most of its funding from investors. And as the site has grown, it has been having difficulty keeping up with increased traffic and increased usage—and development of new features, not to mention correcting bugs in old ones, seems extremely slow. So I wonder if Goodreads had much choice when it came to selling. I wonder if the finanical situation was such that selling to Amazon wasn’t just a choice but the choice—that is, this isn’t so much a matter of “selling out” as “selling to survive”. Goodreads, through Amazon, is now in a position to stay around for a very long time. Some members lament that Goodreads didn’t pursue alternative schemes, such as paid memberships. I don’t know. You, in all likelihood, don’t know. We don’t have access to all the information, so we accept that instead of loudly proclaiming that we are somehow more cognizant of Goodreads’ funding options than they are.

After all, this isn’t the first time Amazon has bought a company and kept it intact as a service (IMDB, anyone?). This isn’t like Twitter, Dropbox, or Google acquiring a promising startup for its talent and then shutting down the service. There is no still-beating heart that Amazon can rip from the chest cavity of Goodreads and install in its own Frankenstein’s monster of a system. In that respect, I think we are pretty assured that Goodreads will keep puttering along, in one form or another.

Whether that form remains recognizable (not to mention palatable) for long is another matter. Again, after consideration I’m inclined to be optimistic on this front. I just don’t see any point in Amazon investing much time in meddling with the affairs of Goodreads. Better to give them the resources to build things like Kindle discussion integration than to sit on Goodreads and merrily micromanage every page of the site.

To be sure, Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads is very troubling. It emphasizes how much power Amazon exercises in the bookselling marketplace. I share the concerns that many have expressed about Amazon interacts with readers, with reviewers, even with authors. It would be a shame to see any of those issues migrate to Goodreads. I really do hope Amazon doesn’t end up ruining one of my favourite places on the Web. And I really hope that, somehow, we find a way to combat Amazon’s growing dominance in this sphere of the trades. Otherwise, we may be in for some dark days indeed.

So, I’m sticking around for now. I shall continue to read and post reviews. Until I see evidence that the site is headed towards inexorable decline, I will reserve further judgement and contemplate instead the wider implications of this move. Amazon buying Goodreads doesn’t seem like such a bad thing for Goodreads; I’m not as optimistic about what it means for the book trade or readers in general.