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There’s A Reason That No One in Publishing Bought Goodreads

March 30th, 2013 by · 45 Comments · opinion

GoodreadsSeveral dozen editorials have been written in the 2 days since Amazon announced plans to buy Goodreads, but one in particular caught my eye today.

James McQuivey, writing over at Forbes, laments over the fact that no one in publishing bought Goodreads:

I have an important question to ask, one that I am stealing from author Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) who wrote this on Twitter the morning after:

The point isn’t that Amazon bought GoodReads. The point is why GoodReads wasn’t snapped up by a publisher years ago.

The obvious reason is that based on the rumors of a purchase price in the “low eight-figures” as some are confidently whispering, most publishers weren’t really in a position to buy Goodreads. Unless they had seen this coming and had bought it many years ago. Let’s say back in 2010, when I first urged one of the Big Five (are there five now?) publishers to buy it. It was a riskier proposal back then, I’ll admit, and one that I couldn’t put a price tag on, so I won’t claim that I pushed hard or that the publisher was foolish not to take my advice.

He’s possibly correct about publishers not being able to afford the rumored $150 million that Amazon paid for Goodreads, but they probably could have afforded it when it was smaller.

It’s funny that he should mention 2010. That was the year that 3 major publishers got together and announced a new site that would give them a direct digital connection to readers. That site launched earlier this year, after over 2 years in development.

bookish_logo[1]It’s called Bookish, and it does give Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster a direct connection to readers. But the connection it offers is so very, very different from Goodreads that the differences tell us quite a bit about these publishers’ priorities.

Frankly, these publishers would probably not have bought Goodreads even if it had been up for sale and even if they had the funds. It does not do what they want.

Note: I am only going to critique the 3 publishers behind Bookish and not everyone in publishing. Some, like Macmillan (see the postscript), have a clue.

So how are the 2 sites different?

The first and most important difference is that Goodreads was launched not with the goal of forming connections. The goal was to build a community of (first) readers and then authors and to a lesser degree publishers.

Edit: Let me correct myself. As Google+ has shown us you cannot set out to create a community. Instead you give users a reason to come to a site and stay.

Goodreads was launched to encourage readers to show up and be bookish. The community formed around them.

Bookish, on the other hand, was launched in order to provide Hachette, S&S, and Penguin with “direct digital customer relationships”. The publishers got to build it from the ground up, and the manner in which it functions says a lot about the type of ”direct digital customer relationships” these publishers want
to have.

The thing is, they don’t actually want a relationship – not the relationship that James McQuivey (and I) think that publishers could benefit from.

The word relationship implies that there is more than one party speaking, and that is not the point of Bookish. This site exists to be little more than yet another marketing channel for publishers.

I have spent time on Bookish since it launched (including an hour today), and I frankly cannot see how I (as a user) can contribute. I can write a review, yes, but I can’t build a virtual bookshelf of books I own, I can’t communicate with other users, nor can I do anything that would benefit me and not the publishers.

Most importantly, I cannot even leave a comment on the blog posts on Bookish. That, folks, is an example of just how completely the communication flows in exactly one direction.

The internet offers many vast opportunities for collaboration, and Bookish flushes them down the drain. This could not be more different from Goodreads, which uses almost every chance to encourage users to participate, add content, and build value for each other.

To be fair, Bookish never pretended to be anything other than a one-way street. It was pretty obvious from the launch press release that the publishers were going to use it to sell books and that all the communication would flow one way. I have no problem with this, but if Bookish is really these publishers’ idea of a “direct digital customer relationship” then their thought process is stuck in the last century – some time in the 1950s by my estimation.

These publishers don’t want to hear from readers. They want readers to listen passively while the publishers control the message.

And that, more than anything, is why these 3 publishers probably would have passed on Goodreads if it had been offered to them.

P.S. In creating Bookish these 3 publishers only invested in what would benefit them, and that is probably why Goodreads will succeed while Bookish flounders – unless Bookish goes through a radical change in focus.

P.P.S. Giving out book recommendations is the only reason for Bookish to exist, but it is just one of a dozen features that Goodreads uses to draw in readers. And it is that dozen other related features that both draw in users and combine to make Goodreads’ book recommendations richer and more valuable than what Bookish can offer. There is a synergy in the collaboration of hundreds of thousands of active members writing reviews, rating books, and creating unique connections that cannot be replicated by the single channel, one way communication offered by Bookish.

I suppose some might say that the comparisons between Goodreads and Bookish are irrelevant because the sites serve very different purposes. This is not true. These 3 publishers could have used Goodreads for the same purpose as Bookish (to sell books) – only Goodreads would have done a better job.

P.P.P.S. Macmillan stands as an counterpoint to the 3 publishers behind Bookish. This publisher supports Tor.com, the SF community and blog. Tor.com is an example of how to a publisher can have a relationship with readers.

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45 Comments so far ↓

  • Rob McClellan

    Nate,

    Having checked out Bookish, I quickly came to the same conclusion. It is meant as a way to project information, not exchange information. I was not impressed.

    Funny how you note that “Goodreads was launched not with the goal of forming connections. The goal was to build a community…” I always found it very hard to connect with anyone on GoodReads — I never liked forums as a means of communication. I do like it as a way to tunnel down into specific topics, but not as the primary means. I used GR solely to rate and review books, sometimes to search out reviews. Most authors I know didn’t use it other than to sign up for an author account and link their website to their GR blog, preferring something more dynamic like Facebook or Twitter, some even Google+.

    I created a new service, ThirdScribe, specifically to provide a more meaningful connection between readers and authors.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      Good point.

      I think it’s wrong to say that it is possible to set out to build a community. Perhaps it would be better to say that they gave you a bunch of reasons to stay on the site and that the community formed around the users.

    • Erica Cresswell

      Hi,

      In reply to Rob McClellan. I too never found Good Reads a good way to connect with other readers. The site could be way easier to navigate too. I’ll check out your site. Thanks.

      Erica

  • fjtorres

    You give the BPHs (all of them) too much credit.
    To call the sledgehammer approach of Bookish “marketing” is to ignore the last 60 years of Madison avenue developments in drawing in and engaging consumers. Bookish “marketing” iss about as subtle and engaging as a red-light district streetwalker.

    As for MacMillan, just because they stopped blocking Tor’s efforts to copy Baen and Angry Robot doesn’t mean they understand the new realities of publishing. If they did we wouldn’t be seeing stuff like this:
    http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/02/a-message-from-john-sargent
    (Note how there is no mention of readers?)

    Nobody bought Goodreads before Amazon did because they saw no value in it.

    Even now, their FUD is a all about how Amazon might be use it to control information access and block listing to competing vendors. The idea that Amazon might leave Goodreads alone, that they don’t want it to push product unto readers but instead want it to learn what readers *like* and *want* is totally beyond them.

    They vaguely see a need for marketting but totally ignore the more pressing need for market *research*.
    Let’s not forget that for all the hand-wringing over Goodreads, just a few days ago the talking point dujour was all about how indispensable bookstores are to “discoverability” and the big debate was about the B&N-S&S war and idea that with B&N boycotting the S&S midlist, sales will be unavoidably down. (Because, of course, consumers are too dumb to go elsewhere for the books. If B&N isn’t pimping them, they will never find the titles are out.)

    The BPHs have not changed; they still don’t understand consumers and they still don’t understand *why* they need to understand them. They simply don’t believe consumers are rational actors in the market, with considered choices and actual market power.

    To them it is still a top-down business.

    If they had bought Goodreads they *would* have turned it into Bookish.

    It is much cheaper to build a cheap sopbox than to buy a sophisticated data repository.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      As for MacMillan, just because they stopped blocking Tor’s efforts to copy Baen and Angry Robot doesn’t mean they understand the new realities of publishing.

      In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

      And I agree with you on the bluntness of the marketing. I wanted to say that their approach was straight out of the 1950s.

    • Mike Grable

      GoodReads is universally loved and enjoyed ubiquitously within publishing – its an industry full of bookheads – how could it NOT?

      But from day 1, its always been crystal clear that its value relied in it remaining publisher agnostic, and ownership by a publisher would be of arguable value to both users and the publisher (especially at that price!).

      Even if fairly owned without any changes whatsoever, consumers would cast doubt on the integrity of a publisher-owned GoodReads and it would be diluted automatically.

      I dont think anyone – users, Amazon, publishers – even blinked for a second at Amazon’s acquisition – GoodReads was gift from heaven for publishing which sits exactly where it should and benefits everyone.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      “As for MacMillan, just because they stopped blocking Tor’s efforts to copy Baen and Angry Robot doesn’t mean they understand the new realities of publishing. If they did we wouldn’t be seeing stuff like this:
      http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/02/a-message-from-john-sargent
      (Note how there is no mention of readers?)”

      Yeah, I was trying positive reinforcement (praise an act you like and it gets repeated). It doesn’t seem to have worked. And TBH Tor.com is nearly as monodirectional as Bookish. The biggest difference is that Tor.com has comments and is more interesting as well as less commercial.

  • Angela Booth

    Excellent article. I was wondering why publishers hadn’t got together and bought Goodreads.

    I looked at Bookish a while back, and just checked it out again. It’s bare, compared to Goodreads, and the recommendations aren’t much either.

  • Eric Welch

    I’ve been on all the reader sites in one form or another, but actively participate in only two: very activiely on Goodreads, somewhat less on Shelfari. I looked at Bookish but abandoned any interest quickly as it’s just what you suggest: a marketing tool. I think the reason Goodreads has been so successful is because it was designed by a reader. Otis Chandler loves to read. I suspect the people who designed Bookish really have little interest in reading, only selling.

  • CJJ

    I’m not an Amazon hater but I deleted my Goodreads account and associated book reviews after the buyout news. I’m pretty sure I won’t get a cut of the sale so why should my contributions be part of the deal. If all 16 million users did the same, Amazon would have bought nothing, which would be hilarious.

    • Michael

      I’m pretty sure we won’t miss you. Are you sure you’re not an Amazon Hater?

      • CJJ

        Not at all. My wife has a Kindle Fire. We are Amazon Prime members. I prefer to buy my ebooks from Google but make other purchases from Amazon. They do a good job and far better than most in e commerce. I don’t blame Amazon for buying Goodreads. But the founders of Goodreads don’t need to profit off of my contributions. I participated to interact with other members , not to pad the owners pockets. YMMV

        • Jon

          The founders of Goodreads were already profiting off of your contributions, well before the acquisition. Goodreads made money by selling ads to authors and publishers, and those ads are effective because of the community and its contributions and the user data which is used for ad targeting.

        • Also not an Amazon hater

          As a fellow Prime member (and subscribe-and-saver, and video streamer, and whatnot) I agree with what you did. I did the same thing. I do like Amazon, and when I buy *from them* I’m doing it with the full knowledge that they will use my purchases as data to sell more stuff. Okay, whatever. But I don’t really want them using my other purchases–some made decades ago, since I took the opportunity at GoodReads to review old favorites that I’ve read over and over–to do the same thing.

          I exported my books before I removed them, so I can either re-import them if it turns out that Amazon isn’t going to ruin GR or data-mine it to death or import them to some other service if one pops up that does the things I liked about GR. So far, I haven’t found that yet.

    • Daniels

      All you really succeeded in doing by deleting your reviews and account was hurt the authors. Goodreads, I’m sure, did not notice, but authors thrive off reviews and every one deleted (unless your Rowling, Patterson, Meyers, etc) has the potential for missed opportunities, such as people who might have read your review and bought the books, then also wrote a review that others would read and buy the book, and so on.

  • CJJ

    My mistake. I guess it’s more like 14 million, -1.

  • The Rodent

    > no one in publishing bought Goodreads

    Huh? Amazon *is* in publishing… :-)

    • Nate Hoffelder

      Yes, but that’s not how the legacy publishers would describe Amazon.

      • The Rodent

        Heh heh. I know. Just joking. Nice article, by the way, and yes, Goodreads succeeds and is so vibrant precisely because it’s independent and focused on what readers want to do and say to one another. If it ceases to be perceived that way, it will gradually die away. Users on the street don’t need yet another marketing/advertising conduit. At the moment I love GR, and am holding my breath as I wait to see what happens.

  • Sophia Martin

    I could be wrong (and probably am) but my impression of Bookish, in addition to all you say (spot on), is that there are no indie authors represented. As an indie myself, this makes Bookish pretty uninteresting.

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  • ncreader

    Bookish is a mediocre idea clumsily executed…no doubt. It might get better–might not. But many of these legacy publishers are still announcing very strong profits in a very difficult environment. Almost every individual I know who works for them doesn’t fit the caricature I see frequently on this site.

    I don’t think publishers could have bought Goodreads because what makes Goodreads unique is its independence. In fact, if any publisher had bought it, I doubt it would have received the praise being lavished on Amazon right now; people would have wisely predicted its decline as it became a marketing tool for a single publisher.

    Amazon is a fantastic web site, but it’s also a mega-corporation that will as readily buy its competition to either incorporate it or to simply make it go away. The purchase was clever, and Amazon deserves credit for continuing to make the bold moves to be the market leader. But let’s face the truth for readers: Goodreads has gone from an organic community to a database-for-sale. I doubt it will feel the same in a year.

    • Nate Hoffelder

      Amazon is … a mega-corporation that will as readily buy its competition to either incorporate it or to simply make it go away.

      Please excuse me if I am interpreting you incorrectly, but you make that sound like a negative. How exactly does that differ from any other industry, including publishing? (Other than the fact that Amazon is better at it, I mean.)

      • ncreader

        I think we agree it was a smart move for Amazon. I just don’t agree with the premise that publishers didn’t buy Goodreads because they have Bookish.

        Most publishers (even the 3 involved but certainly all the others) hardly think Bookish is their savior. I also think it’s very hard to support the statement that publishers don’t want to listen to readers. Most publishers I know really enjoyed working with GR exactly for the reason that it brought them closer to readers.

        But would GR would be successful as a subsidiary of a single publisher? Or even a group of publishers? It would have transformed the character of GR into something far less valuable.

        I credit Amazon for snatching GR up. But I’m dubious about whether they can keep their hands off it once they integrate. It’s not hard to see how integration into the mega-corporation could transform GR into something very different than it is today.

        • Nate Hoffelder

          I think we can makes guesses about Amazon keeping their hands off of Goodreads based on their past behavior.

          For example, Amazon owns the book search engine Bookfinder (via AbeBooks). They also own the digital camera blog DPReview. I can’t find any sign that Amazon has fiddled with the back end of BookFinder, and the only influence that I can see on DPReview is that Amazon affiliate links are prominently displayed. That’s not an indictment; it’s probably how the blog makes money.

          Are there any other examples?

          • ncreader

            I’m just not sure Amazon has bought something like this recently. Surely they’re not just buying GR to bank the current or future profits–are there any? And I don’t think GR is valued for its technological tool set. I’m presuming that Amazon admires the forum and the touchpoints with consumers. But those are pretty delicate commodities that took a while to develop and nurture…and I’m not sure how you integrate them without transforming them in some way. It will be interesting to watch.

          • fjtorres

            Zappos and Diapers.com were purchased but still operate independently, with their own websites.
            Instead of integrating them into Amazon.com, Amazon uses them as affiliates to fulfill orders from Amazon.com.
            (A while back you posted a map of all the Amazon wholly owned subsidiaries. It might be a good time to revisit it and see just how independent the independent ones are.)

          • Nate Hoffelder

            There’s a big difference between Amazon buying a retailer and buying a less-commercial site like Goodreads, Shelfari, etc. The reason Amazon bought all those niche retailers is not to pull them inside the main website but to let them continue to dominate their niche. This prevents a possible competitor from developing in the niche market. For example, Amazon keeps Book Depository independent to discourage anyone from launching a replacement.

            Amazon started out selling only books before it grew into what it is today, so naturally they fear that a successful niche retailer could grow into a full-blown competitor.

        • Nate Hoffelder

          BTW, part of the reason I discuss Bookish in relation to Goodreads is that I have read several editorials that link the 2 sites, including an editorial over at DBW that says that the Goodreads sale validates the launch of Bookish.

          • fjtorres

            Really?
            Heh, it certainly highlight the differences in vaues, attitudes, and outlook.

  • David Gaughran

    Penguin had now problem finding $116m to buy Author Solutions, and they don’t have as much cash to hand as someone like, say, Random House.

    And yeah, Bookish is terrible. It’s like publishers still haven’t figured out what the internet is for.

  • Fbone

    Otis said Goodreads’ members requested Kindle integration. No one else could have provided that except Amazon. It’s possible no other offers were even considered.

  • Dan Meadows

    IMDb is one, too, that I didn’t even realize was Amazon-owned until I saw it referenced after the Goodreads sale. I think Amazon wants the data, and the only way to keep that flowing is for GR to continue on as-is, likely with a little better integration to Amazon’s store. I don’t think they’ll change anything. In fact, if links to other retailers get pulled, I’m betting it will be the retailers themselves pulling them, not Amazon cutting them out.

    I was one of those people wondering out loud why someone in publishing didn’t snap up GR. I hadn’t considered your points here, but I think you’re right. They would have to understand its value, and I’m not sure they do. I can also easily see one of them running it into the ground if they had bought it. It’s possible Goodreads sold to Amazon for this very reason. I’ve grown really tired of the gut-reaction Amazon hate when its increasingly clear the so-called competition doesn’t even know what game its playing anymore.

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    I am really hoping that Amazon uses this acquisition to create an ebook library management system that is web-based and applies to my entire collection of books, not just the ones on my current Kindle. Collections as currently implemented do not scale well to people with multiple devices/apps.

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  • Traci Loudin

    You’ve made the wrong point about Google+. It has created a community. You’re referencing an outdated article that fails to take into account the boom over the past months.

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      The age of the link doesn’t disprove the point. At that time Google+ didn’t give everyone a reason to stay. This might have changed in the interim but that doesn’t change the fact that the statement was true when that post went up.

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    I generally agree with what this author says, but I think he doesn’t understand why Bookish (a Goodreads-type site set up by three publishers) was created. Publishers don’t want (and don’t have to encourage) the discussions that occur on Goodreads. What publishers want to do is encourage those who visit the site to purchase THEIR books. It might be narrow-minded but it’s what publishers do and I can’t condemn them for it.

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