Colorado Review associate editor Derek Askey shares his thoughts on, and some personal experience with, Goodreads, and its recent purchase by online bookseller Amazon.
Now that the dust has, at least marginally, settled over Amazon’s acquisition of the social-media platform Goodreads, it seems sensible to touch on how such a change might affect a small press like the Center for Literary Publishing, and the many talented writers whose work we’ve been pleased to publish.
If you’ll indulge a brief personal narrative: I joined Goodreads in 2007, the year after I graduated from my undergrad. The website was only a few months old. “It’s like Facebook for book nerds,” my brother had explained. And I’ll admit, it’s been good to me. Finding myself a little unmoored, it was a space in which I could talk about books—as well as hold myself accountable to thinking and writing critically about them—which I know seems reductive and, worse yet, not all that vital. But it was jarring to come from a world in which books and writing were the focus, and into one where most people didn’t even read, let alone the types of books I cared about. I needed a space where I could still feel connected. Goodreads ended up being that space. People “liked” and followed my reviews. People added books I’d glowingly reviewed to their “to-read” shelves. I felt like I was part of a larger conversation. Fast forward two years or so, when I find myself (through some miracle) a Fellow at a pretty prestigious writer’s conference. While introducing the absolutely credential-less me, my friend, surely fishing for something—anything—to say, said, “Derek reviews books!” It was, at least, empirically true. The person to whom I was being introduced ended up mailing me some books. She apparently didn’t know that any asshole with an internet connection could be called a “reviewer” by the Goodreads standard. But the author of one of those books ended up seeing my review and e-mailing me about it, and we’ve since become good friends, and she even graciously came here to CSU to read from her work. And none of that would have happened without Goodreads. I now review books for (a very nominal amount of) money, and again, those skills wouldn’t have been honed had I not been so immersed in the Goodreads world.
If you were to look at the site today, you’d have no idea that Goodreads is now in Bezos’s pocket. Click on any book. You’ll see that Barnes & Noble is, shockingly, still the primary means of purchasing a book through Goodreads, at least at the time of this blog post’s publication. (Though, to be fair, Amazon is the first on the drop-down titled “online stores.”) Though the company CEO and co-founder, Otis Chandler, posted the buyout news on the Goodreads blog, no mention was made in the monthly e-mail newsletter, and there’s nothing on the website (outside of the blog post) that makes the Amazon/Goodreads connection explicit. (I don’t know anything about Chandler, though I am a bit disturbed by his love for Ayn Rand’s nonsense.) It’s foolish to suggest that Goodreads is ashamed of the buyout, but given the amount of ire directed toward the company following the announcement, they’re likely treading this water very carefully.
Is it right to be worried? It depends on whom you ask. If you ask me, then I offer a cautious and caveat-filled, “Yes, be worried.”
Which isn’t to say that I’m about to delete my account for fear that the nefarious Amazon/Goodreads overlords might sync my two accounts. Indeed, many folks responding to the announcement were encouraging this linking, given that many folks re-post their reviews across both platforms. (For the record, I review only on Goodreads, not Amazon). Nor am I opposed to Amazon as a matter of course. While I always try to purchase locally (especially because Boulder Bookstore, just a short drive away, is the best bookstore I’ve ever been to), I do use Amazon occasionally, either to “remember” things I want to buy by putting them on my wish list, or for the occasional purchase of something I can’t find otherwise. I suppose, then, that I do the opposite of what Amazon does to so many other companies—treat the brick-and-mortar stores as showrooms for Amazon’s product.
But the buyout is worrisome insofar as Goodreads was one of the few places in which books could be discussed without the outright agenda of selling them. I’m not about to suggest that Goodreads, prior to the buyout, was some utopian, socialist, book-geek paradise. Indeed, there have been ads on the site for as long as I can remember, and there continue to be ads today (some of which, of course, are for buying books on Amazon’s Kindle). As far as I can remember, there were always links on Goodreads for the purchasing of books, though I’ve never used the site that way. But the buying of books was not Goodreads’ primary function, and it’s not difficult to see how the buyout might (might! might!) influence a move in the opposite direction.
And while Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads is certainly a smart one as far as both parties are concerned (Amazon gets data on over 16 million users, and a corrected Businessweek article posits that Goodreads pulled in something around $150 million, though their initial guess was much higher), it might not be such a good thing for those in the actual business of writing. The Authors Guild, in a beautifully worded and concise post on their website, claimed, “Amazon’s garden walls are about to grow much higher.” Bezos has been clear that the Kindle is key in Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads (though the exact shape that the integration is going to take is still unclear). Such a move might diminish the money that eventually makes it into an author’s pocket, though that, of course, is its own separate blog post.
If you’ve been following the news of this as closely as I have, you oughtn’t feel alone if you find the articles confused, and confusing. “Irate” is a term that might rightly be applied to a number of editorials. The above-linked Salon post said of Amazon: “It is hard not to view their mission as the eradication of all competition, where they are the sole producer, distributor, and even reviewer of what we once called ‘books.'” A later post on the same website was titled “Amazon tightens its chokehold,” and quotes author Alex Irvine as Tweeting, “Next, big publishers will be required to dig own graves.”
Still others seem hopelessly naive. An absolutely idiotic post concludes with the following infuriating banality. Try not to read it in the voice of your second-grade teacher:
“Rather than worrying about who owns our favorite book sites and online communities, we should do our best to maintain the positive experiences of the communities and continue to make the best use of the sites to keep the love of literature alive and thriving.”
And so it’s hard to figure if this is indeed a disastrous turn for publishers, as so many might have us to believe, or if, hey, it ain’t that big a deal. Part of the problem is that I’ve yet to see how the loss of Goodreads (if it might even be rightly described as a “loss”) is going to affect the sales of books. One could argue that Goodreads encouraged the purchase of books through booksellers that weren’t Amazon, but those booksellers were only just another option, the same that Amazon was. Goodreads wasn’t pushing you to go through IndieBound; it just made it an option. In other words, if you were disinclined to purchase from Amazon, your account on Goodreads was, at best, neutral to your decision. A buyout handicaps that neutrality, sure, but it’s only another click or two to get to the bookseller you want.
Nor am I especially worried that Amazon now has so much information on my reading habits. While any number of Big Brother arguments can rightly be made, nothing changes the fact that I made that information available on the internet. And so what if Amazon makes a really educated guess as to a book I’d like? I’ll remember the book and buy it elsewhere. It won’t change the fact that I still talk about books with real people, and value their recommendations over some algorithm’s. And I’m not an idiot. I’ll know that any recommendation coming from Amazon has, behind it, any number of monetary machinations that are trying to influence my tastes.
With all that devil’s advocacy aside, I’m still not elated to hear that Goodreads is now a part of the Amazon “family.” Type “Is it bad to buy books from Amazon?” into Google and find that the first four results are, you guessed it, links to purchase shit on Amazon. The monopoly is nefarious for all the reasons that monopolies are always nefarious, and the purchase of a once-neutral space is another step in that direction. Not to mention that Amazon’s heartless treatment of the publishing industry is well-documented, and about as charming as George Hearst on Deadwood. I’m not downplaying that at all. I’ve just yet to find a well-articulated argument for how this specific instance of Amazon’s buying something marks the death of publishing, or bookselling, or reading, or print, as you’ll find it easy to find many folks arguing in the aftermath. I’m not happy either, but the fact that I find it difficult to put a name on that displeasure makes me worry that I’m over-reacting.
And so, cautiously, I’m leaving my Goodreads account up, and continuing to use it in all the ways that it’s been useful to me thus far.
Here at the CLP, we remain delighted that Goodreads offers a space for readers to review and talk about the books we publish, and we hope it continues to be that space in spite of the buyout. Our preference is that you order through our bookstore or your local indie, but if Amazon is where you’re going to purchase them, well, we’re happy you’re taking the time to read the work that we believe so strongly in. If nothing else, the buyout serves as a useful reminder of what a relatively small space we occupy in this world of letters.