Publishing News: Goodreads readers are now valuable Amazon products

Amazon buys Goodreads, book blind dates, bailouts for French indie bookstores, and U.K. libraries will join the digital era.

Amazon marches on toward global retail domination

Amazon LogoThe whiplash-inducing headline this week was Amazon’s announcement late Thursday that it has acquired book discovery and sharing site rival Goodreads. Industry response to the announcement was “swift and laced with skepticism,” Leslie Kaufman reported at the New York Times. She quoted Edward Champion tweeting, “Say hello to a world in which Amazon targets you based on your Goodreads reviews. No company should have this power.” Kaufman also noted part of the bigger picture: “The deal is made more significant because Amazon already owned part or all of Goodreads’ competitors, Shelfari and LibraryThing.”

Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen expanded on the targeting issue Champion mentioned. He highlighted Amazon self-published success story author Hugh Howey, who was quoted in the Amazon press release saying, “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.” Wohlsen pointed out that “even as Amazon provides Howey an ‘independent’ platform to spread his work, his success also makes him a valuable Amazon product” — and now Goodreads readers will become valuable Amazon products as well.

Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici broached one of the bigger questions at hand: “whether an Amazon-owned Goodreads will continue to drive customers to other retailers.” Goodreads, Bercovici noted, dropped Amazon’s API in 2011 because of its restrictive terms that require all sale links to go to Amazon. He pointed out, though, that “with a new anti-trust lawsuit accusing it (and the six biggest publishers) of wielding too much control over the e-book market, this isn’t the time to be seen as acting like a monopoly.”

In an interview with PaidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen, Goodreads CEO Otis Chandler answered the question of retailer links, saying “If users really want those links [to other retailers], then those links will probably still be there.” Owen also talked with Amazon’s VP of Kindle content Russ Grandinetti, who said regarding book review integration, “Our mentality here is to first do no harm, and make sure that if we’re going to do integrations, users genuinely find it to be a big benefit.”

What book discovery needs is a proper blind date

There has been much discussion recently on the problem of book discovery — whether it’s a reader or publisher problem, and whether or not it’s even the right problem to focus on at this point. Suw Charman-Anderson chimed in this week, arguing that discovery isn’t the problem at all — it’s discrimination, “deciding which books are worth reading,” which is “compounded by the vast choice on offer.”

Charman-Anderson addressed the heuristics, “or rules of thumb,” we use to filter our choices in books, including star ratings, reviews, and plot summaries (to name a few on her list), and argued that for the most part, these filters are flawed for one reason or another. She suggested a solution for publishers to help readers: let us start reading the books. She wrote:

“I’d love to see a site that lets us go on proper blind dates with books. Strip out all the flawed heuristics, just give me the first chapter and nothing else. No cover, no author name, no publisher, no reviews, no star rating. Just text. … And when I find a book I love, let me marry it, or at least buy it in whatever format I want.”

A site hosting these book blind dates could gather whatever reader data it likes during the date, Charman-Anderson said — how much of the first chapter was read, how much time was spent on each date, etc. — but the only way readers can know if they’re going to like a book is to begin to read it: “…if publishers want us to fall in love with their books,” she argued, “they have to make at least the first chapter available for free online.”

A bailout for bookstores in France, and U.K. libraries will get ebooks

Across the pond, indie bookstores are seeing something of a government bailout. Barbara Casassus reported at The Bookseller that French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti announced plans to “shore up independent booksellers,” establishing a fund of €5m for loans to booksellers with cash flow problems and increasing the budget of the ADELC, which subsidizes booksellers, to €7m. A safeguard will be established to handle any unforeseen problems, Casassus noted: “Filippetti added that an independent book industry mediator would be appointed to settle disputes as an alternative to avoid costly litigation.”

Over in the U.K., libraries are getting a boost from the results of a government review of ebook lending. Reporting at The Guardian, Alison Flood quoted William Sieghart, who headed the review: “It is plain that an inability to offer digital lending will make libraries increasingly irrelevant in a relatively short time. Library services therefore do not have the luxury of waiting any longer to expand, or in many cases start, their provision of digital lending.”

To address publisher fears that readers will simply borrow books for free instead of buying them, the panel members who conducted the review offered several suggestions, including adding a “buy now” option to digital loans, limiting the lending to one reader at a time per digital copy, limiting the lending period, and limiting the number of times a digital copy can be borrowed. The review also address author-related fears to loss of revenue: the panel recommended expanding the existing Public Lending Right, which compensates authors for the physical copies of their works borrowed from libraries, to include digital copies.

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