Amazon grows its book retail empire with the purchase of Goodreads

Amazon is adding to its online empire with the purchase of Goodreads. What it plans to do with the service remains to be seen. Photo: (RT) Goodreads home page

DOTHAN, AL, April 1, 2013 —It is no secret that Amazon wants to be the biggest kid on the playground and already owns over a quarter of the book retail market.

Just added to the online giant’s sizable portfolio is a relatively small website called Goodreads that lets readers recommend books to each other. Boasting over seven million users despite limited startup funding, Goodreads lets book enthusiasts share with others their personal reading lists, reviews and comments, and even more importantly access links to outside retailers.

Despite all the fancy rhetoric about loving books and quality service, Amazon hasn’t played nice with Goodreads up to now. When Goodreads users link to Amazon for purchases, they are blocked from accessing any other competing bookseller sites. That is done through a bit of technical wizardry called an API (application programming interface), which is a fancy way to tell computers “talk to each other.” In other words, Goodreads is already a pathway to the Amazon online bookstore.

Some controversy over the deal stems from a complaint by bestselling author Scott Turow, current president of the Author’s Guild. Turow points out that the acquisition gives Amazon even more control over online bookselling, with the result of more restrictive sales terms that could harm authors.

A class action suit is still pending against Amazon and the big six publishers by a group of independent bookstores for alleged restrictive pricing practices. Bookseller news is starting to sound more and more like episodes from the television show Dallas.

Several years ago Amazon purchased another potential competitor called Shelfari and did little or nothing with it. Observers suggest Amazon was just taking care of the family business Godfather-style and only wanted to eliminate a competitor. The same might happen to Goodreads though the early news is that the staff will continue on as always from their base in San Francisco.

The upside to this deal is that Amazon might finally get a decent interface for its online bookstore.

A big problem facing online book retailers is how to emulate or even come close to the user experience of browsing for books in a physical store. So far all of them have been pretty much a dismal failure and trying to find things online can be a nightmare. Try searching for something you only remember has a green cover and a picture of an old house. That’s where a well-versed bookstore clerk comes into play and can help you find what you need.

Online retail systems are based on 1980s-style relational database models and are pretty limited for browsing.

Modern booksellers talk about customer point of entry, which is where and how people discover books in the first place. In the print world you would read a book review in the newspaper, go to a local bookstore, check out the cover art and thumb through the volume. Based on all that, you would make a decision to buy the book or move on. Either way, you are now in the store and likely to see other books sitting nearby.

That experience has not been easy for online retailers to duplicate. Amazon has tried with gimmicks like the “look inside” feature, but publishers tend to be sloppy so often the previews are nothing more than images of title pages and tables of contents with one or two pages of actual text. It’s obvious the entire process is done by machine with very little human interaction. Even if you find an interesting book, seeing the first six pages is probably not a major enticement to buy it, especially for an illustrated volume.

Something booksellers have always known and don’t discuss much is that word-of-mouth is one of the biggest incentives for people to buy books. That term is now out-of-date and replaced by faux scientific marketing terms like pipeline, viral or buzz, but it is all the same thing.

People trust friends and others – including celebrities appearing on talk shows – to tell them what is good. With the average price of a hardcover book being nearly $30.00, the decision to buy is fairly significant. Ebooks provide some price relief but digital prices are creeping higher almost daily.

Goodreads is also a giant rating system similar to what you see on all online retail sites now. We all feel better if 95% of people who already bought an item say it was worthwhile. Those type of systems can have problems with fraud from unscrupulous retailers who pay for good reviews, but overall, hearing from others can be reassuring to a buyer.

In some ways, Goodreads functions like an interactive bestseller list and if allowed to be autonomous might provide more painless entry to the Amazon store.

As an independent service, Goodreads probably has more credibility with readers than it would as part of a megalithic retail operation trying to promote brands and titles based on deals from publishers. Publisher promotions will always be around, but it is hoped that Amazon will resist incorporating too much of that into Goodreads and instead leave it as a customer-friendly portal with honest ratings and reviews.

In the meantime, while the “golly gee whiz tech kids” are sorting out our collective future and reshaping the face of bookselling, there are still actual stores with piles of wonderful paper books begging to be picked up and touched by some adoring reader.

Hint, hint…


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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.


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