Amazon + Goodreads = end of world?

Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 Under: Self-publishing

So, Goodreads is being acquired by Amazon - what does this mean for indie authors?  Well, if I put my ear to the floor, I do believe that I can hear the sound of the four horsemen of the publishing apocalypse galloping towards me at top speed, mercilessly crushing indie authors to a pulp beneath their pounding hooves.  Or maybe that’s just the kids leaping around again upstairs.

I feel a bit the same way about the Goodreads/Amazon tie-up.  At first, I was inclined to think that it was very likely to be bad news for indie authors for two main reasons:
  1. Links to other ebook sites:  At the moment, if you manage to get some positive Goodreads reviews, these will appear on various ebook platforms like Sony and Kobo – which is a good thing, because it encourages users of those platforms to download your stuff (especially as those sites generally have much less user-generated feedback than Amazon).  However, those sites are competing providers of ebooks, so on the face of it, Amazon would seem to have a strong incentive to sever any links with them.
  2. Amazon as gatekeeper:  The big danger for indie authors is that large players like Amazon become so powerful that they are able to assume a gatekeeper role, so that they effectively decide what’s made available to readers and what’s not (historically, publishers played this role by deciding what got published and what didn’t).  It’s in the interests of indie authors that none of the big players becomes so strong that you can’t get anywhere without them.  And it does seem to me that the acquisition of Goodreads removes an influential independent force from the playing field – which is unlikely to be good news in terms of constraining the ambitions of the big players to assume that crucial gatekeeper role.

But then I started taking a look at what others were saying about the deal (such as this article) - and there is a more sanguine view about the whole thing.  This view is based on the premise that the real value of Goodreads to Amazon lies in ensuring that it carries on much as before – which means there may be a powerful incentive for Amazon not to interfere too much.  The argument is that Amazon is mainly interested in (a) allowing Kindle users who really like Goodreads to integrate more easily with the site – so as to give Kindle a longer term competitive advantage over other ebook readers; and (b) getting privileged access to Goodreads’ data about what we all like and don’t like – so that it can outperform its competitors when it comes to selling us stuff.  

So that made me wonder if I had overreacted in leaping to the conclusion that it was all terribly bad news.  But the thing that really irked me in the coverage was the suggestion that Amazon wants access to Goodreads reviews in order to make up for bad publicity over so-called “sock puppet” fake reviews on its own site.  There may be some truth in that, but I was annoyed by the implicit assumption that reviews on Goodreads are somehow vastly superior to those elsewhere.

There are undoubtedly some excellent reviews on Goodreads, but there are also large numbers of reviews which are so personal that they aren’t helpful to anyone.  This is not surprising given that one of the key features of the site is its recommendations of other books you might like to try – which naturally encourages people to be very subjective in their reviews.  The problem is, there’s little incentive for individual users to step back from it all and consider whether, although they personally didn’t like a particular book, it might have had certain good points which are worth acknowledging.  I confess that I have been guilty of this in the ratings I have applied to certain books on Goodreads – many of them weren’t bad books, but I gave them a low star rating because they just weren’t my thing (and I didn’t want the site to serve up any recommendations based on that).

Amazon, on the other hand, has done a rather better job of encouraging a more objective approach, at least from its more active reviewers – because you can vote for the most helpful review and some reviewers clearly take pride in having a lot of “helpful” ratings etc.  Goodreads has a “like” feature for reviews, but once again, it puts the focus on personal preference/subjectivity – and generally speaking, I don’t think it does a terribly good job of highlighting the most useful reviews.  I was struck by this recently when I reviewed a novel by another independent author (see this blog post) and felt that the best Amazon reviews were a lot more balanced and thoughtful in their assessment than the Goodreads ones, which tended towards one extreme (or were so short as to be no use to anyone but the person who wrote them).

So I hope that Amazon won’t ditch or demote its own reviews in favour of a feed from Goodreads –because for me, that would be a seriously retrograde step.  Anyway, must go now – I think I can hear hooves again.  Not sure whether it’s a horseman of the apocalypse or Tessie, the Animagic pony.   I really must learn to tell the difference.

UPDATE 17.4.2013:  For more comment on this, see Tom Lichtenberg's post on his blog.  On reflection, I think he is right to give the deal a big thumbs down (because even if it isn't the end of the world, as I've argued above, it's very hard to see any upside - unless you are Amazon or the owners of Goodreads).  

In : Self-publishing 


Tags: amazon  goodreads  reviews 
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About Me


Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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