Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why I Think Amazon Buying Goodreads Is Not a Good Thing

If you are an avid reader you may well be familiar with Goodreads, a social reading site where people can review books, share books, and discuss books. While there are other social reading sites out there (Shelfari, LibraryThing, and so on), Goodreads could well be the most popular of any of them. Today Amazon agreed to buy Goodreads for an undisclosed amount of money. Personally, I am not sure that this is a good thing.

Here I must say that I am not against Amazon by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I have always liked Amazon. It has always been my site of choice when it comes to buying books, DVDs, and CDs online. And I do have to say that I think their customer service is second to none. The only major problem I have had with Amazon is their policy on authors reviewing other authors, which I will address later. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I do not use Goodreads very frequently. In fact, months can go by without me visiting the site, much less updating the list of books I have read or reviewing books I have read. That having been said, I have always enjoyed Goodreads and I have always thought it was an important resource for those who enjoy reading.

That having been said, I am very uncomfortable with Amazon acquiring Goodreads, and for multiple reasons. The first is quite simply Amazon's policy regarding authors reviewing books. For those who do not know, last autumn Amazon enacted a policy whereby anyone with a direct financial interest in reviewing a specific book (publishers, manufacturers,  et. al.) or anyone with a direct financial interest in a competing book (which appears to be just about any author) from reviewing books. Worse yet, if someone Amazon perceives as having a financial interest in a book persists in trying to review a particular book, that book can be removed completely from the site. What made this policy all the more worse is that everyday people, people who had never published a book or worked for a publisher or knew the writer personally, were having their reviews deleted. When they asked Amazon about it, they were simply quoted the policy, which hardly applied to them. I believe that Amazon has since corrected the problem whereby fans, with no real connection to the author other than reading his or her books, are not prohibited from leaving reviews, although I am not absolutely certain about that.

Now in all fairness, reviews on the site had proven to be a bit of a sticky wicket for Amazon, to the point that they had to do something to insure that all reviews were by genuine readers. Quite simply, people were abusing the system. Authors were exchanging good reviews of books with other authors. Yet other authors (namely crime writer R.J. Ellory) were leaving negative reviews of competitors' books. Worse yet, there were individuals who actually accepted monetary payment for positive reviews on Amazon, as in the case of Todd Jason Rutherford and his "service" Amazon had to do something about the fake reviews that were proliferating on the site. Unfortunately, in the opinion of many Amazon went too far in the opposite direction in their effort to crack down on fake reviews and also made mistakes implementing the policy. First, it ignores the fact that not all authors are in direct competition with each other. A writer of nonfiction books on film history is not competing with a writer of horror fiction. A writer of romances is not competing with a writer of Westerns. Second, when the policy was first implemented, Amazon was mistaking fan reviews for reviews of people with a financial interest in the book.

Anyhow, to sum things up, I worry that Amazon could extend its policies on reviews to Goodreads. If that were to happen, then, many authors could not write reviews of books on the site. Given that for many writing reviews is one of the most enjoyable things about Goodreads, this would probably discourage many authors from using the site. Worse yet, what if Amazon makes the same mistake regarding reviews on Goodreads that they did regarding reviews on Amazon; that is, they mistake reviews written by fans for reviews by people with a financial stake in the book? If that were to happen (and I do not think it necessarily will), then they could even drive average people away from the site.

Beyond the question of whether Amazon will extend its review policy to Goodreads, there is also the fact that the company already owns Goodreads competitor Shelfari. Founded in 2006, Shelfari was bought by Amazon in 2008. Given that Goodreads is probably the most popular social reading site and Shelfari appears to be fairly popular, this would give Amazon the lions share of the social reading market. While I like Amazon and I respect them, I hardly think this is a good thing for users of social reading sites. Quite simply, there would be less diversity in the sort of social reading sites users from which users could choose. What is worse, as a giant in selling books, the already popular Goodreads being owned by Amazon could be at an unfair advantage when compared to other social reading sites. Quite simply, Amazon could pump money into Goodreads until it literally buries competitors such as LibraryThing.

In discussing the acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon today, my brother brought up an objection to the purchase that I had not considered. Quite simply, whether Amazon did so or not (and he expressed doubt that they would), the perception could arise on the part of many that Amazon might favour books published by their subsidiaries CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. I respect Amazon and I have very serious doubts that they would show such favouritism. Indeed, they appear to have never done so with Shelfari, despite ample opportunity The problem is that the very fact that Amazon owns Goodreads could bring this into question for many people. As someone who has published through Amazon, I have to worry about the impact that a few "conspiracy theorists" might have on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Ultimately, while I like both Amazon and Goodreads, I have to say that I really would prefer for them to remain entirely separate companies. I see far too many problems in Amazon owning Goodreads for me to think Amazon buying the social reading site is a good idea. Now I do not think Goodreads is going to disappear any time soon (although I fear its competitors might), but I have to wonder if visiting Goodreads will be nearly as enjoyable an experience as it once was.

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