Replacing Goodreads—

Sun 31 Mar 2013 - Filed under: Not a Journal., , , | 10 Comments | Posted by: Gavin

Goodreads tells me I joined the site in December 2008 and that, weirdly, in 2009, 2011, and 2012, I added 70 books to the read shelf. (If I didn’t know myself better I’d think I was messing with the numbers!) I added older titles and then settled in to mostly keeping it up to date. I friended people I knew, some people I knew and didn’t friended me back, and I was fascinated to see what people were actually reading. I really enjoyed it and I’d been so proud to keep some of the Goodreads books in their database when they stopped using Amazon’s data!

And then last week Goodreads announced that Amazon had bought them. I was completely scunnered by the sale. Like Rob Spillman of Tin House I figure it’s kind of too late, Amazon have just bought the last 5 years of my reading history, but I’m deleting my account this week. (Already added my books to my LibraryThing account as a stopgap) I didn’t do it straight away as I wanted to think through my gut reaction of: “Oh No!” But a couple of days later, it’s still the same. So this week all the Goodreads widgets will be cut from the site. Through our distributor, we sell books through Amazon and in turn they’d like to run us and all other publishers into and under the ground for daring to publish books instead of all authors signing their horrible print contract. So for many years it has been our policy not to link to Amazon or (when I can keep all of them in mind, any of their many subsites, see next para) and the only time I pay for anything through Amazon is for Kickstarter.

Amazon own (bold = book related): Amazon Publishing, Amazon Web Services, Abebooks, Audible, Book Depository, BookSurge, BoxOfficeMojo, Brilliance Audio, CreateSpace,, Goodreads, IMDB, Lexcycle, 40% of Library Thing (through Abebooks—although this is apparently complicated), MobipocketShelfari, Woot, Zappos. Etc.

Wikipedia notes: “In August 2005,[110] Amazon began selling products under its own private label, “Pinzon” . . . . AmazonBasics is a private-label consumer electronics product line.”

Amazon positives: their data mining is intellectually fascinating. They give out tiny halo-effect grants to literary organizations (so that everyone has to pay lip service to them). Their BreakThrough Novel Award (which is now their in house publishing competition). They pay sales tax in a few states now. Jeff Bezos, as millionaires have always done, follows his own weird (Blue Origin) with his investments.

But. Amazon wants to be everything to everyone. Some people have suggested they want to kill off public libraries (because kids need tablets instead of storytime and parents don’t need any free places to take their kids . . .) They want to make the product (cup, book, sheets, cable, movie, whatever) and sell it to you. Instead of inefficient towns and shopping centers, they’d rather everyone ordered online and got stuff delivered to them and in the end it will be Amazon and the delivery company left standing.

Sounds utterly vapid and uninspiring to me.

We spend our time publishing books we love and trying to get them into the indie bookstores we love so that readers can find them there. It mostly works. We expect we’ll be doing it for a while.

And then there is temptation. On Metafilter Open Library was mooted as an alternative user George_Spiggott posted “I would seriously pitch in time and technical effort to building a new site that everyone could simply pick up and move to. Because that would be a frickin’ brilliant outcome. Especially if the ToS at signup committed the site to remain nonprofit and to have no exclusive marketing agreements.”

Which is where temptation lies. I mentioned earlier today on Weightless that Michael and I were tempted to build an alternative to Goodreads:

” … building a new community reading site with books, reviews, comments, forums, all the things we liked about Goodreads, but without the all-encompassing Univac behind it. To keep it independent I figure we should make it a $4.99 annual subscription built along the lines Flickr uses: you could add up to 500 books for free then the oldest ones would disappear (from public view, not to you) unless you subscribed. Maybe there could be other subscriber only features, not sure, the site would do best if people use it for a while for free. If you’re seriously interested in kicking this idea around, email me!”

Kickstarter might be the way to fund it: obviously we’d need to pay for data feeds, storage and usage, and coding, coding, coding. Again, Wikipedia: “In December 2007, the site had over 650,000 members[3] and over 10,000,000 books had been added.[4] As of July 2012, the site reported 10 million members, 20 million monthly visits, and 30 employees.[5]” That’s a lot of data going back and forward.

Goodreads was seven years old, ancient!, and had a lot of bells and whistles and if we do take this on, the new site should get out the gate as an attractive site that’s worth joining early and taking part in.

What I’d love to do is kick the idea around some more, hear what readers want, and see if this seems possible for a small group of underfunded readers. Internets?


10 Responses to “Replacing Goodreads—”

  1. philip weiss on April 1st, 2013 12:56 am

    Tim, The owner of LibraryThing, has reported in the past that the ownership percentage of LT is less than 40% being reported. And it’s clear from the post you linked to that it’s less, he just can’t talk about exactly how much it is. And the important thing to really note is that Amazon has no influence on LT except to the extent that LT uses their data as other book sites on the web do.

    Obviously, there’s no guarantee that he won’t sell out to Amazon in the future, But given his history of independence and engagement with LT’s users, i don’t see him throwing them under the bus. He’s been one of the people fighting against Amazon and OCLC dominance for a while.

  2. Tikitu de Jager on April 1st, 2013 2:52 am

    Coupla thoughts from a book-loving programmer…

    There’s probably only a relatively small “hard core” who are horrified enough by the acquisition to jump ship for that reason only. To convince the rest you’ll need two things: shiny, and an effortless transition. “Shiny” means they can’t feel like they’re losing anything much (which is a big ask!) and you’ll need to offer something new that Goodreads doesn’t. Effortless of course means “Import your Goodreads data HERE”, but probably also means lots of on-the-edge-of-creepy social import “Give us access to your email and we’ll find out who you know who is already in our system” features, to make recreating your *social* data (essentially who you’re following) as easy as possible.

    Shiny probably means an iOS app at launch, or a clear roadmap towards having one.

    Goodreads have an API; having one will make the iOS app easier and might promote other third-party development if you make it cool, but (a) making a cool API is tough, and (b) supporting an API is heaps of work. Don’t forget to factor that into your kickstarter/funding plans, if you go with it.

  3. Ben Parzybok on April 1st, 2013 12:25 pm

    I thought I’d add a couple of cents, also from the perspective that Tikitu is coming from (programmer/book lover). I completely agree regarding shiny, as in, the new site should leapfrog the current tech. In fact, I would skip doing a web version first and focus on mobile entirely (adding in a book scanner so that people can add their libraries instantly… Perhaps it could even have a db of book spines, so that people could take a picture of a shelf and have multiple books added).

    Second: Make it a wonderful home for authors, so that they’re compelled to move their data there and have a very spiffy platform for engaging with their readers. There are probably ideas to rob from sites that support bands, etc.

    Third: Build the api first and create it with very strong language about the terms of service that matches the philosophy of the site. Entice developers to use it. Envision what that data could do (book recommendation algorithm? etc. Gavin – know anything about these guys? )

    Goodreads does have a lot of bells and whistles, but I always felt like it was too much and too disorganized. I think with a strong focus on some novel angles (pun!), and creating a platform that others could plug into, a new system could be promising.

  4. David Steffen on April 4th, 2013 8:54 am

    I never actually used Goodreads (apart from winning a random book drawing from a promotion there) but I’ll be following any developments with it or with new alternatives with interest.

    Anthony Sullivan and I took on the idea of making a Duotrope alternative when that site went behind the paywall, and we’ve been having a (time-consuming) good time with it.

    If you do decide to make something, these are some things that we’ve found to be valuable:
    –Be responsive. Consider user suggestions seriously and reply to mail sent your way. Sign your name to correspondence. Be professional but with a sense of humor. People like to talk to the people behind the scenes instead of a corporate front.
    –Be innovative. Don’t just aim for doing what Goodreads does. Aim for being everything that you wish Goodreads would be.
    –Be shiny. Make it all look pretty.
    –Be the first alternative to market. If another group is promising an alternative in 6 months and you have one now, that’s a clear advantage.
    –Users should be able to try the product for free in some fashion. Regardless of if users pay subscriptions, there should be a free way to try it. People are willing to try out a newcomer to gauge the value if there is no monetary risk, then once they see the value they can choose whether it’s worth paying for.

  5. David Steffen on April 4th, 2013 9:10 am

    Also, keep in mind that although a Goodreads type system is in itself fairly simple, the data management will take up loads of time. I mean, implementing the system would take some time, of course, but it’s reasonably straightforward especially when you have a user base used to a certain format already.

    But think of the 10 million books that Goodreads reported having been added by 2007. Anyone who steps up to the plate had better have ideas about how to manage the entry and verification of all that book data.

  6. David Steffen on April 4th, 2013 9:14 am

    (sorry about the triple-post, but you’ve got me thinking)

    Also, if you do go ahead with it, feel free to drop me an email to help with promotion–I’d be happy to post a guest blog about it on Diabolical Plots, tweet it, Facebook it, etc.

  7. Gavin on April 5th, 2013 9:16 pm

    Tikitu, thanks for your responses, much appreciated. “Shiny and effortless transition” is brilliant. Between you and Ben, you gave the best info. I think that making a BetterReads would mean I have to step away from Small Beer & Weightless, so it is looking doubtful. I’m still kind of heartbroken about Goodreads: as Amazon buy more and more of the world, they become all but unavoidable and at least I have Weightless to point to as an alternative.

  8. Gavin on April 5th, 2013 9:31 pm

    Ben, thanks for these really useful ideas. I like the idea of mobile although being a crusty old guy I always updated my a/c from my laptop. But I can see zapping an isbn would have been handy (if it were a 1 or 2 click thing).

    There are a lot of 2nd class reading sites out there and I would want to be 1st class, which would mean dropping other things and throwing everything in—which I don’t think I can do. I’ll add it to the maybe stack unless something happens to push it to the top.

  9. Gavin on April 5th, 2013 9:33 pm

    Hi David, thanks for all the feedback! If we did build a site, it would obviously have to be huge. I quoted those Goodreads numbers in the post so that everyone (me included) would realize what size of site we’d be talking about. The Hugeness! Part of what I liked about Goodreads was I could choose the actual edition of a book I’d read, from, for example the 41 editions of Busman’s Honeymoon. That’s a ton of info for just one book . . . I don’t think we’re going for it, but it was a fun thought experiment.

  10. Replacing Goodreads | MentatJack on April 26th, 2013 9:14 am

    […] over at Small Beer Press wrote a passionate post about Amazon buying Goodreads.  I just signed up for the Los Angeles AngelHack. Possibly I can get […]

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