Several dozen editorials have been written in the 2 days since Amazon announced plans to buy Goodreads, but one in particular caught my eye today.
James McQuivey, writing over at Forbes, laments over the fact that no one in publishing bought Goodreads:
I have an important question to ask, one that I am stealing from author Nick Harkaway (@Harkaway) who wrote this on Twitter the morning after:
The point isn’t that Amazon bought GoodReads. The point is why GoodReads wasn’t snapped up by a publisher years ago.
The obvious reason is that based on the rumors of a purchase price in the “low eight-figures” as some are confidently whispering, most publishers weren’t really in a position to buy Goodreads. Unless they had seen this coming and had bought it many years ago. Let’s say back in 2010, when I first urged one of the Big Five (are there five now?) publishers to buy it. It was a riskier proposal back then, I’ll admit, and one that I couldn’t put a price tag on, so I won’t claim that I pushed hard or that the publisher was foolish not to take my advice.
He's possibly correct about publishers not being able to afford the rumored $150 million that Amazon paid for Goodreads, but they probably could have afforded it when it was smaller.
It's funny that he should mention 2010. That was the year that 3 major publishers got together and announced a new site that would give them a direct digital connection to readers. That site launched earlier this year, after over 2 years in development.
It's called Bookish, and it does give Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster a direct connection to readers. But the connection it offers is so very, very different from Goodreads that the differences tell us quite a bit about these publishers' priorities.
Frankly, these publishers would probably not have bought Goodreads even if it had been up for sale and even if they had the funds. It does not do what they want.
Note: I am only going to critique the 3 publishers behind Bookish and not everyone in publishing. Some, like Macmillan (see the postscript), have a clue.
So how are the 2 sites different?
The first and most important difference is that Goodreads was launched not with the goal of forming connections.
The goal was to build a community of (first) readers and then authors and to a lesser degree publishers.
Edit: Let me correct myself. As Google+ has shown us you cannot set out to create a community. Instead you give users a reason to come to a site and stay.
Goodreads was launched to encourage readers to show up and be bookish. The community formed around them.
Bookish, on the other hand, was launched in order to provide Hachette, S&S, and Penguin with "direct digital customer relationships". The publishers got to build it from the ground up, and the manner in which it functions says a lot about the type of "direct digital customer relationships" these publishers want
The thing is, they don't actually want a relationship - not the relationship that James McQuivey (and I) think that publishers could benefit from.
The word relationship implies that there is more than one party speaking, and that is not the point of Bookish. This site exists to be little more than yet another marketing channel for publishers.
I have spent time on Bookish since it launched (including an hour today), and I frankly cannot see how I (as a user) can contribute. I can write a review, yes, but I can't build a virtual bookshelf of books I own, I can't communicate with other users, nor can I do anything that would benefit me and not the publishers.
Most importantly, I cannot even leave a comment on the blog posts on Bookish. That, folks, is an example of just how completely the communication flows in exactly one direction.
The internet offers many vast opportunities for collaboration, and Bookish flushes them down the drain. This could not be more different from Goodreads, which uses almost every chance to encourage users to participate, add content, and build value for each other.
To be fair, Bookish never pretended to be anything other than a one-way street. It was pretty obvious from the launch press release that the publishers were going to use it to sell books and that all the communication would flow one way. I have no problem with this, but if Bookish is really these publishers' idea of a "direct digital customer relationship" then their thought process is stuck in the last century - some time in the 1950s by my estimation.
These publishers don't want to hear from readers. They want readers to listen passively while the publishers control the message.
And that, more than anything, is why these 3 publishers probably would have passed on Goodreads if it had been offered to them.
P.S. In creating Bookish these 3 publishers only invested in what would benefit them, and that is probably why Goodreads will succeed while Bookish flounders - unless Bookish goes through a radical change in focus.
P.P.S. Giving out book recommendations is the only reason for Bookish to exist, but it is just one of a dozen features that Goodreads uses to draw in readers. And it is that dozen other related features that both draw in users and combine to make Goodreads' book recommendations richer and more valuable than what Bookish can offer. There is a synergy in the collaboration of hundreds of thousands of active members writing reviews, rating books, and creating unique connections that cannot be replicated by the single channel, one way communication offered by Bookish.
I suppose some might say that the comparisons between Goodreads and Bookish are irrelevant because the sites serve very different purposes. This is not true. These 3 publishers could have used Goodreads for the same purpose as Bookish (to sell books) - only Goodreads would have done a better job.
P.P.P.S. Macmillan stands as an counterpoint to the 3 publishers behind Bookish. This publisher supports Tor.com, the SF community and blog. Tor.com is an example of how to a publisher can have a relationship with readers.