Amazon has purchased the book-oriented social networking site Goodreads for an undisclosed sum. Speculation from Bloomberg Businessweek based on other social media properties (like Instagram and LinkedIn) puts the market price close to $1 billion. Other reporting puts the price closer to $150 million. Not bad coin, either way.
Maybe we should stop worrying about the death of books if a site 100 percent dedicated to people cataloging their personal libraries and writing reviews of books they read is attractive enough to Amazon to pay even $150 million for it.
Or maybe we should worry about how much of the book world Amazon has swallowed.
Goodreads has become one of the leading spots for people to discuss and discover books, so Amazon's acquisition is not so mysterious. Though, as a personal note to Amazon, if you're looking for a much cheaper alternative in expert book discussion and recommendation, you can acquire the Biblioracle for significantly less than $1 billion.
The genius of Goodreads is in the ease with which it draws readers together. While we readers are legion, we are not necessarily proximate, and Goodreads erases any distance with its discussion forums. There is a group for every possible reading interest. Titles and authors are discussed in exhaustive and spirited detail. Friendships and bonds are formed over things that matter, the books we love.
Authors make appearances for special discussions with members. Advance copies of books are given away. Goodreads is an amazing virtual playground for book nerds.
While Goodreads management is pledging that the users' experience will be unchanged, the community of Goodreads members is not so happy with the Amazon acquisition news. They worry about Amazon's influence over what has previously been viewed as a largely independent, user-centric community. They seem to have forgotten that Goodreads was started as a business with venture capital money and that this result was likely the goal all along.
The dominant response of members in the Goodreads thread announcing the news is betrayal. Members, I believe, had been viewing Goodreads under a Wikipedia model, a community largely centered around a common good — book culture — and not oriented toward commerce or profit. The concern is that Goodreads will simply turn into a sales arm for Amazon. They worry about Amazon taking ownership of their reviews or deleting content Amazon deems inappropriate. Goodreads members who have reached "librarian" status are especially upset, having spent countless hours refining the database of book and author information the site relies on.
I think we can read this as another cautionary digital age tale. I would like to believe that the human element is what makes Goodreads so appealing and so meaningful, but the 21st century marketplace wants not our hearts or minds but our data.
I worry about Amazon's hold over these things that have given my own life such meaning. If they are to be the dominant publisher and purveyor of books in the world, what is that going to mean? In Jeff Bezos should we trust?
The Goodreads interface was a great idea from the moment it appeared, but it wasn't worth anything until it proved it could get many millions of people to share their information. Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads are all examples of businesses that have grown and prospered largely on the backs of free labor, willingly supplied by the "users."
It's the Tom Sawyerification of the economy. We aren't users, though. We're the used.
Goodreads members have painted a heck of a lot of fence.
Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.
The Biblioracle offers his recommendations
1. "Caleb's Crossing" by Geraldine Brooks
2. "Geography of the Heart" by Fenton Johnson
3. "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" by Margot Livesey
4. "The Borrower" by Rebecca Makkai