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Cry Me A River: Amazon Buys Goodreads

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Amazon’s purchase of the book recommending site Goodreads marks the latest freak-out in the world of publishing. The fear is that Amazon will turn a popular social media site designed for passionate readers into just another “retail platform” designed to swell the coffers of America’s largest book retailer.

And that’s almost certainly what will happen. After all, Amazon didn’t shell out hundreds of millions of dollars just to hang out on-line with a bunch of book nerds.

The company will use its shiny new acquisition to mine the wealth of data provided by Goodreads’ 16 million users, to target book buyers based on this data (for instance, to push “social shopping” specials) and to promote its Kindle e-reader. The buyout will also help the company promote the expanding stable of authors who have chosen to publish books with Amazon rather than traditional publishers.

As a reader and writer I find all this pretty despicable. But it’s how capitalism works. Big corporations find ways to monetize our aesthetic preferences, and our compulsive need to share these preferences on-line. If people don’t like this, they can (and should) opt out of Goodreads.

But it’s probably also worth taking a deep breath and looking at the big picture when it comes to the publishing industry. Yes, the huge corporate publishers are in a phase of panicky contraction. And yes, our cultural bandwidth is dominated by frantic visual media (movies, TV, video games, Internet).

As a reader and writer I find all this pretty despicable. But it’s how capitalism works. Big corporations find ways to monetize our aesthetic preferences, and our compulsive need to share these preferences on-line.

But much of the reason big publishers are struggling is because their business model is horrible. In a standard book deal, an author is paid an advance based on some abstract notion of how many copies her book will sell. The publisher then prints thousands of books, which have to be delivered to market. If the books don’t sell after a few months — which most don’t — booksellers can return the book to the publisher. First-year business school students would laugh for a week if you explained this setup to them.

This is why the New York houses are publishing fewer and fewer literary titles, and instead chasing trends (erotica! zombies! vampires!) or sticking with tried and true airplane reads (celebrity memoirs, thrillers, diet books). Most folks who buy books of this sort are happy to do so via Amazon, or the big retail chains, which can offer huge discounts. As a result, independent bookstores have been shutting down in droves.

All this might sound dire. But what’s actually happening on the ground is far more hopeful. Over the past few years, hundreds of indie presses have launched, most of them dedicated to literary fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. These are smaller, leaner operations whose business model treat books as what they are: a niche product. They keep their overhead low, print books in small runs, or on demand, and set realistic sales expectations.

Anyone who visited the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual conclave, last month in Boston, saw the evidence. The event’s Book Fair filled two cavernous halls of the Hynes Convention Center.

As I walked the rows, I couldn’t help but to think of the state of publishing in evolutionary terms: the lumbering dinosaurs were dying out, but in their wake all these industrious little mammals were thriving.

Amazon is clearly hoping to benefit from the weakened state of corporate publishing by contacting authors directly, and publishing their books. (Now with help from Goodreads!) In fact, the day Amazon announced its buyout of Goodreads, a friend of mine wrote to ask whether he should accept an offer from Amazon to publish his manuscript. (I told him he should trust his gut.)

My own sense is that Amazon got into publishing for one simple reason: to grow revenue. In an era of digital books, the company is trying to position themselves as the last giant standing.

This may well come to pass. But when it comes to the essential mission of a publisher — producing enduring art — my money’s on the mammals.

This program aired on April 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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