It’s finally here! The much anticipated, long awaited, final installment of the greatest river-hating rant in history! I’ve already explained why I think Amazon is bad for publishing, bookstores, and authors, so now I’m going to take some time to talk about their recent acquisition of Goodreads and my general feelings.
So, for those of you who missed out on the news, Amazon recently bought Goodreads. And, for those of you who missed out on even more news, Goodreads is (was) a social networking site for books where you could create and update your personal digital library. It is (was) pretty cool. Rather intuitive, sleek design, useful for people who read a lot of books and might not always remember which ones they read when by whom about what, etc. It is (was) also a great platform for reader-reader, author-reader, and publisher-reader interaction and (as it now has 16 million members) it has quite a bit of information about who is reading what. Naturally, Amazon saw that crazy data mine and book recommendation engine and began foaming at the mouth.
And, so, Amazon ate Goodreads. Now, I’m not about to criticize the Goodreads owners for selling. Yes, they’re helping create a monster but, real talk, if someone offered me millions of dollars for something I’ve been working on tirelessly for years, I might not care so much who was writing the check. And, to the best of my knowledge, no publishers were really looking to make an investment in them (probably too busy yabbering on about the disaster that is Bookish.com). So, yeah, of course it happened. But it still hurt. I loved Goodreads. Watching them go to Amazon was like having that girl you like spend two weekends with you then invite you to have dinner with her parents and then ditch you (again) for her loser ex-boyfriend (again) who she said she was done with but then actually decides she’s still in love with not that I’m still into her cause that would be stupid and I’m totally over the whole thing don’t even think about it anymore regardless. So, yeah, that’s…Goodreads.
Anyways. It made me sad. It not only gives Amazon an even higher leg up on its competition, but it also reminds me that, when you create an account on a website, you are being monitored and, eventually, you stop being a person or a user and just turn into data to be sold to the highest bidder. It’s a little morbid. I’ve now started using LibraryThing, which is a decent, if more academic, alternative to Goodreads, but Amazon already has a finger in that cookie jar as well (Amazon owns Abebooks which has a 40% stake in LibraryThing). Add that onto the fact that Amazon bought Shelfari a long time ago, and the reality is that you can’t join any major social book website without contributing, in some degree, to Amazon. As I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear, I find that worrisome. It’s another example of the “If You Want Books, You Have To Go Through Me” thought process. And I hate that thought process. In my last article, I mentioned that I like Amazon’s self-publishing feature because it creates a different route for authors to publish their work. You can go the traditional route and send your manuscript to a publisher, but if you don’t like that or are unsuccessful, there are other publishing options. Bookselling avenues, on the other hand, are narrowing. Amazon has a huge and increasing share of the market on physical books, an even larger share on e-books, and is now present in every avenue of book sharing websites.
You know, I’m not really trying to insult Jeff Bezos, either. Dude is a great business man. Has made very few wrong moves (none that really come to mind, actually). Has somehow convinced his shareholders that growth is more important than profit, and that’s no small feat. But, it’s because Amazon is so great at being a Big Business that we should all be wary of them. Publishers and booksellers aren’t selfless and surely don’t do everything right, but one thing I can say with certainty is that everyone working at a publishing house or a bookstore sincerely loves books. Yes, they want to make a profit. Yes, they can (and do) keep some valuable work in the dark if it doesn’t mesh with their personal preferences and recommendations. But, they are selling books because they think it’s important and they love the product. Does Jeff Bezos love books? Do his employees? Do the Amazon factory workers (you know, when the oppressive work conditions aren’t melting away their individuality)? I don’t know. All I know is that they always want more market share.
What’s really interesting to me (and I will start this by saying it is 100% anecdotal evidence, so keep that in mind) is the type of people that use Amazon. Pretty much all of my friends use Amazon. Some use it a little and some use it a lot. But they all use it. And that’s weird. It’s probably the only business that I can say that about. I have a diverse group of friends including some people who are big supporters of their local businesses. But, they don’t think twice about buying a Kindle and subscribing to Amazon Prime and ordering all their books online. So, for whatever reason, Amazon has avoided the Big Business branding that, while rarely slowing down a company’s revenue (I’m looking at you WalMart), at least increases the public’s awareness of what they are contributing to and what they are sacrificing. Perhaps it’s the lack of a physical Amazon presence and our failure to adapt our thinking to the digital age. A giant Walmart store is hard to miss and the physical space it occupies is a great microcosm of the company—it’s brutish, huge, and tempting but doesn’t need or care about you. Meanwhile, Amazon stores exist only in the nebulous world of the internet. In there, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the company has spent years trying to avoid paying taxes, encourages the use of brick and mortar stores as “showcases,” has terrible working conditions, spends millions of dollars lobbying to the US government (1), doesn’t care if they follow laws (2) (in any country) (3), has a history of donating no money to charity and giving nothing back to the community (4), and is on pace for $166 billion (yes, billion with a B) of sales and a nearly 25% market share of ALL e-commerce in just 3 years (5).
In the end, I think it just comes down to your individual values. Do you think it’s important to support local businesses? Do you think independent bookstores are entities worth saving? Do you have the flexibility in your budget to pay a bit more for your books? Are you comfortable with Amazon having information and data about your purchasing habits? Do you trust them? These are all important and relevant questions that we grapple with. There’s no right or wrong answer to them, there is just your answer. If you trust Amazon and don’t think it’s worth the extra time or money to support your local bookstore, then these articles shouldn’t change your habits. But if you care about bookstores (like I do) and are leery of giant swelling companies (like I am, big time), then I hope this series has shed some light on just what Amazon is, what it’s trying to do, and who is likely to suffer from their success. If nothing else, I do hope you look into the Amazon alternatives, some of which I’ll link for you right here (apologies in advance, these links are mostly for those of you in the US). A great and largely underused website is Indiebound.org which lets you order or look up books online from local booksellers, there’s Powell’s (which is actually a giant bookstore in Portland with a great website), and Barnes & Noble is still around (for now). So, click on these links to check the websites out (and make me feel good). However you decide to do it, just be sure to keep on reading.