Initial thoughts on the Great Goodreads Takeover

ramblings

On March 28, 2013, news quietly spread that Amazon, that omnipotent, indie-killing ethereal monster, was taking over Goodreads. While the action shocked and angered many, the effects of the takeover are less than clear.

The first issue to consider, I think, is whether or not this action will really make a difference. After all, Goodreads has always had a retail presence. On every book’s record, users have the option to make a purchase on an affiliate website. There is little doubt that Amazon will provide preferential treatment to its own website (and probably eliminate any other purchase options), but this isn’t terribly new. Amazon has been driving other stores out of business for years. But will this mean anything to users as far as Goodreads itself is concerned? Maybe not. After all, Amazon did take over Audible without any really noticeable effect.

But, of course, the concerns are farther reaching than that. It is rather alarming that Amazon is taking over Goodreads when, just five years ago, it took over Shelfari. Of the big three, that leaves LibraryThing as the lone non-Amazon literary social network (there are others, but their usage is nowhere near comparable). One of the greatest things about these sites is that, for the most part, you can get unbiased opinions of books. There’s no worry that some business or another is making negative reviews disappear or hiring people to write positive reviews. There is no doubt that this still happens on social sites, but the incentive isn’t as great. Because there’s no direct purchase on the site, the return on investment isn’t very great. But when Amazon is integrated into the social network? Hmm.

And what about those reviews? Goodreads has an impressive 16 million members who have contributed a total of 23 million reviews. The reviews all belong to their respective authors, as stated in the Goodreads terms of use. But will it stay that way? It’s pretty hard to tell. There is presently a mass exodus underway based almost exclusively on the concern over reviewers losing the rights to their intellectual property. This may seem silly, but to serious book reviewers, their body of work is a commodity that they’re reluctant to hand over to some for-profit business. To make things more complicated, Amazon has some pretty strict rules regarding product reviews on its own site, which, if applied to Goodreads, will almost certainly result in user reviews being deleted (as is Amazon policy). So even if users decide to keep their work parked on the Amazon-owned site, they run the risk of losing stuff.

At minimum, it seems pretty safe to assume that these reviews will all be mined for data, as will ratings and comments. There’s just too much information about individual users for them not to capitalize on it all. The shady thing is that all of this information was given in good faith. Voting for this review or joining that group was a way to connect with others over shared interests. There was a high degree of camaraderie in the action, which is now probably going to be stolen to better market products.

Even if nothing perceptible happens, I think we should all be, at minimum, raising our collective eyebrow in alarm. This thing that Amazon is doing hasn’t really been done before. Like Google and Facebook, they’re slowly taking over independent web spaces. If left unchecked, they’re going to do to the Internet what they did to the real world. We’re getting to the point where everything we do online is being tracked and used against us. It may sound like a conspiracy theory (I happen to have definitive proof that an Amazon rep was on the grassy knoll that day), but it isn’t. It’s just unchecked capitalism. This is a growing monopoly that isn’t being recognized as one, because it’s hard to realize what is actually happening. Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller, is taking over a social media site. The two seem like different things. But when you realize that Amazon is probably going to cut out all the other businesses who previously were linked to on Goodreads and is going to use its vast resources to use that huge bank of data to better hone its services, the picture gets a little less foggy.

This is just another leg up for a company that needs to be knocked down a peg.

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The Great Ebook Swindle of 2012

librarianship, ramblings

Back in February, I wrote a post detailing my take on the initial stages of the Penguin Hates Libraries issue. To sum up, I proposed that Penguin doesn’t hate libraries, but, rather, hates Amazon. Libraries were simply caught in the crossfire.

Since then, news has spread that Penguin (and friends) is being sued by the Department of Justice for general assholery. So, where does that leave us?

Let me say this: I think the major publishing houses need to fall. This unethical, collaborative effort to raise ebook prices is an unmistakably douchey move.  But I can’t help but wonder if it’s necessary at this point in time. Since Amazon’s rise in popularity, we’ve seen both major bookstore chains and indie outfits collapse. It makes sense that publishers want to stop this evil machine before it drives a bulldozer through their market share as well.

This collusion, though, throws a stick in the spokes of free market. Rather than trying to compete with Amazon on its terms, the big publishers have worked together to keep Amazon from offering low prices on ebooks. In reality, Amazon would have the consumer pay a pretty reasonable amount for ebooks, much less than they’re currently forced to charge. In that view, this DOJ lawsuit makes sense: these companies are punishing Amazon, but consumers are the ones who pay the price. But this lawsuit is going to primarily benefit Amazon.

What is the ebook market going to look like when Amazon sets the standards? Are the major publishers going to go under? Are we going to see fair ebook pricing? Or are we merely going to lose competition in this market? Have we been so thoroughly fucked that there is no recovery to be had?

I want Apple to fail. I want Penguin to fail. I want Simon and Schuster to fail.I want Macmillan to fail. Why? Because they don’t care about the people buying their products. They don’t care about free market. They don’t play by the rules. They are jacking up the prices of an ultra low-cost product in order to protect the price point of their other products, most notably print titles (which are hideously overpriced as well).

But if this price fixing is brought to an end, who will stand up to Amazon? Who will be left? What we’ll likely see is drastic cuts in price that Amazon will be able to afford, but other retailers will not. Book stores, for example, earn a 30% cut of sales. But they, even the ones that do sell ebooks, rely primarily on local sales. Amazon is able to turn a profit because they have the ability to sell to virtually anyone on the planet. They can sell an ebook for a buck, take in $0.30  per sale, and make a goddamned killing. Your local book shop, though, if forced to sell that same ebook at that price, could move 5,000 copies and not be able to keep the lights on.

In the end, it seems like we’re cutting a deal with the devil to spite… some other devil. If this goes through, we’re quite possibly going to see a reduction in the manufacture of print materials and a virtual elimination of book stores (as if that wasn’t the case already). I see that as a bad thing, but perhaps that’s just me being nostalgic. Maybe this is just how the market needs to evolve. I’m not sure. I’m just some dumbass librarian.

Why Penguin Group is Not Really Evil

librarianship

In recent days, the backlash against Penguin’s perceived move against public libraries has snowballed to monstrous proportions. If you’re not familiar with the issue, have a look at this and this. Lots of librarians and library users are up in arms over the recent action, ready to tar and feather the already feathered (do penguins have feathers?) publisher. But should they be?

Probably not. Contrary to popular belief, this action is not anti-library. The rumors we are hearing today are the same ones we heard back in November, that unspecified “security concerns” are the reason for the yanking of Penguin titles. When we hear security nowadays, we think of piracy.

But, regardless of what the publisher is saying about it, that just doesn’t make any sense. Penguin’s move is specifically against e-books made available for Kindle, Amazon’s proprietary e-reader. For the time being, they are not allowing libraries to purchase new books and are requiring that remaining collections be delivered to devices via USB. My friend Dan over at Not All Bits explains why this makes no sense from a security standpoint. Instead of making the books more secure, it is actually taking a step out of the DRM removal process, leaving the books even more vulnerable to piracy. The mistake so many are making, in my opinion, is thinking that Penguin isn’t aware of that.

Truth: Penguin did not terminate its contract with Overdrive because of media piracy.

So why did it happen? Well, it can be broken down into an ugly love triangle consisting of three morbidly obese entities: Penguin, Overdrive, and Amazon. See Overdrive and Penguin had an arrangement that allowed the former company to distribute the latter’s books to libraries. All was well and fine until Amazon took over the e-book market like a yeti or a radioactive killer cactus or something. Amazon approached Overdrive and made them a deal they couldn’t refuse- one that coupled beautifully with Amazon’s freshly launched Prime Lending service. By teaming up, Overdrive could meet the demands of Kindle users in a way that was super convenient and Amazon could entice their customers with free library content (See, the Kindle isn’t just proprietary! Honest!).

So Amazon and Overdrive slipped into bed with one another and started messing around. What Overdrive forgot about, though, was its girlfriend! Remember Penguin? Yeah, Penguin never agreed to the distribution terms of the Amazon Prime model. It agreed to let Overdrive use its e-books, not Amazon. But Amazon, being the corporate monster that it is, used its cunning and strength to leverage a deal with Overdrive without also striking a deal with the publishers Overdrive had previous arrangements with. Kind of sketchy, no?

The specs of this whole business are still kind of vague. The official word from everyone involved is mostly inconclusive talk is still of security, which is misleading (have a look at this article and this article for a more well-rounded take on the situation than you’re going to get from folks reacting to bad news). But make no mistake- this is yet another issue with Amazon at its center. Penguin is concerned about something they see on the horizon, and they probably should be. Amazon is no longer just a book seller- it is Penguin’s competition. Would you want your competition to be the primary means of distributing your product?

Penguin is currently talking with other library e-book distributors. You don’t hear much about this because Overdrive is the dominant presence in this arena. The competition is small and, by comparison, recent. The biggest competitor, 3M (another corporate monster), is the closest thing libraries have to an alternative, but, really, it can only offer a lesser version of what Overdrive is providing already. In the near future, I am confident we will see electronic Penguin materials back in libraries. We just have to wait for 3M to put on its big boy pants.