Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, demonstrates a Kindle paperwhite tablet at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (Reed Saxon/AP)

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.

Tags: Books

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • William Johnson

    “…because they’re business model is horrible.”

    Not to mention your English. Aren’t there any editors on this site?

    • dust truck

      you still understood the sentence didn’t you? This is the web, we expect stuff to be produced fast, not print-quality.

      • Aj

        looks like it was also corrected quickly

  • JohanCorby

    Wah, wah, wah. I want the FREE service the way I want it! Amazon isn’t stupid. They’re going to use the data generated from GR user, sure, but they’re not going to do anything with it that will ultimately turn away users. The Kindle has nearly single-handedly revived book reading in the US. It’s giving unknown authors a voice and a way to sell books with little to know cost and without being bound by terrible big publisher contracts.

    Did you also know Amazon has owned IMDB for nearly two decades? Man, they ruined that place, didn’t they? All I ever seem to find on Amazon are recommendations for films I’ve looked up on IMDB. No wait. That’s never happened.

  • Lyndey

    I’m so glad I deleted my GoodReads account years ago.

  • samuelpepys

    Strange to find nothing among the comments to this good article but the usual bitching and moaning of the terminally irritated, waxing wroth about a typo or fuming at someone who wants something to be better. I moved to Boston 37 years ago because it was a great literary city and always had been. Soon enough, in the great wave of mergers and hostile takeovers of the 80s, the publishers started closing or moving to NYC, and as the real estate market went crazy the bookstores went out of business and many of the people who would normally be responding to this article with fervent “Hear, hear!” (those I hear daily “whining” about the fate of GoodReads–who know more about Amazon than Mr. Corby seems to) could no longer afford to live here. In recent years though the number of independent bookstores has begun to increase a little, small presses and reading series to multiply, and the sight of people reading books on the T is coming back. I don’t think Kindle did that single-handedly! From what I can see as an English teacher, the causes are multiple, but one of the most important has been the huge upsurge in quantity and quality of children’s books and adolescent fiction. We are getting students who read for pleasure again, and they become adults who do the same.

  • Nicole Sgueglia

    Amazon already runs Shelfari – and while it’s connected to the site, they aren’t a terrible overbearing presence.

  • kxmars

    The NY publishers are in the business of ripping off authors by taking 90% of the profits from their work. It’s survived because they have all agreed to be equally corrupt and not challenge each other, and also because they were the only game in town. They owned the distribution network.

    Amazon came along with an unmatched passion for books and their own distribution network, so they were able to bypass the big NY publishers and start rebuilding the publishing industry as author and reader friendly. Of course this sent the big publishers into a tizzy, and they called in their lackeys like the Author’s Guild and started putting out all kinds of anti-Amazon propaganda, and they were helped along by clueless authors like Steve Almond who should know better (Face it, Steve, your career has been less than spectacular, and it’s a shame. You’re a talented writer, but the publishing industry has done you no favors).

    Amazon buying Goodreads is a perfect match. Amazon LOVES books, and they love readers. They are saving the publishing industry by allowing authors a chance to earn money off their work while writing what they want to write and not flooding the market with Vampire novels and celebrity biographies. This is the best time in history to be an author, and the selection of books for readers has never been better. Granted, the self publishing movement has introduced a ton of unreadable dreck into the world, but that stuff has always been out there. If you look closely, it’s easy to find the good.

  • SirenSongWoman

    The only reason I liked Goodreads was BECAUSE it was independent. Christ. Do the greedy wealthy have to ruin EVERYTHING for everyone???

  • Imran Nasrullah

    If all that will sell are trashy fiction and celebrity autobiography’s because that is what the market wants, then that is all you will get for selection. Compare going into a B&N bookstore and see all the banal titles, vs an independent book seller – and see the difference in quality of book titles. It is like watching cable TV vs. PBS. One gives you a chronic stream of banality and the other erudition. Of course the masses opt for silly or moronic (e.g. reality TV) over “high brow” programming of PBS.

  • electrasteph

    Publishing is never going away. It’s just changing. You have only to try to wade through the dreck that is self-published content on in search of the elusive nugget of gold to realize that we need good editorial staff to winnow and refine written work just as much as we always did, and marketing channels to publishing what’s good about the work. Someone below is suggesting that publishers rip off authors by taking 90% of the profits from their work. I wonder if those same published authors put their work out as self-published work whether they’d be selling as many titles. I’d venture to say they wouldn’t. The idea that publishers don’t add value is pretty extreme.

    If Amazon is planning what you’re describing here for the future of goodreads, they’re going to be mistaken when they start up their marketing engines. If goodreads doesn’t deliver the same features and functionality that current users value it for, they’ll go elsewhere. My agenda in using goodreads is specific, and if that doesn’t match up with Amazon’s agenda, I have no loyalty to continuing to use the tool.

  • Tim O

    Darwinism always beats blind faith (although they made some great music!)

    • Tim O

      And meant to add…
      I would not bet the milk money. I think they may not be the dawning of small mammals, moreso the “resurgence” of vinyl records, that have the very occasional turn on the virtuoso DJ’s spindles.

  • Barney

    I have over 600 reviews on Goodreads and started using it, instead of a notebook I have kept since 1975. I have many followers as I am a constant reader of contemporary fiction. I am tired of Corporate America ruining EVERYTHING. Will be soon be down to 5 major corporations owning all the media? Once I find an alternative, possibly my own blog, I am leaving Goodreads and taking my followers with me. I loved Goodreads. It was independent , allowed friends to see what I was reading, got occational invites to author interviews and chances to get free books. This sale has made me decide not only to quit Goodreads but to no longer buy from Amazon. ……….let them collect info on other people. When are they going to take over Libraries to relieve the “poor” tax player the burden of supporting literacy? Private prisons? Corporate media? I would have even paid a subscription fee for an independent site. Oh we’ll, goodbye Goodreads. I also don’t get how many millions of dollars is enough for any individual to have? What pissed me off the most about this sale is it was sold as “in my best interests as a reader”. Ha. Someone is laughing on the was to the bank, which is probably off-shore.