Why Amazon bought GoodReads

April 2, 2013
Jordan Weissman, Atlantic
Jordan Weissmann, Atlantic

Jordan Weissmann lays it out clearly:

In short, Barnes and Noble's in-store displays don't rule the book business like they used to, but they haven't been usurped by Amazon's algorithms either. Instead, the business model is moving further towards word of mouth. And, much as a very small portion of Americans do most of the book reading in this country, so too are they responsible for a vast majority of book recommending. Codex estimates that 11 percent of book buyers make about 46 percent of recommendations.

The sorts of lit lovers who like to evangelize their favorite new novel are the same sorts of folks who tend to show up on Goodreads. And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the site is a great platform for convincing people to buy books. Roughly 29 percent of Goodreads users told Codex they'd learned about the last book they bought either on the site, or at another book-focused social network. At traditional social networks, the number is 2.4 percent. When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.

The question, of course, is what comes next. In May 2008, I reviewed the original Kindle for the Columbia Journalism Review. I didn't much like the device.

The problem is that the Kindle tries to compete too directly with paper. It attempts to electronically mimic the experience of reading a book. But the book is very, very good at providing the experience of reading a book. In this way, the Kindle occasionally comes off as if Ford, failing to make the conceptual leap to the car, had instead built a motorized horse. Sure, there would be some advantages: the robo-steed would never grow tired, and could be outfitted with more plush seating. But horses are pretty good at being horses. And books, like horses, have evolved to maximize their advantages.

The true promise of the Kindle, and its inevitable descendants, is in creating a product that goes where the book cannot. Printed text is fundamentally limited. Once on the page, nothing more can be done with it. With digital text, everything is a draft, to be edited, altered, broadened, remixed, and redirected. As better conveyors of electronic text are developed, the big question is how content itself will change to take advantage of the new opportunities.

The iPad came along and upended that calculation, at least for me. Being able to easily highlight text, take notes on it, and then access those highlights and notes in the cloud is, for my work, a gamechanger. When I'm reading fiction, I'm indifferent between paper and e-books. When I'm reading nonfiction, though, I only read on the iPad.

Still, reading a book digitally and reading it on paper remain almost identical experiences. Digital books aren't much more visual, they don't tend to have more movies or interactive features, they don't typically connect you to the community of others reading the book. It's just a book, on a screen.

Partly, that's because books are currently written for both pages and digital editions, and neither authors nor publishers want to put huge effort into features that can only exist on the digital platform. But it can't be long till that changes.

GoodReads might be a start toward at least changing the social experience of reading. It's easy to imagine a Kindle program that lets you toggle into the forum for your book, or even your chapter, at any time while you're reading. Adding that social aspect could, for people who wanted it, make reading Kindle editions a dramatically different, more communal experience than reading print editions. And it wouldn't require any changes to the print edition at all.

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