Members Of Most-Successful Online Book Review Community Latest To Become Digital Sharecroppers

I write for a living and rarely contribute original work to social sites; I’m simply not interested in enriching for-profit entities for free.

Until a couple days ago, Goodreads was the sole exception. I contributed book reviews to the privately owned book community site because I valued the reviews posted by others and wanted to give something back.

Goodreads even emitted a nice, warm, fuzzy sense of community — right up until the owners announced they’d sold it to publishing bad-boy Amazon for (an estimated) $150 million.

Exit the warm and fuzzy.


Amazon’s role model?


We’re all aware the real money in Web 2.0 is in digital sharecropping; get others to contribute content and build your network (on your land), then sell the result to the highest bidder. (You can read the always-astute Nicholas Carr’s thoughts on digital sharecropping here.)

Now, as has happened so many times before, the owners are rich and the users — whose contributions created the real value of the site — are left wondering what just happened.

Amusingly, the Goodreads announcement of the sale reads like it was crowdsourced; it answered few obvious questions, fostered a handful of new questions, and cheerleaded Amazon’s Kindle so often that every Kindle-free Goodreads member knows they just became a second-class citizen.

For a $150 million sale, you’d think they’d hire a good PR writer.

It seems clear Amazon bought Goodreads not simply for its 16 million users or its treasure trove of independent reviews (Amazon’s reviews are becomingly increasingly irrelevant due to attempts to manipulate them). According to The Atlantic, the 80/20 rule applies to readers too; 20% of the population reads 80% of the books.

Amazon’s betting a sizable percentage of that 20% are Goodreads members (total membership 16 million). To a bookseller and publisher, owning that resource is a lot like finding a shiny new bike beneath the Christmas tree.

Amazon already bought the second biggest book site (Shelfari — which has languished under their ownership), and they hold a small stake in the third largest (Librarything, which seems relatively independent).

They didn’t make these investments out of a love of books, and you wonder what book-related properties are safe from the Godzilla of digital sales.

On the Goodreads site, member responses to the announcement now run to 42 pages, and outside of a fair number of first-page kudos, those responses are overwhelmingly negative. In fact, the link to the announcement has disappeared from Goodread’s front page and from member pages. [UPDATE: I just received the Goodreads email newsletter — sent less than a week after the announcement — and there’s no mention of the sale. Hmmmm.]

Many members haven’t forgotten last year’s holy war with the very same Amazon over metadata — and the amount of work many of them invested building the site’s own metadata when Amazon denied Goodreads access. More than a few pointed out the Orwellian turnabout.

Eventually, member discontent will die. Those who can’t stomach Amazon will leave (I downloaded my book lists and reviews before deleting them from Goodreads, though I still hold my empty account), and I suspect Amazon will do very little to upset a wary membership, at least for a while.

Keep writing, Tom Chandler.