Bookish vs. Amazon, Goodreads: Community or Commerce?


As an advocate of community-oriented publishing (and marketing), I’m a big fan of publisher initiatives like Macmillan’s, Criminal Element and Work in Progress; F+W’s recently announced acquisition of Tyrus Books and launch of F+W Crime; and to a lesser degree (conceptually at least), Random House’s Word and Film. Many other publishers have become more savvy about engaging with existing communities of readers on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, with Atomic Fez Publishing being one of the more intriguing examples.

Of course, last week’s much hyped and completely vague announcement of Bookish, a new joint venture between three of the “Big 6” — Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin Group — caught my attention, not for its unusual (but not unprecedented) collaborative angle, but for its disappointingly unimaginative and shortsighted value proposition:

[Penguin Group USA CEO David Shanks] said the three publishers came together after it became clear that their individual sites would never drive enough traffic to reach a critical mass of book buyers. As print media devotes less space to book coverage, the publishers felt they needed a way to raise the profile of their content, Shanks said.

Peter Fader, Professor of Marketing and Co-Director – Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative, is skeptical, noting one of the major challenges Bookish faces is lack of consumer demand:

[T]he initiative will require “a massive top-down marketing push. There is no existing groundswell of interest. It would be better if the publishers had a competition and told entrepreneurs to build an online one-stop shopping book world, because right now [the publishers] are not capable of creating the right kind of buzz themselves.”

Fader is simultaneously right and wrong. While there is no “groundswell of interest” for Bookish itself, he’s wrong that there’s no demand for the underlying concept, as it effectively occupies the no man’s land between Amazon and Goodreads, the yin and yang of the commerce vs. community conundrum.

As Carolyn Kellogg noted at the L.A. TimesJacket Copy, “[Bookish] sounds a little like Goodreads. But Goodreads is about community first, book-selling second — while Bookish seems to be the other way around.”

And therein lies my main concern: Bookish solves a problem that only exists for publishers, not readers.


Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla in online book sales and they have a variety of under-the-radar community-esque initiatives, including targeted blogs and publishing imprints, not to mention the ability to do the kind of targeted marketing that no publisher will ever be able to match. Also, Wall Street is finally acknowledging Barnes & Noble’s ability to compete digitally, so Bookish’s SWOT analysis on the commerce side isn’t pretty, heavy on the Weaknesses and Threats.

Meanwhile, on the community side, Goodreads is on the verge of signing up its 5-millionth member and recently acquired Discovereads, a “taste engine” that will offer recommendations based on the books users have read and rated, which is exactly what Bookish claims it will offer its non-existent users when it launches. Goodreads is also a publisher-, retailer-and format-agnostic platform that puts community first while enabling multiple revenue streams, from affiliate sales through a variety of retailers, numerous marketing angles for publisher partners (and individual authors), and most recently, direct sales of DRM-free ebooks.

How can a publisher-driven initiative that, PR spin aside, is undoubtedly focused on commerce first possibly compete in this space, especially one that’s making one of the biggest mistakes so many other similar ventures have made, staffing up with expensive executives before a single dollar has been made?

What angle can they offer readers that isn’t available on more established ecommerce sites with existing customer relationships?

And, perhaps the toughest question of them all, are they willing and able to compete with Amazon, on price, undercutting indie booksellers in the process?

Bookish isn’t doomed to failure by any stretch, but as Fader notes, if publishers can’t effectively promote their own books via existing sales and marketing channels, how can they possibly hope to effectively promote a reader-centric website that will have to compete with those channels?

11 thoughts on “Bookish vs. Amazon, Goodreads: Community or Commerce?

  1. Very useful post. One also wonders where the vertical reality fits in the Bookish scheme of things. Will the site be niched in its presentation?

    It is hard to imagine how the big publishers can drive the traffic they need from a standing start. This is a huge chicken-and-egg problem because without traffic you have no magnet to generate traffic, particularly against the competition you enumerated.

    1. Their partnership with HuffPo appears to be the wildcard, but I refrained from commenting on that aspect until there’s more information on how and where they integrate on the content side. If HuffPo Books is any indication of what’s to come, I suspect the publishers will be very disappointed in the quality of the audience they end up with.

      On the other hand, it may be the perfect forum to goose sales of Snooki’s novels and the Tumblr-to-book project du jour. Meh.

  2. I checked out the Boookish site earlier this week and wondered where the next step will be. If I were strictly a consumer, I would have ignored it completely especially with such great services already out there like Goodreads. I’m interested in seeing how the site develops and if it will meet a need that is out there.

    1. The welcome email doesn’t really offer any extra insight on what to expect: “…connect with your favorite authors and books through exciting and original editorial, unique tools and more.” It will be interesting to watch it unfold, though.

  3. I’m not at all sure readers want publishers to tell them what to read next in a ‘buy me’ context. When a bookseller ‘hand sells’ a book it’s a neutral recommendation – yes they’re trying to sell a book, which goes to their bottom line, but the brand allegiance is to the retail operation, not to a particular publisher or group of publishers. And if the sales clerk does no better with his/her intuitive algorithms than online book etailers do with their recommendations, there will surely be blow back (as in, ‘I may never shop at that store again or I’ll never buy another book Peggy Sue recommends – our tastes are widely divergent’).

    However, Canada’s House of Anansi is doing something very interesting with its own web site. They profile readers on a monthly basis. Those readers become first reviewers and advocates for new titles in a process that’s almost seamless (I’m constantly startled to get new titles in the mail. I’m also thrilled, and, having responded openly and fulsomely in my interview and being connected with them on Goodreads, the books they send me ARE in fact ones I like). So it’s not that publishers can’t hand sell. It’s just that attempting to sell before one promotes is very much putting the cart in front of the horse. While I haven’t yet read Curation Nation and I certainly didn’t intentionally set out to become any kind of curator, I see from the responses I get to what I’m reading and the reviews I post on Goodreads that I am influencing others’ reading choices. This is something I do with integrity and full disclosure, however – I don’t give my clients’ books five-star reviews.

    So I’ve signed up for Bookish and we’ll see what happens. I still think – despite Goodreads’ phenomenal growth – that awareness of it as a site is still very low even among avid readers and certainly among writers. I do my best to introduce clients to Goodreads and encourage them to tap into an existing community of millions of readers and book buyers as readers themselves. But most of the people I ‘know’ on Goodreads are people I’ve encountered via Twitter or blogs – they’re not people I know in real life.

    The other thing is, libraries are now trying to grow community on their sites as well – my last visit to the library I was encouraged to start posting reviews on my local library’s site. At some point this starts to become too much unpaid work and this is what makes me worry about what will happen with Bookish. At some point we all have to step away from the computer. Or the iPhone. 🙂

    1. What’s most impressed me about Goodreads’ growth is that it’s been totally viral. They haven’t done any “massive top-down marketing push” and yet have attracted 5,000,000 members by focusing on creating a useful platform and constantly improving it. I’ve not seen anything to convince me that a traditional publisher has the mindset or long-term discipline to accomplish something like that. Not saying it’s impossible, but I’m definitely skeptical.

  4. It seems likely that one day GoodReads will be sold to one of the publishers, or to some other media giant. This seems to happen to all the big sites. Where will that leave the readers?

    1. That’s certainly possible, and depending on whom acquires it, it could be a good or bad thing for its users. I suspect, though, that because of its positioning and revenue streams, acquisition by a publisher is unlikely. I’m actually surprised B&N hasn’t gone after them yet.

  5. For another take on community based publishing, take a look at what Wink Publishing are up to.

    Getting readers to decide what gets published rather than relying on an editor’s view should help engage readers, raise awareness of the book & help sales.

    It’s early days, but with eBooks changing the way readers look for books, it could be interesting.

  6. If one of the major houses buys up, they’ll have to retail everyone’s books, eh? Then the real fun begins.

  7. As always, thank you for your insight on these things. I haven’t been able to get into the swing of Goodreads, and I’m already overwhelmed trying to keep up with the communities I’m involved with. Quite the times we are living in.

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