Hats Off to You, Bookish: Goodreads Acquisition Validates the Bookish Strategy
For the last few years, Bookish.com — the joint venture between S&S, Hachette, and Penguin — has seen a number of iterations and had its share of setbacks. Most articles — including this one — tend to lead with a description of all the difficulties Bookish has had, from CEO change-overs to more than a year in delays. Even fresh off its launch several weeks ago there’s a lot of discussion about what role Bookish.com fills in the ecosystem and whether or not it’s addressing a consumer need. When it was announced yesterday that Goodreads.com was being acquired by Amazon, one of Forbes’ headlines covering the announcement was Amazon Buys Goodreads. Take That, Bookish! As if it’s another string of bad luck in the Bookish saga.
Yet Goodreads’ removal from the independent space through acquisition is, to me, a tremendous validation of the three publishers’ strategy in creating the collaborative website. It makes Bookish, in hindsight, a very forward thinking move whose initial assumptions were just proven correct — regardless of how well the strategy is being executed on. It’s my opinion that Goodreads’ acquisition by Amazon was exactly the eventuality the publishers were hedging against. Because feature set aside, and the likelihood of success or failure aside, Bookish represents an important strategic element in the continuously changing balance of power between retailers and publishers in the book industry. Specifically, in the very public “frenemy” relationship that exists between many publishers, in general, and Amazon.com.
Amazon represents a tremendous volume of book sales, making them both essential to the success of books and extremely influential in terms of how they can direct the industry in pricing, marketing, and distribution.
Up until yesterday, one of the few independent pieces on the board that was capable of driving mass attention and purchasing dollars of readers was Goodreads.com. As an independent community of readers, it was one of the few places that publishers could turn to for a substantial volume of book marketing and reader attention outside of Amazon’s realm.
Personally, I believe that one of the primary roles of Bookish.com was and is to be a highly visible point of discussion around book content that isn’t controlled by Amazon. Without Goodreads in the independent space, the next contenders in line are admirable, but comparatively smaller in terms of total traffic. What you find after Goodreads’ departure from the independent space is a few contenders doing interesting things in a serious way — prominent ones being LibraryThing.com, theReadingRoom.com, Bookish.com and — if I can get away with saying so, BookLamp.org and the Book Genome Project. There are also a large number of interesting sites that help readers discover books, but tend to be less formal, like whatshouldireadnext.com. And, of course, while B&N and Apple are significant players, I don’t think either of them fill the same “book destination site” role that Goodreads does.
Regardless of what site we’re talking about, Goodreads.com clearly ruled the social space in books this generation, without question. Compete.com lists Goodreads’ monthly unique traffic at around 5,000,000 users. As far as I know, the next largest comparable site is LibraryThing.com, which (again according to Compete), has around 250,000 unique monthly users, roughly 5% of the size (that number of uniques is substantially underrepresented, though, as I know from discussions with LibraryThing that they have a much greater volume of traffic than that. Not sure what that means for the comparative accuracy for these numbers from Compete, in general). After that is probably TheReadingRoom.com at between 80,000 and 180,000, followed by Shelfari (which is owned by Amazon), and so forth. It’s too early to know where Bookish’s traffic is going to end up after the launch rush settles, but initial indications are it’s likely to stabilize initially around 40,000 uniques per month for the time being.
All those are respectable amounts, but the gulf between Goodreads and the next nearest contender is tremendous. None of the other sites, at the moment, are going to be capable of having the impact and marketing reach of Goodreads today from the publisher’s perspective. That means that, as in so many other cases, Amazon now has another platform publishers need to use in order to stay competitive.
From the perspective of the give and take, love and hate relationship that’s been present in the industry for some time between some publishers and Amazon.com, I’d be surprised if Goodreads’ acquisition by Amazon is likely to be viewed as a positive thing from the publisher perspective, though it’s by no means fair to describe all publishers under a single umbrella. I know a few people whose heart probably skipped a beat when the news first came out, even though most of them were probably not surprised.
But what would be worse is if this news had arrived and Bookish didn’t exist. Because at the end of the day, “We still have allies in this space,” is likely a comforting thought. And in a way, any independent that’s not owned by Amazon is a publisher ally by default until proven otherwise. The clearest ally, though, is Bookish. In fact, from a PR and marketing perspective, the fact that Bookish made it into the headline of an article on Forbes about two of the largest book discovery websites in the world marrying one another, despite being on the market only seven weeks and without the market share to justify it, is really rather remarkable.
And it goes to show that to some degree, Bookish is being successful at one of its primary roles already, regardless of its actual success at gaining traffic (which remains to be seen); it provides a foil in the conversation about the role of publishers in retail and the online space. In fact, in that sense, the timing of the acquisition coming shortly after Bookish’s launch is really well-suited. Can you imagine the discussion today had Bookish still been delayed when this happened? Or five months from now, when Bookish’s launch buzz had faded a bit and the daily grind of building a successful site was underway? Either way, it’s clear that Bookish is a different beast in the space, if nothing else because it seems unlikely that its long-term goal is to simply grow large and eventually be purchased as part of an exit strategy.
Whether Bookish.com will ultimately be successful at occupying mindshare and traffic, or whether it’s the right “next contender” in the space, remains to be seen. I believe that there are a lot of questions yet to answer in terms of its features and role from the consumer perspective, most of whom could care less about publishing politics. After all, Goodreads is still a great community, now with far greater resources than it had before, and it’s still the top of the game and will stay there. Whether its user experience will improve as a result of the acquisition also remains to be seen.
I do believe this, though — whether obviously or subtly, I believe that Goodreads’ step out of the independent space leaves a vacuum for someone else to step into, but they won’t do it by trying to repeat more of what Goodreads already does. It’s going to have to be something fundamentally different.
But in the mean time, hats off to you, Bookish. Well done.