The Death Star Strikes Back

04/08/2013

A few weeks ago, the Christian Science Monitorpublished a cover story on the resurgence of independent bookstores. Though the news isn’t all good–of the sales growth discussed in the piece, a noteworthy amount came from products like wine and summer camps for kids, rather than from books–one comes away from the story feeling that the hemorrhaging has stopped. Indies seem to have enjoyed sustainable levels of profit in 2012, with some reporting their best year on record. E-book sales have taken a bite out of print but not a fatal one, and many analysts are suggesting that most of the people who are likely to switch to e-readers have already done so. Meanwhile, booksellers have benefited greatly from the buy-local movement and become one of the most reliable quality-of-life indicators you’ll find. A town without an independent bookstore is a town that is likely to have other problems.

Less than two weeks after the Monitor piece came out, though, the Death Star struck back: Amazon bought Goodreads. The response from Goodreads users on social media has been disproportionately negative, and Authors’ Guild President Scott Turow called the deal “a textbook example of how modern Internet monopolies can be built.” Rob Spillman of Tin House probably speaks for many small publishers and authors in this piece for Salon, in which he bemoans his naivety, his willingness to believe that there could exist a social-media site built around disinterested enthusiasm for books rather than commerce. It is a measure of how well Amazon plays the game that an acquisition no one saw coming suddenly looks like a no-brainer. If the company did nothing else, it bought a lot of valuable data and eliminated a potential competitor. But I would bet that they did something else, too.

One thing it looks like they may have done is take yet another step toward eliminating independent bookstores. I haven’t seen any statistics on overlap between Goodreads users and independent bookstore customers, but it stands to reason that the overlap is substantial. Both Goodreads and indies cater to the most knowledgeable subset of book buyers, and those most disappointed with the merger seem to be owners and patrons of small bookstores.

I wonder, though. I don’t see any of those trends in the Monitor piece being materially altered by the Goodreads deal. I have a hard time imagining the customer of an independent bookstore who could be lured to Amazon by social media at this late date in internet history. Those of us who don’t close our Goodreads accounts may be helping Amazon refine its business by donating our data, and I certainly understand why that alone would be reason enough to quit the site. But I’m not sure we’d be helping them sell books at the expense of indies.

What seems more likely is that Goodreads will help Amazon get better at selling books to the people who already buy exclusively from Amazon. Though we tend to think of economic competition as a strict zero-sum game, it is not always so. It seems possible that with this acquisition, Amazon is not taking yet another piece of the same pie but making the overall pie bigger.

mark lane
Mark Lane

Mark Lane is the Director of Communications at Submittable. He is also a writer with work in the American Scholar, the Oxford American, Denver Quarterly, New Orleans Review, The Believer, and elsewhere.