When Amazon announced in March that it would acquire Goodreads in the second quarter of the year, there was much handwringing, along with tweeting and Facebooking, especially by independent booksellers. This blog post from Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., to its customers was typical: “Because we are an independent bookstore and Amazon is in direct competition with us, we’ve deleted our Goodreads account.” Cinda Meister, co-owner of BookSmart in Morgan Hill, Calif., was equally “dismayed,” she told PW. “It’s just Amazon having one more piece of the book business,” she said. The megaretailer fully owns one Goodreads competitor, Shelfari, and acquired a 40% chunk, later diluted, of another, LibraryThing, through its purchase of AbeBooks.
As booksellers and publishers get ready for BookExpo America, some are hoping that the American Booksellers Association will find an alternative to Goodreads by the end of the show. “It certainly came up at some of the spring forums,” said ABA content officer Dan Cullen, adding that the subject is on the agenda for the ABA board meeting directly before BEA. “To me,” said Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., “at the bottom of this discussion is how we think about our customers. Online sellers think of them as data points, and the Goodreads deal merely proves that. Bookstore people think of customers as fellow readers whom we are trying to serve and make a living in the process.”
But that’s only one piece of it. Some bookstores, like Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., used Goodreads internally as a closed group. “We used it to make blurbs, shelftalkers, and to submit for IndieNext,” explained co-owner Becky Anderson. “You put it down once and can reuse it,” she added. Anderson, like other booksellers, searches Goodreads for comments on advance reading copies to see how bloggers and other early readers react to forthcoming titles before placing buys for the store. While ABA weighs what it can afford to build and how long it will take, Anderson is considering other possibilities. “We’re thinking of creating a separate Web site that will link to our site to let people put down their reader blurbs,” she said. Even if that is successful, she’d like to see the ABA create an app with all the book recommendations that it’s received over the years.
Booksellers in Northern California, where Goodreads is based, have trust issues after partnering with the company for the holidays on the Goodreads Choice Awards. “I saw that as a first step in a bigger partnership,” said Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz—one of many to feel let down by the purchase. “We have so much in common with Goodreads. It was one of the sites where we felt that there was trust to promote it to our customers.” While she recognizes that it’s unrealistic for ABA to recreate an indie version of Goodreads by tomorrow, Protti would like the booksellers association to consider taking parts of the Goodreads experience and making them its own. “We need to be interactive,” she said. “We need to figure out a few of the buckets of how people used it and do what we do best, working with the community, and translate that into our digital space.”
Other platforms are eager to fill the vacuum left by Goodreads and to lure away at least a portion of its 17 million members. In recent weeks, several competitors have been launched, including Riffle, which has been garnering bookseller buzz since it went live in early May. At the request of customers, it will soon offer a way for Goodreads users to export their data to it.
Powered by Odyl, one of Facebook’s “preferred marketing developers,” Riffle has a Pinterest-style interface and is geared to the mobile experience with “single-serving” content that can then be shared back into a big network. Its first single-serving format is a list of books, but Odyl founder and CEO Neil Baptista promised additional formats soon. “Our approach is informed by looking at the fastest-growing sites and apps on the Internet, like Buzzfeed, Flipboard, and Upworthy.com. We spend a lot of time deconstructing the way that these sites have generated massive traffic,” he said.
Zola Books, which will be in beta through the summer, is taking a different approach. Headed by former agent Joe Regal, this Amazon alternative is trying to become a social site that incorporates book news and features with digital book sales and eventually audio. From the start, Zola has courted indies, and it ramped up that process at the end of March when it went live with the Zola Pledge to enable readers to buy e-books on the site while supporting their local independent booksellers. To date, 137 booksellers have signed on.
But that’s not the only way that Zola is encouraging booksellers to participate in its community. Booksellers, authors, publishers, magazines, and bloggers can create their own Zola storefronts. As Regal sees it, Zola is about connection and community. “We’re kind of Amazon meets Goodreads and more,” he said. How much more isn’t clear, since much of the site is still a work in progress. “I wish it were faster,” said Regal, who compares building Zola to writing a novel. “Even if you know where it’s going, you still have to write the chapters.” He expects to introduce more facets of the Zola community by the time BEA occurs.
Bookish—the book discovery platform founded by Penguin, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster, which went live in February—is also welcoming Goodreads users. “What we’re trying to do,” said CEO Ardy Khazaei, “is give people the insight of publishers large and small around their books.” Bookish also has a patent-pending algorithm that it uses to recommend books, although it creates some lists manually, like the ones for “essential” books. Khazaei stressed that Bookish is “in the early stages” in terms of point of view, participants, and functions. The site offers buyers the option to purchase books online through Indiebound, but he’d like to do a better job of integrating independents. “We’re trying to get more integrated with Indiebound,” he noted. “The publishers all want independents to survive, and by extension, so do I.”
While most reading and book-discovery initiatives have originated in the U.S., BookLikes, a Tumblr-esque platform for readers that went live last week, is based in Poland. Cofounder and CEO Dawid Piaskowski considers the U.S. market his #1 priority, followed by Germany, and he’s planning to set up a U.S. headquarters. He considers BookLikes more personal than Goodreads. Users create a virtual bookshelf, reading timeline, and blog. They can also get 100% of the commission from sales made via the bookstore of their choice. In a few weeks, users will also be able to sync BookLikes with Goodreads and Facebook. New updates will include more personalization and allow for synchronization with reading apps. BookLikes is already in 12 countries and plans to add more coverage.
Whether any of these companies will be the right fit for indies isn’t clear yet. But booksellers will be testing them as they continue to look for ways to connect with readers online.