A loss of independence? Goodreads by Amazon

Everyone seems to have been taken by surprise by the announcement that Goodreads is being taken over by Amazon, and generally there seems to be concern about Amazon taking over the world of online bookselling. The Authors’ Guild’s observation that it is a “truly devastating act of vertical integration” has not found complete agreement, but this blog is, unsurprisingly, more concerned with how the change is going to affect indie authors.

As many readers of this blog may have discovered for themselves, Amazon has an erratic and somewhat ruthless approach to the way reviews are posted for indie books. That this scrutiny was probably triggered by the fake reviews scandal last year shows that this is not a situation unique to indie authors, but it does seem that reviews of indie-authored books are scrutinised much more closely than those from print publishers. Certainly anecdotal evidence gathered at allonymbooks indicates that indie authors do find reviews of their books just disappearing.

From an indie point of view, Goodreads represented a safe haven, as it were, where there were strong forum communities supporting and interested in indie books. Being reader-driven it was perceived as free-standing of commercial interest from any individual bookseller, providing as it did links to B&N and other retailers as well as Amazon for book purchases, and it has done well in the past to promote a sense that reading, the enjoyment of books, and the sharing of reading experiences are its paramount goals. One presumes that those other retailer links will go in due course, as Amazon is hardly likely to want that option available. And so, one fears, might the perception of that not only is the site free-standing, but also that its aim is to share the enjoyment of books. It would be very sad if it became a marketplace, where the loudest shouters win the customers, for Goodreads has up to now managed to keep that small community/big community feeling.

The main concern for allonymbooks is that Amazon will start trawling through the reviews posted on Goodreads, harvesting, culling and editorialising in a space where it has no right to do so. We have already banged the drum for indie publishing as a space for writing independently, a freedom of creative speech if you like, but it is just as essential that reviewing continues to retain that freedom too. It is not for Amazon to judge authors for agreeing to improve the critical baseline by exchanging impartial reviews. Newspapers have been doing it for years, when they invite one author to review the book of another. Do we have concerns about Louise Doughty’s review of Julie Myerson’s new novel The Quickening because they happened to be teaching together on a novel-writing course in February? Do we think she doesn’t really mean it when she criticises the early scenes for being ‘a little too speedy’? Of course we don’t.

A commenter on the Amazon/Goodreads story at Guardian Books today suggested that other review sites will bubble up in place of Goodreads if it looks like the site is going to lose its impartiality. Otis Chandler of Goodreads said “we have no plans to change the Goodreads experience and Goodreads will continue to be the wonderful community we all cherish”. But indie authors are likely to be watching very closely to see if the site will retain its genuine support for indie authors by allowing free and open reviewing, or whether reviews will start to disappear by an invisible Amazon hand.

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