Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A bit of doggerel, and how I ended up writing about Amazon/Goodreads after all

I'm back in the States, dear Reader, and if it weren't for the fact that I caught the flu on the way back and am still sick, I might be doing something sensible like a proper blog post about marketing or the Amazon purchase of Goodreads.

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Oh OK no, I can't possibly write about Amazon buying Goodreads. My feelings about that are so complicated they defeat expression, and besides, what do I know about big business? Instead I will relate to you my communications of today's date with another Amazon victim partner, The Book Depository. For a while this really rather lovely UK-based site had the edge over Amazon, because they offered free shipping with no minimum purchase--still an excellent option if you haven't succumbed to Prime or live in a place where Prime is not available.

Amazon bought The Book Depository in 2011, and since then...um...nothing seems to have changed. And this may be what happens with Goodreads, you know. Nothing. All good, right?

Hold that thought while I tell you what I've been doing instead of PROPER writing. I got an email from The Book Depository which contained this little poem:


And it prompted me to write this reply:

Dear Book Depository, don't be sad.
You haven't done anything bad!
Let me my buying habits explain
And spare you guys the dreadful pain
Of thinking you have injured me
When it's my fault; thing is, you see
A few years back I began to post
Reviews online, and it was most
Satisfactory to see how folks
Loved my opinions and little jokes.
It also brought me many books
From publishers via LibraryThing,
And emails (this rhyme won't scan) asking
If I could possibly take a look
At this or that GREAT indie book.

And THEN every last scribe
(Including me) started to bribe
Readers to download freebies many,
Onto our Kindles, Nooks and any
Other convenient e-location
So as reading's my vocation
I naturally grabbed my fill
And got enough to read until
Hell freezes over; and what's more,
The cost of sending to my door
Any book I wanted to buy
Used to mean I'd have to try
To buy a bunch of books at once
And given I'm no shopping dunce
BookDepository's free shipping
Stopped me from always nipping
Over to Amazon; but just in time
They bought YOU and started Prime
And now, alas! the arrow'd smile
Smirks all too often in the pile
Of bills that represent my reading,
And all the while your hearts are bleeding.

What can I say? I'm just a traitor
Lured by Amazon, that hungry 'gator.
I've got so many books to read
As explained above, that I hardly need
Another page; (which didn't prevent me
From applying--when you sent me
An email that boosted my esteem--
To join the BookDepository review team!)

But I still love ya; and to prove it
I've spent my voucher on a book, to wit
A history tome; you may rejoice
But now I must tell you that my choice
Was kindness merely; ah, if my pockets were deeper!
Amazon's got it for five dollars cheaper.

Always fun to write a bit of doggerel, but by the time I got round to buying the book I really DID buy just to show BD that I still love them, I realized some things:

- Amazon's purchase of BD tainted its indie status. When I look at its site or read its emails, the fact that it belongs to Amazon is always in my head, and I see my dollars as going, ultimately, to Amazon. I could be wrong about that; I have no idea what the financial arrangements were when the buyout happened. But while I can be loyal to a completely independent bookstore and tolerate slightly higher prices for the sake of that independence, there doesn't seem to be any point in paying substantially more to an Amazon company when I can get books from the mother ship for less.
- It seems to me that the price point for the same book on BD and Amazon used to be pretty close. But now...wow...I was looking up books to buy and comparing prices, and I'm seeing a $5-8 difference. Even with free shipping, BD's losing its edge.
- I haven't seen much change or innovation in the BD product over the last couple of years. They remain a bookseller, nice, ordinary and safe...possibly a happy haven for customers who don't want emails suggesting purchases of electronics or moisturizer. And yet...there's a REASON why stores like Target and Wal-Mart take up enormous slices of real estate in my local shopping malls. Most of us, however much we like to protest against it, rather like being tempted by that bar of chocolate or cute little t-shirt. Amazon is innovating; Book Depository is stagnating.
- And then I took a look at BD's audiobooks (the only thing they sell bar print books) and noted, with a small sob, that most of their Editor's Picks were "currently unavailable" and that, while their prices seemed pretty good (worth another look, methinks) the dread "currently unavailable" sticker  was to be seen on all too many products. Whereas "oh, Amazon'll have it" has pretty much become a byword in my family.

Tainted status, higher prices, stagnation and low inventory...oh, this is turning out to be a MUCH sadder post than I meant it to be. And I should remind you at this point that I'm not in the camp of those who believe Amazon is the Evil Empire. I admire what they've done for the consumer, and I'm happy to self-publish with them, although not exclusively. 

But here's what I'm seeing. You buy a competitor that has scads of fans in an important area of your business niche, fans who are there because the competitor has done things right. You buy them because otherwise, someone else with deep pockets may buy them and inject into them the only thing they need to become THE place where the bookish gather: cash. And then, you leave them alone. You don't fix the problems that prevent them from becoming great; you keep them as they are, with "well, that's what the users want" as your excuse. You mine their sales data and pick the brains of their top people, naturally, because that's the marrow in the bone, but now that you own them you know that those brilliant, obsessed people can't innovate AGAINST you.

Am I wrong? I'm thinking of Amazon's other great book-related buy, Audible.com, whose offering seems to have improved dramatically since the buyout. Their iPad/iPhone app is superb, their website is smooth, and the Whispersync for Voice and Immersion Reading products that have sprung from the Amazon-Audible relationship may be the start of a revolution in the way we read.

That's what I HOPE is going to happen with Goodreads. Most of you on Goodreads, where this blog gets more comments than on my site (and what's up with THAT?) are probably hoping the opposite, and that Amazon will leave Goodreads alone to be what it is. But be careful what you wish for, dear Reader. Think about The Book Depository.