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Social Review Site Goodreads Dumps Amazon’s Metadata
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Posted On February 6, 2012


The publishing industry is under enormous pressure for change as we move into the 21st century. This also brings potential changes for authors, booksellers, and libraries. As readers are adjusting to the internet for reading, buying, and selling books, they are also becoming a significant force in the publishing paradigm as they use the medium to recommend or pan books, affecting sales and, potentially, future publishing trends. One such social reviewing site is Goodreads, which has found itself at the center of the movement due to its aggressive and successful business model and due to some of the issues arising from its success.

Founded in 2006 and launched in January 2007, Goodreads is a privately held “social cataloging” website—not specifically serving libraries, but bibliophiles—aiming to offer “the most comprehensive database of quality book reviews on the planet.” Currently offering more than 10 million reviews of 700,000 titles, the company is the largest independent source for independent reviews and discussions of the full range of books. Goodreads isn’t the only major project hoping to create online communities of book reviews and resources for the serious book readers. Three other key players include Bowker’s Fiction Connection and Non-Fiction Connection; Gale’s reader’s advisory product, Books & Authors; and EBSCO’s NoveList.

Goodreads Dumps Amazon in Favor of Ingram

Goodreads offers authors a chance to form new types of connections between authors and their audiences. Authors are able to create author pages that their fans can follow through comments and by following their blogs. This enables authors to independently create new relationships with their readers—offering giveaways, publicizing events, or even vetting ideas or potential new projects. Goodreads also allows users to “recommend books, compare what they are reading, keep track of what they’ve read and would like to read, find their next favorite book, form book clubs and much more.”

Until 2 weeks ago, Goodreads relied on Amazon book information for basic metadata on titles. This arrangement allowed Goodreads access to cover art on books as well. However, Goodreads decided that Amazon’s restrictive API agreements—not allowing for use of Amazon data on mobile apps and the inability of linking to competing bookstores—made the continuing relationship untenable. Goodreads noted to the PaidContent blog that its “goal is to be an open place for all readers to discover and buy books from all retailers, both online and offline.” Amazon’s API was actually developed for affiliate marketers in order to allow them to feature books on their websites, driving referral sales to Amazon—and Amazon alone. Restrictions that might work for other booksellers weren’t working for this social book networking site.

Goodreads, instead, is now using metadata from Ingram, “the largest wholesaler of books in the U.S.,” according to Goodreads founder and CEO Otis Chandler. “Our agreement with them will ensure accurate and reliable information for the foreseeable future.” Skip Prichard, Ingram president and CEO, declined to comment to NewsBreaks, noting that “Ingram does not comment on its customers.” Additionally, Goodreads noted that they “are working with dozens of other open data sources, such as libraries, to find book records from all over the world.” This includes WorldCat, ISBNdb, Library of Congress, German National Library, British National Library, “all major American publishers and many smaller American publishers.”

Chandler commented in the press release of Jan. 20 that “Amazon’s data has been great for us for many years, but the terms that come with it have gotten more and more restrictive, and we were finally forced to come to the conclusion that moving to other data sources will be better for Goodreads and our members.” Goodreads’ reviews, member ratings, and bookshelves remain within the company’s data vaults, and the company was working with members to use tools in the Goodreads Librarians source data to help ‘rescue’ any inadvertently orphaned works. Goodreads assured their members that “not a single review, comment, shelving, or rating will be lost in this transition. That's the most important thing—your data is 100% safe.”

Building a 21st Century Recommender Site

In October 2010, Goodreads opened its API to developers, allowing them access to its ratings and titles. Today, its reviews are used by a wide variety of organizations, such as Alibris, BetterWorldBooks, Blio, edelweiss, Google books, LexCycle, Los Angeles Public Library, Powell’s Books, USA Today, and WorldCat.

In March 2011, Goodreads acquired Discovereads in order to fuel the added ability to recommend titles, which it launched in September. According to Discovereads’ own descriptions, their algorithm is a combination of multiple machine learning algorithms and graph analysis that they used to spot emerging trends and analyze book ratings. Discovereads’ algorithm, as noted by Mashable  “is largely based on what’s on a reader's bookshelf and what other readers with similar bookshelves have enjoyed reading. It also takes into account why you liked a book. When a reader categorizes The Help as 'historical fiction,' the algorithm will react differently than when he or she classifies it as 'racism.’”

Goodreads mission is “to help people find and share books they love. Along the way, we plan to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” An interesting, collaborative model, Goodreads supports core needs and interests of both readers and their authors—as well as the supportive system that supports them (bookstores, libraries, schools, publishers). “Reading may be a solitary activity,” Chandler notes. “But what you’re reading and what you think of what you’re reading are ideas. And ideas are much better if they’re shared.”

Author and blogger John Corwin notes that “while Twitter, Facebook, G+ and the other social networks offer you a way to reach the masses (some of whom have questionable literary interests), Goodreads has already filtered out the weeds and offers you some of the most voracious readers on the planet.”

Issues of Reputation & Trust

Just a few days before the Goodreads announcement, the New York Times ran a story on how some online retailers are paying for faked positive reviews in order to improve their image and potential sales. The author noted that, “as the collective wisdom of the crowd displaces traditional advertising, the roaring engines of e-commerce are being stoked by favorable reviews.” The Times story found that Amazon merchant VIP Deals apparently offered money to those willing to submit fake reviews about their products to increase their sales. Not only unethical, the Federal Trade Commission is now investigating these for violations of the law. Pagejacking of information content to build or ‘pad’ a copycat type of site is another growing issue.

Trust is key in the ecommerce environment and sites like Goodreads have been able to create a strong community and reputation for quality and fairness by design. As 21st century publishing continues to evolve, publishers and authors have their own concerns about ‘citizen reviews,’ as Publishers Weekly calls the growing reliance that buyers place on reviews from other users or buyers as opposed to ‘experts.’

Recently, an author and agent reacted quickly, and publicly, to a negative book review posted on Goodreads. In reaction, the reviewer, Wendy Darling, was quoted as noting that in the new age, reviewers are “ordinary citizens” and today “it's impossible to regulate social media, but what you can do is regulate your reactions.” PW concludes that “some writers seem unsure about how to handle social media and public criticism from readers.” With sites like Goodreads growing in size and power, writers and publishers will need to adjust to this type of immediate, swift, and sometimes negative reactions to their works.

Future of Growth & Change

“Overall,” Chandler tells NewsBreaks, “the reaction to our decision [on Amazon's API] has been positive. It’s recognized that making this move sets us up for creating an even more robust Goodreads database that’s built for our future growth. The publishing industry is an exciting one to be in right now. Where there’s so much change, there’s also a lot of opportunity. 2011 was a great year for us—we acquired Discovereads which allowed us to launch our new Book Recommendation Engine, we doubled the number of Goodreads members, and we’re now recognized as a key marketing partner for publishers and authors.”

Kelly Gallagher, Bowker VP of Publishing, tells NewsBreaks: “For consumers it’s all about choice and instant or near instant access to content.” We can expect to see more recommender sites—and more controversy—in the coming year as these systems continue to grow and impact book publishing, buying, and reading.


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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