The deal Goodreads should’ve struck (hint: it wasn’t with Amazon)

In my dream team, fantasy publishing startup league, I would have had Goodreads buy Readmill. Here are two startups with similarly overlapping problems. I understand why Amazon bought Goodreads, and why Goodreads sold itself to Amazon. But as a reader and lover of competition in the world of publishing, there is a compelling alternative universe in which a Goodreads plus Readmill combination offered us all a unique alternative to Amazon.

Great UX, thwarted by walled gardens

Readmill is a great reading environment. That their designers obsess on visceral user experience makes it a true pleasure to use. It may very well be the best “feeling” ereader application out there. This is a critical attribute for an environment in which you can spend hours a day.
But it suffers from the thing that any book-related company or product or startup that is not a Kindle suffers from: It’s a slog to get content into it.
This is a discussion less about DRM (although, it is that, too) and more about seamless user experience. Sure, you can hunt down a copy of “Gone Girl” on a website you’ve never bought a book from before. Enter your credit-card information. Download it. Then upload it to your Readmill account. Or, you can click “Buy now with 1-Click” on and have it on all your devices in 10 seconds, ready to be read in the Kindle reading application. You have to be really persuasive to beat that kind of convenience.
Since Amazon would never allow its library to be accessed by reading applications other than Kindle, this is a non-trivial problem for a startup like Readmill to surmount.

A community to challenge Amazon

Goodreads has always been a bit of an enigma. Truth be told, I’ve never been an avid user. There’s a number of reasons why, but the biggest is simply that the distance between my books — and the activity that happens within them — and Goodreads has always seemed ginormous. That is, updating reading statuses for books on a website always felt odd and forced. It felt odd in 2007 when I was mainly reading physical books, and it feels odder still in 2013, where I’m mainly reading Kindle books. That said, 16 million people clearly don’t agree with me.
So why did Amazon buy Goodreads? Well, the promise of a collaboration between Goodreads and a great reading platform (like Readmill) loomed large. A combination like that had the chance of being the Last Great Stand against Amazon. Goodreads is many things but most defensibly it is a community. A strong community. An engaged community. (And now, a slightly enraged community.) Sixteen million users is nothing to dismiss. It’s not Facebook or Instagram levels, but 16 million excited people is a firehose to be reckoned with. What Goodreads didn’t have was a reading application.
It also should be noted that publishers love Goodreads. No surprise there; it’s just as one would imagine. Goodreads is an amazing platform for promoting books to an avid, core readership. So if Goodreads were to develop a reading application, it doesn’t take much imagination to see them signing up the catalogs of the big five and launching a Goodreads store for the Goodreads reader. And were that reading application to plug seamlessly into the Goodreads ecosystem — the community — then getting those 16 million users to switch from Kindle to Goodreads Reader would have been one of the easier platform sells in publishing.
Goodreads users already want to hang out at Goodreads. If they could read there too — in an app — I suspect many would.

Kindle flaws present opportunity

Despite the maturity of the market, the tablet reading space is still weirdly under-polished. Kindle reading environments have hardly changed in the last three years. The Kindle app has seen some improvement — mainly in support for complex KF8 formatted titles — but the polish around the reading experience, that visceral component, for novels and other mass-market books has remained largely unchanged. Books in the Kindle applications still don’t hyphenate. And page slides still stutter ever so slightly. These are small details that add up.
Certain polish aside, Kindle’s strengths are manifold. It has a vast catalog and transactional trust. It has all our credit-card information, making purchasing seamless. It is also supremely good at cloud data — consistent and reliable storage and retrieval of our books across devices. What it doesn’t have — and no inkling or iota of — is community.

What might have been

So you can see, there was a combo here. A curious matchup. Take one of the most polished, most satisfying digital book reading applications and merge it with one of the most engaged reading-specific communities. A marketplace could have developed that might have been the first real competition against Kindle. Not one built around competing with Kindle toe-to-toe as Barnes & Noble and Kobo have attempted (and failed at), but competing on ground on which Amazon has no footing: community.
It’s a certainty that Amazon, too, saw this. Which is why the sale this week comes as little surprise. I’ve always imagined that secretly, deep down in the murky stacks of Amazon headquarters, they had a crackerjack team making the best social reading network in the world. Maybe they did. Or maybe they just realized it would be easier to buy the one that already existed.
Craig Mod is an independent writer, designer and publisher focused on publishing and storytelling. You can follow him on Twitter @craigmod.
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