Confusing as it may sound, this is what is playing out in the larger publishing world right now. Publishers are upset because Amazon is becoming a successful publisher. So Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster thought they would try becoming booksellers, like Amazon. Thus was born Bookish, a website where the three publishers are trying to out-Amazon Amazon with book recommendations, reviews, and sales. The problem is that the three publishers involved are basing this endeavor on an incorrect assumption. Amazon is not a bookseller.
On the surface, Amazon still appears to be giving a lot of attention to selling books (and many other things), but really that is just a clever front disguising its real business: technology. Amazon is a high-tech giant; do not think that just because its technology is manifested through an online storefront it is any less tech-savvy than Google. Amazon Web Services is Amazon’s true power base; selling stuff to people is just a way to monetize the incredible database and processing technologies the company has developed. The ultimate irony? For Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster to create a website to compete with Amazon’s bookstore front end, the publishers had to use Amazon’s EC2 web services to get Bookish online.
Amazon can tackle publishing because the company approached the industry as a technology issue and found technology solutions. As a result, the model Amazon developed is quite disruptive. For good or for bad, Amazon publishing is having an impact on the market as a whole and is coming up with intriguing new products. For example, Kindle Singles uses the digital aspect of this new publishing model to efficiently sell shorter works like essays and novellas. Thanks to the technology, works that traditionally were sold only in collections have emerged as a new market segment that showcases top authors.
For technological innovations, Bookish seems to be focusing on recommendations and reviews, neither is very innovative—especially not when all of the reviews are imported from LibraryThing. It seems that the recommendation engine might be LibraryThing-based as well, given the high level of overlap in results. For example, most of the suggestions on Bookish for Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief are also top recommendations on LibraryThing. This is also true of what I would consider an odd (though actually very appropriate) choice from LibraryThing, Hayso Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
The overlap is remarkably similar for other titles. There was one work on the Bookish list, however, that wasn’t on the list of top recommendations from LibraryThing. India, by Sherwood Smith, shows up on Bookish as the first recommendation. The problem is that it is an adult book while all of the others are written for a YA or children’s audience, as is The Thief. Why was India picked for the top recommendation?
In the February 22 Huffington Post, Peter Winkler took a deeper look into Bookish and its claims of editorial independence from the three publishers who foot the bill for the site. What he found was far from independence: All of the top stories, all of the front-page books, and all of the advertising on Bookish were for titles published by Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster. Given this, I took a closer look at Sherwood Smith’s India. This adult title, which Bookish ranked as the top suggestion to follow a book written for 6th–8th graders (and the only one that didn’t seem to come right from LibraryThing) was published by Daw, an imprint of Penguin.
With an increasing emphasis on ebooks, the issues around discovery, and other emerging topics, modern publishing is rapidly turning into a technology industry. It is certainly laudable that Hachette, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster are making an effort at embracing technology, but they are missing the point. When Amazon took on publishing, it didn’t outsource the job. Amazon played to its organizational strengths to find how its technology might enhance the publishing process. Three publishers getting together to build a site that runs on a competitor’s technology and imports reviews and recommendations from an existing service isn’t playing to any strengths. Why would I want to use a commercially biased version of LibraryThing when I could just use LibraryThing? Or, to be quite frank, when I could just use Amazon’s pretty solid recommendation engine and reviews?
The takeaway for libraries? We had better figure out how to become technology companies. Our industry is becoming increasingly intertwined with the tech world. We need to be just as nimble, innovative, responsive, creative, and successful as Amazon and the other tech giants.