Tom MacWright

tom@macwright.org

The new reading stack

Books are amazing, but the options we have to buy books and track our reading are terrible. A lot of us are locked into the Amazon ecosystem - buying books on Amazon.com, reading them on Kindles. Sites like AbeBooks and Goodreads were quietly acquired by Amazon. Even LibraryThing is now part-owned by Amazon.

Amazon embodies the idea that companies need to “maximize shareholder value” - a total falsehood invented in the 1970s by Milton Friedman but nevertheless a guiding principle for a lot of American corporations. The company started with books because they made business sense, and they acquired Goodreads for the reading data, and are now killing its ecosystem out of boredom or malice. Amazon has never cared about books.

Other companies can’t operate out of goodwill alone, but there are plenty of companies with more actual interest in reading, and with a less ruthless set of business practices.

I have my own bespoke system for tracking my reads, but crafting a Jekyll/YAML setup for books isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. And there are many social features I’ll never get on my own in this little website.

Thankfully, there are a lot of interesting new places for readers.

Indiebound

Indiebound stiches together data from lots of local bookstores to figure out where you can get a book locally. From there on, you’ll use the bookstore’s site - whether they support ordering online or picking it up.

Bookshop

Bookshop is the latest company to try and create a seamless and fun experience for buying from local bookstores, and they’re doing a pretty great job of it. Walking through the aisles of a quaint bookstore can turn you on to unexpected new books, sure, but for getting one particular book, Amazon has had an edge in convenience.

Bookshop lets you avoid Amazon and support bookstores – though it’s a bit indirect. You select a local bookstore and the receive a portion of the sale, but aren’t actually the ones supplying the books. Some bookstores have pushed back on the model, saying that it cuts into their in-person sales.

I think it’s a net positive: it does divert online sales from Amazon, and it supports local bookstores. Indiebound is a better option if your local bookstore delivers or you’d like to pick things up, but it’s really a direct replacement for Amazon - which I think Bookshop can be. And it doesn’t seem like the all bookshops have an issue - my local shop Dog Eared Books, links to their Bookshop page eagerly.

Bookmarks

Book Marks is sort of like Metacritic for books - an aggregator of trusted book reviewers that you can reference to quickly get a gauge of a book’s reception.

One thing that’s really cool with Book Marks & Bookshop both is that they eagerly support other sites embedding their review content - so you can see ratings of books on Bookshop that come from Book Marks. I could add a Book Marks (or Bookshop) widget to my reviews, if I wanted to. It’s a level of openness and sharing that’s uncommon in today’s web.

Italic Type

Italic Type is a relative newcomer: replacing Goodreads with a focus on book clubs. I’ve chatted a bit with folks behind it - and I think it’s a cool idea.

There are a quite a few projects trying to fill the void that Goodreads is leaving. Italic Type, I think, might be the future of social reading, in which the social group is simply a book club. Social interaction on the internet is a notoriously fraught area, but keeping groups both small and piggy-backing on real-life relationships seems like a really smart way of avoiding context collapse.

Other projects are trying to cater to more solo readers - readng, for example, is one project in that direction. They’re all very early on and it’s hard to say which if any will emerge as the standard.

OpenLibrary

Most book-related websites rely heavily on third-party data sources and pre-existing companies. OpenLibrary, a project of the Internet Archive, is aiming for a lot more than that: OpenLibrary is a datasource, a reference for what books exist. It’s a place where you can actually read books, on the website, or listen to them. You can download eBooks. They have an API to access data about authors and publishers. Photos of book covers.

If OpenLibrary succeeds, the world of reading will be totally different: you would be able to build creative projects in the vein of Goodreads without nervously relying on data from some corporation or from WorldCat. You’d be able to read a lot of books by checking them out of OpenLibrary, regardless of where in the world you are.

Achieving OpenLibrary’s goal is going to be hard: books are one of the most complex, scarce, and specific datasets I’ve ever seen. The raw data can be hard to get, and there’s a tremendous amount of de-duplication required to associate different book identifiers with the same work. For my book cross-referencing now, I use WorldCat and OpenLibrary when OL has it - and unfortunately, a lot of times OpenLibrary doesn’t.

But this is one of the most interesting projects out there, and as an open source project, it’s one that anyone can help with.


Here’s what I think is still missing from the reading ecosystem:

The Bandcamp of books

Bookshop & Indiebound are solving the problem of buying paperback & hardcover books. But there’s something more that I want: a good place for eBooks. It could be:

  • Electronic - eBooks, delivered in one click
  • Unfettered - a variety of formats
  • Fair - you know up-front that authors are earning most of the money you pay

This doesn’t exist yet. It seems like the conditions that make Bandcamp possible aren’t present in the world of books: there are fewer authors who can make quality books without a publisher, and book publishers are more hesitant (or less able) to sell through new channels.

For some books, OpenLibrary gives this experience. But for new releases and books that my local library can’t lend me through the Libby app, I want to pay for them. I pay for my music - mostly on Bandcamp, and would be happy to pay for books, knowing that the authors are being fairly rewarded for their years of effort.

December 24, 2020  @tmcw