by Calvin Reid
Ten years after Goodreads was founded by Otis Chandler and his wife, Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, and four years after its acquisition by Amazon, the online social reading, marketing, and book discovery site has grown into one of the most influential book and reading communities on the web. And despite the concerns of some Goodreads members about the Amazon acquisition when it was announced (and some threats to leave the online community), Goodreads has thrived.
The site attracts more visitors than ever. Goodreads had about 16 million registered users in 2013 and will mark its 10th anniversary with more than 65 million members.
Goodreads’ members can create online bookshelves, lists of books they’ve read or plan to read. The site also offers reviews and member commentary on books, surveys and polls, and reading activities, like the 2017 Reading Challenge, in which members pledge to read a certain number of books in the coming year. And Goodreads can help readers interested in works of history find books in specific categories—say, military history or the Elizabethan period, or even historical fiction.
“It’s been crazy,” Elizabeth said, reflecting on the site’s growth. “We started with just the two of us, and now it’s the largest reading community in the world. We’re a community of people who can talk to each other about the books we love.”
Otis said that Goodreads has been successful because it is able to “connect” an enormous number of people interested in talking about books. “There are two truisms in publishing today,” he noted. “First, book discovery is one of the biggest challenges for publishers and authors, and second, word of mouth is one of the strongest drivers of book recommendations. Goodreads sits in the sweet spot where these two opportunities overlap.” As an example of that intersection, he pointed to the Reading Challenge, which spurred more than 2.6 million Goodreads members to sign on with plans to read more than 30 million books.
The site also generates a trove of data about readers and their reading habits and has grown into a marketing tool for publishers and individual authors. “More data drives more conversation and helps our [book recommendation] algorithm get better,” Otis said. The size of Goodreads’ membership and the data it generates attracts publishers (and indie authors) looking to market their books.
“Random House was our first publishing [advertising] partner in 2007,” Otis said. “Now we have a suite of sophisticated marketing tools—giveaways, deals, discounts.”
Do you know what a bookseller wants to hear? Where your book is available. Don't mention online retailers, especially not Amazon. We want to know the wholesaler. What's the discount to bookstores? What's the cover price? Are you willing to do a book signing? I feel the best way for a lesser known author to sell his or her book is still face-to-face.
I believe a great story knows no boundaries. I hand sell Name of the Wind to people who would never read fantasy. Both boys and girls enjoy the children's series I wrote. The Hunger Games escaped the bonds of the young adult genre. Your book can be for many more people than you could ever hope, but first you have to focus. You have to get the ideal audience for your book to get behind it and then word can spread to other potential markets.
Define your audience. Refine your pitch. Communicate who will read your book and why. You are already in love with your book. Make me fall in love, and I'll read it, or at least sell it.
Goodreads, he added, can use its data to offer publishers the ability to target fans of a wide range of authors with display advertising. These fans are Goodreads members who have “shelved” books by these authors or indicated an interest in them. The Goodreads ad team works with each publisher to create a list of authors whose works are similar to the book it is promoting to target the ads. For example, fans of science fiction novelists Veronica Rossi or Neal Shusterman, Otis explained, can be easily targeted with display ads for a new book a publisher believes they may enjoy. In a separate service, Goodreads can specifically target a member based on his or her reading tastes.
The site’s other marketing tools include Goodreads Deals, a daily promotional program offering members discounted e-books based on the books on their shelves, and newsletters, which have more than 35 million subscribers. And, as a subsidiary of Amazon, Goodreads also allows publishers and authors to give away e-books on the Kindle platform.
Goodreads provides case studies that detail how its community and marketing tools have come together to drive sales of many popular books. Kate Stark, a Riverhead Books marketing v-p, said the site “played a major role in helping The Girl on the Train break out to early success.” She cited the importance of “early reviews from Goodreads members,” saying that “once the word of mouth started and readers got excited about the book, the social side of Goodreads amplified the buzz it was getting to astounding levels.”
St. Martin’s Press associate publisher Laura Clark described All The Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bren Greenwood as “a true Goodreads community success story.” She said, “The Goodreads Choice Awards deal [a discount on books that have won the award] for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things launched the book onto the bestseller list for the first time, four months after publication.”
Early on, the Chandlers noticed that authors were using Goodreads to connect with their fans. Today, the site has more than 214,000 author accounts—including such popular writers as Paulo Coehlo, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, and Stephen King. The site’s Ask the Author feature allows fans to ask their favorite authors questions. Otis pointed to novelist Andy Weir (The Martian), who has answered questions about his favorite astronaut, and comics writer Alan Moore, who discussed counterculture.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the impact Goodreads has had on people’s lives,” Elizabeth said.