How do you turn reading into a social experience? Isn’t it one of the last truly solitary things we do?
It has always been social to the extent that book clubs have been around for just as long as people have been reading. A book you read that you don’t talk about is kind of half read, in a way. You need that conversation with friends to bring out what you thought about the book or to amplify it or to consider it from a new perspective.
At some level, there’s still a person with a book, and that can’t change much. I do think there are little things that a company like ours can do that make that experience a little bit richer or that just take it in a slightly different direction.
People are coming to Goodreads and posting updates while they are reading the book because of the popularity of our mobile apps. People are on the go, they’re reading, and especially if they’re reading an e-book they can just switch over to the app and quickly say, “I’m 20 percent done,” or, “I love this part.”
It’s not a deep or long conversation at that point. You’re just posting what you think. But your friends might comment on that. They’ll say, “oh yeah, I like that part, too!” or have a little argument or whatever, and then you save the link to your conversation for when you’re done.
What are some surprising things you’ve learned about the way people read and relate to their books?
It’s the incredible breadth of books out there. It’s what people read. I’ve been kind of amazed that there’s a reader for every book in the sense that all of us are kind of parochial in our tastes. We read what we like, and occasionally we might branch out of that if our book club picks a book that’s not usually the sort of thing we would read or if a friend really recommends us something.
But it’s just seeing the sheer volume of books that are out there. So many books that I’ve never even heard of and that aren’t on my radar at all have thousands of reviews on Goodreads. That’s been an eye-opening experience.
How humanly curated is the Goodreads community and how much of it is sorted by computer algorithms?
I think at our heart we’re a social site. Even something like the book-recommendation algorithm, it’s really our community that brings in the data that makes something like that possible. You really couldn’t do this without the scale that we have.
Most people aren’t signing up specifically because they think we can spit 20 great books at them, even though we could do that if they rate enough books. I think they’re joining because their friends are doing it. That’s how this site has grown, it’s all been word of mouth.
We’re pushing something like 16 million books a month to Facebook, which creates more than half a billion impressions, which is kind of crazy. In the end it has all been person-to-person and that’s really been what’s driving it.
So you have a thriving community of readers, but how active are the authors?
Pretty active. We just passed 50,000 authors in our Authors Program, which is small when you consider there are 11.2 million members on the site, but it’s the biggest author community that I know of.
A lot of authors like to use the site like readers do, so they’ll come onto the site to say what they’re reading. If they do have a new book out, they’ll do something like a giveaway. Some of our authors will buy ads from us, some of our authors participate in author chats.
You just hosted an author chat with Salman Rushdie. How did that come about?
It was pretty amazing. He’s not actually a member of the author program. I just thought his book sounded really interesting. It was a really amazing discussion.
That’s one of the best parts of my job. Seeing comments like, “what an honour to have my question answered by Salman Rushdie,” or something like that. It’s pretty wild for people,
especially if you live somewhere where Salman Rushdie is never going to go on his book tour.
You’re not going to get to shake his hand and thank him for writing his books. So I love being able to put people in contact with their favourite author.
So how does Goodreads make money?
We’re advertising supported, and we do make some money off affiliated sales [Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.]. At this point we work with every major publisher, many smaller publishers and increasingly movie studios – people who are doing a book tie-in to a movie or that sort of thing.
One thing we’ve had a lot of success with is doing a “challenge.” We did this for The Help, for instance. They wanted to do something around the theme of unexpected friendships, so we said, “Let’s create a page where there’s a little challenge and the steps of the challenge are you have to watch the trailer for the movie, you have to add the book to your shelf and you have to write a short thing about an unexpected friendship.”
It was pretty amazing. We got a lot of people to enter that. And it’s just a little sticky thing that people can do with the content from the movie and the content from the book that goes beyond ‘just click and add it to your shelf.’
Do you think the key to Goodreads’ success is that the platform exists independently from where the books are actually sold? Otherwise, couldn’t Amazon just replicate what you’re doing?
I can’t really say whether that’s been the key to our success or not. We’ve never sold books so we don’t know what that would be like.
I know that we are really good at social and that’s what people are coming to the site for. Also, we’re platform agnostic, so whether you’re reading on Kindle, or reading on a Nook or you’re reading a paper book from the library, it doesn’t matter; you can come see what’s going on at Goodreads.
That’s what we’re offering. It gives us a very unique space. We’re not selling books, we’re being the place where people discover books, and we’re finding ways to capitalize on that. That’s where I think the opportunity is in the book business right now. All of this is about discovery in the end.