How Goodreads caters to authors (Part 1)

by Sunita

I’m always a bit taken aback when posts I write here get picked up by anyone outside my regular circle, i.e., my tens of followers and dozens of occasional readers. The Goodreads posts have gone beyond those friendly confines, to blogs by people I’ve never heard of. I didn’t especially want to become known for being the Goodreads critic, so I was planning to write a post on how I set up my LibraryThing account and then leave it at that. But yesterday I discovered that a blog devoted to self-published books had linked to my posts, and that another blog known for its scraping techniques had picked it up.

The original blogger described me as “pretty vocal” in my criticisms of Goodreads, which I found a bit odd. First of all, I’m writing, not speaking. Second, I rarely use CAPSLOCK and I usually back up my arguments with evidence. But I did write three four whole posts. Perhaps that qualifies as “vocal.”

The blogger then goes on to say:

It’s inevitable that there’s going to be conflict in any social media environment, and obviously there’s a tendency for people to cry foul if they believe one group is being treated differently. It seems like Goodreads is moving to head off the possibility of all-out war developing. There are certain forums where readers seem to gather in packs and then attack targeted authors en masse, and Goodreads seems keen to avoid this happening at their site. It might take time to iron out how they do this, but it seems like the new guidelines might be a step in the right direction. [Emphasis mine]

To clarify: I did not “cry foul” because GR was treating readers and authors differently. I want GR to treat readers and authors differently. I criticized GR for privileging authors over readers while claiming to be all about readers.

And where are these forums that verge on (or cross over to) all-out war? Where are these packs (hordes?) of readers who are massing? I spend a fair amount of time on reader-oriented sites on the internet, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. If you’re going to make that kind of claim, back it up. If your evidence is good then you may well convince me that GR is taking “a step in the right direction.”

After I had written the three posts criticizing Goodreads, a thoughtful and thorough discussion of them at The Digital Reader made me wonder whether I had jumped too quickly to my conclusions. So I began reading more of Goodreads’ own material, at the site itself and online more generally. I looked for evidence that would confirm or falsify my working hypotheses that GR is (1) extremely committed to increasing its Author Program, even at the expense of reader interests; and (2) that it responds more quickly to author concerns and interests than to reader concerns and interests.

Let’s start with an article at Digital Book World from August 2010, about the time GR launched its Author Program. DBW sums up the inherent tension:

Goodreads, the largest social network specifically for readers, claims a dual mission: “to get people excited about reading,” and, via their Goodreads Author program, “to help authors reach their target audience — passionate readers.”

Two paragraphs later, DBW quotes Patrick Brown¹, who describes GR’s plans to sell ebooks:

“We have 13,000+ authors on the site and many of them want to reach readers directly,” explains Patrick Brown, Goodreads’ Community Manager. “Previously, they could engage, but they couldn’t really make a sale.”

At the moment, GR is not accepting new ebooks for sale. But this article shows that two years ago they implemented a strategy to sell Goodreads authors’ ebooks to GR members. From the beginning GR required these ebooks to be sold without DRM, which knocked out the Big 6 publishers and Harlequin. That left small presses and (you guessed it) self-published authors.

In 2011, Brown uploaded a presentation to a site that hosts slide shows. His presentation is titled “Using Goodreads to Promote Your Books,” and it emphasizes the benefits of the Author Program. An early slide emphasizes how influential GR members (note they are not referred to as readers) are:

The presentation then provides an example of successful self-promotion, using a reader/blogger review and showing how such a review can spread the word:

Notice that the last slide highlights GR’s newsletter. The newsletter turns out to be part of the Author Program, because authors can buy promotional slots in it. It functions in the same way as book placement in stores like Barnes & Noble, where publishers buy space for select books on prominent display tables and endcaps. The average GR reader may think that the newsletter is wholly a product of sincere enthusiasm about new books. But at least some of the newsletter slots are available for purchase.

Finally and unsurprisingly, the slide show repeatedly talks about the benefits of giveaways. Book giveaways are among the most well-known features of Goodreads, and readers love them. Authors don’t love them quite as much, because they don’t always result in many reviews (let alone positive ones). But GR emphasizes their effectiveness in the Author Program:

Note those statistics: an average of 785 entries in a giveaway and 8 reviews. Most importantly, 42 percent of winners provide reviews of these books. If I’m an author who is reading this, can I be blamed for thinking that if I do a successful giveaway I’ll be rewarded with multiple reviews? No wonder GR authors are disappointed when giveaways don’t result in reviews.

When I last checked, this presentation had 180,000 views (according to Slideshare). That’s a lot of authors and publishers receiving the information that readers are one of Goodreads’ most valuable author resources.

Returning to that 2010 article, Brown reiterates that they worry about reader response to programs like ebook sales because:

we want to maintain the integrity of our reviews.

I believe him. The problem I have is that I don’t know whether GR wants to maintain that integrity because readers intrinsically matter to them, or because reader reviews are the most valuable currency they have in attracting visitors and author dollars. They’d be worrying about review integrity in both cases, so we have an observational equivalence problem.

Next up in Part 2: more on Goodreads’ courtship of authors, and I try to discover whether  GR responds more quickly to author than reader concerns.

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¹Patrick Brown’s name crops up a lot when you read about author-reader issues at Goodreads. This is because, as Community Manager, Brown is the face of GR for these topics. I am not singling out Brown; the policies he discusses are Goodreads’ policies, not his preferences alone. This is about GR as an entity, not Brown.

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