By Sarah Manavis│newstatesman.com│11 min
On a typical day, a long-time user of Goodreads, the world’s largest community for reviewing and recommending books, will feel like they’re losing their mind. After numerous frustrated attempts to find a major new release, to like, comment on, or reply to messages and reviews, to add what they’ve read to their “shelf” or to discover new titles, users know they’ll be forced to give up, confronted with the fact that any basic, expected functionality will evade them. Sometimes even checking what they’ve already read will be next to impossible. Across a huge range of reading habits and preferences, this the one thing that unites millions of Goodreads users: that Goodreads sucks, and is just shy of unbearable.
There should be nothing in the world more benign than Goodreads, a website and app that 90 million people around the world use to find new books, track their reading, and attempt to meet people with similar tastes. For almost 15 years, it has been the dominant platform for readers to rate books and find recommendations. But many of the internet’s most dedicated readers now wish they could share their enthusiasm for books elsewhere. What should be a cosy, pleasant corner of the internet has become a monster.
Goodreads started off the way you might think: two avid readers, in the mid-Noughties, wanting to build space online for people to track, share, and talk about books they were reading. Husband and wife Otis and Elizabeth Chandler say they initially launched the platform in 2007 to get recommendations from their literary friends. But it was something many others wanted, too: by 2013, the site had swelled to 15 million users. That year Goodreads it was bought by Amazon, an acquisition Wired magazine called “quaint”, given Amazon’s roots in bookselling before it became the store that sold everything. Even then, many Goodreads users already felt stung by the tech giant which had, a year earlier, changed the terms of its huge books dataset (which Goodreads used to identify titles). Goodreads had been forced to move to a different data source, called Ingram; the move caused users to lose large amounts of their reading records.
Most stuck with it, however – not because of the platform itself, but because of its community. Writing in the Atlantic in 2012, Sarah Fay called Goodreads “Facebook with books”, and argued that “if enough contributors set the bar high with creative, funny, and smart reviews it might become a force of its own”. While newspapers mourned the decline of reading and literature, Goodreads showed that a large and growing number of people still had a real passion for books and bookshops. Thirteen years after the first Kindle was sold, printed books have more than ten times the market share of ebooks, but talking about books happens much more online. But now, for many, the utopia Goodreads was founded to create has become closer to purgatory.
Goodreads today looks and works much as it did when it was launched. The design is like a teenager’s 2005 Myspace page: cluttered, random and unintuitive. Books fail to appear when searched for, messages fail to send, and users are flooded with updates in their timelines that have nothing to do with the books they want to read or have read. Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community. “It should be my favourite platform,” one user told me, “but it’s completely useless.”
Discovery is more of a problem for books than for other media, because they are so numerous: in 2018, there were 319 films produced in the UK and around 188,000 books. At the same time, however, sales are dominated by a handful of bestsellers: in 2018 crime thrillers accounted for the majority of fiction sales, with one book alone making up 30 per cent of the non-crime-fiction sales. The Chandlers envisioned Goodreads becoming a precise tool to solve this problem and encourage more diverse reading, with finely honed, specific recommendations based on books that similar users had read and discussed. But this is the least reliable and most complained-about aspect of what Goodreads claims to offer. Users are recommended books in genres they’ve never touched, sometimes simply because two books share a word in the title.
With the vast amount of books and user data that Goodreads holds, it has the potential to create an algorithm so exact that it would be unstoppable, and it is hard to imagine anyone objecting to their data being used for such a purpose. Instead, it has stagnated: Amazon holds on to an effective monopoly on the discussion of new books – Goodreads is almost 40 times the size of the next biggest community, LibraryThing, which is also 40 per cent owned by Amazon – and it appears to be doing very little with it.
In an alternate universe, we could be living with a meticulous tool for finding books we would love to read, from a much wider diversity of authors. Instead we have a book tracker that, for many people, barely works.
All this makes Goodreads an obvious target for a competitor. However, it has huge advantages over any new contenders; its megalithic books library and its tens of millions of readers give it a very comfortable position. But the discontent is quietly reaching breaking point.
Ten years ago, Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant from the UK (now based in New York), mounted his own challenger to Goodreads: 7books, launched in 2010 and now offline, having peaked at 6,000 users. Since then, Critchlow has been analysing why Goodreads competitors tend not to work. Earlier this year, he published a blog post called “A Proposal for a Decentralized Goodreads”. In it, he outlined the fundamental challenges behind creating a serious Goodreads competitor.
“In my mind, there’s three core reasons that Goodreads remains dominant,” he tells me. “Firstly, they are the incumbent with a large user base.” Secondly, he explains, the sheer mass of books data Amazon holds is unparalleled. Goodreads and Amazon dominate web searches for books, which allows them to account for a large proportion of book-related internet traffic. While Amazon’s product API, which catalogues huge numbers of books, can be used by anyone, it is also the only repository of its kind, meaning any new competitor would almost certainly have to use the same tools Goodreads has been working with for many years.
“Amazon,” Critchlow tells me, “has showed no mercy when dealing with competitors before.”
The final issue Critchlow cites is monetisation: margins on books are already “razor-thin”, and most demand goes via Amazon. “If you were to compete you would need significant scale,” he says, to make any money – and the most likely way to make money in the short term would be through affiliate links, which pay commission on sending readers to online stores – and one online store in particular. “Again,” notes Critchlow, ”you’d be dealing with Amazon directly.”
Critchlow believes all of this all contributes to Amazon doing next to nothing to improve Goodreads’s functionality. Amazon has very little incentive to improve Goodreads while no serious competitor exists and its “core experience” is good enough. “It sees no real threat, so it isn’t about to invest behind any major new development,” he tells me.
Alongside the lack of incentive, Critchlow also believes that Goodreads ultimately still serves the purpose most people use it for. “I think a ‘better Goodreads’ is alluring because reading books and sharing books is an incredibly emotional experience,” he says. “But… keeping a list of books you’ve read and want to read is actually served pretty well… Most of the imagined features and social ideas are not actually that useful.”
Critchlow may be sceptical, but new competitors continue to enter the book-tech fray, and one in particular is beginning to make waves.
When I tweeted about wanting to leave Goodreads, I received an avalanche of recommendations for The StoryGraph from people across the English-speaking world. Though still in development, it already has tens of thousands of members, attracted by the promise of a place beyond Goodreads. Users tell me this platform could be our way out.
Nadia Odunayo is The StoryGraph’s founder. She tells me the inspiration for the platform came, unsurprisingly, from her frustration with Goodreads. Already a tech entrepreneur, she decided to drop everything in January 2019 to dedicate herself to making the idea work.
“For three months I didn’t build anything and I didn’t join in on anything, I just spoke to readers,” she tells me. “I spoke to Goodreads users, I spoke to book bloggers, I spoke to friends, and I just looked at a bunch of different people to try and find out: is there still an untapped reader out there?”
Odunayo didn’t want to simply create a rejigged version of Goodreads. Instead, she tried to find specific “pain points” where readers were truly desperate for something Goodreads didn’t offer them. “Through my research I essentially ended up on ‘choosing your next book to read’ and ‘finding persistently high-quality recommendations’ being the major pain points”. The StoryGraph has spent the past year fine-tuning an algorithm that throws up books its users will genuinely enjoy.
The StoryGraph does this through a survey tool called Ordered For You. As each reader joins the platform they are prompted to choose from a detailed list of features, explaining what they do or don’t like. Genres, plot features, types of characters, turn-offs such as “flat characters”. Users can also fill in their own reading preferences (they give suggestions such as “family sagas” or “LGBTQ+ authors”). And Goodreads users can import their account data, so they can add all the books they’ve already read into their StoryGraph profile.
From there, The StoryGraph recommends books, marked by thematic tags and length and accompanied by well-researched synopses. But beyond the design and descriptive tags, there is one major difference Goodreads users will notice: ratings are almost unnoticeable, deprioritised to the bottom of the page.
“At the end of the day, all of these star ratings are personal,” Odunayo says. “And each of our five-star books or four-star books probably got that rating for different reasons.” So instead the StoryGraph looks at “different dimensions, like mood, and the pace”. She believes that rating these features will be the key to creating the best set of reader recommendations.
“If we get the mood right, the pace right, the topic and theme right, the type of author, the type of story you want to hear about – does it matter if the 100 people who read it before you rated it two stars? What if it’s actually a five-star read for you? And that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says, “uncover books for people, because we present them in a different way and show different information upfront.”
Rather than just offering an explainer of a book’s plot, information such as “mood” and “pace” are voted on by The StoryGraph community. Next to descriptors such as “reflective” or “dark” are percentages of how many readers agree with these descriptions, along with votes on whether character development was strong or if the characters were loveable — and then, after all that, the star rating.
Along with a detailed assessment of the effect a book has on its readers, Odunayo and her team also plan to implement trigger warnings. “You will be able to specify in your survey that you’re sensitive to certain triggers and we would be able to flag books with that content,” she explains.
The algorithm used to create The StoryGraph will learn and grow as its membership does. For example, when a book that is marked as “dark” gets a certain number of people voting that actually it was also funny, a new tag will be incorporated to create a more robust picture of the book. “We’re trying empower readers to say what they’re looking for, to talk to the recommendation system,” Odunayo says. “Almost like when you go into a bookshop or a library and you say ‘hey, this is what I’m feeling’. We’re trying to recreate that experience.”
Odunayo recognises the hurdles her start-up faces. The StoryGraph has used users’s uploaded Goodreads information to implement book information (such as page numbers and publication dates) onto its site, but Odunayo and her team have stopped this practice and meanwhile spent months manually adding books. At one point she spent 70 hours straight in a hotel room, uploading new titles and researching their moods and themes.
To test The StoryGraph for myself, I type in a relatively new and niche release, Holiday Heart (a translated Latin American novel by Margarita Garcia Robayo from Charco Press). On Goodreads, it was almost impossible to find: the first five suggestions were books that didn’t even contain both words in their titles, despite the site having an entry for the book. On The StoryGraph, even with its comparatively tiny pool of readers, the book instantly pops up, with detailed descriptions already in place.
“Our system is not as unsubtle,” Odunayo argues, “it won’t say, ‘oh you’ve read this book, so we’re going to suddenly change all your recommendations to be books like this.’ We have a powerful search engine where you can put in exactly the type of authors you’re looking for, the type of themes you like, and we’ll find you books that exactly match that.”
But Tom Critchlow argues that a “better Goodreads”, with functionality such as The StoryGraph offers, must avoid falling for the “seductive and imaginary ideas about social networks” that doomed a long list of previous competitors, including his own. “So many people dream of disrupting Goodreads,” he says, “[but] focus on the wrong things, myself included.”
The StoryGraph is nonetheless off to a good start, with 40,000 registered users, roughly 5,000 of which spend four to five minutes on the site a week, tracking their reading and picking out books. Odunayo says the backlash against Big Tech could help her site’s trajectory. “There are a lot more people who are looking for reasons to not just settle for Amazon products,” she says. She plans to launch The StoryGraph early next year, with a fully redesigned app.
“We don’t just want to be a better Goodreads”, she says. For the company that takes Goodreads’ crown, “the possibilities are so much greater”.