Originally planned in late May 2010 as a comprehensive post on the three major book social networking sites (Goodreads, Library Thing and Shelfari), working with all three sites has led me to change my mind about a single-post comparison of all three. I’m going to break it down into three separate posts and start with Goodreads. Perhaps best-selling authors in late career with full-time assistants have the means to manually upload all the books they’ve read to all three sites, but that’s not us, is it? You can easily export the data you’ve entered on Goodreads to Library Thing and then from Library Thing to Shelfari (but from what I’ve experienced, you do have to do it in that order if you want it to work). Ian Martin at Atomic Fez Publishing talked me through doing those file exports, and I’m hoping he’ll do a post himself on how to do it. [Update: November 23, 2010: here’s the post from Atomic Fez that explains how to enter your books into a single database, then export to the other two. Have also realized that I should have been more clear about the fact that this post (in terms of references to ‘competing reads’) is primarily aimed at fiction authors. Writers of non-fiction can still benefit greatly from using these sites, but the subject-matter competition is far less fierce for non-fiction authors.]
Note that stats are from early June of 2010.
Since this post is designed for authors, let’s start with the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’ It’s hard to get up-to-date figures, but take a look at these stats from 2005: 895,755 books published in that year. Of those, 397,900 were published in Canada, the US and the UK. Your book is competing with each and every one of those other books published. Now think about that other very sad statistic, which is that many people read only one book per year – which means your book is competing with more books while the market for books appears to be shrinking. At the same time, there are fewer and fewer bricks and mortar bookstores. Fewer bricks and mortar bookstores means that the opportunity for your book selling as an impulse purchase (assuming the cover is brilliant and it’s displayed in a bookstore’s window) are declining. Increasingly, books are being noticed – and sold – online. That means both authors and publishers need to be online and present. Book social networking sites give you the opportunity to reach your precise target market: avid readers who purchase and read books.
So what the heck is a book social networking site? It’s a web site designed to give readers, writers and publishers a place on the internet to interact, mingle, and share their knowledge and love of books and reading. These sites allow you to create lists of books you’ve read, are currently reading, and wish to read. They also encourage you to rate and review the books you’ve read, and to discuss them. As an avid reader for more than 50 years now, one of the ironies of my life has been that with the exceptions of my years spent working in a bookstore and at university, it’s always been difficult for me to connect in real life with people who share my taste in literature. For years my friends and family told me, ‘I don’t dare buy you a book for Christmas or your birthday because I’m afraid you’ll have already read it.’ Perhaps it’s just my friends and family, but the concept of a gift certificate from a bookstore was anathema to them. I know they felt intimidated, and I just had to accept the fact that even though that wasn’t my intention, if I wanted books I’d have to acquire them myself.
Ironically, connecting with other readers online has been a part of my life for close to 15 years now. Frustrating though it’s been at times (even book chat rooms can be tediously petty), it’s been a marvelously enriching experience. I’ve been introduced to the work of so many authors I might never have encountered. I’ve managed to maintain a knowledge of books published throughout the English-speaking world, not just Canadian and American authors. More important, as time passes and I realize more and more acutely that reading EVERYTHING truly isn’t an option, it’s helped me refine my choices and be a little bit more selective about what I read. It’s the interaction with other readers that’s been key. I’ve decided, for instance, to pass on Colson Whitehead’s work. I tried one, found it a difficult start, and then discussed it with another avid reader on Twitter whose opinion and taste I trust and who’d read the same book I’d attempted. Her advice was ‘pass’ – and so, despite being the kind of person who rarely starts a book without finishing it – I jettisoned Sag Harbor.
Of the three major book networking sites, Goodreads, founded in December 2006, is the biggest, with 3.5 million registered users and 11,000 authors who’ve claimed their books and identified themselves as authors. Here’s the information you need as an author to do this (after you’ve joined the site). Patrick Brown, Community Manager of Goodreads, told me back in June that they add thousands of new users every day. A cautionary note: not all registered users are ‘alpha’ users of a site (defined as logging on to the site every day). We’ve all joined social networking sites of one sort or another and then rarely, if ever, used them. But that’s a lot of potential readers I don’t think any author can afford to ignore in 2010.
The ability to become a fan of a particular author was introduced fairly recently. For that reason, author fan numbers may seem unusually low – they saddened me when I first looked at them, until I came up with my own theory, which is that it’s not just because the feature’s only recently been introduced; it’s because most authors (and most publishers) haven’t yet understood the opportunity Goodreads and other book social networking sites represents. Neil Gaiman has more than 8000 fans; other authors with strong followings on Goodreads include Audrey Niffenegger, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander McCall Smith, Paolo Coelho, and Tamora Pierce.
‘Publishers,’ said Brown, ‘can use the site in a variety of ways, including posting giveaways and encouraging their authors to join the site and make use of it. We don’t have a special account status for publishers at the moment [this feature was recently introduced on Library Thing, however], but a few of them have created some interesting groups. Check out the Graywolf Press group to see one example.’
I’d add – take a look at what Random House Canada is doing with its group site as well. As a member of that group I get email updates whenever they post something new in their ‘Writerly Questions’ series. There are some great interviews with their authors in this series, timed naturally to coincide with and focusing on the release of their new books. These interviews work – in the last six months I’ve read and reviewed Carole Enahoro’s first novel, Living Dangerously Well, and read Steven Heighton’s Every Lost Country as a direct result of reading interviews with these authors.
Then there are the book giveaways, called First Reads. ‘Publishers and authors can use the program to give away advance copies of their books or extra copies of a backlist title to generate interest in a new book,’ said Brown. ‘Through our system, publishers and authors have given away more than 30,000 books since the program was introduced.’ There are a couple of other excellent reasons for publishers and authors to use First Reads. The giveways can help publishers tweak their marketing and promotional materials, as well as determine appropriate press runs by looking at the number of requests received for a very limited number of books. When Andrew Smith set up a Goodreads First Reads giveaway for his first novel, Edith’s War, a total of 1142 people requested a copy. No matter how slow actual sales of your book have been (and let’s face it, publishing is still one of the longest time-to-market product cycles in existence), knowing that people are interested in reading your book(s) is a form of affirmation every author and publisher needs.
The other way publishers and authors can use Goodreads is to generate interest in authors well known in their own countries, but not so well known in others. Given that long time-to-market cycle and the inevitable delays in British authors’ books acquiring North American publishers, for instance, British authors and publishers can do a giveaway of their books that’s restricted to the US or to Canada or to the US and Canada a few months in advance of North American publication. That means by the time the book IS available for purchase in North America, it’s already got readers and fans who’ve rated the book, commented on it – and are far more likely to blog about it and review it on their blogs, mention it on other social networking sites like Twitter, as well as on major online book e-tailing sites like Amazon, Chapters Indigo, Borders, Barnes and Noble, Waterstones, IndiePride. Never underestimate the power of this kind of advance word-of-mouth recommendation. It may be the electronic version of hand-selling, but it works in much the same way ‘staff picks’ works in bricks and mortar bookstores.
If, by the way, you don’t believe that a lot of bookselling comes down to chance and positioning, let me tell you that the last time I worked in a bookstore, we had a particularly egregious and over-priced book on napkin-folding languishing in our crafts section for nearly two months. Having counted the same eight books two months in a row (prior to totally automated inventory control resulting from the introduction of scanners and bar codes), I was determined to get rid of them for once and for all. I pulled them off the shelf for return to the publisher. I was diverted from the stock room by a customer wanting to make a purchase and flung them on the front counter. Much to my surprise (and before I could even get them properly displayed), they started to sell. Two days later I was calling the other stores in their chain and arranging to have their stock of Napkin Folding for Dummies with More Money Than Sense shipped to my store. I think we sold about 20 of them….
Goodreads is advertiser supported, and membership to the site is free. You can add an infinite number of books read to your ‘my books’ section as part of your free membership (see the forthcoming post on Library Thing for how it differs in this regard). Other ways authors can engage with readers on the site is by blogging on the site (only Goodreads authors are allowed this feature). That doesn’t mean you have to create a new blog – or new content – that’s exclusive to Goodreads. Cut and paste, folks – if you’re already maintaining an author blog or web site, here’s another way to reach millions of potential readers. Authors can create custom polls and trivia quizzes about their books, and they can also use the self-serve advertising platform on Goodreads. One of you Goodreads authors will have to tell me the ins and outs of that feature, but I suspect it’s almost as cost-effective and highly targeted as Facebook ads, so if you know your target market demographics, this could really pay off.
Brown didn’t have a specific country-by-country breakdown of Goodreads members, but said that while the site is English-language only at the moment, it has a ‘robust international user base that remains an active part of the site.’
Goodreads sends a monthly email newsletter to its members. It tends to profile authors who already have huge fan bases, but that could change. Even if it doesn’t, it’s a quick read and will help you, as an author, prepare for your own media interviews and approach them more strategically. Brown said they plan to launch live video chats with authors soon and in spring of 2010 Goodreads hosted its first event in New York City, a literary pub crawl featuring readings by Colson Whitehead, Emily St. John Mandel and Amy King. These events, says Brown, ‘are a fun way to see the impact of all our work. They perfectly fit our mission of bringing people together around a shared love of books and reading.’
Ten tips for authors taking the Goodreads plunge:
- do it – if you don’t want people to read your books, why did you go to all the time and trouble of finding a publisher in the first place? Your publisher needs your support and participation, and you are not J.D. Salinger (pretty confident in saying this since his recent death). If and when you become J.D. Salinger, have written and sold as many books as you care to, feel free to terminate your Goodreads/other book social networking membership and revel in your hermit status.
- claim your author’s status and your own books
- use a profile picture and fill out your profile – you can always edit it later
- don’t forget to add a web or blog site of some sort – your publisher’s will do if you don’t have your own dedicated blog or web site
- start adding books you’ve read and review a few of them. This doesn’t have to be more than a sentence. Writers were readers before they became writers – remember this.
- remember that readers are interested not so much in knowing your favourite colour or what you had for breakfast, but in that mysterious process that results in a book. How you choose your characters’ names, how things changed between draft one and draft 101, scenes you had to cut, scenes that took on lives of their own – this is what readers, not just scholars, crave.
- links to particularly thoughtful reviews of your books on your Goodreads author’s blog and your positive comments on those reviews constitutes content. Ignore the negative ones unless you happen to agree with them and plan to remedy the defects in your next work.
- it’s not about proclaiming your book (or yourself) Shakespeare’s natural successor. It’s about increasing awareness that you and your books exist. If you don’t build it, they will not come. How many books are published each year? Hundreds of thousands. How many books are in print (the backlist)? Millions and millions. Your latest is just one of them.
- remember that the human algorithms work better than the mathematical ones. Just because I look up a book on Amazon doesn’t mean I intend to purchase it or read it – I have my own nefarious reasons for checking some authors’ sales rankings on Amazon. Tracking software doesn’t take into count reasons for viewing a book online that include ‘who is this eejit anyway?’ And really, if I’ve bought a book by an author, I’m not so dense not to think of looking for other works by the same author myself. But if, when I compare books with another Goodreads member or see consistently intelligent reviews, comments and ratings of books I’ve read, I’m going to be far more open to reading books they’ve read and liked that I haven’t yet read.
- schedule 15 minutes a day after initially claiming your author’s page and setting up your profile to update content, network with other readers and authors, and compare books. Goodreads makes it very easy for you to find people you already know by importing your email contacts. But be open to networking with people you don’t know. Your email address isn’t revealed to folks you connect with on Goodreads, only to the site itself.
Next post: Library Thing for Authors