« Digital, Resources

Goodreads’ CEO on Winning the Battle of Book Discovery

After analyzing 5,750,000 books on Goodreads, Otis Chandler shares his insights on the evolving nature of book discovery. The short version: once isn’t enough.

By Otis Chandler, Founder and CEO, Goodreads.com

Otis Chandler

“In many ways it is the struggle to get your books seen, heard about, talked about – in short, made visible in an increasingly crowded and noisy marketplace – that is where the real battle in publishing is taking place today.”  — Merchants of Culture, John B Thompson

John B. Thompson sums up the challenge facing publishers and authors today: abundance has irrevocably changed the publishing industry, and it has made discovery the central problem facing the book business.

At Goodreads, our passion and mission is helping readers discover and share books they love. In our work with publishers and authors, we see several book discovery trends developing. Some of these trends I shared in a speech at Tools of Change in New York last month. We analyzed a staggering 5,750,000 books that Goodreads members discovered (added to their to-read shelf) in January 2012, and broke them down by how the members found them. The readers adding those books lived in hundreds of different countries (though the US is our largest market), and represent both avid bookworms and casual readers.

Understandably, the findings only talk about book discovery on Goodreads but, with the world’s largest community of readers (more than seven million members), much of what we’ve found is relevant to book discovery overall.

Word of Mouth Gains New Power Online

We’ve all known for a while that the most valuable commodity for the sustained promotion of a book is word-of-mouth buzz. Goodreads was founded on the belief that a recommendation from a friend is the best way to find a book, more powerful than a glowing review in the New York Times or a mention on a TV show. There’s something about that trusted friend handing you the book and saying, “You must read this!”

And it has worked. According to a recent survey of Goodreads members, 79% of them report discovering books from friends offline, and 64% find books from their Goodreads friends.

Interestingly, the power of a friend’s recommendation has grown. Today, the recommendation doesn’t even have to be explicit, it can be as simple as seeing a friend reading a book. When you see what a friend is reading – whether on Goodreads, through an update on our Facebook Timeline app, or in person – it automatically triggers your interest.  It becomes a new form of a recommendation, social validation.

It’s All About the Pre-Launch Buzz

But how do you start that word of mouth process in the first place? Increasingly, publishers and authors are recognizing the importance of reaching readers directly early in the life-cycle of a book. For example, some are running giveaways on Goodreads nearly six months in advance of publication to generate pre-release buzz. The winning readers write the first of those crucial reviews, their friends start adding the book to their shelves, and the momentum starts to build. In January 2012, we ran 1,065 giveaways that attracted 839,145 entries.

Traditional media remains very important, as well. We were able to track how solid media appearances can build initial awareness for the word-of-mouth effect to start. You can see in the illustration below that there was an initial surge of Goodreads search interest in A Slave in the White House after it was featured on “The Daily Show.” Notice how word of mouth picked up as other people saw it on their friends’ updates and added the book as well.

You Need a Tribe

As the traditional outlets for books continue to decline, the relationship between the author and the reader will be more important than ever, especially in building that pre-launch buzz. In a survey of more than 3,000 Goodreads members, 96% of people say they read books by authors they already know. This is why building a loyal following of readers will pay major dividends for authors when they publish their next book. Interestingly, very few people say they hear about new books to read on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t discount Facebook and Twitter completely; they better serve authors as tools for further engaging with their existing fans. And these are the people you should start with when launching a new book.

Early marketing efforts should focus on the author’s existing fan base, as these readers are not only easier to convince to read a book, but more likely to become emissaries for that book: recommending it to their friends, blogging about it, and adding it to Goodreads lists.

Increasingly, the author’s job will be two-fold: to write a great book and to keep his readers engaged and interested while he writes the next one.

Video Saves The Book Tour

Another great way to feature prominently in readers’ minds is by getting in front of them, literally. Author video chats and other means of directly talking with readers are going to be increasingly important in the coming years. The author tour, once a staple of many book launches, might be replaced by the more economical video chat. Would an author be better off flying around the country to visit a handful of stores or meeting with an infinite number of book clubs via live video? Through programs like the Goodreads Author Program, authors will be able to connect with any reader any time, anywhere, instantly. We recently featured the author S.J. Watson, live from his flat in London, taking questions on video from Goodreads members in Australia, Portugal, and Argentina. Again, the old rules no longer apply.

Once Is Never Enough

There is no one silver bullet when it comes to getting your book discovered. There is one rule, though – your book needs to be “discovered” multiple times by a reader before they will decide to read it. What that combination of discovery methods looks like is the fascinating dilemma we face. And it is likely to be unique to each and every book.

On Goodreads alone, there are 10 main ways for people to discover books:

The success of your promotional campaign rests largely on your ability to encourage discovery via this panoply.

For this post, I focused on how to get a new book discovered. On Goodreads, we’re also helping people discover backlist, midlist and long-tail books. You can find out more on the Goodreads blog – the full presentation from Tools of Change is embedded at the end of it.

The next few years will shape the industry for decades to come. The people and companies that will thrive in this era are those who embrace and understand the new rules of abundance. Experimentation is key – technology will continue to create new ways to enable discovery so even more opportunities are on the way. It’s going to be a wild ride, but this is probably the most exciting time in publishing since Gutenberg started playing with reusable letters cast in metal.

DISCUSS: When It Comes to Books, Rediscovery Trumps Discovery

This entry was posted in Digital, Resources and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted March 12, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Goodreads is a fairly new phenomena in my life. I can’t remember how I actually learned about the site, but I instinctively felt that it was going to be important for authors and readers. When I finally registered as a user, it was like I had found a second home (or my own personal “secret garden” of books).

    Now that I am also a Goodreads author (my debut book, Candlewax, will be released April 3), I feel as if I have this tremendous opportunity to reach out to readers. The Giveaway is one really fun way to reach new readers!

    Thanks, Mr. Chandler, for thinking up Goodreads.

  2. Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Great article and tremendous analytics.

    Authors market on Facebook, we find funny, horrible and personal there…but seldom the good book or the must-read. That much is true. One good thing about this? Most people haven’t yet Liked a Book Page – which means this visual and critical real estate on people’s profiles is still up for grab!

    For first time authors: Don’t wait until [right before] your book launch to start talking about the book, sharing content and asking for input. Seth Godin told me that you need to start this process 18 months out, to build up a specific market for your book.

    Tim Sanders

  3. Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    An interesting read, Mr Chandler, and I’m convinced. I like Goodreads as a reader, but as an author, try as I might, I have some awful problem with the site.

    I cannot add my titles to my author profile. I know that you;d removed the Amazon links but all my works are published through other channels, too. It’s simply that I have no facility for adding titles.

    This morning, I tried to add a video but the Goodreads site did not recognise the URL (which came from YouTube). I set up my blog feed today (not Goodreads fault that it took so long, but my own) and a new post went up over four hours ago, but it hasn’t shown on the Goodreads feed.

    Your support team are helpful, but they’re as mystified as me by some of the problems I have on the site, and seem to think it comes down to my name, David Robinson, and the fact that there are 20+authors with the same name.

  4. Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    “Increasingly, the author’s job will be two-fold: to write a great book and to keep his readers engaged and interested while he writes the next one.”

    Yes, this is really key to long-term success. Unfortunately, each is pretty much a full-time job, if done well.

  5. Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi David,

    It doesn’t look like we’ve ever received an email from you in support, but your issues seem fairly straightforward. I’d be happy to help you with them.

    1) If you could send the book titles that are yours to support@goodreads.com, I can add them to your profile for you, no problem. Sometimes authors with the same name do get mixed up, but it’s easily fixable.

    2) To upload a YouTube video, you will need to input the “old” embed code for it to work properly. For some reason, the new embed codes aren’t compatible with our site. To do so:

    1. Navigate to the page of the YouTube video you’d like to add.
    2. Underneath the video, click “share”.
    3. Click the “Embed” button that appears (underneath the box with the link).
    4. A box with HTML code should drop down. Make sure that the “use old embed code” checkbox is selected. If it is, the code should begin with “<object width…"
    5. Copy-paste the code into the "Video embed html code" box on the "add new video" page.

    Let me know if you have trouble with this.

  6. Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a Goodreads member for several years as have family and friends. What’s been the most fun has been to see the differing tastes we all have in the books we like. I was sorry to see their program “Bookswap” disappear as I had exchanged numerous books with other readers. It was a wonderful service because I felt that my beloved books were being sent to people who would treasure them as I had. Goodreads is well-done, easy to navigate, and an excellent service to readers and authors alike.

  7. Posted March 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I admit to being a novice on Goodreads, but that won’t help my books get into the right hands. I’m going to have to take a crash course on this.
    Thanks for the article!

  8. Posted March 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big fan of Twitter and Facebook, but more of a push pull of information than for books. What I’m finding useful at Goodreads is looking at other people’s shelves and hearing what they have to say. I find that more helpful for finding new books than anything else. Thanks for this.

  9. Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    //Increasingly, the author’s job will be two-fold: to write a great book and to keep his readers engaged and interested while he writes the next one.//

    As a social media manager for authors, I’ve done a lot of work helping them come up with strategies for their marketing efforts. Often, their time budget is just a bit smaller than their monetary one. So I appreciate the fact that you don’t discount the engagement tools for authors – Facebook and Twitter.

    It was one of my clients that directed me to this article. I had used Goodreads to recommend books but mostly to document the ones that I had read. The marketing lens had never been directed to the site before. I’m going to be spending a lot of time investigating the different aspects of marketing you pointed out.


  10. Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    The most surprising part in this article is that Facebook and Twitter aren’t as effective as one might think. I have to say I agree with the article. There are so many people on those media talking about books old and new, traditionally published and self-published, it seems impossible to be heard above the noise. The idea of casting a wide net makes sense.

  11. Jem
    Posted March 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I have to wonder how skewed Goodreads data on discovery might be. I added over 3000 books to my Goodreads account pretty much all at once (dumped from LibraryThing where I catalog my books). About half are on my “-to-read” shelf simply because I haven’t’ read them yet. I “discovered” them long ago, and not through any mechanism Goodreads could track. How many other users are the same? I personally discover more books using Amazon’s recommended also feature, and through their listmania – the first doesn’t help authors unfortunately, but the listmania could. I completely agree about Twitter and Facebook being useless except for already established authors’ new work.

  12. Posted August 13, 2012 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    I’ve been interested in and involved in publications (mostly old media) for may years but enjoy reading publishing perspectives from time to time. A friend of mine teaches writing at a university and a community college in tucson AZ and recently published a book , “The Blue Maroon Murders.” I tried to interest her in PP but probably has not subscribed. She’s still committed to old line ways of PR and did a short book tour for her own book. It is on Amazon.com and also available on Kindle. She’s a longtime Tucsonan but a Chicagoan at heart and the book is set in Chicago and is probably very authentic in its details. I found the Goodreads suggestions intriguing. Were I an author I would try to follow them.

  13. Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Book discovery for readers would be so much easier if R.R. Bowker allowed the public to search their database of upcoming releases.

    I know I can go to a library and access the database (if the library pays for access — my public library no longer does), but it would be much more customer-friendly if I could do so from home. If publishers were serious about making it easier for readers to find new books, they would force Bowker to open this resource to the public. And Bowker should restore the search agent email function they used to have but no longer do.

    The same goes for Amazon — at one time many years ago, Amazon allowed readers to save their search criteria, and when a new title was listed that matched the reader’s criteria, Amazon would dispatch an email to the reader. They no longer offer that service and for the life of me, I cannot understand why. I mean, aren’t they in the business of selling books?

    Why make it harder for readers to find the books they want to (buy and) read?

  14. Stephen M. Shaw, Esq
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    I was dismayed to learn that Goodreads has a capacity problem. 5000 for friending, for example. Maybe there is a better access model for prospective readers than you have. I have been researching and writing appellate briefs for over three decades, first as a law clerk, and afterwards as an attorney (CA ’83 and HI ’86). As a prospective reader, I am impervious to ads from publishers. When annoyed by access barriers I look for better tools. I started with Westlaw in the late seventies and now use Lexis. If your system lacks the capacity of those two libraries, competition will soon overtake Goodreads. There may be an interim-type tool, which is worth looking into; that is, Shepard’s Citations. A similar model could, through a shorthand system, get readers and writers quickly to the universe of Goodreads titles, and next to subcatagories. Compared to Westlaw and Lexis, Goodreads is very difficult to use. The statements in another post about Bowkers and Amazon need to be taken to heart. For years, Shepard’s would not computerize. This was the method by which we find how a case is treated by other courts. Among many other things, the system tells us if the case is overruled, or if there are similar cases published elsewhere. Books are analogous to cases and need objective organization, a blurb or limited synopsis, word/phrase searches, and access at higher speeds. There may be highly useful help available.

  • Get Publishing Perspectives in your inbox each day and stay up-to-date on international publishing.