Digital Case Study: Can Goodreads Ads Help Unknown Authors Find an Audience?

In English Language by Karen Holt

By Karen Holt, where authors use social networking to connect with fans and attract new readers, has quietly been building a program that lets writers and publishers pay to kickstart interest in their titles among the site’s 3.4 million book-loving members.

Appearing under the label, “Sponsored Books,” the pay-per-click ads typically include a brief description of a title and a photo of its cover. Clicking on an ad leads to a page filled with content related to the book, such as member discussions and reviews, or an author’s blog.

While promoting books through advertising and social networking is nothing new, what’s striking is how seamlessly the two blend on Some authors see the ads as more of a shortcut to viral marketing than a direct sales tool. “If I have even five good readers who choose my book by that click-on, then I have a base to start a discussion on something that interested them in my book and that will speak to other people,” said Alan Schwartz, who is advertising his self-published novel, Amos and the Cosmos.

Otis Chandler

CEO Otis Chandler

Writers are encouraged to use the ads in combination with other marketing tactics such as book giveaways (over 33,000 copies have been distributed to Goodreads members) or becoming one of the more than 11,000 “Goodreads Authors” by keeping an active profile on the site.

Launched with little publicity nearly a year ago, the “self-serve” ad program is still evolving. Last month, Goodreads changed the pricing policy; instead of a flat 50 cents per click, advertisers choose their per-click price, with those paying more getting better exposure.

Almost 1,000 ads have been posted and as a result, Goodread’s members have added participating books to their virtual bookshelves (which signals the intent to read a book, but doesn’t necessarily mean a sale was made) some 400,000 times, said founder and CEO Otis Chandler.

Ads currently on the site include a smattering of titles from large publishers, along with books from many small presses and self publishers who find the modest investment fits their meager marketing budgets.

With advertising now common on social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter—which recently began accepting “Promoted Tweets” — Goodreads is emphasizing quality over quantity. “My standard line on Facebook is, ‘they have bigger numbers than us, but we have the true, hardcore readers,'” Chandler said.

Debut author Joseph Hanneman agrees. After taking out ads on Facebook and Goodreads to promote his self-published memoir, The Journey Home, he stopped advertising on Facebook after having attracted 145 “fans” without any apparent effect on book sales. On Goodreads, said Hanneman, the clicks come more slowly but represent better long-term potential. “It’s clear that people who go on this site are very serious about books,” he said.

Author Audrey Braun also opted to advertise her self-published debut novel, A Small Fortune, on Goodreads in order to develop a longer-term relationship with readers, but was disappointed that the response suddenly fell off after a higher-paying advertiser targeting the same audience pushed her ad to the background. “Today, I’m leaning toward not renewing it,” she said.

Goodreads continues to display other types of advertising, including generic host driven ads that are supposed to rotate based loosely on the subject being viewed. While those types of ads tout everything from appliances to online dating, the self-serve ads keep the focus on books.

That’s something even Tim Spaulding, founder of rival and a sharp critic of Goodreads’ non-book ads, can appreciate. “If there is a type of advertising that is non-obtrusive, it is advertising that is directly related to the content and something you want,” he said.

But don’t expect LibraryThing to follow its competitor’s lead. It has a strict no-advertising policy and will even cut off writers who seem only interested in promoting their own work. The site runs on small fees paid by its members.

“Advertising is always something of a conflict of interest,” Spaulding said. “And I think most businesses in the world are not advertising-supported. It is not clear to me that [advertising] is the only model that makes sense.”

Still, authors battling to attract readers are eager to try any tool available — especially when they can advertise relatively cheaply.

“I did it on a whim,” said Australian writer Johnny Smith by email and whose first ad promoted his short story, “The Bicycle Messenger.” “I made a small bid — it was out of my beer and whiskey money account — and am only carrying it through for one month. I wasn’t interested in giving up any more whiskey than one month’s worth.”

That said, it’s a small investment to make to help seed an audience for the publication of his forthcoming collection, Timekeeping on Mars, another book he expects to promote on the site — and a whole lot cheaper than buying all 3.4 million members of Goodreads a round.

DISCUSS: Have online ads led you to new authors?

WATCH: A recent interview with Otis Chandler discussing the competitive advantages of

About the Author

Karen Holt

Karen Holt is a freelance writer, editor and book critic. She regularly contributes to O, The Oprah Magazine, and her writing appears in publications like Essence, The New York Post, Barnes & Noble Review and Publishing Perspectives.