7 Surprises I Discovered on Goodreads
Goodreads is slow social media.
If that sounds like an oxymoron in today’s gushing waterfall of text, images and videos speeding toward us from our phones, our tablets and our laptops—then maybe Goodreads isn’t actually “social media,” as such. However you choose to label this kind of online community, I have come to the conclusion that slowness is Goodreads’ greatest asset.
So for the purposes of this column, let’s agree that Goodreads, at its best, is a very different kind of entity than what most of us think of as “social media.” That’s what led to the surprises I encountered in my own deep dive into that community in recent months.
Owned by Amazon since 2013, the relationships and activities within Goodreads feel very much like what happens in Amazon’s carefully cultivated “community of reviewers.” However, unlike Amazon’s arbitrary limitations on reviewers and authors (some of which we detailed in this earlier column), Goodreads trusts its members to talk with each other through updates, comments, posts and reviews in a way that Amazon no longer allows on its main online store. Here’s one big example of that contrast: On Amazon itself, you can’t review a book until it is officially launched. In contrast, Goodreads is aware that lots of readers get pre-release copies of books and allows both reviews and discussions of upcoming books long before their official release dates.
There’s a whole lot of freedom in Goodreads that no longer exists under the harsher rule of the sheriffs on Amazon’s home website.
So, why am I writing this column right now?
If you visit my author page on Goodreads, you may ask this question: Why now? After all, I’ve been a member of Goodreads since shortly after it launched. I was among the first million members. Today there are 20 million.
The truth is: I signed up, because a speaker at a publishers’ conference told all of us we should—then I ignored Goodreads for years. I became disenchanted with the glacial pace of Goodreads and didn’t appreciate the value of the thoughtful discussions as much as I do now.
Thanks to my adult “kids” and a couple of close friends, who almost bullied me into becoming active again in December 2022, I made a New Year’s Resolution to reactivate my long dormant Goodreads account. Now, I have spent two months actively connecting with Goodreads several times each day.
I took the Goodreads “challenge” to read 50 books in the 2023 calendar year. Now, in early March, I’m already halfway to that goal, because of the work that I do every day. As a journalist and publisher, I’m constantly reading.
But after two months of intensive engagement with Goodreads, I can report:
Here are my 7 surprises!
I discovered that I like “slow.” What does that feel like? Well, over time, you can feel friends relaxing and enjoying Goodreads. After checking Goodreads at nearly every hour of the day and night, it’s clear to me that most active members check in over their morning coffee, or perhaps after dinner in the evening, or maybe once a week on Saturday or Sunday. This isn’t like instant-gratification social media where people are zinging updates and responses practically as fast as you can spot them and react. This is a community where you might ask a friend a question—and hear back 10 days later when they’ve got a moment to thoughtfully check Goodreads again.
The Goodreads staff advises new members to check 3-5 times per week. I can tell you after two months of daily interaction, nobody but a minority of deeply committed members check that often. Even friends I’ve met who consider themselves “active” on Goodreads may only check in once a month.
What does that mean? If you send a message about a book to a friend in March—don’t be surprised if you don’t hear anything in response until April.
Friendships take time to cultivate. Just like in real life, it takes time and personal attention to make new friends in Goodreads. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been active on most of the social media platforms buzzing around the world, these days. Making friends in most of these virtual worlds feels a bit like playing tag on a playground as a kid. Everyone seems to be running around, posting all kinds of things, and swapping friend requests often moves so fast that I feel overwhelmed by who I actually “know” out there. On Goodreads, because the whole concept of this world is to share reflections on your reading of books, the whole pace of life slows down. Extending invitations to potential new friends may take weeks—sometimes months—before those folks even pop back into Goodreads again. The good news is that relationships on Goodreads can be deeper and more personally engaging than on other Grand Central Station social media realms.
In short, I really enjoy the friends I’ve made on Goodreads.
Be careful what you wish for. While most “active” Goodreads members are active only occasionally, others are active multiple times throughout the day. I befriended and followed one colleague, a prominent University of Michigan scholar, who nearly always surprises me with multiple new items every single day. I thought I was very active, but this friend sets the bar even higher! He’s popping fresh notifications into my Goodreads feed every couple of hours and sometimes he adds several in a single visit. Well, in his case, I welcome those items because I value his insights on the world and I’m always pleased to see his notifications pop up. But I have connected with a few folks in my first two months of daily activity whose multiple notifications per day are less welcome. Whenever you decide to reach out and make a friend on Goodreads, the service actually pops up a warning: “Please only add people who you are genuinely interested in being friends with!”
In fact, that’s sage advice.
I’m disappointed that most Goodreads friends don’t take time to write reviews. OK, if you’re one of my Goodreads’ friends, feel free to complain that this isn’t a fair criticism. In fact, after decades in journalism, I’m always writing, every single day. When I “rate” a book either on Goodreads or Amazon, I don’t want to simply leave stars—I want to explain what I think those stars represent.
One reason I seem to be only half way through my 50-books-in-2023 challenge is that I write detailed reviews of each book I mark as “read.” I actually read more books than appear on my Goodreads page, but if I’m going to rate a book for other friends in that online community, I want to explain my reaction. So far this year, I’ve only had time to review 23 of the books I’ve read.
That’s why I’m always disappointed when a friend posts a star rating of an intriguing book they just finished—and I discover that they didn’t add even a sentence explaining that star rating. So, feel free to tell me I’m being unfair to non-writers, but I’d love to see at least a sentence or two about how readers have experienced the books they’re finishing. Please: Give us more than stars.
Most Goodreads groups are dormant. Since Goodreads was launched in 2007, thousands of “groups” have been organized by members, some of them with a great flourish of activity in the first few weeks—and then nothing. I have searched for a long list of special book-related topics that I enjoy exploring and I keep finding groups that someone started a number of years ago, then dropped. I currently belong to a half dozen groups, but even those groups move at a glacial speed. I have not dropped my membership in those groups, because I do enjoy seeing occasional updates, but at least in my experience: Goodreads groups for the most part are a slow backwater of the community.
Before you comment on this column and complain that your group on Goodreads is very active—hey, I realize there are some super-energized groups. But, as I say, “for the most part” the groups listed on Goodreads are slow—or dead.
If you claim your author page, you can add a list of at least some of your books and an RSS feed of your ongoing writing. Here’s my Author Page on Goodreads. I’m actually the author or co-author of more books than are listed on my page, but Goodreads requires proof of authorship in a way that makes it cumbersome for an author to add all of the books they co-authored. You have to fill out a special time-consuming questionnaire to prove you’re a co-author of books to have them appear with your profile. So, I simply accepted what Goodreads automatically recognized as my authorship and someday, when I have more time, I’ll try to fill out each of those cumbersome “claim a book” forms and add more books to my author’s list.
However, what I really appreciate is Goodreads’ acceptance of an RSS feed to funnel article summaries from ReadtheSpirit.com magazine into my Goodreads author page—and out to my friends. I’ve got my Goodreads author page currently set up to automatically accept my new bylines from our online magazine, ReadTheSpirit via RSS feed. Amazon used to allow authors to do this on their Amazon Author Pages, but discontinued that service a few months ago.
Thanks Goodreads for continuing to serve authors in this more robust way!
The “Librarians” are really expert! When I became more active in Goodreads on January 1, I discovered this rarified group called The Librarians. Anyone can follow this group’s news (and nearly 190,000 people do at the moment) so I thought: Hmmm, I’ve been an editor at Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia for many years, so perhaps I should sign up to become a Goodreads Librarian. Then, I discovered the depth and complexity of the arcane knowledge these volunteers must absorb. These folks are the beneficial minions who help readers, authors and publishers sort out the millions of books listed across the Goodreads realm. They can manually help to add a correct book cover, “sort” books into proper categories (they call them “shelves”), organize an author’s disorganized series of books into the correct order and fix all kinds of typos and errors that crop up. I have been astonished myself at the vast depth of quality information on Goodreads, but I decided—after taking a look at the Librarians’ daunting entry-level “quiz”—that I definitely did not have the bandwidth to learn that deep, deep level of Goodreads architecture at which these volunteers labor.
So, hail to the Librarians! But, do I want to become one? No, I simply don’t have the time for that.
“Book giveaways” are a distraction. Among the most popular Google searches about Goodreads are questions about “book giveaways.” Everybody is attracted to a “giveaway” program. However, as expected, the majority of people don’t win these Goodreads opportunities. In fact, one of the most popular Google searches about Goodreads is: “Does anyone ever win a Goodreads giveaway?” In fact some folks do, although most people don’t.
What’s my advice about giveaways? First, as the co-founder of Front Edge Publishing, I don’t encourage authors to host book giveaways because they result in a mixed bag of reviews—much like publishers don’t encourage authors to put their books into Amazon’s Vine program. Lots of people sign up for giveaways almost as a reflex action and the mix of resulting reviews actually can bring down a book’s rating as some readers discover they did not want that particular book in the first place.
In my own experience of entering giveaways, however, I only enter when I really do expect to read the book. Overall, though, I don’t pay giveaways much attention. In fact, I placed this whole “giveaways” topic last on this list, because for me it’s more of a distraction than the actual compelling heart of this remarkable community of readers.
There really are friends here waiting to meet you—and to enjoy reading with you.
But, remember, there’s no running in the aisles of Goodreads.