Columns > Published on August 3rd, 2021

Goodreads: A History of Where It All Went Wrong

The right person will tell you Goodreads is like a digital coffee shop where people can chat over books.

A different, also right person will tell you Goodreads is the world’s biggest hellhole, pretending to be a literate, high-society book salon when it’s really just an excellent place to absorb abuse for having an opinion on a book (or, god forbid, for writing one).

What happened? Who’s right? Where did it all go wrong?

Origin

Reviewers: There’s a difference between saying a book sucks and saying whoever wrote it should eat a dick burrito with sewage salsa.

Goodreads started innocently enough when Otis Chandler, who previously worked the technical side of dating apps, put his skills to work for something far less likely to end in the proliferation of dick pics: books.

By the way, I didn’t say a life in books absolutely would not end in dick pics. Nobody is saying that there’s a life path that doesn’t end in dick pics.

Chandler thought, “If I could only get my all friends to put their bookshelves online and say what they thought of them…[that] would just be a really good way to find good books.”

By the by, if you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Chandler’s wife and Goodreads co-founder Elizabeth Khuri Chandler yet, it’s because I hate women and am an active participant in their erasure.

Kidding!

As she herself says: “Goodreads was Otis’ idea, but he enjoyed making it something I would want to use.” Elizabeth Khuri Chandler did the PR, branding and marketing for the first five years, and she was a sounding board for the project. Otis would run various things by Elizabeth and her English major/Journalism buddies because he figured they’d be a core audience.

Thus, Goodreads was born.

Why Did Goodreads Get So Big?

Lots of articles will give you touchy-feely, “finally book nerds had a home” reasons for Goodreads’ success. But I don’t think those account for the spread of Goodreads. Here are a few theories of my own.

The Rise of Teen

In the mid-2000s, Young Adult book options were pitiful. You’d have your Chocolate War, a handful of bad Judy Bloom knockoffs with more handjobs, and that’s about it. But in the second half of the decade, teen-centric post-apocalyptic trilogies, sad girls in pretty dresses, and LGBTQIA+ inclusivity exploded onto bookshelves in libraries and bookstores.

Fandom was a huge part of the teen lit boom. Teen lit fans skewed younger and more tech savvy, and the target market for these books also happened to be the target market for social media. Goodreads started up in 2007 and really hit its stride around 2011, which coincides with the teen boom and the desire of teen lit fans to gather and geek out about books.

The Engine Room

Goodreads acquired a book-recommendation engine that was better than Amazon’s. Better how? The Goodreads engine was based on your ratings, not your purchase and browsing history. You know how you’ll buy something wacky on Amazon, just a goof, like a Nicolas Cage sequin pillow, and then you’re getting recommendations for a Nicolas Cage shower curtain and a Nicolas Cage cage for your dog? By simply going on user ratings, Goodreads worked around that shit. 

Social Media Suck

Before Goodreads, book blogs, especially niche, genre blogs about horror, extreme horror, erotic horror...well, a bunch of blogs with black backgrounds and eye-piercing electric green fonts, were abundant, ripe, and ready to be fed into the Goodreads machine.

Social media sites like Goodreads sucked up all the small, independent content sites online, mashed them up, and spewed out the results as the pink slime of internet culture, aka timelines. Convenient for me, the reader who wants to check out what a variety of people think about a book, but shitty for the book blogger.

We didn’t know it then, but social media was in the process of making the internet easier to browse and way, way less interesting. Goodreads provided a hub for book lovers, but it also took some of the stank off it.

Tracking Craze

Fitness trackers, diet trackers, sleep trackers, goal trackers, to-do lists, there’s even a tracker on your phone that tracks how much you’re using your tracker apps. The compulsion behind data-fying activities is strange, but it’s real.

Goodreads provided personal data for readers. How many books did I read? How many pages? What was the longest book I read? How does this year compare to last year?

The Room for Authors

On Facebook and Instagram, your pleas for people to buy your books are lost in the wash of politics, people taking bad pictures of their ugly-ass kids, and advertisements for their Mary Kay nonsense. On Goodreads, selling your books makes a lot more sense.

The price structure for Goodreads ads and giveaways doesn’t slam the door on smaller presses and even self-pub authors. I don’t want you to mistake them for cheap, but giving away 100 eBooks for $100 is much cheaper than shipping 100 hard copies, and it does at least give you, the indie author, a shot.

Readers and reviewers are a big part of Goodreads, but the hidden, secret backbone is heavy author use.

A Crazy Little LibraryThing Called LibraryThing

To tell the Goodreads story in a more complete way, let’s look at The Goodreads That Didn’t Make It, aka Librarything.

Librarything looks and feels like an elementary school library catalog that was put together by a stoned 20-something intern over one summer where he did nothing until July 25th, then in a mad rush, cataloged the entire library before students came back. The elderly school librarian was extremely impressed because the 20-something added a couple graphics and a sans serif font, which was a little extreme in the librarian’s opinion, but it undeniably “jazzed up” the site’s appearance.

The LibraryThing story is one that uses words like “metadata” and “OPAC.” There’s a bigger focus on cataloging than discussion. It’s just...not fun. I don’t think it’s meant to be fun, or it’s only meant to be fun for the very specific kind of person who gets off on MARC records.

If you have two roommates, Librarything is the studious, reliable roommate who you want around when rent’s due. Goodreads is that roommate who’s annoying as fuck, but 15 years down the road, all your best stories are about Goodreads.

Amazon Makes the Buy

Remember when I told you how Goodreads used a different book recommendation engine? Did that strike you as odd? Because this is where Goodreads started to get way off track.

Amazon bought Goodreads for $150 million in 2013, though founders Otis and Elizabeth stayed on for a few more years.

For a lot of people, this is when things started to go downhill, and it’s hard to argue against that.

In an interview from 2014, you can almost smell a defensiveness on the part of Otis and Elizabeth when the topic of Amazon comes up. The interview starts with excitement about books and reading and connecting people, and then, when the Amazon deal comes up, it’s a little more corporate. All the buzzwords like product, platform, and metadata are lined up and accounted for.

I have some advice for Otis and Elizabeth: Don’t worry about the haters. If someone offered me $150 million to kill my mother, I would consider it. I wouldn’t take it, but I wouldn’t be insulted by the proposition, that’s how much $150 million is. Offer me $2,500 to kill my mom, I’ll call you an asshole. Offer me $150 million, I’ll turn you down, but more politely than I should.

Yes, getting $150 million is 100% selling out. But if I’m honest, even if Goodreads is run into the ground, I couldn’t tell you that I would turn down $150 million to preserve every idiot’s right to review a book with a series of gifs.

Eventually the founders left and turned over the reigns to Veronica Moss, head of “Revenue and Operations.” Moss worked in marketing for Hotwire and Pandora before landing at Goodreads. I don’t want to be the person who says the current CEO of Goodreads doesn’t really care about books. I don’t know that to be true. However, I offer her background and past employment as a valid reason to be skeptical, to wonder if Goodreads is really about good reading anymore or if it’s more about data collection, generating revenue, and propping up Amazon.

Where People Get The Amazon Thing Wrong

Amazon isn’t an evil, abusive landlord in the case of Goodreads. When they bought Goodreads, their promise was to "do no harm." They've fulfilled that promise, but they also haven't made things any better.

Think of Goodreads as a decent housing complex in a middle-class neighborhood. Amazon bought it, and while they haven’t done superficial upgrades that priced everyone out, they also haven’t bothered doing a whole lot of basic maintenance either. It’s not actively shitty because of sitewide problems, but it’s also not something that improves, well, ever.

It’s stagnant, and as the world develops around it, Goodreads looks worse and worse.

Where Recommendations Went Wrong

Remember when I told you how Goodreads used a different book recommendation engine? Did that strike you as odd? It should’ve, because this is where Goodreads started to get way off track.

Allie Townsend in Time:

...Goodreads prided itself on this idealistic human-to-human book discovery that the site offered. It was part of the “Aren’t you sick of robots telling you what you want?” digital boom. And it was appealing. The web felt like a community again...

Goodreads removed the emphasis on person-to-person book discussion and placed a digital recommendations engine between individual users. By becoming more like other recommendation engines, Goodreads turned away from its original appeal.

Where Social Went Wrong

Books are an underrated escape from the digital. When you read a book, there's no FOMO, there's no comparing your life to someone you know in real life, and really no need to participate in the book beyond reading. The book doesn't ask anything of you, and it doesn't make you feel like shit.

The social aspect of Goodreads is fun, but it's also led to competitiveness, To-Read lists that'll never be finished in a dozen lifetimes, and for some readers these aspects remove the best part of reading: It's not social. When books get social, another escape hatch from the digital world slams shut.

Where Reviewers Went Wrong

Some of the problems with Goodreads are on us readers, let’s be honest.

All of this was best outlined by the whole Kathleen Hale scandal of 2014 in which Hale semi-stalked a Goodreads reviewer who called Hale a “rape apologist” and turned out to be a total catfish. Lots of bad behavior all around on that one.

Professional reviewers have to maintain relationships in the book world, and if they interpret an author as being a “rape apologist,” they need some good evidence to back it up before they commit their thoughts to print. 

Amateurs can pitch their subjective interpretation of a book’s first 15 pages as the book’s objective truth.

And the hell of it is, Goodreads reviews are often rated highly because they’re funny. If the user wants to get attention and Likes, savaging a book is the shortest route.

Try it. If you rip a book a new one in an amusing way, you’ll get a golden shower of Likes. Here, go ahead, I put up this book specifically so you can go and give it negative reviews, just to see what happens. Seriously, this exists for the sole purpose of you taking a shot. Prove me wrong.

Where Authors Went Wrong

I’m not optimistic for the future of Goodreads, but I concocted a scenario where things improve.

Authors scrap with reviewers on Goodreads, even if the review is not personally attacking or unfair. Authors will comment on a middling review, not in a super intimidating way, but in a way that signals, “Hey, I saw this.”

This trainwrecks the Goodreads experience for readers. You don’t have to take flack from a reader who @’s you on Twitter just to talk shit, but sharing their subjective, negative opinion on your work on Goodreads is a totally appropriate thing to do.

I don’t know how to put this gently: When you’re an author, you have to accept that readers want to read and evaluate your book as if you’re not a real person. Maybe we authors need to consider leaving Goodreads as a place for readers to do that.

The Future

I’m not optimistic for the future of Goodreads, but I concocted a scenario where things improve:

Say Amazon decides to turn Goodreads over to an employee. Say Amazon decides to give this person a lot of leeway because there’s not much to screw up. Say this person happens to enjoy Goodreads and has some ideas to improve it.

This seems like the most likely way to see Goodreads bounce back.

For this to happen, we users have to keep Goodreads chugging along. The longer Goodreads goes, the more opportunity there is for change.

Let’s all do our part.

Reviewers: There’s a difference between saying a book sucks and saying whoever wrote it should eat a dick burrito with sewage salsa. There’s a not-fine line between critiquing what didn’t work in a book and completely roasting the author’s personal life, appearance, and dead mother.

Authors: Just leave reviewers alone. If that means you can’t use Goodreads because the temptation is too great, then so be it. Our choices, even good choices, have consequences, and a consequence of being an author might be that Goodreads isn’t much fun for you anymore, it’s business.

Goodreads: Add features that emphasize human interaction and de-emphasize machine learning, at least for regular users. Oh, and maybe you could consider actually using Goodreads on a regular basis, see what annoys the shit out of you, and fix those things.


Get Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter at Bookshop and Amazon 

Get Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle at Bookshop and Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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