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Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler founded Goodreads.com.

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The virtual book club

  • Article by: LESLIE KAUFMAN New York Times News Service
  • February 26, 2013 - 5:42 PM

 

Lori Hettler is a passionate reader, tearing through about 80 books a year. But as a resident of a Pennsylvania town and with a preference for fiction from small publishers, she can have trouble finding new books to feed her habit.

She tried to start a book club, but there weren’t enough takers. For years she made a weekly trip to browse a bookstore 40 minutes away in a Scranton suburb.

But then she found a solution: Goodreads.com, a social media site for finding and sharing titles that has 15 million members, is exploding in popularity and rivaling Amazon.com as a platform for promoting new books.

The site allows readers to share what they are reading, rate books and list what they are considering next. They can do this publicly or among a self-selected network of online friends. The site is also host to roughly 20,000 online book clubs for every preference — from people interested in only Proust to those who prefer Tudor-period fiction. There are 314 clubs for paranormal romance fans alone.

Goodreads and smaller similar sites are addressing what publishers call the “discoverability” problem: How do you guide consumers to books they might want to read? The digital age has created online retail sites that are overflowing with new books. At the same time, the number of bookstores has shrunk, depriving customers of the ability to browse or ask staff members for guidance.

For a long time Amazon, the largest online bookseller, dominated the digital discovery zone. But it has lost some trust among readers recently amid concerns that its reviews and recommendations can contain hidden agendas.

The theory behind Goodreads and its two main — albeit much smaller — competitors, Shelfari and LibraryThing, is that people will put more faith in book recommendations from a social network they build themselves. Amazon was convinced enough of the concept that it bought Shelfari in 2008.

Goodreads members represent a small portion of all book buyers, and it is not immune from some of the politicking that goes on elsewhere — authors are not prevented from reviewing their own books, for instance. But advocates consider this acceptable because readers can choose their own reviewers.

“Because Goodreads is not a publisher or retailer, people feel that the information is not getting manipulated,” said Amanda Close, who runs digital marketplace development for Random House. “People trust them because they are so crowd-sourced. You can’t buy a five-star review there.”

Hettler started her own group on Goodreads, the Next Best Book Club, which now has more than 10,000 members. She has become so well known that not only does she never run out of book recommendations, but she is also courted directly by small publishers like Graywolf Press and Artistically Declined to promote their authors.

“I am trying to use my platform to spotlight the underdog,” she said. “My reach is limited, but I know what will speak to my audience, and when we pitch a book, we clearly see an uptick in people who say they are going to read it.”

Goodreads.com was founded by Otis Chandler, grandson of the last family owner of the Los Angeles Times, and the woman he later married, Elizabeth Khuri Chandler. Slowly the site became the largest source of independent reviews on the Web, with 21 million and counting.

The collective power of the membership model began to be felt across publishing. One example is “Wool,” a 2011 self-published sci-fi series by Hugh Howey. In 2011, USA Today began featuring Goodreads reviews on its website.

Goodreads has been particularly crucial for self-published authors, many of whom would never have had success without it. But even authors with publishers are setting up their own Web pages on Goodreads to promote future books — as essential as Twitter or Facebook — and to connect with readers

Lisa See, whose 2005 novel, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” made it to the New York Times extended bestseller list, has been using Goodreads since 2009.

“It is a way to meet your readers and hope they become your advocates and spread the elusive word-of-mouth in places you are not going and are off the book-tour route,” she said.

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