September 15, 2020
What are the other options for those who think GoodReads “sucks” and is “just shy of unbearable”?
by Athena Bryan
But Sarah Manavis at The New Statesman is asking the important question for those readers out there who feel that the platform “has become a monster,” “a purgatory” or find it “completely useless.”
Now that I’ve uncharitably quoted all of the most stinging attacks on the website in one spot, let’s back up a little bit.
What is GoodReads, why is it important, and what do users find frustrating about it.
Well, it was founded in 2007 as a platform to help people get recommendations from literary friends. (What, they don’t enjoy lit world parties?!) It had 15 million users by 2013 when it was acquired by Amazon. And if you know anything about Amazon’s relationship to publishing, you can predict how this acquisition went for devoted users. The massive, monopolistic behemoth of online commerce had already forced GoodReads to switch the source of its data to Ingram a year earlier, which effectively wiped many users’ cherished data. But the acquisition of the site itself left it fairly fallow. These days most users employ GoodReads to log their reading, if that.
The platform still has the most users of any book-based social medium, but the frustration is that it fails to mobilize its massive userbase and dataset, and instead provides an interface that is “cluttered, random and unintuitive” (sorry, I lied about the barbed quotes—when you have juice like this, you must quote it in your blog!).
Competitors have tried to cut in and provide the service that GoodReads largely fails to do: provide targeted and thoughtful book recommendations based on reading history and preferences.
Manavis marshals a couple of examples of people who have tried to fill that space. One Tom Critchlow launched a website called 7books, which has since folded after peaking at 6,000 users. The GoodReads/Amazon userbase/dataset proved indomitable for the insurgent platform… “Amazon […] has showed no mercy when dealing with competitors before,” said Critchlow to the journalist, although to be fair, I don’t really think Amazon did anything openly predatory and monopolistic in this case, 6k falling a ways short of 15 million…
But I digress. Another competitor which is still up and running is called The StoryGraph. Its founder, Nadia Odunayo, focused on specifically developing tools to refine the process of finding new books and cataloguing books on a matrix more complex than the old five-star rating system. Manavis explains:
Rather than just offering an explainer of a book’s plot, information such as “mood” and “pace” are voted on by The StoryGraph community. Next to descriptors such as “reflective” or “dark” are percentages of how many readers agree with these descriptions, along with votes on whether character development was strong or if the characters were loveable — and then, after all that, the star rating.
(The sound of Robin Williams massacring a textbook rattles somewhere in the depths of my mind.)
It’s as challenging as ever for a start-up, especially in These Challenging Times, but with 40,000 users, The StoryGraph off to a promising start.
So while these brave soldiers try to figure out how to make the internet do even one nice thing, don’t forget that book sellers are what you might call the fun, analog version of a book-recommendation database, and as book stores (safely) open (with social distancing measures), you can always start there while the forces greater than us duke this one out.
Athena Bryan is an editor at Melville House.