Tools of Change in Publishing Round Up II: Reader Data and Goodreads

The sessions I scheduled for myself at Tools of Change focused on libraries, readers, and data, particularly data about readers. I still get the sense that many of the biggest publishers are still shifting in their recognition of the reader (all of us contentious folks who don't agree with each other but want to be heard) as their main customer base. So I wanted to hear the data from Bowker about readership and how folks are reading, and I was determined to go to the session from Goodreads CEO and Founder Otis Chandler.

Unfortunately, there were sessions that were misleadingly titled, which meant that in my perspective they pretended to be about something they were clearly not. The two panels I attended Tuesday morning were titled in a manner that made me think I was going to receive data about the topics explored, but instead heard product promotion, to which I say, “Feh.”

For example, What Should I Read? A Brief History of Recommendations, started out with a cursory summary of recommendations from bookstores, and moved on to Amazon, Pandora, and Netflix algorithms, and the difference between searching and browsing to discover new material to read. Then, about 20 minutes in, it turned into a promotional session about how Zite collates user clicks to recommend related content.

To be honest and fair, Zite is very cool. When Angela James, who was sitting next to me, fired up her iPad to sign up, adding her Twitter feed and her Google Reader created sections on the NFL, chocolate, dessert, shopping, publishing, and shoes. Pretty accurate given the topics she reads – but I didn't need half a session with a cursory exploration of discoverability and then a promotion of how great Zite is. I wanted more of the history and possibility of recommendations, not how one company was exploring recommendations for their product.

That said, I have put Zite on my iPad and am fascinated by it. So while I didn't want to be the recipient of promotion, clearly that promotion worked!

I would request from Tools of Change, please, stronger marking of sessions that are going to be product promotion. Otherwise, I have to assume one or two people presenting from the same company will likely be promoting themselves and I'm going to start avoiding those sessions. Perhaps I also should have been more aware of the likelihood of promotion before, but I consider myself more educated now.

Now, on to the stuff that blew my mind some more.

Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading was a presentation of data from the Bowker and Book Industry Study Group survey of, you guessed it, reader attitudes toward reading, specifically print (referred to as P) and digital (E) reading.

Highlights: Readers are switching from P to E but the number of people migrating has leveled off a bit, while those with e-readers still buy more books.

There may be a seasonal shift in e book purchase. e.g. Person receives digital reader as a gift at the end of the year, they buy a boatload of books in January, then their purchases level off. The data for the past year or so seems to support that hypothesis.

The other factor in digital reading shift is the use of tablets, and how many people are using them for Things Other Than Reading. While this strayed into Anecdata (™ Brett Sandusky), and wasn't part of the fielding, the presentation suggested that those with tablets are more likely to consume other media or play games – Kelly Gallagher said that several years ago, if you would have told him he'd be spending a lot of time playing Scrabble with total strangers, he'd have laughed at you. Now, several people in the room admitted to having 2 or more Words with Friends games  going at once.

During the section about buying habits and readers switching from purchasing print to ebooks, E_Bookpushers asked via Twitter if there was data about which of those readers stopped buying print simply because they no longer had a local bookstore. I asked that question of the presenters on her behalf, and they said that they had not asked whether absence of a local bookstore was a factor in any purchase of digital books. Future surveys may include geographic data and that would make it perhaps easier to pinpoint bookstore locations as well.

Then came the Goodreads session with Otis Chandler, How Consumers Discover Books Online, which was my favorite – gee, I wonder why. All that data about readers! Eventually the slides may become available online, in which case they are worth looking at just for the graphical breakdown of reader/book interaction. An interesting point from the end of the session: Chandler revealed that he has always loved reading, and when he began to build different social networks professionally, he realized that there was an opportunity to combine social networks and reading, and hence, GoodReads. When he was in college, he was asked to design and build something out of foam to present to the class. He built an ereader – and this was in 1996. So it's cool to listen to someone who is personally enthusiastic about reading talking about reader data.

Chandler's presentation explained how Goodreads users register and add books to their shelves, and that he was looking most specifically at the 'to-read' shelf to get an understanding of reader intention. Looking at what readers want to read revealed an assortment of influences, and allowed me to see in graphical form the numbers and spikes in how readers discover and interact with books.

Highlights in BULLET form ahoy!


  • Goodreads has a community of 7 million registered readers, and is largest reader site in the world.
  • Some 250 million books are shelved at Goodreads
  • Over half the books added to user shelves were added in 2011. The To-Read shelf has 63 million books – as many as the Library of Congress, NYPL and Boston libraries combined.
  • In January 2012, over 5 million books were added to the to-read shelf. (Sarah notes: come talk to this guy when someone grouses about how no one reads books any more. Good gravy!)
  • The top 40 most popular books (the titles everyone has heard of, basically) represent only 5% of the to-read shelf. Everything else is books that aren't super popular.
  • People add books to their shelf during registration (19% of books added), and after a search (19%). Searches are folks looking for a specific title. Search is the stronger mechanism for adding books to the to-read shelf. Search also includes the Goodreads recommendation engine, which launched in September 2011. There are over 20 billion data points involved in recommending books for readers.
  • There was a 60% increase in shelving after the recommendation engine launched, and the recommendations engine is meant to hit the “mid-list sweet spot.” Angela James asked during the Q&A what the minimum threshold of ratings a book needed to have in order to be added to the recommendation engine. Chandler didn't know the exact figure, but guessed it was maybe about 100 ratings.

  • There is a minimum level of user star ratings needed to be included in the recommendation engine.
  • A smaller percentage of to-read shelving comes from a friend's update (9%). The average Goodreads user has 19 friends. Readers also discover books from user-created book lists (7%). Readers also add books to their to-read shelf using the goodreads app (6%). There have been over 800,000 installations of the app.
  • Giveaways are also a source of reader discovery. 2% of to-read shelving occurs during a giveaway. In January 2012 they ran 1065 giveaways, and shipped over 8000 copies of books.
  • Goodreads also did a survey of readers, asking how they found books. They had over 3000 responses. 96% of the respondents said they found books because they knew of the author already. Chandler pointed out that this data indicated the importance of marketing an author to that author's known audience.
  • 79% indicated they discover books from friends who are offline, and 64% from Goodreads friends.But surprise: only 14% said they found a book via Facebook, and only 6% said they found a book via Twitter.

  • Breaking the data by genre revealed that Science Fiction, Fantasy and YA readers discover books most commonly by looking for known authors, using Goodreads lists, or browsing those genres on the site. Romance readers use Goodreads recommendation engine quite a bit and are more likely to discover books from reader lists. Chandler supposed this was because romance readers may not talk to other people offline about reading romance.
  • When Chandler began looking at the effect of media exposure on books, the presentation got really interesting. This is the one picture I took of his slides: check the higher spike of NPR exposure vs. New York Times exposure.

Seeing friends add a book also means more activity for that book after that initial media spike. In other words, there's a longer-term effect of media exposure for books when they are located and tracked on a social network like Goodreads.

My theory as to why NPR has a greater spike in reader attention than the New York Times (and Candy and I saw this happen with the Bosoms after we were featured on NPR's All Things Considered Weekend edition): NPR listeners may think of themselves as part of a conversation, even though they may not call in to talk to the reporter they're listening to. So they're likely to find and read the books being discussed (especially since NPR has several book programs, bless them) (Hey NPR, More Romance Please!) because they want to be knowledgeable regarding any continued conversation or programming about that book. The New York Times readers are already reading, and there's slightly less of an opportunity or expectation for interaction. I'm curious about the overlap of the NPR and the NYT audiences, though. (This is totally all my own theory and conjecture in this paragraph – not part of the presentation at all.)

Anyway, back to the presentation: the biggest point made in the presentation is that there is no one effective strategy, no “magic bullet” (silver, of course!) to create discovery for readers. It happens in a number of different ways, and Goodreads can amplify the effect of any attention a book receives because of the social connections between readers. 

Other sessions that received positive comments in the ToC Twitter feed were the session featuring Small Demons' Valla Vakili, who spoke on Exaggerations and Perversions as he demoed Small Demons.

While Tools of Change in Publishing is not a conference about readers, it is about the changes happening in reading material, both in terms of corporate workflow and of the technology being used to produce, market, and actually read books. I loved the sessions that examined reader habits and interactions, but that's particularly appealing to me for a whole mess of reasons. It's a rare thing to be able to accurately determine and guide how users will apply technology to their lives, especially with a fundamental activity like reading, which uses a universal posture but is performed mentally and physically in a multitude of ways. While I didn't leave this year's ToC as excited and brainful as I have in the past, I did leave with a great deal to think about, and lots of data to ponder. 


ETA: Goodreads put most of the slides online on their blog – have a look!





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  1. 1
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  2. 2

    This is a fascinating post! Thank you so much! I know it makes me a total nerd, but I’m fascinated by the numbers side of publishing. The demographics, the metrics, the marketing, all that stuff. I can’t afford to go to every conference, so it’s awesome when you list out the highlights like this.

    I’m especially intrigued by that part where you talked about Twitter and Facebook being such a small part of book recommendations. I’ve purchased books where Twitter was buzzing about them—but it’s usually other authors talking books. I don’t know if the general public gets book recommendations that way. It’s very interesting to me that old-school-word-of-mouth is still the biggest way books are found. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; I was in the bookstore yesterday and a mom was shopping with her 16-year-old daughter. They saw me in the YA section and asked for a recommendation. A 16-year-old! Not looking for recommendations on FB or Twitter, but in the middle of the bookstore from a stranger. Really eye-opening for me.

    Do you think that teens may be hesitant to spread their reading habits on social media? Is there still a stigma to reading?

  3. 3
    Jennifer in GA says:

    I often feel that if I had to choose between Goodreads and Facebook, I would probably choose Goodreads. I love it that much! I only have two Goodreads complaints:

    1. I wish they had the ability to give half star ratings. Small thing I know, but that little bit of nuance would be wonderful.
    2. I rarely put things on my “to read” shelf because when I do finally read something off of it and want to move it to a different shelf, it puts it in the order with the original “to read date”. SInce I like to kepp track of what books I read by year, this doesn’t work for me. If I added a book in 2010 but finally read it in 2011, I want it to reflect the later date. Again, small thing I know, but it drives me crazy!

  4. 4
    Karenmc says:

    I have a GoodReads account, but haven’t done anything with it in a long time (I think I was an early adopter, via my brother and niece, and GR wasn’t chugging along with recs the way it is now). I need to look up my password and check it out again.

    I get recs from Twitter, but that’s because I follow only authors and my congressman (who’s no longer my congressman due to redistricting. Boo!).

    Sarah, thank you for keeping everyone in the loop about things like TOC. It’s fascinating information (at least to geeks like me).

    As for Zite, when my SIL received an iPad for Christmas, I told her to download Zite. About two weeks later I received a BIG thank you email from her. I’ve found such interesting things there, and it’s so easy to save, email, etc. anything.

  5. 5
    Lisa Hendrix says:

    My take on why the NPR spike is greater is simpler than yours: NPR has far more listeners outside the NYC area than the NYT has readers outside the city. I live in a small city in Oregon, and while I’ll snag the Sunday NYT off the rack every once in a while, I listen to NPR in my car and home every single day. I’d guess that’s true of the majority of NPR listeners.

    Thanks for these posts, Sarah. You’re doing a huge service for those of us who can’t attend these conferences.

  6. 6
    LauraN says:

    I’m with you.  I live in Indianapolis, and I don’t think I’ve ever read the NYT, but I listen to NPR whenever I’m in my car.

    Also, the lack of a bookstore in my area (I have to make a 30 min pilgrimage to another part of town to get to one) has definitely led to me buying more ebooks.

  7. 7
    chantalhab says:

    “There may be a seasonal shift in e book purchase. e.g. Person receives digital reader as a gift at the end of the year, they buy a boatload of books in January, then their purchases level off. The data for the past year or so seems to support that hypothesis.” Just wanted to comment on this: I know my mom, sister and I all receive Chapters gift cards for Christmas which is why our book purchases spike in January and then level off. We get (and give) book gift cards around most major holidays though so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see holiday related spikes (i.e. Mother’s day!)

  8. 8
    Donna says:

    As someone with 420 books on my Goodreads tbr list, I should add a “other people on Goodreads recommended it”. It’s the only place I pick up more recommendations than this one.  I do have a “heard about on NPR” shelf, though. I never look at best seller lists. I’m peripherally aware of what’s on them because it’s touted on bookstore displays, but otherwise, not really interested. Author interviews on NPR are so much more compelling.
    Also, Jennifer, my read shelf has both a “read date” and a “date added” column and sorts by read date with the most recent at the top. Maybe your settings need to be adjusted.

  9. 9
    Jennifer in GA says:

    Ooh, didn’t know that! I will have to check. Thanks for the info.

  10. 10
    Dwndrgn says:

    My only complaint is not being able to lable a book as a Did Not Finish without having to list it also as ‘read’ because I don’t like to consider it read if I didn’t finish.  I like your suggestions too, half stars would be nice.

  11. 11
    Dwndrgn says:

    OH and another thing, GR needs a ‘note’ section for each book that is private to the poster.  Outside of a review I might want to put a note in there like “Nicole recommended’ ‘send to brother’ or whatever that is a personal note for your own lists.

  12. 12

    Thanks for this great article.  GR is a great place.  What’s interesting to me is how it has taken off, yet librarything is fairly unknown and unused, especially socially (same for Shelfari.)  I’m not sure which of the sites came first, but GR definitely appears to see the most traffic.  They’ve definitely done something right.  I love their “bookshelf” ability.  I add books all the time.  It’s a great way to keep a list of books.  I do wish there were a way to keep private notes about books without my entire profile being private. 

    As for the conference…if they admitted how many of them were going to be “promo” no one would go…!  :>)

    Thanks again.  Great summary.

  13. 13
    Jinni says:

    I’m fascinated by the NPR spike.  I’ve heard about books there, but unless I remember it, and look it up, then write it down – I don’t follow up from those interviews.  When I get out of the car, I’m usually overwhelmed with whatever’s going on – letting dogs out, shopping, etc., and don’t get to note the books being talked about.  When I read the NYT, though, I can copy and Google right then.  Last book bought (for a friend’s child) from NYT review – The Future of Us.

  14. 14
    Donna says:

    Hence repeating “Mr. Peanut Mr. Peanut Mr. Peanut Mr. Peanut Mr. Peanut Mr. Peanut” ad infintitum until I got to a redlight to fish out an envelope and a pen.
    …by the way “Mr. Peanut” by Adam Ross was very good.

  15. 15
    Michelle says:

    There actually is one, but it’s not immediately visible. When in the “edit my review” screen, click on “more options” beneath the date finished. This will reveal additional fields including recommendation info and one entitled “Private notes (shown only to you).”

  16. 16
    Michelle says:

    You can add your own custom shelves to the default list – just for this reason! Click on “my books” in the menu bar. Then click on “edit” link next to the word “bookshelves” on the left side. If you haven’t already created a DNF shelf, scroll to the bottom of the edit screen to do so. Once that’s done, check off the “exclusive” box for your DNF to make it appear alongside the other default shelves (read, currently reading, and to read). Hope that helps!

  17. 17

    Heh, Library Thing was first, and then they lost me—as well as a bunch of other—users when they began charging for cataloging more than 300?? books. I have a Shelfari account, but it was difficult to navigate, and then Amazon bought it and I haven’t used it sense. But Goodreads I’ve had since 2008, and it was easy to use and didn’t seem like a place for book shilling (even though they now accept paid advertising), and I’ve loved it ever since.

  18. 18
    Jinni says:

    Getting that book right now!

  19. 19

    It’s more than 200 books. Otoh, it’s only $25 dollars for a lifetime membership.
    I’ve found some of the features they have, that GoodReads doesn’t, worth the money.

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    YES OH MY GOSH YES. As a Goodreads “Author” I have fewer options in terms of shelf privacy (I think) and I wish I could have a “notes” or “private” section for when I need to remind myself of something, like where a book came from or whom I am going to gift it to!

  21. 21
    SB Sarah says:

    @ladyoflostshadows: which features do you like that LibraryThing has for paid members? I didn’t know they had premium features!

  22. 22
    MissB2U says:

    Great post Sarah, thanks so much for feeding my inner geek! Would love to see more like this.  I find almost all my books by searching online – ususally starting right here.  I like it because it’s private and available 24/7.  I also browse the library but we seem to have a lot of judgemental folk there who don’t think “…books like that…” are worthy of shelf space and/or reading, and they always seem to be in the stacks at the same time I am.  And they want to talk to me when I just want to look at books.  Shoo!  Go away!

  23. 23

    Heh, you know Goodreads was almost singularly responsible for my book rising to #1 in Amazon G&L fiction. I thought I’d get 10 readers (5 from friends and family and 5 from husband’s friends and family). And one reader read it, rec’d it to another and started buzzing about it, next thing I know, it’s shot up to number 1 and I’ve fallen off my chair in shock.

    I never even got a chance to tell friends and family about the book being published until two weeks later when I announced it was number one. That’s how they found out I’d published. (And then asked me for free copies LOL)

  24. 24
    Sede PK says:

    DNF bookshelf? GR got that:

    Private Note? Got that too:

  25. 25
    Sede PK says:

    GR will never implement half-stars because research showed they discourage rating *more* than they encourage rating:…

  26. 26

    They don’t have premium features, as far as I can recall, but I’d find being limited to 200 books pretty useless.

    I like the ability to give half star ratings and the amount of data I can edit to get the book to actually match my edition.  I also like the lists of recommendations on each book’s page, both an automatic one and user suggestions. I also like being able to organize books by collections(shelves) and by tags. I also have easier time finding lists of books in a series.

  27. 27
    Kerry Dustin says:

    Thank you. I had a DNF shelf, but didn’t know I could make it exclusive. This makes me extremely happy.

  28. 28
    Amanda Garcia says:

    GR does have a notes section.  When you are editing your review if you click on ‘more options’ which is located right below ‘Date I finished this book’ it expands your review options and includes a field where you can type notes labeled ‘Private Notes’.  These notes can only be viewed by you.  I hope this is what you were looking for and crosses something off your GR wishlist!

  29. 29
    delphia2000 says:

    So. I’m about the only person here who has never been to Goodreads and doesn’t know a thing about it other then it gets metioned here and there in my net travels?

  30. 30
    SusannaG says:

    You can make that happen, Dwndrgn – just go to “my books,” click the “edit” next to where it says “bookshelves” at the left of that page, and then click “exclusive” next to the name of that shelf.  Then you don’t also have to mark it as “read.”

  31. 31
    Estara says:

    Jennifer, you can create your own shelf called read-in-2011 and apply that to the book, as well. GR allows you to create exclusive shelves (to-read, read, to-be-bought) and inclusive (where you can have more than one tag showing up: manga, read-in-2011). It all depends how detailed you want to go with the shelves/tags.

  32. 32
    Estara says:

    But there is! It is private to the poster “Private notes (shown only to you)” – I guess you need to enable “more options” when you write a review or even if you simply rate the book. You can write those notes there.

  33. 33
    Estara says:

    I made an exclusive shelf called “DNF” and in my rating of the book – mostly none – I simply don’t enter a date for finishing the book. I just have the start date there – then it doesn’t show up in the current year’s book challenge as read, or as read at all.

    Oh and I also want half stars!

  34. 34
    Estara says:

    I’ll quote myself from my reply to Dwndrgn “But there is! It is private to the poster “Private notes (shown only to you)” – I guess you need to enable “more options” when you write a review or even if you simply rate the book. You can write those notes there. “

  35. 35
    Estara says:

    This shall serve as a lesson to me to first read all the comments – I must be the fourth or fifth person pointing out the GoodReads abilities ^^

    Fascinating article and thank you for it!

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