Despite Amazon’s innovation elsewhere, Goodreads has stagnated for 12 years, and its problems are endless
Goodreads, the largest literary social media network, should be a good gathering place for readers. It is one of the only online communities for people who like to read books, but the service’s apparent monopoly seems to have stopped it from innovating, based on complaints from users and, well, basic observation. As a result, readers don’t have a good, central online community where they can discuss favorite novels or dish about exciting new releases; authors and publishers don’t have a reliable, trustworthy way to promote their books and interact with fans; book clubs and literary publications don’t have a good way to use the site to gain members and foster discussions.
What Goodreads isgood for is keeping your own list of books you want to read or have read this year. It’s a list-making app. And while that’s useful, it doesn’t live up to the company’s full promise of being a haven for readers. Readers and authors deserve a better online community. And while Amazon has at least some nominal interest in improving many of its other products — Alexa, for example, becomes more advanced with each passing year — Goodreads lingers in the dustbin of the early aughts, doomed to the hideous beige design and uninspiring organization of a strip mall doctor’s office.
“It’s just really clunky and slow,” says Dustin Martin, a reader, Goodreads user, and software engineer. “Even having the resources of Amazon behind it, the site feels like a relic, an early web 2.0 sort of deal. I don’t think I’ve seen real improvement or new features since I started using the site in 2014.”
Martin brings up the difficulty of searching for books, a feature that numerous other frustrated Goodreads users complained to me about: The search tool is not intuitive, and if the user makes any mistakes, the book may not come up in Goodreads search at all. Even when a book or author is accurately entered into the search bar, the correct result is often, inexplicably, at the bottom of a list following 10 irrelevant other books.
Further design flaws plague regular Goodreads users. My own biggest trouble — one that was echoed by several other Goodreads users I spoke to — is the opaqueness of the platform’s shelving system. If I want to read a book, I put it on my Want to Read shelf. If I’ve read it, it goes to my Read shelf, and books I’m currently reading appear, obviously, on my Currently Reading shelf.
But what if I ditched a book halfway through because I didn’t like it? I can create a DNF (Did Not Finish) shelf, but the way the site is currently designed, it seems as if a book must also appear on one of the shelves created by Goodreads. While it is, according to a Goodreads spokesperson, possible to create a custom shelf in which books added are exclusive to that shelf only, not a single person I interviewed was aware of this.
“The recommendations suck, the lists suck — it’s like 100 lists telling me to read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Harry Potter.’”
The ability to privately shelve and annotate books on their lists was another frequent request made by Goodreads users I interviewed. “There’s no way to use Goodreads without your opinions becoming a public statement on the book,” says Kelsey McKinney, a writer at Deadspin and creator of the literary newsletter Written Out. “It encourages you to read a ton of books but also immediately cast judgment on them.” An easy fix would be private shelves and annotations that would enable users to sort and assess their books without subjecting those opinions to the Goodreads community at large.
And while Goodreads calls itself “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations,” many of the 18 or so people I spoke to for this story insisted that, in fact, Goodreads is nearly useless for finding recommendations. “For some reason, Goodreads seems to attract an audience of people with insanely bland and entry-level taste,” Martin says. He points to the site’s Best Books Ever list, which includes Harry Potter, high school curriculum novels, and copious YA. “That would be fine if it didn’t seem to poison the site’s recommendation algorithm, which in my experience is entirely useless.” Gaby, a journalist who requested that only her first name be used because she’s not allowed to speak with press, agrees. “It’s generally not a good place to find new things to read,” she says. “The recommendations suck, the lists suck — it’s like, 100 lists telling me to read The Handmaid’s Tale and Harry Potter.”
One relatively easy solution to this problem would be allowing publications, organizations, clubs, and public figures more prominence on the site. While Goodreads does allow author pages, little work is done to ensure these authors are featured or showcased in any way, and organizations or book clubs, such as Girl’s Night In or Reese’s Book Club, don’t receive any kind of site promotion or badge at all. Once you do manage to find them, the site design looks like a forum from 2007. It’s small, features ugly text, and makes it difficult to navigate or know where to begin.
“It would be great to integrate recommendations from news outlets, like the NPRbook list that comes out every year, or the monthly Vulture lists,” says Paige Newman, a project manager at Disney. “I would just like the select option of ‘Follow Vulture’s monthly recommendations.’” Lian Parsons, a journalist, had a similar request for Goodreads. “The review section doesn’t seem to have any particular benchmark in terms of standards,” she says. “While any review is opinion and should be taken with a grain of salt, I feel there are some people who have greater authority/knowledge/level of articulation than others on certain topics. And there’s no way to filter out that kind of quality per se.”
The closest thing to this that I’ve been able to find is Book Marks, a project of the literary website LitHub that aggregates reviews of new books, similar to Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a wonderful resource, but it’s a multistep process to find a book on Book Marks, decide if I want to read it or not, and then add it to my Want to Read shelf. If those reviews were integrated into the Goodreads platform — or if Book Marks offered its own private shelving for users — it’d make for a much easier experience for readers.
Further integrating publications, official book clubs, and book bloggers with large followings into the Goodreads ecosystem wouldn’t just add credibility to much of the site’s user-created content — it might also make the site easier for people on the publishing side of things. Several editors, publicists, authors, and other book publishing professionals told me they’re frustrated with the site’s difficult-to-understand and expensive promotion system, which privileges large publishers with huge budgets and makes it harder for indie authors and publishing houses to break through the noise.
Goodreads “posits itself as a platform for discovering and uplifting literature but requires publishers to pay so much money to have their books even remotely accessible,” says Allison Paller, a book publicist. She points out that much of the content in newsletters is sponsored, which can leave out independent book publishers with small marketing budgets, and giveaways — which aren’t clearly marked as sponsored — cost at least $119 for a “standard” print or e-book giveaway and $599 for a “premium” giveaway, “which is negligible for big companies but a big deal to small publishers.” (OneZero confirmed this by looking at Goodreads’ 2019 rate sheet for advertisements.)
Michael, a successful author who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by Goodreads trolls, tells me that he was originally excited about the platform, only to become discouraged by the high numbers of trolls and scammy reviewers on the site. “The thing that probably turned me off the most is that years before my second novel was finished, people were leaving one-star reviews for it,” he says. “If Goodreads could prevent people from leaving these kind of damaging reviews without having read the book, yes, I would take it more seriously.”
It isn’t even just that the reviews are demoralizing and depressing; according to Michael and several other book publishing professionals I spoke to, having a lot of positive reviews privileges your book in the Goodreads promotion ecosystem, making it more likely that books will be mentioned in end-of-year reviews and, of course, be eligible for the annual Goodreads Choice Awards. So, if you have a massive influx of Goodreads users who, for whatever reason, dislike you as a person, they can leave reviews indicating that your book is awful, destroying an author’s chance of successful promotion on the platform.
There’s also the issue of bogus positive reviews, which can come from a number of different places, according to two sources who work in the industry. “You can pay services that will get people to recommend you on Goodreads, which is hilarious,” says Sarah Solomon, the author of Guac Is Extra But So Am I: The Reluctant Adult’s Handbook. “As if authors make enough to pump money into such a misleading and awful practice.” One such service, AppSally, promises “real, legit and non-incentivised” reviews for the low price of $40 for 20 reviews. In a Facebook message — the only way press can get in touch with the company — AppSally told OneZero that concerned clients can request the company to “ask [a reviewer] for summary of the book” in order to validate that the reviews are real.
Readers are stuck in a kind of literary social network purgatory.
Not everyone hates Goodreads, of course. I talked to a handful of people who generally like the platform and have only a small complaint here and there that they think would make the site better. Anna Koch, a Berlin-based community manager, told me she loves that Goodreads allowed her to find books not often recommended in the German book market. A group that Koch was in “read a book about the Herero and Nama genocide by the German government,” she says. “I learned a lot about the genocide that I wasn’t told in school, and people around the world learned the German perspective.”
Overall, though, the Goodreads users I chatted with were frustrated by the ugly design and poor functionality of the site overall yet feel like they have few places to turn to keep track of books they’ve read or want to read. A few mentioned that they’ve taken to Instagram to talk about books they’ve read or want to read, but even that is an imperfect system, in particular since Instagram is a visual social network, and books are, by and large, primarily made up of text. It’s a union that works only because there’s nothing better.
But there could be. Ben Pierratt, a designer, and Buzz Anderson, a tech veteran formerly of Apple and Square, told me they’ve been casually toying with the idea of building a social network for readers, though they’ve not committed to anything yet. Even many of the changes Goodreads users recommend wouldn’t necessarily be a super-heavy lift; a couple site tweaks here and there would make the platform infinitely more useful.
Until then, readers are stuck in a kind of literary social network purgatory: They have a place to go, but it’s just not very good. In the age of every kind of social network you could imagine, you’d think Amazon would cough up the dough to improve its platform for discussing the product that made Amazon what it is in the first place. Until then, readers will linger in the beige dreariness of a website designed long ago.