By Adam Fortuna
Here’s the thing: Every time you use Goodreads you’re making one of the richest men in the world even richer. Goodreads makes money through ads, partnerships to promote books, and payments from authors and publishers.
Goodreads also has a sizable team working on it. LinkedIn says they have 303 people. That’s a huge team! If the average salary matches San Francisco’s median salary, that means Goodreads need to make the following as a company to survive: $72,813 * 303 + hosting costs + benefits + services + rent + more expenses, which could easily mean they need to make $30 to $60 million per month just to break even.
Are they making that much? I have no idea. Goodreads could be a loss leader for Amazon, and they don’t need to make money when Amazon is there as a backstop.
Working in companies that have been acquired in the past, here’s my guess at what’s happened at Goodreads over the last decade:
Between these conflicting initiatives, Goodreads is stuck in a state of limbo where they’re struggling to be what Amazon and the book community wants them to be.
I tend to assume the best from everyone. I have no doubt that the people working at Goodreads absolutely love books with all their hearts and souls. The problem isn’t the people, it’s (likely) the organizational structure that incentivizes the wrong thing (profit) over enabling more people to read.
Comparing Hardcover to Goodreads is like comparing David to Goliath at this point. Hardcover is a tiny team of one full-time person (me), 6 part-time people and a growing Discord community (all are welcome!).
One thing we’re doing differently is we’re not taking any funding. This gives us a lot of freedom: We don’t need to make money for investors. We can also continue to focus on readers first and not split our time between readers and investors.
Our goal right now is to focus on keeping the team small and able to quickly adapt. Larger teams struggle with execution due to communication overhead. The longer we can stay small the better.
If Hardcover is successful, we’ll eventually start making some revenue. At first, any revenue will go towards paying employees a decent living wage with full benefits, hosting fees, legal fees and all of the other expenses that come with a business.
But what next? The plan is for Hardcover to be a B-Corporation.
B Corp Certification is a designation that a business is meeting high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from employee benefits and charitable giving to supply chain practices and input materials.B-Corp certification
You’ve no doubt heard about initiatives from B-Corporations. Patagonia is one that’s focused on sustainability, advocates for public lands, and is doing their part to help save our planet. Bombas, famous for their socks, have donated 48+ million socks to homeless shelters using their “buy one, give one approach”. Toms of Main does something similar with their shoes.
If/when Hardcover gets to the point where we’re making a profit, we intend to do the same. We love initiatives like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, Bookshop.org‘s mission for local book stores and the recent trend of helping banned books make their way to school districts with authoritarian school boards.
Since we don’t need to answer to investors, our hope is to put over 50% (ideally 90%+) of our profit towards these initiatives as we can.
On the sliding scale between a non-profit and a completely capitalist company, we’re aiming to be very close to the non-profit side.
Let’s face it, Amazon is the largest player in the book industry. Between Amazon.com, Audible, Kindle and Goodreads, Amazon owns the top distribution channel for physical books, audiobooks and ebooks.
Why is that a bad thing? For one, it means Amazon is the main gatekeeper. They can decide which authors to sign and which authors to promote. This tends to result in less diversification, less money going to authors and less money going to local bookstores:
Research released last year showed that most writers work a second job and those in the top 25% of authors earn low amounts: education authors, $16,500; children’s authors, $14,000; genre fiction authors, $11,000; and poets, $4,900. Note that these are the top-earning authors—75% of authors earn less than these amounts. None reaches the level of taxable income.The Guardian
We live in a time when anyone can become an author, yet the price of books has been driven lower and lower.
Whew, what a problem.
By integrating with local libraries we can encourage libraries to buy books you’re interested in, which better supports authors.
By showing author demographics—gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, we can help people reach outside the typical recommendations and find new points of view.
This is a problem that’s larger than any single player can solve, but we hope to help authors and book stores thrive while also helping readers find unique books they love.
It amazes me that a company as huge as Amazon and Goodreads hasn’t made it simple to discover new books.
There are interconnected links to Listopia (Goodreads lists), recommendations and more, but something is missing that’s difficult to put a finger on.
The more we’ve talked with readers about how they use Goodreads, the clearer it became to us: Most people don’t discover new books through Goodreads. Of the people we talked to, no one mentioned recommendations on Goodreads as a place to find new books.
This is a huge missing piece for a platform as pivotal to reading as Goodreads.
We want to help people find books in three ways:
There’s so much that can be done with recommendations that it gives me chills. Here are a few examples we’ve brainstormed and want to explore:
We can do the same for finding new authors, other readers to follow and so much more.
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You hear about a book—maybe from a friend, Twitter, the NY Times, a blog post, or BookTok—and search for the book. Google or DuckDuckGo shows the Wikipedia page and the Goodreads page for the book.
You visit the Goodreads page for the book and scan it. You’re trying to figure out, “Does this book interest me enough to save it for later?”
How does Goodreads help you answer that question today? Well, they give you an average star rating for the book that’s between 3.8 and 4.2 for almost every book. They give you a cover, description and user-driven genres for it. You’ll see which friends have read it, and a ton of reviews to sort through if you want more info.
Aside from friend activity, everything on this page could be found on Amazon.
Hardcover book pages will be based on your reading preferences. When you visit a book on Hardcover, that page will be tailored to your reading history. We’re still building this out, but there’s so much that can be done! Here are a few things we have planned.
Generate a Match Percentage for every book. We’ll generate a score from 0% to 100% based on how likely we believe you are to enjoy this book. Even if you don’t look at anything else on the page, you’ll have an at-a-glance way to see if this book fits in with your preferences.
Generate a reviewer similarity score. When you’re looking at reviews for a book, how do you know if a reviewer has similar taste? Librarians and book reviewers are jumbled together with high school students. We’re hoping to make it easy to understand who’s writing reviews so you can pick out the ones that will be most meaningful to you.
Show book interest based on badges earned. This one is just at the idea stage at this point and may be difficult to explain so bear with me. As you read a book, you’ll level up your reading level in various genres for genres you revisit. This allows you to show things like “read 50 fantasy books” or “read 100 romance books”. Instead of just showing a rating across all readers, we can show a score of other people that have also “read 50 fantasy books” or “read 100 romance books”. We can also show these metrics next to reviewers.
There’s more we can do here, but this is a good start!
It should come as no shock to anyone that an Amazon-owned company like Goodreads’ main goal is to sell you books. Amazon started as an online book store after all. What incentive do they have to encourage checking out books from your local library?
Our goal at Hardcover is different. We want to help you read life-changing books. Where those books are from doesn’t matter. What matters is access to those books.
Libraries across the world offer books, movies and music in many different formats. These aren’t physical card catalog libraries of old, these are digital-first libraries with audiobooks, online checkout and app integrations.
We want to deeply integrate with your local library. Imagine being able to sort your “want to read” list by what’s available now, or even have Hardcover automatically place holds ahead of time so you’re not always waiting months.
While we don’t yet know exactly what library integration will look like, we think it’s an essential piece to the user experience.
As a software developer, one of the things I loved about Goodreads was their API. While it wasn’t perfect, it had a lot of great things going for it. Over the years, I built a bunch of personal apps using it. One of them, Scribe, allowed people to embed what they were reading on their blog.
Then one day I logged into Goodreads and saw this:
As of December 8th 2020, Goodreads is no longer issuing new developer keys for our public developer API and plans to retire these tools.Goodreads API
The discussion about this change has many developers sad, and many scrambling to find a replacement.
We’re designing Hardcover using the same API that developers would be able to use. The website and future mobile apps will all have the same permissions to your data that developers will be able to access.
In other words, you’ll be able to do the same thing with your Hardcover data that we can.
You’ll also have the ability to export or delete all of your data whenever you want without needing to write any code.
Later on, we have plans to expand on this data access in other ways: Webhook/Zapier integrations to further extend access, and Oauth access for people to create apps that build on Hardcover.
Want to have a constant backup of your book data in an AirTable or sync it to a Google Sheet? We want to make that possible.
We need to get the basics down first, but your data should be usable however you want it.
Let’s face it, Goodreads needs a facelift. They’re in the middle of one right now they’ve been working on for a while, which is some good news. Yet, Goodreads still feels like a relic from an older age of web design.
Talking with Goodreads users we also heard that people sometimes encountered bugs and often found slow-loading pages.
Having an old interface isn’t a bad thing by itself. Craigsist continues to thrive despite few interface updates. Reddit’s interface is similar today as it was a decade ago.
Both Craigslist and Reddit haven’t seen the same amount of major industry changes as the book world. People used to have to get physical CDs or tapes. In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of ebooks and digital audiobooks.
Having an out-of-date style with major industry changes shows a lack of investment.
When people say something is out of date, what they often mean is that it doesn’t follow the usage pattern they expect.
We’re focused on creating Hardcover with input from readers. We’re constantly interviewing readers to further understand their problems and design solutions around them.
This starts before a single page is designed. Once you understand the problems users have, you can hypothesize a solution. Once you have a hypothesis, you can test it.
That’s Hardcover’s approach: User testing, surveys, and collaboration. The end result is a product that doesn’t feel out of touch because it’s created with the community.
Goodreads allows for reviews on books before they’re released. This allows authors to send out advanced reader copies (ARC) of books to readers who can rate and review the book before it comes out. This helps the book release gain traction.
If everyone was honest, this wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
For example, take the final book in the Game of Thrones series. We all know the final book hasn’t been published, yet it has 9,364 ratings on Goodreads with 461 reviews! What in the world are these people rating and reviewing?!
Take a look at any book that hasn’t been released and you’ll see the same thing—it makes zero sense and only dilutes the value of reviews and ratings on the platform.
This problem is harder to solve than you might think. The easy solution is to not allow rating or reviewing a book until it’s released. Yet, authors want to start promoting their book before its street date.
How do we support authors but only allow real reviews?
The easiest solution is to not show reviews until a book can be preordered, which would at least limit the spread of speculation and misinformation.
A next step is to allow authors and/or publishers to whitelist users who receive advanced reader copies. This takes a lot more work but could be a path down the line.
Over the course of the past year, a few authors have been very publicly canceled. People swarmed to those authors on Goodreads and rated their books 1 star. Many users left ratings without ever reading the books.
Whether you agree with the reasons why someone was canceled or not, bullying is bad. That shouldn’t be a hot take.
Growing up I was a quiet, slightly overweight short kid with glasses, braces and acne. I still remember the times I was picked on; they leave a lasting memory that’s hard to forget.
Creating a platform that prevents bullying—both for authors and readers—is top of mind from the start.
The ease of connection that makes social networks powerful also enables bad actors. We’re taking steps to try to prevent abuse, but we’ll no doubt need to take additional steps as we add new features and bullies find new ways to pick on people.
Here are a few things we’re doing to start:
Not showing an average rating for books. If every book has a rating within one point, it’s not very useful. Instead, we’ll show a match percentage just for you based on your reading history. Bullies will see a match percentage similar to other bullies. Passionate readers will see a match percentage similar to other passionate readers.
Public, private and followers-only privacy. For anything you do on Hardcover, you can set a privacy level. This means you can track all of your books publicly, but decide to make a single book private. Likewise, you could set everything to followers only and control exactly who can see your activity across Hardcover.
Flagging and reporting for users. We take this seriously. People should be able to report any abuse that goes against our Code of Conduct and get immediate action. We also want to show if users have been previously reported (with verified bad activity) on their profile for anyone not outright banned. This is a huge issue but the tl;dr is that we have no problem kicking people who are bullying others off Hardcover.
Block users. Do you want to completely hide everything about a user? You can block them and they won’t exist to you on the platform. You also won’t exist to them.
There is more of a book community on Reddit than Goodreads. Somehow the largest book social network on the planet isn’t a destination for discussion about books! Why?
Much of the discussion on Goodreads happens in book reviews, book clubs and social feed comments. Goodreads feels like walking into an office building and trying to find a book meetup. Maybe you’ll find the book meetup, but most people don’t.
Hardcover’s long-term goal is to build a community, but what that will look like is still to be determined. More research is needed to decide the look and feel of Hardcover’s book community. We love what Letterboxd has done for the film industry and we want to follow in their footsteps in some ways. We don’t have a clear plan yet, but we know it’s an important question to answer.
There are a bunch of sites out there where you can pay for people to review a book. Some of these allow for buying reviews in bulk and users go to Goodreads to make a few bucks.
For honest reviews where with an actual reader, this is a great way to have some data about the book available before launch. There are two problems with this approach:
On Goodreads, all paid reviews sit equally alongside passionate reviews by people who actually chose to read a book.
We plan on adding a checkbox to indicate if a review is paid and/or incentivized, but the bigger challenge is getting people to use it.
An optional paid/incentivized checkbox will allow people to filter reviews and only see the ones they’re only most interested in.
Having a team of 303 people means it’s very difficult for Goodreads to change course. I’ve worked at companies from under 10 people up to 2,000 and 5,000 people before. The times when I felt the most productive were with teams under 30.
The larger the team, the more time is spent coordinating features across teams, communicating requirements, shifting priorities and putting in gap fixes just to get things done.
Keeping our team small is our goal. We have no desire to be a mega-company with an office (*shiver*). Our plan is to stay a distributed team of people who love books and are able to actively work on Hardcover because it’s fun while positively impacting the book industry.
This will no doubt mean at times we break things and need to regroup. I’d rather we move fast and occasionally break things than move at a snail’s pace.
In almost every industry, amazing platforms for communities exist. Look at any industry and you’ll see an abundance of communities. Due to timing and initial execution, Goodreads became the shining light where readers gathered together.
All of the above reasons show that Goodreads is not living up to its potential.
Over the years there have been dozens (hundreds?) of attempts to create an alternative. A few are actively in development today and look amazing.
To us, the goal isn’t for Hardcover to become the only platform—the goal is to be an option for readers that aren’t Goodreads. The more communities that spring up, the more innovation there will be in the book community, which is great for everyone!
We don’t see other book startups (StoryGraph, Literal, Oku, Readerly, etc) as competitors, as much as other startups giving people more options besides Goodreads.
What this model looks like long-term is still to be determined. Maybe we’ll add a blockchain-driven database of book data that anyone can use as a foundation to build other projects, one where readers can move their data between platforms.
We don’t yet know where this model will go, but we’re committed to helping take those steps to help make data freely available.
Whew, that was a lot and it’s still not everything! We have a lot of work ahead of us to execute on everything listed here. As much as I wish we could wave a wand and solve all of these problems, many of them are very large tasks and the reason why Goodreads hasn’t solved them already.
If they do solve some of these issues, we’ll be the first to applaud. They could prevent ratings and reviews from books until there’s a release date tomorrow. They could keep their API around today. They could create new ways to explore and discover new books.
But at their core, Goodreads is still owned by Amazon and that won’t change any time soon.