Goodreads Blog
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August Newsletter!
Posted by Elizabeth on August 17, 2009

Our newsletter this month includes author chats with Rebecca Wells and Lev Grossman.

Wells is best known for Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but her new book, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder, also has fans talking. Wells has been living with Lyme disease for nearly a decade and is a spokeswoman for the illness. She’s a very inspiring woman.

Grossman’s book, The Magicians, may appeal to a different group of readers. Although many critics have compared the Time magazine book critic’s new work to Harry Potter, Grossman will tell you that his story of a disillusioned student of sorcery is something quite different.

August is a great month to go outdoors and enjoy the weather before the season fades. I went to Montana this summer, which is always a treat. As a city dweller, I’m perpetually humbled every time I see a bald eagle perched in the pines, a black bear pawing through the chokeberries, or a silvery, cool cutthroat trout breaking the surface of the Blackfoot river.

In the spirit of everyone’s inner outdoorsman (or woman), we asked Vermont-based author Brad Kessler, author of Birds In Fall and Goat Song, to share his favorite books about listening to the rhythm of nature.

Books by Thomas Pynchon and Dave Eggers were among the Movers & Shakers this month and please don’t forget to sample Ruth Goring’s winning poem “After You”!

We hope you enjoy the August Newsletter!

P.S. We have some exciting plans for the September newsletter including interviews with James Ellroy and Anita Diamant! We would like to include questions from our users; if there is anything you’ve been dying to ask, please put your questions in your comments below!

Education is where the digital revolution will start
Posted by Otis Chandler on August 12, 2009

It's long been my belief that the digital book revolution will start in the classroom. The incentives are just higher, as the cost difference is bigger, digital books are more customizable and thus better teaching tools, and not to mention more convenient to carry.

The New York Times had a great article the other day titled In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History that researched the matter a bit, and it's interesting to see that because textbooks are often paid for by the government (public schools), they are highly incentivized to go digital.

This quote in particular stood out:

"In five years, I think the majority of students will be using digital textbooks,” said William M. Habermehl, superintendent of the 500,000-student Orange County schools. “They can be better than traditional textbooks."

California, my home state, which is also particularly broke at the moment, was also mentioned as being interested in saving money on textbooks by going digital. Nothing like a down economy to spark change!

I also recently read a research report that shows what kind of ebooks we are all reading. It was interesting to see that trade books (what we all think of as a "book") are only a slim 5%, the majority being "professional & scholarly publications". I'm not 100% sure what those include, but I think we can say that educational materials are the bulk of it. And if we believe the article about Textbooks growing, that segment should continue to increase. It's also worth noting that most educational materials online are not in an ebooks form - many are just websites or videos - I bet the MIT or Stanford online lectures weren't counted.

New "find at" links on book pages
Posted by Otis Chandler on August 04, 2009

With the last release we changed our "find at" links that appear on our book pages. I wanted to make sure everyone knew our reasoning for doing so.

Amazon recently updated their Terms of Service for developers, and at their behest we have changed our book page to conform to the new terms of service (which go into effect August 15). Much of our book data (especially our book covers) comes from Amazon, which is why we are required to make this change.

The term in question is:
(d) You will link each use of Product Advertising Content to, and only to, the related Product detail page of the Amazon Site, and you will not link any Product Advertising Content to, or in conjunction with any Product Advertising Content direct traffic to, any page of a site other than the Amazon Site (however, parts of your application that are not closely associated with Product Advertising Content may contain links to sites other than the Amazon Site).

The order of the book links can still be customized, however e-commerce sites will not show up on the book page, but instead on the "more options.." link found to the right of the Amazon link. Non e-commerce book links will still show up on the book page, which is why many of you might see WorldCat as an option.

I can understand Amazon's reasoning in this change, as their API and affiliate program both exist as ways to increase their revenue, and it makes sense they'd act in their own interest. Goodreads owes a debt of gratitude to Amazon for this, as you would not believe the price to purchase book meta-data from other sources. Amazon's price (free, but with strings attached) - is actually pretty good - not to mention we actually make some money from affiliate fees! As to why book meta-data is expensive in the first place, that's a rant for another day - just suffice it to say that it's mind-bogglingly illogical.

In other areas however I'm not sure Amazon's thinking is so clear. For instance, Goodreads is expressly not allowed to build an iphone app as long as we use Amazon data. We aren't the only ones - see a recent Techcrunch article about Delicious Library's app being pulled. Here is the term that prevents this:

(e) You will not, without our express prior written approval requested via this link , use any Product Advertising Content on or in connection with any site or application designed or intended for use with a mobile phone or other handheld device.

Happily for us, web-based mobile sites are fine - which is why we've been putting time into improving our Mobile Site. Note that we did try to apply for permission, and were rejected.

Amazon has done a great job sparking innovation with it's Product API and Affiliate Program. It's sad to see that trend starting to be reversed.

Here's a screenshot of what the new links look like. We added a nifty icon too:

The hidden costs of the Kindle
Posted by Otis Chandler on July 17, 2009

A few months ago I wrote a blog piece about 6 Things I Like and Don't Like About My New Kindle. Last night I learned an important thing about the Kindle: it has a huge hidden cost - it can break!

My Kindle accidentally got stepped on last night as it was charging next to my desk. My bad for leaving it on the floor I suppose, but either way: it's not unusable. I'm not telling you this because I want your pity, I'm telling you because it's an important thing to factor in when you're calculating if you want to buy a Kindle.

The most popular reasons to buy a Kindle are:

1. You don't have lug a lot of books around when you're on the go
2. It's way faster to get a book than going to the bookstore
3. It's cheaper to read, as the ebooks cost less

The third point is actually a big selling point, as if you assume the average book is $15, and Kindle books are $10, and you read a book a week, you can save $260 a year - more if the ebooks you read are out of copyright and thus free.

But here is the trick - the Kindle is very susceptible to damage, and thus the risk needs to be factored in. Think about how much you like to read at the beach with all that sand, or at the pool with lots of water and hard concrete around. Not to mention the chance of theft as it's an expensive device!

July Newsletter!
Posted by Elizabeth on July 07, 2009

In this month’s newsletter we interviewed authors Alice Hoffman and Chris Anderson, both of whom had plenty to talk about (see my previous post). We also had a lot of fun with our “In Bed” feature. Instead of getting “In Bed,” we went to the beach with Chick Lit writers Sophie Kinsella and Gigi Levangie Grazer, both of whom provided some wonderfully superficial beach read recommendations. Riders by Jilly Cooper sounds like pure indulgence and I’ve read The End Of Affair by Graham Greene, which is probably one of my favorite books of all time. Green’s subtlety is impressive.

We also featured several interesting books on the Movers & Shakers list. I’m looking forward to reading Something Missing: A Novel, by Matthew Dicks, a book about a thief with OCD tendencies. It sounds clever. And the Lit for Lat selection, Censoring an Iranian Love Story, seems timely and particularly poignant given the events of this past month.

For our Poem of the Month, we had to go with the second place poem “The Rape of Lake Michigan,” because the first place winner, “Used Books,” had already been featured as our September 2008 Poem of the Month. Both are wonderful poems, so please check them out!

We hope you enjoy the newsletter,


Writers and Critics
Posted by Elizabeth on July 07, 2009

It’s been an interesting month for writers and reviewers. In the past two years at Goodreads, I’ve observed the relationship between authors and critics and I think it’s safe to say that at this point, the distance between the two has all but disappeared. Alain de Botton (one of my favorite authors) publicly criticized Caleb Crain’s review in the New York Times of his latest book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work; Alice Hoffman tweeted about her poor review in the Boston Globe and asked people, "If you want to tell Roberta Silman off, her phone is [Silman's phone number and email address]. Tell her what u think of snarky critics;” And Chris Anderson was called out for his lack of citation of Wikipedia in his latest book Free.

Fortunately for us, we interviewed two of these controversial characters for our newsletter, Alice Hoffman and Chris Anderson. Unfortunately, both interviews were conducted before these Internet bombs, so the questions we asked are closely tailored to their books and not to their opinions about critics.

Still, this month highlights a really interesting issue that is relevant to Goodreads. It’s a question we face from time to time when people flag a review for “inappropriate content," and that’s the question of guidelines.

At the inception of Goodreads we thought a lot about guidelines, particularly because a nasty, unbalanced review can be damaging for an author and generally unpleasant. This is an issue I hold particularly close to my heart because before I worked at the Los Angeles Times, I worked for several years as a dance and opera critic for local newspapers. When I was just starting out, one of my mentors gave me a very interesting piece of advice. He said, “Never, ever, pan a work by an emerging artist.” He added, “A young artist’s career may never recover. Someone like Janet Jackson has already been established, and can handle it, but when someone is just starting out, you can ruin them.” He also told me that if I was going to criticize something, I should always say how that particular problem could have been improved.” I do feel grateful that I was given that advice at the beginning of my career. I don’t think that I’ve left a trail of damaged artists in my wake as a critic, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

Of course, we would never tell people how to review a book. Goodreads can be whatever you want it to be. Some people don’t want the pressure of feeling like they have to produce a professional quality review; others make their profiles private so that they can be completely candid with their friends. It’s entirely up to you.

This also brings me to the nasty, snarky review. It’s a desired thing, both online and in alternative weeklies and websites such as the Huffington Post. The problem with the snarky review is that it’s so easy to write. It’s a bit making fun of someone. If the performance was so-so, the artist is an easy target, and all that’s required is a spoonful of weak-witted humor.

And the problem with a badly written, snarky review is that the final result is not funny, it comes off as mean. I love well-written, snarky reviews. They uncover something and always surprise you. They are often gentle yet probing; they start off pleasant and then veer into darkness. Pauline Kael is a great example of a critic who could pan something without beating it to death. But the trouble is that there are very a small percentage of brilliant pans, and the rest of the reviews are badly written tirades that seem like the author is trying to sound smart. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I’m the most skilled writer in the world or that the reviews by Crain or Silman are in that category. But I do think that there is a preponderance of this kind of criticism in the print world and blogosphere, and perhaps even at Goodreads.

Without trying to sound like a goody-two-shoes schoolteacher, I think that an element of morality in criticism (particularly online) will become more and more of an issue in the next decade. If you can’t say anything nice, you better say it effectively.


Steven Pressfield is innovating with content
Posted by Otis Chandler on July 06, 2009

I just listened to a five piece video made by author Steven Pressfield titled War & Reality in Afganistan: It's the Tribes, Stupid. Now while I'm not going to comment on the content of these videos, I did find them very interesting and think they are worth watching.

What I found particularly interesting was that these videos are not part of any book. Steven Pressfield has written two books about the subject (Alexander the Great, and The Afghan Campaign), so he knows a lot about it's history. So much in fact, that he felt compelled to speak out. And instead of writing Yet Another Political Book, he laid his thoughts and arguments out in a clear set of videos.

What I love about this is that Mr Pressfield is participating in (and even starting) a conversation about a topic he is passionate about. I think we need to see more of this. And I think there is no better way for writers to generate lots of attention and traffic to their blog.

If you want to watch it start with Episode one!

The 20 most followed people on Goodreads
Posted by Otis Chandler on July 02, 2009

It's been a few weeks since we launched the ability for members to follow other members. I was curious today who the most followed people were, and decided to share it in a blog post. As you might have guessed - the top 20 are almost all authors.

Top 20 Most Followed People on Goodreads

Neil Gaiman

Sarah Dessen

Jennifer Weiner

Tamora Pierce

Paulo Coelho

Kelley Armstrong

Laurie Anderson

Melissa Marr

Jennifer Crusie

Richard Dawkins

Lisa See

Felicia Day

Maureen Johnson

Patrick Rothfuss

Maria V. Snyder

John Scalzi

Wil Wheaton

Tess Gerritsen

Sarah Allen

Katie Macalister

Goodreads is hiring software engineers!
Posted by Otis Chandler on June 30, 2009

Goodreads is hiring! Want to work for one of the top social networks, help millions of people improve their lives through reading, and be a part of pioneering the digital book revolution? Goodreads is a small team, venture funded, and looking for extraordinary people. Read more about us.

We're looking for programmers who want to learn how to build a top-tier social network, love to build cool stuff and work hard, can communicate well, and have a personality that fits in with ours.

Our development philosophy is to work individually or in pairs, building everything from front-end to back-end. We divide up work on a project to project basis, and you'd be responsible for making sure your features have a clear user-interface, scale for millions of users, and have legible and easy to maintain code. You should be comfortable with those skills or dying to learn them!

Required skills

* Proficient programming with MVC frameworks. Ruby on Rails is preferred, but we'll take PHP, Python or Java.
* Knowledge of SQL (MySQL preferred).
* Experience with HTML, Javascript, and CSS.
* Comfort using the Linux operating system (shell scripting, cronjobs, installing software, etc).

We prefer people that are passionate about:

* Reading books!
* Building social networks and building great product.
* A/B testing and optimizing user experience
* Building large scale websites (MySQL, Memcached, Sharding, etc)
* Thinking creatively and engaging and listening to users.
* Experience building your own website or startup is a plus - we like entrepreneurs.

Open positions

* Facebook/MySpace app developer. You will be in charge of working on the Goodreads Books app on Facebook, MySpace, and other platforms. You should love Facebook, and either know or be willing to learn a lot about making things viral.
* Senior software engineer. You will be in charge of helping to develop new products and features and scale existing ones. You should be comfortable discussing: Memcached, MySql optimization, Database sharding, Lucene, Facebook, Opensocial, xml/json/rest, nginx/haproxy/mongrel, and more.

Interested candidates should submit a code sample as well as a resume. Also, answering our design challenge will ensure your resume will be read.

If you're interested, please send your resume to We have offices in both Santa Monica and San Francisco and prefer local candidates.

John Hodgman Tests President Obama's Nerd Cred
Posted by Ken-ichi on June 20, 2009

At the recent Whitehouse Radio & TV Correspondents Dinner, John Hodgman delivered a fairly awesome speech calling into question President Barack Obama's nerd credentials, touching on Conan the Barbarian, The Lord of the Rings, and, of course, Dune. Sadly, I could only confidently answer one part of his three-part Dune question (thumper!), but I guess that still makes me nerdier than the pres. Sweet.

Via JesseDill@twitter