Goodreads Blog

Goodreads Stats Show Which Media Outlets Really Sell Books

Posted by Patrick Brown on August 20, 2010
A few weeks ago, something incredible happened to my friend Emily. She's the author of two novels, both published with a medium-sized publisher of some renown. They both got great reviews, and as far as I could tell, they sold pretty well, at least for literary novels, which don't tend to sell in enormous numbers. A few weeks ago, a librarian named Nancy Pearl chose Emily's book Last Night in Montreal as one of her "under the radar reads" in a segment on the NPR show Morning Edition.

The results were staggering. In a short period of time, Last Night in Montreal went from #45,829 to #166 on The publisher, Unbridled, went into a fresh printing of the paperback to meet demand. Suddenly, Emily's book was selling like crazy. Upon hearing this, I immediately checked her Goodreads stats to see if many people had added the book to their shelves.

Did Emily's book see a spike in activity? You tell me:

And her book wasn't alone. Another book Nancy Pearl recommended, The Lotus Eaters, also saw a huge spike in activity:

Obviously, a mention on NPR can really help boost literary fiction sales. But how does NPR compare to some of the other bookish media outlets? Can we ever really know the value of a mention from a TV show or the impact of a good review?

The book industry suffers from a real dearth of data when it comes to actual sales figures. Amazon, while making much of its sales rank, reveals next to nothing about its actual sales figures. Even the sales rank is somewhat opaque. What does it mean to be the #166 book on Amazon? How many sales do you have to make? At Goodreads, we have our own system of statistics that measure engagement on the site -- how many readers have added, rated, and reviewed each book. We make those stats available to both the author of the book and to the publisher, provided they sign up with Goodreads. That information is invaluable to tracking the success of marketing campaigns and gauging reader awareness of a given title.

To show a little bit of what Goodreads data can reveal, I cherry-picked a few examples that illustrate the reach of various media outlets, as how well Goodreads' data represents the life of a book, both on Goodreads and off.

Take, for example, The Daily Show. Jon Stewart's satirical news program, with its fan base of educated TV viewers, is one of the hottest places to promote a book. But does it have an impact? That depends. In the first week of July, the show featured Daniel Okrent's new book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and there was a predictable bump in activity around that book on Goodreads:

Featured on last night's show, Edward Kohn's Hot Time in the Old Town appears to be in the midst of a post-show bump as I write this:

But it's not a perfect predictor of success. Some books show a much smaller rise in activity accompanying a mention on The Daily Show. For instance, William Rosen's The Most Powerful Idea in the World appeared on the show in late July, but so far, it hasn't experienced the same jump in activity that Okrent's and Kohn's books did, despite being very similar in subject matter. Why didn't that book take off as the others did? Who knows. Maybe something else was happening that night that drew viewers away from the Daily Show. Despite everyone's best efforts, promotion is still something of a black art.

[Edit: Actually, the edition above needed to be combined with the main record for Rosen's book, and once it was, it did reflect a bump in activity, though not quite as large as some of the other titles.]

The Daily Show isn't the only media outlet with significant pull in the book world, though. The New York Times Book Review, one of the last remaining stand-alone book review sections in an American newspaper, has long been a coveted placement for authors. So how does the book review influence the number of books added on Goodreads? Without looking at whether the review was good or bad, we can see a definite relationship between the review date and a jump in Goodreads activity, though it's nowhere near as high as the spike we see for NPR or The Daily Show. Check out the stats for this past week's cover title, Martin Cruz Smith's Three Stations:

But it isn't always clear where a bump is coming from. For instance, is Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time blowing up because of a good review in the Times or because it was featured on Goodreads' Movers and Shakers list for August, a list featured in our monthly newsletter?

Indeed, a mention in our newsletter can jump-start a book, causing dozens or even hundreds of people to add it to their shelves. Such is the case with this months Literature at Every Latitude selection, The Tulip Virus:

But getting a review in the New York Times, landing on the Daily Show, or even getting a mention in the Goodreads Newsletter is pretty difficult. It requires either a great publicist or a lot of luck or both. But there are a few things any author can do to get people talking about their books on Goodreads. Check out the bump that Sandra Novak got from giving away some copies of her new novel Precious through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program:

An even bigger impact can come from a well-targeted advertising campaign. The new historical non-fiction book The Professor of Secrets saw an enormous increase in activity on Goodreads by running an advertising campaign around the book's launch directing people to enter a giveaway for the book:

Obviously books with a promotion or ad on Goodreads are going to show a bigger jump in Goodreads activity than they will on another site, but as more and more people join Goodreads (and push their status updates and reviews out to places like Facebook and Twitter), that attention becomes more and more valuable.

By looking at the stats for any given title, we can tell a lot about the demand for that book, as well as which promotional techniques are working and which aren't. But sometimes the stats are mystifying. For example, take a look at the activity for one of this year's most anticipated new books, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom:

The spike in activity in the last few days coincides, not surprisingly, with being on the cover of Time Magazine, an honor rarely granted to living novelists. With that kind of unprecedented attention, you'd expect a huge bump in activity, and there is quite a bit of movement there. What's surprising is the even bigger spike that happened on July 3. As best I can tell, that corresponds to the first review of the book appearing in Publishers Weekly. If you'd asked me which event would have a bigger impact on the Goodreads stats, I'd have guessed the cover story of a major national magazine, but in this instance, I was apparently wrong. Of course, it could simply be that Goodreads users are so interested in books that they're more likely to get excited by a new review in a trade publication, that they are book mavens, so to speak.

What media outlets do you use to discover books?

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Fantastic! It's great when lucky authors can get their books featured in the news, but I think the most promising part of this analysis is that because of social media sites like Goodreads and Facebook, every author had access to cheap, targeted publicity that produces results. Goodreads giveaways are a remarkable way to generate interest in your book and get at least a few reviews out of the deal, which leads to more exposure in itself. The Facebook ad service, like Goodreads, is another opportunity to target an audience that is most likely to read your book. If you're good at targeting the right readers, the result is a nice little following for little out-of-pocket cost.

message 2: by Steffan (new)

Steffan Data like this is always invaluable and quite interesting to comb through and think on. Always hoping for more press. Great article.

message 3: by Janelle (new)

Janelle ^^ditto^^

I love statistics, this is really cool. Through your blog (which I just added to my email RSS) I see there is so much more to Goodreads other than adding and rating books. I continue to be impressed by all of these reports and statistics. Great post!

message 4: by Kalen (new)

Kalen I'm curious to know what sort of role Twitter plays in all of this, too. Emily's book exploded on Twitter after Nancy's NPR mention and Franzen's has been getting tons of attention there, too.

message 5: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown Kalen wrote: "I'm curious to know what sort of role Twitter plays in all of this, too. Emily's book exploded on Twitter after Nancy's NPR mention and Franzen's has been getting tons of attention there, too."

That's a great point. Obviously, it's very difficult to isolate a single event, though the NPR piece was clearly the catalyst. I think Twitter and Facebook and, yes, Goodreads, are having an amplifying effect on the traditional media's reach. An interesting piece on one of these programs can reach beyond the people who actually heard the story or saw the clip on TV.

One thing I learned from this piece? Writers should buy Nancy Pearl a beer or two.

message 6: by Jessica (new)

Jessica Good point, Kalen. I'd be interested in seeing a report of where the traffic is coming from, be it Twitter links, Facebook, Goodreads, or some other source. That's some pretty heavy-duty web analytics, but it would help to know which venues are driving traffic for which books. The Goodreads engineers would have quite a project on their hands!

message 7: by Maureen (new)

Maureen Rogers I work as a children's librarian and read reviews in "School Library Journal," "The Reading Teacher" and anywhere else I might come across book reviews. I read books recommended by other good readers, and now that I have come across your website, I have another good source!

message 8: by Jim (last edited Aug 20, 2010 07:54PM) (new)


The link you listed is a duplicate link without much activity.

The day and day after had about 25 add ons after the daily show, see the active link below . The Daily show drove listings once again. In fact, Rosen was very good on the show and Stewart spoke highly of it.

message 9: by Jim (last edited Aug 20, 2010 07:51PM) (new)

Jim it would be interesting to see how Goodreads adds to read increase after the first indepth review is written. I wrote a review over the period of a week starting I think around June 6th on the most powerful idea.

message 10: by Shawn (new)

Shawn How does "added to shelf" translate into book shelves? I'm sure people add books to their shelves as a reminder to read the book, or because they intend to read the book, but that may not translate into a bump in book sales. How does a peak of 100 translate to the sales of the book?

message 11: by Muphyn (new)

Muphyn Fascinating article, found it really illuminating. Would be great to see how things work with books published outside the US! :)

message 12: by Steffan (new)

Steffan @Shawn: As an author, I've noticed big spikes in sales whenever people start adding my title in large numbers. I've found Goodreads to be the place where readers actually are, versus other sites which seem to be just for show, no offense to them.

message 13: by Shawn (new)

Shawn @steffan, but by how much? Does a 100 'add' spike translate to 10k books sold? 100k? I'm just wondering what it all means in the end, which is books sold (and read).

message 14: by Steffan (new)

Steffan Completely understood. I don't know if they've amassed enough data with their current model to roll-out hard numbers. I think the above article is as close as it gets, as truly, there is no way to verify click-thrus to purchase.

Knowing which ads at what time cause people to click thru with a purchase is the golden question.

The sales from my book 'Greyhound', which I can monitor closely, caused it to skyrocket to #66 overall on Amazon from what looked to me to be a result of direct interest on Goodreads (of which I'm thankful).

I found this article incredibly fascinating and very worthy. It would be interesting to see more statistics on the site as they technically *could* if they so wanted.

message 15: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown Jim wrote: "

The link you listed is a duplicate link without much activity.

The day and day after had about 25 add ons after the..."

Ah, good catch! I will edit the post to reflect that. (Foiled by an uncombined edition!).

message 16: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown Shawn wrote: "How does "added to shelf" translate into book shelves? I'm sure people add books to their shelves as a reminder to read the book, or because they intend to read the book, but that may not translat..."

We think that adding a book to your "to-read" shelf indicates a strong intent to buy the book at some point, but it's difficult to pin down exactly how that translates to sales. For instance, I might add a book to my to-read list in July but not end up buying it until September or even the following year.

Further complicating things on our end is that we don't have any sales data of our own, so we can only go off of Amazon's scant data and try to match that to our own. Now that we are selling ebooks, we might be able to get a better sense of how closely the two relate (though we'll need much more data for that).

message 17: by Jim (new)

Jim on making money as an Author and publishing...

message 18: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Hajar I use Goodreads to discover books to read since I joined in June or July; also The NYT review. I'll be checking out The Daily Show. Thanks.

I rather liked the statistical analysis on book sales in this newsletter - very illuminating.

message 19: by Maria (new)

Maria You state that you share this information with authors and publishers. do you ever share it with academics?Would you consider the possibility? It would definitely help my research!

message 20: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown Maria wrote: "You state that you share this information with authors and publishers. do you ever share it with academics?Would you consider the possibility? It would definitely help my research!"

Email us at support @ goodreads dot com. I can't make any guarantees but we have helped some academic researchers in the past.

message 21: by Maria (new)

Maria Thank you! I will.

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