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Peer-to-peer book reviews fill a niche

Social-networking websites that connect people through their taste in literature are gaining in popularity – and publishers are starting to take notice.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2007



New York  

After graduating from college, Otis Chandler began work at an online dating site. But he was in a serious relationship and wanted to contribute to a service he might actually have a use for. At the same time, he anticipated that social-networking sites would soon splinter into specialized niches, just as dating sites had. While perusing a friend's bookshelf, it hit him.

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"When I want to know what books to read, I'd rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list, or algorithm," Mr. Chandler wrote in an online letter on www.goodreads.com, the site he created earlier this year. "So I thought I'd build a website – a website where I could see my friends' bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books."

Today, Goodreads has 125,000 registered users who together have reviewed 1.8 million books.

In the past few years, online social networks that connect people through their taste in literature have grown in popularity. There are now more than 30 such sites, each trying to stand out. And publishers are taking notice.

At a time when newspapers' book-review sections are downsizing (Los Angeles Times) or disappearing (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), publishing houses are hoping to harness the potential that these next wave social-networking sites have to generate book buzz. Last month, www.librarything.com, which started in 2005 as a way for founder Tim Spalding to catalog his own vast book collection, announced an exclusive partnership with Random House.

Next week, in addition to sending early review copies of books to the usual recipients – book critics, booksellers, even bloggers – Random House will send free copies of five new fiction titles to 95 LibraryThing members in exchange for short reviews. They'll ship another batch in July. Come October, LibraryThing anticipates opening its "Early Reviewers" program to other publishing houses. A half-dozen have expressed interest so far.

Random House doesn't view the site's members as a focus group. "We're not necessarily looking for them to reinforce what we already know – which is that the book is great," says Avideh Bashirrad, who works in the publisher's marketing department. "We're hoping they'll help us generate early word-of-mouth buzz for these books."

Ms. Bashirrad first read about LibraryThing in the newspaper. She was struck by the potential the site's algorithms had to place Random House books in the hands of readers who might genuinely enjoy them – "that ability to match people with books based on the what books they have read," she says.

One of the biggest challenges publishers face is targeting their product. "Why send a science-fiction book to someone who never reads that and doesn't like it," asks Bashirrad.

"What we know that no one else does," explains LibraryThing librarian Abby Blachly, "is every other book in a person's library."

Bashirrad is careful to say that the arrangement is experimental and that she doesn't expect this – or literary blogs, for that matter – to replace traditional book reviews. Perhaps not, but bibliophiles are still looking for their next great read and the decline in news pages devoted to books means it is harder to get new titles out to them. It's a vacuum that social-networking book sites are happy to fill.

At the same time, publishers are facing a public that's spending less time with books. In 1999, the average American adult spent 119 hours per year reading books for recreation. This year, according to a 2007 Census Bureau study, that number is projected to drop to 106 hours.

"To reach the declining numbers of people who are reading, you have to use perhaps some unconventional methods," says Al Greco, a marketing professor at Fordham University in New York and a senior researcher with The Institute for Publishing Research. He calls the peer-to-peer reviews a very powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing, but notes that it's early still to say what role they'll play in the literary landscape.

The potential for websites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, www.whatsonmybookshelf.com, and www.shelfari.com, to reach readers across all demographics is certainly promising. LibraryThing has 205,000 members and 14 million books catalogued. (Mr. Spalding likes to say that if it were a bricks-and-mortar library its collection would surpass Yale University's.) Shelfari, which was launched last year and doesn't disclose numbers beyond saying its users are in the tens of thousands, recently received funding from Amazon.com. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the URL for a web site.]

Web designs differ by site, but they all let members list and then rate or review books they've read and share their critiques with friends and other members.

"The new generation doesn't want to read book reviews from people they don't know," says Goodreads' Chandler. "They want to read book reviews from their friends."

Much as publishing houses may hope for only positive reviews for their strategically placed books, it's clear some users enjoy panning a terrible read as much as lauding a favorite. "Le Divorce," a work of romantic fiction by Diane Johnson, is the second lowest-rated book on Goodreads. One user's two-word review simply states: "Le Disappointment." She recommends it for: "No one."

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