If you enjoy reading, and like to use the Internet for finding great new reads, you may well have heard of Goodreads before: This is a superb website hosting a vibrant community of book lovers, teeming with book recommendations and reviews. In other words, an ideal place to find new reads. We’ve briefly covered Goodreads in a Directory post back in 2010, and last year I reviewed the Goodreads Android app. We’ve also included the site in a roundup up 7+ Sites To Help You Decide Which Book To Read Next, but we’ve never taken a good long look at the Goodreads core – the site itself. Up until today, that is.
The Goodreads experience starts with a thorough “onboarding” – in other words, an initiation process new users go through, where they’re asked to rank many books to help tune the site’s recommendation engine to their individual tastes. But once you’re done with that initial process, it’s up to you to make the most of the site without having a wizard to guide you through. Let me show you around.
One of the common things you’ll do on the Goodreads website is search for books. Whenever I’m trying to decide whether or not I should bother with a book, Goodreads is usually the first place I check (before Amazon, yes). And the search is real-time and comprehensive:
You can either type a title, an author, or an ISBN. I’ve often copied the ISBN off of an Amazon page and pasted it into Goodreads just to get a second opinion on a book. What you see above is the instant-result view. Hit Enter, and you’ll find yourself in a complete results page (this is the page for Cloud Atlas, just click the link to open it in your browser for a clearer view):
One thing you should know about Goodreads ratings is that the community tends to be a bit stingy: 3.5 stars for a book is really quite good. A 4-star average with plenty of ratings (over 54,000, for Cloud Atlas in the example above) mean that it’s probably an outstanding read. From this screen you can click the “Want to Read” button to add the book to your reading list. This is how I usually use the site: I avoid going into the individual book page, because I feel that the synopsis and reviews can detract from the expectation and the fun of reading.
Individual Book Pages
I usually visit the book page once I’m done reading a book, and after I’ve already reviewed it. I feel this is a good time to read what others have thought of it, and maybe see it in a different light. The individual book page also shows which of your friends intend to read the book, or have already read it:
One thing I quite like about the book pages is the Genres sidebar. Rather than force every literary work into one specific genre, the Goodreads website does a good job of showing you a breakdown of possible genres the book might belong in, along with how many people feel that’s the genre for the book:
This is a far more nuanced way of looking at a book. Most people seem to think Cloud Atlas is a Sci-Fi book, but many also see it as a piece of Historical Fiction, which instantly tells me the book isn’t entirely about some far-off future on a distant planet.
Goodreads offers a number of ways to find new books to read. First of all, every individual book page features a “similar books” sidebar widget:
Hover over a book, and Goodreads pops up an information panel:
This info panel, while rich, is far from complete: It would have been better if it contained the book’s genres. Still, you can easily use the panel to add the book to your reading list, or rate it if you’ve already read it. Of course, you can also click through to the complete book page.
The Goodreads website also has a dedicated Recommendations area, which looks like this:
This is a very Netflix-like view; Goodreads parses each of the genres you like and offers up recommendations. For each recommendation, you can add it to your reading list (“want to read”), rate it, or tell Goodreads you’re just not interested. This is one of the site’s most touted features, and I’ve used it to find some excellent books, but it does have its drawbacks: Mainly, that the interface makes it very, very easy to add oodles of books to your reading list, ending up with an enormous list that’s just overwhelming.
Your Reading List
The Reading List is the core of the Goodreads experience, at least for me: This is where I go whenever I finish a book, to answer the question “What should I read next?”. It looks like this:
Each book has a “hard” (arbitrary) position on the list, which you can edit manually to set your own sequence. You can also sort the list by any header – just click Avg rating to see your future reads sorted by their perceived quality.
The list is a central part of Goodreads because if you use it to track your future reads, it will help you ensure you review each book, and thus give back to the community and tune your own future recommendations. I like this approach better than reviewing on Amazon, because it’s not predicated on you buying anything from Goodreads: In other words, it works just fine even if you borrow some of your books from friends or the public library, buy others in the local shop, and buy others still on Amazon or at another online store. Your reading list unifies all of your books.
When you’re done with a book, you can review it:
You don’t have to write a review, although personally I find it helps me later remember what the book is about, and organize my thoughts about it. You can also just assign the book a quick star-rating.
The review isn’t just a blob of text: You can also place the book on a virtual shelf if you want (you can do this before reading it, too). Shelves are the categories you make up on your own – they can correspond to genres, places where you bought the book (“from the local store”), or any other classification that makes sense to you.
Finally, Goodreads lets you specify the date in which you’ve completed the book (handy for stats, as you’ll see later), hide the review if it contains spoilers, and of course, tweet out the review.
Friends and Notifications
Goodreads lets you become friends with other people, and follow them to see what they read and what they think about their books. For some people, I assume this is the core of the Goodreads experience. Depends on your personal style, I guess:
Personally, I have just a tiny handful of friends on the service (three, to be exact), so I don’t find this part all that engaging. This is good news to those of you who, like me, are somewhat solitary readers. If you do enjoy a more social reading experience, this can be a great way to discuss books with friends and get ideas for future reading material. It’s nice, because it’s not algorithmic: Following an individual and reading books they like can be a great way to foster friendships or get to know them better.
Once you tell Goodreads enough about your reading history and habits (or simply use the service long enough and keep it up-to-date), its Stats view, accessible under My Books > Stats, can reveal interesting tidbits about your reading:
In the Books view, you can see at a glance how many books you’ve read each year, and drill down per-year to see which books you’ve rated, and what was your longest read. If you use shelves (I don’t), you’ll also see your top shelves.
Another graph I just had to share is the Publication Year scatter chart:
This plots your reading year (along the X axis) relative to each book’s publication year (the Y axis). You can see at a glance that I’m heavily biased towards relatively recent books, although I have been experimenting with more classic reads earlier this year (in January I’ve read John Steinbeck’s excellent Of Mice and Men, originally published in 1937).
These Are My Favorite Features – What Are Yours?
In this post I’ve tried to show some of the nicest things about the Goodreads website, but it’s just a small subset of what the site can do. Do you use the Goodreads website? Are there any fun or useful features I should know about? Let me know below!
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