Social Reading in the Promised Land of GoodReads

Look at this depiction of Paul Graham‘s Startup Curve that Fred Wilson recently wrote about. Note the “Wiggles of False Hope” and “The Promised Land” events in the graph.

Now look at this graphic interpretation of an actual website’s growth in the last three years (Source: quancast).

This website is GoodReads, a social network for book worms, and it’s no coincidence that the most recent growth spurt looks like GoodReads could be entering the fabled Promised Land in the Startup Curve. While it hasn’t exhibited hockey stick growth like Pinterest or Fab, it has demonstrated consistent, sustained growth over a period of time that makes it a likely candidate for success in the long term.

Each of the growth spurts seen above coincide with well documented market phenomena. Late 2009 saw increased traffic to the site as a result of the site’s user reviews being included in the Google eBooks store. 2010 saw the mercurial rise of the e-book with Amazon declaring that Kindle e-book sales surpassed hardcover sales in July 2010. Earlier that same year, GoodReads also started offering e-books and allowed 13,000 authors to sell their books directly to their fans. There are now 30,000 authors on the website, in large part to the popularity of self-publishing online. The site now has 6.5 million members who have added more than 240 million books to their shelves and written more than 13 million reviews. While the aforementioned factors were mostly macros market movements, GoodReads has more than earned this success.

GoodReads' Explore feature makes it easy for fans to track books that are gaining in readership and/or reviews

I’ve written before about a broad shift from search to discovery. GoodReads seeks to replicate how readers discover new reading material in the analog world, by browsing friends’ book shelves, watching titles being read on the subway or reading about bestsellers in the Sunday Book Review. The site makes it ridiculously easy to track books that are gaining in popularity and is largely responsible for self-published erotica Fifty Shades of Grey going viral since it was released on the site in June 2011. The website’s secret sauce is the algorithm that powers the book recommendation engine, largely based on what’s on a reader’s digital bookshelf, what other readers with similar bookshelves have rated highly, and their reason for rating it highly. This is drastically different from Amazon’s recommendation engine that is based on sales data.

The website also has a thriving community of fans and authors. Authors can use pay-for-click ads to publicize books as well as other features via an Author Program, fans can subscribe to authors’ blogs or be notified of appearances or new works. A feature I especially like is how frictionless it is for fans to invite authors (who are not yet on GoodReads) to join the network.

Whether through serendipity or intent, GoodReads has positioned itself at the center of two market forces that are changing online traffic trends today – Gen Y’s propensity to share opinions, and the online female market’s hunger for lifestyle-oriented content. According to quantcast, the site over indexes on both.

Perhaps most tellingly, Harper Collins recently added a GoodReads Choice Winner badge on the paperback edition of Veronica Roth’s dystopian novel Divergent, that won the Favorite Book 2011 award. Does this mean that the book readers’ network is now poised for the next stage in the Startup Curve i.e. Acquisition?