Goodreads is an online community for people who like to read and obsessively catalogue and compare their history in libraries. 

In a loose, fragmented sense, Goodreads may just be the biggest book club ever. With over 11 million members, created 20,000 individual book clubs and 395 million books catalogued, Goodreads is an outside force to be reckoned with by the floundering publishing industry.

 

Goodreads was launched in 2006, a year after LibraryThing, a similar "social cataloguing" website. Social cataloguing is jargon for a website like Last.fm or Internet Movie Database or discogs which allows users to list and delineate media. These collaborative databases are in turn useful to guest users who simply wish to find new media which they might enjoy.

Goodreads has created a strong community by hosting groups devoted to a specific topic or author. There are also a number of aspiring authors who post their works-in-progress to the site, all of which is tagged according to various subcategories. Best of all are the lists: any user can create a list (much like one can on Amazon.com) and any user can vote a book up or down on a given list, or add to someone else's list with books from their library. Registered users can also play literary quiz games with their friends. But the list feature (they call it "listopia") is pretty massive. Many of the lists overlap and some are worthless (there are lists which are indiscriminate groupings of things individuals want, liked, or hated) and some are almost too specific (looking for a list of comix made by female Swedes? Transgender fiction about underwater basket weaving? Goodreads has those) but when you look at the page for a book you know and love and find it linked to other similar books you did not know existed, then the list feature is pretty cool.

Most of the site is visible to anyone, logged in or not. Users may select that their profiles be set to private. The meat and potatoes of the site would be the reviews, which are visible to anyone viewing the page for a given book. The quality of the reviews is somewhat less biased than that of Amazon and, on the rare occassion, may approach the caliber of the professional.

 

Like many forms of social media, Goodreads allows its users to "friend" each other and create a homepage describing their interests. Goodreads collaborates with authors by letting them create their own homepage and hosting the occassional interview. You can decorate your homepage with quotes from your favorite authors and even add your own icon.  Users of Goodreads are not obligated to use their Real Names, but many do, either due to their wish to promote books they've written or out of laziness when responding to a Facebook prompt to create an account. 

As far as online personal library managing sites go, Goodreads is hot right now. At some point the site superceded LibraryThing (and other similar sites such as anobii and the Amazon-owned Shelfari) and may have contributed to the demise of the services weRead, BookArmy, and FiledBy.

The prevalance of Goodreads is due to a series of savvy Web 2.0 marketing tactics: hosting free book giveaways, courting new authors, fostering a sense of community, and integrating with FaceBook. This last move was done in the second half of 2011, at which time the site experienced a huge surge in its userbase. It is not necessary to have a FaceBook account in order to use Goodreads, nor is it necessary to link the two together. But being able to see what your friends on Facebook have read can be fun. And, if you let it, Goodreads will post your reading activity onto Facebook—which can be excrutiating at times (getting a status update that someone you know read ten pages of a book is as interesting as knowing the progress of their bellybutton-lint extraction).

Like many online communities nowadays, there's a mobile app which users can use to manage their account on the go. 

There's no denying that the site is popular though. Even Google Books will now link to Goodreads reviews. And publishers are starting to pay attention to the site: many presses, large and small, have a Goodreads account. As do some bookstores, although as of now Goodreads does not distinguish between a publisher and an individual (there are, however, special accounts for authors).

Although most of Goodreads is in English, the site allows books in other languages such as Arabic, Spanish, French, and German to be listed as well. A similar site called Douban (which also encompasses film and art) exists for the Chinese language.

 

Unsure of which service to use? LibraryThing is to Goodreads as Google+ is to Facebook. That is to say, the user-experience at LibraryThing may be more intuitive and less market-driven overall but (if you're in the US, at least) most everyone you know is or will be using Goodreads. As for Shelfari, its parent company Amazon.com seems like a more useful tool for discovering good books. I tried using Shelfari for a few minutes to see what they listed as contemporary literature and was a bunch of crap; the other subject headings were no better. Anobii looks like a decent enough service but only has high traffic in Italy (note that Anobii will begin selling eBooks in the UK next month though).

Last year Goodreads acquired the site Discoveread and incorpated their linking technology—meaning that you can ask the site to look at what you've read and what you want to read to find a list of suggestions which you might like. It's a robust technology, but not perfect. Last year Goodreads switched from Amazon's API to Ingram, which is the same content delivery service that publishers and book retailers use.

Goodreads is backed by private investors. They make some money from ads and are surely selling information on your book habits to publishers and marketing firms, but hey, free toy! Goodreads is still owned by its creator, Otis Chandler.

 

If you've lost more books than you have read and/or can't quite recall what you have and have not read, try browsing Goodreads. It's easier than crawling through a bookstore or trying to make sense of the Dewey Decimal System.

Check it out.

Postscript: on March 28, 2013, Goodreads announced that it will "now be part of the Amazon family" amidst an outpouring of joy amongst Kindle owners (and other happy consumers happy to have Amazon's monolithic buying power give them deep discounts off publishers' list price) & much trepidation amongst everyone else. Some fled. One user compiled the following list of independent alternatives to Goodreads: 

Anobii.com

BookCrossing

BookGlutton

BookLamp

BookLikes

BookRabbit

Bookwormr

Reader2

Readernaut

YourNextRead.com

Publishers' Weekly ran a story on the acquisition. Here's an excerpt of that: 

When asked how Goodreads would be integrated into Amazon, and the all-important question of how, and when, a retail component might be rolled into the site--currently users can buy books through a host of third party retailers, including Amazon--both Chandler and Russ Grandinetti, Amazon v-p, Kindle content, skirted the subject. When pressed, Chandler said: "We don't have any plans to change anything about the buy links in the short term, but in the long term we're going to do what's best for our users."

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