Goodreads and the self-published author

Where the readers are

It just hit me yesterday that being a “self-published author” is making me miserable. I don’t want to go into the whole story of how I self-published A Falling Body and what happened next because you’ve probably read a dozen variations on that tale already. I know I have. Instead, I’d like to look at Goodreads as a microcosm of the world of the self-published author.

Having published my ebook towards the end of 2015, I then had to think about promoting and/or marketing it (something I hadn’t considered in concrete terms till that point). I didn’t have a physical copy which I could go hawking around bookshops and book fairs. I didn’t have an advertising budget. I had no real option but to do my promotion online and mainly through social media. Goodreads seemed the best choice for the purpose.

Goodreads is, to all appearances, very author-friendly. It allows you to set up an author profile which is distinguishable from the regular profile. It sells self-service ads, rather as Facebook does. The difference is that, on Goodreads, you can be sure that the people who see your ads are people who habitually read books. And there are tens of millions of them on the site. How can you lose? Even better, Goodreads will host a giveaway which, the experts will tell you, is a great way to find new readers.

But there are flies in the ointment. In practice, ads on Goodreads have been found not to perform as well as similar ads on Facebook. Giveaways are expensive and there’s no guarantee that the recipient of your free book will ever actually get around to — you know — um, reading it. But the real shocker is that labelling yourself as a “Goodreads Author” may actually hurt your engagement with readers.

I’ve certainly found that most of my interactions on Goodreads have been with other indie authors. I participated for a while in a review group where each of us would review books by four other members and in turn have our books reviewed by four different people, so as not to infringe Amazon’s and Goodreads’s rules about reciprocal reviews. That was fun for a while but I got a bit tired of reading so many self-published books. Many of them — more than I’d expected, if I’m honest — were of very high quality but, well, not all of them.

And it was thinking about that conundrum, particularly in relation to Goodreads, that made me realize that I’m not enjoying being a self-published author. While Googling on the subject of the relations between readers and writers on that platform, I came across a story by Brenna Clarke Gray from 2015. Her argument is mainly about the folly of authors entering into disputes with the reviewers of their books, but I thought that this passage hints at a more general dynamic:

I also don’t think authors should respond to positive reviews, even to say thanks — the dynamic is too weird. Perhaps not all reviewers feel as I do, but I think the reviewing space needs to be its own thing, unadulterated by the feeling of the author’s hot breath on the reviewer’s neck as they try to make an honest assessment of the work in front of them.

Is it possible that the typical reader/reviewer on a site like Goodreads feels that the presence of authors in the same space is cramping her style? Particularly self-published authors, who are more likely to be insecure, defensive and to feel that they have something to prove (at least if my own experience of the role is anything to go by)? Putting myself for a moment in the reader’s position, I’d say it’s not just possible, it’s almost a certainty. And, if it is, that would go a long way towards explaining the difficulty of, for example, getting readers on the site to follow you back.

And, remaining uncomfortably in the reader’s position for a few moments longer, I think it’s easy to understand why this should be the case. Take a look, if you can bear to, at this piece from the superb critic Laura Miller. It was published nearly 8 years ago, in Salon:

… as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.

(Read the whole thing. I had a lot of trouble choosing which passage to excerpt.) From the author’s point of view, the role of the traditional agent and publishing house has been that of (potentially arbitrary and capricious) “gatekeeper”. From the reader’s, their role is altogether more benign. They’ve performed the task of selection and filtering, so that the reader doesn’t have to. It’s not reasonable—and certainly not realistic—to expect the reader to perform that task for herself.

Miller’s former colleague, Scott Rosenberg, is quoted in her story as being optimistic about the emergence of new gatekeepers to save the reader from drowning in slush. Eight years later, it’s not at all clear that these new gatekeepers have begun to fulfil their roles, or even who they are.

Clearly authors and readers have a symbiotic relationship. One can’t exist without at least some examples of the other. The surprising thing that’s been brought home to me over the past couple of days is that it’s a relationship which is also antagonistic, adversarial. To expect that the two camps can comfortably share a space like Goodreads (or, for that matter, a Facebook group) may not be entirely realistic.

Thanks for reading. Here is a list of all my own fiction now available on Medium. There are several short stories, a novella and a novel, all free to read. I hope you enjoy them.