On the Media: Goodreads.com founder pushes print on the Web, not on paper
“Book reviews in newspapers, well, those are gone,” the young Web entrepreneur told me in the most matter-of-fact way. “Independent bookstores are almost gone. Chains will probably be gone soon. It’s all happening online now.”
That might have been ho-hum stuff coming from just any techie. But the pronouncements were being made by a descendent of a print-and-ink empire.
Otis Chandler made no apologies. His great-great-great-grandfather may have founded the Los Angeles Times. His grandfather, another Otis, pushed the newspaper to renown. But this member of the Chandler family, generation six, has moved on.
FOR THE RECORD:
Goodreads.com: The On the Media column in Saturday’s Calendar section about the website Goodreads.com suggested that the great-great-great-grandfather of the website’s founder had founded the Los Angeles Times. Gen. Harrison Gray Otis bought part ownership of The Times in 1882, a year after it began publication, and was its publisher for 35 years. —
He has built one of the biggest sites on the Internet for book lovers, one that has been growing steadily since its inception in 2006. Goodreads.com hosts reading clubs, gives away books, sponsors author chats, offers literature quizzes and generally dissects and celebrates writing. The website has 3.5 million members. It has more than 1.7 million unique visitors a month, a 65% jump from a year ago, according to the Nielsen Co.
Chandler, 32, has built a substantial audience and considerable good will. But he must confront the central challenge that faces most other media companies, old and new: how to make money off the audiences they have built on the Web.
I met with Young Otis this week in his bare-bones office in Santa Monica. It’s upstairs from a liquor store and next to an acupuncturist, the same spot, according to the landlord, where Lakers owner Jerry Buss nurtured a fledgling real estate business.
When I asked whether Goodreads had turned a profit, Chandler didn’t answer directly. “I’ll just say we are doing well,” said the soft-spoken Stanford graduate, who pecked at his laptop, which sat atop a folding table in a room with mostly bare walls.
“I think we are doing very well as an advertising platform for books,” he continued, “and I have other ideas to increase that. To be a really big media business, I think you need other [revenue] streams. We have several other ideas to create those.”
Young Otis, who founded the company with his wife, Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, a former Times staffer, wouldn’t say where that money might be found. But he sounded confident that it lurked out there, just waiting to be mined.
Chandler said Goodreads has worked with all the major publishing houses to promote books and authors in a variety of ways. That can mean banner ads standard on the Web, “sponsored” links like the ones that power Google, and other options — like paid mentions for a book or author in one of the site’s polls, quizzes or in its monthly e-mailed newsletter.
The start-up has 10 employees and announced in December that it landed $2 million in venture capital, adding to its initial round of funding.
Several friends told me they signed up for Goodreads. They poked around, picked up a book recommendation or two or dutifully catalogued what they read for others to follow. But all of them said they soon lost interest — their time already booked solid with career, family and other social networking sites.
Others clearly have not been so preoccupied, as evidenced not only by the site’s traffic but by the intense interest of some members. If you want to chat about European royalty, for instance, one of thousands of groups on the site is tailor-made for you. It’s got 785 members who read and talk about the royals. Some groups, like one in Indonesia, turn their online contacts into real-life book club meetings.
Goodreads also has sponsored a handful of in-person “book swaps” and, on the site, by-mail exchanges that work on the honor system. Members build up “karma” by giving away books. Those who are only takers get weeded out.
The staff also has sponsored pub crawls — another coming Aug. 28 in Echo Park — with author readings for the digirati, who also are welcome to traipse from bar to bar in a selected neighborhood.
Goodreads has expanded its reach, with an iPhone app launched in March and by syndicating its original reviews and other features to other sites such as Google Books and Alibris.
Chandler talks about how the world of publishing has been blown wide open by self-publishing sites. With more than 300,000 new titles a year, he maintains that the traditional media can’t possibly cover them all. “Someone has got to sort through what is good and what is bad,” he said, suggesting Goodreads members will be the new arbiters.
As one who buys his books through Amazon, he can’t imagine anyone paying a bookstore markup, unless they have some special incentive. “What if they just sold the book at zero markup and then offered consumers the option to donate a few dollars to keep the store running (it worked for Radiohead after all)?” he wrote in a recent post on his Goodreads blog.
That reference to the British band that sold its own album, telling fans to pay what they thought was fair, doubtless would appeal to some nouveau publishers. But it’s the kind of suggestion that fries people who have been making and selling books for a long time. They want the Web triumphalists to give a little credit to the enormous time, effort and expense they put into nurturing, editing and promoting writers.
The combatants in this debate sound like a lot of others in the old-new media joust. They tend to assert that one form will certainly pulverize the other. It seems more likely that even as the new online outlets for reading and criticism expand, the best of the old will survive.
I asked Chandler how he thinks the earlier Otis, who died in 2006, would look at his Internet foray. He said his grandfather didn’t own a computer. “But back then he didn’t need to have one,” young Otis said. “I think he would think that I am going in the right direction.”