Goodreads has been in trouble for a while.
Used by over 90 million people, Goodreads, which has a fairly quaint origin story as a website set up to help friends find and discuss books, has been owned by Amazon since 2013. While many use it as their go-to for tracking reading, browsing book reviews and finding recommendations, it has also received a lot of criticism for the ethics of its parent company, an awkward interface, and a general lack of progress when it comes to the site’s design.
On a typical day, a long-time user of Goodreads, the world’s largest community for reviewing and recommending books, will feel like they’re losing their mind. After numerous frustrated attempts to find a major new release, to like, comment on, or reply to messages and reviews, to add what they’ve read to their “shelf” or to discover new titles, users know they’ll be forced to give up, confronted with the fact that any basic, expected functionality will evade them. Sometimes even checking what they’ve already read will be next to impossible…
Goodreads today looks and works much as it did when it was launched. The design is like a teenager’s 2005 Myspace page: cluttered, random and unintuitive. Books fail to appear when searched for, messages fail to send, and users are flooded with updates in their timelines that have nothing to do with the books they want to read or have read. Many now use it purely to track their reading, rather than get recommendations or build a community. “It should be my favourite platform,” one user told me, “but it’s completely useless.”
So why has it come to this? While we can’t know for sure, there’s at least a chance that it’s down to the sheer fact that Amazon holds a monopoly on book discussion. Why spend money improving something when there’s no chance of competition? After all, we know that Amazon values profit far more than user, or worker, experiences.
In reality, with the type of data Goodreads has access too, the site should be able to create an incredible algorithm. One that can recommend a huge array of diverse authors from around the world, catered perfectly to your tastes. One that could ignite real discussion of what books have to offer and the meaning they bring to the world, beyond a starred rating system, all housed in sleek design and easy-to-use features.
Sadly, Goodreads doesn’t do any of these things. But there is a website that does, and that website is called The StoryGraph.
What is The StoryGraph?
The StoryGraph is currently free to sign up and, despite still being in beta mode (aka it hasn’t officially launched yet/is still in development) it already has at least 40,000 users. It was created by Nadia Odunayo, a tech entrepreneur who was inspired by her own frustrations with Goodreads, and is fully owned by Odunayo and one partner (also, they pay all their taxes). Odunayo began working on the idea in January 2019; spending three months speaking to and researching readers including Goodreads users, bloggers and friends to find out what was missing. She worked to find specific areas that readers felt Goodreads didn’t offer, before starting the process of building something to meet these needs.
Through my research I essentially ended up on ‘choosing your next book to read’ and ‘finding persistently high-quality recommendations’ being the major pain points”. The StoryGraph has spent the past year fine-tuning an algorithm that throws up books its users will genuinely enjoy.
As its membership grows, The StoryGraph’s algorithm will learn and grow too, as information on the books is taken from reviews left by users of the site. Plus, the more The Storygraph gets to know you, the better it’ll be at recommending books that fit your tastes.
We have a powerful search engine where you can put in exactly the type of authors you’re looking for, the type of themes you like, and we’ll find you books that exactly match that.
How The StoryGraph works
While it doesn’t market itself as a Goodreads alternative, by identifying what’s currently missing and filling those needs (plus using a better interface), it essentially does offer a superior choice that isn’t owned by Jeff Bezos. Some of its main features include:
- Clean, easy design
- Currently reading, read and to be read lists
- A separate list for books you own (helpful for deciding on re-reads in future or keeping tabs on your collection)
- A ‘did not finish’ reading option
- Find a book feature with recommendations personalised to your preferences
- Reading challenges
- Reading stats
- Filters for finding new books including mood, length, pace
When you first sign up for the site, it immediately gives you the option to import your Goodreads library. I’ve never had Goodreads, but as far as I can tell it’s a fairly easy process. It can take a few days to complete, as a small team runs the site, but every review I’ve read said that it was smooth and uncomplicated.
This means that The StoryGraph immediately has access to a lot of information on what books might be a good fit for you, but it doesn’t stop there. As soon as you sign up it also gives you a survey on your preferences. First, you are prompted to choose from a list of features to explain what you’re interested/not interested in. This includes favourite and least favourite genres, what characteristics you appreciate in books (eg. character development, plot-driven, realistic settings), what turns you off a book (eg. flat characters, violence), and books you’re rarely in the mood for. You also fill in your reading preferences in list form (eg. LGBTQ+ authors, multiple POVs), as well as having the option to specify any triggers that you want to avoid, which gives The StoryGraph more knowledge to cater to your preferences and ability to flag books that may have triggering content.
From this information, The StoryGraph gives recommendations tailored to elements like mood, theme, pace, and author. Less priority is given to the star ratings, something which is ultimately personal to each reader, and instead is placed on the features readers value more.
“If we get the mood right, the pace right, the topic and theme right, the type of author, the type of story you want to hear about – does it matter if the 100 people who read it before you rated it two stars? What if it’s actually a five-star read for you? And that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says, “uncover books for people, because we present them in a different way and show different information upfront.”
This same approach is carried into the rating and reviewing methods, which is where The StoryGraph really excels. Firstly, their star rating system comes with decimal points, allowing you to be a lot more specific on your rating of a book. But, more importantly, the review places more emphasis on a survey section that asks you to choose the book’s overall mood and pace, as well as whether you feel there’s strong character development, diverse characters, loveable characters, and if the character’s flaws are on display. This helps to both improve the accuracy of the filters (if a book isn’t marked as funny, but enough readers vote that it was, that tag will be added to create a more in-depth picture of the book) and helps The StoryGraph learn more about you too.
This focus in the reviews is then reflected in the search algorithm and personal reading stats, which allows a level of specificity that’s really helpful for finding books and understanding yourself. After filling in the books I’d read this year I checked my reading stats. Turns out, I read books that are reflective, emotional and funny, at a medium pace and around 300 pages long. I wouldn’t have known that otherwise! I then went and looked at my recommendations and found a list of books I’d never heard of, that all sounded great. I’ve read reviews from several people who were blown away by the accuracy and insight of the recommendations, and I’m certainly one of them too!
Additionally, the ‘did not finish’ option is also proving popular with users. Having a separate section for this, rather than having to mark unfinished books as read, means you can remember to avoid these books or return to them at a different time, and you can see why those things were the case for you.
On a personal level, my favourite thing about The StoryGraph is also their reading challenges. You can set a standard number of books to read in a year, in a similar fashion to Goodreads, or browse a variety of challenges other people have created. When you choose a challenge you can find general information, the choice to join, and challenge prompts. Select the prompts and you can find the books other users have added to that prompt. Even if you don’t join the challenge, it’s a great way to find really specific books. For example, I’ve joined the Around the World challenge, in an attempt to read authors from as many different countries as possible. I’ll work my way through the challenge at my own pace, and add any books to relevant sections as I encounter them (for example I have a list of Yemeni authors that I want to read in 2021). Considering the isolating nature of 2020, the social aspects of this challenge really appeal to me, while also helping me to continue diversifying my reading list. Love to see it!
Overall, I have to say I love The StoryGraph. While I never had a Goodreads account, I have looked at reviews for books on there in the past, and even that was an inefficient and clunky experience. The StoryGraph is easy and fun to use, does a great job of recommending new books, and has a better grasp on the kind of conversations we should be having about books to see them with all of their nuances. It’s also black-owned, and clearly does a better job of helping users actually diversify their preferences. I love it and, while it’s not perfect yet, am really impressed with how great it is for a website that’s still in beta mode. I’ve really enjoyed being a user so far, and I think you will too.
Plus it pays its taxes and isn’t owned by a corporate monster/doesn’t put money into Jeff Bezos’ ever-expanding pockets. What more could you want?
To learn more, I loved watching Leena Norms’ video, she interviews Nadia Odunayo and takes you through her experience of signing up, so you can watch how it works here: