Internet reviews are almost as old as the internet itself. Over the last several decades, platforms like Yelp, eBay, Amazon, and Letterboxd have made crowd-sourced customer reviews such an integral part of their business model that it’s hard to think about making a purchase, visiting a restaurant, or seeing a movie without at least glancing at an average score. And there’s been plenty of hand-wringing in the last few years over review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes tanking a film’s prospects before it even gets a chance at the box office.
Simply put, reviews can often make or break a product. Books are no different. For the publishing industry, the main review hub is Goodreads, the Amazon-owned social media site where users can build a profile, share what books they’re reading, and leave written reviews as well as star ratings.
If you know even a little about review sites, it should be no surprise that problems abound, from “review bombing” to selling fake reviews to bot reviewers. And Goodreads is no exception. But the site can also be helpful to authors. The Goodreads author program allows any author with a book in the Amazon database to claim a profile and earn a badge verifying their identity. It also provides authors a wealth of statistical information for their books.
But do Goodreads reviews and ratings affect sales? That question can be difficult to answer. To find out, I reached out to several Goodreads authors via email and Twitter to ask their thoughts.
Tirzah Price (who is also, in the interest of full disclosure, a Book Riot senior contributing editor) told me that while she does not care for Goodreads as a platform, “I created an account and claimed my Goodreads author profile because authors are really encouraged to do so in order to access stats and for sharing accurate information about your books.” Price has one YA book out now, another due in 2022, and a third under contract.
But when it comes to a correlation between Goodreads reviews and sales, Price says this can be hard to prove. “I think quantifying such a correlation would be really difficult. As authors, we’re encouraged to tell readers to add our books on Goodreads because engagement can result in more visibility for our books…But I think that so many different factors contribute to sales, and it varies wildly by age category, genre, publisher commitment, and book, that it’s impossible to say. Do more popular, bestselling books have more Goodreads reviews? Absolutely. But are those sales the result of Goodreads? I am skeptical.”
Iva-Marie Palmer, an author of more than seven books, told me on Twitter that she feels “unscientifically” that Goodreads is more likely to prompt a reader to add a book to a list, not necessarily buy it. “[I] think reviews on seller sites that boost the book’s ability to show up alongside other things the customer has looked at work better,” she says. But Palmer also acknowledges “this might be different if your book has had enough marketing and sales traction to be frequently reviewed on Goodreads so that regular site users see the book appear in their feeds a lot and it ascends to must-buy/’everyone is reading this’ territory.”
Katie Henry is the author of three YA contemporary books, with a fourth coming in Spring 2022. She told me that while her best-selling book is the one with the most ratings on Goodreads, it’s not the one with the highest average rating. “Early on in my life as an author, I was very preoccupied with my average rating and worried every time it would tick down a tenth of a percentage,” she says. “But it’s not a GPA, and I don’t think it necessarily correlates to sales either way.”
But it’s precisely that correlation between the amount of ratings, and not necessarily the quality, that fantasy author and research scientist Mark Lawrence contends is predictive. In 2015, he wrote a blog post (since updated in 2018 and 2021) in which he says that the number of Goodreads ratings (not reviews) can predict a book sales. “I saw that a book of mine that had two times the ratings numbers on Goodreads as another one also had two times the sales. I went out and asked a bunch of other authors to tell me what their sales numbers were for particular books and graphed the results, establishing a predictive relationship,” he wrote to me.
Lawrence’s formula is simple. In 2015, if you were to multiply the number of Goodreads ratings (again, not reviews) a book has by 7.7, it can predict (very nearly) the amount of English language sales that book has. In July, Lawrence updated the post to say that the number is closer to 4, accounting for the huge increase in Goodreads users since 2015.
Still, like the others, Lawrence is hesitant to say that ratings can actually generate sales. “I think the relationship is primarily that more sales cause more ratings. Ratings are the windsock, sales are the wind. There may be some circularity with reviews (not ratings) driving sales — some Goodreads reviewers have large followings. A very good review from one of those people is likely to generate some sales. I have no data to support these speculations.”
So it seems more likely that sales generate ratings, not the other way around. Most of the authors I spoke with agree that at a certain point of extremely high visibility on Goodreads, ratings and reviews can bring higher sales, but that’s rare.
For a more in-depth post on the benefit that Goodreads can bring authors, Tirzah Price wrote this excellent one in July.