Peer-to-Peer Book Reviews Fill a Niche

Article excerpt

After graduating from college, Otis Chandler began work at an online dating site. But he was in a serious relationship and wanted to contribute to a service he might actually have a use for. At the same time, he anticipated that social-networking sites would soon splinter into specialized niches, just as dating sites had. While perusing a friend's bookshelf, it hit him.

"When I want to know what books to read, I'd rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list, or algorithm," Mr. Chandler wrote in an online letter on www.goodreads.com, the site he created earlier this year. "So I thought I'd build a website - a website where I could see my friends' bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books."

Today, Goodreads has 125,000 registered users who together have reviewed 1.8 million books.

In the past few years, online social networks that connect people through their taste in literature have grown in popularity. There are now more than 30 such sites, each trying to stand out. And publishers are taking notice.

At a time when newspapers' book-review sections are downsizing (Los Angeles Times) or disappearing (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), publishing houses are hoping to harness the potential that these next wave social-networking sites have to generate book buzz. Last month, www.librarything.com, which started in 2005 as a way for founder Tim Spalding to catalog his own vast book collection, announced an exclusive partnership with Random House.

Next week, in addition to sending early review copies of books to the usual recipients - book critics, booksellers, even bloggers - Random House will send free copies of five new fiction titles to 95 LibraryThing members in exchange for short reviews. They'll ship another batch in July. Come October, LibraryThing anticipates opening its "Early Reviewers" program to other publishing houses. A half-dozen have expressed interest so far.

Random House doesn't view the site's members as a focus group. "We're not necessarily looking for them to reinforce what we already know - which is that the book is great," says Avideh Bashirrad, who works in the publisher's marketing department. "We're hoping they'll help us generate early word-of-mouth buzz for these books."

Ms. Bashirrad first read about LibraryThing in the newspaper. She was struck by the potential the site's algorithms had to place Random House books in the hands of readers who might genuinely enjoy them - "that ability to match people with books based on the what books they have read," she says.

One of the biggest challenges publishers face is targeting their product. …