#ReadersResources: The Story Graph (or, is Goodreads dead?)

Back at the beginning of the year when Debs and I had our pow-wow about our plans for the blog, there’s one vital group of people that we overlooked: readers. We tend to assume that we’ve got them covered with at least 50% of our output, but given that we talk about writing quite a lot, and have a whole page devoted to helping writers with resources, our focus is perhaps not on the important people who complete the circle of life, as it pertains to writing. (And if you’re a reader whose just found us a result of this post, please take the time to have a look around and check out some of the stories; probably the easiest thing to do is take a look at the Index via the tab at the top of the page). This is clearly a massive oversight, as my writing, and I think Debs’ too, is shaped, to some extent, by our experience as readers. What we have read, the way we have read it, and our interaction with what other people think of what we have read, affect what we write. And whilst we both have TBR piles that are in danger of affecting local gravity, our choices of what to read next and what to add to the tottering Everests are are undoubtedly influenced by the recommendations of others.

Last year I commented on my fears that I was struggling to get through reading material, and that I might be doomed: how many books might I still be able to get through? Earlier this year, I followed that up with some thoughts on audiobooks. In 2019, I scraped through a 50-book target for the Goodreads challenge, thanks in no small part to audiobooks. This year, I’ve already reached my target and then some. It would be nice to think that there were some silver linings to Covid, but I think that it’s a coincidence and more to do with innate competitiveness, even if I’m just competing with myself. Still, more time spent gardening, listening to audiobooks, can’t have hurt. But that earlier post commented on a star-based review system and it’s limitations, and that’s probably relevant to what we’re thinking about here.

Recently I read an article from the New Statesman (I’m not sure how I came across it – it might have been one of those that pops up when you open a new tab in your browser), but it suggested that Goodreads might be bad for books. I certainly hadn’t realised that there was that much…background, shall we say, to Goodreads, and as a result there’s a certain temptation to just delete my account. Maybe I’ll just stop writing reviews – Goodreads may yet be a force for good from a writers perspective, but that’s a post for another day! From a reader’s perspective, is Goodreads still serving its core constituency? It’s tempting to use the ‘tail-wagging-the-dog’ analogy, but given that Goodreads is no longing curated by people who love reading, but is linked to a shop that wants us to buy what it sells (rather than what we want to buy), is it healthy to still engage with Goodreads? There appears to be little in the way of moderation, and I’ve heard some horror stories of various bullying tactics being deployed by aggressive reviewers. I’ve been luck not to see much of that myself, but it is something to think about.

The same New Statesman article pointed out how hard it is for alternatives to Goodreads to gain traction, and that in itself is a fascinating read, but it also gives a steer to an alternative that appears to be on track to becoming a viable alternative to Goodreads: plus points include a sensible way of reviewing books (where the star system is present but down-played) and more in the way of reading challenges than just ‘bosh through as many books as you can’. Another incredibly helpful feature when you are just getting started is that you can import your Goodreads records; there is an excellent guide on how to do this, and the whole process only took a few minutes.

The Story Graph is currently in beta, but already feels like it is doing a lot of things well and is building a vibrant and active community. In an ideal world (from my perspective) I would have been able to spend another few months having a play with the features and bedding in. Timeliness being of the essence, as they are launching a premium version, I thought I should just go ahead and give you my thoughts now – whilst I can’t recommend the Story Graph as strongly as I would like, due to my own lack of experience with the site, I can definitely suggest that you should get over there straight away and make your own decision. I’m unlikely to pay for the premium version – an ad free service is great, but I’m just not sure that I need the extra functionality right now, and whilst I would like to support an alternative to certain ubiquitous firms, that’s just not on the (bank)cards at the moment.

So, a question (or a few), to you with your Reader hat on: Are you happy with Goodreads? Why? Why not? What do you like about Goodreads? Have you had problems? Would you like an alternative?

If you do go and have a look at The Story Graph, do come back and tell us how you got on!

Happy reading!

(C) David Jesson, 2020


How to read when you don’t have time: #SecondThoughts on audiobooks

Last year I took the Goodreads challenge and I thought that a book a week was eminently doable. I was nearly proved wrong, which I was inordinately worried about.  A while ago a was having a cuppa with my friend @RotwangsRobot (Kathryn Harkup, the immensely talented writer of ‘A is for Arsenic: The poisons of Agatha Christie’, and several other pop science books), and she told me this story of two old dears who’d gone into a bookshop and asked for recommendations of twenty absolutely must read titles.  They’d worked out  how quickly they read,  how much time they had left, and done a very simple calculation.  The scary thing is even at 50 books a year, I might be down to 2000 books left to read…and when it doesn’t look like you’re going to have time even for that…Eeep!

Goodreads very helpfully let you know how many books a week you need to read to complete the challenge, and when it started becoming more than one, I don’t mind telling you, I was a worried man.  The challenge is a personal one: you set your own target and then you see what you can do.  So last summer, when I was edging up to a required read rate of 1.5 books a week, I knew I needed a cunning plan.

I’m very lucky with my commute, which is a 20-25 minute walk in either direction. It’s a reasonably pleasant walk, but it’s nice to have something to listen to.  For several years I’ve been listening to a range of things on the BBC iPlayer app, although at the point all this was occurring, I was beginning to think that I’d pretty much listened to everything that I wanted to listen to.  I’d been thinking a lot about audiobooks anyway, so I decided to take the plunge and get an account.  My first book was Ben Aaronovitch’s ‘Rivers of London’, read by the superb Kobna Holdbrook-Smith.  I was sold on the idea of audiobooks completely.

However, Audible is a pay-for service, although once you have bought the book, as long as Audible is viable, you can listen to the book over and over again, even if you suspend your subscription.  But even though I have a tendency to go for long-‘reads’ (a contributing factor to my lack of progress against my GoodReads target), with the commute and listening to books whilst I do chores like the washing up, I could easily listen to 3-4 books a month – and I’m not prepared to spend that much!

What to do? What to do?

Shortly after starting with Audible, I was in my local public library and I spotted a sign advertising audio and e-books, which could be checked out on an app from the comfort of your own home. Bingo! Problem solved.  

The RBDigital app is not quite as smooth to use as Audible, and there are all sorts of books that I would like to get hold of, which aren’t available.  But given the range that is accessible, for free, and all the new books that I have found, it has been like discovering reading all over again.  In the space of the last six months or so, I’ve listened to around 20 books, put a serious dent in my virtual TBR (and then refilled it) and only been mildly disappointed once (the narrator didn’t distinguish been the voices enough so it was difficult to follow some of the conversations).  I was a lot disappointed with one of the stories, but that would have been the case whatever the format!

Listening to books is a very different experience to holding a book in your hands and sinking down into a favourite chair with a cup of tea, but as such opportunities are currently in short supply, I thoroughly recommend listening to books.  As a writer, it’s also helpful because it reminds you that people won’t just be reading your words, but listening to.

And I might just get through 3000 books…

What’s your experience of audiobooks?  

© David Jesson, 2020