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How Publishers Can Get the Most Out of Goodreads

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Patrick Brown, director of marketing, Goodreads

It’s a rare breed of book that flies high enough to make it onto the bestseller lists and stay there for more than a year. With more than 65 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers List, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale not only shows no signs of losing steam, but is gaining momentum. On average, more Goodreads members are adding it to their shelves today than were doing so a year ago when the book was in its key publicity phase. With this kind of traction, The Nightingale has the potential to become 2016’s version of The Help, another book that picked up greater momentum in its second year.

But how did we get here? How did The Nightingale become such a sensation? During a recent presentation at BookExpo America, we took a closer look at the marketing and promotion tactics used surrounding the book. In examining the success that Hannah and St. Martin’s Press has had with The Nightingale, it’s helpful to start in an obvious place: the book itself. Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale tells the tale of two sisters in occupied France during World War II. Hannah’s core focus is ordinary women surviving and dealing with extraordinary circumstances, which was also at the heart of The Nightingale. This has resonated with readers in a way that few books have—it currently has an average rating of greater than 4.5 stars, despite having more than 190,000 ratings. That is truly exceptional, and it’s worth keeping in mind as you consider the marketing that helped make this book a hit. An author or publisher could do everything exactly the same and not necessarily see the same results because you must have a book that connects with readers.

Another key point in this case study that stands out is that St. Martin’s Press did not put all of its eggs in one basket. It undertook a number of marketing tactics—both paid and unpaid—that amplified each other over time. With each new milestone, the press added more marketing fuel to the fire.

It Starts by Getting the Book into Readers’ Hands

St. Martin’s Press wanted to build a groundswell of reviews before publication. The publisher knew that if it got the book into the hands of enough readers early on, the power of the story in The Nightingale would drive that all-important, word-of-mouth buzz that can make a great book take off. They went big and ran giveaways for more than 200 copies of the book on Goodreads before publication.

“Giveaways are a fantastic way of generating early buzz and to get crucial early reviews,” says Laura Clark, senior marketing director at St Martin’s Press. “What we love the most about giveaways on Goodreads is how when someone enters a giveaway, it gets shared with their friends and followers in their newsfeed, creating a series of mini alerts about a book and helping more people discover it. Our team knew this book was something special—it became the book everyone wanted to read at the office—so we decided to go bigger than usual and commit to 200 books in giveaways.”

The giveaways drove the first bit of sustained interest in the book on Goodreads. But giveaways alone won’t sustain the momentum of a book, no matter how good. For that, you need to keep reminding people about a book. And to do that, paid advertising can be a powerful tool.

Using Advertising to Reach the Readers Most Likely to be Interested in Your Book

Paid advertising on Goodreads can be a very effective means to generate a lot of awareness for a specific book among the right readers and build on buzz that you are creating on Goodreads. In the case of The Nightingale, St. Martin’s Press wanted to reach Hannah’s existing fans to let them know that a new book from one of their favorite authors was on the way. This was important, as Hannah hadn’t published a book in nearly two years.

To reach Hannah’s existing fan base, St. Martin’s Press used display advertising on Goodreads— targeted to fans of Hannah. These ads were meant to reach a very specific audience with just the right message. In addition to display advertising, St. Martin’s Press used a relatively new e-mail ad product called a personal selection mailer. The personal selection mailer is an advertisement that sends a personal note from the author straight to a reader’s inbox. This is effective because the author is able to tell the reader about her new book in her own voice; readers love to hear from an author whose work they have previously enjoyed in this way.

“I think the personal selection mailer is one of the best book marketing tools out there,” Clark says. “E-mail marketing is very powerful when done right, and the personal selection mailer is a great example of this. It delivers fantastic results because it’s reaching the people who already love an author’s books and most want to hear about the next one.”

Publication Month … and the Buzz Keeps Building

At publication in early February 2015, Hannah was featured in the monthly Goodreads newsletter, which goes to roughly 40 million people worldwide. This was obviously valuable exposure for the book, but it’s important to keep in mind that a key factor our editors look at when choosing those interviews is how much a book is resonating with our membership—how many people have added it to their shelves (more than 20,000 people had added The Nightingale to their shelves before it was published), and what the early reviews are looking like. This reinforces the need to get your book into the hands of readers early so it can stand out closer to its publication date and start to get traction on Goodreads.

From there, the book took off, with an average of 600 to 800 people per day discovering the book on Goodreads and adding it to their “Want to Read” shelves. Reviews continued to come in, and the average rating remained extremely high. The book was also picked as a Book of the Month by Amazon and independent bookstores in February. All of this combined to help it hit the bestseller list in February 2015, and it continued to sell well throughout the year. Hannah, for her part, continued to do what she could to keep momentum going—answering questions through Ask the Author and engaging with readers in a special group St. Martin’s Press created to spark discussion of the book.

Goodreads Choice Awards Take The Nightingale to Greater Heights

Let’s jump to the end of 2015, when we announced the nominees for the annual Goodreads Choice Awards, and The Nightingale was nominated for Best Historical Fiction. This nomination was the result of so many readers finding, highly rating, and discussing the book on Goodreads.

Winning the Goodreads Choice Awards had an enormous impact on the number of people adding it to their Want to Read shelves, even on a bestseller like The Nightingale. For Kristin Hannah, the value of the award was also measured in terms of recognition. “Most year’s best lists are compiled by critics who don’t even consider commercial fiction,” Hannah said, “So it is so important—and meaningful—to hear what real readers love.”

St. Martin’s Adds More Fuel to the Fire

St. Martin’s understood that the free awareness such an award brings was a major opportunity to double down on the book. It listed more giveaways and booked native newsfeed ads—ads that run in the newsfeed on Goodreads as well as in its mobile apps—to keep it front of mind with readers.

The Nightingale has sold more than 2 million copies in about a year and a half and has become a popular pick with book clubs—something sure to build sales once it comes out in paperback. With TriStar Pictures having optioned rights to produce the movie, we’ll likely be hearing about The Nightingale for a long while yet.


Patrick Brown is director of author marketing for Goodreads, the largest book recommendation website in the world. He heads the Goodreads Author Program, a program that helps authors connect with their readers and raise awareness of their books. The Goodreads Author Program now features more than 180,000 authors.

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