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Goodreads wants you to ‘Ask the Author’


Curious about what inspired Margaret Atwood to write “The Handmaid’s Tale”?

Wondering what Michael Pollan really eats for breakfast?

Goodreads, the social media site for booklovers, introduced a new feature Wednesday to connect readers with their favorite writers. The program is beginning with 54 authors, who have agreed to select and answer questions from the site’s 25 million members. Eventually, all the authors on Goodreads — more than 100,000 of them — will be able to offer this feature.

Patrick Brown, director of author marketing, says the program is a response to readers’ hunger for “more information about books they love and the authors who wrote them.” Authors can benefit by aggregating their interaction with online readers in a central location that’s available to all their fans. “It also means that authors don’t have to keep answering some of the most popular questions over and over again.”

Goodreads, based in San Francisco, benefits from users spending more time on its site, which is supported by advertising.

While most authors would be happy for more readers, Goodreads had to consider the plight of writers who can’t possibly respond to all their fans. (Let’s pause for a moment of silence to consider their burden.) To avoid overwhelming anyone, the Goodreads staff designed “Ask the Author” with office hours. Brown says that participating authors are able to “turn off the feature when they are focused on writing or traveling on a book tour.”

Readers’ questions won’t be public unless and until the author decides to post an answer on his or her Goodreads page. That procedure also has the advantage of keeping controversial authors from being harassed on the site.

Ayelet Waldman, one of the first authors to be involved in the new program, says this kind of virtual Q&A is a smart response to the rising cost of physical book tours. “In-person events are wonderful fun,” she says, “but it’s been clear to me for a while that it makes no financial sense to send a writer halfway across the country to read at a bookstore. I love doing it, but publishers are (rightly) becoming resistant.”

Joe Finder, another of the participating authors, says, “The Internet has made writers incredibly accessible to readers directly, and Goodreads members are a particularly passionate and engaged group of readers — and book buyers. ‘Ask the Author’ seems to be a good way to bring authors in contact with readers. I particularly like the way authors can ‘cross-post’ — ask each other questions, engage with each other. So far it seems not particularly time-intensive.”

But he agrees with participating author Lev Grossman, who says, “I can’t see this ever replacing readings. Words are all well and good, but at a reading, readers want flesh.”

Brown says that readers of fiction commonly want to know where their favorite authors get their inspiration and why characters have certain names. He declined to give any detail about how many of the site’s 25 million members are active each month.

Goodreads is owned by Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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