Danny Feekes and Suzanne Skyvara, GOODREADS TEAM

Danny Feekes and Suzanne Skyvara, GOODREADS TEAM

Zibby Owens: Today’s episode is a bit of a departure, but I’m really, really excited about it. I think it’ll be really entertaining and fun for you to listen to, at least I hope so. You can let me know afterwards if you want. I’m interviewing two of the most important people at Goodreads. They’ll tell you more about it, if you don’t know already about Goodreads. I’m assuming that many you, as book lovers, know about this giant site for book recommendations where you can follow your friends’ picks and all the rest. Danny Feekes is the editorial director at Goodreads and in addition to that has written many of his own articles. He does a lot of the book picks for the site and even wrote an article about doing naked yoga, which I kind of poke fun at him about during the episode, so you’ll hear about that. That was not for Goodreads, by the way. That was a former site that he worked at. Suzanne Skyvara is the VP of marketing and editorial for Goodreads. She has also written many roundups of articles and books in the past specifically related to career books for women. There are tons of lists of hers floating about. Not only are they Goodreads execs, but they are hardcore book lovers and just want to help promote books and authors in the same way I do. We all got together for a chat. They gave some inside scoop into what is popular on Goodreads for this summer and what their own picks are and all the rest. I hope you enjoy our conversation. If you haven’t already checked out Goodreads, go to goodreads.com and you can check it out.

Welcome, Suzanne and Danny, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Suzanne Skyvara: Thank you. We’re very excited to be here. We’ve been listening and looking at your show for a while now. It’s great to do this.

Danny Feekes: Thank you for having us.

Zibby: Suzanne Skyvara is the VP of marketing and editorial for Goodreads. Danny Feekes is the managing editor there. It’s such a pleasure to be able to talk books with people from Goodreads. I know there are people out there who might not know what it is. For those two people, I want you to explain it. For everyone else, this is such a thrill because Goodreads is just the be all, end all for book lovers. Maybe one of you could talk a little about what Goodreads is. Then we’ll talk about you both individually and some of our shared book love.

Suzanne: I love that you have that reaction about Goodreads. Every now and then I’ll meet people when I’m commuting or something. One time I was wearing a Goodreads jacket and he was like, “How do I get one of those?” I was like, “You have to work there.” I love working at Goodreads. It’s a dream come true. For those of you who haven’t heard what Goodreads is, it’s the world’s largest community of readers. We have 105 million members around the world. Our mission is to help people discover books they love and get more out of reading. If you’re looking to discover more books to read, it’s so hard because there’s millions of books out there, so we can help you go through all of that to find a book that’s actually going to really fit you, your tastes, your mood, and help you keep track of what you’re reading. It’s really, really satisfying to — it’s kind of a virtual way of that looking back at the bookcase and going, oh, yes, I remember where I was when I read that book. Oh, wow, look how many books I’ve read this year. Fantastic place. Even better, it’s free to use.

Zibby: Always a perk. How long have both of you been with Goodreads?

Suzanne: I’ve been with Goodreads for seven years, which I love. I was a consultant for a year before that. When I was first getting to know Goodreads, there were five million members. It’s been really fun seeing it grow and change. Danny, how long have you been with us?

Danny: I’ve been at Goodreads for four years this month. I’m celebrating my anniversary. I’m very excited. I’m definitely going to pop some champagne.

Zibby: Happy anniversary. Awesome.

Danny: Thank you.

Zibby: Champagne emojis all around. Danny and Suzanne also write. They don’t just read, as most writers write and most readers write. Everybody’s writing and reading. I got a chance to read some of your essays, before we delve into other books you love. Danny, your essay on nude yoga, oh, my gosh. I couldn’t figure out if I should blush or laugh or both. It was amazing. You had this one quote in it too. You said, “I found myself getting bored, which is not a thing that happens often for a gay man in a room full of naked men.” That was my favorite line. Just tell us briefly, what is it like to do nude yoga? How did you ever get the courage or the insanity to even try that?

Danny: I was working for this heath and fitness site that no longer exists. It was called Spright. We knew that our audience would love this, getting out of your comfort zone, trying something new. I had been on meetup.com and found this class. I was like, I should do this and do it for the site and the greater good and for traffic and page views. I took one for the team. I found a class on meetup.com, and I went. I disrobed immediately and got down to business. It was both shocking and not shocking. You really get into the class pretty quickly and becomes very normal. As you read in the article, you don’t want mirrors in that class.

Zibby: I have a newfound respect for your journalistic integrity for having done that. That’s pretty impressive. Once, I went and got a facial for an assignment, and I felt like that was a big deal. It’s great just to even have a background of you two more as individuals because it doesn’t matter what job you have, everybody comes to it with their own backgrounds. I love to get to know the people behind every job and every book and all the rest. I’m excited to talk to you both about books because you’re in such in an interesting position having an inside glimpse into the world of what everyone’s recommending and what everyone’s reading. Share with us some of that inside information. What are people reading right now? What are some of the trends? What do you think’s going to go on? What are you seeing?

Danny: Just wanted to say again we love talking books, so this is such a thrill for us. Goodreads, we’re seeing a ton of really interesting trends right now. Obviously, we’re in an unprecedented time, so we’re seeing our audience really gravitate to a few things. One thing that we’re seeing is a lot of rereading. People are gravitating towards the classics, Jane Austen, things like that that are maybe more comfort food for them, slipping in something familiar. We’re also seeing people really gravitate towards books that provide some sort of escape. Whether that’s a beach read if they can’t actually make it to the beach or something more in the horror genre that provides a fright that’s not their own right now, we’re seeing a lot of that. Another interesting trend that we’ve been seeing for the past few years is diversity in the romance and young adult categories. We’re seeing a lot of diverse authors here, a lot of diverse characters here. This summer, the romance genre is really interesting with heroines of a lot of different shapes and colors. We just always love to champion those books.

Zibby: How about you, Suzanne? What are some of the things that you’re excited about or what the users have been showing you that they’re really excited about coming up?

Suzanne: I always love to champion the debut books. I think this season more than ever debut authors have such a tough time. They’ve worked on these books for years. The plan is all out, and then coronavirus hits and everything tanks. It’s all been just such a hard, hard environment for them. One debut that I’m really loving right now, I’m in the middle of it, is Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West which is coming out on June 16th. It’s the story a young woman who’s determined to protect her best friend while a long-buried secret threatens to unravel both families. It’s set in the South Side of Chicago. It’s within the African American community there. The one teenager, her mother dies. She’s left home alone with her father who’s very violent and was beating her mother and is also beating her. Then her best friend, Layla, is the daughter of a black pastor. She’s trying to help Ruby. Then her father, who’s a pastor of the church, is saying, “Stay away from that family. Leave that alone.” The question is, why? What’s really interesting is that the author is black and the daughter of a pastor and was raised in the South Side of Chicago. She said that she’s brought a lot of that experience to writing this book. It’s a really great debut that I encourage a lot of people to try out.

Zibby: Are there any debuts on your list, Danny?

Danny: Yeah. Actually, kind of a common thread from what we were saying earlier, people finding comfort in Jane Austen and the classics, one of our authors was having the same inclination when she was going through a hard time. This is one of those stories where the author’s story is just as fascinating as the actual novel. Natalie Jenner is a debut author. She had actually written five books prior to this book but wasn’t able to get any of them published. She did what I think a lot of us want to do, which is open a bookstore. As soon as she did, her husband was diagnosed with cancer, so they actually had to shutter the bookstore as she took time to take care of him. During that time, she really found comfort in the books of Jane Austen. As he began to heal, she decided that she might want to write a book about this. The book is called The Jane Austen Society. She discovered Jane Austen Society that exists in England. She revolved around the story about this group trying to save the Jane Austen estate which is in their small town. It really showcases this group as they try to heal from the wounds of World War II. I think this is a really good book club pick, and especially for those people that love Jane Austen. That one came out in May. It’s called The Jane Austen Society.

Zibby: I did a podcast with Natalie. Maybe I can link to it in this episode notes and people can hear it after.

Suzanne: Fantastic. Another debut that’s popular on Goodreads is also one that I know that you really liked which is If You’re Happy & You Know It by Laura Hankin. You recommended that for book of the month club pick in May, right?

Zibby: I did. Good sleuthing there.

Suzanne: I actually chose it, and I got your take on it. It was really nice.

Zibby: I thought that was fun. Especially, I’m an Upper East Side mom, and she made fun of basically everybody in my community. That’s okay. It’s always fun to laugh at — that’s not what my life is like or the people I’m friends with. Anyway, it was a great story. I interviewed Laura so long ago. I think it was in December. We were like, how crazy that we’re doing this so early, I hope nothing bad happens. Now it’s like, are you kidding me? of all the stuff that’s gone on. Yes, that is another great debut pick. What other books are you telling everybody about? Danny, you mentioned you were excited about Rodham earlier. Tell me about that.

Danny: This is the book that I — it’s for a very specific person, and especially if you like Curtis Sittenfeld. She wrote Prep. She wrote American Wife. American Wife tells the tale of Laura Bush, but it’s very veiled. This one, we are definitely talking about Hillary Rodham, but not Hillary Rodham Clinton. The twist here is that she doesn’t end up marrying Bill. She dates him. She moves to Arkansas with him, but she doesn’t end up marrying him. We see her move to Chicago and start her own political career. As she begins to go through the ranks and potentially try to be president, you see Bill come back in a really interesting way. You actually see Donald Trump come back in a really surprising twist that I won’t ruin. I inhaled this book in a way that I haven’t inhaled a book in a really long time. I was on PTO, so caveat there, I did have time to inhale it. I really recommend it. If you’re a Hillary fan or just like fan fiction, juicy, gossipy goodness, I think you’ll like this one.

Zibby: Suzanne, When Time Stopped, tell me more about this book. I’ve heard so much about it but have not read it yet.

Suzanne: Oh, you have? I’m so glad that you’re hearing about it. Quick side note. My husband is Czech. My name in Czech would be Suzanne . As one of my friends once said, he said, “That’s a Bond girl name.” I’m like, “That’s why I’m going to change my name. I will take it.” Then I’m not called that anymore. This book, I was initially attracted to it because it is set in Czechoslovakia in the second World War. I really hadn’t read about that experience. It’s a memoir. It’s called When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Ariana Neumann. Imagine that you are a young Jewish man in Prague in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The Nazi rules have been gradually encroaching and restricting your life more and more. Your parents have been taken and sent away to Theresienstadt, which is a Nazi concentration camp, and you know that the net is closing in on you. You’re going to be next. You’re not going to be able to escape it any longer. What do you do? Hans Neumann, this young Jewish man, decided that he would adopt a false identity, which is grounds for being shot on the spot, by the way. He would adopt a false identity and he would go to Berlin. He would live and work in Berlin in the belly of the beast of the Nazi socialist empire/republic/country. He somehow, miraculously, survives. He then goes to Venezuela after the war. He ends up building an incredibly successful life. He never talked about what happened to him back in Czechoslovakia.

Ariana Neumann grew up — her father was fifty when she was born. She grew up knowing that her father had nightmares at night but never really knowing what his history was. Then one day, she found a card with his face on it, but a different name and a Nazi stamp and everything on it. She asked about it, but then it disappeared the next day. He didn’t want to talk about it or anything. He never ever wanted to talk about it. It was just so painful to him. When he died, he left a box — he almost wanted that taken away, but thank god someone saved it — a box of the letters and the documents, etc. And so began this amazing detective story by Ariana to find out more about her father and what actually happened to her family. It is an incredible story.

I actually did it with — my friends from my Australia days, we’ve created an online book club as a result of COVID-19. I recommended this one. They loved it. Loved it is the wrong word. They were gripped by it. One of my friends said she read it the whole time with her heart in her throat. It would definitely make a great book club selection. It allows you to talk about how quickly freedom can be lost in a society, the extraordinary courage of women trying to protect their families, the risks they took trying to get food and supplies to each other in the different camps, and the relationships between fathers and daughters. It’s a beautiful love letter. Ariana is fantastic. We were lucky enough that I had gotten to know her through Goodreads. I invited her to join our book club on Zoom. I said, “Twenty to thirty minutes.” She was like, “Sure.” An hour and a quarter later, we’re like, “But one last question.” She was amazing. She was absolutely amazing. I’m glad that you know about it. I’d love to tip that over into open that book up and start reading.

Zibby: Yes, I have to reach out to her. I have my own virtual book club. I started it during this pandemic. I have been remiss in scheduling really anything past a week out, which is really not good for my book club members. These are great suggestions to add for the rest of the summer. Thank you for that. What about great beach reads, sort of mindless, not mindless, that sounds negative, but great beach reads? Let’s just leave it at that.

Danny: Why don’t we start with one that has the perfect name, which is actually Beach Read? It is probably on the more mindless end, but still with substance. This one is by Emily Henry. She’s most known for a YA book called A Million Junes. This was our second most-anticipated book of May right below The Hunger Games prequel. People are really clamoring for this book in a way that we don’t see romance-type books pop up in such a major way. We’re really excited about this one. This one revolved around a down-on-her-luck romance writer whose father passes away. At his funeral, she learns that he not only had a secret lover, but also a secret beach house. She does what any down-on-her-luck romance writer would do and goes and lives there to get her next book written under deadline. But of course, when she gets there she discovers that next door lives in a literary fiction writer, male, cute, etc. They’re both suffering from writer’s block. They do the unthinkable, which is switch genres. She decides to write the great American book. He decides to write a romance book. As they’re doing it, hilarity, romance ensues. I’m reading this one right now. It’s really fun. I’m crossing my fingers for a happily ever after because I think that’s what we all need in the world right now.

Zibby: She was also on my podcast, Emily Henry, so you can listen to that one.

Danny: Nice, great.

Zibby: Suzanne?

Suzanne: This one, I chose for moms. It’s I Was Told it Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman who wrote The Bookish Life of Nina Hill which was very popular on Goodreads last year. The premise of it is, let’s face it, parenting teenagers is hard and the college process is insane. I’ve just gone through it. My son’s graduating from high school next week. The story is based on Jessica and her sixteen-year-old daughter Emily taking a week-long tour of East Coast colleges. Each of them brings their own problems to that. Jessica is a successful lawyer, but she’s actually just given notice to her job because she just cannot stand dealing with the sexism of her boss any longer. Emily, meanwhile, is trying to keep very secret, an incident at school. There’s a situation at school that she really doesn’t want her mom to know about. Plus, on top of that, there’s the usual mom, teenager daughter, how do we still talk to each other kind of complications. It’s told in the perspective of the mothers and the daughters. You really get inside their heads. The author, Abbi, is actually the mom of three teenage daughters, so the dialogue and the scenes are spot on. Several reviewers were like, “Were you spying on me?” They absolutely relate to them. It’s hard being a teenager, but it’s even harder being the mom of one. This fun, witty, feel-good story is a great way to put things in perspective again.

Zibby: Abbi was on my Instagram Live show. I have twins who are turning thirteen next week, so I feel like I need to give this to myself as a birthday present for their birthday. I have it, but I have to consume it rapidly to prepare. I know we’re also in the middle of this Black Lives Matter movement and amplifying black voices. How is Goodreads approaching that? How are you helping with that? How are you supporting that effort?

Danny: This week, we actually put together an antiracism blog post just giving our members and audience a list of books that they can turn to if they’re wanting to learn more about this movement. Nonfiction is always a really great way to dive into things like this. I think fiction can create empathy and do a lot of good as well. I’m so happy to see that our number-one most anticipated book for June is actually The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Your audience might know Brit Bennett from her book from a few years ago called The Mothers. That is a brilliant book and was actually recently optioned by Kerry Washington to make into a TV show or a movie. More to come on that, but super exciting. This one is about two identical twin sisters who grew up in a small Southern town. One presents more as white. The other twin sister actually is a little bit darker skinned. As they escape, they end up living kind of different lives. One finds herself in California living as a white woman with a white husband. The other one actually ends up back in a small Southern town living as a black woman. This story revolves around their growing up throughout the decades. It starts in the fifties, ends in the nineties. They both have daughters. It concentrates on race relations, mother-daughter relations. I think it would be a really good topical fiction book if people are looking for that right now.

Suzanne: I’m so glad you asked about it, Zibby, as well because it’s so important, obviously. We saw people asking us, saying, “Please, please, share a reading list.” We were really happy to put together the antiracist reading list. We focused only on black authors for that. Then we’ll be looking for more things that we can do with editorial. There’s a great list from Black History Month where we have a fantastic list of fiction writers that we’ve been resharing out. We’ll be looking for more. As a company, we were also asking ourselves, what can we be doing? We’re lucky enough at Goodreads that every two months we all get a free book perk. This month happens to be book perk month. The leadership team, we decided that we would say, still go ahead and pick whatever you want, but we’re going to give you an additional pick. Pick from one of our diversity books. We want to encourage discussion amongst all of ourselves and all of us be engaging and learning on this topic. We want to be continuing to look for more ways to do more concrete ways of supporting black authors and also all authors of color as well. It’s something that’s really, really important to us. We look forward to doing that in a multitude of ways.

Zibby: The interesting thing about your platform is then you can actually go see if people are then reading those books. I feel like a lot of people are paying lip service to certain books right now, but you’ll be to see if they’re reading them because they’ll post about them. They’ll give them reviews and all the rest of the great stuff that they can do on Goodreads, and put them in their year of books. I’m interested to see, also, some of the news titles that people are going to be finding as a result of your list and other lists and all the lists all over Instagram of books maybe people weren’t aware of. I think there is enormous potential.

Suzanne: Absolutely. You’re absolutely right, the discovery and the intent first, good intentions, but then encouraging people to read. By seeing more people talking about books, people like to be part of — the zeitgeist is the wrong word to use with this particular thing, but people like to be part of the conversation. Seeing more people talk about books and adding them and reading them just encourages you to go, hang on a minute, I want to be part of this too and read these books as well.

Zibby: Totally, people who just want a part of the action. See, it’s like an unintended benefit of people who want to just climb on for the ride. It ends up helping society. That’s great. I am just wondering one more thing. You have this inside look into what makes people like certain books. You can see all of their past books and trends and things like that. In addition to just the macro-trends of what people are reading, have you figured out anything related to what makes people pick certain books? Can you look across a certain user and see, why are these books so common? What are people grasping for? Any other reading trends on more of a micro-level? And maybe not. Maybe I’m just rambling here, but I’m just curious. You must have a million insights into reading behavior with all the data you’ve collected. Just share us one or two crumbs of what you’ve learned.

Suzanne: I was just going to say on the personal level — because what you’re talking about there is much more on the individual level where you’re not going to get the trends-trends that Danny started with. You’re right, what we do try and do there is — actually, I’ll go back. When we’ve done research with people, I’ll tell you the number-one thing that we hear nearly everyone say, which is, “I have this very unique taste in reading. Nobody else likes quite the same array of books that I like.” Then they say, “But I wish I could find someone else who’s like me. If I see what they’re reading and I trust their reading tastes, it’s something that, if you like it, I’m going to like it. Then I’ll follow it.” There’s quite a few really great reviewers on Goodreads who’ve become very popular because people go, yeah, you’re my taste. I’m going to go for that. You’re going to broaden and widen my — and help me also go, out of all the books that I’m looking at, oh, that one, I’m going to read that one next. Then we also have a recommendations engine. We have an algorithm. We actually look at, with all the data and signals that you’re telling us about what you like in books, then we’re able to start saying, okay, then you’re probably going to like these books next. It’s something that we keep on working and improving on. I think we’ve got a long way to go there. I was actually just thinking about it this morning and wondering about the delights of AI and machine learning, etc., how we can start applying that. We do definitely work to give you personalized content and recommendations.

Danny: We do have so many of our members who get advance reading copies. We have so many people that add books to their want-to-read shelf before books are published. I think we have a little bit of special sauce where we really can see anticipation that a lot of other sites that don’t have access to — it’s really exciting to be able to re-bubble up and re-showcase these books that are coming out that we know that our audience at large would really respond to. Hopefully, we gave you a good taste of those today.

Suzanne: Actually, that is really fun for us because we do the most-anticipated lists. We use data. The editorial team doesn’t do it by personal picks. It’s all about the data. Last year towards the beginning of the year, the editorial team was saying to me, “There’s this book called The Silent Patient. It is off the charts in what’s going on with the pre-publication reviews and want-to-reads.” We could see that that one was going to hit the best-seller list before it actually did. Sometimes we’ll see such strong signals, which is really fun to see that data.

Zibby: It’s too bad there’s no stock market for — this could be out next business together. Keep pitching you businesses. These are like the Hollywood stock exchange for books. There are definitely authors whose stock I would buy right now.

Danny: It would be inside trading, though. We have too much knowledge.

Zibby: That’s true. You would corner that market. Okay, fine, never mind. Thank you, Suzanne and Danny. This has been so fun. I feel like we could talk forever about different books. Thank you for sharing some little nuggets about Goodreads, behind the curtain of Goodreads and all the rest, and your own naked yoga experiences. Who knew we would be talking about that on a Goodreads call? Sorry to embarrass you.

Danny: All good.

Zibby: Thank you both for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Danny: Thank you for having us.

Suzanne: Yes, thank you. That was fun.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Danny Feekes and Suzanne Skyvara, GOODREADS TEAM