Goodreads, Part 3: What we’re really debating (and what we’re not)

by Sunita

[Update below.]

The ongoing and heated discussions about Goodreads span a bunch of different issues, and there are plenty of arguments over What Is Really Going On. Here are my responses to the most common:

  • Reviews are supposed to be about books, not authors. So what’s the big deal?

When posed this way, the question answers itself. I have said repeatedly, in many venues, that I review books, not authors. And if we were only talking about individual reviews, then my position would be simple: a review of a book should focus on the book. To the extent that the reviewer wants to speculate about author motivations and intentions in making sense of the book, that’s her business. But the goal is to evaluate the product, not the writer.

However. Goodreads allows readers to create as many shelves for books as they want. You can write a review and then assign a book to one or more shelves, and you can name the shelves whatever you wish (as long as it’s not profane, defamatory, etc.). But what if you want to create a “do not buy” shelf, and make a note for each book so you remember why you put it there? It maybe be because of the author, or it may be because a book has a trope you don’t like, or because you read a spoiler that made you gag.

There is no way to do that other than to put the note in the “review” section. Here’s a screenshot (click to enlarge):

Note that the book has been added to my “[already] read” shelf, which is the default (I didn’t choose a shelf). More importantly, note the absence of any place to enter text other than “what did you think?” That is Goodreads’ choice, not mine. So, any notes to myself perforce become part of the “review.” Or I have to catalogue that information elsewhere, which defeats the purpose of Goodreads as a place where I can “keep track of what [I]‘ve read and would like to read.” That purpose is in the first paragraph on GR’s “About Us” page.

[UPDATE: Moira Rogers (Bree) has pointed out to me on twitter that GR does provide a space for private notes. See her screencap here. Thanks, Bree, for that information. I had never seen that before. This changes the discussion somewhat, because if you are only interesting in the cataloguing aspect, you can use the private notes feature. If you want to communicate your reasons (and others want to have access to that information), the problem remains. But it's a slightly different issue.]

  • Readers can say whatever they want about authors’ books. Why can’t authors respond?

This is tricky. Practically speaking, authors can do whatever they want and reap any possible consequences. But there are not just practical but also ethical (or at least substantively honorable) reasons for authors to leave reader discussions of their books alone. First and foremost, Goodreads advertises itself as a reader site. There are only two references to authors on the “About Us” page that indicate that GR provides services to authors and wants to attract them as authors: Patrick Brown’s bio information (“working with authors to grow the Author Program”) and a link to the Author Program on the right-hand side. All the rest of the text is about readers. All of it.

With such a presentation, it’s hardly surprising that readers have seen themselves as the primary group on the site, and it makes sense that the default relationship is considered by many to be readers talking to readers, not authors marketing to readers or readers fanning authors. Of course many readers like to talk to authors, and of course authors are readers too. But if the default is that we are all readers, then authors’ default interaction should be as readers. And they are not readers of their own books, they are writers of their own books.

As an aside, this is why it’s bizarre to see the auto-pushed tweet from, let’s say, Abigail Author: “I read Kiss Me Again, You Fool! by Abigail Author.” Really? You read that? Why? You wrote it! Did you forget what it was about and decide to refresh your memory before a public reading?

In a reader space, readers should have the choice to engage in dialogue with the authors of books they are reading. I think most non-author readers understand that authors are readers too, and they welcome authors who want to share their love of books and reading. But not the authors of the books they are talking about. That interaction belongs in author-initiated spaces, which GR is more than happy to provide (just ask Patrick Brown and he’ll help you out with that).

  • Goodreads has 9 million members. This kerfuffle involves a handful of noisy ones. Most members don’t care.

This is entirely true. Most of the 9 million members could not care less. But most of the 9 million members don’t even check into the site. They aren’t the targets of advertisers, they aren’t providing much content, and apart from increasing the size of the site, they don’t bring much to the table. The super-users and the mid-range users are the ones that matter. So forget the 9 million. If the super-users leave, the mid-range users are more likely to leave. And then it won’t matter if GR has 9 million users or 9, because they won’t add enough value to make a difference. If the dissatisfaction of the super-users can be contained or reversed, GR will be fine. But it needs to find a way to do that. There is always another option in today’s online environment, including ones that are created to meet new demand.

The 9-million member argument is especially ironic because so much of the current uproar has been triggered by a tiny but unbelievably noisy and unpleasant minority of authors and their fans. So let’s just put it to rest. It’s stupid, it’s wrong, and it demeans the real issues under discussion.

And finally, saving the worst for last:

  • Authors have the right to protect themselves from bullying, unfair reviews.

Give me a fucking break. Any author that does not know that all publicity sells books needs to take a marketing course. Or do some research.

I have all kinds of outrage about individual authors’ behavior. I don’t write about it. Why? Because if I do, I will sell books for those authors. I guarantee it. I have a delicious, angry haiku about an author whose behavior was egregiously and unusually slimy. I will not post it. Why? Because every single day I get hits looking for information on the subject of that haiku. Every day. I’m not giving that author the blog space. Even if it only sells one extra book, that’s too high a price.

F reviews may not sell as many books as A reviews, but they sell enough. I review at Dear Author. I know what I’m talking about.

And, for the sake of argument, what if it weren’t the case that all publicity is good? When you use that justification to publish the personal, private, real-life information behind someone’s online persona, you put that person in potential danger. Especially when that person is a woman. And when you champion a fraudulent, predatory, pathetic excuse for a human being, one who has repeatedly harassed and persecuted women less than half his age, and you claim you are doing it because you are outing bullies? To hell with you and the not-very-effective anonymity you hide behind. Not only are you not taking the high ground, you are buried so far in the muddy ditch that you couldn’t see the high ground with binoculars.

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