After the various author-reviewer battles and meltdowns of the past six months, Goodreads promised to issue
new more explicit guidelines about what reviews should look like. They assured reviewers that they were going to make author guidelines clearer as well. The discussion on reviewer concerns ran to 1225 comments over 25 pages before the thread was closed. The biggest concern was the supposedly long-standing but never-before-enforced provision to hide reviews that were “not about the book.” I talked about the issues earlier in these three posts, if you want to refresh your memory.
The reviewer guidelines begin with a section that states in full:
Goodreads is for expressing your honest opinions about books. Don’t be afraid to say what you think about the book! We welcome your passion, as it helps the millions of other readers on Goodreads learn what a book is really about, and decide whether or not they want to read it.
We believe that Goodreads members should see the best, most relevant, thought provoking reviews (positive and negative) when they visit a book page. Our job is to show members those reviews, and not show reviews that we deem to not be appropriate or a high enough level of quality.
However we value that members trust us with your thoughts and words and take our stewardship of storing your reviews seriously. We promise to always store your reviews on your profile and in your bookshelves and will never delete or modify them – except for certain extreme situations, which are described below. Your thoughts and your words are yours, and we promise you we will always respect that.
Emphasis mine. In the second emphasized phrase, Goodreads asserts it will “never delete or modify” reviews, but in the first phrase it asserts its right to hide (“not show”=hide) reviews that are not “appropriate” or not “a high enough level of quality.”
Who makes these decisions? What is the process by which these decisions are made? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe better, since I have no idea. This thread on the way GR ranks reviews, i.e., their “secret sauce,” offers some suggestions.
The rest of the instructions for reviewers are organized in bullet points. There are three categories:
- What Goodreads allows in posts. These are positive and comprise 4 points, including “creativity,” the usage of images and GIFs, pre-publication reviews, and substantive criticism.
- What will cause a review to be downranked or hidden. There are 10 bullet points in this section, including spam reviews, “reviews of the author,” compensated reviews, and reviews that attack other reviewers.
- Two bullet-pointed disclaimers. The second disclaims responsibility and liability for reviews, which is a bit at odds with the first:
Goodreads reserves the right to remove a review at any time for any reason. It is at our sole discretion and no one else’s, that we decide when a review is against our guidelines.
In other words, if you write a review that GR deems inappropriate or of low quality, they can unilaterally choose to hide it or delete it. But they aren’t responsible for anything you say.
As of this writing, the thread discussing these guidelines is at more than 200 comments and climbing. There have been very few responses by GR representatives to the questions members are asking.
What about those author guidelines? I’m glad you asked. Both the tone and the substance of the author guidelines are quite different from those for reviewers. There is an opening section that discusses how GR is interested in authors, similar to that for reviewers:
Goodreads is a place for all kinds of booklovers, and that includes authors. There are many ways you, as a Goodreads Author, can participate in the Goodreads community. We hope that you enjoy using the site, and that it also helps you to promote your books and grow your presence as a writer.
Here are some helpful guidelines for how to have the best possible experience on Goodreads. Of course, if you’re ever in doubt about whether something is a good idea, or appropriate, you are welcome to send us an email.
Overall, whichever way you to choose to participate in Goodreads, we want to remind you that the Goodreads Author program is meant to be used in a professional capacity. The community perceives you as a public figure so we recommend that you hold yourself to a very high standard.
Emphasis mine. Note that the opportunity for promotion is emphasized in the third sentence, and the wording is suggestive rather than prescriptive. This perspective continues throughout the rest of the guidelines.
Whereas the reviewer guidelines are bullet points of What Not To Do, the author guidelines are written as a type of FAQ. Even behavior that many reader groups prohibit doesn’t trigger a warning, let alone a direct “No, don’t do that.” An example:
Here are a few ways to be a part of the conversation on Goodreads:
Shelve your favorite books or the ones that have inspired you and review them. Readers love seeing what their favorite authors are reading.
Start a Q&A group about your book and invite people to join.
Join a group around a topic or genre related to your book. If you join a group, participate as a reader first. Once people see you are a passionate and friendly member of the group, then you can discuss your own work.
There are many authors who join groups as readers. They don’t need these helpful suggestions because they already know what to do. It’s the authors who promote everywhere and inappropriately that need the help. And what are they told? Be “passionate and friendly” for a while and then promote your work (discussing your own work without being asked about it first is straight promotion).
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want “passionate and friendly” people in a group. I want “interesting and on-topic.” I guess GR has different priorities.
A sample FAQ does nothing to dispel my concerns about these priorities:
I’d like to contact everyone who has added my book or a related work. Is that OK?
It is not advisable to engage (via comments/messages/friend requests) all the people who add your book or a related work. You should also avoid tactics like thanking everyone who has added your book. These kinds of behaviors will result in people flagging you as a spammer, and we will have to take action. If you are flagged enough times, your profile will be evaluated for deletion.
What kind of weasel words are these? If there was ever a situation where a strong and unambiguous “Don’t do this!” was warranted, this is it. But GR soft-pedals again and sorrowfully admits that if there are enough flags, they “will have to” take action. Poor GR, having to do something unpleasant like get rid of a spammer. But even then, the spammers profile will be “evaluated.” GR reserves the right to refrain from banning a spamming author.
Ugh. Just, ugh.
In reading these debates over the past few months, I had formed the impression that GR’s tilt toward authors was a recent development. Then I started reading the threads in the Author Feedback group (they’re public, anyone can read them). I found a 2010 thread about a widget GR developed for authors to put on their websites. In the discussion the community manager remarked:
there are two goals with the widgets (especially the new one). One of them, certainly, is to promote Goodreads via author websites. The other is to make it easier for you to promote yourself on Goodreads (which is really the only way for us to accomplish our goal of getting you to spread the word about us).
There it is, in plain, unvarnished language. No weasel words here. Goodreads needs authors to promote them, and so they do what they can to promote authors.
And where does that leave reader/reviewers? Well, they need us too. We provide the content and the sheer numbers that allow GR to publicize themselves and rise in Google searches. And authors won’t come to GR, spend money there, or publicize the site unless there are sufficient readers to attract them.
Reader/reviewers seem to be a necessary evil, a group that has to be kept somewhat happy but that cannot be allowed to interfere with the goal of attracting authors.
I don’t like being treated like a content farm worker. Some GR members argue that the site is free to use. No, it’s not. I pay by providing content that they then use as they wish. If they like it, they can use it for publicity and to increase their online standing (which helps them attract ad revenues and investors). If they don’t, they can bury it and never tell me why. Those are costs.
I haven’t left GR yet. But I’ve been thinking seriously about it. And it turned out to be very, very easy to export my GR library to LibraryThing. BookRiot has a second post up in its excellent comparison of Goodreads and LibraryThing. I’ve started an account at LT, and I’ll talk about my experiences in an upcoming post. In the meantime, amuse yourself with this.