How Goodreads caters to authors (Part 2)

Goodreads is built on a contradiction: it needs support and contributions by readers and reviewers to become influential. But it needs support and contributions by authors to remain solvent. I call this a contradiction because the interests of authors (to sell their books) can be opposed to the interests of readers (to find honest and useful assessments of books in order to make their selections).

Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent that in the tensions between self-published authors (SPAs) and reader-reviewers. SPAs have to generate their own publicity and rise out of a growing (and increasingly unwieldy) slush pile. And readers are becoming more and more suspicious of publicity and reviews for new SPAs, especially those who have no prior publishing track record.

Goodreads began as a reader site. On its front page it immediately establishes itself in terms of its relation to readers:

But today Goodreads is as much an author promotion site as a reader resource. Readers provide huge amount of free labor and material, of course, from the librarians who build and maintain the catalog to the reviewers who provide the reviews that result in massive publicity in search results. But authors are the only ones who directly pay Goodreads. They buy advertising, they provide ebooks for sale, and they organize book giveaways.

At first glance, it may seem as if giveaways are primarily for readers. Many readers love them and enter one after the other. There is at least one thread at the GR Feedback group devoted to discussing them (check out the title). But GR does its best to convince authors that giveaways are the ticket to greater visibility and sales. In a slide presentation entitled “Using Goodreads to Promote Your Book,” the first option emphasizes giveaways:

Giveaways are repeatedly urged on authors, even though their GR’s own data suggests that giveaways aren’t that effective. Authors are told that giveaways increase visibility and result in reviews, and some authors have interpreted this to mean a review is guaranteed from a book offered in a giveaway. When the review is late or not completed at all, some authors apparently feel cheated and become quite angry and vocal about it.

A second way in which GR helps authors become more visible is by allowing books to be rated and ranked (including allowing text in the “review” box) before the book is released, sometimes months before the release date.  Goodreads justifies this as part of their cataloguing system for readers. But readers don’t need to rate, rank, or review books to catalogue them. Why on earth would it be useful to readers to have over 100 ratings for a book that won’t be released until 2013?

It’s not. But it does help the author become more visible. And since the mostly likely people to rank the book are those who are looking forward to it, books will have very high ratings, which again draws positive attention.

Here’s a GR list entitled “Can’t Wait Books of 2013.” Some of these books already have over 100 star ratings, even though ARCs haven’t been distributed. Authors like JR Ward don’t need the publicity bump, but there are lesser authors on that list who will probably benefit from the extra visibility and high star ranking.

Third, while Goodreads claims that its reviews and rankings are honest and sincere expressions of reader interests, it does nothing to stop authors from explicitly engaging in horse-trading promotional efforts. Here’s the opening comment in a thread focused on Amazon promotions. It provides explicit instructions on how to boost books:

I realize this is directed at Amazon, but why is GR complicit in the process? These aren’t sincere expressions of support for a book. They’re deceptive, tit-for-tat promotion deals.

Fourth, GR allows multiple accounts by users, as long as these accounts aren’t used in abusive ways. But GR doesn’t monitor for abuse; it has to be brought to their attention. Here’s a thread on sock puppet accounts. Once informed, the mods deleted the accounts. But again, it’s up to the readers to seek out and publicize egregious violations of policy, and the process for reporting is not easy to find. It’s not surprising that readers are increasingly turning to vigilante justice to punish bad behavior, which creates a climate of hostility and unpleasantness that hurts all readers and many, many authors. GR may publicly deplore reader-author antagonism, but it fuels that antagonism by failing to act. Monitoring user behavior is Goodreads’ responsibility, not ours.

Finally, when Goodreads does lay out policies for author behavior, they come in the form of suggestions rather than clear directions. They don’t say clearly and unambiguously, “don’t do this” but instead, “this is not a good idea.” Not surprisingly, the authors who engage in bad behavior rarely think it applies to them.

Last year, Goodreads attempted to discourage authors from commenting on their books, but their solution was so heavy-handed and over-inclusive that they apparently changed the original popup warning. I don’t know if it’s still there, since I’m not an author.

In a previous post I discussed LibraryThing as an alternative to Goodreads, and some commenters were dismayed to find out that LT cost money ($10 USD per year or $25 for a lifetime subscription). But just because Goodreads doesn’t charge readers a monetary fee, it doesn’t mean we’re not paying.

We pay every time we get deliberately misleading information about a book. We pay when an enjoyable comment thread below a review is hijacked by a hostile author who wants to shut down the discussion. We pay when GR decides to hide a review because someone in administration concluded it wasn’t sufficiently “book-related” and makes a unilateral decision instead of letting us make up our own minds.

I haven’t abandoned GR yet, but I’ve stopped posting reviews. I am convinced that the review system is sufficiently flawed that I don’t want to contribute to the site in that way. I’ve debated deleting my account, but I keep hoping that I’ll find a way to enjoy the benefits without having to endure the crap that never goes away. I’m not optimistic.

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25 thoughts on “How Goodreads caters to authors (Part 2)

  1. I can’t say if the popup warning is still in effect, as I haven’t commented on or liked a review of mine in ages. I remember being annoyed with the warning when I first saw it. I think it was sent out to all authors, even those who’d never commented on a review. I could be wrong.

    At RWA I heard Patrick Brown say that 60% of giveaway winners post reviews, and that users who don’t post reviews won’t win again–they have ways to ensure this. I was surprised because I didn’t know reviews were requested or even encouraged after giveaways. I don’t like giving away books with any expectations, but I’m okay with it as a policy for them/others.

    I’ve always thought GR was for readers primarily and I liked that. At first I was annoyed with some of the 1-star bombing and non-reviews of books not read. Then I just accepted that GR had a hands-off approach, which was better in retrospect. As long as no one is using hate speech or threatening violence, I think readers should be left alone to rate covers, bitch about authors and do whatever they want. Go nuts.

    • Wow, if you don’t post a review you won’t ever win again? That is more of a quid pro quo than I realized. I wonder if winners of giveaways know this? It certainly explains why some authors get so bent out of shape about non-reviewed giveaway books.

      Yes, from what I can tell the popup was for every author. Patrick Brown came into the thread I linked to and said they were tweaking it, but I didn’t see a follow-up with details, so I don’t know what the current situation is.

      • There is NO requirement that you post a review to win again. The author can specify that she would like a review, but it is NOT a requirement.

        • If I recall correctly there is even something in the guidelines when submitting a book for a giveaway that says we agree there is no requirements of a review, etc. I will pay more attention next time I do one, but I know of NO forum/group/site that REQUIRES a review.

          There is a review group on GR that is moderated and they ask that if you sign up to do a review that you do it and if you don’t after a certain number of times, they won’t include you on the list. But that is a GR group that is setup as one of many groups and that happens to be the rules in that particular group. I don’t think GR has any policy that requires reviews. PUBLISHERS on netgalley do have some requirements if you join Netgalley as a reviewer and if said reviewer fails to review a certain percentage, individual publishers can turn them own for future books.

        • There is a difference between saying that a review isn’t required and what Jill said, which is that she heard Brown say they have ways of preventing people who don’t review from winning again. I wasn’t at the RWA session, but there was another comment he apparently made that was reported and then he walked back from (it had to do with authors contacting readers).

          • True, but there would be no real reason to have such a policy–it would be a waste of resources to keep track of whether someone did a review or not. Think about it. How long do they have to review it? Does GR even know if the publisher sent the book? I’ve won a GR book and I was not asked to review it (it was sent from the publisher. When I used to review books, there was often a standard note in there asking me to post a review. In the GR win, there was the book, period.)

            I probably WON’T review the book as I’ve only made it about halfway through. I don’t see what GR would gain from such a policy and implementing it would surely be more trouble than it was worth.

            For whatever it is worth, when I do a giveaway, there is now a check box (that I missed for MONTHS on one of them) that says, ‘Click this when you have sent the books.’ I don’t believe I’ve been penalized for not checking that box (the books were sent the same day the giveaway ended.)

            Reviews are nice, but never required. Sometimes people don’t like a book and never finish it. What author would be crazy enough to pester for a review knowing that could be the case??? Wait. Don’t answer that. I know they are out there.

        • I just pulled up a book giveaway at Goodreads. This is what it says every-time you enter a giveaway there.

          Terms & Conditions
          If more people are interested in a book than there are copies available, we will pick the winners at our discretion. The factors that go into our algorithm are: randomness, site activity, genre of books on your shelves, current phase of the moon, and more.
          No purchase necessary. Only one entry is allowed per household. You must be 13 or older and a legal resident of one of the countries this giveaway is listed for.
          The publisher or author, not Goodreads, is responsible for shipment of books to winners. To list a book, the publisher or author has already agreed never to send you anything except the book in question.
          You are not required to review the book if you win a copy. However, we encourage you do to so, as it’s the reason the publishers are giving us free books in the first place. People who review the books are also more likely to win more advance copies in the future.
          By accepting an advance copy and posting a review, you grant Goodreads and the publisher an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, and distribute your review.
          In compliance with FTC guidelines, please disclose in your review that you received the book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

          • Being a computer nerd, I wonder if that part about the reviews just means that a person who has done a lot of reviews stands a better chance of winning. An algorithm that includes an overall “number of reviews done” would be VERY easy to include, especially as compared to tracking down winners and whether they reviewed a particular book. That might explain the CEO or other trying to make mention of reviews and kind of blowing it since reviews aren’t Required–but that “participation” in reviews/stars might be part of the algorithms.

            Sorry. Had to nerd out there for a minute. It is neither here nor there. I’m just a geek.

          • Thanks for that! It’s really interesting because the giveaway is not random and of course they can’t require a review without subjecting themselves to stringent regulations. And the flippant language masks the extent to which they are selecting on certain dmensions like prior reviewing behavior.

  2. One thing that’s worth noting about giveaways is that you can only give away print books, not digital. Obviously, that skews giveaways toward books from larger publishing houses, although there certainly are self-published books in print (they’re just rarer).

    • Yes, that’s a good point. As you say, there are small publishers who issue print runs, but it’s much less frequent. I’d be curious to see a breakdown of the giveaways in terms of publishers. There are still quite a few self-pubbers who use CreateSpace and other POD services, and I think they are allowed to participate.

  3. Another point is that an author can no longer add a book for sale right now. Books that were already for sale can still be sold, but no new ones can be added. I don’t find GR at all skewed towards authors. I use both LT and GR and frankly I think the reader community is larger on GR. Reviews can be bogus on any site; they are no more so on GR and probably less so on GR than on Amazon. Yes, there have been a few scuffles between authors/reviewers/readers, but by and large, I think the majority of people use GR or LT to track books they own or find interesting reading discussions. It doesn’t take long to figure out if a discussion is “author based.” I’m in several fantasy groups and a couple of cozy mystery groups. There’s a “self promo” section in each and I haven’t noticed authors stepping out of it (almost never). It’s pretty easy to start a group and keep it reasonable since moderators are allowed in each group. There’s fun group book reads, buddy reads in some groups and so on.

    I like both GR and LT, but find GR easier to use. There’s some GREAT reviewers on GR. Most of them started with their own blogs and are just cross posting. Socrates, DollyCas, RantingDragon, FanLit and so on. There’s even a group that just started that talks specifically about self-pub books FOR READERS–it’s small, but we can talk about indie books we like without it being a huge self-promo.

    In the end, it’s going to be what readers make of it. And I, for one, WOULD LOVE for Goodreads to start selling more books direct to readers. Give Amazon some competition. Don’t be afraid, just go ahead and make it easier for people to find good books–and buy where they want!

    • A lot of people are quite happy with Goodreads just the way it is, so you have plenty of company. The meltdowns I’ve observed have been mostly in romance and YA, so if you aren’t in those communities you may not see many.

      In the thread on the author warning I linked to, one of the commenters said that her group was regularly being spammed by authors who joined despite having lots of up-front info about expected author behavior (as well as designated promo areas). So it clearly varies across groups.

      My hesitation with GR selling books is rooted in the same concerns I have with giveaways. The author-reader relationship is so badly moderated and regulated that it’s almost a given that problems will arise. If GR wants to expand its services, it really needs to expand its workforce.

      • I agree, GR could do more with a larger workforce. I think that is why they stopped selling books–I am not sure their servers can handle the downloads/uploads and whatnot.

        Yes, I’m sure some groups have drive-by authors. WHat’s GREAT about it is that the groups are moderated. On some forums without a mod, the groups devolve into nothing but chaos and promos. I know it’s work to clean that up, but it’s possible to not allow authors back into the group if they don’t follow the guidelines. I know some groups have resorted to that or to requiring approval before joining.

  4. Well, I see where you are going with the “paying for it” deal when it comes to Goodreads but I felt personally I was more “contributing to it” or “implying I approved”.

    My reaction from being attacked several times for my reviews and watching the constant examples of authors over personalizing “their babies” whenever they saw a bad word used in forums or reviews just turned me off. After that and the witch hunts I saw as targeting this or that author being drummed up by their own peers and the rabid fans they deployed just killed it dead.

    I try to write reviews and discuss books I have found something about that makes me want to buy them so in that sense the author has already got paid and those reviews and comments are intended I think for other readers not the authors which I also think you and most other folks feel the same. I know I personally do not want my opinions pasted on the cover or anything like that.

    If I do chat with an author maybe it’s my fault I expect to be treated first and foremost as a customer but also I want to talk with another adult that can have a sense of distance maybe even a sense of humor between themselves and the product we are discussing.

    I find it hard to believe you can “get better” at your craft if you make it “so personal” you become your work or that particular book etc. Be that server administration and design or the writing books the passion for doing your job well is fine but you should always leave room for improvement. I would think the best thing would be keeping a healthy distance and be willing to admit writing is not magic and your customers reactions cannot be controlled through some type of formula or self promotion and no one out there has ever perfected the art to the point where everyone responds to a book the same way or they would be ruling the world by now.

    • When you first started reporting your experiences, I thought maybe they were concentrated in m/m, since the community there is very incestuous and author support is a big part of reader participation. But it’s not just m/m, and over the last few months I’ve really come to believe that the problem is inherent in the way GR is set up. As long as smaller and self-pubbed authors are desperate to get recognized and GR encourages them to think participating will help that, some of them are going to misbehave.

      And it’s not just authors. Author fans can be just as bad in terms of invading discussions, arguing with reviewers, etc. Recently I saw the same comment posted at three different reviews because the fan decided the author was being unfairly treated. But I think that’s part of the reader-to-reader experience and there’s not much we can do about it. Although if authors stopped siccing their fans on bad reviews, that would cut down quite a bit of the rabid fan action.

      • Well that… and I have never been one of those non-confronting sorts.
        It’s my hard head and all that.

        But for all my numerous faults (just ask my husband) that still does not mean I don’t like what I like and not like what I do not like and do not feel in the least bit bad expressing those opinions the best I can.

  5. I too think the giveaways create an interesting dynamic. Not just the issue of an implied, overt, or just requested review. But also the fact that it is not always clear when reading the review that the book was provided for free. When reading a review blog, I think it is a common understanding that many books (if not the majority) have been provided by the author/publisher. And pretty much every blogger I know either states this on their blog or on individual reviews. But on GR, you don’t know if the reviewer doesn’t state it. And so it can be very difficult to know whether the review is a fully honest analysis or whether the person was influenced by the free book.

  6. I (or rather my publisher) have done a couple of giveaways (multiple copies) on GR. I have no idea how many reviews have resulted. I think on one or two occasions a reviewer has noted they won the book on a giveaway but I don’t keep track.

    What I find useful, and my publicist agrees, is that several hundred people have signed up for the book and are therefore aware of it. When I do a giveaway I see a huge jump in “to reads.” Of course, not everyone does read but it’s another weapon in the arsenal of raising awareness of an author and/or book.

  7. Goodreads is a relatively new way to find out about books, in the larger scheme of things. And, like all social networking sites, it can be filled with dreck by its users and abusers. (In fact, I turned to it as an alternative to the mindless horror of Facebook.)

    So, what about the New York Times review of books? Or your local newspaper? How about using book loggers and library sites to find out about books? Goodreads is inevitably flawed, and can’t hold up under the strain of its own popularity.

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