Goodreads decides readers are their problem

My post yesterday generated terrific comments. Go catch up with them here if you haven’t already.

Since then, an interesting new development has occurred: Goodread’s community manager, Patrick Brown, has announced that GR is coming up with a new set of guidelines for reviews. Amber has a cogent summary and critique on her blog.

On the face of it, the new policy sounds reasonable: reviews that are not about the book itself will not be shown on the book page. But they don’t just get hidden from the book page; they disappear. At the moment, even the person who writes the review can’t see it. That is supposed to be fixed. But even if that glitch is repaired, the review will only be visible to people who are already following or friends of the reviewer.

What does this mean? If I go to Ridley’s bratty-authors-to-avoid shelf, I can see her review because Ridley is a friend. But I can’t see anyone else’s review of the same book unless I have a GR relationship with them. So I can’t see the extent to which other people agree with her.

This new rule applies to all books, including those that have not been ranked, i.e., that have no star rating. Therefore, it also affects the ability of readers to communicate how they shelve books. Many readers don’t put star rankings or an actual “review” when they’re making avoid-this-author shelves; they’re shelving for themselves, and if there is a discussion about why the book is shelved that way, it shows up in comments. Now those shelves themselves may be at risk.

What this is telling me is that GR’s administrators have been listening to a small group of authors rather than readers over the last few months, and their decisions are “not in the direction of open, sincere communication among readers.” Those are Amber’s words, and I cosign them absolutely.

I join a social media site because it makes my life better and more interesting. I understand that GR, like every other site, needs to monetize its member behavior in order to flourish. But when it reduces my autonomy and treats me as part of the problem rather than one of the strengths of the platform, I take notice.

And the biggest thing I noticed in the discussion yesterday was that the flip side of the problem, i.e., authors who invade reader spaces, is nowhere addressed or discussed. Goodreads administrators, who can’t staff the site on weekends or keep the damn thing running 24/7, are now devoting precious resources to hiding pages that explain why a reader won’t read a particular author’s books. But they can’t manage to let readers know that they are working on ways to make the environment free of insulting, aggressive author behavior. Is this because GR doesn’t see bad author behavior as a problem?

I want to stipulate here that this is not an author problem per se. It is a problem created by a handful of authors and their fans who don’t understand how to behave maturely and professionally. And GR is responding to that tiny minority, not to the many, many authors and readers who just want that minority reined in and regulated.

Right now, GR is by far the best space for readers, especially readers in my preferred genres. But I don’t need Goodreads. There are a lot of ways to build and nurture online communities. A decade ago, MySpace and AOL were the big dogs. Now they’re part of history. Sure, there are people who still use them, but for the most part they aren’t the users who attract attention and ad revenue. GR should take heed. When readers in one of the most vibrant and engaged subsets of its 9 million members are beginning to look for a new place to talk, they’ve got a problem.

40 thoughts on “Goodreads decides readers are their problem

  1. Agree. I deleted my account last night. I thought about waiting to see how GR evolved this policy then decided a site that can’t care about sock puppets harrassing reviewers but can care about fringe author issues isn’t a site I really needed in my life. Sort of like Netflix. Once I consider if I need you, you are already gone,

  2. I tried to comment yesterday, but apparently my work computer doesn’t like WordPress? (I can’t comment at DA, either.) Proof I should be working instead of surfing even at lunchtime.

    I have a GR account, I think? I get periodic emails at least. But I seldom go there because I don’t find it user-friendly or reader-friendly. Also, I was never sure what its function was supposed to be: book tracking? reviews? social networking? Anyway, this last year has seen an abrupt decrease in my Internet socializing: I miss a lot of the interaction with other readers but found that the increasing volume of meltdowns on various social networks was increasing my misanthropy. This last meltdown has not encouraged me to rethink that winnowing.

  3. When I see things like this it makes feel like I’m being treated like an idiot who needs help deciding whether a review is helpful or not. Give the readers credit to know their own minds. I if don’t want to read a review then I don’t read it. No need to hide it from me, I’m perfectly capable of closing the window and looking away.

    I would like to know if this applies to authors as well. If it’s going to be all about books, then all those discussions and blog posts that deviate off-topic should be hidden, right? Not just authors complaining about reviews, posts filled with pictures of their latest vacation are irrelevant also.
    Yesterday, someone commented on my blog saying that GR needed better quality control to get rid of things like reviews of books that are not out yet. I guess GR agrees with him.

    What I get from this is that GR isn’t really for readers so maybe we should quit it.

  4. So money rules. I guess we now know who goodreads preferred audience is. I hate it, quite frankly and I have not created a single bad behaving author shelf yet. I wish many readers would leave ( as much as I love the site) and all those authors who think that attacking their “babies” would advertise to themselves. Sorry am annoyed.

  5. This whole thing is such a mess. While I agree with their “review the book, not the author” policy (let’s face it, some folks hijack review threads with nothing more than gossip about what an author said somewhere offsite as much as some authors throw tantrums), there should be some tit for tat. Readers can always move to LT, or just go back to blogging. It’s not like GR is the only place to read reviews.

  6. I’m a writer, but I’m also a reader. Like the vast majority of people on Goodreads, I behave myself. But as a reader, I can’t see how this helps me choose the next book I want to buy and read. As a writer, it doesn’t help me get the word out about my books.
    Goodreads are shooting themselves in the foot. Tumbleweed is coming.

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  8. I have a GR author account, but honestly? I’m not that active on it. I try not to look at reviews, because I don’t want to get dragged into anything. One thing that I have seen on numerous occasions, and I have to admit it’s douchery, are GR bullies (for lack of a better term) who will give books that haven’t even been RELEASED yet 1-star reviews (without any review, just 1 star). I’ve seen it happen plenty of times to other authors, and a few times to myself.

    How can you rate a book 1 star when you could not have possibly read it yet — because it’s not even available yet?

    As a reader, I let the book blurb and sample determine if I read a book, not other reviews. But for someone to do something like that, it’s pretty douchey. It’s also petty and immature. And I’ve seen reviews where people have actually lied about the content of a book in attempt to sink the book for whatever reason.

    Yes, GR has a lot of problems, which is why I don’t spend a lot of time there. It has problems the way Amazon’s forums have problems, the way any large-scale social networking site will have problems.

    The bottom line is as a reader, reviews honestly don’t matter to me. As a writer, I try to ignore them so that they don’t stoke or sink my ego. My job is to write the best book I can. No matter what I write, there will always be people who don’t like it. *shrugs* That’s fine. I’m not writing for them. I tell fellow authors to ignore reviews. Spend the time on your author platform (ie blog/website/Facebook account) building a relationship with your readers. Because one random review isn’t going to make or break your career. Look at Stephen King’s books for proof of that. Every bestseller book has 1-star ratings. You can’t help it.

  9. Okay, wow. I hadn’t heard about the Stop the Goodreads Bullies site until I started following the links you posted to other blogs.

    Holy.

    Crap.

    This is way out of hand. On both sides. I know some authors go batcrap crazy over bad reviews, but good grief, suck it up buttercup and move on. If they don’t like GR, then they should close their accounts and not go there.

    They’re being bullied at GR? Simple. DON’T GO THERE. Wow, it’s that easy.

    I think GR has now officially jumped the shark. I’m going to have to take a look at Library Thing.

  10. I will say this: I don’t like the discussions of authors on a specific book title, but that’s a Goodreads resource/structural problem, as you mentioned yesterday. If readers had a space to talk about things that are not related to a specific book, then there wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t mean even the unavailability for a blog for readers, but, say, each member had his/her own space to make a comment ON THEIR OWN ACCOUNT that others could reply to.

  11. I refuse to classify anything about a reader response to a book as “bullying” the author. Even posting a 1-star review for a book you’ve never read isn’t “bullying,” and it waters down the meaning of the term to say that it is.

    I was talking about this on Twitter last night with a couple of author friends who both feel very conflicted about using Goodreads. One thing I didn’t know is that GR sends email to authors notifying them of their reviews — of course, then they aren’t supposed to comment on those reviews, especially negatively, but it does make it more difficult to ignore them. One of my friends has deleted her GR author account, the other said, “I think about deleting my account, but I worry that if all sane authors are gone, only [those who engage in] bad behavior are left.” By focusing on reader behavior, rather than putting its efforts into restraining the minority of authors who abuse the system, GR is hurting all of its users, author and reader alike.

  12. A few comments:

    I agree that most authors are in a tough spot here. They are encouraged to use GR for promotion (both by publishers, colleagues, and the site itself) and many readers (including me) enjoy interacting with them. And it can sound harsh to tell them not to comment on reviews at all. Especially when you have to opt out of notifications, which I think authors don’t always know (thanks MoJo and Harper for pointing that out).

    One way to think about it is that much of GR (the reader part) is reader-initiated, rather than author-initiated. Even though the conversation is about the book or the author, the reader has started that conversation to talk to other readers.

    Authors have the option, through groups, their cross-posted blogs, and so on, to initiate their own discussions. Many do so with great success. If I weren’t a reviewer at DA, I’d be in several author groups. One way to think about it is as a Chinese Wall, the kind that used to be the norm at newspapers between editorial and advertising. Authors create one space, readers create another. Readers can enter author space at the authors’ discretion. But authors should stay out of reader-initiated spaces.

    I know that’s asymmetrical and it may not seem fair. But I think it’s a more effective way to coexist.

  13. Chris, thanks for that link to Patrick Brown’s comment. I encourage everyone to read it and if you have time, read other comments in that growing thread.

    I admit I’m still skeptical. I think Amber pointed out that GR implemented the review-hiding policy without notification, and before the new rules have been published. Even if it was possible under the old rules, the fact that it wasn’t done before and is now is a change that should have been announced before implementation.

    And after I read Patrick’s statement, I went and looked at the linked page for authors. It is incredibly vague and unhelpful. If the new rules are clearer, great. But I am not that optimistic.

  14. Oh, one more thing: There are plenty of annoying, miss-the-boat-trying-to-be-snarky, and downright inappropriate reviews out there, at GR and elsewhere, in my opinion. I’m not denying that at all, or arguing that somehow reviews have more of a reason to exist than any other type of writing. I just want to be allowed to use my own intelligence and discernment to sort through them. I’ll read 100 crap reviews if it means I can be sure to find the one outstanding one.

    Like I do with books. ;)

  15. I don’t think there’s any question that GR instituted their old/new rule in the face of what was probably some serious authorial lobbying. And I totally agree that they’re in this position because of the structural deficiencies with the platform itself (I liken it to a trade show environment, where it’s the readers, instead of the authors who have the booths, seriously upending the usual presumed hierarchies). And because of those deficiencies, any solution they come up with that includes “hiding” reader comments so they don’t show up on the book page is going to sell as pro-author. I just don’t know if there’s a way around that, unless they did some serious restructuring to the way the site is presented and organized (or unless they simultaneously created a way to keep authors from intruding into what readers perceive as their spaces).

    So I’m not going to defend GR on this one, even though I think they were trying to create the most open environment possible, and then author-reader tensions reached a fever pitch, and instead of just choosing to ride it out, GR felt they needed to do something (and honestly, I can understand how theoretically this seems like a fair idea, even though at this point it’s problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that GR is the one doing the “hiding”).

    But here’s where I get stuck on the reader side: One of the things we, as readers, have always had to fall back on in our defense is the fact that we are reviewing the book, not the author. Now, in a logical, rational world, people know that these comments that are now being targeted are NOT reviews, but are shelving comments. And it seems to be something inherent in the structure of GR and the size of the comments area (I don’t use GR, so I’ve surmised this from reading hundreds of comments on this issue) that they all get blended together on that book page.

    However, the fact that they get superficially or nominally shown as “reviews” can, I think, undermine the reader high ground of reviewing the book, not the author, NOT because these are reviews, but because GR registers them as reviews and does not have another way for readers to share their concerns regarding certain authors among themselves as effectively as they currently do (or did, now that this hiding thing is being effected). And let’s face it: sometimes those warnings are self-protecting, as we very clearly saw this weekend. I think it’s really sad that we’re at that point, but there it is.

    Anyway, back to my original point here, I feel like there’s currently an unresolvable problem in that the warning mechanism is being disabled without a good substitute, while at the same time the current situation can ramp up author-reader tensions when authors see these comments posted as “reviews.” I personally want that distinction to remain really, really sharp, so in that sense I could see something good in not having those comments show up tagged as reviews. However, I think the way this all went down, combined with the deficiencies within the system itself, taint the whole thing, and I’m not sure GR will be able to bounce back from this without eroding the trust of many of its most actively engaged and thoughtfully critical members (i.e.those who aren’t there just to promote or squee over books and authors).

    • I totally agree that these are not reviews but rather shelving decisions, and it’s ridiculous that GR hasn’t figured out a way to distinguish the two. I think one problem they have, though, is that they have treated shelving decisions as information to go on the book page, in the review section, up to now. So what they are doing is taking ONE shelving decision and ruling it out of bounds.

      Most of the author-avoid shelving decisions don’t have star rankings, so they don’t contribute to the book’s rating at all. Just as marking a book “to read” doesn’t contribute. If you stop and think about it, there is no reason why a “to read” designation, or any non-star designation, should be in the review section.

      GR has wanted to be all things to all people, and they’re finding out the problems with that approach. You can’t easily function as a cataloguing system AND a review site AND a chat room, and yet they encourage members to do all those things. I think that’s why people are so annoyed. Cataloguing choices get called reviews because GR doesn’t offer a sensible and useful alternative.

      And when you add to that the fact that the “problem” reviews are hidden only when a flag triggers the moderators to go look, it’s a recipe for disaster, because the big reviewer/readers and the most controversial books (or the ones with the most fans) are the mostly likely to be noticed.

      • This whole thing makes me want to go flag a bunch of 5* reviews for books that aren’t out yet (not even as ARCs). There are any number of review behaviors that I don’t find helpful to me as a reader–such as the aforesaid 5* reviews, authors giving their own books 5*, or content-free squee reviews–but nothing happens to them because authors have no problem with them. (And these days, I feel I have to add that nothing in my comment is addressed to Tymber Dalton. The 1* drive-bys she points to are no good either).

        I agree with Robin. There should be a way to make shelving decisions and/or other comments that don’t show up as “reviews” but are permanently visible at least to your friends. I think “to-read” shelving is popular with authors and they like it to show up on the book page, though, because it generates buzz. Once again, reader actions that are critical of books or authors cause controversy, but parallel actions that are “promotional” or positive are seen as A-OK.

        • I like those ideas.

          I’d still like a “notes” function attached to each account where a reader can put random NOTES (clever, aren’t I?) that other people can see if s/he wishes and comment on them if s/he wishes.

        • Amen! What I want is good, honest reviews. Is that too much to ask? It seems so. I put a post on The Good, The Bad and The Unread about gaming, something I really don’t like. I read a lot of books, and sometimes, the reviews make me go, “Wtf?” because either the book is much worse or much better than the reviews given.
          But it’s not only the small, self-published or small publisher authors that are doing it. I’ve seen it done for bigger publishers, too. Won’t do it because I want to know what a book is really like, what the reader really thinks. I don’t care if the author is a bad tempered bitch, or if she’s a doll and has tons of friends, because I’m buying the book, not the author.
          But there are people who can’t stop gaming. If it’s not reviews, it’s something else.

  16. I had this moment, reading your post, of wanting to stand up and say, “Amen!”

    WELL put.

  17. It seems to me to be a fundamentally flawed idea for Goodreads to alienate readers – ultimately the monetising they’re after comes from the readers yes? If there were no readers on Goodreads, then what’s the point of the site?

    I tried importing all my GR books into Library Thing (I have accounts at both) a while back and the import failed. If I could get my books into LT more easily, then it would make leaving GR an easier decision – mainly I use it as a cataloguing system and I spent days getting all my books on there – it’s not a task I’d like to repeat. But, if this kind of stuff continues, I think I’ll be on to LT asking them to help me again and seeing what I can do about shifting everything over. *sigh*

    • I had the same issue with LT way back when it first started. I ended up on GR because it was far more user friendly and easy to upload book info. I probably won’t go there as an alternative.

      As far as what’s going on, I don’t really go to Goodreads to follow friends and read what they are reading and such. But I do like to get an idea about books based on what people are saying. I find the “so and so added this book to read” helpful because it gives me an idea of how many people have read or know about the book. I like that info. If I see a book I want to read only has a few readers and maybe no reviews, I might write a review to give it something. Whereas if I see a boat load of readers have added or reviewed the book, I might ignore it and just add a star rating after reading.

      I also like to see who rated it. If I see an author rated their own book I’m not inclined to read it because it’s a turn off when authors do that. And if I see a reviewer/reader I like has added it, I might be more inclined to buy it. And I like the tagging on the review site as well because it gives me more of an idea of content.

      I don’t know the answer. But if that info I’m looking for disappears or is hidden to me unless I’m following the reviewer, or just hidden in general, I can’t trust that what the rating and review status shows is complete and not selective information to manipulate me.

      • This is one of the reasons I keep my library index in Excel on my computer, because a) I want to own it and be able to manipulate it and b) there aren’t any kerfuffles in my computer. :P (Just chiming in why I don’t have more of my actual books in my GR list and don’t belong to LT).

  18. I have none of the experiences or fallout that you have had on goodreads — possibly because I don’t read a lot of YA or m/m. I don’t want authors to be my friends on goodreads, at all. I have it in my bio. I suppose I’ve inherited a few (or is the word grand-fathered?)

    I don’t belong to any groups either. I belonged to one and it got pimpy. I don’t care about free books … I just want to be left alone to wander and comment and see how other people feel about the books I like. I rarely use goodreads to decide whether or not to buy or read a book: all those decisions are made before I enter the title into the goodreads system.

    I am getting increasingly kerfuffle averse. Leave me alone to read and interact as I choose … and stop marketing yeah or nay to me.

    • Hi Janet! Your approach seems like a very healthy way to use GR.

      I do wind up searching for books and reviews, in part because I read a lot of books that don’t get reviewed in other venues, or I don’t trust the reviews I find and look for as many different ones as I can. I do friend authors, but they are all people I know already, and my friend question is basically, How Do I Know You? It sounds rude, but I don’t know a better way to screen.

      I think we are all getting seriously kerfuffle averse. Whatever entertainment the train-wreck aspect provided has long gone, for me.

  19. @Tymber Dalton

    At the time I posted this, “Requiem” by Lauren Oliver has 236 reviews, 257 ratings at a 4.48 average… and a publication date of March, 2013. None of the reviewers have read it.

    I personally agree that people shouldn’t rate/review books they haven’t read but there’s no reasonable way for Goodreads to enforce that wish.

    • I agree with you, but I think that the fact that GR does nothing to discourage this kind of reviewing makes a difference too. I’m sure a lot of readers think they’re doing the book & author a favor when they do this. But it’s no more acceptable than the stuff GR is now taking action about. They need to be more consistent in their policies (and the enforcement of those policies).

  20. I absolutely agree with Liz that ANY reviews/stars of a book not out yet are not helpful and shouldn’t be allowed (unless it’s an ARC review, of course). Yes, they don’t get flagged by authors, but I totally agree with Liz on that. :)

  21. It looks to me like GR needs some sort of “comment without rating” function, where readers could share their excitement about an upcoming book, their fatigue with a series, their hopes and fears about the book, their feelings about the pre-release info (title/cover), or their feelings about the publisher, author, genre — and that includes comments on the author’s public behavior, which may or may not influence some readers’ decisions regarding which books to read. Readers who don’t find that information helpful could skip it, and it wouldn’t affect the book’s actual rating, before or after its release. Readers who want that information or want to have discussions about would know where to look.

    If GR wants to attract and keep readers, it needs to see that these are thoughts that some readers want to share and create a way for that to happen. Without that, there won’t be enough readers to monetize, and that means there won’t be many authors either. Above all, GR needs to trust its users to read what they want to read on the site, and to skip/ignore the content that doesn’t interest us.

    • It looks to me like GR needs some sort of “comment without rating” function

      That’s how I thought the unstarred reviews were treated, since whenever you enter a book on a shelf it gets added to the books page. It doesn’t have to have a written review, and it doesn’t have to have a star ranking. That’s why this new policy enforcement is so jarring to people, I think. As Liz says, if it’s positive GR doesn’t seem to have a problem with it.

      They didn’t think this through enough, or they thought it through but couldn’t come up with a better solution on their own.

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