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

[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.

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

  1. Excellent points. The only thing I would like to say is in relation to the one about the tweet from the author saying they read a book. Some of those tweets are auto-generated by GR, and if the person doesn’t realize it (and believe me, more than you know that can happen) they’ll show up in the author’s feed when they’ve added the book to their shelf as maybe “Books I wrote” or whatever. So those kinds of post, I can forgive. Writers are idiots just like anyone else. :) (I can attest to that, because I AM a writer. LOL)

    Also, I remember when I was a newbie writer, I was counselled to “5-star your own books.” I honestly didn’t know any better. So I can forgive some behavior.

    I can even forgive snarky/bad reviews now, because it’s just the way some people are. I made the mistake once a couple of years ago of arguing a review where the reviewer completely distorted and took vast swaths of one of my books out of context to claim it said things it didn’t. Again, lesson learned the hard way. I now ignore reviews, and tell newbie authors to do the same, using my own experience to illustrate why arguing is futile, useless, and potentially damaging to a career. But then again, some writers have to learn the hard way.

    Now, the ONLY times I ever respond to a reviewer (other than a thank you) is if my pen name or the book title or buy link are incorrect. That’s IT. I even let misspelled character names go. It’s not worth the effort.

    I don’t understand why authors go batcrap crazy, except that perhaps they have an evil day job that pays their bills and don’t care if they tank their writing career. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

    I also agree posting personal info is heinous and the people doing that should get totally booted from the site as well as face whatever legal ramifications they can.

    This has just gotten way out of hand. I had no idea GR had sunk to this level, and the anti-GR bullies site needs to get a serious grip.

    • The only thing I would like to say is in relation to the one about the tweet from the author saying they read a book. Some of those tweets are auto-generated by GR, and if the person doesn’t realize it (and believe me, more than you know that can happen) they’ll show up in the author’s feed when they’ve added the book to their shelf as maybe “Books I wrote” or whatever. So those kinds of post, I can forgive. Writers are idiots just like anyone else. :) (I can attest to that, because I AM a writer. LOL)

      Also, I remember when I was a newbie writer, I was counselled to “5-star your own books.” I honestly didn’t know any better. So I can forgive some behavior.

      Oh, definitely. A lot of behavior is because people don’t know, or honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Newbie authors should be forgiven a lot as long as they are trying to learn.

      GR needs to think more carefully about how it sets up auto-tweeting for authors, and how it sets up author pages in general. I just don’t think they’ve given it enough thought, or didn’t at the beginning, and now every change requires a huge backend investment because of the size of the site.

  2. *I REALLY need more coffee ugh.*

    I also agree that GR needs to set up a system of “notes” where you can make personal notes about shelved books, and set them private, friends, or public in terms of viewing. That they haven’t just really sounds short-sighted on their part.

    • I just updated the post because a Twitter friend sent me information on private notes. That doesn’t answer the public-note issue, but at least it allows for more detailed cataloguing.

      I’ve hand-entered the data on all 90+ books I have in my account, and I never noticed that. I have a feeling there are a lot of people like me.

  3. It’s partly confusion. I joined goodreads, put all my books (the books wot I wrote) on my shelves, then last week discovered that I should have joined as an author. Oops.
    As a reader, I can’t list all the books on my virtual bookshelves, because I just have too many. I don’t review there because I review elsewhere.
    I can’t work out how to navigate and do stuff. I only discovered I had to join as an author when I tried to change a bookcover (the picture is of an old edition of the book, but all the reviews are about the latest edition). I still can’t do it because I need to be something called a Librarian. On the other hand, another part of the site says I have Librarian status. Ach!
    So these days I just leave it alone.
    If I ever correct a review of a book of mine, it’s only from errors of fact, for instance, listing the wrong publisher. People are entitled to their opinions, and in any case, if all I ever got was good reviews, I’d probably start to worry – is it too bland?

    • Lynne, GR is supposed to help you (and all authors) with these issues. But if the author help stuff is anything like the main author page I read, it is very unclear HOW you go about getting that help.

      I haven’t entered the vast majority of my books (I have nearly 2000 in Calibre and probably that many again in print books). There’s no way I’m going through and ranking/reviewing all of those. So I just add books as I read them, or when I have time to add in a couple dozen that I want to have in GR.

      And don’t get me started on “librarian status.” I think the only thing you need to be a librarian is a beating heart. Working brain is optional.

      • Ahem! Goodreads Librarian here–who happens to hold an MLS (that’s Master of Library Science degree) and has a goodly number of years experience in the retail book biz. Don’t know what some GR librarian did to tick you off, but please—
        Granted, in 2008, when I joined GR, what you ‘needed’ to become a librarian was 50 books on your shelves and you had to ask to become a GR librarian. The GR librarians I know personally are all about keeping the data clean, making sure the authors are disambiguated (there’s more than one author named David Drake, for ex) and consolidating editions, adding cover illustrations and so on.
        But maybe I’m brain-dead, but I can’t see why you’d want to be a GR librarian if you weren’t an ‘organize the data nerd’.

        • Oh Barb, I’m sorry. That was badly done of me. I didn’t know you were a librarian, but I know Ridley is, and she works as hard and as well as you do at trying to bring order out of chaos.

          You are quite right to point out that there are some very good and skilled librarians. It’s just that they now have 9 million members and they haven’t instituted more rigorous standards. I’ve seen some deeply inappropriate people with the “librarian” tag. Here’s the most recent example. Hopefully she won’t be reinstated, but with that kind of axe to grind, she never should have been given any authority in the first place. I was really reacting to that, I think. She has also been all over the GR boards defending the indefensible author this past week.

          From what I’ve read in various threads, she’s not the only GR librarian who has been using her powers for less-than-good (telling people what to do in ways that have nothing to do with being a librarian). But like the badly behaving authors, she’s not the rule.

          Thanks for commenting and being much less harsh than I deserved. ;)

          • Oh dear, oh dear–no wonder you were looking on some GR librarians in a less than kindly light.

          • I’ve been seeing all this talk about GR librarians as if it’s such a special thing and I don’t get it. When I first joined, it was like Barb said, you only needed 50 books to be one. I asked to be one because almost none of the books I was reading- ebooks from small pubs and some self-pubbed books–were on GR and I wanted to enter them manually. I also entered the metadata for the non Kindle version of the ebooks because I felt readers should know the source of the book and know they could get the book other places besides AMZ.

            It seems to me, with those lenient qualifications, there must be thousands of thousands of GR librarians. It seems though that now it’s become something “special” and people are abusing it? I had no idea that as a librarian I had the power to delete an author account. WTH? Have the qualifications changed?

  4. You are so right when you say “all publicity sells books.” I remember a few years ago when a debut Christian author was bashing romance readers and writers. I happened to see his post and tweeted something like, “This is one debut author I will never read.” Many others saw it too and flooded his blog with so many comments that he ended up deleting his inflammatory post. Well, you know what? For the life of me, I cannot remember his name now. If I happened to be in the market for the kind of book he writes and saw it somewhere, I might only remember that his name sounded familiar. Hmmm…did a friend recommend this to me? Have I seen reviews about this book? I’d probably pick it up and check it out.

    The typical consumer (or at least “this consumer”) can be very forgetful. Chances are, we’ll remember the hype–just not what the hype was about. And if it gets us to take another look at a product, we’re that much closer to making a buying decision.

    • Yes! That’s exactly why I want the author-behaving-badly shelves. I can’t remember them from one year to the next. Not that there are so many, or that every transgression must live in infamy forever, but when I WANT to remember and can’t, it’s frustrating!

  5. I hope I don’t have to leave GR – this is where I find all my books to read (I’m a voracious reader) and discover new releases and what’s coming out. I have friends whose reviews lead me to books I’d like and books to avoid because of tropes or writing styles I just don’t like. BUT I hate GR as an author. I only promo on my blog, and even then, do that seldom. I post about my own new releases and dates and titles and such, but that’s it. I do not rate my own books, I do not comment on reviews (readers are entitled to their opinion) UNLESS they are a GR friend that I regularly chat with, but I think I may have done that once. I have never once had a bad experience on GR and don’t think anyone has attacked me personally, just my books, which is okay.

    I’m horrified by what’s been happening, especially the issues with minors, secret groups and releasing author’s personal information. The release of info, especially with threatening undertones, to me, sounds kind of like a hate crime, just a new kind we’ve never seen before. Perhaps before the awful event happens, and it will, some law enforcement agency should have a look at this issue.

    I’ve thought about having an author profile and a separate account for me as a reader, but to hell with it – I am who I am and I can be professional both as a reader and an author. And when my next book comes out, I’ll do what I did last time, and stay off GR while my friends are reading it so they can talk about me behind my back, LOL (but I did actually stay away so they could feel free to express their opinions).

    With the hiding of reviews and the lack of moderation and the nastiness afoot, I may have to find a new home for keeping track of my books and that would make me sad – I’d miss my friends.

    • I’ve thought about having an author profile and a separate account for me as a reader, but to hell with it – I am who I am and I can be professional both as a reader and an author. And when my next book comes out, I’ll do what I did last time, and stay off GR while my friends are reading it so they can talk about me behind my back, LOL (but I did actually stay away so they could feel free to express their opinions).

      I think this should be engraved and hung on a plaque above every writer’s desk. Maybe every reviewer, too.

  6. I’d just add, “Especially when that person is a mother.”

    “There is always another option in today’s online environment, including ones that are created to meet new demand.” — Looking forward to it.

    • Absolutely. Being a mother is a double-whammy, and I feel so awful for the people whose private information is being revealed and who have to worry about their children. And then these abusive cowards benefit from our unwillingness to descend to their level.

  7. You know who I fault for the whole Goodreads “bullies” bullshit?

    The owner and the staff of Goodreads. Each and every one of them!

    Plain and simple the only reason crap like that website exists is because the organization itself is so freakin wishy washy about the focus of Goodreads. Is it there for authors or readers?

    Blah blah blah as they post yet another excuse and revision of their intent and literally turn themselves into verbal pretzels and ignoring the very name of their own website… but also for the simply fact is most of the Goodreads “experience” when you sit back and consider it can be best be summarized as an unmoderated unfocused unhelpful mess.

    • They want to have it both ways: they want to stay a reader-reviewer site, but they want to facilitate author interaction and author promotion opportunities. They HAVE to figure out how to monetize the membership, traffic, and interactions, and authors and publishers are their best way to do that.

      I was actually surprised, when I went to the GR “About” page, to see that it was still so reader-focused, because the way they have been dealing with the author-reader tensions suggested a shift in orientation to me.

      • There have been a few discussions on author groups recently about the effectiveness of the Goodreads clickthrough ads. They’re relatively expensive, and most author’s budgets are limited. Not to give away any confidential information, the general conclusion seems to be that the money is better spent elsewhere. Nobody who took part in any of the discussions noticed any difference in their sales, and some people monitored the situation very carefully.

  8. Ha! I commented on your Part 2 post about the need for comment spaces that are publicly accessible but that don’t impact a book’s rating. (What I get for not looking at ALL my blog updates before responding to any.)

    As far as author-reader interaction, I don’t know anyone who joined Goodreads because they wanted to talk to authors. No one. You can be their friend on Facebook, comment on their blogs, or follow them on Twitter if you want that. What attracts readers to Goodreads is the books, and the ability to organize them, look them up, see what others think, and talk about them — with each user having a different balance of those functions that’s comfortable. So the presence of authors on the site isn’t really a feature that attracts users, and GR needs users or the whole business model collapses.

    I see that GR needs to monetize those users, just as Facebook and other social networking sites need to do. But if they let the user experience deteriorate, or make it less what users want it to be, they are undermining their own bottom line, even if they are doing it because they think the changes will please the paying users (authors, advertisers). And the bigger the site gets, as you say, the more expensive it gets to retro-fix the issues that have developed in the rather laissez-faire space that they created and are now trying to police.

    • As far as author-reader interaction, I don’t know anyone who joined Goodreads because they wanted to talk to authors. No one. You can be their friend on Facebook, comment on their blogs, or follow them on Twitter if you want that. What attracts readers to Goodreads is the books, and the ability to organize them, look them up, see what others think, and talk about them — with each user having a different balance of those functions that’s comfortable. So the presence of authors on the site isn’t really a feature that attracts users, and GR needs users or the whole business model collapses.

      This x1000. And “readers” here includes all the authors who are participating primarily as readers. The casting of this (including by me) as an author-reader tension is wrong. It’s an asshat-normal person tension. Almost all the GR authors are on the normal person side of this, and the asshats (who are mostly authors) are making their lives much harder.

      ETA: What I mean is that the vast majority of authors are not asshats, but the asshats complaining about reviewers are mostly authors. So “author” becomes a shorthand. And it shouldn’t.

      • I completely agree! Authors who want to participate as readers should be welcome; I know several who have very good (i.e., similar to mine) taste in books. And it’s definitely a minority of asshats making the problems, but Goodreads responding to those issues with sweeping changes for all users is wrong-headed, in my view.

        I can see why some authors are hesitant to comment on others’ work, or only want to make positive comments. I know some readers who only do positive reviews. I don’t mind that, as long as they don’t fake it — if you didn’t like a book and don’t want to say so, then fine, don’t say anything. But don’t recommend a book just because you and that author share an agent, editor or publisher, and conduct yourself like a reader, not a “fellow author” (defensive, protective, argumentative) in any discussions. Please.

  9. I agree with you that publicity often works in favor of an author, even on a less than stellar review. I am always surprised when I give a book on my blog a less favorable rating, there are always folks who comment how great it sound and how much they want the book. So there is something for everyone in just about any book, and just b/c one person doesn’t like it doesn’t mean someone else won’t read the review and find it is just what they want. I think folks just need to get out of their own way and let things happen naturally.

    • I feel as if these people are objecting to the very principle of a purely negative review. You and I both know, as reviewers, that some people align with our tastes and others use us as reverse barometers. Tastes differ. And as many have said on the various GR threads, I’ll happily read a book other people hate, but I probably won’t spend my money on a book by an author who has trashed reviewers.

      • Yes, I totally agree. These authors are making it worse. If they just laid low, it would be much less of an issue than when they escalate.

  10. I’m still not clear on exactly what Goodreads is doing or planning to do. Can authors opt out on having their reviews hidden? At least, those authors who don’t care who reviews them or how and would prefer all reviews visible for the world to see?

    • None of us are really clear on what Goodreads is planning to do. They are promising to issue the new policies and guidelines some time this week. The worst that will happen is that reviews that are (a) flagged, and (b) deemed to be “not about the book” and presumably (c) negative, will be hidden so that only the reviewer’s friends and followers can see them. The Goodreads feedback group has a very long thread reacting to this and debating other options.

      I don’t think authors can affect how their reviews are catalogued, so even if you want all reviews of your book to be seen, GR has the final say.

  11. I have a question I can’t find the answer to anywhere. I review monthly for NewPages.com. Is it okay to post those reviews on Goodreads? Thanks!

    • It depends on whether it is a commercial review in GoodReads terms. Here is the page with guidelines for reviewers. It says:

      Commercial reviews are not allowed and will be deleted. If you received a free copy of the book, you are required to disclose that in your review in compliance with federal law.

      When asked in the comments thread in the Goodreads Feedback group, Patrick clarified that “commercial”

      refers to pay-for-review services that authors sometimes pay for. We don’t accept reviews from those services.

      Other sites’ reviews are fine to cross-post. I post abbreviated versions of my Dear Author posts and provide a link to the full review. Here’s the GR boilerplate that makes me assume this is okay:

      Full reviews that link to a blog are acceptable, as long as the blog is not selling a competing book and using the review to denigrate the book being reviewed in favor of its own.

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