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:
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.