I may not actually have a dog in this hunt. I have a Goodreads account, but haven’t used it for much more than marking that I’ve read a few books. I have so much stuff to do in my life between my day job, blogging, and the computer gaming and fiction writing I do for fun that I don’t have time for another social network.
But I’ve lately been looking over a series of blog posts (one, two, three, four) by Dear Author reviewer and blogger VacuousMinx concerning some friction that arose in recent months between reader-reviewers and the authors who are also encouraged to use the site. As a result of this friction, Goodreads has recently issued new guidelines, which are unabashedly a lot more favorable toward writers than readers. It seems Goodread has a pretty clear idea on what side its bread is buttered, and if you’re a reader that bread is always going to land buttered-side down.
In her first post, VacuousMinx discusses what she sees as the root of the problem: (a very small number of) authors behaving badly, harassing (and urging their fans on to harass) writers of negative reviews.
The author dramas, which revolve primarily around certain genres (YA and to a lesser extent m/m) and involve primarily self-published authors, are making life miserable and perhaps dangerous for any number of readers, and they are adversely affecting the reputations of many blameless self-published authors. I can’t imagine GR is happy about this, but as long as they can’t even manage to have administrators available on the weekends, I don’t see the situation changing.
She also brings up examples of minors or barely-not-minors being harassed on the urging of a middle-aged adult author. While we only have her word for what happened here, from the general social dynamic tendencies of the Internet it seems all too plausible.
The second post hints at what is coming: an announcement from Goodread’s community manager about new sets of guidelines under development, including enforcement of the already-existing-but-not-enforced rule that reviews need to review the books, not the authors.
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.
The third post mainly addresses some issues that came up in the Goodreads-based discussion of the new guidelines, but the fourth has the most substance to it: a look at the separate new guidelines for reader/reviewers and authors.
In short, the reviewer guidelines seem rather harsh, filled with “thou shalt nots”. The author guidelines are filled with friendly suggestions. Where reviewers are warned that Goodreads will delete reviews that are not “appropriate or a high enough level of quality” (though without any specific details supplied as to what criteria they use for judging), authors are told that it’s “not advisable” to spam the people who read or added your book because that might result in getting flagged as a spammer. And if authors are flagged as spammers, Goodreads “will have to take action.” Writes VacuousMinx:
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.
VacuousMinx pulls in some posts from elsewhere highlighting Goodreads’s desire to attract and please authors, and contrasts this to its attitude toward readers thus: “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.”
Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t done much with Goodreads myself, and I only have this blogger’s word for some of what’s going on. (Though, on the other hand, the contrasting phrasing of those two sets of guidelines is as clear as crystal, and that’s objective fact.) So I’m really in much the same position as someone who reads a negative review of a book on Amazon and has to decide whether it’s worth the time to investigate further.
As I’ve already said, I haven’t had the time to do much with Goodreads myself. But I can’t say that reports like this—or, more importantly, the text and cant of those guidelines—makes me that eager to spend my time there. I’ve got better uses for it, and other ways to figure out what to read next. I can’t help wondering how many other readers, when confronted with the evidence of just how much Goodreads values them by comparison to authors, will feel the same way?
In closing, this reminds me of something Jeff Bezos once said about positive and negative reviews posted on Amazon:
“We had publishers writing to us, saying “Why in the world would you allow negative reviews? Maybe you don’t understand your business–you make money when you sell things. Get rid of the negative reviews, and leave the positive ones.”
Yes, negative reviews can hurt sales in the short term, but over the long term, allowing criticism builds credibility. Having negative reviews along with positive ones helps buyers decide, says Bezos: “We don’t make money when we sell things, we make money when we help people make purchase decisions.”
And VacuousMinx points out, in the last section of her third blog post, that negative reviews sell product too:
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 my fellow contributor Rebecca Allen had some positive words for negative reviews the other day as well.
If VacuousMinx’s posts on the issue can be believed, it seems that Goodreads has decided it wants to cater to authors to the point of possibly hiding or removing negative reviews for authors who are gunshy about them—while authors remain free to indulge in the sorts of behavior causing so many problems. That doesn’t seem like a recipe for success to me.
New Review Guidelines Suggest Goodread Values Authors More than Readers is post from The Digital Reader