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New Review Guidelines Suggest Goodread Values Authors More than Readers

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.

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carmen webster buxton August 8, 2012 um 9:12 pm

I don’t care what a review said; there is no excuse for harassing someone over a book review. Didn’t these people learn anything from THE GREEK SEAMAN debacle?

Nate Hoffelder August 8, 2012 um 9:18 pm

What’s that?

Edit: Nevermind. Google helped me remember:

VacuousMinx August 8, 2012 um 9:51 pm

Wow. Thanks, Chris, for taking my posts seriously and discussing them with such care. I am still trying to gather material to make sure that I’m being fair to GR. Someone on the guidelines thread pointed out that there are several info pages for authors, and that is true. But the way these guidelines were released as a set (and introduced that way) really highlights the difference in approach.

On the issue of the middle-aged male author who harassed the 17/18 year old reader-reviewer: I didn’t provide links because I didn’t want to drive even more traffic to the author’s site, and the young woman had been under the microscope enough. provides a very good summary of the issues. And many of us took screenshots while the meltdown was occurring, so there is evidence of his specific infractions if it’s ever needed.

willaful August 8, 2012 um 11:47 pm

One of the proudest moments of my life was when I saw a GoodReads friend add a book to her TBR after I had written a negative review of it. To me, that said I had conveyed enough about the book to convince her that she would probably like it, even though I hadn’t.

And I’ve read many a trainwreck review myself and thought, "I have GOT to read that book."

But a GR friend shelving a book "author behaving badly?" I’ll take a look at the reason and so far, 10 out of 10 times, shelve it "avoid."

Negative reviews can and often do sell books. Authors throwing tantrums do not.

DavidW August 9, 2012 um 7:33 am

We’re just seeing one side of this picture, and it looks to be very biased. Removing abusive reviews is not the same thing as blanket censoring of all negative reviews.

Now GR is very, very special for attracting such a huge crowd of authors that act as both bloggers and reviewers themselves. It sets the site apart from others. GR should protect that, without that they are just another review site. Reviews are a dime a dozen anyway.

Keep the authors happy within reason. And that is all I see here.

Nate Hoffelder August 9, 2012 um 7:41 am

Except they’re keeping authors happy at the expense of the much larger group of readers. That would seem to be self-defeating.

Richard Herley August 9, 2012 um 1:34 pm

Agreed. If an author doesn’t like a review of one of his/her darlings, tough. Eat it up, it goes with the territory! To argue with a reviewer is, almost always, not only unprofessional but counter-productive. It alienate readers, and without readers where would an author be?

I always assumed that GoodReads was primarily for readers (the clue is in the name). This favouring of authors will end badly for GR. They ought to rethink.

Conrad August 9, 2012 um 5:35 pm

I am surprised that neither the comments nor the original article make any mention of the recent Stop the GR Bullies vigilante site fiasco. The usual lessons that apply in so many instances in communities real or virtual are being relearned and Goodreads is trying to belatedly do something about that.

– however good intentioned, vigilantism usually leads to bad outcomes

– but if a community has abusers and the leaders (eg Goodreads management) do nothing, vigilantism appears nonetheless

Do some searches and write a better informed article, maybe linking to some of the sickening stuff that passed as reviews on Goodreads on occasion, stuff that the site did nothing about and which led to the Stop the GR Bullies and their misguided campaign that soon escalated of course

This new guidelines are long, long overdue imho and I see nothing in them to stop negative reviews that do not descend in death or injury threats or other such sickening stuff

Nate Hoffelder August 9, 2012 um 6:10 pm

We didn’t post about it because I didn’t know about it.

Looking into it now. And thanks for the heads up.

Kaetrin August 15, 2012 um 3:00 am

@Conrad The behaviour of STGRB in providing personal private details* and actively encouraging personal harm to those they designated "bullies^" is in no way excused by whatever came before it. There is no excuse for it. None.

If GR wanted to prevent sites like STGRB cropping up they would make the author guidelines tougher instead of the touchy feely approach we are seeing at the moment. Readers are GR’s bread and butter. If the readers leave, there’s nothing there for the authors either.

*the personal details have been removed now and the site owner/s now deny they were ever there but I saw them and they’ve been screencapped all over the place so that dog won’t hunt.

^don’t even get me started on what they define as "bullies". Oh, the irony.

Stumbling Over Chaos :: Lack of lemurs lowers linkity August 10, 2012 um 7:47 am

[…] Goodreads released new guidelines this week – new guidelines that seem to favor writers over readers. […]

Suzy Somerset September 24, 2013 um 3:12 pm

I’m a journalist by profession and from my seat I see why Amazon wanted to part own Goodreads. Amazon have noticed how badly reams of negative reviews at Goodreads and Amazon are hitting sales of books at Amazon.

Amazon started as a book store. It started the revolution for Indie/self-published authors to get a foothold on the publishing spectrum. Mainstream publishers began sh*tting themselves. Then along came Goodreads and wow, here was the platform for mainstream publishers to hit back at the Indie/self-published authors. The plethora of negative reviewers "so-called honest reviews" are far from enhancing dictate as to quality of one book against another. Goodreads has become a platform for the "voice" of s/he who shouts loudest in all hail to a book or the negative of flushing it down the pan. Whereas, in the real world purchasing of books is a very personal thing to do. Who gives a damn whether someone else liked a specific book or not? As for moi. I just want to know what it’s about! Tell me that without spoilers and I’ll thank you. Don’t tell me it’s sh*t or it’s superb. That’s for me to decide.

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