Goodreads: Where readers and authors battle it out in an online "Lord of the Flies"

Goodreads' utopian dream just collided with the reality of social media and gatekeeper-free self-publishing

Published October 9, 2013 10:59PM (EDT)

        (<a href=''>ollyy</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

A couple of weeks ago, Goodreads -- a massive social networking and cataloging site for books, readers and authors -- announced a change in its moderation policy. From now on, the site's administrators would be deleting "reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior." This was a big change. In the past, Goodreads has been largely unmoderated, despite terms of service stating, "You agree not to post User Content that [...] contains any information or content that we deem to be unlawful, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive, defamatory, infringing, invasive of personal privacy or publicity rights, harassing, humiliating to other people (publicly or otherwise), libelous, threatening, profane, or otherwise objectionable," and reserving the rights to remove any post violating those standards.

The impetus for all this is a raging feud between relatively small groups of reviewers and authors. (Goodreads has about 20 million members, although only a fraction of that number actively uses the site.) That conflict, mostly carried out far from the public eye, rose to a little prominence over the summer when Lauren Pippa (aka Lauren Howard), a self-published author about to release her first book, challenged a Goodreads member who had given her book a two-star rating. Goodreads explicitly permits members to rate books that have yet to be published, and publishers often distribute advance copies to those they deem influential in the community. Furthermore, some members use the star system to flag forthcoming books they want either to seek out or to avoid. Pippa later claimed not to have known about this custom.

The comment Pippa posted to the member's rating and complaints she made in a Goodreads forum garnered some scathing responses from other commenters and a rash of one-star ratings from their friends. This in turn prompted some of Pippa's friends to fling insults at her critics, which led even more Goodreads members to include her forthcoming book in their "do not read" lists. Pippa complained about all of this on Twitter, which led to even more retaliation, until finally she announced on her blog that she'd been "bullied" into canceling the release of her book and threatened with violence. Later, Pippa reconsidered that decision, admitting that she was mistaken about being threatened and blaming her reaction to the whole affair on PMS.

I hope you're still with me through all these convolutions, because, as with all flame wars -- and Pippa's story is merely one skirmish in the Byzantine reviewer-author flame war currently ongoing on at Goodreads and beyond -- the terrain is a maze of accusations and counteraccusations, often misleading, and reactions and counter-reactions, often out of all proportion to the original offense. You could spend hours following the trail of a single dispute, through smoking battlefields of interlinked comments threads and screen shots and blogs where the message "this post has been deleted by its author" stands like a tombstone over the grave of the one witness who can tell you what really happened. I know, because I've wandered extensively over this blasted heath in the past couple of weeks.

What's been going on at Goodreads and in Amazon discussion boards and on Twitter are more than just the usual Internet mishegoss, however. These are epochal convulsions, writ small. They're the result of significant changes in the relationship between authors and their readers, and those changes have two causes: the boom in self-publishing and the rise of social networking.

Not all of the authors involved in these flame wars are self-published by any means, but most of the more active author-combatants are. More often than not, the self-published author has no publicist to advise against responding to negative reviews or to otherwise buffer the writer's encounter with the unpredictable public. An anonymous website devoted to identifying and punishing Goodreads reviewers perceived as abusive, Stop the Goodreads Bullies (STGRB), claims to be maintained by "readers, bloggers, and Goodreads members (not authors)" -- let alone self-published ones -- but the comprehensive and furiously impassioned nature of the site indicates otherwise. On the other side, the equally anonymous blog, BBA Whisperer, offers cascades of invective and in-jokes targeted at the STGRB crowd -- or BBAs, badly behaved authors, as the reviewer faction calls them -- pinning snarky nicknames on people who are already using pseudonyms, and rendering itself pretty much incomprehensible to the average reader. (Not that this matters, as the blog was recently set to "invited readers only" status.)

Yet none of these people would know and hate each other so well were it not for the social networking features of Goodreads. The site, recently purchased by Amazon, is both a giant catalog of titles and a means of discussing, reviewing and sharing information about books. Some members use it simply to compile lists of the books they own or want to own, have read or plan to read. They can organize those lists into digital "shelves" with labels like "historical-fiction"or "re-read." Others use the site to network with like-minded readers, posting reviews or ratings and creating shelves called "swoonworthy-alpha-male" or "postmodern-fiction." Heavy readers of genre fiction -- people who consume a lot of books, often with similar titles, or who have specific formula preferences -- seem to find the shelf system particularly useful.

As these readers see it, Goodreads exists for them to keep track of their books and reading and to exchange thoughts about it with fellow readers and friends who share their tastes. The shelves -- which were a key issue in the Lauren Pippa affair -- are like the shelves in their own homes: their business and no one else's, apart from invited guests. These users create most of the content that makes Goodreads more than a mere database of book information, and furthermore their relationships with each other are in many ways the true locus of the site's value. Amazon most likely bought Goodreads for the consumer data it can extract from it, but consumers wouldn't be going to the trouble to input all that data if there weren't actual people there they wanted to share it with. They do all of this for free, and see no reason why they shouldn't do it in any way they see fit.

As authors view it, Goodreads is one of the few venues in which they can present their work to a sizable audience regardless of their resources. It's particularly attractive to self-published authors, who can rarely get their books into stores and who are constantly being instructed that they must actively promote their work if they hope to realize their dreams of replicating the success of indie authors like Amanda Hocking and John Locke. Authors also use Goodreads to network, offering each other moral support, advice and -- though not all will admit it -- glowing reviews to fill up book pages that might otherwise stand empty. For an author, the Goodreads page for her book is its public face, and sometimes the only platform it has beyond its Amazon page. Last, but certainly far from least, Goodreads can offer something Amazon can't (quite), a form of word of mouth, via the interconnected relationships among readers -- and everyone in publishing knows that word of mouth is the only way to really sell books.

Perhaps, when the situation is described this way, the impending collision looks obvious, even before I explain that shelf names, ratings and reviews, however casually awarded, can and do appear on the home page for any given book. If the shelf name is something like "craptastic" or "could-not-finish," the author, who may be inexperienced or hot-tempered, sees a highly visible slur. Some cannot resist responding or complaining to friends or fans who head over to respond for them, perhaps impoliticly. (One of Pippa's associates suggested the reader stick his hand in a blender.) The readers regard this as an intrusion into a space where the author has no business. Chalk some of this up to inept community design on Goodreads' part, but the problem doesn't end at Goodreads' borders. All across the Internet, authors and readers seem to be at each other's throats.

It wasn't always so. A few years ago, publishing pundits began celebrating the Internet's ability to connect authors and readers in new ways. As far back as 2009, Richard Nash, former editor in chief of the successful small literary publisher Soft Skull Press, announced a new project by saying, "Everything we publish will have to flow through the community. In the end, the community is the publisher. The community is the one hustling word-of-mouth for the books. So I, as the editor, exist to help the community express itself." Self-publishing advocates rejoiced that e-book publishing programs allowed authors to connect directly with readers, bypassing those pesky gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses, with their old-fashioned, arbitrary, mercenary and clique-ish standards.

Soft Skull's readers, Nash told Publishers Weekly, "loved our authors. They wanted to learn from those authors, to meet them, to share with them, to be among them." But Soft Skull publishes for a particular community of readers, and what subsequent years have shown is that not all reader communities want authors to join them, not even their favorite authors, whose presence might be intimidating or inhibit a free discussion. And they certainly don't want random authors (or their friends or sock puppets) poking their noses under the tent in a quest to drum up reviews or sales -- essentially, spam -- which is something Goodreads' power users have complained about for years. Above all, they do not welcome an author who jumps into a review's comments thread or any ongoing conversation about his or her book to quarrel with remarks made about it.

The very asset that makes Goodreads reviewers influential -- their interconnectedness and ability to stoke each other's enthusiasm about a book -- can also be used as a weapon against an author who offends that community. This is what happened in certain sectors of Goodreads, particularly in the overlapping genres of YA (young adult), romance and fantasy. As retaliation against what they see as meddling or abusive authors, the most active and indignant reviewers coordinated attacks in which books were suddenly given a rash of one-star ratings or shelved under labels like "i'd-rather-die" or "author-harasses-reviewers." Reviews were posted that consisted of little more than indictments of the authors' actions on Goodreads, personal blogs or other social media networks. This is the sort of content the new Goodreads policy is meant to eradicate. The reviewers involved counter that such tactics are their only recourse against authorial misbehavior and also serve the purpose of warning other reviewers away.

The reviewers say that the "bullying" condemned by Stop the Goodreads Bullies consists of legitimately critical reviews, and without a doubt, authors -- traditionally or self-published -- can and do respond in catastrophically self-defeating ways to negative reviews. (Or even not-so-negative ones.) STGRB insists that it targets only the practice of ganging up on authors for transgressions against what it maintains is an arbitrary and unfair code of behavior imposed by the reviewers. It does seem to be the case that reviewers are now gunning for an opportunity to flex that power. But most disturbingly, reviewers point out that irate authors have moved their retaliation off Goodreads (from which some of the most egregious offenders on both sides have been banned) and onto no-holds-barred sites like STGRB, where they've posted personal information about so-called toxic bullies. That includes real names, places of residence, employers' names and other identifying information. This practice, known as doxxing, constitutes the "nuclear option" of Internet culture, a weapon of last resort.

Each side claims the other started this feud, and each has behaved badly. In their own self-selecting conversational bubbles, they work each other up into heightened states of outrage, losing their grip on the facts along the way. By the time Lauren Pippa blundered onto the scene, reviewers had developed a hair-trigger sensitivity to any sign of authorial interference. Like single people whose long stint in the dating trenches leaves them acutely alert to any sign of misbehavior or maladjustment in a potential romantic partner, they immediately assumed the worst, and Pippa's efforts to get Goodreads to delete the two-star rating only confirmed their suspicions that she was invading their community and trying to usurp their control over it.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece about how the self-publishing boom might affect average readers, who, now that agents and editors can be bypassed, would be exposed to the horrors of the slush pile for the first time. A techno-utopian colleague assure me that in the absence of professional tastemakers, amateur alternatives would arise in the form of bloggers and other experts -- or, in the case of sites like Goodreads, "the crowd." "People will find new ways to decide which books merit their attention," he said, and I'm sure he had plenty of company in that hopeful sentiment. Gatekeepers of some kind are necessary simply because there are way too many books chasing far too few readers, and people have to choose among them somehow. But it's unrealistic to expect professional behavior from people who not only aren't professionals but are not even aspiring to professionalism and have no obligation to accountability. The whole point of a hobby is to do as you please.

Authors may secretly dream of banning all negative feedback about their books from sites like Goodreads, but such a site would be of little interest to readers and eventually lose its ability to influence them. Reviewers giving single stars to books they haven't even read may be striking a blow on behalf of reviewers' freedom from authorial interference, but they're not helping readers who don't plan to review the book, or who couldn't care less about negative comments from authors or their fans. The Goodreads flame wars represent just one corner of the shifting landscape between authors and readers, a landscape I plan to write more about in the coming weeks, but there could not be a better illustration of that old adage: Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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