How Amazon and Goodreads could lose their best readers

When Amazon bought Goodreads it got a community of passionate readers, not all of whom want to follow the new rules

Published October 23, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

      (<a href=''>Mert Toker</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Mert Toker via Shutterstock)

With 20 million members (a number some have noted is close to the population of Australia) and a reputation as a place where readers meet to trade information and share their excitement about books, the social networking site Goodreads has always appeared to be one of the more idyllic corners of the Internet. The site sold to Amazon for an estimated $190 million this spring, and Goodreads recommendations and data have been integrated into the new Kindle Paperwhite devices, introducing a whole new group of readers to the bookish community.

But if, at a casual glance, the two companies -- Goodreads and Amazon -- seem to be made for each other, look again. A small but growing faction of longtime, deeply involved Goodreads members are up in arms about recent changes to the site's enforcement of its policies on what members are permitted to say when reviewing books, and many of them blame the crackdown on the Amazon deal. They've staged a protest of sorts, albeit one that's happening mostly out of the public eye. Their charge is censorship and their accusation is, in the words of one rebel, that Goodreads and Amazon want "to kill the vibrant, creative community that was once here, and replace it with a canned community of automaton book cheerleaders."

All this began a couple of years ago, with disputes between a small group of Goodreads reviewers with an interest in Young Adult, romance and fantasy fiction and certain authors (often, but not always, self-published) of such books. You can read about the ensuing flame war -- which would ultimately rage across blogs and Goodreads discussions and Facebook pages and Amazon forums -- in a story I wrote earlier this month. Most outsiders first learned of the feud when a young self-published author, Lauren Pippa (AKA, Lauren Howard), announced that she was canceling her book due to the harsh treatment she'd received on Goodreads. (Pippa/Howard later retracted many of her claims.)

As a result of this uproar, Goodreads, which had previously observed a largely hands-off policy on moderating user-generated content, announced that from now on it would delete any "reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior" from the site. The reviewers involved in the flame war were outraged, arguing that they had been harassed by authors who objected to negative reviews. They claimed that reviews and other references they'd made to "badly behaving authors" were intended to warn off other readers and to punish authors who had abused the Goodreads community by trying to retaliate against reviewers or inject unwanted self-promotional messages into readers' conversations. Some authors hailed the move as a much-needed curb on a cadre of reviewers who had graduated from reacting to author transgressions to actively seeking out authors to antagonize.

This was, as the geopolitical analysts like to say, a small war, but the same analysts will also tell you that small wars have an unsettling way of spreading, especially when larger forces step in to shut them down. On Sept. 20, Goodreads Customer Care director Kara Erickson posted a notice to the site's Feedback forum announcing that, while Goodreads' policies on reviews had not changed, they'd decided they could "do a better job enforcing them, particularly in the small number of situations where tensions start to run high." The upshot, according to an email I received from a Goodreads spokesperson, is "in the past, if we found a review that was an ad hominem attack or an off-topic comment about a reader or author, we removed it from the community reviews section of the book page, notified the reviewer, and kept the review on the reviewer’s profile. Now, these reviews will be deleted entirely from the site and the content sent to the reviewer."

That last bit is particularly relevant because when Goodreads first announced this initiative on Sept. 20, hundreds of reviews and ratings were deleted from member accounts without advance notice. Needless to say, this is just about the worst possible way to institute such a change in a community composed of outspoken, well-networked book lovers. (Goodreads has since apologized to the affected reviewers.) These ill-considered actions in turn attracted the attention of a particularly active and articulate set of Goodreads members, most of whom have never even been involved in a quarrel with an author. Suddenly, the conversation jumped from the mutual flinging of high-school-cafeteria-grade insults like "troll," "bully" and "stalker" to discussions of contract and libel law, Soviet gulags and Immanuel Kant. Many in this new group of members had been concerned about the future of Goodreads since the site's sale to Amazon. The move toward greater policing of reviews only served to confirm their worries.

This group -- let's call them the protesters -- voiced their displeasure in the comments thread attached to Erickson's original announcement. The thread eventually exploded to more than 5,000 posts, and after stepping in a few times to clarify the policy and promise that moderators would no longer delete reviews without first notifying the reviewers, Goodreads has been absent from the discussion. Exasperated, the protesters began to post criticism of the new policy in reviews of books on censorship, and in some cases posted reviews making ridiculous attacks on authors (such as accusing the late children's author Tove Jansson of engaging in orgies with moomintrolls), in order to test the limits of the moderation policy.

But first Goodreads itself had to be made aware of the protest reviews -- the site only investigates postings after they've been flagged by another member. So the protesters flagged their own and each other's reviews, and waited to see what would happen. One member, Ceridwen, told me she viewed such actions as "a last ditch method of drawing our issues to the attention of Goodreads." In one particular inventive effort, a protester's review speculated on the dismal inner life of the Goodreads moderater who was presumably screening it for violations of the company's Terms of Use.

Then, in Goodreads' second major misstep, the members who wrote the protest reviews were notified that their reviews would be deleted for being "off-topic." This high-handed intervention, predictably enough, only fanned the flames. The protesters began to flag reviews of books by such authors as Jonah Lehrer (who was found to have fabricated quotes) and David Irving (a notorious Holocaust denier), pointing out that the reviews referred to scandalous "author behavior." They flagged other creative uses of the review format -- autobiographical, impressionistic or merely whimsical -- as "off topic." As Ceridwen explained it to me, "The off-topic review is what made Goodreads what it is, in terms of active community: a fractious, personal, combative, and engaged readership engaged in as much goofing and larking as they were in serious literary criticism, whatever that's supposed to mean. We are not academics or professionals, but citizen readers on a social networking site."

The protesters got creative. They devised a counteraction they call "hydra-ing," in which members reposted each other's deleted reviews. (The practice was named after a monster from Greek mythology who would grow back two heads whenever one was cut off.) A Tumblr was created to post and discuss the deleted reviews, the shortcomings of the new initiative and the lack of clarity and consistency in how Goodreads defines "author behavior" and "off topic." "There are plenty of 'protected' reviews which do precisely the same thing as being 'off topic' but yet remain in place," one member wrote to me in an email about the controversy. Ceridwen undertook to contact the 21 members whose reviews had been summarily deleted to find out what sort of postings had been targeted and which books and authors they pertained to. She posted the results, complete with illuminating pie charts, to her blog. Some of the protesters are even writing their own book about the affair.

This latest pang in Goodreads' growing pains is more than just an instance of poor social network management. It raises broader issues about literary culture and conversations, how they happen and who owns and controls them. The vast majority of the content on Goodreads is generated by the site's users. As Alf Aldavan, another protester, explained it to me, longtime Goodreads members "don't feel like users or customers. They feel like contributors, because they are: library data and reviews content are their work, as well as the actual data GR sells. In a community of people contributing work/content for free, contributors have expectations of respect for that work. Top contributors' reviews were removed and there were threats to close their account." His statement is borne out in a 2012 Forbes article on the 25 top Goodreads reviewers; at least two of them have abandoned the site, while four others have been threatened with the deletion of their accounts.

It's possible to deduce Goodreads' logic on this. By deleting the reviews of the fairly small group of reviewers engaged in the original dispute, they might alienate a tiny fraction of their user base (mostly concentrated in a particular genre) and drive them off the site. But Goodreads might well have been happy to see the last of this faction, reviewers who made a point of searching out and ridiculing bad self-published books, or who dispensed one-star ratings to books they hadn't even read because they believed the author had misbehaved. Their contributions might have seemed worth sacrificing to Goodreads (although as a longtime "Mystery Science Theater" fan, I personally think there's a place for well-aimed cultural mockery).

But this new group of protesters, many of whom are leaving for a new site called Booklikes, ought to give Goodreads pause. Some of them are Goodreads librarians (who volunteer to help the site maintain data accuracy and perform other administrative and curation services), top-rated reviewers who have produced thousands of smart, articulate and perceptive takes on books ranging from classic novels to philosophy to book-length journalism on current affairs, history, science and politics. They're incredibly well-read. They should rightly be seen as the jewels in the crown of any social network of book lovers. And they do all of this for free.

When Aldavan observes that these members don't feel like customers, he makes an important point, and one that underlines the murkiness of Goodreads' identity and purpose. You could say that the users are not the customers but the product. In buying the company, Amazon purchased both its reviews -- which can be directly accessed by Kindle Paperwhite owners -- but also their data, a vast collection of information on what people read and like.

Furthermore, while many Goodreads members tend to see the site as existing "for readers," and the spokesperson for the company reiterated to me its stated mission "to help readers find good books to read," the site also markets itself to authors as a place to promote their work. Goodreads' founder and CEO Otis Chandler told an interviewer earlier this year, "We’re in the business of helping authors and publishers market their books to readers. And that’s where we make our money. We sell book launch packages to authors and publishers and really help accelerate, build that early buzz that a book needs to succeed when it launches and accelerate that growth through ads on the site."

As Amazon has had ample chance to learn in the past five years, the margin on selling books to readers is small and profits are difficult to eke out, especially when readers buy used books, expect deep discounts on new books and demand that e-books be sold at something close to cost. By contrast, selling editorial services, a publishing platform and marketing to wannabe authors is a cash cow. The same person who turns up his nose at spending more than 10 bucks for a new book will fork over much, much more in pursuit of the dream of publishing a book of his own. Media coverage of a handful of self-published authors who have gotten rich from selling e-books have further stoked their bonanza fantasies. (The fact that most self-published authors are fortunate if they sell books in the low three figures is reported far less often.)

As for disaffected Goodreads members, they're learning a hard lesson often overlooked by the boosters of digital utopianism: Sooner or later people need to get paid, and sooner or later you get what you pay for. Goodreads' staff may be small, but they can't run the site for nothing, and attempts to monetize it could not be postponed indefinitely. Many of the disillusioned reviewers feel burned and cautious about investing their efforts and content in a newer site like Booklikes, which may eventually face the same dilemma. Goodreads itself, if it does not resolve the tension between its moneymaking activities and the interests, desires and faith of its reader-members, risks spoiling the only real resource it has.

Further reading

Goodreads announces stepped-up enforcement of its terms of use

Hidden Reviews, a Tumblr recounting the unfolding protest and the deletion of reviews from Goodreads

Goodreads member Ceridwen crunches the numbers on the reviews summarily deleted from Goodreads

Book page (or what's left of it) for an e-book about the Goodreads review deletion policy to be written by disaffected members

Goodreads founder and CEO Otis Chandler tells an interviewer that Goodreads makes its money marketing books for authors and publishers

Forbes magazine's list of the top 25 Goodreads reviewers

By Laura Miller

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

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------ Books Censorship Goodreads Internet Culture Readers And Reading Writers And Writing