Let me begin by saying that I am a Goodreads user. I was a tremendous fan of Goodreads, and moderate an amazing, and wonderful group full of avid, intelligent and thoughtful readers. I posted reviews there, but I’ve never been a power user. I’ve managed to avoid being targeted directly by any disgruntled authors, although my name does appear as one of the Goodreads bullies on the site that shall not be named, nor shall traffic be referred there, on this blog.
So, it was with dismay that I received the information about the policy change on Goodreads last week. Goodreads policy has always dictated that users could name their shelves whatever they wanted. That our Goodreads was ours to personalize, and that we could catalogue our books any way that was useful to us. In response to some hysteria, some extremely poor journalism, and some monumental misconceptions, Goodreads has decided to completely overreact. Content has been deleted, shelves have been deleted, and some of the most active users, who wrote some of the most popular reviews, are essentially being chased off of Goodreads.
I’m not one of those people, but I read their reviews. And their reviews help me choose books – their reviews are often snarky, sometimes over-the-top, but I find them credible. For every negative review, they post two or three positive reviews. Would it be rough to be on the receiving end of one of their negative reviews? Probably – they are critical, and they don’t pull their punches.
But, in my opinion, this is all related to Goodreads mission incoherence, and it is probably only the beginning. They are attempting to balance their desire to sell their data, sell marketing to authors and make a lot of money with their core mission, which was – until now, to give book people a place to hang out and talk about books. And now that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, this desire to monetize their information has become even more overwhelming.
For example, Goodreads has always allowed users to rate books that they have not read, and that they either plan to read or do not plan to read, based on their enthusiasm for the book. This has become increasingly enraging to certain authors who are unable to gin up much enthusiasm for their books, or who have alienated readers and reviewers alike by trolling reviews of their existing books, which has caused users to negatively rate their books based upon their lack of enthusiasm for the author or the book. Author overreaction to bad, or even lukewarm, reviews is a well documented, and not at all pleasant phenomenon to experience.
On the other hand, there are authors like Jamie McGuire whose as yet untitled and actually even unwritten book has an overall 4 star rating with 50 ratings and 82 reviews (find the placeholder page here to see what I’m talking about). The bulk of the reviews involve much excitement on the part of her very enthusiastic fan base. There are some reviews and ratings that counter this enthusiasm by users who are significantly less enthusiastic about Ms. McGuire’s writing and her future publishing plans.
Much of the drama on Goodreads, ultimately, centers around this practice. Negative shelf names are merely a by-product of the negative author/reader interactions. And, authors love getting feedback from their fans that their fans are excited about their forthcoming work, especially in the form of five star ratings. They do not love getting feedback from people who aren’t their fans about that person’s lack of excitement over their planned book, especially in the form of one-star ratings. Neither rating is in any way related to the quality of the book, as (in the most extreme cases) the book sometimes has not even yet been written.
But, you know what, their disgruntlement has a point. Because even though I completely disagree with authors ever going after reviewers, or even after raters, Goodreads is distributing (i.e. selling) the data about their books as something that it is not. Goodreads book data isn’t actually a compilation of ratings from people who have read the book in question. It doesn’t even pretend to be.
So, when Goodreads sells their database information to booksellers as book reviews, the data is, in fact, corrupted. The vast majority of the corruption comes from authors themselves who game the system, using sock puppets, having friends and family post positive ratings of their books regardless of the actual quality of teh book, and from review circles that all five star one another’s books. In addition, a great deal of corruption comes from fans who would rate anything by “x” author with five stars even if it contained nothing more than the author’s meandering thoughts on what to cook for dinner, coupled with his or her grocery lists. These fake reviews, sock puppet reviews, tit for tat reviews, shill reviews and fan reviewers are every bit as useless to the book buying public as the anti-fan reviewers are. It’s just that these “reviewers” help the authors to sell books, so authors don’t want to modify the corruption that is in their favor. They only want to eliminate the data corruption that works against them – and that, at times, is in response to their inappropriate response to negative reviews that actually are about the book.
Goodreads is essentially trying to sell their rating information as one thing, when it is actually something else. Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the book ratings on Goodreads are actually ratings of the book. But, a lot of them aren’t, and that is with the express permission and encouragement of Goodreads. In fact, some of the ratings might be because of something as silly as that the title of the book contains the word “moist” and the user hates the word moist (which is a totally gross word, by the way).
All of this is completely permissible (and even encouraged) under the Goodreads Terms of Service because Goodreads users are told, repeatedly, that Goodreads is a place for us to catalogue our books, our reading, and our plans to read or to not read. It is a place where we can wax eloquent (or not) about books that we are excited about, or books that we are really, super, absolutely not excited about. Personally, I read Beautiful Disaster. I am about as excited for Ms. McGuire’s forthcoming release of the as yet untitled story about her next borderline sociopathic stalker hero as I am about the potential release of Sharknado, the Sequel. If I were being honest, I would rate it 1-star based on that lack of enthusiasm. In fact, if I could rate it negative 10 trillion stars, that would almost begin to express my level of non-excitement.
People (i.e., authors and their fans and families) perceive negatively rating a book before release as unfair. But, if reviews are for other readers, why is that unfair, while rating an as yet unwritten book with five stars is not considered unfair? The answer is that the unfairness question all depends upon your perspective. If you are author-centric, then you may think that it’s plenty fair for you to get positives before release. On the other hand, if you’re thinking about all of the poor souls at amazon.com and smashwords and everywhere else who are going to be sucked into thinking that the book is worth buying because there are twenty-seven superfans on Goodreads who practically pass out at the mention of it, then, no, it’s really not unfair to put some perspective back into the ratings.
In any event, the ethic on Goodreads has always been the wild, wild west of booktalk, where people review books with reference to other books, with reference to Dr. Seuss poems, using iambic pentameter, and .gifs of kittens falling down slides, or whatever, in large part in order to amuse themselves and their friends. Some of it might even qualify as performance art. And up until Goodreads decided that they had an amazing way to make money by selling those reviews to booksellers to help the customers of those booksellers pick books to buy, this was all fine and dandy. The response to a disgruntled author was a very appropriate STFU.
Now, though, what’s a website to do? Because in the end, reviews that are full of .gifs of kittens amuse the user and his/her friends. Reviews that are profanity laden and involve lots of pictures of handsome young men with weird tattoos can be awesome if you are a fan of trite, smexy, poorly-written New Adult Contemporary Romance with tatted-up twenty-somethings. But they do not help anyone – not the bookstore, not the author – sell books to people who show up on a website with a credit card number ready to push a “buy” button.
So, I believe that we at Goodreads are looking down the barrel of some major changes, and this is just the beginning. And not to go all conspiracy theory or anything, but the fact that Goodreads is clearly targeting specific users who are the least likely to comply with any sort of corporatocracy only supports these conclusions. And when you have the Goodreads VP of Communications going onto a website and saying:
“Over time we plan to better use all of the data we have around reviews so that we are putting the best reviews – the ones that will be most interesting and useful – at the top. This is a big data problem, and we are hiring a data scientist to work on it. At the same time, we already personalize how you see reviews – you see your friends’ reviews first and then you see reviews by people you follow, all people that you know and trust.”
See gigaom.com for the full article here
So, what does this mean? Will we see a cleansing of the site, stripping it of all of the things that made it quirky, and weird, and funny, and interesting and, dare I say it, bookish? Because if we do, then ultimately, changing that culture will cause the old Goodreads to cease to exist. It will go all corporate. Sooner or later, reviews and ratings will not be about enthusiasm. They will be about sales.
For those of us who loved the Goodreads that was, it feels like a pretty sad day. For the guys in the red logo polo shirts who would monetize breathing if they could figure out a way to do it, it’s a pretty good day. For the authors, I don’t think that they realize it yet, but they are just cannon fodder, too. Because the corporate guys don’t care if they sell your book. They just want to sell a book.
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