‘God forbid that a dog should die’: when Goodreads reviews go bad | Publishing

Something dramatic happens on a social media platform every day. On Goodreads, the anachro­nistically designed website for logging, rating (out of five) and reviewing books, the dramas are more amusing, and they occasionally even draw attention from areas beyond the site’s supposedly book-loving users. The most recent featured Cait Corrain, the fantasy author who set up an elaborate network of fake accounts to post positive reviews of her own forthcoming book as well as negative reviews of authors she felt were her competitors. When citizen journalists uncovered her plot in December 2023, her book was cancelled, and she lost her agent and a future book deal.

A juicy, postmodern story of self-sabotage, or a sad one about the intersection of the internet and mental health. Regardless, its stakes are relatively low: publicly harassing one’s colleagues is a sackable offence anyway, and it’s hard to find someone who really cares about the vicissitudes of the young adult literature world who isn’t part of the subculture. I’m not; I’m a professional critic, and an author of a literary novel. I’m a snob. I care about my book, and the authors I feel are my competitors. And while Goodreads has been around since 2007, its significance to the broader literary world remains steadfastly confusing. Does it sell books? Does it make and break careers? The flashy, funny stories that have emerged about the site over the last several years have done exactly what its proprietors surely want: make it seem like Goodreads is important. But is it?

We understand the major social media platforms well by now: X (Twitter) can ruin your career, Facebook is responsible for the death of truth itself, TikTok is for teenagers, and Instagram is Instagram. Maybe because of the site’s notoriously janky user experience, or because the audience for books is perceived to be dwindling and threatened, Goodreads seems innocent, so it’s a surprise when its users behave erratically. But while the platform operates as a social media site, where users “connect”, bicker and develop parasocial relationships as they try to game the system, Goodreads is also a consumer reports platform. In 2013, Amazon bought the site for $150m (£118m) from the husband-and-wife duo who started it. The change didn’t do much for the interface, but it did make the site’s potential soft power slightly more powerful: on Goodreads, you can very easily find a link to buy the book you’re looking at, and you can also link your Goodreads profile to your Kindle, the company’s proprietary e-reader. A book’s performance on Amazon is the single most important factor in whether it will sell; at the time of the Goodreads acquisition, the American Authors Guild warned that “Amazon’s control of online bookselling approaches the insurmountable”. On some level, then, Goodreads uses a facade of community and wholesome book-loving to sell stuff.

It accomplishes this not in spite of the wholesome veneer but because of it: buying a book is not the same as buying another kind of good or service. (Is it?) The desire to balance the unquantifiable joys of art and culture with the need to make the most of one’s limited resources remains the implicit justification of most writing published on culture, from consumer reports platforms such as Amazon to outlets for professional criticism. For the pure, innocent consumer, just looking for a good read for her limited summer vacation, this presents a problem: how to determine what’s best to buy. The options are overwhelming. If professional critics are also professionally biased – look at me, an elitist with my own bottom line – another solution is to turn to the people: honest book lovers who have nothing to gain or lose from writing a review.

On Goodreads, this dynamic creates a tension between any individual author (seen to be a public figure, able to get an agent and book deal and thus objectively privileged) hawking her wares to democratically righteous readers (unagented, and only in public through the force of history that has made us all kind of public, not because they chose it). Goodreads users see themselves as performing a kind of public service by offering their opinions on books they read, because these opinions eventually accumulate to become a collective assessment that may help other righteous readers make tough decisions about how they’ll spend their time and money.

For the well-reviewed author, this is a fine setup. For the author who may not benefit from a wide general readership, it’s a psychological thriller. A common refrain warning anxious authors away from obsessively checking their stats and developing paranoid fantasies is that “Goodreads is for readers, not for writers”. There is some wisdom in this: writers are also discouraged from reading reviews of their work and searching their own names on X. But while Goodreads advertises many ways for authors to engage with their readers directly and promote themselves, the only way to do so without running afoul of the site’s capricious reviewers is to be chipper, conciliatory and overall nice. And it would be difficult, if not impossible, to use Goodreads as an author without at least glancing at reviews.

In the weeks before her first book, a young adult novel called No One Else Can Have You, “about a girl with PTSD teaming up with a veteran to fight crime”, was published in 2014, Kathleen Hale was a self-described wreck. Her daily visits to Goodreads “tallied somewhere between ‘slightly-more-than-is-attractive-to-admit-here’ and ‘infinity’”. Then, one day, what she most feared came to pass: Hale received a one-star review by a Goodreads reviewer named Blythe Harris that called her book “one of the worst books I’ve read this year”.

Illustration: The Project Twins/The Guardian

Such reviews, on their own, need not be too upsetting. Some random person doesn’t like your book? Fine. They don’t like it because of a misinterpretation that has wormed its way into their field of vision? Oh well. We’ve all been that random person, disliking things, not paying enough attention to form a nuanced opinion on them. What’s more disturbing is the fanning out, paranoid diagram style, of the implications of that random person’s dislike appearing in public. “Other commenters joined in to say they’d been thinking of reading my book, but now wouldn’t,” Hale wrote of the review in an essay called Am I Being Catfished? “Or they’d liked it, but could see where Blythe was coming from, and would reduce their ratings.”

Hale devised an energy-intensive plan for seeking the justice she felt her book deserved, which she recounted years later in her 2019 book, Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker. Somewhat predictably, that book was excoriated by Goodreads reviewers, many of whom explicitly refused to read it.

Whether the mob forms organically or is strategically promoted, this tactic has come to be known as “review bombing”, and in the years since, it has led to actual extortion and blackmail scams against authors, with anonymous groups sending intimidating emails along the lines of the missive one self-published author received in 2021: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER.” A few hours later, one-star reviews started appearing on her books’ pages. “It was quite threatening,” she told Time magazine.

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As a group, Goodreads reviewers can seem as if they are making demands of authors, even if they’re not literally blackmailing them. “You are brave,” a friend told me when I said I was writing about the site. The first demand Goodreads reviewers make is that you do not question, criticise or acknowledge Goodreads except to promote yourself pleasantly there. If you do not follow this rule, you will at best be accused of bitter motives – narcissism, obtuseness, a misguided desire for vengeance – and at worst vulnerable to retaliation. My willingness to write about the site, I told her, was less about bravery than pragmatism, because my first novel is already quite unpopular on Goodreads, with a sub-three-star rating, which is bad, even considering the popular argument that women writing literary fiction about women tend to generate a lower star rating. (Someone wrote a blog post about this, but there isn’t really data on it.) I feel I have little to lose by writing about it. Whatever professional consequences I may face for being unpopular on Goodreads, I have already more or less faced. While I’m not ruling out personal consequences – psychological tolls being taken, disturbing threats being sent – I’m sure it’ll be fine in the end. (Or not!)

Lauren Oyler. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Observer

The second demand Goodreads reviewers make is about the books themselves. The point of an average star-rating system – for anything, but especially works of art and literature – is to make a statement about value. And the values that help a book succeed on Goodreads are specific. The issues my debut novel has, for my Goodreads reviewers, are many: the big one is that it was marketed as if it was going to have a lot of plot, in a sort of woman-goes-on-a quest-to-solve-a-romantic-mystery way (got you), but others include the stench of Brooklyn, a “snarky” narrator that reviewers think is me, and the use of big words. (I was especially called out for using the word “antipodeans” to refer to Australian tourists.) My friend’s book has too many jokes. “God forbid that a dog should die accidentally,” one top Goodreads reviewer, Elyse Walters, told me while describing themes unpopular with Goodreads users during an interview in 2022. “They will not read the book.” She also mentioned a squeamishness around sex.

A veteran book club member in her early 70s based in California, Walters joined Goodreads a few months after the site launched in 2007, but she didn’t get serious about it until a surgery left her confined to bed for nearly a year. On her iPad she had all the books she could possibly want, and people all around the world to discuss them with. She became pretty good at it. But as her status rose, she began to feel the site had lost some of its magic. The pressure to answer all the messages she received, from authors and publishers and other entities hoping she’d check out their books, was stressing her out, and she wanted to be able to dedicate time to her reviews, which are long and can take, she says, one or two hours if she really loves the book. Like all Goodreads reviewers (officially), she has never been paid for a review, though she receives many free books from publishers, and she has been invited to the Goodreads offices to test some new technology for the app (to do what sounds to me like yet more work for free). She did the reviewing because she really enjoyed it. When I called her in 2023 to catch up, she told me she’d stopped using Goodreads for now. “I don’t even write well,” she told me, a little perplexed. “I just love to share. And I love people.”

But not all people love people back. As Walters became more well known on the site, people began to gossip about her; her offline friends thought it sounded a little catty, like high school, and I agree. “I guess I’m not guarded,” she said. “I shared that there was a time my husband and I had community warm-water soaks in our pool on Friday nights, and we did them clothing optional.” Soon enough, someone was going around telling people, “Oh, you should be friends with her, she has orgies,” Walters said. It got back to her. She emphasised that she did not host orgies. “But even if I did, wow,” she said. “How would that interfere with your lives?”

The habitual internet commenter wants to believe that he can interfere with other people’s lives, that he has the power to affect something more than a mood. (He also wants to affect your mood.) It follows that he feels affronted when someone is hosting weekly clothing-optional warm-water soaks in her pool: Doesn’t the clothing-optional warm-water soak host care what he thinks about it? Shouldn’t she be ashamed? Because hasn’t she invited his opinion, brought this on herself, by telling him, everyone, about it?

Evidence suggests, however, that Goodreads reviewers are no match for the kind of author whose power they see themselves checking. Hale’s status on the site has recovered: her most recent book, a true crime work called Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls, was published in 2022, and it has a Goodreads rating of 3.95 stars. In 2021, the author Lauren Hough published an essay collection called Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing and soon offended Goodreads for calling users who’d left her book four-star reviews, rather than five, “assholes”. A review-bombing campaign led to Leaving’s star rating dipping quite low. But the book still made it to the New York Times bestseller list, and its star rating has since risen to an acceptable 3.37.

Unrepentant, the next year Hough got in trouble defending a friend, Sandra Newman, whose book had a premise that was condemned as transphobic by Goodreads users who hadn’t read it. The LGBTQ organisation Lambda Literary revoked Hough’s nomination for its annual prizes, on the grounds that she had used “her substantial platform … to harmfully engage with readers and critics”. The lesson: do not snap at humble commenters, who have it worse than you. This isn’t quite true, but it reflects a misapprehension about power in the attention economy: if you make something that can be publicised, you are seen to be like a famous person, with the material advantages of a pop star and the job security of a politician.

Publishing industry professionals seem to agree that Goodreads is “important” or, as one book editor told Time magazine in 2021, a “necessary evil”, but all this felt somewhat contained within the site’s forum ethos until 2023. Shortly after Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the truly famous bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, announced the publication of her forthcoming novel The Snow Forest, more than 50 Goodreads users, many of whom were Ukrainian, review bombed the book’s brand new Goodreads page because the novel seemed to “romanticise” Russia while the country continued its war against Ukraine. That the novel was set in Russia in the 1930s and, according to its synopsis, concerned a family attempting to resist the Soviet regime, didn’t seem to matter. Shortly after the Goodreads campaign began, Gilbert announced that the concerns of her Ukrainian readers had led her to pull the book from its publication schedule indefinitely.

The literary world was scandalised: Gilbert’s decision seemed a portentous overreaction. The questionable relevance of Goodreads had seemed like something you could find irritating but ultimately laugh at; that it could so quickly move a very famous author to cancel a book entirely seemed a bad sign for books that might deal with even more fraught themes. How could a publisher, to say nothing of an author, cave to pressures from amateur reviewers who hadn’t even read a book and who almost certainly wouldn’t have purchased it anyway? What consequences could publishers and authors seriously be afraid of? And why doesn’t Goodreads prevent this kind of thing?

The answer to the last question is easy: it doesn’t benefit their bottom line. But Goodreads is not the mafia, or even the best or only way to publicise a new book. While its users have clearly interfered with the lives of the people they’re reviewing, the effects they’ve had are more ambiguous than “AUTHOR CAREER RUINED”. Their reviews are powerful only if enough of the right people believe they are. The uncomfortable open question for the publishing industry is who the right people are. Put another way: I am a writer, yes. But am I not also a reader?

This is an edited extract from Lauren Oyler’s No Judgement, published by Virago on 7 March. To order a copy for £17.60 go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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