Goodreads may be perilous territory for authors

Ever since I began publishing independently in 2013, friends and fellow authors have warned me, “Don’t get involved with Goodreads.  It’s poison for authors.  There are people there who take pleasure in destroying writers – and the platform does nothing to stop them.”

I wondered about that, but life, the universe and everything has kept me so busy that I haven’t had time for many such forums or discussion groups.  My blog takes up a couple of hours each day, and the ordinary alarums and excursions of everyday life refuse to take a back seat to my writing.  (So do our cats.  As far as they’re concerned, we humans exist to satisfy their needs.  If we have any time or energy left over after doing that, they might grudgingly condescend to allow us a little creative “alone time” – but they reserve the right to interrupt us at [their] will.)

Now an article in City Journal illustrates how Goodreads harmed one particular author by allowing reviewers to spread untruths and inaccurate reviews, and refused to do anything to stop them.

Every author understands that negative reviews are a fact of life. But what’s one to do when his book is targeted by malicious actors who exploit a corporation’s feckless approach to content moderation? A group of people leveled untrue personal attacks against me in the guise of reviews on Goodreads, a social network for books owned by Amazon. My publisher warned me that my books were in jeopardy on Amazon platforms, and I flagged the reviews as personal attacks. But Goodreads let them stand and then banned me from its site without explanation.

The affair began in April, when I noticed a one-star review of my latest book, Mad Travelers, on Goodreads. The reviewer—let’s call her Courtney—categorized my book as “awful garbage” and added that she was “pretty sure I hated women.” … All the characters in the book are men because no women were involved in the events. Nothing controversial or derogatory about women appears in the book; and though I’ve written many columns in my career, I’ve never covered women’s issues.

Since the review contained nothing about the book, I believed that she’d never read it. When I flagged the review, Goodreads left it in place, so I wrote a response, pointing out that I do not hate women and asking Courtney what she was referring to. The comment was deleted, but the review remained, even though it was an ad hominem attack—supposedly prohibited, according to Goodreads’ review guidelines … When I asked [Courtney] over email why she wrote that I hated women, she responded that all the female characters in my book are “portrayed as villains.” (Mad Travelers contains no women and only one man who could be construed as a villain.)

. . .

After that incident, the publisher of Post Hill Press, which published my book, called me. He said that Courtney had contacted Goodreads via Twitter and had sent messages to executives at Post Hill and at Simon & Schuster, the book’s distributor, claiming that I was harassing her and threatening her with lawsuits. My publisher said that all of my books—all about travel, none political—risked being pulled from the Amazon platform. And so, a corporation that sells about 70 percent of my books, according to my publisher, wasn’t just providing a platform for “reviewers” to defame me but also had the power to effectively kill my sales, too.

. . .

This is not my first brush with Big Tech harassment. Last year, when my third book, Footsteps of Federer, was published, I tried to advertise the book on Instagram and Facebook but was “permanently banned” from advertising on the platform for reasons that remain a mystery to me.

Silencing users with unfashionable opinions—while allowing those with the right opinions to break the rules—is all too common online these days, as conservatives have learned. Those with huge platforms, like Matt Walsh, can overcome such treatment … But those of us without such a high profile are easier to vaporize.

There’s more at the link.  It’s well worth reading.

I haven’t had too many problems with reviewers like that, but there have been some on Amazon.  One review (three-star) said a novel of mine was OK, except for all the sex and drugs.  (The book contained not a single reference to either.)  Another one-star review protested that an incident I described was so far-fetched as to be physically impossible, and trashed the entire book as a result.  I could only point out, in a comment, that the incident was, in fact, based on real life, and had been witnessed by multiple people.  It wasn’t a figment or a product of my imagination at all.

Then there are those who have their own ideology and express it in their reviews.  A reviewer of my memoir of prison chaplaincy accused me of a “stunning lack of empathy” and ranted, “If you’re poor, struggling, sick, flawed, criminal or basically just any human being that crosses his path, don’t expect any religious charity or understanding in his writing.”  Odd, that – I had some hardline conservatives accusing me of being too empathetic towards criminals, and not strict enough in dealing with them.  I guess you can’t please everybody…

At any rate, having read the City Journal article, I can only thank those who suggested that I steer well clear of Goodreads and its rabid reviewers.  I’m glad I took their advice.  Have any Mad Genius Club readers got any stories to confirm or contradict the article?  If so, please let us have them in a comment, so we can all learn from your experience.

 

27 comments

  1. I don’t have a book out yet, so I’ve got no experience with being trashed on Goodreads, but I am a reader, and I find it’s the most reliable place to determine if a book is right for me or not. Amazon tends to have very lackluster reviews imo. There’s a terrible trend on other social media platforms that you shouldn’t rate a book low because it may hurt the author’s feelings, which has led to me buying several awful books because I didn’t take the time to check GR. When I see that hundreds of people are rating something five stars–something in me just wants to believe it’s a good book.

    On Goodreads, those participation trophy/standardless reviewers still exist, and they’re far more common than the sort you mention who want to slander books/authors, sometimes without even having read. However, there’s a solid community of honest reviewers who are detailed in their reviews, and any reader worth their salt can see the difference between some hyped up activist’s review and a person-who-cares-about-book-quality’s review.

    Do they say how far in they DNFed if they did? Do they give legitimate reasons for not liking the book? Do they point out the positives of the book as well? Is their review consistent with other reviews on the book? I follow every account I encounter that gives a good one-star review. I know me well enough to know that if there’s a solid reason to dislike a book, I will probably dislike that book.

    If it was me the author being unjustly trashed, I really don’t think I’d handle it like the author in the article. I think I would trust that intelligent readers are not going to be swayed by a slanderous review. I may reply to their comment in as neutral, polite and objective a tone as possible that there were no female villains in the book. Correcting public inaccuracies in a polite way seems like a smart thing to do, but even that I feel is unnecessary. I wouldn’t address the personal slander, because it’s irrelevant and just feeds the beast. Emailing the reviewer after the reply is deleted and making a stink about it though? I think that author sounds like they fueled the fire a bit. The reviewer is in the wrong, yes, but there are effective solutions and ineffective ones.

    In college I was in coed dorms and the basketball team lived on my hall. One night they were dribbling basket balls up and down the hall in the middle of the night, making a ruckus, likely drunk. My roomie was upset by this. She stated that she was going to go tell them off. I told her that was a bad idea and offered her earplugs. She decided to tell them off anyway. Go figure that they just laughed and carried on even louder. In the morning there was a condom slipped over our doorknob. They were also sure in the following nights to be extra loud near our door. She complained to several administrators who couldn’t care less except that she was taking up their time. After that she opted for the ear plugs. Point? Don’t give attention seekers attention.

    1. It’s the review of “The Dragon’s Cottage” that stated the dragon was in love with the princess, and the knight had been helped by a witch that got me. Not only were those statements dubious, exactly why is it so wrong to be helped by a witch if a dragon is all right?

      (It was a three star, completely negative review. Go figure.)

  2. I don’t see how that incident could not have occurred regardless of whether you participated with the site. Bad reviews happen.

    1. Yeah, but he wouldn’t have gotten sucked into a conflict with her, which seems like it’s half his difficulty. I can understand being upset that someone was bad-mouthing your book while getting basic details about it wrong, but there’s no winning an argument like that.

  3. I’m on Goodreads with my own books, but I hardly bother with it, not having the time or energy. I have heard through other authors that the place is rife with hysterical and toxic female types, and that there is a danger of over-engaging with them. If memory serves, they have left a good few new authors dazed and bleeding, metaphorically.

    1. I wouldn’t use Goodreads for random book reviews, but I do use it to find reviewers with the same taste I do, and look to see what they liked.

      Oh, and keeping in touch with friends whose taste in books I don’t like– so when I hate a book I can know who to give it to!

  4. Well, the harassing reviews aren’t there anymore. So there’s that.

    Sounds like a good reason to not engage with reviews on Goodreads– most people are able to recognize a stupid review.
    Looking at the reported content, and reading the book description, I would conclude “Oh, look, a crazy person.”

    Which, from the limited information, appears to be accurate.

    1. Incidentally, the guy’s wrong in this part:
      But this had the distinct whiff of a coordinated campaign—and one that had nothing to do with my books. One reviewer, with no prior reviews, wrote that I “clearly hated all women.” Another claimed that I “appeared to be harassing those who draft unflattering reviews by sending them repeated emails and threatening to sue.”

      That doesn’t look like a coordinated campaign.

      That looks like the reviewer he responded to decided that he was sock-puppeting so she made accounts and did fake reviews.

    2. Yep – do not engage with reviewers. I have always taken this bit of wisdom to heart, after the great Jaqueline Howett-The Greek Seaman meltdown of 2011. The whole imbroglio wasn’t on Goodreads (I think it predated Goodreads, actually) but a book review site. The author responded to a less-than-glowing review with a flame war that alternately appalled and amused readers and authors alike.
      https://www.salon.com/2011/03/29/jacqueline_howett_greek_seaman/

  5. I’ve lots worse reviews on Amazon than on Goodreads. I write non-fiction, so that may be part of it. The craziest reviews come from those obsessed with one point which I neglected (because it wasn’t relevant) or because they were wrong. (An example of the first is some yahoo who gave a book a one-star review because I didn’t mention his daddy’s unit in New Guinea in a book about the siege of Rabaul – that unit did not take part in air activities there. An example of the latter was someone who gave a book on US black soldiers in the American Civil War a one star review because I used the term “African” instead of “Black” – well, yeah. I was referring to the 1st-3rd Louisiana (African-Descent). That was the period name of the unit – but whatever.) Both reviews were in Amazon. I’ve had a few in Goodreads where I thought the reviewer missed the point, but none really bad.

    The ones that make me scratch my head are the one where the reviewer praises the book to the heavens as the best book on the subject ever and then gives it three stars.

  6. I’ve never bothered with Goodreads, my judgement based solely on the recommendations that site puts out.

    “If you liked ‘Fifth Season’ then you’ll love ‘Carnage in the Caribbean’! All the slaughter and twice the misery of the Hugo winner!”

    Yeah. A parody, but not by much. Goodreads voters keep voting for Hugo nominee material, which tells me a lot about those voters and what kind of reviews my poor little robot girlfriend story is going to get. “REEEEEE!!!” I will pass, thank yew.

    1. On a more positive note, thought I’d mention for you airplane buffs that a Consolidated PBY “Catalina” just flew past my house out here in rural Southern Ontario. She is a big lumbering bird.

    2. Goodreads seeds its own award categories. And this year, it dropped the option of a write-in at the first stage.

      Much derision in some groups I frequent.

    3. I save the best (by which I mean, the funniest) of these recommendations. These are all real:

      “Because you read The Gallery of Regrettable Food, Goodreads recommends The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?”

      “Because you read Eugenics and Other Evils, a few similar books: Thomas Howard: On Being Catholic; H.G. Wells: A Dream of Armageddon; Windows 8 for Dummies”.

      “Because you read The Perfect Theory, Goodreads recommends Harpo Speaks!”

      1. I have seen on the less rated books often list whatever I was reading right before the book on the recommended list for a book.

  7. My limited perspective is this:
    I’ve never reviewed a book on Goodreads without also reviewing it on Amazon.
    But I have reviewed books on Amazon without reviewing them on Gooreads.

  8. On the one hand, Goodreads has a large reader community that’s actually many smaller communities – some sizeable, some tiny – and an undifferentiated mass of readers who leave reviews but rarely engage. Some of these communities can be very good at promoting books they like, and if you connect with one, then you can do very well.

    On the other hand, many of these communities actively state they feel that they are for readers only, and that authors joining the conversation are an intrusion. Therefore most of them are not actually good for marketing as an author.

    On the gripping hand, Goodreads also famously contains several mean-girl cliques (not descriptive of the sex of the people involved, only their behaviour) that love to go after the Target of the Day for their Five Minute Hate. It also contains humans whose connection to reality is at best tangential, likely orthogonal. Fall afoul of either one, and they’ll do their level best to destroy your book, and you as an author, because they can.

    So on the balance, I say “Goodreads is for readers, not for authors.” And I let it be, and only engage with it as a reader.

    1. I’ve had some fun in groups. The day some guys were complaining about too much character driven and I was able to recommend Hall Clement is a fond memory.

  9. I wouldn’t advise an author to use the site, nor to interact with readers unless they really know audience.

    Personally, as a reader, I very much enjoy GoodReads. It has it’s “mean girls” that like trashing things. Back during SP3 there was someone going around deleting books from “lists” because, “Ooh, meany mchatebutt misogynist so-and-so wrote that.” (Take your pick of Evil League of Evil authors) That person seems to have deleted their account, or had it deleted for them.
    I find the site useful for keeping track of the books I’ve read and reviewed, along with the books I want to read. I also find it useful to check out the reviews of a book I’m on the fence about reading. The one and two star reviews I tend to find more useful for that than the four and five star reviews. And while I do usually add the books I’ve red to Listopia the lists themselves are irrelevant because of the weighting system they use. I also find it a good place to interact with a few select online friends.

  10. Goodreads has successfully exposed a couple of “authortubers,” who used their YouTube following to promote the mediocre books they wrote. They put out a bunch of videos on how to write good books, and then wrote books that basically followed none of that advice. Both authors thought non-stop cursing and lust constitued an adult book, there was no world building, all kinds of plot holes, etc. One author claimed she had worked in editing at a publishing house. Well, she had worked as an intern at a YA publishing company that had a shady record all its own.

    I also agree with kamas716 that I look at the 1 and 2 star reviews for a book more than the higher ratings. I don’t have a lot of money to buy books, and I can go through a book in a day, so I’m left with Kindle Unlimited, which, although it obviously has gems, also has books written by people who didn’t even proofread the book, much less get an editor.

  11. I don’t think I’ve ever been on the site, and sure as hell am NOT starting now…LOL

  12. For those of you who do venture there, please shelve books by genre even if you only rate them. You can’t put your book into a genre. It needs being shelved as one.

  13. I too have been warned away from Goodreads by one of my editors, a lovely Romance Writer who felt that it was a ‘mean girls’ club. I have mostly laid low on there, but had just recently published a few reviews on there…

  14. Amazon has semi-wisely eliminated all replies to reviews on their site. Which is good because it stops 10,000 comment debates with the author of Empress Theresa, but also eliminates where the author answers questions reviewers may have asked.

    The article also points out, I suppose the unwisdom of replying to crazy people on private channels like e-mail. They can lie about what you said to everyone.

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