Via that magical “news” source that is Twitter, I learned of Goodreads’s recent policy change, whereby the moderators (whoever they are) can now simply delete a user’s reviews and shelves if they are primarily about “author behavior.” Here is an excerpt:
"**Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior."
Tough luck if you wanted to save any of those review or remember whose books you weren’t going to buy. Oh, but wait, let me point something out. The policy makes reference to generic “author behavior.” As many commentators have asked, does this include positive author behavior, or only negative? The implicit answer is, of course, negative. Since becoming part of Amazon’s vast empire, Goodreads has increasingly taken the sides of authors, including authors behaving badly, and left reviewers out in the cold.
Author/reviewer friction has become more and more common, and they are getting quite a bit of press. Certain authors seem to be googling themselves more frequently in order to read bloggers’ reviews of their books. And if they find something they don’t like, some few of them seem to be unable to resist opening their internet maws, which creates a bad situation all around. In one notable case, an author actually riled up his fans on twitter and bombarded an unfortunate blogger with negative tweets, comments, & emails, creating a virtual campaign against the blogger in question.* It’s only when the authors get caught out that they offer a sideways (non)apology. And they do eventually get caught out, because on the internet, everything is public.
What could these anonymous, largely unpaid bloggers and reviewers possibly be saying to invite such vitriol? In most cases I’ve read, the blogger reviews the work poorly, and calls into question the ideologies behind the author’s work. It might be understandable that some authors would take this personally, because they are not adequately prepared for anonymous public criticism. In rare cases, bloggers have gone beyond the book and attacked the author. But these are rare cases, and in general, these reviews are not what have garnered media attention.
Media attention only happens when an author behaves very badly, very publicly. Or when a blogger who can’t handle the private email/message abuses finally speaks out. But to the author’s fans and internet trolls, these negative reviews and this calling out of bad behavior have come to be called “author bullying.” There’s even a Goodreads-specific site for labeling the “author bullies” and blacklisting them, which I will not link to here. Several of the reviewers I follow on Goodreads are listed there. And they are listed there unfairly.
Others have spoken more eloquently about the definition of bullying and how what these reviewers/bloggers are doing comes nowhere near the crime of bullying, but what do the trolls care? It’s easier to label and dismiss than it is to engage and learn. And those in power must always be protected from the nameless masses.
All of this brings me back to Goodreads and the recent policy change. It’s clear whose side Goodreads is on, and it should come as no surprise now that they are owned by Amazon, who is only interested in profits, even at the expense of authors (See any random rant by Jonathan Franzen). But Amazon/Goodreads is clearly willing to forgo its relationship with readers now, at least those readers who attempt to deflate an author’s ego or public image by calling out their bad behavior publicly. In other words, anyone who doesn’t say nice, purchase-increasing things about a given book.
I have used Goodreads since 2011, and have almost 900 books categorized on there. Some users have over 2,000 books and hundreds of reviews. Those of us who love what Goodreads offered readers, but who cannot agree with their new policies are faced with the decision of whether or not to stay. The reality is that any substitute site we choose can also delete anything at any time without warning unless the blogger/reviewer has their own domain name. This was an issue with both blogger and blogspot, and I’m sure it’s happened on wordpress’s public site. I think what has people most upset is that Goodreads has blatantly said that it will do this as well, but in a decidedly unbalanced way. Goodreads’s message is clear: reviewers, watch what you say or we’ll delete your content; authors: carry on. As one blogger recently and unfairly accused of author bullying noted, this policy creates an incredibly unfair power dynamic where authors are protected no matter what they do, even when publicly shamed for their behavior, while reviewers can simply be deleted. Authors already have far more power than the anonymous blogger; now they have policy to back them up.
Goodreads is and always has been a privately owned site. They have always had the ability and the right to do what they want. Their policy had previously been designed to create and maintain user trust. That trust has been violated and Goodreads will reap those rewards. There will be plenty of users who stay, and plenty more who will still join. But there is now bad faith and bad blood between the site and many of its top reviewers. This will cost them, but will it cost them enough to back the faceless reviewers, who the site was created for, or the profit-earning, publicity bringing authors? Can they ever even win them back after this? I think the damage has been done.
Readers want a public space in which to gather and share reviews, to talk about books and to be able to do this without someone breathing down their necks about whether what they say is acceptable or not. The draw to sites like Goodreads and BookLikes, which I have just joined, as opposed to a personal blog is the community(ies) they create. In order to both protect their content and enjoy a ready-made bookish community, book reviewers are going to need to have it both ways: create their own blogs where they own the content they produce and cannot have it deleted just because it offends an author/moderator and then post those reviews on whatever community site they like. Reviewers can have their own spaces to do what they like while still participating in a ready-made online community. Not everyone can and will want to do this. The simple fact is, unfortunately, that unless you own the domain, your content is no longer yours as soon as it is published.
The Goodreads model has been so successful, in part, because of its user interface, which is so far unmatched, in my opinion. Alternatives like BookLikes or LibraryThing might get an upsurge in users from the impending Goodreads exodus, but they just don’t have the interfaces to make the transition easy. It feels like we have no where to go. Some, probably many, of us will stay at Goodreads and fall in line. But none of us can live in the illusion that Goodreads belongs to the readers anymore; it hasn’t for a long time. Friday’s policy change has just served to make that painfully obvious.
*I have not linked to any of the recent author/reviewer interactions. Most of these people just want to move on with their blogging lives, so let them.