Pondering Reviews, Community – and a Bit of Goodreads

bookscommunity Even before all the fun and games started at Goodreads over the weekend, I found myself thinking quite a lot about reviewing, community and boundaries. This piece from Liz over at Something More started it. Her arguments in favor of writers reviewing one another made me think. On the one hand, I’ve known some authors who have expressed discomfort with the idea of writing in-depth, critical reviews of other romance novels because they fear that they either (1) would not be able to be objective or (2) would not be perceived as objective. Romlandia can be a small world at times, so I understand those concerns. I can also see the difficulties for authors not wanting to damage relationships or hurt their own careers. Then again, as a reader, I would love to see authors who know their craft reviewing books and telling us what they really think of them. Such reviews would carry much more weight with me as a reader than a glowing cover blurb that does little to tell us why Author X thought this book was “such a fun read!”

Obviously, there are issues of conflict of interest and transparency to consider, and they aren’t always easy ones. As Liz points out in her piece, an author writing a glowing review of a book at the same time that the author of said review book is out promoting the reviewer’s work presents problems, and for starters, it’s certainly a relationship that needs to be disclosed. Likewise, if someone reviewing also works for a publisher, I would want the reviewer to disclose that as well. There are also issues of friendship(or on the reverse side, issues of personal animosity, if some of the author wars in literary fiction are anything to go by).

If Author A and Author B are close friends, it helps for a reader to know that when Author B is reviewing Author A. That’s a dilemma that holds true for those of us reviewing who are not published authors because if you review and participate in social media long enough, chances are you will become friendly with someone. I suppose it would be possible to maintain neutrality by living in an author-free social bubble. However, that sort of isolation also means leaving oneself out of the greater exchange of ideas. Instead, I think it makes more sense to be a part of the community, but to have some transparency about it, much as Kaetrin discusses in her excellent piece on reviewing and conflicts. For myself, I think that if a friendship runs deep enough that I worry about writing a negative review of that author, then maybe I need to think twice about reviewing her/him. A bit vague, I know, but this is one of those areas thorny enough not to lend itself to creating an easy set of rules.

Even keeping the idea of conflicts of interest in mind, knowing, respecting and genuinely liking others in the romance world does not have to bar authors from thinking deeply and critically about books and the genre. On the contrary, I think peer review could be a good thing. As an attorney, the closest analogy for me would be the practice of mooting arguments. When an attorney has a big trial or appellate argument looming, it’s quite common to set up trial runs in front of other attorneys prominent in the field. If the attorneys mooting me are any good, they will pick apart every sentence of argument, every nuance of body language…you get the picture. Sometimes the attorney doing her trial run will get rave reviews and sometimes not. However, it’s always a learning experience that causes one to think more deeply about the fundamentals of one’s craft, if one can put ego aside. And so it should be with a good critical review. There have been more than a few pieces online in recent months (including this one of mine) bemoaning the current condition of various segments of the romance market. Perhaps bringing more deep discussion and critical reviewing to our community of romance readers, authors and industry professionals will also bring revitalization to the books that we love.

With a few notable exceptions, most of which I find on Twitter, much of the book discussion I see from authors seems to be of the cover blurb and promo variety. I do see authors writing on their own blogs or doing guest posts about books on other blogs. However, these almost always tend to be marketing posts and blog tour promotions, not critical discussion of aspects of the romance genre or of other books. Here at AAR, I do somewhat frequently get requests from authors wanting to guest post on our blog. However, it’s always either a request for us to join their “street team” or some other aspect of a book release advertising campaign. I will be quite frank and state that this is why we have historically had very few guest posts at AAR. If an author or someone else in the romance world wanted to discuss books or the romance world instead of marketing a new release, I’d actually love to see it. We don’t want to see the blog become yet another advertising space, but a platform for the exchange of ideas and real discussion? Bring it on!

And Then There Was Goodreads

I had already been musing over the blurring of lines in reviewing communities when the whole Goodreads kerfuffle blew this weekend. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I am a Goodreads member for now and there are lots of things I like about the site. I like the ways in which I can organize my shelves and I love being able to pull up a book and see plenty of reviews at a glance. There are some folks from online romlandia whose writing I like to follow, so I love being able to check my timeline and see what they think about books.

Unlike a lot of communities, Goodreads does have plenty of authors as members and I think it’s fair to say that some get a little more involved in commenting on reviews of their books than others. Though I haven’t been directly involved in any incidents, I’m aware that there have been complaints about some of the types of reviews posted on Goodreads (heck, the existence of the sometimes stalkery Stop the Goodreads Bullies site arose from that), and the fact that some reviewers will report making buying decisions based on authors’ behavior has been controversial in some corners. In addition, the fact that some reviewers will create shelves of “to avoid” books by authors involved in plagiarism scandals, aggressive spamming of Goodreads users or other incidences deemed bad behavior has also caused debate.

However, instead of actually engaging in discussion with the community there, Goodreads chose this past weekend to simply put in place a new rule. Even better, they chose to announce it via a user group to which many Goodreads users do not even belong. From what they’re saying in their initial release and the various followups, reviews discussing author behavior are now off limits over there. And if you follow the 70+ page comment thread, you will see reports from users who had their content deleted. If this particular report is true, these deletions are also occurring for rather mystifying reasons. The deletions appear to have been happening without any advance warning to the affected parties so that these parties have no opportunity to move their content or to defend themselves from an unfair or inaccurate allegation.

In addition to the long-simmering debate over author behavior and reviewer responses, one cannot help but wonder if the purchase of Goodreads by Amazon may play a role in this decision by Goodreads. After all, Goodreads was created as a community for book lovers to discus books while Amazon is a seller of books looking to maximize its sales. The acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon arguably sets up a source of tension between the realms of review and marketing – and Amazon has products to market. And in fact, the Goodreads episode of this weekend brings to mind earlier discussions related to Amazon summarily deleting book reviews without warning.

Blythe and I were talking about this news over the weekend, and we agreed that it raises some interesting questions as to ownership in a community. Who gets to call the shots and how far should that authority go? Goodreads, like any other site, can set up Terms of Service to put posters on notice of how it plans to conduct business, but I would argue that they bear a certain responsibility when it comes to changing the terms midstream and then going back to enforce content that existed before the rule change. While Goodreads does in fact own its site, whenever an online community is created, there is as in any community, also created a certain sense of trust and a give and take between moderators and community members. If I were a political philosopher, I would call it a social contract of sorts. Goodreads runs its site, but no one forces any of us to be there; Goodreads runs a community with the tacit consent of those of us who agree to be governed by their rules.

Think about other communities in which we participate, both on and offline. In the best of these, there is an owner/moderator overseeing things but that person or people generally don’t carry out their jobs without the ongoing input and consent of those in the community. To put it bluntly, people tend not to want to keep going to a club if they’re going to be subject to unexpected edicts from on high without opportunity for discussion beforehand. Keeping this in mind, as an online community, shouldn’t a moderator at least warn someone thought to be an offending poster before deleting content? I would think so. Otherwise, the poster never gets a chance to express his/her side of the story or to save content that formerly didn’t violate a rule. Goodreads as a site may have the ability to swoop in and delete content willy-nilly but given the nature of that community, it certainly doesn’t mean they were right (or particularly intelligent) to do so. After all, similar actions by Amazon are part of what has contributed to its reviews being treated as irrelevant by many readers.

I’ve watched several friends from Goodreads leave with whom I enjoyed talking about books. I’ve been taking a bit more of a wait and see attitude. Unless the staff at Goodreads have spent the past few days hiding under rocks, they have to know that the community there has erupted into pages and pages of feedback on the new rules, much of which is overwhelmingly negative. Then again, I have to admit that when I look at some of the comments from Goodreads, one cannot help thinking that the folks at Goodreads may be a bit tone deaf when it comes to dealing with the concerns raised by the community there. Responding, as is done at comment 2660, in a way that essentially tells us the site deletes things because deep down they know what posters are REALLY thinking has a chilling effect on discourse, to put it mildly.

There are plenty of things I have liked about Goodreads and I’m hoping that the management there will apologize and rethink their latest set of rulemaking, but I have to admit that the idea of a site actively deleting user’s content without notice certainly makes on think twice about posting. And the idea of the site going a step further and profiling shelves in an attempt to read the mind of the reviewer is downright ridiculous. I would like to believe that Goodreads could survive as the community for readers that its founder, Otis Chandler, claims it to be. However, I suspect that Goodreads has broken the trust of more than a few of its members and that can be hard to regain.

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31 Responses to Pondering Reviews, Community – and a Bit of Goodreads

  1. wendy says:

    We all knew that things at GR were going to change for the bad with Amazon’s acquisition. How could they not? When a seller owns a review site there is little hope that reviews will remain impartial. The removal.of shelves is just a precursor to mass removal of negative reviews.

  2. AARJenna says:

    I once participated in an on-line site/forum that had very harsh moderators who would swoop in and delete posts and ban posters for the slightest infraction of the board rules. I would post something that I thought was purely harmless and/or innocent, never intending to be in any way a trouble maker, only to find that I’d used a word or phrase that the moderator took to be a breaking of the rules and would then find myself banned. No warning, just a message saying I’d been banned for breaking Rule #whatever. It was infuriating and horrible, and I very soon decided not to be a part of that site even though I had always enjoyed the conversations I’d found there. While I appreciate GoodRead’s attempts to keep the book review site a site focused on reviews as opposed to author behaviour, I just don’t see how this can be anything but bad.

    That said, I guess I’ve just never been to one of the threads in which authors harass reviewers or horrible behaviour has happened. Most of the reviews I’ve read have been straight opinions on the work as opposed to rants about authors. I have to wonder if this may be a tempest in a teapot because it affects so few situations?

  3. The entire incident at Goodreads this weekend makes me sad. As a reader, I used to feel like I could go there and get an honest survey of people’s opinions of a book. From here on out, I won’t be so sure. I think it’s important to uphold a person’s right to have whatever opinion they like about your book, positive or negative. Yes, I’ve heard the horror stories. But, really, they’re not so prevalent as one would believe. Should Goodreads maybe step in when a user has a shelf called “authors who should be raped to death?” Yes. But they should still notify the user that such content is not appropriate, and give them a chance to change the name of their shelf before deleting it. There should be some limitations–inciting violence against an author is never appropriate–but they should be stated clearly for all to see and the users given time to take corrective action.

    As an author, I choose not to comment on any of the reviews people give my books, good or bad, because I don’t want them to think I’m looking over their shoulders. But, honestly, I rarely read these reviews anyway. I find it best, in order to protect my muse and keep my balance, just to stay away. I usually find very little constructive criticism in the Goodreads reviews, and what is there is often contradicted by another review, so reading them does little but either stroke my ego or make me console myself with chocolate.

    I mainly use Goodreads as a reader anyway. I rate the books I read, but I’ve chosen not to post my ratings for books that would receive 2 stars or less. I’m not going to rate a book higher than I think it deserves, but I also don’t feel comfortable posting low ratings for fellow authors. This is a personal choice. As much as I feel I can usually be impartial, there’s always a sliver of doubt, so I choose to err on the side of caution if the review is going to be negative.

  4. I review, and I have self-imposed rules. I won’t review books from publishers (or lines) that I’m with, and if I review books by friends, I will always state it upfront and then the reader can make up her mind. That’s because sometimes those friends have become so because I loved their books.
    My personal definition is that a friend is someone I’ve shared things about my private life with.

  5. Mary Skelton says:

    …Going now to Goodreads to see if any of my reviews have been deleted…

  6. maggie b. says:

    I don’t think any of my reviews have been deleted but I honestly don’t know. I think they should at least allow a grace period where they contact people and say “Your review is a violation of our policy.” Not fair to willy nilly delete.

  7. Lady Wesley says:

    Thank you for a very well reasoned response to the Goodreads “kerfluffle.” Since I review only mainstream historical romance at Goodreads, I have not been affected by the problem of badly behaving authors and reviewers. That said, however, this whole problem has reminded me that I have no backup for the hundreds of reviews that I have spend hundreds of hours writing. I’m not leaving Goodreads, but I am actively investigating options for backing up my reviews.

    Goodreads’ handling of this issue would make a marvelous case study in crisis management. Thus far, they’ve done just about everything wrong.

    • Blackjack1 says:

      Your suggestion of backing up your own reviews is excellent. I had not thought of that and had been assuming that my reviews were saved online. But if the site is removing reviews, then it makes sense to take our own precautionary steps!

      • willaful says:

        Not only have reviews been deleted without notice by GoodReads, but some have disappeared that they disclaim knowledge any knowledge of. Everyone should back up their reviews regularly.

    • Noelie says:

      To save your reviews, you need to go to “My Books” then on the left menu “import/export”, and there “export to a csv file”. All your books, grades, and reviews will be saved on your computer.

    • Caz says:

      I learned early on to write all my reviews in Word first and then post them, so I have all my original copies saved. I haven’t looked to check for deletions, but then like you, I tend to steer clear of that sort of controversy – even though I have written the odd snarky 1-star review.

  8. Joane says:

    I think that if there’s any conflict of interest, you should say it, in order for the reader to know that ypur review could be biased.
    Nevertheless, I know I have my own censorship. I write reviews for a Spanish romantic web, but I usually review foreign writers, because it’s very hard for me to say something bad about a book written originally in Spanish. But it’s not a question of friendship. IMO, internet “friends” are not real friends. Friends are those you can have a cup of coffee with or that you go out to the beach or talk about your children…
    It’s just that is so hard for those authors to have their books in the bookstores next to Robers or Kleypas, that I have no heart to say something wrong. If I cannot say something good about their books, I’d rather shut up. You could do that with a friend’s book.
    About GR or Amazon… I really don’t have an opinion. I don’t usually trust their reviews. I prefer semi-profesional readers reviews I can read in blogs or in web pages like this one.

  9. willaful says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on the situation. I’m one of the people slowly leaving; nothing of mine has been deleted, but I just can’t contribute to a site that treats its users so poorly.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      The treatment of readers at a community that is supposedly “by readers for readers” upsets me, too. I’m waiting for the dust to settle before I decide on staying versus going, but I do wonder what this incident will do to grow community at places like Booklikes.

  10. Admin AAR says:

    Like Lynn, I feel like Goodreads could – and should – notify its users before content is deleted so they have time to back it up or take it elsewhere. If you’ve spent hours writing Goodreads reviews only to lose them because of a policy violation (real or perceived), that certainly seems unfair. And while I think most of us understand the drive to regulate bookshelves or reviews that suggest that the author deserves to be the victim of a violent crime, it’s hard to know where the line is after that. It’s not okay to name your shelf “authors who should be bound, gagged, and pulverized”…but will they delete “authors who suck and blow”? If an author complains about a review to the Goodreads PTB, how much of a review process is there before they make a decision? It all seems like a giant pain in the ass.

    That said, I think that a lot of the feelings around this are because readers perceive Goodreads as a site that belonged to them, a site where they should have a say in making the rules. I think what Goodreads is saying is that it is THEIR site and THEIR rules. That’s a pretty tough pill to swallow for people who considered it their community.

    I like Goodreads but mostly use it as a vehicle to catalog what I read. Occasionally when I’m thinking of reading something I’ll check to see what my friends thought, but it isn’t usually a purchase driver for me. When I write reviews myself there it’s usually because I have a few short thoughts, or it’s something I’m not planning to review for AAR but I still want to talk about it. I don’t really think the changes will affect my experience that much, although they may drive away friends whose opinions I am interested in.


    • farmwifetwo says:

      Normally Blythe I would agree except that the site was built on hours of unpaid labour by it’s members. Those books do not magically appear. Librarians put them on, sort out the different releases, correct all the metadata mistakes. When Amazon decided a couple of years ago they could no longer use their information, those librarians had to redo all those books. They had to crawl through their personal stuff, online sites etc and input it manually.

      Had goodreads staff done it… I’d agree it’s “their site”… but they didn’t.

      So, I have to disagree it’s just Goodread’s site. Which is why IMO the best thing they can do, is refuse to do it anymore.

  11. First time commenting, but I’ve been following you for awhile.

    This is the third time I’ve heard of “someone behaving badly” at Goodreads, and I’m just ready to let go of the drama. I don’t participate in any forums because of this reason, but I also don’t want to leave Goodreads because I’ve gotten a lot of good ratings and reviews there. As an author, every little review helps. However, with what has happened this weekend, it just seems that Amazon has done it again. Imposed their own rules whether fair or not. They did the same thing last year when reviews got out of hand on the Zon and deleted a bunch of them willy nilly.

  12. Katie (kat) says:

    I’ve never heard of Goodreads until I tonight. I guess I wasn’t paying atteniton. Anyway, it looks like it was a good site before this happened. I read the comments and I’m very sorry for the readers who invested their time and effort to review books there.

    I hate censorship. Every site does it though including AAR. I don’t want to read comments that are full of hate and wish trolls did not exist but I also despise being told what opinions I’m allowed to share. I think it was very disrespectul to delete people’s work and incredibly patronizing to not respond in any geniune way to reader’s concerns.

    Does anyone know what authors were being discussed that were harassing readers or are we not allowed to talk about that here?

    • Katie (kat) says:

      There needs to be an edit button. Arrrrrrgggggghhhhh. I don’t why I have an I between until and tonight.

    • AAR Lynn says:

      I honestly haven’t kept up with all of the various dramas over at Goodreads because some of them happen on forums that I generally don’t follow(there are 100s of forums over there). I’m sure other readers could fill you in on some of the brouhahas, though.

      The main incident I remember recently involved an author named Lauren Howard who claimed that she had been bullied on GR and threatened with violence, but who later backtracked on some of the claims. You can find a summary here: http://threears.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/lauren-pippahoward-throws-a-tantrum-the-internet-falls-all-over-itself-to-give-her-candy-bike-still-on-order/

      The whole incident ended up spreading from GR to get coverage on multiple sites, including a not well fact-checked piece at Salon.

      Re: discussion – Yes, we do have certain ground rules(basic stuff related more to personal attacks on other commenters, copyright violation, etc..) like pretty much every site does but please don’t worry that discussing/debating issues raised by the blog post would violate those.

  13. erika says:

    I thought Goodreads was for readers not authors???
    I recently joined GR and for the first time ever began organizing my books.
    Naming shelves really helps to recall why I liked or hated a book. Guess due to the new TOS I must be really inventive on how I name shelves.

  14. Noelie says:

    Now GR gives a 2 days delay to change something before they delete reviews. That’s the only concession they made.
    What annoy me is that I’m sure only negative comments/reviews will be deleted. If someone rave about an author’s genius, I’m sure nobody will delete it.

  15. Eggletina says:

    I think what GR did stinks but is a sign of the times. I deleted my GR account a few months ago. I rarely participated in the forums. I wasn’t using it for the social aspect. It was a time sink I really didn’t need. I still go there to read reviews after I’ve read a book, but that’s about it. Personally, I think there are drama divas on both sides of the author/reviewer fence. I also often think independent reviewers are an endangered species on the internet. I’m finding precious few of them. Most reviewers are also writers (published or with aspirations to be published) or otherwise connected to the publishing industry in some way. Go to almost any book forum or social media site for books, and you’ll find most discussions even in reader spaces dominated by them.

  16. Sandlynn says:

    Hmm, I didn’t know anything about this before this article was written. I’m not a member of Goodreads, but I do visit the site once in a while when I’m trying to get titles for types of books I might want to read — sort of like AAR’s special titles lists.

    That being said, I have discovered that once a internet site gains a level of popularity, leading to even more participants and diverse opinions, the “management” often tries to manage or corral it with rules that sometimes go over board. This can cause dissension even among long time posters and put the kibosh on free discussion. This situation gets even worse when these popular sites are sold to corporate entities. I can think of one message/review board that covers pop culture in which that exact situation happened, and users usually have no recourse in getting management to loosen up. They just have to swallow it as the new owners would rather stifle conversation than put work into separating out the true troublemakers from people just having an honest difference of opinion.

    Frankly, I think this inability to disagree in a reasonable manner — and to tolerate differences of opinion — has carried forward into all aspects of our lives, including our politics. Just look at the UK where you can have a rough and tumble parliament and still manage to govern while disagreements in the US become major, moral indictments, leading to calls for impeachment, of treason, and other such nonsense.

    I know that’s kind of a leap, but I just can’t tell you how often one might say, “I don’t agree with” or “I don’t like” this or that and find yourself being ostracized, deleted, denounced, or being assigned all kinds of negative traits or associations. Everybody has to go along to get along in this world apparently, which has led to some pretty bad outcomes.

    • Sandlynn says:

      Just want to add that, I realize once a site is bought by a corporate entity, it no longer becomes a place to exchange ideas and becomes one whose primary goal is to sell a product. So, should be no surprise that free expression gets stifled in that instance.

  17. Kay says:

    So, you’re saying I should no longer make snarky comments about Amazon at Goodreads?

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  20. Lucy Blue says:

    Great article, Lynn, and I agree almost completely. I would like to review more books in my own genre for my blog because I read a lot of them, and I have a lot to say. But I don’t for the very reasons you cite: I don’t want to burn any bridges or look like I’m feasting on sour grapes in a negative review, and I don’t want to look like I’m doing favors for pals and not giving my honest opinion in a positive one. I do mention books written by friends if I honestly believe they’re really good and something I really think my own readers would enjoy, but I always make sure to disclose that it’s a plug for a friend, not a full-scale review.
    I can totally understand wishing for more honest commentary from authors – I’d love that, too, love to write it, love to read it. But right now the success or failure of a single title or even an author’s entire career can hinge on their consumer reviews, and not just at Amazon. With so much product on the market, readers are depending more and more on other readers to help them decide what to buy. (That’s why professional review sites like All Romance become more to be treasured every day.) Nothing makes me cringe more than to read a “review” from someone who is slagging a book just to be clever or to snark off about an author’s reputation – if you read the story and didn’t like it, by all means, say so and say why, but if you’re just showing off your own cleverness or how in-the-know you are, give it a rest; this is somebody’s art you’re playing with. So as an author, I am very, very hesitant to give someone else a negative review even if I didn’t like their book – my one-star could do too much harm.
    As for Goodreads, I’ve been a member for a long time, but only as a reader. I review books outside my own genre and love getting into discussions with other readers about pretty much anything. But I totally agree that the site works so much better as a forum for readers – we need an ad-free/flog-free/marketing-free zone somewhere. So knowing that it now belongs to Amazon makes me sad. I get impatient with readers who slag on books or authors without what looks like good cause to me – but it shouldn’t be up to me what constitutes good cause. And if GR is deleting reviews on this kind of scale, I’m not sure I trust them to decide either. I agree, this reeks of marketing agenda from Amazon, and again, that makes me sad.

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