The dark side of book reviewing

book reviews, ramblings

This just came to my attention today. I’m a bit late to the game, but my focus has been dedicated to the real world for a while now. I’ve simply been neglecting the virtual. Shame on me.

While I’ve been gone, a big controversy concerning bullying on Goodreads has come to light. Initially, I did a double-take. Bullying? Goodreads? It’s a book review site. How much bullying could there possibly be?

The allegations are pretty incredible. The issues find their root in the practice of some reviewers deciding to give one-star ratings to books they haven’t read. These books are sometimes also put on unfortunately-named bookshelves, which, theoretically, presents a sort of libel situation. For example, these shelves are given names like “author should be raped,” and other vulgar descriptors. These sorts of things prove to be, to put it mildly, disheartening for indie and self-published authors. It’s bad enough to get a negative review, but to be mocked and ridiculed is something else entirely.

In retaliation to this practice, a concerned group of Goodreaders started a site called Stop the Goodreads Bullies. The focus of the site is to serve up justice where the Goodreads admins will not. The majority of the posts focus on screencaps of comment threads that supposedly reveal bullying in action. The problem, of course, is that it’s very difficult to tell apart the actions of this site’s writers from the behaviors they’re rallying against. For example, STGRB posts real names of Goodreads users who they have a problem with, provides questionable versions of events (that conveniently require interpretation), and gives access to situations taken outside of any context that might be considered meaningful. It’s difficult to make the claim that shelving a book on an inappropriately-named shelf is bullying while calling out an offender and tagging the post with something like “Asshats.”

This is a realm, I think, that not many people are aware of, but it touches on so many of the core issues that surround book review communities. To what degree can an author be criticized? Is it acceptable for an author to interact with reviewers? Are the angry responses that reviewers hurl at authors who question negative reviews instances of bullying?

Bullying is a serious issue. Unfortunately, it seems to have become a buzzword that’s hefted about by groups that feel they’ve been wronged in some way. That detracts from the seriousness of actual instances of bullying, which probably get buried beneath the deluge. I am certain that some of the allegations made by STGRB are legitimate, just as I am certain that a good deal of the information they publish to their site is immoral and hypocritical. There’s not denying, though, that the lines here are very fuzzy.

In my opinion, it’s important that we allow readers to honestly review and, more importantly, react to the books they read. Not everyone is a trained reviewer, so, inevitably, we’re going to see things that look like attacks on an author’s character. In these instances, though, I would argue that the slander is hyperbolic. To say that an author should be killed is simply a crass way of saying that the reviewer had a strong negative reaction to the book. Has that author been treated unfairly? Probably. Should the review be flagged as inappropriate? Probably. Has the author been bullied? Probably not.

The larger issues, and bigger offenses, seem to come about when wronged authors and angry reviewers meet in the comment sections of reviews. Here, a review has been posted and an author has expressed some opposition to it. From there, the reviewer is offended by the obvious subjectivity of the author and the anger that comes with someone showing the audacity to openly disagree with an opinion of a work. Conflict resolution 101, right? We know, though, that lots of folks don’t really excel in that area. And the Internet, unfortunately, is not the place where one goes to start exercising restraint and level-headedness.

As an indie author myself, I have a firm policy of not responding to negative reviews. It’s pretty well understood by most authors that interaction with readers is appreciated by some and abhorred by others. It should come as no surprise that the higher the author’s profile, the more welcome the discussion is. In the last couple of years, there have been numerous instances of authors (specifically YA authors, weirdly) trolling negative reviews of their works. Obviously, this is bad practice. And these negative interactions leave reviewers with a negative opinion of a book AND of the person who wrote it. Which is where the slander seems to come in to play. The logic goes thusly: If you were a jerk about me not liking your book, I will make sure that no one reads it. It’s simple enough.

Of course, we’re talking about someone’s book. This thing they worked so hard on, that they loved and cared for. It’s a very personal thing. And it’s hard to watch it get picked apart by strangers on the Internet, the very place you’d hoped to sell the thing. I’ve personally felt this sting. But, you know, that’s the nature of the beast. You put your stuff out there and people are going to read it. Not all of them are going to like it. It’s best for authors to just keep their distance. Don’t respond to reviews at all. And if you feel compelled to against your better judgement, seek out constructive criticsm. Authors don’t have a leg to stand on when criticizing someone’s reaction to their work. Even if the author thinks that person has not read the book. It’s unprovable and irrelevant.

All those things aside, it’s truly depressing that things have gone this far. They’re book reviews, for crying out loud. This is a person’s reaction to a piece of media. This is a clear view of one of the darker sides of the Internet and is a case in point for why we, as human beings, can’t have nice things. We should probably just blow it up and start from scratch. Perhaps there could be some sort of process for being allowed access to the Internet again, like there is when one buys a handgun.


Initial thoughts on the Great Goodreads Takeover


On March 28, 2013, news quietly spread that Amazon, that omnipotent, indie-killing ethereal monster, was taking over Goodreads. While the action shocked and angered many, the effects of the takeover are less than clear.

The first issue to consider, I think, is whether or not this action will really make a difference. After all, Goodreads has always had a retail presence. On every book’s record, users have the option to make a purchase on an affiliate website. There is little doubt that Amazon will provide preferential treatment to its own website (and probably eliminate any other purchase options), but this isn’t terribly new. Amazon has been driving other stores out of business for years. But will this mean anything to users as far as Goodreads itself is concerned? Maybe not. After all, Amazon did take over Audible without any really noticeable effect.

But, of course, the concerns are farther reaching than that. It is rather alarming that Amazon is taking over Goodreads when, just five years ago, it took over Shelfari. Of the big three, that leaves LibraryThing as the lone non-Amazon literary social network (there are others, but their usage is nowhere near comparable). One of the greatest things about these sites is that, for the most part, you can get unbiased opinions of books. There’s no worry that some business or another is making negative reviews disappear or hiring people to write positive reviews. There is no doubt that this still happens on social sites, but the incentive isn’t as great. Because there’s no direct purchase on the site, the return on investment isn’t very great. But when Amazon is integrated into the social network? Hmm.

And what about those reviews? Goodreads has an impressive 16 million members who have contributed a total of 23 million reviews. The reviews all belong to their respective authors, as stated in the Goodreads terms of use. But will it stay that way? It’s pretty hard to tell. There is presently a mass exodus underway based almost exclusively on the concern over reviewers losing the rights to their intellectual property. This may seem silly, but to serious book reviewers, their body of work is a commodity that they’re reluctant to hand over to some for-profit business. To make things more complicated, Amazon has some pretty strict rules regarding product reviews on its own site, which, if applied to Goodreads, will almost certainly result in user reviews being deleted (as is Amazon policy). So even if users decide to keep their work parked on the Amazon-owned site, they run the risk of losing stuff.

At minimum, it seems pretty safe to assume that these reviews will all be mined for data, as will ratings and comments. There’s just too much information about individual users for them not to capitalize on it all. The shady thing is that all of this information was given in good faith. Voting for this review or joining that group was a way to connect with others over shared interests. There was a high degree of camaraderie in the action, which is now probably going to be stolen to better market products.

Even if nothing perceptible happens, I think we should all be, at minimum, raising our collective eyebrow in alarm. This thing that Amazon is doing hasn’t really been done before. Like Google and Facebook, they’re slowly taking over independent web spaces. If left unchecked, they’re going to do to the Internet what they did to the real world. We’re getting to the point where everything we do online is being tracked and used against us. It may sound like a conspiracy theory (I happen to have definitive proof that an Amazon rep was on the grassy knoll that day), but it isn’t. It’s just unchecked capitalism. This is a growing monopoly that isn’t being recognized as one, because it’s hard to realize what is actually happening. Amazon, the world’s largest bookseller, is taking over a social media site. The two seem like different things. But when you realize that Amazon is probably going to cut out all the other businesses who previously were linked to on Goodreads and is going to use its vast resources to use that huge bank of data to better hone its services, the picture gets a little less foggy.

This is just another leg up for a company that needs to be knocked down a peg.