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"May it never happen that a dog perishes": negative experiences with Goodreads reviews

“May it never happen that a dog perishes”: negative experiences with Goodreads reviews


Every day, something dramatic occurs on a popular social media platform. On Goodreads, a website known for its outdated design and features that allows users to log, rate, and review books, the dramas are often entertaining and sometimes even attract attention from non-book-loving individuals. A recent incident involved Cait Corrain, a fantasy author who created multiple fake accounts to give positive reviews for her upcoming book and negative reviews for authors she saw as competition. In December 2023, her scheme was uncovered by citizen journalists, resulting in the cancellation of her book and the loss of her agent and future book deal.

This is a thought-provoking story about self-sabotage and the impact of the internet on mental health. However, the consequences are not significant – publicly harassing colleagues is a fireable offense and the young adult literature community is relatively niche. As a professional critic and author, I am more invested in my own work and my competitors than this subculture. Goodreads has been around for over a decade, but its relevance to the wider literary world is still unclear. Does it actually sell books or make or break careers? The entertaining and attention-grabbing stories surrounding the site have likely contributed to its perceived importance, but is it truly significant?


We are familiar with the main social media platforms: Twitter (X) can damage your professional reputation, Facebook is responsible for the decline of truth, TikTok is primarily for teenagers, and Instagram is Instagram. Despite its reputation for a less-than-optimal user experience, or perhaps due to the perception that book readers are a shrinking and threatened audience, Goodreads appears to be innocent. However, it can be surprising when its users exhibit erratic behavior. Although the platform functions as a social media site where users “connect,” argue, and form one-sided relationships while trying to manipulate the system, Goodreads also serves as a consumer review platform. In 2013, Amazon purchased the site for $150 million from its founders, a husband-and-wife team. This change did not significantly alter the interface, but it did increase the site’s potential influence: on Goodreads, it is effortless to find a link to purchase the book you are interested in and link your Goodreads profile to your Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader. A book’s success on Amazon is the most crucial factor in its sales; at the time of the acquisition, the American Authors Guild cautioned that “Amazon’s control of online book sales is almost insurmountable.” Therefore, Goodreads may use a facade of community and genuine love for books to promote sales.

The reason for its success is not in spite of its wholesome appearance, but because of it. Purchasing a book is not equivalent to buying any other type of product or service. The desire to balance the intangible pleasures of art and culture with the need to optimize one’s limited resources is the underlying justification for most cultural writing, from consumer review platforms like Amazon to outlets for expert critiques. For the pure and innocent customer searching for a good read for their limited summer vacation, this poses a dilemma: how to determine the best purchase. With countless options available, turning to professional critics who may be biased – like myself, an elitist with my own agenda – is not always ideal. An alternative solution is to seek advice from honest book enthusiasts who have nothing to gain or lose by writing a review.

On Goodreads, there is a contrast between individual authors who are seen as public figures with the privilege of having an agent and a book deal, and unagented readers who are democratically righteous. These readers are only in the public eye due to historical circumstances, not by choice. Goodreads users view themselves as providing a public service by sharing their reviews of books they have read. These opinions are then combined to form a collective evaluation that can assist other righteous readers in making decisions about how to allocate their time and money.

For the author with positive reviews, this is a great opportunity. For those with a smaller audience, it may be seen as a thriller. A common warning for anxious authors is to avoid constantly checking their stats and developing paranoid thoughts, as “Goodreads is for readers, not for writers”. There is some truth to this advice, as writers are also advised against reading reviews and searching for their own name on X platform. However, Goodreads offers many ways for authors to directly engage with their readers and promote themselves. The challenge is to do so without upsetting the site’s unpredictable reviewers, which often requires being upbeat, agreeable, and overall pleasant. It would be challenging, if not impossible, for an author to use Goodreads without at least glancing at reviews.

Leading up to the release of her debut novel, No One Else Can Have You, in 2014, Kathleen Hale was experiencing high levels of stress. She frequently checked her Goodreads page and had a large number of notifications. Then, her worst fear became a reality when she received a one-star review from a Goodreads user named Blythe Harris, who described her book as “one of the worst reads of the year.”

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Receiving negative reviews can be unsettling, but it’s important not to take them too personally. It’s natural for someone to dislike your book, even if it’s due to a misunderstanding. We’ve all been in the position of being critical without fully understanding a topic. What is truly concerning is when these reviews spread and are analyzed in a paranoid manner, causing a ripple effect of implications. In her essay “Am I Being Catfished?” author Hale shared that other commenters chimed in, expressing their hesitation to read her book because of the negative review, or even adjusting their ratings due to the reviewer’s perspective.

Hale came up with a highly demanding strategy to pursue the fairness she believed her book deserved. She later shared this plan in her 2019 publication, “Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker.” As expected, the book received harsh criticism from Goodreads reviewers, with many explicitly stating they would not read it.

Whether the group forms naturally or is intentionally encouraged, this strategy has been dubbed “review bombing” and has resulted in instances of extortion and blackmail against authors. Anonymous groups have sent intimidating emails, such as the one a self-published author received in 2021, stating: “Either you satisfy our demands and meet our requirements with your money, or we will destroy your career as an author.” Shortly after, one-star reviews began to appear on her book pages. She expressed to Time magazine that it was a very threatening situation.

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The Goodreads community can come across as demanding towards authors, even though they are not necessarily blackmailing them. When I mentioned writing about the site, a friend acknowledged my bravery. The first expectation of Goodreads reviewers is that you refrain from questioning, critiquing, or acknowledging Goodreads unless it is for self-promotion. If you fail to follow this expectation, you may be accused of having negative motives such as narcissism, obtuseness, or a desire for revenge, and may even face retaliation. I explained to my friend that my decision to write about the site was more practical than courageous, as my first novel has received a low rating on Goodreads (less than three stars) which is often attributed to the popular belief that women writing literary fiction about women tend to receive lower ratings. (Although there is not enough data to support this claim.) Therefore, I do not have much to lose by sharing my thoughts. I have already faced the professional consequences of being unpopular on Goodreads. While I cannot rule out potential personal consequences such as psychological distress or threatening messages being sent, I am optimistic that everything will work out in the end. (Or maybe not!)

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The second request from Goodreads reviewers pertains to the content of the books themselves. The purpose of a star rating system, whether for anything in general or specifically for works of art and literature, is to convey the value of the work. On Goodreads, there are certain values that contribute to a book’s success. However, my debut novel has faced numerous criticisms from Goodreads reviewers, including being marketed as having a strong plot in the vein of a woman’s journey to solve a romantic mystery (catchy, right?), the portrayal of Brooklyn, a perceived “snarky” narrator who is believed to be a reflection of myself, and the use of complex vocabulary (I was even called out for using the word “antipodeans” to describe Australian tourists). Additionally, my friend’s book has been criticized for containing too many jokes. During an interview in 2022, one of the top Goodreads reviewers, Elyse Walters, expressed her disapproval for themes that are not popular among Goodreads users, such as accidental deaths of dogs. She also mentioned a general discomfort with sexual content.

A seasoned member of a book club in her early 70s who resides in California, Walters joined Goodreads shortly after its launch in 2007. However, it wasn’t until she underwent surgery and was confined to bed for almost a year that she became more dedicated to the site. Through her iPad, she had access to a vast selection of books and readers from all over the world to discuss them with. She became quite skilled at using the site, but as her popularity grew, she started feeling that the magic of the site was fading. The pressure to respond to numerous messages from authors and publishers requesting her to read their books was causing her stress. She wanted to focus on writing thorough reviews, which could take up to one or two hours if she truly enjoyed the book. Similar to all other Goodreads reviewers, she has never been compensated for her reviews, although she does receive free books from publishers. Additionally, she was invited to the Goodreads headquarters to test new technology for the app, which she felt was yet another task without pay. Despite not receiving payment, she continued reviewing because she genuinely enjoyed it. However, when I reached out to her in 2023, she mentioned that she had stopped using Goodreads for the time being. She expressed confusion as to why she was so popular on the site, stating, “I am not even a good writer. I just love sharing my thoughts and connecting with people.”

Not all individuals reciprocate feelings. As Walters gained more recognition on the website, others started to spread rumors about her. Her friends offline viewed it as petty and reminiscent of high school, and I share this sentiment. Walters admitted, “I suppose I am not very guarded.” She disclosed that she and her husband used to have weekly warm-water soaks in their pool, sometimes without clothing. Eventually, someone began telling others, “You should befriend her, she participates in orgies.” Walters was informed of this rumor. She clarified that she does not host orgies. “But even if I did, so what?” she questioned. “How would that impact your lives?”

The typical online commenter desires to think that they can influence the lives of others and have an impact beyond just their emotions. (They also aim to influence your mood.) Therefore, they may feel offended when someone else is hosting a weekly clothing-optional warm-water soak in their pool. They may question whether the host of the soak cares about their thoughts and if they should feel embarrassed. This is because the commenter believes that by sharing this information with them and others, the host has invited their opinion and brought this situation upon themselves.

Evidence indicates that Goodreads reviewers are not able to compete with the power of authors whose influence they believe they can control. Hale’s status on the platform has improved, following the publication of her latest book, Slenderman: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls, in 2022. This book currently has a Goodreads rating of 3.95 stars. In 2021, author Lauren Hough released an essay collection titled Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, and caused controversy on Goodreads by referring to users who left her book four-star reviews as “assholes” instead of five-star reviews. This resulted in a campaign of negative reviews, causing the book’s star rating to drop significantly. However, it still managed to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list and its star rating has since risen to a respectable 3.37.

In the following year, Hough faced consequences for defending her friend, Sandra Newman, whose book was criticized by Goodreads users for being transphobic. As a result, Lambda Literary withdrew Hough’s nomination for their annual awards, citing her use of her influential platform to engage in harmful behavior towards readers and critics. This serves as a reminder to not lash out at commenters, as they may be facing more challenges than you. While this is not entirely accurate, it highlights a misunderstanding about power in the attention economy. When you create something that can gain public attention, you may be perceived as a famous individual with the benefits of a pop star and the job security of a politician.

Experts in the publishing industry generally agree that Goodreads is considered to be a crucial platform. In fact, one book editor described it as a necessary evil in an interview with Time magazine in 2021. However, this perception was mostly limited to the site’s forum culture until 2023. Around this time, bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert announced the release of her new novel, The Snow Forest, which received backlash from over 50 Goodreads users, many of whom were from Ukraine. These users engaged in a review bombing campaign on the book’s newly created Goodreads page, criticizing it for romanticizing Russia while the country was still at war with Ukraine. Despite the fact that the novel was set in 1930s Russia and revolved around a family’s resistance against the Soviet regime, this did not seem to appease the critics. As a result of the Goodreads campaign, Gilbert made the decision to indefinitely postpone the publication of her novel, citing the concerns of her Ukrainian readers as the reason behind her decision.

The decision made by Gilbert caused a stir in the literary community, as it seemed to be an extreme and ominous reaction. The value of Goodreads had previously been seen as a minor annoyance, but now it appeared to have the power to influence a well-known author to cancel a book. This raised concerns for books that may address more controversial topics. How could a publisher, and the author themselves, give in to the demands of amateur reviewers who had not even read the book and most likely would not have bought it? What repercussions could publishers and authors genuinely fear? And why does Goodreads not prevent these types of situations?

The solution to the previous inquiry is simple: it does not contribute to their financial success. However, Goodreads is not a criminal organization, nor is it the most effective or sole method for promoting a new book. Although its members may have disrupted the lives of those they review, the impact they have had is not as clear-cut as “AUTHOR CAREER RUINED.” Their evaluations hold weight only if a sufficient number of influential individuals believe in them. The unsettling unanswered question for the publishing world is: who are these influential individuals? To put it differently: I am a writer, indeed. But am I not also a reader?

Source: theguardian.com