Let’s Rescue Book Lovers From This Online Hellscape

If you have not kept up with the latest scandal in the world of young adult publishing, it is a doozy. It involves a debut author with a lot of buzz, lies, clumsy alibis, “review bombing,” a long and sordid confession — and, of course, Goodreads. Because whenever there is a meltdown in publishing, Goodreads, the Amazon-owned site that bills itself as “the largest site for readers and book recommendations,” is reliably at the center of it.

You might wonder if Goodreads isn’t just an enabler of scandal, but the problem itself.

But first, the scandal: Internet sleuths figured out that an author named Cait Corrain, whose debut novel was scheduled for 2024, had created fake accounts on Goodreads in order to review-bomb other books — overwhelming them with negative one-star reviews. When confronted online, she concocted a fake online chat to divert blame to a nonexistent friend; when that hoax was uncovered, she confessed, citing a “complete psychological breakdown.” Her publisher and her agent dropped her; the planned publication of her novel was canceled. As often happens in these scandals, the use and abuse of Goodreads — a site whose cheery name masks a recent history of abhorrent user behavior — has left many people hurt and at least one person’s career in ruins.

Goodreads is broken. What began in 2007 as a promising tool for readers, authors, booksellers and publishers has become an unreliable, unmanageable, near-unnavigable morass of unreliable data and unfettered ill will. Of course, the internet offers no shortage of bad data and ill will but at its inception Goodreads promised something different: a gathering space where ardent readers could connect with writers and with one another, swapping impressions and sharing recommendations. It’s an idea that’s both obvious (the internet is great at helping like-minded people assemble) and essential (reading is a solitary activity but there is great joy in talking through a book afterward). In fact, Goodreads is still an essential idea — so much so that it’s worth fighting to fix it.

When I joined the site in 2007, I felt like I had finally found my place online. At the time, I was still using a physical notebook to keep a list of the books I’d read or wanted to read — so discovering a place to track, rate and review books felt entirely, if you’ll pardon the word, novel.After Amazon’s acquisition of it in 2013, Goodreads seemed primed to either sink or soar. While Amazon had won few fans in the book community thanks to its predatory business practices, it is also the foremost online marketplace for books, and so a companion site dedicated to discussing books seemed like an obvious and potentially beneficial complement.

But Goodreads quickly began to languish in an awkward limbo — neither a retailer nor an inviting online salon. Still, it’s become the most popular book-discussion site by far with a reported 125 million members as of late 2022. As book coverage and criticism has been slashed in other areas of popular media, Goodreads by default has taken on an outsize role in the book world’s imagination. But it’s also devolved into a place where users’ worst instincts are indulged or even encouraged.

Whether it’s the rampant practice of review-bombing books that are listed online long before publication (often targeting Y.A. novels that have acquired a whiff of offensiveness, some of which are ultimately pulled from publication) or the internet hecklers hounding beleaguered authors, or those same beleaguered authors tracking down their Goodreads hecklers and publicly shaming them, the combative culture of Goodreads is antithetical to the spirit in which it was started. My own as-yet-unpublished memoir-in-essays already has two ratings on Goodreads — but it won’t even go out to early readers until next year. It’s become routine for publishers to warn authors that Goodreads is a site meant for readers, not for writers — which is to say, what was intended to be a forum for engagement is now a place authors enter at their own peril.

In an ideal world — one in which it wasn’t owned by Amazon — Goodreads would have the functionality of a site like Letterboxd, the social network for movie fans. Letterboxd has called itself “Goodreads for movies” but it has far surpassed that initial tag line, having figured out how to create a smooth and intuitive user experience, provide a pleasant and inviting community and earn revenue from both optional paid memberships and advertisers, including studios that produce the films being discussed. Meanwhile, publishers still rely on Goodreads to find potential readers, but targeted advertising has grown both less affordable and less effective.

So how to fix it? It starts with people: Goodreads desperately needs more human moderation to monitor the goings-on. Obviously, part of any healthy discussion is the ability to express displeasure — those one-star reviews, ideally accompanied by well-argued rationales, are sacrosanct — but Goodreads has enabled the weaponization of displeasure.

It’s not just fledgling authors being pummeled. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” decided to withdraw a forthcoming novel, “The Snow Forest,” after Goodreads users bombarded its page with one-star reviews objecting primarily to the fact that the novel (which no one had yet read) was set in Russia and would be published at a time when Russia and Ukraine were at war. There is most likely no way to eliminate personal attacks entirely from the site — or from the internet, for that matter — but having more human beings on hand to mitigate the damage would certainly improve the experience.

Fortifying the guard rails wouldn’t be that difficult. Currently Goodreads uses volunteer librarians who add new books to the site’s database in their free time. Hiring these people (and scores more like them) and paying them a living wage would empower Goodreads’s representatives to communicate with publishers, large and small, to facilitate posting books to the site when, and only when, a book has actually been written and edited and is ready to be shared with the world.

Given all of Goodreads’s issues, it might seem easy enough to encourage writers and readers simply to flock to another forum. Sites like The Storygraph and Italic Type have sprung up as promising alternatives, but they’re still far from reaching a critical mass of users. As a book critic and publishing professional, I’ve spent much of my career trying to encourage rousing conversations about the literary arts in whatever venues I could find, digital or analog. Maybe that’s why I’m still committed to the idea that Goodreads, or a place like it, must exist. As the usefulness of other social platforms deteriorates, this one is worth trying to save. If the saga of Goodreads has proved anything, it’s that there are millions of readers who care about books and want to discuss them online. They — we — deserve better.

Maris Kreizman is a book critic and the host of the podcast “The Maris Review.”

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