Friday, October 4, 2013

Goodreads and the New Policies

The change in the publishing world has pushed writers and readers onto the Internet faster than the offer of a free trip to the Bahamas, but we have adopted the new way of life without thinking much about it except how to manage the technology. Goodreads has recently stepped in to tighten up its policies, deleting reviews it deems unsuitable and shelves in a reviewer’s page, and Amazon is deleting certain books in a certain category (hint: think porn).

All this change has some readers and reviewers reacting loudly and angrily because they have come to regard these sites as public spaces where individual rights applh. The reactions are to (1) Goodreads making the changes without announcing them directly to all members of GR and (2) deletion of reviews and shelves without an explanation first.

I understand the emotional reactions from reviewers who have lost reviews without warning. Some have put time and effort into their reviews, stating clearly what they dislike and why. They take reviewing very seriously, and strive to present a thorough understanding of the book under review. But I also understand the decision of GR to delete the negative reviews. Writers who have received mean-spirited reviews that seem to attack the writer for writing rather than discussing the book have had no recourse to this kind of cyber bullying and will be relieved at the new policies.

The truth is, most reviews now are written by people who have little or no experience in the world of journalism; they are not professionals, trained and vetted by any independent organization. As reviewers, many do no more than react. They do not think first and write second. They do not give time or thought to why they dislike a particular book. And they blur the line between disliking the book and disliking the author. Personal feelings about the writer have no place in a review, and shouldn’t motivate a negative review either. A review is supposed to be about the book, to guide readers who are interested in finding books that will be entertaining, interesting, and rewarding in insight and experience as well as within the type they most prefer.

We have become a nation of individuals with short attention spans. The book that requires the reader to “dawdle” through the first chapter to get to know characters and ways of seeing the world is sure to get a negative review. A book with a terse style that is meant to mimic a particular group of people will certainly turn off some readers. But many readers are not going to understand that the fault, to paraphrase Shakespeare inventing a quote by Caesar, “is not in the stars but in ourselves,” that we are untrained readers telling the world what we dislike.

Reviews of self-published books are useful as feedback from unsolicited beta readers, and negative reviews of commercially published books can also be useful. But reviews that are snide and mean are of no use to anyone. They are often a brief one or two lines, which suggests that the reviewer didn’t read the whole book, didn’t begin reading with a willingness to give the book a fair hearing, and didn’t try to understand how the book fit in the genre or contributed to the topic. If you only enjoy modern spy thrillers, why are you reading for review a romance novel set in nineteenth century France?

The controversy will continue, and the new gatekeepers, Goodreads and Amazon among others, will have to continue making decisions about what will be allowable on their sites. Some people will agree with their decisions and others will not. But all of us will learn more about the kinds of people who are out in the world looking for an opportunity to tell the world what they think.

If you are interested in the discussion on GR, go

And if you are interested in the policy statements, go

and for the update on the policy statements go


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Reviews are of concern to authors simply because readers are influenced by them. Therefore, we hope for good reviews. The internet has made reviewing highly democratic--anyone can post a review. That is both good and bad. As you observe, many reader/ reviewers are not journalists. Yet, the thoughts and feelings of ordinary readers are often exactly what writers would like to know. Some of the so-called professional review journals have individuals offering snarky, rude commentary which destroys an author's chances of success unjustly. So my thinking is I'd rather have as many real readers as possible become familiar with my work. I welcome them to read and comment on my work.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I too welcome reviews from ordinary readers, but I don't welcome the one or two line snarky reviews. They do nothing for anyone.

We seem to be in a period of transition, where sites like Goodreads are faced with deciding how they will go forward in the future. Reviewing is definitely more democratic now, but it is also sometimes anarchic.

I think the discussion itself is useful regardless of where we end up.

Thanks for commenting, Jacquie.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, Susan. There is so much that will no doubt shake out over time, but some of us just now beginning careers as writers fear we don't have the luxury of waiting out the changing tides of publishing. We can only hope for gentle, honest, and thoughful reviews.
Catherine Dilts

Susan Oleksiw said...

I agree with what GR and Amazon are trying to do because reviews are important to writers. I don't think of the changes being made as censorship, but more in the line of trying to raise the standard of reviewing. All writers will benefit from that. All of us hope for "gentle, honest, and thoughtful reviews."

Sheila York said...

I was once the recipient of a very negative amateur review (not on GR) whose author made claims about my research that simply were not true. And I was -- and am -- stuck with it forever.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I applaud your actions. There are too many rude, nasty reviewers who don't even read the books that they give one stars, which ruins a writer's rating and sales. One such person said her husband read the book and that my dates for the book I spent over 20 years researching weren't accurate. The entire book takes place in 1889. How could I get the "dates" wrong? The "reviewer" admits to not reading the book, so
why is her review allowed to remain on Many writers are angry about similar undeserved reviews.