Goodreads has found itself at the centre of yet another reviews-related scandal. If you haven't heard about it: a (white) debut author named Cait Corrain was caught using fake accounts to boost her own book's ratings while review bombing other authors who were publishing novels similar to hers. Many of the authors she targeted were people of colour. When she was called out, she literally blamed it on an imaginary friend, and then blamed it on mental health issues.
Now, there's a lot to unpack here, including anxiety amongst certain white authors that non-white authors are getting a leg up in the industry (which is absurd), publication panic and competition amongst writers, the aforementioned mental health issues. But I want to talk about the platform where it all happened. And where it keeps happening: Goodreads.
Writers today are expected to be VERY online. We're under a lot of pressure to churn out content for every social media platform of note, to push and continue to push our books. Because even though in-person events still happen, our books will mostly be promoted, discovered, discussed, and bought online, and a lot of that will happen on Goodreads.
Goodreads is massive, with almost 100 million users that include readers, editors, agents, and publishers. Thanks to its size, it's hugely influential and can have a real impact on an author's career. But unlike our carefully curated Instagram feeds, we authors can't control the impression our work makes on Goodreads--the ratings and reviews we receive.
Now, that is as it should be. Readers' opinions matter and are valid, and everyone should have a space to respectfully discuss how they feel about a book. The trouble with Goodreads is that it's a system where the parts that matter most are very easy to game, and those ratings and reviews matter. A lot.
After all, who's going to want to go out and buy a book that only has a two-star rating? What agent or publisher will want to take on an author whose book has terrible ratings? I know it sounds a bit hysterical, but believe me when I say an author's reviews and ratings can mean they never get to publish another book.
Reviews on Goodreads can also get very nasty (as they did in this case). Some authors get personally attacked, I've seen writers and their work called stupid (and other things). That can have a real impact on a writer's mental health or desire to even keep writing.
So, considering how the review system can be weaponised, it's no wonder a lot of writers are starting to keep their distance, and why stories like this one make us very nervous.
This is not, by far, the first time something like this has happened on Goodreads, and it won't be the last, because Goodreads itself seems uninterested in addressing the issues on the platform that make this possible. They keep saying that it's up to the users to police the site and the content on it, but how many of us have time for that? In this case, it was another user who caught on to what Corrain was doing, in part because she was so obvious about it. But we can't expect that to happen all the time, especially when it happens on a smaller scale.
This is something that should concern readers as well as writers. Books have been cancelled because of Goodreads reviews. How many decent books have been overlooked because of a low star rating? You might very well be missing out. What happens on Goodreads matters to all of us.
Am I saying every bad review is bogus? No. There are plenty of reasons someone might not like a book, and if you didn't care for one, please feel free to share your thoughts. But when you do, keep in mind that there's a person on the other side of that book. Be honest, but also try to be kind. They almost certainly didn't write the book intending to offend you.
Am I telling readers to stay off Goodreads? No, not at all. Go to Goodreads! Read the reviews, find similar books, it is a useful tool. But maybe take the ratings with a grain of salt, remembering how easy they are to manipulate, and also that books, like all art, are subjective. If you liked or loved a book, leave a review! And if you see anything that doesn't look right, please, please report it, because it's clear that Goodreads is passing the buck here, making all of us responsible for ensuring their platform is safe, useful, honest, and welcoming to everyone who wants to use it