Recently, The New York Times reported on a crackdown on businesses who review themselves. In the media, this was a shocking revelation, but we in the book community know this happens all the time. The upheaval in the Indie Community about sock-puppets, purchasing reviews and general author shenanigans has undermined some readers' faith in the review system. On the flip-side, readers and reviewers have been displaying some mean-spirited behaviors as well, resulting in one case where the author decided not to publish their book at all thanks to the cruelty of reviews appearing on her book page pre-publication, including actual threats to her person and calls for violence.
In light of both author and reviewer behavior, Goodreads specifically has changed their Wild West style of moderating their site and implemented some new standards. Our question is what does this mean for readers?
Reviews are intended to give a potential buyer insight into the product or service being offered. They are an integral part to how people make decisions on hiring a contractor, picking a restaurant and buying a book. When reading a review, most people are looking for a well rounded and critical opinion. Sometimes a quality three star review will influence more people to go ahead and purchase than over the top praise in a five star review.
Amazon and Goodreads have been cracking down for a while on reviews which were either purchased or created from a sockpuppet account. There's still work to be done in this area but this is good news for readers, because it means reviews are not skewed to the positive. Allowing authors to review their own books (or pay for reviews) allows a kind of bias which could sway a consumer to purchase something based on false information. Authors have also been known to bully reviewers or act out when they receive a negative review demanding it be removed. This undermines the entire Indie Community because it means people will stop believing that actual, quality books exist.
Now, in an effort to continue evening the playing field, Goodreads is removing reviews which are not based on the product, but the author. Some reviewers feel this is inappropriate because they have the right to whatever opinion they would like. I support reviewers in writing honest reviews and being uncensored, unfortunately, what's happened is books are being falsely reviewed to the negative based on personality clashes, rumors and sometimes inaccurate information. Can GoodReads be trusted to walk this fine line between censorship and moderation? To a certain degree we will have to wait and see.
An example of what Goodreads is hoping to curtail is what happened to Kendall Grey's books from The Hard Rock Harlott series. Earlier this summer, Grey wrote an article for a blog intended for authors that was not received well and made some comments on Twitter and other social media which enraged readers. The blog has since been taken down, but the widespread reaction was negative. Authors were upset, readers offended and reviewers hurt. I support people's right to feel this way, express it and talk about it. The problem, however, came when reviewers began rating Grey's books which were not yet available (even as Advance Readers Copies) with 1 star, not based on the content of the product, but on their feelings based on her blog. Many of these reviews even stated that they did not read the book.
For readers, this creates confusion. Those not involved in the Indie Community and not interested in the internal politics of the industry suddenly see a dramatic drop in the star rating of, in Grey's case, a book which had not been released yet. A cursory glance might tell you this is not a good book, but none of the reviews were from people who had actually read it. This skews and manipulates the review system just as much as authors who employ fake review strategies.
Personally, I think including the author's life in a review is fine. It would be difficult to have a conversation about Antonin Artaud without discussing the effects of his childhood meningitis or his relationship with Anais Nin. But in these kinds of historic analysis, rarely are they so hate-filled and vile as to suggest someone be sexually violated, which is precisely the kind of thing which instigated the change on Goodreads. Analysis, critical thinking and relevant issues decidedly have a place in a quality review, be it about the work, the genre or the author. Personal attacks do not.
In the past, readers have been able to rely on reviews by literary critics and industry professionals. This led to some fabulous books being overlooked and an elitist approach to publishing. Self-publishing and the Indie Revolution have blown the top off that old model, opening the doors for authors and reviewers to speak their mind, share their art and discuss, person to person the books they love. But when you open the doors of a previously tightly regulated community you have to let everyone in. Not just the people you like.
Living in the digital age allows a culture of bullying and extremities to flourish on both sides. While not intended to silence anyone in particular or censor reviewers in general, the Goodreads policy update is intended to even the playing field so that readers can rely on reviews to tell them about the product they are interested in. They haven't gone about this perfectly and made an egregious error in not allowing reviewers to revise their reviews and shelves before deleting.
Reviewers should have the right to say whatever they feel in a review. But GoodReads is a business first and foremost and having the kind of abuse of the system and each other that's been going on needs to stop in order for it to remain viable.
While reviewers certainly have the right to be upset with an author personally and blog about it or discuss it, should it be included in a rated review of a book? Many authors who are lauded in literature could be accused of terrible behavior. From Gore Vidal to Orson Scott Card, authors have made some terrible decisions in their public personas. Should my review of Ender's Game include Card's public denouncement of homosexuality? I think not. I have the choice not to read his book. Honestly, I didn't even know about it when I read the first book and it had no influence on the quality of writing. Do I care? Yes. Does it matter in my analysis of a novel? No.
What I'm hoping is that this new policy is the beginning of a more civilized and intellectual dialogue about books. That both authors and reviewers will be required to hold themselves to a standard appropriate for bibliophiles. Name calling, harassment, and public shaming from either side is unacceptable and has no place on a site about the thing we all came together for - books.
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