Category Archives: Forbes 25

misbehave

The Last 24 Hours on Goodreads

If you’re coming into this mess cold, a little back story:

On September 20, Goodreads “announced” by posting a thread in their Goodreads Feedback group that they would be deleting reviews focused on the ill-defined concept of “author behavior”. I’ll note here that the Feedback group has a little over 13,000 members, a fraction of a percentage point of the 20 million users Goodreads claims. Posts in Feedback do not go out as a general announcement even to the group’s membership. This was also done on a Friday, and Goodreads is notoriously absent on weekends. Customer Care Manager Kara eventually noted that Goodreads had only deleted the reviews of 21 people.  She refused to comment on the content of their reviews, only giving a hypothetical review – “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that” – that would be forbidden under the new policy. The thread was  quickly abandoned by Goodreads; it’s currently at over 5,500 comments, and climbing.

Kara’s characterization of the reviews they deleted turned out to be a miscaracterization, at least according to my research. A group of Goodreaders including myself started tracking down the original 21 people who had reviews deleted, and we eventually found 13 of them. Many of the reviews Goodreads deleted had no content – neither a rating nor anything in the review field – and Goodreads had taken action solely on the content of the threads below. (A quick note on nomenclature: it’s called a “review” on Goodreads whenever you shelve a book at all, even if the book isn’t rated, or there isn’t any written essay that you would normally call a review.) From the book list given to me by the people affected, the reviews about “author behavior” Goodreads deemed actionable ranged from plagiarism to faking or paying for reviews (which I’ll note is illegal in some places), to pedophilia to racist or homophobic statements to pulled-to-publish fan-fiction to just the usual gamut of social media meltdowns.

At this point the protest reviews started. I reviewed The Secret of Castle Cant by convicted pedophile K.P. Bath, because at least two people had their reviews of this book deleted in the new policy about “author behavior” in the initial 21. So far, none of the protest reviews have been taken down. Mike reviewed Mein Kampf using almost the exact wording of Kara’s hypothetical review – “This author is such a dick. I’m not even going to read it!” Many reviews of this book followed suit, and as far as I’m aware, none of them have been taken down. Reviews of books by plagiarizers and sexists followed, again, with none of the reviews coming down. Some of the protest reviews found books or titles that the reviewers used as a springboard for criticism about the new policy, books like Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship or Civil Disobedience or, most importantly, The Hydra.

Here’s where things start to get interesting, because Goodreads started deleting these reviews as “off-topic”. Apparently you’re cool going after the books Goodreads initially targeted in their purge, but use the review platform for dissent, and you better watch yourself. The email to users who had their reviews deleted says at the end, “Please note that if you continue to post content like this, your account may come under review.” Goodreads has taken its gloves off; they may delete your account for your naughty behavior. A good round up of the initial deletions can be found here, but the upshot is, Goodreads began deleting the often-playful, arguably off-topic, and absolutely critical of Goodreads reviews of some of their most prolific users.

hydraAt this point, it’s far too difficult to detail the number of protest reviews out there, cheerfully thumbing their noses at Goodreads management and their ill-defined and self-serving review rules. I’ll just note one case for example. Manny’s review of The Hydra served as a template for the protest reviews, the image of the hydra being a call for other Goodreaders to copy & paste the original content of the review if they were worried about their review being deleted by Goodreads. Some of these Hydra review have been deleted by  Goodreads as plagiarism, despite the explicit call for re-posting. Some users have added disingenuous (but hilarious) “reviews”  of the book to to keep the review under guidelines. Hydra reviews are proliferating all over the site, a full on revolt. I’m honestly interested to see if Goodreads is willing to play whack-a-mole with their most active users, slapping their wrists and threatening their accounts with deletion as the days wear on. I’m interested to see whether they will start deleting accounts. In the past, the Goodreads MO has been to simply freeze us out – witness the complete abandonment of their own Feedback thread – so I’m guessing this will be their course of action now.

But the actions of Goodreads, and their generally closed-mouth and inscrutable actions don’t really worry me at the moment. What worries me is the gutting of the Goodreads community as Goodreads’s top users jump ship for less censorious locales. Elizabeth, one of the top 20 reviewers worldwide, (who is fellow Soapboxer, in full disclosure) wrote a piece today about how she’s no longer posting reviews on Goodreads, making her just the most recent casualty of the new “policies”. I myself (also on that list) have begun taking down my 500+ reviews. From anecdotal evidence, dozens of very prolific users have taken down their content or deleted their accounts, people like Abigail A, BunWat, and Archer, often people who had been users since the very beginning, with thousands of reviews.

Maybe this is no thing. Maybe, as people keep telling me, there at 20 million Goodreads users out there willing and able to review two books a week on a wide variety of subjects, with a broad following and the trust that they’re not just corporate shills, only these hypothetical new users are willing to play ball. That’s why Amazon bought Goodreads, after all, isn’t it? To find a stable of reviewers to aid in the discovery process, a process much hampered by Amazon’s own review strictures: no profanity, no ties to the author, no personality, and downvoting outlying opinions into oblivion. Relying on the 1% rule, likely the active membership of Goodreads is significantly less than their bandied 20 million, a community of lurkers watching the output of the very few. Goodreads has it in their best interests not to lose these people, unless they are relying on the most narrow and inflexible ideas about what constitutes a good readership. Which, certainly, they may be.

In a Forbes article about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads, the writer notes:

For me, there are no “professional” critics that matter anymore. In our new social world, the crowd must decide. That means authors and readers everywhere now have greater access to each other and the best books won’t be held back by traditional road blocks. Obviously, for authors, this makes it more essential than ever to have a solid social media plan, to be accessible and to build a following – because relying on the old publishing guard won’t cut it anymore.

That age is over.

Goodreads is trying to sand the edges off the crowd, silencing the voices most trusted, most invested in their reading, because sometimes the crowd decides certain books aren’t worthy of either reading or review, and that apparently can’t be allowed under the new mercantile system. With the proliferation of self-published works, the avid readers on the frontlines are acting as slush-pile readers for million of books, and if they (we) decide a book shouldn’t be undertaken because it’s likely that a negative review will result in the author flaming or doxing you, that’s not on Goodreads to get in the middle. It’s not on Goodreads to police reviews as “off-topic” when it’s clear that they’re just silencing dissent. There is no “off-topic” in a robust social media, which is ultimately the problem here, right?

So far, I’ve been writing as bloodlessly as possibly, doing my citizen journalist shtick to the best of my ability. But this change on Goodreads’s part is killing me. I haven’t cried so much about social media in a long time, each review I take down feeling like a lost thumb, each time I see posts by [deleted member] another lost companion. Due to my call to find the initial 21 users, and then later to hear from anyone who had deletions, I’ve had an inbox full of messages from users detailing their deletions. So many of these messages were confessional, long stories about being hounded over multiple media platforms by people who are technically “authors” for something the reviewer said or did, often not even about the “author” in question. I can take 50,000 words, not even in any particular order, and upload them to SmashWords or Kindle, and poof, I am an author. So many of these reviews about “author behavior” were the personal reactions of people being harassed on social media by other people hawking unedited ebooks that would never, ever make it off a slush-pile. That this is out of bounds on a social media platform, that I can’t decide what’s on-topic, that’s a shift in policy quiescent content-generation and away from a social media. We Goodreaders are either a product, or a community, and right now the fight is on.

 

The Goodreads Forbes 25 Interviews

The folk at Shelf Inflicted – who appear to be mostly Goodreads escapees – are running a series of interviews with the 25 people mentioned in the Forbes article about Goodreads however long ago. I was listed as #18 of the top 25 reviewers, and I think the category was in the last year, for the whole world. So, you can check out my interview here, or you can read it below. The whole series is pretty interesting though, and it’s a super weird group of people with super disparate interests.

—–

Today’s guest is Ceridwen.  Ceridwen also posts at Readerling.

How did you discover Goodreads?
An irl friend sent me a link in April of 2008, which means I’ve been active on Goodreads for five years now. I didn’t interact much at first – I had no experience with social media; facebook would come later for me – but very slowly accrued friends other than my mother, husband, and a smattering of real life friends. As an introduction to social media, it was a kind experience, as the early-ish days of Goodreads had a sort of backwater enthusiast vibe, and you could be reasonably sure that no one at all was paying attention, which suited me fine.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
That’s hard to say. There have been some memorable scandals, trollings, call-outs, and cat-fights that have occurred on Goodreads which were fun for me. I can think of a dozen instances where pointless and/or stupid trolling turned into runaway threads full of humor, lolcats, and, you know, profound commentary on books. My personal favorite was the time one of my reviews got trolled by a fine young man from Texas with a penchant for dismissing people as “ugly lesbians”. I still get comments on that clusterfuck of a thread wondering what the hell happened.

Though I haven’t been involved in much of this, except as an observer, I find the various author/reviewer meltdowns that occur pretty fascinating. Goodreads is a focal point for two different trends: self-publishing and citizen reviewing. So you have two different kinds of folk running up against each other – people who don’t know shit about marketing running up against sometimes harshly stated opinions – and the result can be explosive. And I really shouldn’t be singling out the self-pubs, because a fair number of these explosions have happened between Big Six authors (or their agents or friends) and their readers. As the industry changes from more mediated relationships – authors are largely left to their own devices these days (I am given to understand) – the potential for conflict approaches one.

I don’t have any easy answers for this, and I don’t think either reviewers or authors have gotten it right 100% of the time. I believe there is a tendency for reviewers to be rewarded for strong reactions – when I sort my reviews by the ones with the most votes, the first ten are either five-starred or one-starred reviews, hatchet jobs or soaring praise. I get it: we respond strongly to strong emotion, and I don’t think there is anything wrong or bad about that. I worry sometimes about this feedback loop though, at least as it pertains to the critical process. I mean, no one ever said that a citizen review had to be a measured intellectual endeavor, and god bless all the goofing, irreverent, parodic, cheerfully off-topic reviews out there, but I still worry about the middle-voice, the three-starrer that gets lost in the wash. Heated rhetoric is rewarded – and I’m not saying I’m immune to this, having penned some hatchet jobs and love-fests myself – but sometimes I wonder what reviews would look like if it weren’t. I certainly think about this when I reach for the hatchet.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
Just one? This question sucks. How about 25? In no particular order:

Eric from Minneapolis
Matt from Nebraska
Miriam from California
Ben Babcock
Paquita Maria Sanchez
Mike Reynolds
Monica!
Caris O’Malley
Michael Springer, who has some terrible pseudonym these days
Dead Flamingo Jessica
Sparrow
Joel from Chicago
Jacob Ford
Terence from California 
Moira Russell
Lisa Vegan
Abigail A. 
Kelly from I don’t know where
Aerin from Seattle 
Flannery
RandomAnthony
Jason Morais
Lightreads
My Flesh Sings Out aka Josh
oriana from Brooklyn
Wealhtheow Wylfing

This might be more than 25, and I could add more. I <3 a lot of reviewers on Goodreads.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Zombie apocalypse? No, really, I think it was inevitable that Goodreads was going to sell out or go public, because the problem of monetizing any start-up for the founders. CEO Otis was looking to cash out on a very good idea executed (mostly) well, and I can’t say I blame him. Plus, Goodreads just hit some kind of tipping point with user numbers – 10+ million and counting – and I don’t think Goodreads has been able to cope in terms of capital or infrastructure. (Witness the complete failure of the notification system on a regular basis, and less important problems like their inability to update top lists for months.) After facebook went public to not disastrous, but not fantastic results, that left selling out. I am hugely disappointed that it turned out to be Amazon, but I’m also not hugely surprised.

Amazon has created a problem for themselves with the discoverability issue – as the bricks and mortar bookstores shutter, there’s no place for serendipitous browsing, and their “if you’ll like this, then” algorithms are probably the best out there, but that doesn’t mean they’re good. Plus, Amazon reviews are heavily gamed by all kinds of competing forces – authors and/or fans with grudges, a downvoting system that tends to punish outlying opinions or perspectives, payola scandals, even Michael Jackson fans gone insane. As product reviews not personal responses, the personal gets lost. The social network aspect of Goodreads solves their discoverability issue and the issue of confidence in the review. We goodreaders are now all the person inside the Mechanical Turk. Which sucks. Maybe there’s no difference in shaking my ass for CEOtis or Amazon, but it feels different.

How many books do you own?
A quick estimate using my thumb puts the number at about 750, but that’s not factoring the stuff in the basement or the kids books. So probably a thousand. I like books, as objects, but I tend to give them away when I love them, and I seldom re-read.

Who is your favorite author?
Ursula K Le Guin

What is your favorite book of all time?
Fail. Impossible to compute.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
I adore paper, and there are things that are impossible to do with a screen that you can do with a physical object, but ebooks have their place. I read a lot of pulp mass market stuff, because I can put down several throw-away fictions while I’m reading something more considered. It’s almost required, because I’m a pleasure reader primarily, and while I get pleasure from smart stuff, it requires a level of engagement that I can’t give it just before bed or on a Sunday afternoon or whatever. So an ebook that I can half-assedly download from the library and pick at can be really perfect.

I’m not hugely excited about all the proprietary readers out there – Nook, Kindle, Kobo, whatever – which lock readers into a specific distribution channel. I don’t think that’s good for publishing, but I don’t know what the solution is.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Boy, what a thing. Obviously, publishing is in a huge upheaval at the moment, much like music was ten years ago, but I don’t think we can necessarily extrapolate what happened to music distribution to book publishing. So many of the arts have fractured into the long tail – a series of sub-sub-sub-genres catering to very, very specific readerships. Which can be great for those specific readerships, but if you’re not in them, maybe hard to figure out. I am absolutely game to read self-published works, and I have read and enjoyed a number, but I do admit I worry about the editorial process, and, given some of the meltdowns I’ve seen, the insulating effect of the publisher when authors and readers interact.

We could all use an editor – as I’m fiercely aware of when I post some damn review riddled with typos and badly connected thoughts. Platforms like Goodreads become all the more important when sorting through self-published works, which are rarely reviewed on traditional platforms – even the mid-list gets lost, and if you’re talking about genre fiction, forget it – which is why the Amazon takeover continues to worry me. The difference between product review and criticism is vital.

Any literary aspirations? 
Sure.

We are Wagging the Long Tail: The Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads

In an op-ed in Forbes, you can find the following infographic about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads:

[from These are the Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads]


I’m at #18. And phew, I’m glad I finally changed up my avatar photo to something other than a Tusken Raider hanging out on the beach; that would have been awkward.



I’ve been active on Goodreads since April of 2008, and since then I have written over 400 reviews. One of the more frustrating pastimes on that site is trying to parse why and how reviewers get the votes they do, scrying the top lists for cultural trends and currencies, arguing about populism versus merit, pitching hand-to-hand combats about what reviews have value and why and how. I’ve been around this block enough to know that this top list of reviewers looks verra verra different from what it looked like when I signed on, lo, those many years ago, when my friends list mostly consisted of my mother. It would be an interesting if ultimately brutal timesink of a project to chart the ebbs and flows of who this tiny corner of the booknerdosphere ranked as its most voted reviewers. (Which is what “top reviewer” means – it’s Goodreads reviewers whose reviews have the most votes.) 

I’m feeling a little lazy and tired in my response to this op-ed, so I’m just going to post the reaction I had on facebook:

 I thought the part about finding better business books through sites like Goodreads was a good point, but the stuff about crowdsourcing, traditional critical platforms, and the rest of it was pretty jumbled. I don’t think traditional criticism is dead, or that it is necessarily in conflict with stuff like goodreads or book bloggers – but obviously a lot of people see it that way. (Like the head judge of the Booker prize who stated recently that book bloggers were “harming literature,” which I think is a deeply stupid thing to say.) It is true that sites like Goodreads are wagging the long tail though, which any writer who isn’t a well established litfic or popular fiction writer – and that is pretty much all of them – should really pay attention to. Traditional critical platforms, like newspapers, are having a whole world of hurt right now, but not just because of social media. Some of it is just the calculus of how many reviews a newspaper can write – what is the average number in a Sunday insert? – versus the absolute barrage available online. Sure, lots of those are crap, but the same can be said for the dumbed down or heavily generalized reviews one can find in the paper.  


I’m “friends” with most of the people on that list, actual friends with a smaller number, follow a few of them, and I’ve at least heard of the rest. We’re a tight knit crowd, even if we’re not close friends (or even like each other, in some instances.) We’re definitely watching one another’s critical reactions though, even if those reactions are to books and genres we have zero interest in.So I know their reviews pretty well. Most of those reviewers have a pretty solid focus in one (or two or three) areas – young adult, or scfi, or crime fiction, or whatever – and they are journeyman reviewers – one or two a week for years. (The anomaly being the woman who has over 10,000 votes for her three 50 Shades reviews.) I have no idea how far our influence spreads – not far being my guess – but I think these reviewers are popular because of an expertise, however homespun, in a corner of literature. And those corners are often not represented in traditional media. You won’t find reviews of business books in the NYT, for better or for worse. You don’t really find them so much on Goodreads either, but then there was that one Liberty reviewed that sparked off a pretty big firestorm about writers, reviewers and social media. Wag the long tail, baby.

A friend of mine (who is an academic) challenged my use of the word homespun in regards to expertise, calling it “a spurious distinction much aided by the values of the market culture.” And she is entirely right about that; experts such as Mr. Booker Prize wouldn’t have his monocle in such a twist if his claim to cultural gatekeeping and the arbitration of quality weren’t threatened by the democratization of critical platforms. Amateur – which is by definition unpaid – does not mean inexpert. Especially when it comes to areas of publishing that traditional media have ignored or underrepresented.Though I usually prefer to think of myself as a crank, I honestly think this set of reviewers – even the ones I think are assholes – the new face of criticism, spinning their expertises in the home, because the home is the most logical place to spin them. Reading is a sullen art. I’ve always quipped that the most successful goodreaders have elements of both exhibitionism and introversion in their personalities, desiring to say out loud what we experience in the comfort of our own minds. Criticism is the calculated bleating of those who think too long and too hard about their personal reactions – why do I feel what I feel about this? Or maybe it isn’t, but for sure the whole enterprise is rooted in serious engagement with books and the whole sticky ball of wax that is reaction, process, and – dare I say it? – art.

We are the long tail, and we wag what we can in the ways we know best.It’s entirely possible I’m just all jazzed to have my picture in Forbes though. Thank heavens I’m not represented by that Tusken Raider, cute as he was.