There’s an old urban legend among writers, passed from seasoned author to new author, from new author to the guardian: Goodreads. Goodreads reviewers, so the legends go, are the worst kind of bullies. Vindictive, jealous creatures who delight in tearing down naive authors with a single click. And as if tarring the book forever with a one star review wasn’t enough, they rub salt into the wound by writing a cruel review and screaming down anyone who disagrees with their armies of minions (according to legend, these Goodreads bullies always have armies).
All bollocks, obviously.
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the only voices we heard on the subject of books were critics (the proper, respectable kind that worked for television, radio and print media) and our friends and families. Now, thanks to the internet, blogs and social media sites such as facebook, twitter, tumblr, pinterest, and, yes, the dreaded Goodreads, anyone can have their opinion and have it loudly.
And this seems to scare the pants off some authors, and cause others to overreact in embarrassing and destructive ways.
Goodreads is a social media site dedicated to sharing and cataloguing books the users have read. They can sort the books into ‘shelves’ (the three non-negotiobale shelves every user has are ‘to-read,’ ‘currently-reading’ and ‘read’), update their book’s status with the page number or percentage they’re up to and provide commentary as they go, rate the book out of five (one being the lowest) and, finally, write a review. There are also social groups you can join revolving around genres and so on.
What’s so scary about that, you ask?
I don’t actually know. So let’s speculate wildly, because that’s all I’ve got.
What is it about Goodreads reviews that causes some authors such distress, and to the point where a website was created with the sole aim of STOPPING THE GOODREADS BULLIES, which, ironically, seems devoted to doxxing (revealing personal information about a person on the internet with the intent to harass) said bullies? And what makes a Goodreads bully? Because in my many years of being a Goodreads user have never come across one review I could describe as bullying. Passionately and colourfully negative, yes. But never inappropriate or threatening, and given the Goodreads review system where the most ‘liked’ reviews rise to the most visible slot on the book’s page (and I read a lot of reviews of a lot of popular YA books, where most of the accusations of bullying seem to lie), I can only assume any truly threatening or inappropriate reviews are removed, or not popular.
So, speculation time.
Goodreads reviews can range from being ready-to-print professional (many popular reviewers also run their own book review blogs, and the quality really is impressive) to stream-of-consciousness casual. But the most common trait of goodreads reviews is that they’re honest. Completely and unfiltered. These readers are reviewing the book for other readers, and this means they can be brutal (they can also be incredibly generous and loving, but let’s focus on the negative reviews). These reviews can be scathing, snarky, hilarious, punctuated by animated gifs. They can call the book THE LITERAL WORST THING THEY HAVE EVER READ or file it on their i-would-rather-shove-my-face-in-acid-than-finish-this-book shelf.
Which can be hurtful. Like, really hurtful. Someone has worked on this book for months or years, poured their heart and soul into it, and this reader, this unqualified, nasty little leech who’s never even published anything has the gall to suggest the book be best used as kindling.
But you know what?
That author needs to have a good long think about why they published their book, which is in itself a wonderful and impressive thing. It’s hard to put your work out there, I know that very well. It’s scary to face the crowd and hear what people under no obligation to be polite and consider your feelings think of your work. Hell, it’s terrifying, and it can make you feel physically ill and deprive you of sleep.
But if you can’t deal with that, if you only recognise criticism from professional book reviewers, you have no business publishing in the modern world. Because the readers have every right to feel how they feel about your work, and share that with other readers on a platform designed for them. That’s right. Goodreads belongs to readers. It was made for them. And though authors have been invited to participate and have been given access to an increasing range of promotional tools, the site will always be about the readers and about sharing books.
And that’s great, isn’t it? That an entire social media platform exists for people to just love and talk about books?
I think it’s great.
And don’t get me wrong, I understand the author’s feelings here. I’ve been using Goodreads as a reader for several years, and as an author for the past six or so months. I’m a debut author, I have a lot of sensitive feelings just waiting to be dented by a negative or even not-entirely-positive review. I’ve read reviews where readers took something away from the book that I didn’t think I’d put there, I’ve read people say they didn’t like the book and read about areas they think I really need to improve in. And that sucks a bit. I’ve worked in television, so I know how to bounce back from the internet announcing in all caps how completely crap your work is, but the initial sting still hurts. And writing prose is so much more personal than writing a script you plotted with other people and had eight other people work on it after you and then get interpreted again by directors and actors. Books are personal. An insult to them feels like an insult to you. A hyperbolic statement (THIS BOOK SHOULD BE SET ON FIRE, etc) becomes a biting personal attack.
I thought about this before I published. I considered whether or not I could take any passionately negative reviews that came my way. And I decided that yes, I could. Because in my youth, and sometimes even now – though to a much tamer extent – I have written long diatribes about how much I hate a book, or a movie, or a show. I definitely still rant to my friends about how much, how passionately I loathe things. If a book disappoints me, I never forgive it and I tell everyone. It doesn’t usually change how they feel about the book or movie – they’re humans with functioning brains and opinions of their own – but I tell them anyway. I have hated books that other people, including people I respect and admire, absolutely adore. I’ve loved books people can’t see a single bit of appeal in. Hating something passionately is totally normal, and I was never going to be the first person in the history of humanity that wrote a book that literally everyone who read it just loved. It’s impossible. And who would want to? How boring! At the end of the day, I told myself, it was enough for me that someone had taken the time to read, or attempt to read, my book. Whatever they thought of it was none of my business unless they contacted me about it directly.
So, I guess our wild speculation has brought us to this vague conclusion: goodreads is a great community for readers, honest reader opinions are scary, and some authors just aren’t prepared for it.
Let’s make a list. Who doesn’t like lists?
HOW TO COPE WITH BAD GOODREADS REVIEWS
– Remember how you talked about how X by Y was completely overrated at great length and bored/entertained everyone at that party? That’s kind of what’s happening here, except now X is your life’s work and you’re Y and the party is the internet.
– Treat every terrible review exactly the same as every glowing review. Read it, appreciate the time someone has spent reading your work, go about your life and write the next one.
– Start writing your own reviews. Join in! Or don’t. It’s cool.
– You’re allowed to be sad. Just don’t get weird about it.
– Do not, under any circumstance, contact the reviewer. Not even to correct that fact they got completely wrong. Not even if they’ve given you a low rating because they thought it was going to be a sweet country romance when you’ve clearly marked it as a gripping scifi thriller. Just don’t. Leave them alone.
– Readers are not stupid. They can think for themselves and make their own opinions. They will take the content of the review away, not the rating or the tone. If a reviewer HATES that the protagonist was a spunky girl werewolf, another reader might read the book specifically because the protagonist is a spunky girl werewolf.
– Don’t stalk anyone. Apparently that’s something we have to say now. Do not stalk anyone.
And on a final, more serious note: if you feel you are being harassed, as an author by a reader or a reader by an author, please contact the proper authorities.
Now let’s go back to loving and talking about books.