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IS GOODREADS A GOOD THING?
Sarah Nicolas Mar 7, 2022
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People in the book community have strong feelings about Goodreads. Some readers see it as a simple tool they use to track their own personal reading, while others spend hours writing and reading reviews, commenting on others’ reviews, and participating in its many features. Some people view it as a necessary evil, especially now that it’s owned by Amazon, and some people flat out refuse to engage with it.
I have been a user of Goodreads since 2007, the same year it launched. I have used it as a reader, author, book reviewer, editorial assistant, Pitch Wars mentor, publicist, journalist, library event planner, podcast producer, author’s assistant, and probably more. I am a Goodreads Librarian, a volunteer with minimal power to edit some book and author information.
As a reader, I use the most basic of functions. Early on, I also used it to see what friends were reading, but my friend list is unwieldy now. As a publicist, I used it to update and promote my authors’ titles and get early feelers of how reviewers were receiving the books. In many of my various publishing roles, I use/d it to do comparative title research. As an event planner and podcaster, I use it to gauge how well-known an author might be. As a journalist, I use it to fill out lists; I can’t read every book and Goodreads lets me get a lot of people’s opinions on a book at once.
My point is, I use Goodreads more than the average bear and know all of its features, even the more obscure ones. Even with all the uses I have for it, I don’t think it’s perfect.
But is Goodreads a good thing overall? My editors posed this question and I jumped on the topic. I think, as with so many things in the book industry, it’s complicated. So I asked a whole bunch of folks in different places in the industry to weigh in.
Above all, Goodreads has one powerful thing going for it. It’s the thing that I think drew Amazon to buy it: Data. The Goodreads About page says it uses “20 billion data points.” A lot of people use Goodreads because it was the first mainstream site of its kind. And that data is valuable.
“Goodreads lets us see exactly how many people have added our book, to what shelves, and when, and just gives us that little bit of control (or illusion of),” says author Sarah Underwood. “For some writers, we won’t know anything about our books until we start getting royalty statements. With Goodreads, we can…start to build up a picture of how it might be sitting in the market.”
Some authors seem to really enjoy using the site to connect. “It’s been a great way to make contact with readers,” author Rob Hart said. “I sometimes forget about it, then remember to check my inbox there and find nice messages from people. It’s creatively nourishing to come across a positive review, and I recently added notes to The Warehouse to share with readers, which was a ton of fun.” Hart’s book The Warehouse, it’s important to note, has been seen as a critique of Amazon.
I took a class from author Alessandra Torre that taught authors how to use Goodreads more effectively in their promotional efforts. “It can be a powerful source of book discovery and reader recommendations — if utilized correctly,” she said. Author Chelsea Mueller agrees: “There’s value in readers having a space and sense of community and from the author side I’ve found it’s led to increased title discoverability.” She said one of the most common ways readers have found her books is seeing a friend add it on Goodreads.
For indie authors especially, it can be one of the most powerful free tools in their toolbox. “I have used Goodreads groups to connect with readers and share review copies, though it can be a lot of work that results in only a few reviews,” author Katie L. Carroll said. “For a primarily self-published author like myself, genuine reviews can be hard to come by, so it can be worth the time.”
Readers and library folks seem to value the site for its original intended purpose. “Goodreads is really great as an organizational tool,” high school library media assistant Brittany Harlow said. “I’ve used it religiously for about eight years now and basically live or die by my “to-read” and “read” shelf. I also recommend it to students because organization can really be a struggle for them — it’s a skill like anything else. And helping students learn how to track the books they’ve read helps me recommend books for them to try.”
At the library I work at, if you ask someone for recent book recommendations, they’ll probably pull up their Goodreads profile as a reminder. When considering whether or not to read a book, I sometimes go to the book’s page on Goodreads to see what my favorite book bloggers and authors have said about it. Goodreads certainly has its uses and advantages.
Even though Goodreads has a ton of data, it may not be organized in the best way, at least on the public side. Ben Fox, the founder of Shepherd, says, “One of the big reasons I started this website was how frustrated I am with Goodreads as a reader…I want to use it to discover new books but they make it near impossible to filter through their data. I’d love to go to the science fiction section and filter it down to only space opera with [ratings] of 4 or higher, [but] nothing like that is possible.”
And the data can be dubious. “A 3-star book to me could be a 1-star to someone else, or a 5-star!” Harlow said. “Similarly, the Lists function in Goodreads is the Wild West! The amount of solidly Adult Fantasy I see on YA Lists is concerning.”
A lot of people are suspicious of Amazon buying the site. “Goodreads could be a positive force on its own, but only as an independent third party,” author George Jreije said. “It’s tainted by Amazon’s ownership. This reduces the site to being another means of selling books for Amazon, and serves little purpose for authors.”
“I don’t love that Amazon gets my reading data,” Harlow said. “I really don’t love getting sold to while I’m trying to research books.”
Authors complain about the struggle with correcting information and uploading new information. I talk to a ton of people who don’t realize that anyone with an account older than seven days can upload a new book entry onto the site. I frequently answer calls on social media and in author groups asking for help from a Goodreads Librarian. It’s not often clear what an author can do versus a volunteer librarian versus a staff member, who can be hard to get a hold of.
And then there’s the complaint I hear most often: Goodreads is rife with fake reviews, abusive comments, and organized 1-star campaigns that have nothing to do with a book. “They have a toxic review environment that they refuse to clean up,” Fox said.
Author Brooke Johnson used to use Goodreads to track her reading. “I stopped using the author side of Goodreads and stopped writing my own reviews, because the community was so toxic at times,” she said. She noticed authors were getting hundreds of 1-star reviews after saying something people didn’t like on social media. “There was no policing of real/fake reviews. Those negative reviews could be posted before a book was ever released, which I’m sure hurt many authors. I seem to recall a few authors pulling their books from publication because of the harassment. Thankfully, I was never directly impacted by that, but it was very clear to me that the community was extremely toxic by that point and not worth engaging with.” She said she moved to StoryGraph to track her own reading.
Hart recalls seeing a 1-star review for The Paradox Hotel from a reader who didn’t finish the book because they didn’t like that it has some queer main characters. “I wouldn’t even say the review should be taken down,” he said. “Free speech is free speech. That’s the double-edged sword of offering review space to people — some folks treat it with a lot of care and grace, and some people don’t.”
There have been countless incidents where authors have responded to a review they didn’t think was fair and it blew up. Sometimes it’s valid critique, but other times the review makes zero sense. If someone posts a review of a book with factually incorrect information, what can authors do? Nothing. And a lot of people think they shouldn’t.
A lot of people said the site isn’t as good as it should be at some things, especially with the power and money of Amazon behind it. Search can be hit and miss and nothing seems to be done about bot accounts. The design hasn’t changed much and many of the visuals feel dated. “I don’t understand what they have been doing for the last three years,” Fox said.
So is Goodreads a good thing? The jury’s still out. In fact, it’s probably a perpetually hung jury. The site is a juggernaut in our industry, whether we like it or not. “Goodreads is such a huge platform and has a massive impact on conversations around books and authors,” Johnson said.
I admit even I tried to leave it once. I exported my library to a Goodreads alternative, but it didn’t take. Maybe it’s the familiarity, the long-standing relationship I’m too complacent to leave.
I think Harlow summed it up nicely. “It’s a great tool. It helps me keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. It makes trips to the bookstore much easier (I have fewer panic attacks at Powell’s now!). But it isn’t perfect, and, honestly, probably shouldn’t be trusted as much as it is.”