Goodreads Needs to Do Better by Marginalized Authors

Books

Erica Ezeifedi, Associate Editor, is a transplant from Nashville, TN that has settled in the North East. In addition to being a writer, she has worked as a victim advocate and in public libraries, where she has focused on creating safe spaces for queer teens, mentorship, and providing test prep instruction free to students. Outside of work, much of her free time is spent looking for her next great read and planning her next snack.

Find her on Twitter at @Erica_Eze_.

I’ve had a Goodreads account since 2008, just one year after the site was started by a married couple looking to recreate a cozy book recommendation experience online. Despite me being what the kids would call a Goodreads Elder, I only just started to look at the myriad of ways the site fails to deliver since I started working at Book Riot. But it doesn’t just fail readers; it actively hurts authors whose identities lie on the margins of the U.S. social structure.

The most recent Book World drama is a perfect example of what I mean. There are many messy details that I’ll leave to you to wade through, but the gist of the story is that white debut author Cait Corrain — who was being published by an imprint of Penguin Random House and whose book was scheduled to have an Illumicrate box — review bombed her fellow debut authors, many of whom were nonwhite, with fake Goodreads accounts. The story was blown wide open by author Xiran Jay Zhao, who was not among the review-bombed but was obviously privy to the situation. After a few days — and a few lies — Corrain was dropped by her publisher and (barely) fessed up to her behavior in a meager apology.

Though the situation with Corrain is just one instance, it points to a much bigger issue. While there’s been a lot of criticism surrounding Goodreads — from its outdated interface to its constantly crashing app — one of its most egregious offenses is how easy it is to review bomb books.

If you’re unfamiliar, review bombing is when negative reviews and ratings are left for a book with the intent to drop its rating. While genuine criticism is a healthy thing in a world of different perspectives and opinions, review bombing is done by people who haven’t actually read the book they’re reviewing.

With more than 125 million members who have left 26 million book reviews and 300 million ratings in the last 12 months alone, Goodreads is the biggest book review site. Keeping these numbers in mind makes it easy to imagine why a book given an unfairly low rating through review bombing can be so damning. So absolute is Goodreads’ influence, in fact, that it even affected the bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert.

Earlier this year, her new book, The Snow Forest, had gotten hundreds of bad reviews before its advanced review copies had even been printed. The reason being? Because it was set in Russia and would have been released while the war that Russia started with Ukraine continued. Gilbert — to the disappointment of some — decided to cancel the book’s publication.

Owned by Amazon since 2013, Goodreads is, in many ways, a microcosm of American class dynamics. It is fueled by the same brand of American capitalism that is rooted in the slave trade and is a behemoth of a thing that favors those with big publicity budgets and allows other, smaller presences to fall to the bottom. With that said, if an author like Gilbert can be review-bombed into oblivion, so can lesser-known authors.

Some may say that the onus of responsibility for book sales does not belong to Goodreads, and I would agree. To an extent. While so much of the site does seem to operate on a very basic popularity system, there is a more insidious underside to it all. An underside on which Corrain was able to slither along to make 31 Google Doc pages worth of negative reviews of BIPOC authors’ books. It’s this underside that undercuts any integrity the site may claim to have and that has sank books by authors of color months before they were even released.


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