As Goodreads grows up, it can’t please everyone. Should it try?

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Goodreads, a social networking site for book lovers, has grown a lot since its acquisition by Amazon (s AMZN) earlier this year. And as it adds members, it’s facing some of the same challenges that big online communities like Twitter and Reddit have experienced before it. Goodreads probably isn’t going to be able to please all of the audiences it serves — authors and readers, power users and casual visitors.

Late last week, Goodreads announced that it will delete book reviews and shelves that focus on an author’s behavior rather than on a book’s content. The policy aims to combat author bullying, but it’s infuriated many active Goodreads users who think the site is coddling authors at the expense of passionate users. Users also fear that their content — both positive and negative reviews — could disappear from the site without warning.

The episode forecasts the challenges that Goodreads is likely to face as it transitions from a niche site to something bigger. The site had over 20 million users as of July, and it will add many more users when Goodreads is integrated into the Kindle Paperwhite’s software this holiday season.

Deletion without warning seems like a recipe for disaster

Goodreads’ announcement that it would delete reviews and “shelves” (user-curated collections of books) focused on author behavior rather than a book’s content was posted on a Friday. As of Tuesday, that post had received over 3,000 comments from mostly unhappy users.

In general, these users have three big problems with the policy changes: First, they’re calling this censorship; second, they’re mad that Goodreads is deleting content without warning and they fear that their reviews and shelves will be wrongfully deleted on a whim; and third, they think that the new policy favors authors, allowing them to spam and harass readers who leave negative reviews of their books. In addition, some users are upset that Goodreads hasn’t made an official announcement via email or on its homepage about the new policy.

Goodreads has responded to these concerns in two updates to its original post. The company stressed that it’s trying to set “an appropriate tone for a community site.” It told readers it takes bad author behavior seriously and that spamming and harassment violate Goodreads’ author guidelines. And it said that anyone “with reviews or shelves created prior to September 21, 2013 that will be deleted under the revised policy will be sent a notification first and given time to decide what to do.”

The company also suggested that only a small number of users were actually affected: “To the 21 members who were impacted: we’d like to sincerely apologize for jumping the gun on this.”

However, users aren’t reassured. They still fear that their content will be deleted without warning, and that Goodreads will accidentally delete content that doesn’t focus on author behavior at all. One user, for instance, claimed that Goodreads had deleted her five-star Harry Potter book reviews without warning. But a Goodreads customer care rep followed up to say, “I just triple-checked with the team and we haven’t deleted any Harry Potter reviews…I can have someone check the site logs to see if we can get more data to go on, but I can tell you those items were definitely not deleted by staff.”

At any rate, it’s clear that some users are going to be extra vigilant about monitoring their content, and they are likely to blame Goodreads if some of it goes missing, even if that somehow happens accidentally or due to user error. It seems that one way that Goodreads could avoid this is by warning all users — not just users of content created before September 21 — before their content is deleted.

Jane Litte, who runs the popular romance blog Dear Author, also suggested that Goodreads add the ability to create private reviews and shelves.

“People could have their freedom of expression and authors wouldn’t see it, only their friends would,” she told me. “That was a suggestion made on the GR forum and they just didn’t want to do it.”

Striking a balance between authors and readers

Goodreads’ business model requires it to be a community for both authors and readers. The site sells promotional packages and advertising to authors and publishers, but it needs readers to see those ads.

Goodreads says, however, that it’s first and foremost a site for readers. “Most of our features are designed to help readers to find, share and discuss books they read,” Goodreads VP of communications Suzanne Skyvara told me. “We have also had authors on the site since the beginning, and we believe both readers and authors can benefit by being on Goodreads together…an important part of discussing books for many people is having the opportunity to connect with authors.”

She added:

“We’re learning and adapting as our community is growing, but we believe in staying focused on our mission to help readers find good books to read.  In building a community and setting guidelines for the site, we use two simple principles: reviews should be about the book, and it is never OK to threaten or harass anyone — whether they’re an author or a reader. This focus is what guides us in making Goodreads as great a place as we can.”

In fact, it’s difficult to see how Goodreads can serve one side while ignoring the other: Skyvara is correct that a lot of readers are attracted to Goodreads because authors run giveaways and participate in discussions there. It’s clear that any policy that seems to favor one group over the other is going to invite a backlash from the group that feels jilted, but issues like this are likely to continue to arise.

Learning from Amazon — and a data scientist is on the way

Some users suspect that Goodreads’ new owner, Amazon, is somehow responsible for the changes on the site.

Goodreads didn’t respond to my questions on whether Amazon is guiding or affecting its policies. It’s worth noting, however, that Amazon’s commenting features are quite different from the system used by Goodreads.

On Amazon, for instance, users can mark customer reviews as “helpful” or “not helpful.” Reviews with the most “helpful” votes rise to the top, and those that receive enough “not helpful” votes are simply hidden from the site. In addition, Amazon specifically prohibits authors from promoting their books on discussion boards. (Some users have complained about that policy, too.)

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So Goodreads might want to take some cues from Amazon here. Goodreads’ Skyvara told me the company is working on its commenting infrastructure and will be hiring a data scientist to put better review filtering in place:

“Over time we plan to better use all of the data we have around reviews so that we are putting the best reviews – the ones that will be most interesting and useful – at the top. This is a big data problem, and we are hiring a data scientist to work on it.  At the same time, we already personalize how you see reviews – you see your friends’ reviews first and then you see reviews by people you follow, all people that you know and trust.”

A community, with all the benefits and problems that entails

Goodreads is bound to face the same growing pains that bigger sites like Reddit, Twitter and Facebook (s FB) have experienced. The incident over the weekend probably won’t change many people’s minds about the site, even though it may drive some influencers away — in the same way that some disgruntled folks have left Facebook but most have stayed because, well, everyone’s using Facebook.

The question is whether Goodreads is established enough that most users will think it’s too valuable to leave. As Alexandra Petri wrote at the Washington Post:

“Most of the people who make the internet and Goodreads the wonderful, engaging places that they are by giving freely of themselves, their time, and their opinions — freely being the key word here — ask nothing more than our +1?s and our Likes and our follows and our upvotes in return. Take them for granted, though, or tick them off, and you risk losing all the wonderful things they are giving you for free — unless you have already attained Facebook-like levels of You Can Never Leave This Place For All Your Friends Are Here saturation. Is Goodreads there? We’ll have to see.”

Goodreads’ power users make up only a sliver of its user base of 20 million (and that base should increase drastically when Goodreads is integrated into the new Kindle Paperwhite this holiday season.) Those users care a lot about Goodreads’ new policy, and anecdotal evidence, in the form of tweets and Goodreads posts, suggests that some of them are leaving the site and migrating to competitors like BookLikes,

If enough power users leave, Goodreads may suffer. “The malcontents that Goodreads doesn’t like or that authors don’t like actually provide some of the most robust positive reviews [as well],” Litte told me. “They are passionate about the books that they love and passionate about the books that they hate.”

But the vast majority of users on Goodreads are likely people who don’t have time to leave many reviews or get involved in discussions. They may spend a few minutes on the site a week, and they’re not tracking the site’s new policies closely (if they’re even aware of them in the first place). And while Goodreads will try to appease both sides, it is likely betting that its real growth will come from the users who spend a few minutes a week on the site and are primarily just looking for something to read.

23 Comments

Anonymous

I think this article makes a lot of good points. The trick for any social media site (and that what good reads is) is to appeal to the widest demographic. Goodreads is about reading books and talking about books. I live books and love the site.

I am a pretty big user of the site. I write reviews over 676 so far, I go to groups, I have over 1700 active notifications on the site for comments I have made. I like to talk about books I read and get info from other people.

I really do not engage with authors. If I like a book I give it a good rating If I do not — I give it a bad rating or review. Thats it. I do not take pot shots at authors outside of their books.

Last I checked Amazon had bad reviews of books. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus publish bad reviews. The NY Times does as well.

If you create a work you have to expect people to like it or dislike it. To me authors are making too much of a big deal here — they should understand that some people will dislike their books.

But at same time, most of the reviewers and people here who love this site are being hijacked by petty people who under the guise of some vague understanding of freedom of speech want to say whatever they want for whatever reason they want no matter how cruel or nasty — and about the authors themselves I am not saying you cannot say anything at all — maybe a book is a political track that you vehemently disagree with — certainly you should be able to say something about the writing etc.

— But goodreads is a private company — there is no freedom of speech. If you curse out people in a school or act like a jerk in public there are consequences.

So while I am very sympathetic to people exercising their liberty to say something — now that its hurting me by resulting in a stupid overkill by the site, I am really kind of annoyed about the whole thing.

.

Rosemarie S.

I love Goodreads, although I am a more casual user. I love being able to write reviews of books I love. I keep negative reviews to an absolute minimum, just because it makes sense. I don’t want to be known as a hater. But when I realized that authors were also reading my reviews, I was even more glad of the fact that I tend to look for the positive. I think GR is right in trying to do something about the problem. I know that I have been shocked at the extreme negative nature of some reviews I’ve seen. There is just no reason to be that mean. It’s just the on-line version of Road Rage.

Christine

Anonymous, how many five-star reviews of that same unwritten book do you have, and are you as upset about those as you are about the one-star reviews? Goodreads has always allowed users to rate books related on “enthusiasm” of the user for the book in question. Those users are not enthusiastic about your book. Their ratings are just as valid as any five-star reviews that exist that demonstrate your fan’s enthusiasm for your proposed book.

Kaethe Douglas

Anonymous, this may not have occurred to you, but seven 1-star reviews on a book that hasn’t even been written yet won’t actually have any effect on your career.

Anonymous

As an author who has received seven 1-star reviews on a book that hasn’t even been written yet courtesy of the aforementioned stalker trolls, I can say that the above posters are 100% correct. The people to blame mostly come from one circle of friends, who seem to enjoy hurting people for no better reason than because it’s fun. When I asked for a reason, they quoted a post that was totally innocent and inoffensive, and certainly not worthy of an attempt to ruin my career.

jane

Anonymous,

GR’s ToS say this is perfectly acceptable. Readers are allowed to rate books without reading them. You need to brush up on the GR rules & regs.

Anonymous

While I do not agree with the comments by Anonymous above, it seems to me that rating books that you don’t read or reviewing books that you do not read distorts the very purpose of the site, which is to help people find good books to read — how does it help me find a book to read if someone posts a negative review of the book but hasnt even read it at all — or is reacting to the subject matter of the book or even its popularity.

These negative reviews of books that are unread and reviews of ratings of book that have not been written yet are really a bug in the GR rules.

Kaethe Douglas

Yeah, actually, by multiple different GoodReads criteria, I am one of the most active members.And the idea that GoodReads has been “taken over” by a “gang of stalker trolls” who are out to get authors is both paranoid and conspiratorial and demonstrably untrue.

Tell me more. Are there gang signs? Special identifiers? Satanic rituals?

I agree that GoodReads credibility has been undermined, though, since the delete first and notify later policy took effect.

Mary Shelly

Goodreads used to be a site of book lovers, but has been taken over by a gang of stalker trolls who are the most active members and have one agenda, to do as much damage to the reputation, career and livelihood of as many authors as possible.
They blame authors for the changes on Goodreads because sociopaths always believe their victims are to blame. But the real reason for the policy changes is the endless vicious personal attacks that have completely undermined the goodreads site’s credibility.
The preponderance of these “attack reviews” has made the API sold by goodreads a complete fraud. This leaves Amazon no choice but to step in and make major changes.

Carlie Thomathew

And Amazon does such a smashingly good job already of policing its reviews. :)

jane

And you’re just a sock of Rick Carufel’s. At least be brave enough to continue to post as yourself.

rickcarufel

Goodreads used to be a site of book lovers, but has been taken over by a gang of stalker trolls who are the most active members and have one agenda, to do as much damage to the reputation, career and livelihood of as many authors as possible.
They blame authors for the changes on Goodreads because sociopaths always believe their victims are to blame. But the real reason for the policy changes is the endless vicious personal attacks that have completely undermined the goodreads site’s credibility.
The preponderance of these “attack reviews” has made the API sold by goodreads a complete fraud. This leaves Amazon no choice but to step in and make major changes.

Kaethe Douglas

It’s really simple for me: I can’t store my data someplace that may decide to delete it without telling me. So yeah, I’m moving to BookLikes.

Carlie Thomathew

Ditto. The only way I use GoodReads is as a record of what I have read and when. If I can’t be confident that my data will be safe there, I may as well get out a notebook and write it all down instead.

I like the site, but as one of the “less active” (and apparently much less valued) users, I’m not married to it.

Deborah O'Neal Rice

I see. The loss of members from the Friday Ring and Run announcement is expected to be recouped by the number of members joining when goodreads integrates with kindle paperwhite. Gee, paperwhite user that I am, I refuse to link my goodreads account to any site that has my credit card information or identity theft information. I

I was surprised to see amazon getting credit for the approximately 20 million users on goodreads. I could have sworn there were that many members months before the buyout. I thought that pre-amazon buyout that goodreads had been growing exponentially to where there resources were taxed with lots of over-capacity error messages and there were 20M then. In fact, that was not too long after dropping the amazon data feed when amazon not only changed tos of the feed to require goodreads to feature amazon as the only bookseller even mentioned on book’s page with permission to have a link to go to another page for additional vendors (goodreads current purchase links are one paid ad one and two completely customizable by members). In fact, I am positive it was 20M when with goodreads dropping the data feed amazon insisted all existing data be pulled. Data obtained validly under original TOS subscription and no new data from feed after TOS changed, but pulled.

But I’m sure amazon is responsible for goodreads’ 20 million members.

Luce

Hahaa. nice. Goodreads is losing members. As an active Goodreads member myself, I find myself incredibly upset. Goodreads has created a sort of division between reviewers. Certain ‘starred reviewers’ shall not be affected at all by Goodreads – Goodreads itself has been emailing some people saying exactly that whilst others are just being told to suck it up.

Richard Derus

I was one of the Forbes 25 most influential reviewers. I’m in the top 10 most popular reviewers most of the time, sorted by week or by month…and this is what I’ve just posted on Goodreads’ active, though ignored, Feedback thread, as a result of reading your article.

♡KarLynP♡ wrote: “The following article came out a few hours ago and gives several recent quotes from GR mgmt, VP of communications Suzanne Skyvara

http://gigaom.com/2013/09/24/as-goodreads-grows-up-it-cant-please-…”

This para explains the silence about the concerns on this thread:

“Over time we plan to better use all of the data we have around reviews so that we are putting the best reviews – the ones that will be most interesting and useful – at the top. This is a big data problem, and we are hiring a data scientist to work on it. At the same time, we already personalize how you see reviews – you see your friends’ reviews first and then you see reviews by people you follow, all people that you know and trust.”

It’s official, from someone at GR. They are deliberately becoming Amazon. So all the hollering and all the points we’ve all made are, in the end, for naught. They aren’t going to make any compromises, they aren’t interested in user input, they are the big boy on the block and we aren’t. {Screw} a bunch of the people whose labor made them rich.

All good things come to an end. The good Goodreads is over. I’ll still be here, but will fade into irrelevance (I wonder if I was ever actually relevant) because I’ll participate less and less as I move my data.

And it won’t matter a speck. The site will go on, the relevance will remain, until someone one day twigs to the fact that this is Amazon now. Like Shelfari, Goodreads will just be a sales mouthpiece for the corpocracy. Indie authors beware: When Amazon is done bludgeoning the publishing industry into submission with y’all’s work, you’ll see what it feels like to be pressured in a way you can’t even fathom yet.

For me, I’m going to shout from the wilderness. I’ll post protests and I’ll post reviews that are explicitly anti-censorship and tie them into these concerns. And most people will learn to ignore me, more than they already do, because “what’s that noisy old coot hollering for?” is easier, safer, less trouble than thinking about what this explicit statement means for your own future.

Leah

I agree with Christine’s comment. Also, shrugging at the loss of GR powerusers ignores an important fact about how social media functions:

People go where their friends are.

The GR powerusers who leave will lure many less-active users with them, and a chain reaction may occur, with people leaving in droves to stay with their friends.

Books are not the only thing drawing users to GR. The social networking aspect is huge.

Christine

An interesting article, and I suspect you may be right. However, it is important to note that those casual users will not add to the book catalogue, will not moderate robust groups that run author interviews, R2R book giveaways and other events that provide authors with word of mouth exposure, and will not provide the content that makes Goodreads what it is. That all comes from the power users and the bloggers who are passionate about books and Goodreads.

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