‘It’s Totally Unhinged’: Is The Book World Turning Against Goodreads?



The influential user review site has suffered a year of controversies, from cancelled book deals to review-bombing, and exposed a dark side to the industry

For Bethany Baptiste, Molly X Chang, KM Enright, Thea Guanzon, Danielle L Jensen, Akure Phénix, RM Virtues and Frances White, it must have been brutal reading. All received scathing reviews on Goodreads, an online platform that reputedly has the power to make or break new authors.

But the verdicts were not delivered by an esteemed literary critic. They were the work of Cait Corrain, a debut author who used fake accounts to “review bomb” her perceived rivals. The literary scandal led to Corrain posting an apology, being dropped by her agent and having her book deal cancelled.

It also uncovered deeper questions about Goodreads, arguably the most popular site on which readers post book reviews, and its outsized impact on the publishing industry. Its members had produced 26m book reviews and 300m ratings over the past year, the site reported in October. But for some authors, it has become a toxic work environment that can sink a book before it is even published

“It has a lot of influence because there are so many people now who are not in the New York ecosystem of publishing,” says Bethanne Patrick, a critic, author and podcaster. “Publishers and agents and authors and readers go to Goodreads to see what is everybody else looking at, what’s everyone else interested in? It has a tremendous amount of influence in the United States book world and reading world and probably more than some people wish it had.”

Goodreads allows users to review unpublished titles. Publishers frequently send advance copies to readers in exchange for online reviews that they hope will generate buzz. But in October, Goodreads acknowledged a need to protect the “authenticity” of ratings and reviews, encouraging users to report content or behaviour that breaches its guidelines.

Goodreads said: “Earlier this year, we launched the ability to temporarily limit submission of ratings and reviews on a book during times of unusual activity that violate our guidelines, including instances of ‘review bombing’. This kind of activity is not tolerated on Goodreads and it diminishes the community’s trust in people who participate.”

The platform has been involved in previous controversies over online comments. Last summer the author Elizabeth Gilbert postponed a historical novel set in Siberia after hundreds of users criticised the book, which had yet to be published, as insensitive amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The author Sarah Stusek appeared to take offence when a Goodreads user, Karleigh Kebartas, gave her debut novel Three Rivers four stars instead of five and commented that the “ending was kind of predictable, but other than that it was incredible”. Stusek berated Kebartas on TikTok, drawing widespread criticism and ultimately losing her publisher.or Bethany Baptiste, Molly X Chang, KM Enright, Thea Guanzon, Danielle L Jensen, Akure Phénix, RM Virtues and Frances White, it must have been brutal reading. All received scathing reviews on Goodreads, an online platform that reputedly has the power to make or break new authors.Corrain acknowledged using multiple pseudonyms to trash novels on Goodreads. She posted an apology on Instagram, attributing her actions in part to struggles with mental health and substance abuse.

Corrain’s own novel Crown of Starlight had been scheduled to come out next year through Del Rey, a science fiction and fantasy imprint of Penguin Random House. Both Del Rey and Corrain’s agent, Becca Podos, announced last week that they would no longer work with Corrain, who had a two-book deal.

Speaking from McLean, Virginia, Patrick comments: “She was lying, she was being deliberately cruel. This is not just crossing ethical boundaries. This is crossing the boundaries of healthy behaviour.”

Publications such as the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post hold journalists and reviewers to professional standards, Patrick argues, whereas Goodreads lacks such oversight. “The interesting thing about this current problem – tied in to some of the ongoing long-running problems – is that it shows why Goodreads has a terrible reputation with critics and why people like me shy away from it.

“I don’t know anyone who spends a lot of time on Goodreads and I know that my other writer friends all actively try to stay away because no one wants to see some of the ugly stuff that people are putting up there. It seems very careless and mean spirited. There are also mean things on Amazon but there’s something about Goodreads over the past five to seven years that has burst out of its cage.”

When Patrick published a memoir, Life B: Overcoming Double Depression, earlier this year, she gave Goodreads a wide berth. She recalls: “My memoir is about mental illness and mental health and so I have done a lot of work and did a great job of keeping myself stable and healthy through my book launch. And part of keeping myself stable and healthy was staying away from Goodreads.

“But I know many people who do have six months of horrible anxiety or depression or spinning out of control, just trying to be frantic getting every single thing right. Everything’s a tool and Goodreads, the way it is built and used now, can allow someone to use it in a very unhealthy way. That’s why I think it would be a great idea for there to be more oversight of the platform.”

The founders of Goodreads did not come from a background of literary criticism. The site was launched in 2007 by Otis Chandler, a computer programmer, and Elizabeth Khuri, assistant style editor for the Los Angeles Times’s Sunday magazine (the couple married in 2008). Goodreads was bought by Amazon in 2013 and now claims to be the world’s biggest site for readers and book recommendations.

But as in many other corners of the web, the removal of gatekeepers is both liberating and frightening, promising the wisdom of crowds but delivering the wild west. Concerns about the manipulation of Goodreads, and its ability to end careers before they begin, have been growing.

Shelly Romero, a freelance editor and writer based in New York, points out that most of the debut authors whose books that Corrain disparaged on Goodreads were people of colour, who already have an uphill struggle to get their work published.

Romero, 29, says: “The lack of moderation opens up a door to the review bombing. Any review can go up, which in the grand scheme of things is great because you have all sorts of opinions, you see all these different viewpoints. But like with everything, the lack of this moderation allows it to be abused in a way that impacts Bipoc authors especially and also queer authors.”

She continues: “If it’s a queer author, they say this book is inappropriate because it talks about homosexuality and sex and it’s a middle grade book and so it’s not appropriate for a 12-year-old. Books by Black authors in particular seem to get targeted just for the sole fact that their authors are Black and their main characters are Black. They’re called political or woke or that they’re too grown up and it could very well just be like a normal fantasy story.

“These types of targeted campaigns on Goodreads do not give a majority of people within the industry a lot of causation to trust Goodreads or to even give a lot of weight to it. I’ve seen it called the necessary evil and I kind of agree, though we could probably steer away from it more.”

Goodreads denies that it is turning a blind eye to the challenges. It says in a statement: “Goodreads takes the responsibility of maintaining the authenticity and integrity of ratings and protecting our community of readers and authors very seriously. We have clear reviews and community guidelines, and we remove reviews and/or accounts that violate these guidelines.”

But the drumbeat of controversies and scandals could be taking a toll. Some in the publishing world detect that Goodreads’ influence is on the wane.

Courtney Maum, author of Before and After the Book Deal, says: “I’ve published five books traditionally and when I started there was, if not pressure, definitely a lot of energy from my publisher around getting solid reviews on Goodreads and making sure people were interacting on Goodreads giving away tons and tons of ARCs [advance review copies] and galleys on Goodreads.

“I thought, oh well, this is another sector of the publishing industry that I don’t understand. I joined it when my first book came out in 2013-14 and frankly didn’t find it a pleasant place to dwell. I also think aesthetically the platform is very unattractive and has kind of a Dell computer vibe when we’re living in an Apple universe.”

Speaking from Litchfield, Connecticut, Maum, 45, adds that she never read Goodreads reviews of her books. “It’s like an Armageddon energy there that is destructive and devoid of value. I can’t imagine that publishers going forward in 2024 are going to keep putting tons of stock into Goodreads because it’s got a lot of garbage in the room.

“In the last couple of years, because there’s been so many dumpster fires on Goodreads, it’s pretty evident now to publishers that this isn’t a platform that they can trust 100%. A lot of people that I know were suffering some serious abuse through Goodreads. Whether it was stalkers hellbent on ‘review bombing’ them at every turn or their nemeses – jilted ex-lovers, whatever – it was very easy for trolls to pan people on Goodreads.

“The agents and publishers up until maybe this year have put tremendous stock in it but authors for a very long time have been trying to get the word out that hey, this is not a safe place for us. We have no protection. It’s totally unhinged.”