Goodreads and the tyranny of dumb
Reading Room literary editor Steve Braunias asks authors what they think of Goodreads. Spoiler alert: they kind of really hate it.
Goodreads! God almighty. It’s the Trivago of book reviewing, the world and its dumb dog passing uninvited and otherwise unpublishable judgment on junk, masterpieces, cookbooks, comics, anything with pages in it, and reducing everything to a star rating – and yet it must be respected and taken seriously because without readers there are no books, and Goodreads is the voice of the people. But does anyone want to listen?
I’ve never thought to look at the damned thing till assembling this story. I didn’t get very far. Jill, reviewing my book The Scene of the Crime (151 ratings, average stars 3.74): “I must confess that I am not a fan of Braunias. I just don’t get some of his attempts at humour. And I find his style of writing passionless...Grudgingly, I would have to say this is a great read.”
Cheers! God almighty.
I emailed a bunch of authors and literary types, and asked, “What’s your experience of Goodreads?”
Paula Morris (author of Ruined, 12,530 ratings, average stars 3.83)
I don’t look at Goodreads. I only joined because a friend asked me to support her first book. Some writers call it ‘Bad Readers’.
Some years ago I’d read a Michael Ondaatje novel, and was on Goodreads for reasons I can’t remember, probably procrastination or self-loathing. One reader gave the novel a terrible review and said that only the writer’s family would buy it. This reader had never heard of Ondaatje or read any of his other books. Her own "top books" list had a Dr Seuss title at number one. Why would this (poorly written and ignorant) review be helpful to me as a reader?
Your question has prompted me to delete my Goodreads account. Thank you.
Stacy Gregg (author of The Princess and the Foal, 729 ratings, average stars 4.25)
I don’t ever look at the site - although when I release a new book I generally do a Google search on myself and I notice Goodreads does come up on about the second or third page in. The people seem very nice on Goodreads, and it’s usually readers in places like Canada, the States and sometimes the UK. They always seem very much in the “if you can’t say anything nice…yada yada” mode.
Ashleigh Young (author of Can You Tolerate This?, 500 ratings, average stars 4.07)
I recently read a bad review of my new book on Goodreads. I let the review get to me, and I felt embarrassed – both that I'd sought out my own book on Goodreads and that I'd let the reader down. They'd had high hopes. I tweeted about it, and some people replied to say, “Every book gets bad reviews, don't even worry” and “Not everyone can like everything.”
The thing is, I understand that. I do know how it works. I repeat the very same things to the writers whose books I edit. But it's not a crime to feel stink about a stink review. It's possible to be above it all at the same time as squashed underneath it.
Rachael King, director of WORD literary programme in Christchurch; author of The Sound of Butterflies, 912 ratings, average stars 3.37
I use Goodreads to keep track of books I read, which comes in handy when websites or publications ask me to contribute to a “best books of the year” article, or if friends ask for a recommendation. Without it I would probably draw a blank.
I also like to see what my friends are reading, and it’s a good way to discover new books away from what gets hyped in the media.
As an author I’ve learned to treat the Goodreads review as a curiosity. If you believe the 5 star reviews, you also have to believe the 1 star reviews. I do tend to think "I fooled them" with the former, and "they found me out" with the latter, but after your books have been rated 912 times, it does get easier.
Jenna Todd, bookseller at Time Out in Mt Eden
Goodreads is owned by an independent booksellers version of Voldemort - Amazon - but I have to admit I still use it in a couple of ways.
Personally, I use Goodreads to track what I read. I generally read about six to eight books a month and it’s quite satisfying to click ‘read’ when done. However, I no longer rate the books. This is because the five star rating is way too simple for the nuances of reviewing a book and I don’t want to write free copy for them.
As a bookseller, I keep an eye on the ratings, but I take it all with a grain of salt.
Many of the reviewers are bonkers - it’s like listening to talkback radio. Some people will rate a book that they didn’t even finish, some will rate a science fiction book one star and then say, "I hate science fiction and I hated this book too", and before Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments came out on the 10th, people were rating the book based on the news of it being written.
I feel squidgy engaging with Voldemort, but I take the best that I can get from them without giving them too much of myself.
Dame Fiona Kidman (author of This Mortal Boy, 229 ratings, average stars 4.22)
Only foolish writers read Goodreads.
Goodreads can either make your day or make you want to curl up and die, clutching your shredded opus. Nonetheless, I am one of the fools, at least when a new book comes out. It is a measure of whether it is being read or not. Some of the comments are nice, often they are downright nasty, and those are usually written by someone with a pseudonym.
Now and then I browse into Margaret Atwood's Goodreads. That puts things into perspective. I have 229 hits at the moment, most of hers average around 95,000 and The Handmaid's Tale over a million.
Which brings me to my favourite Margaret Atwood anecdote. We'd met a time or two before she and I attended the same Vancouver Writers Festival, although not with particular warmth. One night, she and Angela Carter and I were despatched in a taxi to the festival venue. But the taxi driver got lost and we were put down by some deserted train tracks, the lights of the venue shining in the distance. As we trudged along the tracks, through the dark night, Margaret remarked, "Goodness, what would world literature be if Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood were never found?” After a short silence she added, “Oh, and Fiona Kidman, of course.” Well, okay.
But back to Goodreads. At the moment the average star rating for my latest book is 4.23, while Atwood's overall hover round 3 point something or other. This gives me hope that I may yet sell millions and millions of my books. Just like Atwood.
Alex Hedley, publisher at HarperCollins
We don’t rely on Goodreads to any great extent. From my point of view (as a publisher of New Zealand authors), it's a useful tool for gathering consumer feedback and it makes sense for our authors to establish a profile there. Those who rate and review books on Goodreads appear to be engaged and voracious readers, and any platforms that assist with discoverability and encourage people to read books has to be a good thing. But with hundreds of thousands of books being published each and every year, almost all available online, it can be incredibly difficult to navigate issues of quality. I would always suggest consumers use reputable, local booksellers to recommend their next good read. Opinions on internet forums can vary wildly!
Kelly Ana Morey (author of Daylight Second, 37 ratings, average stars 4.19)
I don't do Goodreads. I occasionally check my Phar Lap novel but it's just nice reviews from friends.
Carl Shuker (author of The Mistake, 74 ratings, average stars 4.03)
Never used or looked at Goodreads! No idea about it.
Elizabeth Smither (author of Loving Sylvie, 28 ratings, average stars 3.25)
“I’m probably not the target audience but it’s the perfect book to buy your mum or grandma. I’m off to give this to my Nana who I am sure will love it.” Claire, reviewing Loving Sylvie. (3 stars)
“When I read Elizabeth Smither I hear the piano, sometimes accompanied by an oboe.” Harvey Molloy, reviewing Night Horse. (4 stars)
“I haven’t read as much NZ poetry as I ought, but was the beneficiary of a load of (probably a dead person’s) poetry turning up at the op shop in town.” scarlettresses, reviewing The Lark Quartet. (4 stars)
Repeat Terence’s mantra every morning: “So many men, so many opinions.” (Publius Terentius Afer (c195BC – 159BC).
Read Goodreads sparingly. If you want stars look at the sky.