Goodreads Is Terrible for Books. Why Can’t We All Quit It?

It’s not entirely clear who it’s for and what its function should be in a rapidly changing literary ecosystem

A photo illustration of a book with a squiggly line and five stars above to look like it’s dizzy. The stars are coloured in to look like a 4.5 star review.
Celina Gallardo / iStock

It is, in fact, possible to have a decent time on Goodreads. You just have to ignore everything about the way the site is designed and how you’re supposed to use it. When I first signed up in early 2012, I obeyed all the prompts. I populated my “to-read” shelf with the platform’s recommendations. I followed the pages of my favourite writers, as if Nabokov and Kafka were going to start posting updates. I papered my profile with quotes by Sigmund Freud and Philip Roth and deadpanned that my favourite books were simply “the big ones.” I didn’t mind all the beige, the slowness of the search feature, the sense that, if I turned around too quickly, I might catch the platform taking a nap. The site catered to my undergraduate hunger for pretension, my need to perform my taste—a flame it continues to fan very capably in its users.

Gradually, things started to go off the rails. My to-read list ballooned alarmingly, not from titles I felt drawn to out of genuine desire but ones the algorithm pushed on me. The thrill of discovery, too, felt compromised: every time my feed told me a friend had added a book that I’d found first, I felt a frisson of annoyance. Have some imagination. Then, after I posted a review of a recently published novel, the author reached out to thank me for it. I froze. The review had been positive, but that wasn’t the point—I thought this was a private party, not the town square. There were writers here? Just hanging around and watching us? The pressure to moderate my ratings for an invisible audience was immediate. It was one thing to show off for my friends; this felt like a reminder that the stakes were people’s livelihoods. It was my first hint that Goodreads wasn’t—or wasn’t only—a place for readers to gather and connect. It was trying to cater to authors and publishers too—groups whose priorities are very different.

On the surface, Goodreads seems to have mission clarity. It bills itself as “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations” and frames its function as one of community making: “to help people find and share books they love” (though recent headlines would suggest it’s closer to the opposite). In practice, Goodreads is great for many things, but none of them includes what it’s ostensibly “for.” I still use the site daily—but only because I abandoned that first profile and set up a second, anonymous one that ignores its purpose as a social network. Instead, I use it to get a rough and ready sense of how a book might be selling based on the number of ratings and the speed at which they accrue. I use it to drop five stars on upcoming books by friends, giving their work a tiny boost in a landscape where a book can live or die based on hype. I use it to check when a paperback edition comes out or to see which country got the better cover design. In exchange, I accept that parts of the site randomly vanish between desktop and mobile, or that a single typo while looking for a book makes the search function collapse, or that, some days, it decides audiobook is the only format in existence.

The awfulness of the user experience is surprising, given Amazon’s purchase of Goodreads in 2013. The acquisition had the potential to make the platform a major channel for book sales and marketing, though consensus seems to be that Amazon has largely abandoned it. The resulting site and its splintering purposes often feel incoherent. As an experience, it’s not entirely clear who it’s for, where its responsibilities lie, and what its function should be in a rapidly changing literary ecosystem. But despite the site’s muddied purposes and tendency to breed controversy, the book industry is still dependent on it, even beholden to it. As books coverage declines and marketing budgets shrink, Goodreads offers a rare way to get a title in front of a huge audience—approximately 90 million users—of self-selecting readers. It runs buzzy giveaway campaigns, author interviews, and lists rounding up the season’s biggest books. All these features are aimed at getting a fraction of those 90 million readers to click that prized “to-read” button, a crude prediction of that book’s future in the marketplace.

With so many stakeholders aiming to drive up the number of reviews, the genre of the review itself takes on an outsize significance. Much has been written about the practice of “review bombing”—when users flood a forthcoming book with one-star reviews out of an agenda rather than textual engagement. The point isn’t for people to talk smack about a book they didn’t like but to hurt the fate of one they probably haven’t read and that probably isn’t out yet. Goodreads’ lack of content moderation, and the ensuing capacity to spook authors into decisive action, has been a problem for at least four years. It was an issue in 2019, at the peak of the conversation about sensitivity readers, when a number of authors delayed or pulled their books because reader reviews criticized them for cultural misrepresentations. It was an issue again in June this year, when Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert decided to indefinitely delay her new book’s publication after Goodreads users objected to a Russia-set book following the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Though Goodreads told the New York Times it has improved its process for flagging “suspicious reviews” and “taken steps to improve its ability to detect and remove content that violates the site’s community guidelines,” it’s obviously still a problem.

When the Gilbert news broke, the headlines were both widespread and familiar. The Times led with “How Review-Bombing Can Tank a Book before It’s Published.” The Atlantic condemned “The Wrath of Goodreads.” Bestselling author Rebecca F. Kuang—whose latest novel, Yellowface, is a satire about the publishing industry’s own racial insensitivity—wrote in the Guardian that disagreement on the site is “a sign of a lively, healthy reading culture” but problems come when it devolves into simplistic claims of moral righteousness. In a rare piece that centred the experience of the reader rather than the agonies of the writer, Greta Rainbow explored how the site gamifies reading and influences other people’s purchasing behaviours. Controversy, Rainbow argues, only reinforces this goal: “by exerting influence and extracting attention, Goodreads is working exactly as it should.” Running through these pieces like a refrain was the aggrieved affirmation of the site’s importance as a tool for garnering pre-publication buzz.

Given Goodreads’ status as a load-bearing pillar of publicity, it’s surprising that it’s never really taken off as a promotional tool for writers, especially when it explicitly offers the option to be one. Tucked in like an afterthought—not mentioned on the “About” page or in its list of purposes—is the Goodreads Author Program. Stephen King is a member. So is Colleen Hoover. “It rarely ends well when authors barge into spaces meant for readers,” wrote Kuang in the Guardian. In general, she’s right. But, as I was so shocked to discover in 2012, this space is meant to be for authors too—a place where they can set up a profile, do Q&As with their fans, blog, and share their own reading material.

For a site that professes to serve readers and readers alone, having a program where authors can enter the fray seems like it muddies the waters even further. Where the guiding ethos of the “Review Philosophy” for users is largely “be honest and have fun,” on the writer’s side, things are more censorious. “The community perceives you as a public figure,” it warns, “and we expect you to act professionally”—a hard pill to swallow if you’re getting review-bombed. Plus, its functionality is just bad. I’ve been trying to sign up since my first book got a retail page, but for whatever reason, every time Goodreads asks me, “Are you Tajja Isen, author of the books below?” and I give all the required documentation, I can never convince it that the answer is yes.

Which leaves me with only one way to relate to the platform as an author: reading reviews about my own work. I’d never dare write to a reader unprompted, even to thank them for saying I changed their life. Or to engage in good faith with one-star Stacy, who called me a “mixed race woman pretending to own African American women’s struggle” [sic]. Believe it or not, in the Wild West of Goodreads, there’s a rule against authors replying to something like that.

Tajja Isen
Tajja Isen is a contributing writer for The Walrus.