12 July 2012

Opinion, Territory and Perception : the idea of bullying on Goodreads

I sit in two worlds on Goodreads.  I came to the site as a reader, though I used it primarily for looking up information about books. When I self-published, I had my account converted to an author account, ran a few giveaways, and slowly developed a taste for tracking which books I've read.  I joined some groups, though I'm only an occasional poster.  I continue to run giveaways, and occasionally my readers will find me there and friend or follow me, but primarily I use the site as a reader, following the feed of other readers whose reviews entertain me, or who analyse books on points I'm interested in, such as treatment of women.

Just this past week I've particularly felt the "feet in both camps" nature of being both a reader and writer as a site ironically named GRBullies started receiving attention.  This site collects the personal information of various readers who use Goodreads (addresses, photographs) in, it claims, an attempt to name and shame bullies who harass authors on Goodreads.  This site greatly resembles (and also alludes to) an earlier incident where an author had posted a similar collection of information on her blog about a reader (Google "Selection Debacle" for further information).

The end result of that incident was the reader – someone who had posted a very measured, balanced review (of a book which wasn't even the attacking author's book) – stopped using Goodreads for some time.

Links to the GRBullies site have been appearing on various writer forums I read, often followed by a mix of comments from people who have no problem with Goodreads, and people who call it a cess pit.  I've also been watching the discussion direct on Goodreads, because the people named on GRBullies…?  Most of them are readers whose reviews I've been following for the past year or so.

I can't claim to have a thorough knowledge of everything which happens on Goodreads, so I can only state what I've observed about the experience of being an author there:

As an author:

*- There is an emphasis that the site is for readers to track their books and discuss them. There are opportunities as an author to promote, but they are within strict boundaries to prevent promotion from becoming intrusive.  There is a clear message to me that this is reader territory, not author territory.

*- I'm not actively notified of new ratings and reviews, though if I want to read them I can track them down via an author dashboard which shows me total numbers.

*- I have a little over 700 ratings (nearly 200 of which include text commentary), which range from 1 star to 5 star.

*- No-one has called me names.  Not everyone has liked my books.  Some have said what didn't work for them in a blunt or snarktastic manner. Not everyone is polite, or coats their opinion of my writing in syrup, but I have never felt even remotely bullied.

*- The Goodreads administration discourages authors from commenting on their own reviews – a pop-up message appears warning you off when you start, though it still permits you to comment.

Occasionally there have been incidents which I have watched from the sidelines.  The majority of these have involved comments appearing on a review which amounted to "your opinion, you have it wrong".

This is where "territory" is triggered.  Everyone's perception of a book is different.  There are many popular books which one person will love and another will think is dull or boring or sexist.  The review is their own personal opinion of a book, their 'mental territory'.

Comments on reviews, even comments which disagree with the review, aren't automatically treated as bad.  A comment phrased as "I didn't react to that character's treatment in that way, and so ended up liking the book a great deal more than you did.  Do you think the author was trying to deliberately comment on prejudice there?" is a relatively neutral engagement in a conversation while "You're reading it wrong; are you blind?" will be received as an attack, not an engagement to discussion.

Many comments like the latter result in other readers defending the reviewer's right to have their own reaction to the book, even if it doesn't conform to the commenter's.  Sometimes the exchanges escalate and (given that Goodreads has such an enormous number of users) sometimes matters will descend to name-calling.  Some name-calling comes from inexperienced users, who are often corrected by community members.  Sometimes the name-calling stands and matters escalate further.  Usually the dissenting commenter is repeatedly told to go write their own review rather than argue with the first reader's opinion in the first reader's 'territory'.

Who is the bully here?  The person insisting someone's personal reaction to a book is wrong, or various connected readers quick to defend the territory of reader opinions?

One particular point of contention which has developed over the past year is the use of "author behaving badly" shelves to keep track of authors who have engaged in arguments with reader opinion.  As an author I would feel tremendously uncomfortable finding myself on one of those shelves!  So far I've managed to avoid it by remembering three simple points:

*- Goodreads is a place for readers to express their opinions about books. 
*- Not everyone will have the same opinion, even about my favourite books in the whole world.
*- If I respect other people's opinions, they will generally accord me the same courtesy.

There are more than a million people using Goodreads.  They all have their own views on how polite they need to be when expressing their opinions.  I may occasionally be a little blunt expressing my own. But one thing I always manage to remember is that my opinion is only absolutely correct to me – and people are not bullies for insisting they be allowed to have their own.


  1. I sat in on a communication/negotiation style course once and made some notes that I try to follow if I feel the need to make honest critiques that are not all "this was fantastic and perfect". Most boil down to the following;

    Use "I" not "you"...so its all about your own perception & allows and opening for the other person to consider a point of view that may not be their own.

    I usually sit and think about what I've just written as well. A lot of the rubbing up against each other is probably due to the ease of pressing the "publish" button.

    Ooh, look, a publish button right below this box...shiny!

  2. It's certainly possible to present opinion with an emphasis that it's exactly that. But so long as there's no reference to the author (X is plainly incapable of writing) I don't really have any objection to outright statements (the prose is impenetrable). A review is by its nature an opinion piece, a single individual's very specific reaction to something.

  3. Off topic:

    Congratulations! On Amazon, just saw _Lab Rat One_ rates 4.9 out of 5.0 stars (26 5-star reviews and two 4-star reviews).


    1. Ha, yeah, it's been like that for a long time. Second book syndrome - people who like book 1 are inclined to like book 2. Lab Rat is more popular than Caszandra as well because the focus move a little away from romance.

  4. Waah! Goodreads suggested I read this, which looks good according to Wikipedia, but hasn't been translated into English yet :(

    There is one book on Goodreads where I have gone so far as to email the author and ask him to rally some of his mates to vote up some good reviews of his book, because the #1 is by a clueless git who admits not even having read it. :(

    1. Reviews like that - and book ratings for that matter - really have little impact on whether I, at least, choose to read a book. I like to hear what other people have to say, but on the whole I will read a book if it sounds interesting to me.

  5. Bullying is something I have seen in this type of forum-
    but not yet at goodreads-
    mostly in writer forums where anyone can represent themselves as an expert writer and critique anyone else. Usually its the ones that have 10000 posts or more that are the most guilty. I think they think they own the forums. And they will descend on anyone who challenges that. It's not a pretty sight. It is best to let them have their way and find a new place to play. They can be very rude while claiming that the person they are attacking is rude and usually they have the rest of the over 10000 posters to back them up. They also have rules that make it difficult to identify that what they are doing is bullying.
    It's similar to flaming of the past and looks to not be leaving the internet too soon.

    1. I once was "invited to leave" a writer's forum because I said I thought the moderator "over-moderated" self-publishers' opinions. I left - it was their space, and thus their rules. But I did appreciate that they changed that forum tag to clearly display that they took an anti-self-publisher position. Always good to know where someone stands. :)


Unfortunately the blog sometimes eats comments. I recommend copying to your clipboard before submitting.

Touchstone Trilogy - French Edition

Some news for the Touchstone fans. The wonderful Justine of Seraminda Editions has faced down the truly daunting task of translating Cass...