What authors really think of Goodreads

When everyone, and no one, is a book critic.

For as long as I've used gig-economy companies like Lyft and DoorDash, I've known that it makes no sense to award anything less than five stars to a human being precariously employed by a venal startup. It is ludicrously convenient to summon cars to my building and meals to my apartment door. The people who execute these services almost always do so effectively if not flawlessly. More importantly, I'm not a cop. 

So why have I routinely awarded authors only three or fours stars for their books on Goodreads, and done so for ... finds Goodreads sign-up confirmation in Gmail ... nearly 14 years?! This question occurred to me only last week, after author Lauren Hough complained on Twitter about Goodreads reviewers giving her new book—Leaving Isn't the Hardest Thing, a memoir about growing up in a cult—just four, and everyone involved was promptly debased. 

The short answer is that I've been giving stars and grades and other ratings to irreducibly complex and utterly personal works of art, mostly songs and albums but also books and shows and movies, "professionally" since I was a know-nothing teenager and getting published in alt weeklies (those were blog newspapers). I still do, sometimes, for about the same amount of money. But if I've always assumed that my Goodreads scoring offered some value to my network—and in fact, I do scan my feed there and check out books that people who share my tastes seem to like—I've never thought about what it means to the authors.

Mostly, I'm sure, it means almost nothing. I'm a little more than halfway through The Color of Money by Walter Tevis, and I'm already thinking it's a five-star book. But Walter Tevis is revered, widely rated on Goodreads, and dead, so no one's clocking the four stars I gave his debut, The Hustler. (Tevis is also in the midst of a major revival thanks to the success of The Queen's Gambit, which was adapted from his novel. A jabroni, I only started reading his books after discovering him through the Netflix show.) 

But an author who's alive, hasn't had a string of work adapted into movies, and is trying to sell enough copies to get another book deal as the industry continues to shrink, consolidate, and focus on "star" writers—while media coverage of books simultaneously fizzes into the ether—I'm going to give one of these people four (or fewer??) stars on a platform, don't forget, owned by Amazon? 

Of course, it's not jabronis like me making or breaking any writers. It's Goodreads' dedicated hobbyist reviewer jabronis—the influencers who do it for the love and the advance copies, and shape the ratings of newly available or pre-sale books—who matter. 

I was curious what working authors make of these reviewers, so I emailed a few for their thoughts. When I asked one friend, a novelist, whether she would weigh in, she fired back a response in literally three minutes: "Fuck no! No way am I poking that nest ... It’s hard enough for Black and brown writers to get decent reviews so I’m not about to make my life harder." 

Those who were willing to weigh in exercised due caution. Rachel Vorona Cote, author of Too Much, acknowledged the passion of the reviewers—and the importance of keeping some distance from them: "So many Goodreads users pour their whole hearts into their reviews. I try not to read my own book's Goodreads reviews, but I nonetheless respect the care and thought devoted to them ... I am grateful for every kind review I've received. Those I've read or had someone I trusted read to me, they are all so meaningful."

What sets Goodreads reviews apart from ones written by professional critics in places like The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly? "What’s different, I think, is that Goodreads reviewers are less willing to sit in discomfort or confusion or disappointment," Lindsay Hunter, whose latest book is Eat Only When You’re Hungry, responded. "They’re less willing to want a book to stick with them, offering more questions than answers. To many, if a book does any of that, it has failed. It’s bad. 'DNF' ['did not finish']." As to their specific tastes, Hunter added, "Goodreads reviewers tend to dislike dark or depressing work. Books are an escape, and it shouldn’t be a bummer. As a reader, I get that. As a writer, it feels unfair." 

The joy of Goodreads for authors, such as it is, may be sampling the oafishly, outlandishly, laughably mean—and sometimes genuinely funny—reviews that inevitably appear. Goodreads "can be very entertaining," Chelsea G. Summers, author of A Certain Hunger, wrote, linking to five reviews of her book that include lines like "So I have no idea why this book was written. But sadly, I finished it—it has vertically [sic] no redeeming features" and "how many times can one author use the word fecundity? too many...far too many." (Summers' take on the difference between the posters and professional critics? "To put it most kindly, Goodreads reviewers don't have editors and they don't have proofreaders.") 

Of course, Facebook is not really built to "give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together," and Goodreads is not really intended to crowd-source the ultimate collection of book reviews. "Publishing a book is simultaneously a profound privilege and a viciously anxious experience," Cote emailed me. "And so, I understand why Goodreads is so often a point of fixation, and even despair. But ultimately, Goodreads is for readers, not for authors." I might go a step further and say it's just for the reviewers. —Nick Catucci