Goodreads has too much power for its moderation to be this bad

For the past week, I’ve been watching Goodreads drama happen in what feels like slow motion. Debut author Cait Corrain admitted to fabricating at least six Goodreads user accounts, and leaving negative reviews (including one-star ratings) of other debut authors’ books — many of whom were authors of color. On Monday, her publisher dropped her book Crown of Starlight, and Corrain posted a mea culpa on X (formerly Twitter).

The coordinated efforts of fans and authors helped expose Corrain’s review bombing. Last week, Iron Widow author Xiran Jay Zhao tweeted a thread noting a series of one-star reviews on debut science fiction and fantasy authors’ Goodreads accounts, without naming any names. They also shared a 31-page document of unknown origin (which Polygon reviewed) that contained screenshots of accounts that added Crown of Starlight to a number of most-anticipated lists, and left one-star reviews on forthcoming books by Kamilah Cole, Frances White, Bethany Baptiste, Molly X. Chang, R.M. Virtues, K.M. Enright, and others.

This once again brings Goodreads’ moderation issues to the fore. When reached for comment, a Goodreads spokesperson sent Polygon 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.” The company added, regarding Corrain’s one-star reviews, “The reviews in question have been removed.” Goodreads community guidelines state that members should not “misrepresent [their] identity or create accounts to harass other members” and that “artificially inflating or deflating a book’s ratings or reputation violates our rules.” But it doesn’t explain how those guidelines are enforced.

Goodreads also pointed Polygon to an Oct. 30 post about “authenticity of ratings and reviews,” which said the company “strengthened account verification to block potential spammers,” expanded its customer service team, and added more ways for members to report “problematic content.” The company addressed review bombing and “launched the ability to temporarily limit submission of ratings and reviews on a book during times of unusual activity that violate our guidelines.”

Ostensibly, these measures were put in place after several especially high-profile instances of review bombing on the platform this year. But these new tools did not prevent Corrain from review bombing authors in November and December. The guidelines, including the October one, ask users to “report” content that “breaks our rules,” seemingly shifting responsibility onto the user base. It’s past time for Goodreads, which is owned by Amazon, to consider implementing more comprehensive in-house moderation — or at least more sophisticated internal tools — if not for the sake of its users, then for the sake of authors who are at the mercy of the platform.

Goodreads is extremely influential. There are over 150 million members on the platform, 7 million of whom participated in this year’s Reading Challenge. The platform also has few barriers against these sorts of review-bombing campaigns, as any user in good standing can post a review to the platform, including before the book has been published. Pre-publish reviews are part of the marketing cycle, and they are expressly allowed on Goodreads. Publishers encourage authors to get reviews on the Goodreads pages for their forthcoming books, including during the lead-up period to release. Readers can access advance copies of books through official channels like NetGalley, or by receiving an advance reader copy from the publisher, but there’s no way to know whether a reviewer on Goodreads has actually obtained an advance copy or not. (Though Goodreads review guidelines require readers to disclose if they received a free copy, not all users follow those rules — basically, you can post your review regardless.)

This is obviously not an issue that’s novel to Goodreads, but many other platforms require some form of verification before reviewing. Etsy allows users to review a product after they purchase it. Steam only allows users to write reviews of products in their Steam library, and includes “hours played” in the review. The closest comparison to Goodreads I can think of is Yelp, which allows people to leave reviews of restaurants and other establishments, and which also has to handle waves of negative reviews — often involving complaints about things that are entirely out of that business’s control. As far as fan-review platforms for entertainment go, there’s Letterboxd, a platform where users can track and review films. But it doesn’t hold a candle to the cultural chokehold of Rotten Tomatoes, a platform that aggregates review scores from professionally published critics (while it also aggregates audience scores, those are listed separately). Rotten Tomatoes has its own issues, but its system does mean reviews don’t tend to come from people who have not even consumed the media in question.

As a casual peruser on Goodreads, looking for a book to read, how do you know if a reviewer actually read the book? I guess the answer, at least right now, is: You can’t. And as fans have become more sophisticated and coordinated on the internet, it’s become even harder to take the platform’s reviews and ratings seriously. In July, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert pulled her forthcoming book The Snow Forest — which was set in Russia — after some 500 users, who had not read the book, left one-star reviews. Gilbert is much more established and better resourced than the debut authors Corrain targeted. She nonetheless made the decision to pull her book.

These debut authors didn’t have the same power or cachet, and it’s painful to imagine how Corrain’s negative reviews could have impacted those authors’ book sales — and subsequently their opportunity to write any more books — had Corrain’s actions gone unnoticed. Publishing is full of enough hurdles as it is, especially for authors of color, without this huge one so close to the finish line.