top stories

How Review-Bombing Can Tank a Book Before It’s Published

Cecilia Rabess figured her debut novel, “Everything’s Fine,” would spark criticism: The story centers on a young Black woman working at Goldman Sachs who falls in love with a conservative white co-worker with bigoted views.

But she didn’t expect a backlash to strike six months before the book was published.

In January, after a Goodreads user who had received an advanced copy posted a plot summary that went viral on Twitter, the review site was flooded with negative comments and one-star reviews, with many calling the book anti-Black and racist. Some of the comments were left by users who said they had never read the book, but objected to its premise.

“It may look like a bunch of one-star reviews on Goodreads, but these are broader campaigns of harassment,” Rabess said. “People were very keen not just to attack the work, but to attack me as well.”

In an era when reaching readers online has become a near-existential problem for publishers, Goodreads has become an essential avenue for building an audience. As a cross between a social media platform and a review site like Yelp, the site has been a boon for publishers hoping to generate excitement for books.

But the same features that get users talking about books and authors can also backfire. Reviews can be weaponized, in some cases derailing a book’s publication long before its release.

“It can be incredibly hurtful, and it’s frustrating that people are allowed to review books this way if they haven’t read them,” said Roxane Gay, an author and editor who also posts reviews on Goodreads. “Worse, they’re allowed to review books that haven’t even been written. I have books on there being reviewed that I’m not finished with yet.”

Rabess, who quit her job as a data scientist at Google to focus on writing after selling her novel to Simon & Schuster, worried that the online ambush might turn people against her book.

“I was concerned about the risk of contagion and that readers and reviewers would dismiss the work without ever really engaging with it,’ she said. “I felt particularly vulnerable as a debut author, but also as a Black woman author.”

Despite some accolades — her novel landed on some “most anticipated” books of the summer lists and was a Good Morning America “buzz pick” — it had a sluggish start. After its June 6 release, the book sold 1,000 hardcover copies in its first 10 days, according to Circana BookScan.

Established authors have also been subjected to review bombing campaigns. Earlier this month, Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling writer of “Eat, Pray, Love,” received hundreds of negative ratings on Goodreads for her forthcoming novel, “The Snow Forest,” which is set in Siberia in the mid-20th century. In her case, reviewers weren’t attacking the book itself, or even the premise — a Russian family seeking refuge from Soviet oppression in the wilderness. Critics objected to the fact that Gilbert had set the book in Russia while Russia is waging war on Ukraine, and lambasted Gilbert as insensitive to the plight of Ukrainians.

Gilbert’s response stunned the literary world: She swiftly responded to critics and announced that she was postponing her book, which was slated for publication in February from Riverhead. Riverhead hadn’t even printed advance review copies yet.

Gilbert wasn’t the first author to delay her novel when faced with a tsunami of criticism. The young adult authors Keira Drake and Amélie Wen Zhao postponed publication of their novels after facing criticism on Twitter and Goodreads that their depictions of fantasy worlds were racially insensitive. In 2019, the young adult novelist Kosoko Jackson canceled his debut novel, a love story between two teen boys set in the late 1990s during the Kosovo War, after drawing withering critiques on Goodreads.

In a statement, Goodreads said it “takes the responsibility of maintaining the authenticity and integrity of ratings and protecting our community of readers and authors very seriously,” and that it has made it easier for users to flag suspicious reviews.

Goodreads also said it has taken steps to improve its ability to detect and remove content that violates the site’s community guidelines, which forbid reviews that attack authors personally, reviews that attack other reviewers and multiple reviews by a single user that abuse the rating system.

On Amazon, book reviews indicate whether or not someone has purchased a title, and Amazon typically does not allow reviews to be posted for books that haven’t come out yet, with some exceptions. Rotten Tomatoes, a movie review site, says that users leaving verified reviews must prove they purchased a ticket. But Goodreads, which was bought by Amazon in 2013, lets any registered user review or rate a book.

Even books that are still gestating can be reviewed. George R.R. Martin’s long awaited “The Winds of Winter,” the next installment in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, doesn’t even have an official release date, but it has amassed more than 10,800 ratings and some 500 reviews on Goodreads.

It’s unclear how Amazon uses the data generated on Goodreads, which offers insights into readers’ preferences and consumer behavior. The company said that Goodreads reviews and ratings do not influence its decisions around which books and how many copies it buys from publishers.

Given its influence, some authors have come to think of Goodreads as a necessary evil, and a minefield.

Lincoln Michel, the author of the sci-fi novel “The Body Scout,” said he fears his books might get review bombed if he tangles with people online.

“As any author who is moderately in the public eye, you do always worry that if you get into a fight with someone on Twitter about politics or sports or even a Marvel movie, some angry fans might go leave one-star reviews in retaliation,” he said.

The occasional critical pile-on might not be a bad thing for Goodreads itself. As a social platform, part of what Goodreads is offering is conversation and user engagement, and controversies and debate can drive more comments and time spent on the platform.

The vitriol can also fly in the opposite direction. Recently, the author Sarah Stusek posted a video on TikTok criticizing a Goodreads reviewer for leaving a four-star review of her forthcoming novel, “Three Rivers.” In the video, which was later removed because it violated the platform’s community standards, Stusek berated the reviewer for ruining her five star average. After the Goodreads user amended her review to note that the author was attacking her, fellow Goodreads members rose to her defense and flooded “Three Rivers” with around 600 one-star reviews.

Stusek’s publisher, Sparkpress, announced on Twitter that it was parting ways with the author, and the novel, which was going to be published in September, disappeared from the publisher’s website. Stusek said in an email that her video was intended to be a joke, and that she is planning to self-publish the novel this fall.

More often, though, a negative spiral is set off by readers.

When Gretchen Felker-Martin sold her debut novel, “Manhunt,” about trans women trying to survive in a world where a virus is spreading among people with higher levels of testosterone, she knew some would find the horror story distasteful. But she was blindsided by what felt like an organized campaign of review bombing on Goodreads, she said.

People who objected to the novel’s premise “went ballistic, and bombarded the thing with hundreds and hundreds of negative reviews before anyone had read it,” she said. Felker-Martin, who is transgender, said she had asked Goodreads to remove some of the more personal attacks, and asked friends to report hateful comments, but never got a response, although a couple of reviews were taken down.

“I don’t think Goodreads has an economic incentive to be any better,” she said. “It would be just a gargantuan job to significantly monitor the kinds of abuse that’s being heaped onto people every single day, but there’s certainly some middle ground between breaking your back trying to deal with all of it, and dealing with none of it.”

Source link