Goodreads was the future of book reviews, then Amazon bought it

SAN FRANCISCO — Goodreads — an Amazon-owned review site beloved by the bookish — has grown beleaguered.

The site is built on outdated technological infrastructure, which made the cost of overhauling and updating it a challenge that was ultimately not worth it for the e-commerce giant, according to former employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Meanwhile, limited manual content moderation and a lack of protective features allow users to engage in targeted harassment known as “review bombing” — behavior that has resulted in the cancellation of books and their authors.

Former employees said Amazon seemed happy to mine Goodreads for its user-generated data and otherwise let it limp along with limited resources. In Amazon’s more than 20-year history, the company has made dozens of acquisitions, and it is not unusual for it to try to cheaply acquire properties in markets that it wants to dominate, only to let them languish. Until recently, Amazon owned Book Depository and camera-enthusiast favorite DPReview, and it still operates discount marketplace Woot, collectibles website AbeBooks and movie database IMDb.

Goodreads “hasn’t been all that well maintained, or updated, or kept up with what you would expect from social communities or apps in 2023,” said Jane Friedman, a publishing industry consultant. “It does feel like Amazon bought it and then abandoned it.”

Amazon spokesperson Ashely Vanicek said that “By joining Amazon, Goodreads has accelerated their mission to delight customers with the help of Amazon’s resources and technology.”

“We continue investing and growing Goodreads as a community for readers and authors,” she said in a statement, “and have created opportunities for Amazon and Goodreads to invent new services for readers and authors alike.”

The most recent high-profile incident involving Goodreads came when Elizabeth Gilbert — author of the best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” canceled the release of her forthcoming novel after it was flooded with one-star ratings. None of the people leaving negative reviews had actually read the book, which wasn’t slated to come out until February of next year.

But because some readers felt the book’s setting — 1930s Russia — was inappropriate in light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, they used Goodreads ratings as a way to express their frustration. Gilbert later announced on Instagram that it’s “not the time for this book to be published.”

It’s common practice in the publishing world to release early copies of books to both readers and professional critics to generate pre-publication buzz. But Goodreads allows any user, not just those who’ve received advance copies, to leave ratings months before books are released. Authors who’ve become targets of review-bombing campaigns say there’s little moderation or recourse to report the harassment. Writers dealing with stalkers have pointed to the same problem.

Unlike Amazon’s marketplace, Goodreads “is designed so you don’t have to buy a product to review a book,” said former Amazon employee Kristi Coulter, who worked in publishing and is the author of a forthcoming memoir, “Exit Interview,” about her experience. “That makes it ripe for abuse.”

Amazon bought Goodreads in 2013 for a reported $150 million with the hope that the online community of book lovers and the data they created about books would advance its mission of selling everything to everyone.

More than a decade later, even as other social platforms have undergone multiple reinventions, little has changed about Goodreads, a beige website where readers can rate books from one to five stars, write reviews and talk to other readers on old-school forums, some of which have tens of thousands of members.

“In its heyday, [Goodreads] was more of a help selling books than a hindrance,” said Maris Kreizman, an author who hosts a podcast about books for Literary Hub.

But Goodreads has remained so clunky in its design and is so difficult to use, Kreizman said, that it is no longer fulfilling the promise it once had of “bringing book lovers together and making new communities.”

“I feel like the trajectory was, Goodreads was innovating and doing good things, it was exciting,” she said. “And then Amazon bought it. The end.”

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

The first thing Amazon wanted Goodreads to do after acquiring it was build an app for the Kindle, according to one of the former employees.

The Kindle, first released in 2007, was an extremely popular device for reading books, and Amazon was eager to broaden its possibilities by bringing in a social component. At the time, the company was trying to get a foothold in social media, where it had trailed its competitors in the tech world, a former Amazon executive said.

The Goodreads app allowed readers to highlight passages and share them with other readers, a feature that sparked excitement in academia about the possible future for “social reading.”

The social aspect of Goodreads was also attractive to publishers, who had access to data for the first time about what kinds of books ignited conversation among readers, the Los Angeles Times argued in a 2010 series on digital reading. At the time, it seemed possible that Goodreads’s data could power a personalized recommendation algorithm akin to what Spotify built for music.

Coulter worked at Amazon from 2006 to 2018 and recalled attending a dinner in New York where executives discussed Amazon’s purchase of the site.

“There was interest in using Goodreads data to help power Kindle features,” she recalled. “There was all this excitement and momentum behind it.”

But after Amazon bought Goodreads, it gradually became clear that the technology was old and the data not well organized, and that a significant investment would be required to bring the site up to speed, according to two former Goodreads employees.

The reason “it feels stuck as a product,” one of the former Goodreads employees said, is because “it was painfully slow to create change.” As a result, proposed features like a recommendation algorithm or a news feed for the Kindle powered by Goodreads were never built.

Amazon largely let Goodreads operate independently. The company could still get valuable data from Goodreads users, like reviews and genre labels, as well as advertising revenue without needing to commit much in the way of resources to the site, three former employees said.

There was also a concern that any major changes to the platform could scare people away. One former employee compared Goodreads to Reddit, an 18-year-old internet forum where users are revolting because of modifications to the site. “People feel like they can’t anger the community,” the former employee said.

Ultimately, Amazon is pulled in so many directions that it’s common for teams to get pulled onto “another shiny object,” Coulter said. “It would be in line with what I’ve seen many times at Amazon,” she said. “People just get kind of distracted.”

And as Amazon pursued other goals, authors, publishers and readers said Goodreads became increasingly toxic.

In 2014, author Kathleen Hale published a book of essays, called “Kathleen Hale Is A Crazy Stalker,” about the lessons she learned after showing up uninvited at the home of someone who left her a bad review on Goodreads. Authors have reported being extorted for money by scammers who will bomb a book’s rating unless the author sends them money. Just this year, young-adult author Sarah Stusek’s publisher reportedly dropped her after she insulted a reader who left a four-star review on her Goodreads page.

Stusek said her comments were meant to be humorous but were misinterpreted, “which led to retaliation on Goodreads.”

“My publisher and I had been having problems for a while, and when they asked me make a public apology to them, I thought it was best we go our separate ways,” she said via email.

“For a number of reasons, including but not limited to attacking a reviewer and multiple others online, we have decided to part ways with one of our authors,” her publisher, Brooke Warner of SparkPress, tweeted at the time.

Goodreads does have moderators; their official job titles are “Goodreads experts,” per LinkedIn and public job listings. Moderators are supposed to remove posts that violate Goodreads’s rules — for example, reviews that attack an author but aren’t actually about their book. But the moderation is manual, and the queue for flagged reviews is long.

Suzanne Skyvara, a Goodreads spokesperson, said the company “takes the responsibility of maintaining the authenticity and integrity of ratings and protecting our community of readers and authors very seriously.”

“We listen to feedback from readers, authors, and publishers, and invest in tools and support teams to improve our ability to quickly detect and stay ahead of content and accounts that violate our reviews or community guidelines,” Skyvara said in an emailed statement.

But authors who feel unsafe or unfairly treated often turn to other social platforms like Twitter to get the company’s attention.

“Goodreads really needs a mechanism for stopping one-star attacks on writers,” author Roxane Gay tweeted after Gilbert announced her book’s cancellation. “It undermines what little credibility they have left.”

Friedman, the publishing consultant, says any decent publisher will present a marketing plan that involves two to three stages of advanced reviews on Goodreads to generate buzz.

“I think it’s a powerful tool for publishers,” she said. “But there’s a real double-edged sword where it gets used as a weapon.”

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