This series explores how the recent censorship episodes at Goodreads and booksellers in England represent symptoms of the larger upheavals roiling the publishing world. In particular I am looking at how they each relate to what I will call ‘emerging genres,’ genres whose standards and conventions, critical reception, distribution and a host of other aspects are being actively negotiated and contested by a community of “stakeholders”: authors, fans, reviewers, critics, publishers, etc. Since I am both a writer and heavy reader of erotica and its subgenre, M/M romance, I will use those as my primary lens for analyzing the implications of these scandals.
As I said in my first piece, erotica’s connection to the British scandal is self-evident. The connection to Goodreads is less direct, but I think in the end more important. There is nothing unexpected that booksellers stung by criticism that they sell pornography would react impulsively by attempting to purge it from their shelves. The Goodreads episode was not concerned with erotica at all, and superficially the types of material censored seem quite narrow in scope, but in fact its implications for those who care about erotica or any emerging genre are far more sinister, and unlike the British scandal there was nothing inevitable about it.
Controversy at Goodreads
With longstanding, ugly quarrels it can be very difficult for outsiders to get past the he said/she said aspects. The conflict that spawned this debacle is polarized enough by now that any pretense to impartiality is impossible, and I am not going to spend time arguing "my side." Though I have had no role whatsoever in this quarrel, I do think the reviewers have the right of it. (For those interested in immersing themselves in the details, I refer you to an excellent series of posts on the blog Soapboxing as well as the book Off-Topic, discussed below.)
For the purposes of my own argument, it is enough to know that a very vitriolic conflict between authors and readers over negative reviews mostly of YA books has been escalating for more than a year, drawing negative press and the kind of attention social networking sites most fear.
It is not chance that this conflict erupted over YA, which along with erotica is one of the genres that has been most popular with self-publishing authors. One of the fundamental facts of life for those of us who self-publish is that reader reviews and word-of-mouth are everything.
Now authors getting a wee verklempt about bad reviews is nothing new (though brownies help—as do tequila shots). What is new is how crucial reader reviews are to sales, and how visible they are. The moment a Goodreads review is posted, it is accessible worldwide by the site's 20 million users. As if that weren't enough, booksellers like Kobo (and now Amazon on certain Kindles) also post Goodreads reviews on the book page for buyers to see.
Goodreads' Author Guidelines strongly warn authors never to respond to negative reviews, but authors don’t always realize or don’t care, and some have gone after “bully” reviewers for sabotaging their careers, even resorting to tactics like "doxing," tracking down and posting real names and addresses for hostile adversaries to see. Readers on Goodreads began keeping track of these authors and slapping with the “Badly Behaving Author” label, which can be very damaging since the tag tends to go viral on the site, and many Goodreads users make a point of never buying any book by a BBA.
Given the publicity and acrimony surrounding these fights and their threat to the reputation and actual functioning of Goodreads, it was not surprising that the site’s management felt they had to intervene—which they did on September 20 with the following announcement:
[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.
There are a lot of reasons this was a problem. The policy itself as worded is nonsensical. As people have pointed out, does the prohibition on discussing “author behavior” apply to reviews of Mein Kampf? Does their insistence that "books should stand on their own merit" mean we cannot discuss Orson Scott Card’s very public anti-gay statements when reviewing Ender’s Game? (For an excellent survey of how banning discussion of author behavior "ignores all of postmodern literary criticism," see Emma Sea's Why Goodreads New Review Rules Are Censorship.)
Far more baffling was that Goodreads would come down so decidedly on the authors’ side, when according to their own guidelines any author involved in a conflict with a reviewer is de facto guilty of inappropriate conduct. Because management has said nothing about their thinking, users have been left to fear the worst: that the decision represents the first stage in a larger shift by Goodreads, which is now owned by Amazon, away from reviewing and the free exchange of ideas towards a bottom-line prioritizing of selling books and advertising.
Whether those fears are grounded or not, it simply staggers that a site devoted to book lovers could conclude that the best way to quell rancor and controversy was through censorship of one side. It is no surprise that the result was an explosion of anger and protests that has drawn in users who would never be at risk of having a shelf or review deleted, and risks yet more attention from the media. And here’s where I’d like to back up my claim in the previous essay on how management’s decision represents a serious failure to understand the mentality of the site’s users.
A Community of Stakeholders
As far as the economics of publishing today goes, there are two crucial types of reader: the first is the old-style consumer whose book purchases are based on the best-seller lists or recommendations by mass-media organs of varying degrees of prestige. It is no stretch to say that these buyers pay the salaries of traditional establishment publishing.
Then there is our second type of reader, the one who is driving the new publishing paradigm. This reader is a passionate and voracious consumer of an emerging genre dominated by self- and indie publishing. Because there are no professional reviews, and often no agents, editors, or publishers to decide on a book’s merits, that role falls to the readers. Many of them read 100, 200, 500 books a year in their genre. They are not just fans, but taste-makers, and ultimately authorities—because there aren’t any others. Most heavy readers of erotica and M/M fall into this category—as do many of Goodreads’ most active reviewers.
When you first join Goodreads, the site appears to work like Facebook—indeed, it invites you again and again to duplicate your FB friend list on the site. That suggests the creators conceived of it as a place for actual, real-world friends to exchange book recs and post the occasional review. And for our first type of reader, that is probably all that is needed or wanted.
But for the second type of reader, Goodreads serves as the primary meeting place for what I earlier termed the stakeholders of an emerging genre. To take a conspicuous example, the M/M Romance reader group, one of the largest on the site with more than 12,000 members, justly advertises itself as “The #1 resource on the web for M/M fiction.” Beyond providing dozens of fora for readers to talk books or meet authors, the group also organizes innovative publishing events including an incredibly popular one where readers suggest a story line which any author is free to take up. Readers get hundreds of free stories that they had a hand in creating, while authors get exposure, a chance to experiment, and the good will of the community. The M/M group organizers are powerful players in their own right, and work tirelessly along with bloggers, authors, and readers to help develop this genre.
For these users, Goodreads is infinitely more than Facebook-with-books-instead-of-pictures-of-the-kids. It is a professional and creative space, and the key meeting place for their community. For them, the autocratic and boneheaded nature of management’s decision is deeply disturbing, especially in the light of Amazon’s acquisition of the site. Management’s move seems geared towards casting users more in the passive role of our first type of reader. It is not paranoid to say that this familiar type of reader is infinitely preferred by the traditional publishing establishment. It is the second type who is revolutionizing the industry, rendering obsolete all the old axioms on who matters, what succeeds, and how you make money.
The Part with the Tentacles
Goodreads has itself in part to thank that this second type of reader has found her voice. After the site’s managers announced the new policy on September 20, users immediately organized protests, dubbed hydra reviews, which went viral. When those were censored, the protesters put together a collection of essays, Off Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt, which was published on November 3 with no restrictions on distribution. In the four days since it went live, hundreds of users have shelved or reviewed the book, and a write-in campaign has started to nominate the book for the Goodreads Choice Award.
Whether this new reader will continue to find a home on Goodreads is impossible to know. What is clear is that she will never again be satisfied with the role of passive consumer of other people’s taste.