Following is a blog post that I did just over a year ago at my blog: Forrestaguirre.blogspot.com . It seems that my fears were well-founded, especially in light of Petra X's recent comments. I'm still holding out hope for Goodreads, but it also seems that some of my worst fears are coming to fruition there. Time will tell. At least that's what I tell myself while I am frozen by indecision. But here is a seemingly prophetic post I put up just over a year ago in which I fear for the fall of Goodreads at the hands of paid reviews:
Keeping it Honest on Goodreads (Forrest for the Trees: September, 2012)
Goodreads rocks! It is, by far, my favorite place for virtual sociality. I'm not much of a facebook guy (I prefer Google+) and while I like twitter, it doesn't allow for much in-depth, fulfilling conversation. Goodreads, though, allows me to connect with hundreds of other readers and, potentially, with authors whose work I might learn to appreciate and even love. I relish the conversations I can have there with readers who have similar tastes and I enjoy getting new takes on old favorites (or old books I despise) by people whose opinions differ from mine. I even like to read what others think about works that I am ambivalent about (and have changed my opinion on a few of these after considering someone's comments and giving the book a re-read).
That said, I don't read to review, necessarily. While I was an undergraduate student at BYU and a graduate student at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I learned how to sap the love of books right out of a person. Take a book, any book, and give it to the person with an assignment to read the book with a ridiculously short deadline, and require that the person apply a specific type of analysis to that book in order to squeeze out the sweet academic wine that must be in the book, if the student will only look hard enough using the correct tools.
I recall one of my sweetest summer breaks. Mind you, I usually took classes through the summer in order to graduate sooner. But one summer, as an undergraduate, I couldn't find the classes I needed, so I worked and read. I read The Complete Sherlock Holmes, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and the three parts of the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King - all in that order. I read them because I didn't have to, and it was glorious. I'll never forget the feeling of lusty freedom. Thankfully, it was enough of a heart-lifting experience to free up my brain to think more clearly for the rest of my college career, rather than being bogged down by the chains of academic necessity.
It was after college that I decided to write my own works. I began by reviewing a little for Tangent Online, then did a few editorial gigs (including Leviathan 3 for which Jeff VanderMeer and I won the World Fantasy Award), then, I wrote. I'm still writing.
As a young, overly-eager author, I rated my own work rather highly. I wrote it, after all. But now, I see that this was a mistake. As a reader, the thought of an author telling me how great they think their work is seems incestuous, at best. So I went back and un-rated works that I had written at Goodreads. I'll let readers figure out if they like my work or not. I will retain the privilege of rating works I have edited, however, or anthologies in which I have a story appearing. For those anthologies I have edited, I truly feel that those stories I published were the best ones available to me when I edited the anthology. I make no apology for rating "my" authors as five stars. If I didn't believe that strongly in their work, as contained in these volumes, I wouldn't have included them in the anthology. As far as anthologies containing my work go, I'm unapologetic in my assessment of other stories in the volume, though I typically shy away from including mention of my own work, except by way of letting readers of my reviews know of a potential conflict of interest. I feel that this is honest.
Why the change of heart from the young writer/Forrest to this older one? I think it has to do with the disgust that I felt when I discovered the practice of authors buying reviews of their books. Pardon my naivete, but the thought just never occurred me that someone would, or even could, do such a thing. Now, I'm not above giving free copies of a book or e-book to a potential reviewer - this is how the business operates and I'd be an utter fool not to try to leverage the good praise of a legitimate, unpaid reviewer. Duh! In fact, I've done so recently, here and here (and am game, possibly, to giving away more free e-books to those who will review the work, pending a review of the potential reviewer's past reviews). And I always encourage the reviewer to give an honest appraisal of the work, whether it's flattering or flaming.
But I find it disingenuous to pay someone to review my work. The conflict of interest there is so reprehensible, that even the smarmiest businessman out there would cringe at the thought (well, okay, obviously they wouldn't or I wouldn't be typing this blog entry).
I think this dog has bitten me, too. Not too long ago, I was looking for something in the mystery/noir/crime genre, and stumbled across several 5-star reviews of a particular book. I thought "Wow. This sounds like a great read. So many people love it. How can I go wrong?" Well, things went wrong, alright. Horribly wrong. After reading this book, I felt cheated. Cheated of my time and money. Frankly, I was pissed. I'm all for allowing people to enjoy incorrect usage, tired tropes, poor grammar, flat characters, gross generalizations about specific ethnic groups and their bathing practices, and hideous inconsistencies. That's fine. But I had to ask, after reading this book, "Did any of those who gave the book five stars actually READ the book?" Even if some of them did, I find it hard to believe that so MANY had actually read the book from beginning to end and still saw fit to give it five stars.
Now, I'm not saying that the author paid reviewers (he did give away a few e-book copies and some reviewers were honest enough to acknowledge this). I don't know, either way. But I thought about the potential for abuse here, how an author COULD pay reviewers to give their crappy book a high star rating. It could happen, and that's a shame. Unfortunately, there's really nothing to be done to enforce honest, unpaid reviews. We really have to police ourselves.
For my part, I'm going to keep on giving my honest appraisals on the books I read, good or bad, and I'm not going to feed you with BS about how wonderful my work is. You judge it for yourself. I've often heard (and believe, to some extent) that nice guys finish last, but I'm going to be a snob, take the "higher road", and stick with honesty in my reviews. I hope that others do the same, because while I hope that readers will want to read my work, I go to Goodreads, first and foremost, not as an author, but as a READER! I like what I like, I dislike what I dislike, "I yam what I yam!"
So here's to keeping it honest on Goodreads. It's my favorite place to hang out on the internet, guys. Don't soil it by spamming people with your books (outside of groups and topics specifically designated for such activities) and please don't buy in to the paid reviewer game. I don't want that crap to interfere with good, clean fun and discussions about reading, nor do I want to be the sidelong victim of those who give authors a bad name by spamming goodreads with announcements. Save that for some place else. Just don't do it. Not in my backyard!
Thanks for playing nice and see ya in the stacks!