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Goodreads has a 'review bombing' problem — and wants its users to help solve it

Amazon-owned Goodreads makes little effort to verify users, and critics say this enables a practice known as review-bombing, in which a book is flooded with negative reviews, often from fake accounts, in an effort to bring down a its rating, sometimes for reasons having nothing to do with the book's contents.
Becky Harlan
/
NPR
Amazon-owned Goodreads makes little effort to verify users, and critics say this enables a practice known as review-bombing, in which a book is flooded with negative reviews, often from fake accounts, in an effort to bring down a its rating, sometimes for reasons having nothing to do with the book's contents.

Cait Corrain was about to achieve the dream of every aspiring writer by publishing her first novel. Instead, her career has imploded following a controversy involving Goodreads, the popular book-lovers' website.

On Tuesday, Corrain's publisher, Del Rey Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, said it would cancel publication of Corrain's novel, a science fiction fantasy called Crown of Starlight, after she admitted writing fake Goodreads reviews lauding her own book and excoriating works by other novelists. Corrain's literary agent has also cut ties with her.

This is not the first time Goodreads, which allows its 90 million users to rate books using one to five stars, has been the subject of a controversy involving its reviews. Earlier this year, the best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert withdrew an upcoming novel about a Soviet-era family because critics wrongly assumed it was pro-Russian and flooded the site with one-star reviews.

Amazon-owned Goodreads makes little effort to verify users, and critics say this enables a practice known as review-bombing, in which a book is flooded with negative reviews, often from fake accounts, in an effort to bring down a its rating, sometimes for reasons having nothing to do with the book's contents.

Review-bombing can devastate a book's prospects, especially when the writer is little known or publishing for the first time.

"When a reader who is considering buying your book sees that you are controversial or your book is controversial, that's going to make them shy away from it," says writer and editor Lindsay Ellis. She says she herself was review-bombed because she had criticized author J. K. Rowling's remarks about the transgender community.

Corrain's downfall came after internet sleuths published a Google document detailing a number of Goodreads accounts praising Crown of Starlight and giving low reviews to works by other writers, many of them people of color.

Corrain first claimed that the reviews had been created by an overly zealous friend named Lilly who was attempting to boost the book's prospects. She later conceded she herself was the author, writing a lengthy apology in which she attributed her actions to "a complete psychological breakdown."

The author subsequently shut down her social media accounts and could not be reached for comment.

Goodreads said it has removed the fake reviews posted by Corrain, and in a statement issued last month it urged users to flag other suspicious accounts.

It also said it would increase efforts "to quickly detect and moderate content and accounts that violate our reviews or community guidelines," by intervening during periods of intense activity that suggest efforts to review-bomb a book.

Publishing industry veteran Jane Friedman says the move would stop efforts to review-bomb popular writers such as Gilbert. But she said it would probably do little to protect most other writers.

"That's very welcome and I hope they do continue that, but this low-level review bombing, it's never going to catch that sort of activity because it's too small," she said.

Goodreads relies on a team of volunteer "librarians" to ensure the accuracy of information about books and authors, but the sheer number of reviews the site publishes — more than 300 million ratings in the past year alone — makes it subject to abuses.

"Goodreads just makes it so easy to engage in that bad behavior," Friedman says.

One unusual feature about Goodreads is that it allows reviews to be posted before a book has been published, which helps generate early buzz. Many publishers even send out early copies to influential Goodreads users, hoping they will talk up the book.

Sometimes, reviews are published even before a book is finished.

George R. R. Martin's seventh book in his phenomenally popular "A Song of Ice and Fire" series has already generated thousands of reviews. He hasn't yet finished the sixth.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jim Zarroli