Goodreads can be a double-edged sword for readers and professionals in the publishing industry. Although it’s undeniably essential in bolstering discoverability, the platform may open doors to scams and abuses. Last year, a new Goodreads reviews scheme came to light. Several authors received an anonymous email pressuring them to pay up, lest the listings of their forthcoming books get bombarded with fake one-star reviews, tanking their average to an alarming low.
Currently, Goodreads allows pre-publication reviews and/or ratings for books that aren’t even released yet. Ideally, that should be discouraged as one shouldn’t review a book they haven’t so much as touched. But at the same time, most publishers hand out Advance Reader Copies or ARCs to bloggers and the media to solicit reviews, making them entitled to write Goodreads reviews ahead of publication. After all, reviews drum up excitement for a new release. They are the backbone of an industry that relies on risks, gambles, and word-of-mouth hits.
This feature, however, can encourage scam artists to extort money out of authors, as with the case of the review-bombing scheme.
That being so, allowing Goodreads users to be able to review books before they’re published appears to be a complicated problem as it may lead to a cascading dominoes of disasters. I asked people from the book world — authors, publishing professionals, reviewers, readers, etc. — what they think the rules should be.
Olivia McCoy, a publicist at Smith Publicity, Inc., says that pre-publication reviews on Goodreads are beneficial to her job.“We’re often sending out digital or physical advanced copies of the book three [to] six months in advance of publication through the mail, giveaways, or digital services like NetGalley and Book Sirens. This can generally be considered industry standard,” she says. “As professionals, we rely on these early reviews to gauge the public’s interest and inform our promotion angles and target audiences. If something isn’t clicking, then we have time to adjust/pivot prior to the book’s publication.”
Meanwhile, Chelsea Rae, an avid reader, writer, and Goodreads user, thinks that it’s “problematic” that users can review books before they’ve even been released. “A good example for this is, in my opinion, the latest Naomi Novik book The Golden Enclaves. Before any ARCs had even been released, people were commenting with five stars and reviews along the lines of ‘can’t wait to read this!’ But when the actual book came out, most of the new reviews are negative or disappointed. And yet the book still holds a 4.3-star rating.”
Because of this incident, Rae says that she no longer trusts the Goodreads rating system because big-name authors like Emily Henry or Colleen Hoover who have a loyal and devoted following also have huge rating leads before the book has even been published. She says that this is “problematic” because when no one trusts ratings, authors — especially lesser-known ones — bear the brunt of it.
Rae also says that the rise of BookTok is directly attributable to the supposed lack of trust in ratings and reviews, turning readers’ attention elsewhere. “People want personal recommendations for books now so they don’t waste their time.”
On the flipside, Michelle Glogovac, founder of the PR agency The MLG Collective, says that Goodreads should allow reviews prior to publication of a book, but that a reviewer should have to read the book. “Reviews of ARCs allow for greater publicity and visibility for the author which can help generate more pre-sales and chart rankings. GIF-filled reviews don’t seem to be relevant or show that a book has been read.”
Glogovac suggests a “more fair way” to ensure that the books have actually been read prior to reviewing them: What if Goodreads could somehow tie the Amazon reviews to “proof” of some sort, since Amazon only allows you to leave a review unless you’ve purchased the book?
Allia Luzong, editor at lifestyle magazine A Little Bit Human, agrees that Goodreads should have a system in place to filter out who gets to write reviews early. “While reading shouldn’t be gatekept, early reviews can be critical for helping readers decide whether or not to buy a book, which makes balanced takes from people who can separate their personal tastes from the actual merits of a book a rare and valuable well-spring of opinions.” She adds that Goodreads is basically the Quora of book reviews now: “You get a lot of idea-thin, unhelpful reviews that don’t really talk about the books in any substantial way…”
Cyrus Webb, a top Amazon reviewer who has been reviewing books for Amazon and Goodreads for years, shares a similar frustration with the platform: that books are getting positive or negative reviews before many have even read them. He has a suggestion. “I respect Amazon’s policy of not allowing reviews either way until the book is officially released. I do think for Goodreads, there should be the same guidelines UNLESS they adapt something like Amazon has with its Vine Program where you know the person got the book before release.” He adds that the early Goodreads reviews can be confusing to readers and even discourage some who might actually enjoy the book.
For author H.R. Bellicosa, it’s an easy rule that reviewers do not review a book on Goodreads until they’ve actually read it. “So often, especially in the health and wellness genre, reviewers will give a book one star without having read it, because they heard, likely from an influencer, that the author was promoting a lifestyle they don’t agree with.” She references a recent case with Lightlark by Alex Aster wherein many reviewers had heard that the book was “bad” and immediately gave it hateful comments and one-star reviews. “That isn’t fair to the author or to potential readers.”
Meanwhile, for Oberon, the founder of lifestyle website Very Informed, Goodreads users should be able to review books before they’re published. He argues that Goodreads is a site for readers and not for authors or publishers. “The primary focus should be on giving readers the information they need to make informed decisions about what they want to read. [It] gives them a chance to provide feedback that can be helpful to the author and publisher…” He also says that reviews can be helpful even if they’re not completely positive. “A negative review can alert potential readers to problems with a book that they might not be aware of otherwise.”
But for Daniel J. Tortora, a nonfiction author coach and editor, Goodreads are for authors too, and removing the ability to review pre-publication “will make book marketing harder for [authors like them]…Part of what makes Goodreads so great is that it offers so many opportunities to talk about books. Any further limits risk turning off Goodreads members, resulting in fewer reviews overall, which hurts authors, hurts readers, and hurts Goodreads.”
He also says that it may have an impact to readers. “By adding further restrictions on reviews, Goodreads may drive away many of its most enthusiastic readers, readers whom authors depend on for exposure and who are entitled to their often-quite-well informed opinions, whether those opinions come before launch or not.”
Since everyone has varying opinions about the matter, what would likely be the best course of action?
Personally, I think that Goodreads should probably only allow pre-publication reviews to the media, bloggers, and the ones who have access to galleys. They should also have a system to verify if a reader is qualified to do such.
I hate to sound like a gatekeeper, too, but it’s unfair to leave a review to an unread book; it just doesn’t make sense at all. What this does is undermine the credibility of the review system — when readers browse the reviews, they won’t likely believe what’s written in them anymore. And how would they be able to find their next great read?
To make it work, there should be a system that satisfies different kinds of users. Goodreads, being the big fish here, should lead initiatives to improve its products. Speaking of which, I asked Goodreads about the issue, and a representative said that they continue to make investments in upgrades to better protect their community, such as enhancing their customer service team, and have capabilities to swiftly identify and look into violations of their review criteria and participation. “We take the responsibility of protecting our diverse community of readers and authors very seriously.”
Different readers have different opinions whether Goodreads should allow pre-publication reviews. Likewise, professionals from the publishing industry also have other sentiments since they use the platform another way. Authors and publishers use it as a promotional tool, and limiting who can review will likely hurt their marketing efforts. More reviews and more ratings equal to more engagement of their books.
But at the same time, this feature is open to abuses. It might backfire if the author writes something that readers don’t like, leading to scathing reviews. Even if the reviews are positive but that majority haven’t read the book, the reviews can be dishonest, losing reader trust in the system. And don’t forget the extortion schemes.
It’s a difficult situation to be in, a cycle of issues that only Goodreads can address by defining what it wants more out of its platform: engagement at the expense of authenticity or authenticity to the detriment of engagement?