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I like taking a literary approach to genre works like fantasy, sci fi, and supernatural horror and seeing what comes of it.

Amazon, Goodreads, and Me

In the past couple months, I've only responded to a handful of the comments that daily fill my Goodreads updates. Sometimes, I just take a vacation from Goodreads for a bit--perhaps I'm not in the mood, or I'm busy with other things--such as my first novel, the last chapter of which I finished about a week ago (expect a post on that when I finish my first editing pass). But this time, I didn't come back to GR after a few days and catch up, like I normally do. Instead, I stayed away, and though part of the reason for that was my book, another reason was the censorship debacle that's been plaguing the site recently.


If you haven't read Ceridwen's take on the whole matter, you should, because it's much more thorough than mine, and well-considered. She is the chronicler of our struggle, the bard who went through the battlefield and made note of whose heads had been lopped off. I also love the fact that she's now moving past that. It's certainly not her responsibility, and so I thank her for the good work she's done. There will be links to her articles at the end of this post.However, even though she's covered it very well, a lot of you folks on GR seem to be interested in what I think, so this is me putting in my two cents. I'm a cautious person, I like to wait things out and see how they develop. When I heard Amazon had bought Goodreads, I knew that would mean a change--that the site would get bigger, the ads would change, and so would the interface--but I didn't know exactly how it would affect the important parts of GR: the reviews and the community that has been built up around them.


I've been a member there since 2007. When I joined, it was so I could keep track of my thoughts, what I had read, what I wanted to read, all of that. I was so used to writing critical analyses since my college days, and I saw this as an opportunity to keep up the habit, and regularly empty my brain of the thoughts that cluttered it. The idea that anyone might actually read my reviews never really entered my mind. I remember the day when the 'Top Reviewers' list was first rolled out by the staff. Lo and behold, there I was (number twenty-three, if I recall properly).


I eventually dropped off the list entirely, then somehow surged back into it, but that whole time, I've still never felt it was worthwhile to market myself, or my reviews. I didn't join groups, I've never followed anyone, I rarely commented or voted on other people's reviews, I didn't review the latest bestsellers, or whatever book was about to be made into a movie or TV series, I didn't start writing shorter, simpler reviews full of image macros and jokes--I didn't do any of the things a smart networker would do. In fact, I only ever sent one friend request in all the years I used the site, and that was to my old college roommate.


But then, I think that must have been attractive to some people, anyways, because here I am. I've always been partial to the advice of being wholly yourself and attracting a small audience who appreciates you for what you are, rather than marketing yourself to a larger audience that requires you to change yourself. That's how Mickey Mouse, the mean-spirited trickster, became Mickey Mouse the ever-smiling, personality-free symbol (though it was done to Jesus first).


But of course, not falling neatly into line, not giving in to bullies and assholes also gives one a certain reputation--not always a desirable one--and in my years on the site, I've often run into people who were quick to attack me, trying to cow me, to overwhelm me, to do anything they could to shut off my voice. They never did. They were idiots and assholes, incompetents and ill-informed, but only once, in all the hundreds of pages of comments, did I ever delete another person's post. It was a pointless attack against another person in the thread.


I have never felt that it was my position to remove vitriol aimed at me--certainly, I often responded, mocking and deconstructing the half-formed arguments leveled against my reviews--but I didn't censor the idiocy of others. Indeed, one of the reasons I became a top reviewer (or so I am often told) is precisely because I dealt with comments instead of censoring them. A person's words should be allowed stand as a testament to their character, so that anyone who came along could read what what has been written and make their own judgment.


That is the responsibility of any honest person, and there is no group of people in the world more conscious of the dangers of censorship than avid readers. That is why it is incomprehensible to me that Amazon allowed this to happen at all. The strength of a website is its community. The whole worth of the thing is in the traffic it provides. As my friend GN pointed out, there are only two possibilities here:


  1. Top Goodreads reviewers (like me) are tastemakers, and help to drive the market for books, making up the center of a community to which books can be marketed, in which case, the website was worth the millions Amazon paid for it.
  2. Top reviewers aren't actually important, didn't create a thriving community, and do not provide direction to others on what books they will purchase, and the site is not worth millions of dollars.


If number two is true, then it was just a bad purchase on Amazon's part. If number one is true, then the worst thing Amazon can do is alienate its top users, because that means they are destroying the value of the product they just bought. As the 1% Rule states, 1% of users on a website are creators (in this case, people who write reviews and start groups), 9% are contributors (people who vote and comment), while 90% are lurkers who just passively browse the site. This means that destabilizing the entire site only requires upsetting that 1%--hell, even .5% of all users quitting means a 50% reduction in content produced on the site, which means half as much to attract new readers, or keep old ones coming back.


So then, what's the fastest way to make enemies of a bunch of avid readers and writers? Well, how about randomly deleting their work with no warning and no explanation? Well, Amazon did kind of give an explanation, but it didn't actually fit what had happened. They said they were removing 'off topic reviews', especially those that talked about authors. However, that isn't actually what they did. Not only were reviews deleted, but comment threads, and star ratings with no review attached. Beyond that, the majority of reviews which did match the banned criteria were not removed.


It was such a vague, undefined policy, and even that was not followed by the staff. I could easily have had reviews of mine deleted, and as I sat, watching the whole thing unfold, the words ascribed to Niemöller rung in my ears:


First they came for the Communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.


It felt like only a matter of time before the hammer that had fallen on my friends and colleagues would strike with equal force at me.


Yet, I've been on the site for a while, I've made a lot of connections with a lot of people: reviewers, writers, readers, thinkers, and so in my heart, I wanted to hope that things would get better, that the voices of the wronged would be heeded. Here I am, just finishing my first novel, and the whole reading community to which I have belonged is coming to bits. So I decided to wait. I hoped there would be an apology, a retraction, a definition of the removal policy that made sense and would pass scrutiny, an explanation of what this was and why it was done.


Was it a pure case of corporate ignorance, of a few careless interns making a mess of things, misunderstanding what they were hired to do? I've worked in the corporate world before, I've seen such things swept under the rug. Their boss doesn't want to admit an error, so he starts trying to defend the indefensible, and as it gets bigger, his boss has to stand behind it, too, and so on and so on, and thus is stupidity enshrined as universal policy.


Or perhaps it was something more menacing, an attempt to root out certain individuals, to quiet voices prone to speaking up about the profitable YA ebook market, the pages of which are so full of raw sewage and badly-behaved authors that any discussion on them is bound to resemble the lowest dregs of a Youtube comment thread.


Or perhaps something worse--perhaps they bought the site because it was becoming competition, and now that it's no longer a threat, they have little more care for it.


Whatever it was, it looks like we, the reviewers and readers, will never really know. There is no open channel of communication there, no honesty, no transparency. We are to be tossed about like ragdolls and never given any proper reason for it. What the next sign of this bad turn will be, I don't know, but Amazon's unwillingness to communicate shows that it isn't interested in taking its users' thoughts and desires into consideration. It does not respect us enough to treat us like adults. If it does not think us worthy of being treated seriously, then we can look forward to more careless treatment in the future. We might accept such treatment at a job, but Amazon isn't paying any of us to be here, so it's not surprising that many of us are weighing whether its worth it to us, any more.


But then, such is always the nature of websites and their communities: eventually, they go from bottom-up to top-down, and then they begin to die, as the content creators are alienated. Only a few sites, like Craigslist, 4Chan, and Wikipedia have escaped that fate, all because they are run by that peculiar sort of man who does not care to ally himself with a larger corporation, whatever they might pay. I'm not disparaging Otis in any way--it was his site, to do with as he thought best--I'm only observing the natural course of life and death for a website, and this one isn't looking all too good.


I have not posted a review to Goodreads since this whole thing started. I'm still writing them, but so far I've stuffed them away in a folder marked 'things to be figured out later'. A lot of top reviewers have left for Booklikes, and I made a profile there in order to keep in touch with them, though I haven't posted any reviews there yet. In the end, I'm not sure what I'll do, whether I'll post only one place, or several places, or just blog, or what. Once I've finished the edits on my book, then it will be time for me to think about the next step going forward.


However things turn out, I want to thank all of you for the experience I've had, the discussions, the support, the book suggestions, the reviews, the comments, the votes, the laughs, and all the rest. If things keep getting worse, and I'm forced to start over again, with nothing but my reviews for company--well, that's no more than I wanted in the first place. No big loss.


Of course, I am still responding to personal messages on Goodreads, and to comments on this blog, or you can always write me at hapaxgr@gmail.com. Until next.


Ceridwen's articles on the subject

By the Numbers

Full Revolt on Goodreads

Is Being a Racist 'Author Behavior'?

Is Editorial Interference 'Author Behavior'?

Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt

An Open Letter