After a spate of criticism and concern over the summer, Amazon-owned Goodreads this week said it is working with users to combat what’s become known as “review bombing,” a practice in which users look to protest an author or book by swamping the book with one-star reviews and negative comments. In an October 30 message to the Goodreads community, officials reiterated the website’s policy to prohibit reviews and comments that “harass readers or authors, or attempt to artificially deflate or inflate the overall rating of books," and encouraged users to report such behavior.
“Earlier this year, we launched the ability to temporarily limit submission of ratings and reviews on a book during times of unusual activity that violate our guidelines, including instances of ‘review bombing,’” the message states, adding that the site is currently “in the process of removing ratings and reviews” added during periods of “unusual” activity. “If you see content or behavior that does not meet our reviews or community guidelines, we encourage you to report it,” the message continues. “By alerting our team, you’ll be contributing to the overall community and helping keep Goodreads a place where people can come together to share authentic reviews and enjoy interacting with readers and authors of books they’ve loved.”
The message comes after a high-profile incident in June, in which Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert announced that she was pulling her new novel The Snow Forest, which was slated to be published by Riverhead in February 2024, after more than 500 Ukrainian and pro-Ukrainian users slammed the book with negative comments and one-star reviews expressing concerns that the book—based only on a description, since the book had not yet been published—would “romanticize" Russia. Gilbert’s decision alarmed literary critics and freedom to publish advocates. It’s unclear when, or if, the book will be published. The book is not currently listed on Gilbert's author page at Penguin Random House.
Goodreads still allows any user to rate and review a book before it has been published, regardless of whether they have read an advanced copy. Goodreads “is designed so you don’t have to buy a product to review a book,” former publishing professional and Amazon employee Kristi Coulter told the Washington Post in July. “That makes it ripe for abuse.”
A subsequent June 27 New York Times article further explored the practice of review bombing. “In an era when reaching readers online has become a near-existential problem for publishers, Goodreads has become an essential avenue for building an audience. As a cross between a social media platform and a review site like Yelp, the site has been a boon for publishers hoping to generate excitement for books,” the report noted. “But the same features that get users talking about books and authors can also backfire. Reviews can be weaponized, in some cases derailing a book’s publication long before its release.”
In a statement, PEN America, which had expressed concern over Gilbert’s decision to pull The Snow Forest, as well as the practice of review bombing, praised Goodreads this week for taking steps to combat the practice.
“As a prominent platform for book discovery, Goodreads has an obligation to defend the freedom to read and prevent practices on its platform that detract from reasoned literary discourse and pave the way for books to be disappeared before their authors and ideas even get a hearing,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel.
In an August report titled BookLash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, PEN America warned that “social media blowback and societal outrage are imposing new moral litmus tests” on books and authors, “chilling literary expression” and potentially fueling artist self-censorship.
“At their best, sites like Goodreads function as channels for engagement and debate, driving sales and helping authors reach new audiences,” the report observes. “But when they are used to pressure authors to change or pull their books, or to demand that readers avoid certain books altogether, users can chill the space for disagreement and unorthodoxy and discourage writers from taking chances in their work.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified the CEO of PEN America.