On June 6, the cover of Elizabeth Gilbert’s next novel, The Snow Forest, was revealed on Good Morning America, which is about as big a splash as it’s possible to make in the publishing world.
Around the same time, her publisher, Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Random House, released a description of Gilbert’s story. The Snow Forest is a historical novel, set in mid-twentieth-century Siberia, about a family of religious zealots living off the grid in defiance of the Soviet government.
Hundreds of people responded to this news by logging on to Goodreads to give the book one-star (out of five) reviews and accuse Gilbert of being “tone-deaf” for setting her fiction in Russia while Russia is at war with Ukraine. Never mind that Soviet-era Russia is not Putin’s Russia, that the author appears to have distinguished between the Russian government and the Russian people, and that no one had read a page of Gilbert’s book (not even review copies had been distributed), the assault was on.
Six days later, Gilbert, best known for her 2006 memoir Eat Pray Love, capitulated. She withdrew the book from its slated February 2024 publication: “I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are all continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm.”
I had hoped to sit out l’affair Gilbert. It was giving me flashbacks to the Canada Council for the Arts’s similarly brutish campaign to chase touring Russian pianists off our soil when the invasion of Ukraine began. I also have a hard time taking seriously anything that happens on Goodreads. This is the site that has accepted 500 reviews and 10,000 ratings of George R. R. Martin’s The Winds of Winter, which is still being written. It gives The Joe Bovino Field Guide to Chicks of the United States an above-average score. In fact, Hitler gets more love than hate on Goodreads:
But Gilbert’s decision to pull the book has left six weeks worth of think pieces in its wake, including one in the Atlantic on the “terrible power of Goodreads.” I couldn’t help but look at them and here we are.
Goodreads was launched in 2007 by Stanford grads Otis Chandler and Elizabeth Khuri Chandler. It was a simple, easy-to-use site that allowed people to catalog and comment on their reading, browse recommended lists, join virtual book clubs, and so on. Within five years, it had 10 million members and thirty employees. The Chandlers sold out to Amazon in 2013, apparently for $150 million, a move widely deplored in the book community which saw Goodreads as an alternative to Amazon’s loathed recommendations engine and crude ratings system.
Goodreaders tend to dump on Amazon as owner of the site, complaining about the ugly interface and intrusive advertising. As publishing consultant Jane Friedman told the Washington Post, “it feels like Amazon bought it and then abandoned it.” That’s true, although Amazon has done a lot beneath the hood, optimizing the site for mobile use. The traffic is now about five times what it was at the time of Amazon’s acquisition and much of that growth has come on mobile. Depending on the month, it has 80 to 100 million unique users globally: at least four million in Canada, 24 million in the US, 5.3 million in the UK. There are 80 million reviews on the site and 3.5 billion books have been catalogued by its users. It is massive.
The Atlantic fails to make its case for Goodreads’ “terrible power.” It has a handful of anecdotes of “review-bombing” or “brigading”—the same sort of attacks that befell Gilbert. These incidents no doubt discomfit the targeted authors, but what the Atlanticfails to note is that most end well. A Goodreads mob, for instance, came after Cecilia Rabess, author of Everything’s Fine, a novel about a liberal Black woman’s romance with a white conservative man in Trump’s America. Some people hated the premise and flooded Goodreads with one-star reviews. Rabess braved it out. She got an enthusiastic review from the New York Times and now sits at a respectable 3.56 stars on Goodreads.
Goodreads appears to generate more noise than power and it makes you think Gilbert and her publisher should have stood their ground. Franklin Foer, in a separate Atlantic article, explains why they didn’t and why it matters:
Some writers invite haters and court controversy; Gilbert writes books that want to be loved. Being accused of complicity with a regime accused of genocide can’t have felt very nice. But by withdrawing the book, she has set a terrible precedent. In meekly complying with the angriest voices, she accepted their argument that setting a book in Russia is an act of collusion, even though that’s an entirely nonsensical argument. In effect, she’s allowing the irrational feelings of her readers to set the terms of acceptable discourse. For a group to block a book, it just needs to clog the comments on Instagram with hurt feelings.
Another interesting Goodreads piece ran in Shondaland.com, the digital magazine operated by the Hearst corporation and devoted to the brand of TV producer Shonda Rhimes. Goodreads may look like a catalog or a listings site, but as Greta Rainbow writes, it’s really a social media platform in the same vein as Twitter/X and Instagram: it has a lot of users being watched and watching others, an environment that facilitates performative behaviour, “allowing people to play important antagonists for the day.” That brings peril and opportunity on a grand scale. Publishers can’t resist the scale and live in fear of their books getting mobbed by angry gangs; they also live in hope of a title going viral among delighted reviewers. They have to take the good with the bad, understanding that neither might have anything to do with the substance of their book.
There is a slight difference between Twitter and Goodreads, as the original Atlantic piece notes, in that Goodreads specializes in progressive-on-progressive violence: “That dynamic explains one of the most initially counterintuitive aspects of viral pile-ons—that many seem to target authors who would agree with their critics on 99 percent of their politics. A strange kind of progressive one-upmanship is at work here: Anyone can condemn Ann Coulter’s latest book, but pointing out the flaws in a feminist or anti-racist book, or a novel by a Black female author, establishes the critic as the occupant of a higher moral plane.”
Like all social media platforms, Goodreads is thoroughly gamified, i.e., packed with addictive metrics. In place of like buttons and a reply meters, Rainbow notes, it has rankings and it allows users to tick off every book they’ve read or reviewed. The most devoted Goodreaders participate in its annual reading challenge. In 2022, 7 million people pledged to read a certain number of books in the calendar year (the average was about sixty). Rainbow has examples of users, desperate to be seen as A Reader, ploughing through a book a day, as many as 390 a year. In her eyes, the site has become more about social engagement and conspicuous book consumption than reading for its own sake. She seems to regret the whole idea of Goodreads. I find no reason to disagree with her.
In fact, the best thing I learned about Goodreads this week is that, however massive, its user base is shrinking in the two largest English-language markets. In the UK, according to Semrush, its monthly unique visitor total was 5.3 million in June ‘23, down from 6.9 million at the beginning of the year. Summers seem to be a slow season on the site but that 5.3 million in June is 15 percent below the same month last year. In the US, unique visitors peaked at 37.7 million in November ‘21 and slid to 24.2 million in June ‘23, down 14 percent from the same month last year.
Further to the Indigo debacle
In SHuSH 123, we wrote another in our ongoing series on the Indigo chain’s slow-motion withdrawal from bookselling and simultaneous commercial collapse. Not surprisingly, every publisher I’ve spoken to this summer is seeing pallets of inventory returned from Indigo. I also mentioned that this mess, to a significant degree, is the result of federal policy mistakes. One thing I didn’t cover is that Indigo, despite its old “The World Needs More Canada” slogan, has overwhelmingly preferred to sell US over Canadian books. Howard White, founder of Raincoast Chronicles and Harbour Publishing and a valued friend of SHuSH, wrote us to expand on this point:
When allowing the consolidation of the country’s chain bookstores to form, first, the Chapters behemoth then the Indigo big-box monopoly, the government bought the Canadian-owned publishing industry’s approval by offering improved subsidization through the Book Publishing Industry Development Fund (BPIDP, now the Canada Book Fund). I resigned from the Association of Canadian Publishers over this move, which has now resulted in the death of all of Canada’s large publishers and the decline of Canadian book sales from over 20% then to under 5% today.
As we speak, the tattered industry is in discussion with government begging for another increase in the CBF subsidy. This is urgently needed to prevent further collapse, but there is no reason to believe that it will work any better to save English Canadian book publishing than it has in past. The real problem destroying the industry is lack of access to the market. As someone who’s been in the business for 50 years, I can attest that since the rise of Chapters and Indigo, our books have been marginalized almost out of existence. This is a loss for Canadian readers and writers as well, since the foreign publishers favoured by Indigo have not stepped forward to represent any but the few top-selling Canadian books. Some 80% of English Canadian authors are still published by Canadian-owned presses and are left to share our dwindling 5% of shelf space.
So you are right on the money in saying something structural needs to change to force retailers to do a better job of representing English Canadian titles. Other smaller countries are much more aggressive in supporting their native writing and publishing industries than Canada is. Even in Canada, Quebec publishers are supported more robustly by our same federal government, and there are strong provincial measures in place to encourage Quebec bookstores to represent locally published books. English Canada needs to wake up if it wants to keep reading Canadian books.
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