Review-bombing tanks books before they’re published
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.
A ALTER AND EA HARRIS
Cecilia Rabess figured her debut novel, “Everything’s Fine,” would spark criticism: The story centers on a young Black woman working at Goldman Sachs who falls in love with a conservative white co-worker with bigoted views. But she didn’t expect a backlash to strike six months before the book was published. In January, after a Goodreads user who had received an advance copy posted a plot summary that went viral on Twitter, the review site was flooded with negative comments and one-star reviews, with many calling the book anti-Black and racist. Some of the comments were left by users who said they had never read the book, but objected to its premise.
“It may look like a bunch of one-star reviews on Goodreads, but these are broader campaigns of harassment,” Rabess said. “People were very keen not just to attack the work, but to attack me as well.”
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.
But the same features that get users talking about books and authors can also backfire. Reviews can be weaponised, in some cases derailing a book’s publication long before its release.
“It can be incredibly hurtful, and it’s frustrating that people are allowed to review books this way if they haven’t read them,” said Roxane Gay, an author and editor who also posts reviews on Goodreads. “Worse, they’re allowed to review books that haven’t even been written. I have books on there being reviewed that I’m not finished with yet.” Rabess, who quit her job as a data scientist at Google to focus on writing after selling her novel to Simon & Schuster, worried that the online ambush might turn people against her book.
“I was concerned about the risk of contagion and that readers and reviewers would dismiss the work without ever really engaging with it,’ she said. “I felt particularly vulnerable as a debut author, but also as a Black woman author.”
Despite some accolades — her novel landed on some “most anticipated” books of the summer lists and was a Good Morning America “buzz pick” — it had a sluggish start. After its June 6 release, the book sold 1,000 hardcover copies in its first 10 days, according to Circana BookScan.
Established authors have also been subjected to review-bombing campaigns. This month, Elizabeth Gilbert, the bestselling writer of “Eat, Pray, Love,” received hundreds of negative ratings on Goodreads for her forthcoming novel, “The Snow Forest,” which is set in Siberia in the mid-20th century. In her case, reviewers weren’t attacking the book itself, or even the premise — a Russian family seeking refuge from Soviet oppression in the wilderness. Critics objected to the fact that Gilbert had set the book in Russia while Russia is waging war on Ukraine, and lambasted Gilbert as insensitive to the plight of Ukrainians.
Gilbert’s response stunned the literary world: She swiftly responded to critics and announced that she was postponing her book, which was slated for publication in February from Riverhead. Riverhead hadn’t even printed advance review copies yet.
The writers are journalists with NYT©2023
The New York Times