The Dumpster Fire That is Goodreads and its Choice Awards

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O P I N I O N – L I T E R A T U R E 

Adrita Zaima

I think it is safe to say that Goodreads is the primary platform that most readers, myself included, make use of in order to keep track of books they have read, wish to read, or simply to remain updated with the international book community. However, for the majority of its users, that is where the usefulness of the platform comes to a (painfully) screeching halt, because apart from its book list-making attribute, most of its other features are tragically faulty.

Garnering over 90 million users worldwide and effectively housing the world’s largest community of book-lovers, along with the most extensive digital database on published works to exist, one would think that Goodreads must truly serve as the ultimate sanctuary for the online book community. And while it is true that Goodreads has developed into a kind of shelter for book-lovers, it is miles from being a bibliophilic paradise. 

In fact, one can even go as far as to say that Goodreads is on the brink of being unbearable. With its fractured rating system (that for some unimaginable reason does not allow readers to award something half a star), its cluttered and sloth-paced website and app, its badly-behaving authors, and its criminally dull web design that seems to have been borne from the archaic HTML code-book of some late 2000s programmer—the amount of negative criticism that Goodreads receives is truly not unfunded.

The search engine is devastatingly poor and the community of reviewers is at best vulgar and, at worst, outright toxic. False reviews and ratings from people who have not even read the book in question are a common occurrence. And though (at least according to their policy) they are supposed to remove reviews they “…do not deem to be appropriate or of a high enough level of quality”, Goodreads rarely ever raises a finger against the malicious comments or the reviews that consist entirely of GIFs and/or emojis. 

The whole idea of a Goodreads goal, that asks for readers to decide at the beginning of a year how many books they want to read that year, is just borderline ludicrous. The lack of privacy on Goodreads leads to readers seeing other people reading hundreds of books per year and that can fuel impotence in some people, making them think that they too have to read a ridiculous number of books in order to develop a refined literary taste and a right to criticise. This can undoubtedly create a state of inferior complexity in people as they struggle to stay relevant while losing their own identity and choices as independent readers. 

To top this all off, the end-of-the-year Goodreads Choice Awards makes my, and I imagine many active readers’, blood curdle with disdain. To start off, it would be logical to assume that the largest book-related site on the internet would have a fairly clear understanding of categorising, right?

However, the lines between Romance and Women’s Fiction (Which by itself is dumb because it should be termed as ‘fiction’?  Just because it has a primarily female audience and is written by a female author does not entail that it needs to be sub-categorised as ‘Women’s Fiction’) and between many other genres often blur when it comes to the primary selection in the Goodreads Choice Awards.

Even books from completely separate spheres are seen to be included in a category only because the author has written books in that category in the past. When the Mystery-thriller Verity by Colleen Hoover got pushed into the Romance category in 2019, not only the readers but the author herself was surprised by the mistake. And the disaster does not stop there. Every year, Goodreads has, unerringly and despite repeated criticisms, included  books that come out on the very week of the first round of voting. While fans of R.F. Kuang and Brandon Sanderson were delighted to see The Burning God and Rhythm of War on the list for Best Fantasy in 2020, they were also more than a little baffled that books that had been released on the very day of the closing of voting were even included. 

Objectively, this annual event can hardly be described as a credible source for readers to make choices about which books to pick up. The awards usually end up being a popularity contest between authors with the most social media reach or the backing of a traditional publication house, rather than being an actual, legitimate competition for the position of the best literary work. Case in point, in 2020, the Best Historical Fiction awardee The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (which is also an excellent read) was accompanied by a considerable hype and gathered a total of some 100k user votes while the critically acclaimed Booker awardee for the genre, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, received no more than a pitiable 946 votes.

Goodreads has stated that it utilises an algorithm that counts the number of reviews the book has and the number of times that it has been shelved in order to create the list in the opening round. The whole shelving quantity is, again, related purely to the reach of the book and the popularity of the author. While accessibility and attractiveness are doubtlessly important factors to judge a book and Goodreads is doing just that by curating a list of the most popular books, it must also be noted that Goodreads serves as the largest community for recommending and reviewing books in the world. Thus, if this gigantic crowd of readers is only exposed to a few selected works that already receive a lot of attention in international circles due to successful marketing on part of the publishers, it can lead to a drastic fall in diversity of taste among readers in general and might even doom small authors altogether.

This problem could easily be solved if Goodreads used the average rating of books to determine the top 15 works of the year in each category for the primary voting round or even if they put together a separate list for books with the highest ratings so that people can know the difference. Aside from the aid that this slight change could offer to meriting indie writers to get into the top spots on the platform and cultivate a reputation and following, it could also prove invaluable to curious bookworms who are always on the lookout for something that is fresh and guaranteed to be gratifying. 

However, the fault lies not only with Goodreads but with the book community as well. Many people who vote for these books have either only read one or a two of the books in the genre that they are voting in, have only heard a particular book being talked about quite a bit recently and have not actually read it, or they are familiar with an author’s other works or they merely like the cover (as was very publicly done by a Booktuber last fall). Their judgments are often biased or clouded by some external factor that has little to do with a book’s content. While people usually do this not with malicious interests but only because they want to wager on whether the one that they vote for wins or not, it does completely ruin the objective and the means of awarding a best book of the year in any category.

Unfortunately, Goodreads does not stop users from doing this, rather even encourages users to vote for books they have not read. It would be fairly easy for Goodreads to simply disable the means for people to vote for books that they have not checked onto their ‘Read’ pile. However, this is just another place where Goodreads fails its users and authors alike.

The truth is, Goodreads operates an unchallenged monopoly on the book community and this has rendered it completely unwilling to evolve. While other similar platforms, such as TheStoryGraph and LibraryThing do exist; their database of books falls far behind Goodreads’. Unless an actual competitor can emerge on the horizon or if, for any reason, the site loses a cataclysmic number of users, it is unlikely that Amazon (which owns Goodreads) will take any steps to improve the quality of service from Goodreads. Until then, book-lovers all over the world will continue to be tormented by the horrendous limbo that is Goodreads and its equally atrocious Choice Awards.  


The writer is a part of TDA Editorial Team.


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