Among the online book community, Goodreads is a site that allows readers to review and recommend the books they read. Its simple premise is sponsored by parent company Amazon, which has obvious stakes in the book business as the internet’s go-to space for self-publishing. As a result, the site can do a lot to increase audience engagement and word-of-mouth promotion for small or niche publications like literary magazines – or severely limit their exposure, as the book community saw early last week.
First we're hearing about it. We'll look into it. Thanks! https://t.co/e406x5tuji
— FIYAH Literary Magazine #FIYAHCON (@fiyahlitmag) September 18, 2018
FIYAH Lit, a self-described “Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction” dedicated to elevating Black voices in the SFF community, had multiple users inform its team that every issue of their publication was deleted from Goodreads. These issue deletions were done without warning, along with all the reviews that their readers had created for the publication’s archives.
FIYAH’s purge was soon followed by an equally thorough erasure of Anathema Magazine, an SFF short fiction publication similarly dedicated to “spec from the margins,” specifically the work of queer POC/Indigenous/Aboriginal creators.
Fireside Fiction founder Brian White went into the Goodreads forums to question these deletions. He pointed out that his magazine has all the same technical qualities as FIYAH and Anathema, but was left alone by Goodreads. Since Fireside Fiction was founded by a white man, White stated that it seemed like publications by and for POC were being specifically targeted for deletion. Due to White continuously citing the presence of his own magazine on the site despite its similarities to FIYAH and Anathema, Fireside Fiction was soon removed from Goodreads as well.
Several Goodreads “librarians” (volunteers who are empowered by Goodreads to make changes to the site) weighed in, at many points expressing outrage at the implication that there may have been any sort of racial bias behind the removal of FIYAH and Anathema. Even the librarian who originally deleted Anathema and some of FIYAH eventually stepped forward to state that “there was no targeting of minority groups.” Some librarians, however, did agree that the situation seemed problematic, and many other members of the SFF community joined the discussion.
There were minimal responses from Goodreads employees for the bulk of the conversation, with one moderator asserting that “it is doubtful a particular magazine was targeted for any nefarious reasons. Regardless, if it did not meet Goodreads standards for inclusion, deleting it was the correct action.” Soon after, this employee chose to close the initial discussion thread for comments. This came amidst a great deal of denial by Goodreads proponents that an action technically following the rules could perpetuate systemic racism in its unequal application against people of color. These users also denied that this unequal application could possibly be done without intentional or conscious prejudice on the part of those upholding the system, which sparked passionate pushback from other users who agreed with the original posters upset about the deletions.
The debate was moved to another section of the Goodreads forums, where a second employee eventually hopped onto the thread with a statement explaining the site’s policy that “any periodical without an ISBN or ASIN should be removed from the database.” That same employee later reentered the thread to assure everyone that their team was “actively reading these comments.” However, in both posts this second employee expressed concerns about the focus and civility of the discussion.
The continued discussion covered many points concerning Goodreads policy on periodicals and its relative fairness. But the real twist came when, after two days of back and forth, someone finally linked to the official rules:
Where it is clearly stated that there is an exception to the ISBN requirement for periodicals “substantially similar to books.” FIYAH, Anathema, and Fireside all would fall under this policy, as they are each distributed as e-books.
Though some librarians were receptive to these and other points being raised by FIYAH and Anathema’s defenders, others immediately began to cry foul at this citation of the Librarian Manual. These detractors specifically claimed that they couldn’t be expected to know all the nuances of the rules or keep up with changes to Goodreads policy over the years.
Of course, this naturally raises the question of why on earth someone who doesn’t know or apparently care what the actual rules on a topic are should be enabled to enforce or defend them, especially when doing so has an obvious negative impact on members of the community. While an argument can justly be made that the rule is unclear, deleting these alleged rulebreakers without input or a provision for subsequent recovery does not seem to be the most judicious action. It is moreover a null argument if the rule was simply not known, and therefore not followed, as throughout all prior discussion Goodreads’ librarians and employers claimed to hold an expert understanding of these policies that stood above critical scrutiny.
The discussion soon wound down, and all parties in this debate agreed that there was no productive way to move forward without an official response from Goodreads to clarify their position and propose what might be done to resolve their policy issue. It was at this moment that the second employee monitoring the continued thread issued this seemingly final statement on the forum:
“Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful comments on this issue. We’re very sorry that the deletions of these magazines and the discussion around this has caused concern for our members.
“To clarify our policies, in general, magazines are not allowed, as Goodreads is designed to be a database for books. As we state in our Librarian Manual, periodicals should be deleted unless they have an ISBN or ASIN, or are bound in a way that makes them substantially similar to a book (e.g., perfectbound). It has long been standard procedure for our volunteer librarians and staff to apply these rules to all periodicals; over the years, countless periodicals without ISBNs or ASINs have been removed, of all types and genres. In this particular case, it looks like the volunteer superlibrarian was simply following our rules and had also removed other periodicals around the same time.
“We agree that the type of binding should not be the deciding factor on if these publications are allowed on Goodreads; rather, it is their content and format that matter. We are discussing our policies around periodicals internally; a decision either way would have large implications, technical and otherwise, so we don’t have a timeline on when we will share more here, but we want you to know that we are listening and continuing the conversation with our team.
“We also want to share a bit about the accountability measures we have in place to ensure that our librarians are upholding the Librarian Manual and our Community Guidelines. We have librarian logs for edits to all books that are visible to our many thousands of librarians, and they commonly flag edits if incorrect or inappropriate in some way. Members who aren’t librarians can and do report concerns about edits or removals by emailing support (at) goodreads (dot) com, and our staff will look into it on the admin side. We greatly value our librarians’ hard work on our database; however, maintaining status is dependent on the librarian’s ability to exercise good judgment and follow our policies.
“We also appreciate the concerns you have raised about the impact of our policy and the impact of its enforcement. While our goal has been to establish site-wide policies that benefit the community as a whole and make all readers feel welcome, we are also committed to ensuring that our impact matches our intentions. We are always open to our members’ feedback, and we are closely monitoring the discussion around this issue to see where we can improve.
“With that said, some participants in this thread have come close to violating the group rules, and we will not tolerate any name calling, personal attacks, or spurious accusations against other members, whether they are librarians or not. Any members that continue to post this sort of content will be removed from the group. Librarians are volunteers and we are grateful for their work on our database and their commitment to Goodreads. Goodreads and the Feedback Group are welcome to all opinions, and we will take appropriate actions to protect our members.
“We’ll share any updates on our policies with the group, and thank you again for participating in our community.”
In response to this statement, members of the community suggested that Goodreads at least put a freeze on the deletion of any more speculative fiction magazines while they worked on revising the policy. No official response was made to that suggestion, and moderators reentered the second thread one last time only to again “gently remind” the participants to adhere to community civility guidelines and keep the conversation focused on the subject of the proposed policy change. A few days later, the moderators closed the second thread at Brian White’s request.
Yet this statement, and all of Goodreads’ actions in this situation, feel like one long and dismissive stall tactic. Goodreads has put off any true action pending an alleged “internal discussion,” and its team still refuses to address the harmful impact of the site’s opaque policies which is at least partially responsible for all the confusion and criticism among its users and librarians. Instead, this statement demands that everyone stop making a fuss while the Goodreads team deliberates whether the legitimate issue of marginalized literary representation on its site is something worth caring about.