Goodreads and the Rise of Digital Reviewing

The book blogger community is still essentially a frontier town, caught between laying foundations on the one hand and trying to deal with the regular influx of lawbreakers, businessmen, migrants and pioneers on the other.
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Prior to the internet, where did you go for book reviews? How did you learn about new authors? What aspects of storytelling did you discuss?

As a card-carrying member of Gen Y, I'm arguably a representative of the last generation to remember what life was like before everyone was online. It's an odd sort of dissonance to contemplate, because I still grew up in period when TV, video games and computers were omnipresent. I must have been ten or eleven before my parents bought a 56k modem, and when they told me what it was for, I have the distinct memory of expressing confusion and disbelief at the concept: what was the point of it? The internet didn't sound like something I'd be interested in, because I didn't have a frame of reference for what was being described. Mobile phones weren't yet ubiquitous or user-friendly enough to merit a comparison for ease of contact: the one my mother had was a giant, black lump the approximate weight and dimensions of a brick, which is what we called it, with an antenna as thick as a finger and as long as a chopstick. Too big to be easily carried in a handbag, it lived in the passenger-side footwell of our little car, where it routinely had to be kicked aside to make space for feet. Computers were used for games, typing and the playing of educational CD ROMs like Encarta 95, but talking to people? To strangers, even? I couldn't see the appeal.

All of which changed instantly the minute I got online. With zero adult guidance or supervision, I opened endless Hotmail accounts, talked with complete strangers in MSN chatrooms, looked up fanfiction for Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, and endured the agonising five-minute wait it took to load even a single piece of fantasy art on Elfwood. I chatted with friends, downloaded music, played games on interactive websites, and posted fledgling blogs on various early websites. Pre-Google, pre-Goodreads, pre-IMDB, however, the one thing I didn't do online is, somewhat ironically, the thing I now do most: engage in active discussion about popular culture. Though my perusal of fanfiction and fanart came closest in terms of theme, at the time when I was first learning what it meant to be online, the internet didn't yet function as a monolithic, multifaceted, omnipresent pop cultural database -- or at least, not in a way that was easily accessible to a teenager with no understanding of code and no interest in joining tech-heavy adult forums.

The reason I mention all this is that, what with all the current furor about bullying and Goodreads, I've been thinking about the importance of online communities to the literary landscape, not just in terms of the unprecedented scope for reader/author/reviewer interactions they provide, but because of how recent the phenomenon really is. And then it struck me: until I started engaging with them online, I never used to read book reviews. Or, well, not never -- it was just that, as someone who loved SFF above all else, I seldom had access to to reviews of the sorts of books I liked to read. Flipping through the book review section of the Saturday paper, I'd be lucky to find a so much as a single volume that appealed to me, and more often than not, I found none. I chose books via a process that, in retrospect, can only be described as a biased crapshoot: if a friend recommended it to me, if I liked the cover, if the protagonist's name was pretty. It's a minor miracle I ended up reading as many good books as I did. The idea of referring to the judgment of critics never even occurred to me, because as far as I was aware, book reviews were only for a certain kind of book. On the rare occasions I did see an SFF title reviewed, it always felt a bit like tokenism, to the point where I never actually trusted what was being said -- after all, the balance of genres being assessed made it plain that the sort of things I liked only appeared as outliers, so why assume the reviewer shared my tastes?

But online, it was different. Even though I didn't actually talk about books with internet friends, participation in SFF-fan communities made me aware of new authors and series simply by virtue of the fact that most users listed their favorite works on their profiles. It gave me names to work with, and -- for the first time -- a sense that I wasn't the only one who liked this stuff. Even so, the bulk of my recommendations still came from friends and libraries IRL: if there were book review sites in those days, I didn't know about them. Slowly, though, the situation began to change. I noticed that some authors I liked kept blogs as well as websites, and started reading them regularly. The steady rise of international shopping sites like Ebay and Amazon made it possible for readers to access a wider range of titles than had previously been available through local channels. Social networking sites cropped up, making it easier still for strangers who were nonetheless fans of the same things to interact, while database sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads began to take advantage of the internet hivemind. The advent of ebooks began to fundamentally change the way readers accessed and interacted with material; and then, of course, the rise of personal digital publishers like meant that, for the first time, independent authors could compete in the same marketplace as their traditional counterparts -- to varying degrees of success.

Until, finally, we reach the current state of play, where book bloggers -- both professional and unpaid -- are legion, traditional news media is floundering, the vast majority of ebooks and paperbacks are available internationally regardless of where their rights have been sold, a significant number of authors are involved online in some form of blogging or social media, and using sites like Goodreads for promotions is commonplace. Neither does it seem irrelevant that the vast majority of book blogs and online journals deal with SFF, YA and other genre subsets like horror, romance and crime: the literary focus of traditional media was predominantly with mainstream fiction, general humor and popular non-fiction, and so it only makes sense that genre proponents were and are the most eager to try their luck at the new medium. This might also help to contextualize why so much author/reviewer drama seems to center on YA novels: not only did the market explode into popularity in perfect parallel with the rise of online fandoms and digital reviewing (which explains why such a large proportion of the book blogger network is devoted to YA), but it seems fair to assume that readers in their tweens, teens, twenties and thirties -- which accounts for the bulk of YA fans and reviewers -- are probably digital natives, and therefore more likely than other groups to be personally invested in online communities.

All of which, to return to the opening questions, makes me realize just how profoundly my use of the internet has shaped my awareness of and relationship with books. Thanks to international book blogging sites and the recommendations of my favorite authors, I'm aware of a wider range of novels than ever before, and where previously many of those titles would've been difficult or impossible to obtain if I relied solely on my local bookstores to provide them, now I regularly buy not only ebooks, but firsthand and secondhand books online. I keep a list of titles that have caught my interest on Goodreads, and a wishlist of books I plan to buy on Amazon. Growing up in Australia, I had no access to long-running SFF publications like Asimov's Science Fiction or Fantasy Magazine; now, though, I can buy individual issues on Kindle, which has opened up a whole new vista of short fiction, articles and perspectives on the genre. And whereas my exposure to new works used to be limited to what was physically available in my local shops and, occasionally, what friends recommended to me -- an input so small that, even if I'd had access to any relevant reviews, I wouldn't have needed them to narrow down the list -- now I rely on review sites to help me figure out which books I'm most likely to enjoy, because without a filtering process, I'd be left with far more titles than I could ever possibly read.

Here's how quickly things have changed. Public use of the internet began to take off in 1994, and has only been growing since. Amazon was first incorporated in 1995, but didn't turn a profit until the end of 2001. Similarly, the term blogosphere was first coined in 1999, but didn't fall into common parlance until 2002, while the very first ebook reader appeared in 1998 -- a whole nine years before the first generation Kindle appeared in 2007. Facebook showed up in 2004; Twitter and Goodreads came two years later, both in 2006, and if you wanted to backdate the current boom in YA novels, you can choose from either of two equally relevant years: 1998, when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published the previous year, began to build up a serious critical head of steam; or 2005, when the runaway success of Twilight proved definitively that the YA market was big business. Which means that, if you date from the earliest point at which all these factors could possibly have been in play -- the blogosphere, social media, the booming YA market, ebooks -- the current situation is, at absolute maximum, five years old, and most likely much younger; as fast as things move on the internet, neither online communities nor reviewer reputations can be built overnight.

Which is, when you think about it, a staggering amount of change to have happened in so small a time. Looked at in that light, it's small wonder that so many author/reviewer spotfires have been flaring up lately: the book blogger community, for all its strengths and solidarity, is still essentially a frontier town, caught between laying foundations on the one hand and trying to deal with the regular, frequently conflicting influx of lawbreakers, businessmen, mavericks, migrants and pioneers on the other. That doesn't mean we should forget ourselves and wade headfirst into every fray that comes along, but nor does it make abstention from comment a plausible course of action. Rather, it means that it'll be a while yet before things start to settle down -- assuming they ever do. After all, the public internet itself is still less than twenty years old, young enough that we don't yet have a proper idea of what a long-lived digital environment might look like. We're colonists on an alien world, uncertain if the deep tectonics beneath our feet can be trusted to remain stable, or whether some sudden eruption might see everything we've worked for washed away in a flood. Who knows what things will look like in fifteen, ten, or even two years' time?

But whatever happens, one thing's for sure: it's better to build our communities with thought for the future than to salt the earth now and complain when nothing grows. The internet is vast and wild, but in such habitable zones as we create, we still need to learn how to live with each other.

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