A few months after posting a message on Goodreads about the imminent release of a new book, Indie author Beth Black woke up to an all-caps ransom email from an anonymous server, demanding that she either pay for good reviews or have her books inundated with negative ones: “EITHER YOU TAKE CARE OF OUR NEEDS AND REQUIREMENTS WITH YOUR WALLET OR WE’LL RUIN YOUR AUTHOR CAREER,” the email, shared with TIME, read. “PAY US OR DISAPPEAR FROM GOODREADS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD.”
Black, who has self-published both a romance novel and a collection of short stories in the past year, didn’t pay the ransom. “I reported it to Goodreads and then a couple hours later, I started noticing the stars dropping on my books as I started getting all these 1-star reviews,” she says. “It was quite threatening.”
Scammers and cyberstalkers are increasingly using the Goodreads platform to extort authors with threats of “review bombing” their work–and they are frequently targeting authors from marginalized communities who have spoken out on topics ranging from controversies within the industry to larger social issues on social media.
Black says she had posted about the upcoming book in a Goodreads community group, and had sent PDF copies to self-proclaimed reviewers. According to Black, the pressure to rack up reviews on Goodreads and Amazon led to her becoming the target of a cyber-extortion attack.
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“In order for an author to achieve any kind of success, we’re told that we have to have numerous reviews,” says Black. “For writers who aren’t well connected, this creates anxiety over finding reviewers. You don’t want your reviews to just be from family and friends. That’s nice, but it’s not going to make a career.”
Since its launch in 2007, Goodreads has evolved into the world’s largest online book community. The social networking site now has millions of users who rate and review books, find recommendations for new ones and track their reading. But over time, Goodreads has also become a hunting ground for scammers and trolls looking to con smaller authors, take down books with spammed ratings, cyberstalk users or worse.
With over 120 million members worldwide, Goodreads is far and away the most popular—and influential—digital book database. When the site was purchased by Amazon for $150 million in 2013, The Atlantic reported that: “When all is said and done, in the world of books, Goodreads is just about as influential as Facebook.”
With few serious competitors, Goodreads’ influence has only grown. According to Erin Stein, an editor and publisher with experience heading Macmillan Children’s Group’s Imprint and working for Little, Brown and Company, the publishing industry views Goodreads as a “necessary evil.”
“It’s something I wish we didn’t have to deal with, but it’s a key part of the industry,” she tells TIME. Basically, she notes, high Goodreads ratings help books get sold into retail. “A lot of authors are on there, a lot of bloggers are on there and it’s used as a marketing tool by publishers to build awareness for books. You can’t completely ignore it.”
Link to the rest at Time