Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti for TIME
August 9, 2021 6:24 PM EDT

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.

“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.”

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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.”

But many authors wish they could ignore Goodreads, as more face bullying and extortion on the site. It has been a frequent topic of discussion on social media, with both authors and readers objecting to how the site functions—especially when it comes to its moderation policies.

Goodreads remains one of the primary tools on the internet for book discovery, meaning lesser-known authors often have to rely on the site to get their work noticed. But at this point, some feel that Goodreads’ ratings and reviews system is causing more harm than good.

In a July 29 statement to TIME, a spokesperson for Goodreads said that the company is actively working to resolve many of these review bombing problems.

“We take swift action to remove users when we determine that they violate our guidelines, and are actively assessing all available options to take further action against the small number of bad actors who have attempted extortion scams,” the statement read. “We have clear guidelines for reviews and participation in our community, and we remove reviews and/or accounts that violate these guidelines… We also continue to invest in making technology improvements to prevent bad actor behavior and inauthentic reviews in order to better safeguard our community.”

Review bombing, ransom emails and extortion

As author Rin Chupeco told TIME, Goodreads is a “good idea that slowly became unmanageable over the years due to lack of adequate moderation and general indifference.”

One emerging issue is review bombing: when a coordinated group, or a few people with multiple accounts, intentionally tank a book’s aggregate rating with a flurry of one-star ratings and negative reviews.

“There are some legitimate great reviews going up and many people take it seriously,” Stein says. “But a lot of people aren’t writing actual reviews of the book. They’re posting reviews of a book well before it’s even published—before advanced copies are even out. So they’re just touting an author or they’re trying to take down an author.”

(Goodreads’ review guidelines state that “each book is eligible to be reviewed as soon as it appears on the site.”)

Black says an “army” of fellow authors came to her aid after she publicized the threat. They countered the negative reviews with positive ones in order to drive her ratings back up. Thanks to the high level of attention that was drawn to her case, Black says that Goodreads was fairly quick to remove the offending reviews.

But Black isn’t the only author to be targeted. There are many threads on Goodreads discussing similar issues, with posts from writers who’ve been targeted.

Last January, sci-fi author Alina Leonova shared that she reported a similar scam to Goodreads: trolls bombed Leonova’s books with 1-star ratings, then demanded a ransom. She said the Goodreads support team said the platform was investigating “possible solutions to prevent this from happening in the future.”

However, the problems have continued. “What startled me was that while I made a lot of noise about this, I wasn’t the first victim,” Black says. “[The scammers] have been doing this for a while. People were commenting that it’s a regular thing and that normally, Goodreads does not jump in to save authors.”

The ‘1-star book brigade’ and marginalized authors

When review bombing campaigns take off on Goodreads, Stein says that authors of color are often the target.

“[These authors are] speaking out about important things on social media and some people don’t like what they’re saying,” she says. “So then they go and bomb their books on Goodreads.”

Chupeco, a young-adult fantasy novelist best known for their The Bone Witch, The Girl From the Well and The Never Tilting World book series, is one author who has experienced this firsthand. Last year, Chupeco called out fellow author Mackenzi Lee for signing her name in other authors’ books without their consent, asking on Twitter, “are authors who autograph books written by *other* authors actually a thing? Because I just saw this happen to my book, and the optics of a white author autographing a POC author’s book and then using that as promotion… doesn’t look good to me?”

Chupeco says their tweets about Lee drew the ire of what they refer to as the “1-star book brigade.”

“My book rating went from 3.9 to 3 overnight, and it was a whole journey to see people telling others not to review bomb Lee’s books when the reality was that my books were the ones getting hit and no one cared until I said something,” Chupeco says.

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When Chupeco reached out to Goodreads, they say the company never responded to them.

“I emailed Goodreads while it was happening, and several people from [the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA)] tried to help me, but in the end it went nowhere. I’ve emailed Goodreads before about other issues and they were always quick to respond, but they never got back to me on my emails for this one,” Chupeco says. “Goodreads only removes reviews that specifically target the author, but they do not do that for every book, either—just for the authors with big enough marketing and publicity teams to demand these removals.”

Chupeco says that many marginalized writers they know have had this happen to their books. And the threat of further harassment often discourages authors from speaking out.

“I’ve seen 1-star reviews just because an author, often Black authors, criticize something online that they found issue with, that has nothing to do with their books,” they say. “A lot of authors don’t want to talk about it publicly, because that only increases the harassment.”

Cyberstalking claims

As the target of a years-long cyberstalking campaign, orchestrated by what he describes as “trolls on Reddit,” review bombing attacks on both Goodreads and Amazon have become almost commonplace for author Patrick S. Tomlinson.

“Over the course of a year and a half or so, this group… managed to create hundreds of sock puppet accounts so that they could leave more than 1,000 fake one-star reviews across all of my various works,” he tells TIME, saying these accounts generally appear to have been recently created, use inappropriate or offensive usernames, and leave “often libelous” reviews and comments. “This was all part of a concerted effort to try and derail my career by driving down my ratings so that reviewers wouldn’t be interested in looking at my books and consumers would see one-and-a-half-star ratings.”

Tomlinson, the author of sci-fi novels like In the Black and Gate Crashers, says that “lax security” at Goodreads enabled his cyberstalkers to create numerous fake accounts to bomb his books. With the help of SFWA, he says he was eventually able to get Goodreads to take action—but it took a significant amount of time and pressure.

“[Review bombing] happens to other authors all the time, but not in such volume. What was being done to my books was blatantly obvious,” he says. “They had people impersonating my ex-wife and my current wife. They had people impersonating other authors and board members of SFWA, trying to make it look like people of great importance and respect within my community were openly trashing me and my work. It took that [level of abuse] and pressure from an organization like SFWA before the admins at Goodreads were like, ‘Fine, we have a problem.'”

To Tomlinson, Goodreads’ response indicates that it’s likely difficult for many authors to get the company to remove fake ratings and reviews in a timely manner. And since he first spoke with TIME, Tomlinson says his books have come under yet another review bombing attack, complete with negative ratings, reviews and comments.

Lack of preventative measures

Although Goodreads’ review bombing problem would be difficult to solve entirely, Tomlinson says that if the platform were to introduce some basic preventative measures used by its parent company Amazon, the problem could be “mostly” fixed.

“On Goodreads, you don’t even need to verify your email address [when creating an account]. You can make a dozen fake accounts a day, and then go on and just completely bomb out the reviews and ratings of whatever book you want or whatever author you want,” he says. “Even something as simple as requiring email verification would cut [this problem] down immensely.”

To leave product reviews on Amazon, users not only have to have a registered account with a verified email and phone number, they must also have spent at least $50 on the site using a valid credit or debit card in the past 12 months. These systems seem to make it much more difficult for scammers to create and use multiple fake accounts in order to review bomb specific products or sellers. And Tomlinson is not the only author wondering why Goodreads doesn’t do the same.

Amazon did not respond to TIME’s requests for comment. And in the days following its statement to TIME, Goodreads issued a similar one to its authors, warning them to be wary of “bad actors” attempting extortion scams.

With book discovery remaining such a difficult challenge for so many writers, Black says that maintaining a system in which authors, and especially indie authors, are desperate for reviews makes them “vulnerable to scammers and criminals.”

“And scammers know that, which is why they hang out on Goodreads,” she says.

Goodreads states that its mission is to help people “find and share books they love.” But Stein says today it’s a different beast.

“The intention when it started was great. [In publishing,] we always want it to be easier to discover new books to read, because there’s so many books coming out every year and so many of them are great,” she says. “But at this point, it’s not servicing that need and it’s not working effectively.”


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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com.

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