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Worldlit as MMORPG?

Wholesaling World Literature in the Age of Amazon

In: Journal of World Literature
Author:
Amélie Hurkens Uppsala University Sweden Uppsala

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Abstract

The marketing of world literature today is marked by the larger migration of literary culture to Web 2.0. This has gone hand in hand with a reconsignment of influence of orthodox authorities, from established reviewing organs to awards, to the amateur readers congregating on social media platforms, first and foremost on Goodreads, the world’s largest online community for circulating literary recommendations and socialization. The present paper traces this reconsignment of influence by examining the engagement of the Goodreads community with the works that were awarded the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction between 2015 and 2019, looking at reader reviews as well as the discussions ensuing from those reviews. As such, the reconsignment of influence is concluded to be regulated by the algorithmic rules of Goodreads and its proprietary platform, Amazon.com.

Abstract

The marketing of world literature today is marked by the larger migration of literary culture to Web 2.0. This has gone hand in hand with a reconsignment of influence of orthodox authorities, from established reviewing organs to awards, to the amateur readers congregating on social media platforms, first and foremost on Goodreads, the world’s largest online community for circulating literary recommendations and socialization. The present paper traces this reconsignment of influence by examining the engagement of the Goodreads community with the works that were awarded the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction between 2015 and 2019, looking at reader reviews as well as the discussions ensuing from those reviews. As such, the reconsignment of influence is concluded to be regulated by the algorithmic rules of Goodreads and its proprietary platform, Amazon.com.

What does it mean to be a ‘Good Read’ in the worldwide traffic of letters? Literary awards like the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Nobel Prize in Literature are hallowed as some of the most prestigious contemporary institutions of world literature. They have accrued so much influence that their consecration of a work consequently boosts the circulation of that work in the marketplace – to the extent that terms like the “Booker effect” and the “Pulitzer effect” have become stock marketing jargon. In this way, literary prizes are increasingly maneuvered as sales strategies. But do the same rules apply on Web 2.0 and its ‘free-market’ of Audible trials, BookTube, Twitterature and Instapoetry, and amateur reader reviews that has been annexed to the book industry – or, should we rather say, is gradually annexing the book industry? If, to conjure up Damrosch’s seminal conceptualization, a work’s world literary code is activated when it “circulat[es] out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin” (6), Web 2.0 has not just scaled up the circuit of world literature, but who is authorized to circulate world literature as well.

The incorporation of the ‘making of literature’ in the Web 2.0 ecosystem is no longer the stuff of speculative fiction. Simone Murray is right in arguing that

digital processes and platforms undeniably infiltrate the global book industry1 at every stage: from production (digital files, eBook rights, print-on-demand, online self-publishing, Wattpad, crowdfunded publishing), through circulation (online book retailing, authorial social media use, publisher search-engine optimisation, book trailers, blog tours, audiobooks), to consumption (reader reviews, fan fiction, bookish social networking, amateur booktubing, bookstagramming).

“Secret Agents” 2

Popping up in the preponderance of infrastructural processes Murray mentions, readers no longer seem to be relegated to the secondary role of passive content consumers; they are progressively called upon to actively create, remix and spread content via digital platforms (see Jenkins et al. 1). In other words, the sacrosanct practice of literature is no longer shielded from the worldly inferior regions where readers from remote physical locations amass in a virtual community; the alloying of these spheres on the World Wide Web has reconfigured the ‘making of world literature’ into a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). The dominant agents of the publishing industry have calibrated themselves to this MMORPG. Publishing houses, from the ‘Big Four’ powerhouses2 to the increasingly endangered species of indie publishing, have integrated the reader in a multiplicity of processes; this ranges from sponsoring BookTubers’ promotional unwrapping of the newest published presents in vlogs titled ‘Book Hauls’ to making them confidants of the most hailed authors of the present literary culture. Penguin Random House had Margaret Atwood announce that “[y]es indeed to those who asked: I’m writing a sequel to The #HandmaidsTale” to her 1.9 million followership on Twitter.

Most eventful, though, is the impingement of the reader on the most hallowed process of the ‘making of world literature’, that is, consecration. Admittedly, the appendage of worldly taste arbiters to our orthodox literary authorities predates literature’s ensconcing in the Web 2.0 ecosystem. In 2010 already, Collins described the instatement of mass cultural curatorship, premised on the idea that refined taste was no longer tied up with traditional institutions – illustrated, for instance, by the considerable influence of Oprah’s Book Club. However, the reconfiguration of literary validation and consecration as a MMORPG itself, played in the online communities of amateur readers, is a rather novel development. This reconfiguration has become nowhere as revealed as on the social media platform Goodreads. Originally a self-cataloguing application for books, Goodreads has soared to the major social media platform for circulating literary recommendations, housing an online community of 125 million members at present (“Advertise with us,” Goodreads). Over and above that, it has come to serve as a space for amateur readers to assign themselves the role of public opinionator and consecrator – a role that, until recently, was essentially reserved for judging committees comprised of accredited reviewing organs, academics, authors, and industry professionals. This, I argue, has gone hand in hand with a reconsignment of influence within the literary contemporary – a time McGurl has termed ‘the Age of Amazon’, designating the behemoth “the driving force of American, perhaps even world, literary history” (33). Indeed, as the ambitious publicity campaign for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019) once more corroborated, tailored to its (pre-publication) nomination for the Booker of the same year, the shortlists of the most prestigious literary prizes may still temporarily shake up the layout of our (online) bookstores as well as media outlets used to market those shortlisted works. The readerly critiques, recommendations and consecrations of the platform-based amateur reader characterizing the ‘making of world literature’ on and across social media platforms are increasingly used to publicize those works online – with Goodreads at the forefront.

As follows, the present paper argues that this reconsignment of influence lies at the heart of the ‘worlding’ and wholesaling of literature in the Age of Amazon. Integral to the influence Goodreads, as “the world’s largest community of book lovers” (Goodreads), allocates to is readers is the way it has meticulously upgraded the practice of reading and validating that reading to the networked participatory cultures that form the infrastructural basis of our everyday life.3 Goodreads is a free service that is available as both a website and an application. It, thus, presents itself to the amateur reader as readily available and accessible on a variety of different devices. As I mentioned afore, the social media platform emerged as an inventory tool for users to log literary works. Soon, though, Goodreads began to expand its amenities, whetting the reader’s interactive appetite with game modes from online book clubs and ‘Ask the Author’ Q&As. One of its most popular utilities is its annual reading challenge; the platform’s commentary function enables users to egg each other on and bond over the anxiety of bringing their challenge to an end. The camaraderie constitutional to the workings of Goodreads is emblematic of how the reader’s networked environment increasingly shapes their reading process. “Whether seeking affirmation, illumination, or contestation from co-readers, the contemporary reader is always enmeshed in a demonstrably social web” (The Digital Literary Sphere 150).

Yet, the primary use of the platform for the Web 2.0-empowered reader resides in their role-play of literary critic, opinionator and consecrator through ratings, reader reviews, and critical debates with the Goodreads community. Whether issued by a traditional publishing house or via the self-publishing route, every published or to-be published work of literature can be provided with its own Goodreads page. This page is the equivalent of a life-summative Facebook page of the online user. Rather than life events, thoughm the critiques of the platform’s community are the centrepiece of a work’s Goodreads page. It is this digital emancipation from institutions like literary prize culture that, according to founder and current CEO Otis Chandler, is at the heart of the platform. “One afternoon while I was scanning a friend’s bookshelf for ideas, it struck me: when I want to know what books to read, I’d rather turn to a friend than any random person or bestseller list” (“About us,” Goodreads). The value of these recommendations, however, does not exclusively reside in their incentive for readerly conversation and congregation. In “Secret Agents,” Murray delved beneath the platform’s rhetoric of affectionate book-loving community to unearth a business model based primarily on dual revenue streams of advertising and data licensing to third parties such as publishers, newspapers and Google Books for display on their website.

Along these lines, the platform cannot only be put to use as a peephole into users’ purchasing patterns; it is, too, thoroughly intertwined with that act of purchasing. Investigating the influence of Goodreads metrics on Arab readers’ book-purchasing behaviors, Alghamdi and Ihshaish accentuated Goodreads users’ self-reported association between book recommendations and book sales, especially when those recommendations were relayed through favorable reviews of their Goodreads friends. This is testament to the way how, on Goodreads, Tiziana Terranova’s theory of ‘free labor’ assumes a literary guise, whereby these “ ‘productive activities […] are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited […]’ ” (qtd in “Secret Agents” 10). A concrete quantifiable correlation between users’ readerly critiques, recommendations and consecrations and sales figures has hitherto been beyond the reach of scholarly scrutiny. This can, in large part, be imputed to the non-transparency of the Web 2.0 corporations expropriating the global book trade (see, for instance, McGurl; Murray). The Age of Amazon, hence, presents book historians with a marked methodological dilemma – not the least with the adoption of Goodreads in the larger “ “Amazon family” ” in March 2013 (Spillman qtd in “Secret Agents” 8). Publishers may thus be exhibiting an increasing investment in Goodreads as a sales strategy, the platform’s infrastructural anatomy of inhibits an insight into the long-term impact of that investment.

In 2013, however, Hu et al. inquired into the interrelationships between ratings, sentiments and sales in their appraisal of 4000 books on Amazon.com, shedding light on the mediating role of review sentiments on online book buyers’ decision-making process. While kindred considerations have yet to betide in the compass of Goodreads, the corporate consanguinity between the platform and its parent company, as well as the former’s reliance on review sentiments as one of the fulcrums of its MMORPG, mark Hu et al.’s inferences as telltale for the remunerative potentials of reader-reviews; Murray has mentioned how “displays of emotional intimacy on Goodreads are commercially highly serviceable” (“Secret Agents” 11). This explains for the latest explosion of its reader-reviews in books’ promotional campaigns, intercalated between the blurbs of more professional public opinionators. The financial gain of these readerly critiques, CEO Chandler has framed in his pitch, lies exactly in their amateurish and, thereby, authentic nature: “ ‘Nothing sells a book like a thoughtful review written by a real person’ ” (qtd in “Secret Agents” 9).

Where the platform’s bearing on the wholesaling of world literature becomes most pronounced, however, is in its embroilment in Amazon’s empire of e-commerce. As McGurl asseverates in his epoch-making intervention Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (2021):

Amazon has insinuated itself into every dimension of the collective experience of literature in the United States and increasingly of the wider world. It has done this as the purveyor of more than half of the print books sold in the US and the overwhelmingly dominant force in the e-book market, a market it essentially made; as the proprietor of the booming enterprise of Audible.com […]; as facilitator, through its Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program, of the self-publication of countless thousands works of fiction […]; as the home of sixteen more or less traditional literary book imprints of its own and proprietor of the book-oriented social media site Goodreads. Increasingly, it is the new platform of contemporary literary life.

2

Before its acquisition by Amazon, Goodreads was demonstrating a significant advantage over the latter in the compass of book browsers successfully converted to purchasers. “Chief among Goodreads’s assets was its mainline into the reading habits of highly active book readers. Figures from the time reveal that a subsection of 19 percent of US adults are responsible for 79 percent of books read annually.” Taken together, Murray concludes, “Goodreads users’ demographic profiles and their emotional investment highlight precisely why Amazon was eager to purchase this rampant book industry rival” (“Secret Agents” 10). With a book’s Goodreads page hyperlinking to Amazon.com as well as Kindly Daily Deals and Audible, Goodreads has effectively morphed into another of its adoptive parent’s promotional services. A work’s salience in the world’s leading literary social network can, thus, significantly spur its sales in the world’s leading literary storehouse.

To which extent are the sales pushes provided by Goodreads, however, prompted by its reading populace, and to which extent are they a product of the platform’s own as well as its parent company’s objectives? Langley and Leyshon have pointed up how platforms’ AI algorithms allow them to act upon data in ways that feed-back, structure, delimit and even determine the circulations of popular culture (19). This can, too, be noted in the commodifiable, datafied nature of our networked reading culture. In her assessment of Goodreads’ algorithmic architecture, Murray foregrounds how “[e]very time we rate our books read, log our to-be-read lists, or even click on other titles, we provide the algorithm with additional data to fine-tune its portrait of our bibliophilic selves […].” Thereby, algorithms “create normative models of readerly consumption […] to which readers are encouraged to conform ever more closely” (“Secret Agents” 12). As such, Anne-Mette Bech Albrechtslund has argued, Goodreads fits perfectly into Amazon’s recommendation-based business model” (Albrechtslund 557). She has evinced how Amazon leverages its licensing agreements for large-scale automated gathering of information “about patterns of user activities and habits which can be used to optimize […] services and marketing towards the user” (557–558). The obtained data can, in turn, be deployed as fodder for its reading recommendation system, steering potential purchasers to the books most frequently purchased. By the same token, Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads has not only given the former a keener insight into the predilections of the most active and, hence, profitable book readers; it, conversely, supplied the superstore with a second recommendation system intricately intermeshed with its own.

As Murray maintains, the near-monopoly Goodreads boasts on this demographic of opinion-influencing readers could, henceforth, be harnessed by its corporate parent to promote mainstream book book-purchasing patterns among less active readers (“Secret Agents” 10, sic.). This is of import, seeing that the key figure surfacing in this discussion is this reader of influence; the reconsignment of influence this paper peruses, after all, is predicated on the progressive prominence of this reader. Inquiries into the mechanisms of influencership on different social media platforms, from Facebook and Instagram to TikTok, have indicated how their algorithmic architecture governs the participatory norms that organize the influencer’s work. On Facebook, for example, “visibility is throttled by platform architecture where curation algorithms amplify some posts and constrain the visibility of others. […] To be visible is to be chosen by the algorithm, selected, elevated, and given voice and legitimacy” (O’Meara 4), Kelley Cotter conceptualized Instagrammers’ pursuit of influence as “playing the visibility game,” its rules encoded in algorithms (896). She adverts to algorithm engineers’ operationalization of concepts like what content users “ ‘care about the most’ ” to “ ‘impose certain valuations, meanings, and relationships to objects and actors with which we interact’ ” (qtd in Cotter 898). This invites the question: how much do Goodreads’ – and, by extension, Amazon’s – algorithms intervene not only to identify the readers of influence reproducing Amazon’s most remunerative book-purchasing patterns, but also to make said readers visible with the purpose of pushing and thus perpetuating these patterns? Once more, a concrete answer to this question is pre-empted by the designed nebulosity of the algorithm, seeing as “platform owners obscure or withhold information about what their algorithms do, how they do it, and why” (Cotter 898). Be that as it may, I argue that the reconsignment of influence the paper traces on Goodreads transpires under the stringent supervision of its proprietary platform.

To review how users’ ratings, reader reviews and recommendations play a role in the reconsignment of influence, it is required to determine when a work of literature becomes a ‘Good Read’? I will answer this question by looking at the influence of literary prize culture in the Goodreads community. Doing so, I seek to trace the reconsignment of influence carried out by this community and the larger industry in which it is digitally enmeshed. More concretely, I looked at Goodreads’ engagement with the works that were awarded the Booker Prize or the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction between 2015 and 2019 to assess whether the Booker and Pulitzer effect have also succeeded in spreading to Web 2.0. I close-read the reader reviews of these eleven prize-winning books, the criterion being, for reasons of limitation, that the total sum of likes of the review in particular amounted to at least one hundred likes; I ended up with 145 reader reviews in total. This was supplemented by a survey of the discussions ensuing from the reviews, as well as other indicators of Goodreads validation and consecration. My rationale behind selecting two English-language literary prizes was governed by the (problematic) preponderance of anglophone literature and its book industry on, as Walkowitz posits, our larger everyday culture of reading, writing, and viewing, having “the greatest number of readers, once we include second- and third- as well as first-language users throughout the world” (10). This predominance has, naturally, also expanded to our Web 2.0-housed reading culture: the English language asserts itself as the lingua franca in the linguistically heterogeneous Goodreads community.

Before perusing how Booker and Pulitzer consecration is conceived of by this new constellation of consecrators, I first tried to determine whether these eleven prizewinners were even able to attain visibility on the platform. To answer this question, it is important to distinguish between ‘Good Reads’ in quantitative terms and ‘Good Reads’ in qualitative terms. The former, I argue, correlates distinction and world literary status to the total sum of reader ratings a literary work accumulates on Goodreads. Owing to the supersaturation of books and their Goodreads pages the seemingly infinite space of Web 2.0 allows for on the platform, visibility is a prerequisite to distinction. This most readily establishes itself in the aggregate of reader ratings. In result, evaluation in itself, be it positive or negative, morphs into circulation and, potentially, validation: Goodreads users’ ratings interpolate the evaluated work into “the orbit of attention of potential readers and, by making the work more likely to be experienced at all, they make it more likely to be ‘valuable’ ” (see Smith 9–10). Since every single rating a user bestows on a book makes that book pop up on the feed or recommendation list of the user’s circle of friends, the more ratings a book cumulates, the more ratings, as well as value, it will subsequently spawn. This mechanism underpins the ‘going viral’ of online media content, which Jenkins et al. have likened to a pandemic, “spreading through audiences by infecting person after person who comes into contact with it” (17). That being so, by rendering the right rating by the right reader of influence visible, the algorithm is able to bias the platform’s community towards a certain (array of) book(s).

To establish an adequate benchmark for how many reader ratings make a ‘Good Read’, I turned to two of the most straightforward tokens of Goodreads validation and consecration. On the one hand, I looked at the annual Goodreads Choice Awards. The prize points up the populist nature of Web 2.0, sanctioning every user to compile a longlist and cast their vote in categories from ‘Fiction’ and to ‘Best Debut Novel’. Seeing as the eleven Booker or Pulitzer prizewinners central to this inquiry have only been nominated for the categories ‘Fiction’ and ‘Historical Fiction’, if they were nominated at all, I limited myself to the total of reader ratings the 2015–2019 Booker and Pulitzer winners of those categories have accrued. On the other hand, I looked at the platform’s own canon formation, going by the name of ‘Listopia’. This function fringes the reading lists Goodreads users compose collaboratively through voting for their personal favorites. It spans a plenitude of lists from the generic ‘The Best Epic Fantasy’ to more topical catalogues like ‘Books that look good to read during a pandemic’. To heed the present paper’s limits, I only singled out the lists with the most user-generated input, counting 20,000 voters or more. Of these, I examined the first hundred books registered on those lists. When synthesizing the sum total of reader ratings, one can infer that both Goodreads Choice Award winners in the categories of ‘Fiction’ and ‘Historical Fiction’ and works canonized in the selected reading list almost never fail to exceed the 100,000 ratings-mark. I therefore decided 100,000 ratings to be the yardstick of a quantitative “Good Read.”

A mere five of the eleven Booker or Pulitzer winners, in the end, turned out to have scrambled up that mark: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), with 122,476 ratings; Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (2017), with 124,904 ratings; Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019), with 207,556 ratings; Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), with 289,044 ratings; and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014), with 1,021,663 ratings.4 Thus, the works that the Booker and Pulitzer judging committees elect as most worthy of notice often go unnoticed in the Goodreads community – a phenomenon that, quite ironically, is noticed from time to time by members of the community: “The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize this year. I have read other Pulitzer Prize winners and generally I have found them to be just okay. Or, in looking through the list of winners, I have not even heard of them at all” (“The Underground Railroad,” Goodreads). When it comes to Goodreads validation and consecration in qualitative terms, the prizewinners emerge even less triumphantly. Only Doerr’s novel, that exorbitantly dwarfs the other works regarding its aggregate of reader ratings, is included in one of Goodreads’ most popular reading lists, securing the seventy-third spot on the ‘Best Books of the 21st century’. There seems to be a bit more open access to a Goodreads Choice Award. Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was granted the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction, and Atwood’s The Testaments the 2019 Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction. It is rather telling, however, that the three works that did manage to land a Goodreads Choice Award correspond to the three books that have accrued most reader ratings.

That the Booker or Pulitzer stamp on the dust-jacket of one’s prizewinning work, thus, does not necessarily improve one’s chances in the MMORPG is corroborated by the reader reviews and ensuing debates I appraised. A bare 40 percent of the reviews make mention of the literary prize the work of literature has reeled in. On top of that, the more reader ratings a work succeeds in procuring from users, the more meteorically the total of actual references to that prize tends to plummet. Commendation by the Booker or Pulitzer Prize appeared to be the incentive for the majority of reviews on Goodreads underdogs like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), and Anna Burns’ Milkman (2018), which count a sum of 27,909 reader ratings and 40,304 reader ratings respectively. For these books, reviewer references to their literary honors fluctuate between 71 and 85 percent. This number drops steeply to 33–35 percent as soon as a work of literature becomes a ‘Good Read’ in the Goodreads community. For Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the winning of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction even threatens to become a non-event, with a mere 15 percent of the reviews examined alluding to the award, most commonly in negative fashion. The few award-winning works ‘made’ into world literature on Web 2.0, hence, did not reach that status because they were marketed as such by traditionally entrenched prizes. The trivial influence of these prizes on the works’ circulation and consecration in the Goodreads community makes the actual winning of that prize an event that is foreordained to oblivion. This is illustrated by Goodreads user Ova’s sing-along pastiche of Adele’s Someone Like You in their judgment of Milkman.

I heard that you’re on Booker Longlist
That you’re a strong favourite, solid now
[…]
Nevermind, I’ll go find some book like you
I wish nothing but the best for you
Forget me, I will forget you,
Sometimes it lasts when reading sometimes it HURTS instead …
Just not my cup of tea! Sorry … Thanks and sorry Adele …
“Milkman,” Goodreads

When conventional consecration does succeed in catching the attention of the Goodreads community, the mentions users make to literary prize culture are typically not in the affirmative. The forgettability of a Booker novel is echoed in another user’s observation, when assessing Lincoln in the Bardo, that “[m]any winners have come and gone and I found them mediocre, forgettable.” The Booker Prize tends to get dismissed as “a mediocrity stamp, a badge of dishonour signalling conformity and adjustment,” one Goodreads user avers in their review of Milkman (sic). This is characteristically imputed to the incompetence of the jury. As another negative Milkman review attests, “[t]he Booker Judges have lost their minds lately.” The judging committee of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is equally called out for the unsatisfactory fulfillment of their duty:

“Do the Pulitzer Prize judges immediately disqualify fun books? Seriously, I don’t think I’ve seen a happy one yet.” [On All the Light We Cannot See]

“Go home, Pulitzer jury, you’re drunk.” [On Less]

It is this anti-prize rhetoric that English famously diagnosed in The Economy of Prestige (2008) as “part of the discursive apparatus of prizes themselves, produced by those whom they enlist as their own agents” (212).

In English’ economy of prestige, this apparatus is chiefly composed of the literary press and professional reviewing organs and media commentators. That being so, the Goodreads review box can be said to activate a simulation game in which the user can role-play the critic of the literary establishment. At the same time, their circle of Goodreads friends, are enlisted as additional agents of that establishment in this MMORPG. “When I log on to Goodreads, it completely freaks me out if there isn’t a notification for Doug’s review of Milkman. It’s become such a big part of my life I don’t think I could actually function without them,” Goodreads user Simon comments on the most liked reader review on Milkman’s Goodreads page – a review written, as is to be expected, in a highly pungent tone that mainly serves to rebuke the awarding of the novel: “[…] I STILL won’t concede that there is ANYTHING worthy in this mess, and would suggest that some mass hypnosis is sweeping the book awards.” The role of traditional literary awards has thus been relegated to a conversation hook within the Goodreads community, in this case prompting a debate of 324 comments and counting. In this community, as Simon’s comment bears out, the authority of awards is eclipsed by the authority amateur reader-reviewers confer on themselves and other amateur reviewers.

This reconsignment of influence within Goodreads’ MMORPG is itself influenced by publishers’ increasing insertion of themselves as a co-players in the MMORPG – bearing witness to how “[b]eyond influencers, algorithms, and platform owners, the [visibility] game appears to be impacted by the broader marketing industry” (909). Reviewers taking precedence over the list of readerly critiques on a work’s Goodreads page have the tendency to mention that the very review is made possible by the publisher’s ‘giveaway’ of an ARC. ARC s are advance review copies of books that publishers formerly circulated exclusively (and secretively) among the literary press and industry insiders. This is done with the objective to garner reviews from traditional literary authorities in advance of the launch of a new literary work, the review thus serving as a resource to market that work. In his inquiry into the literary review in Amazon.com’s Vine Program, Nishikawa has pointed out how “that class [of the traditional literary establishment] has been forced to share its power to create buzz with Amazon’s own customers,” the projected purchasing public. This has generated a larger online “word-of-mouth network that bypasses professional judgment for a neighborly recommendation.” The currency of ARC s on Goodreads exposes a further reconsignment of influence to the amateur reader, consolidated on the contiguous online platform NetGalley. NetGalley has materialized as the match-maker between publishers and what the platform has coined “readers of influence,” serving as a common denominator for “librarian[s], bookseller[s], educator[s], reviewer[s],5 blogger[s] or [other people working] in the media” (“How it works,” NetGalley). It allows publishers to upload digital ARC s and select which self-appointed critics are granted access to those ARC s on the basis of their activity or clout in the Goodreads community. In this way, Goodreads’ “readers of influence” are invited to “[u]se NetGalley for free to request, read, and recommend digital review copies before they are published” (NetGalley).

Considering that socialization on the platform principally proceeds through the exchange of critiques, Goodreads forms the channel par excellence to circulate one’s opinions about ARC s. In fact, the survey found that the three Booker or Pulitzer prizewinners attaining world literary status on Goodreads in both quantitative and qualitative terms comprise considerably more reader reviews making mention of ARC s and NetGalley than the ones emerging less victoriously. Among the sum total of reader reviews of The Testaments, 105 different reviews make mention of “ARC” and 2 of “NetGalley”; for The Underground Railroad, 79 different reviews refer to “ARC” and 52 to “NetGalley”; and for All the Light We Cannot See, there are 169 different reviews mentioning “ARC,” and 56 “NetGalley.” When setting these works side by side with other prizewinners, one can impossibly deny the notable influence of these ‘readers of influence’ on the circulation and consecration of prizewinning works on the platform. A Brief History of Seven Killings mustered 25 “ARC” mentions and not a single one of “NetGalley”; Milkman a mere 10 references to “ARC” and, again, none to “NetGalley.” It is mainly the major publishing powerhouses that have become reliant on this amateur patronage. While A Brief History and Milkman are (originally) independently published underdogs, issued by Oneworld Publications6 and Faber & Faber respectively, the three most prominent ‘Good Reads’ in this inquiry have been published by imprints of the Big Four. All the Light We Cannot See was published by Scribner, a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster; The Underground Railroad by Doubleday, an imprint of Penguin Random House, the principal player in the Big Four’s publishing game; The Testaments by Doubleday and Vintage, both also having Penguin Random House as their parent company. The strong investment of these publishing houses in their ‘readers of influence’ is reflected in their financial investment in NetGalley: the logos of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random, together with Hachette, IBPA, and sourcebooks, are showcased on NetGalley’s homepage.

“Goodreads’ reviews have become a part of individuals’ daily interactions with knowledge representation, organization and discovery systems,” Hajibayova maintains in her linguistic analysis of Goodreads’ users’ language (622). However, on a platform with a 125 million citizenry, some amateur reader(s) (reviews) have more influence than others – an influence, I contend, that correlates to one’s visibility and status in the MMORPG. As I mentioned earlier, the surplus of content the infinite space of Web 2.0 allows for makes visibility a prerequisite on the platform. The two salient ways to obtain visibility and status are cultivating a massive circle of Goodreads friends and followers and crowning Goodreads’ national or global rankings of ‘top readers’, ‘top reviewers’, ‘most popular reviewers’, ‘most followed reviewers’, and ‘top librarians’. These reader rankings are designed to establish Goodreads’ very own system of status, adding an insidious competitive element to the MMORPG. To improve a work’s chance to become a ‘Good Read’, then, publishers are driven to find the right readers of influence: the more friends or followers one’s Goodreads profile pulls, the more booklovers a work of literature picked up by this user reaches. The ‘micro-celebrities’ publishing houses thus court with ARC s invite comparison with the ‘micro-celebrities’ or ‘micro-entrepreneurs’ social media influencers are delineated as in sociology and media studies. This accentuates how the wholesaling of world literature on Web 2.0 is concatenated with the influencer marketing industry at large. Goodreads’ built-in services, indeed, lend themselves excellently to be wielded as the most common influencer marketing strategies, from testimonial advertising (the reader review of a work), and endorsements (the actual consecration of a work through a positive review) to product placement (the presence of that review or even the user’s mere activity of reading that work on the feed of the user’s friends and followers).

Yet, as I mentioned afore, influencership is conditional on the influencer’s conformity to the rules of the algorithm; when insufficiently contributing to the system of capital accumulation that algorithmic architecture is embedded in, they are threatened with invisibility. Cotter contends, though, that influencers are increasingly learning to play this visibility game “by learning the rules established by platform owners and articulated by algorithms, and formulating tactics accordingly” (908). In her discussion of Instagram influencership, she pinpoints two major approaches to influencers’ maneuvering of the platform’s algorithmic architecture: relational influence, prioritizing proactive, personal interaction with followers, and simulated influence, built upon boosted algorithmically recognizable signals of popularity. While an argument can be made for both, I regard relational influence as elemental to the reconsignment of influence. “Relational influencers believe in the “social” element of social media, which they maintain necessitates “real” or “human” relationships” (Cotter 905). A case in point is Tatiana’s vitriolic critique of The Testaments, that opens with a disparagement of the “Booker judges [as] starstruck, hype-driven sellouts” (emphasis in original). The review of the reader of influence is not at the center of the novel’s Goodreads page because it has accumulated the highest quantity of likes but because, with its 205 comments, it has generated the largest collective discussion.

Reviews poor in plaudits, in other words, often generate as many, if not more comments from fellow users, extending the work’s circulation in the MMORPG. As the regularity of heated disagreements on the platform reveals, Goodreads users’ involvement is not stalled when a reviewer’s emotional discourse becomes explicitly antagonistic or conflictual (“Secret Agents” 11). Aside from the review’s contagiously pungent tone, the driving factor behind this protracted and prominently visible debate is the influencer’s eagerness to enter into conversation with the commenters of her review. To Andy’s response, for instance, Tatiana replies, “I see why people enjoyed this novel, but to put this on a short list of one of the most prominent literary prize is a travesty.” Often, the continuation of the conversation does not require more than a single line.

message 11: by Jamie (new) – added it
Sep 12, 2019 10:07AM
Ugh, “The Heart Goes Last” was awful.
reply | flag *
message 12: by Tatiana (new) – rated it 1 star
Sep 12, 2019 10:22AM
The last book of hers I liked was MaddAddam.
reply | flag *

message 13: by Jamie (new) – added it

Sep 12, 2019 10:36AM

Ah, I never got around to MaddAddam. […] I feel like I SHOULD like her books because she’s so influential in genres I normally like ……….

reply | flag *

Without too much exertion, the reader of influence succeeds in perpetuating the review’s life, and, by extension, her algorithmic presence on the platform.

The reconsignment of influence resulting from a reader’s algorithmic prominence, however, has become nowhere as manifest as in the stardom of reader of influence Emily May. With 1811 reviewed books, a followership of 282,346 followers,7 and the title of “#1 best reviewer of all time” (Miller), May has been laureled by the platform itself as “the most popular reviewer on Goodreads” (Marie Goodreads). The user’s clout within Goodreads’ community of readers has not gone unnoticed in the anglophone book industry: in an interview with Bustle, the reader of influence declared that her offline bookshelves are creaking under the “pile of ARC s […] from publishers, which I try to work through in order of publication” (qtd in Miller). In fact, May is the sole reader of influence in this inquiry to make a recurring appearance at the top of the list of reviews on the Goodreads pages of All the Light We Cannot See, The Underground Railroad, and The Testaments.8 Furthermore, these three reviews have accumulated the highest number of likes from the Goodreads community – with the exception of May’s testimonial to All the Light We Cannot See.

May’s testimonials have morphed into a markedly influential information source in the MMORPG hosted on Goodreads. When they beget consecration in a four- or five-star review, May’s followers are influenced to covet the book in question. May’s review of All the Light We Cannot See has been instrumental in reviving Goodreads user Mary’s interest in the work. “I was just about a third of the way through this book today and was about to set it aside because of what you called the, “ ‘bloated prose.’ ” You gave me a new insight and I think I want to keep going now.” Comparably, May’s follower Nariman divulges that “I liked your review so much, I decided to read it,” while Javaneh admits to May that, “You’ve convinced me to give it a try.” But when May holds a book in disfavor, the work tends to be deleted altogether from her followers’ to-read list. The numerous reactions to her two-star review of The Testaments testify to this.

This review sums up why I have no plans to read this book.

by Goodreads user Lynne

I love how you are always saving me money. Thank you!

by Goodreads user Katherine

I sensed Atwood was just cashing in on the resurgent popularity of the book. […] your review saves me from wasting time on the book.

Kirk, Goodreads user

A work’s continued circulation in the Web 2.0 ecosystem can even flow from moments when the literary debate gets completely sidetracked, turning into an occasion for mere socialization – or, in May’s case, idolization. To give an example, the first fourteen responses to May’s commentary on The Testaments do not make a single mention of the novel, as her following is more concerned with congratulating the reader of influence on her birthday.

message 1: by HarryPotterEatsPie (new) – added it

Nov 28, 2018 12:31PM

Wait is it really your birthday? If so, happy birthday! You’re my favorite person on Goodreads because you’re truthful, unbiased, and wholesome. […]

reply | flag *

message 2: by Emily May (new) – rated it 2 stars

Nov 28, 2018 12:33PM

[…]

Yes it is! Thank you so much :)

reply | flag *

message 3: by HarryPotterEatsPie (new) – added it

Nov 28, 2018 12:34PM

Wow !!!!! She replied!!!!! A legend!!!!! I feel blessed by an angel <3

reply | flag *

[…]

message 5: by Irm (new)

Nov 28, 2018 12:45PM

Happy Birthday!! I think you’re the first person I began to follow on Goodreads, I love your reviews! Happy Birthday 🎉🎈

reply | flag *

[…]

message 14: by Silvia (new)

Nov 29, 2018 12:32AM

Happy Birthday!!!:)

reply | flag *

“The Testaments,” Goodreads

The community’s temporary deflection from the actual novel is in no way deleterious to May’s authority. On the contrary, this highly affective May-centered discourse only highlights and, in a way, even enhances her influence within the community. It is this type of fan adulation that sets her apart as a Goodreads’ ‘microcelebrity’, who derive their influence and following from their intimate relationship with that following.

Goodreads’ readers of influence do not just fit seamlessly into their circle of friends and followers; they, too, affectively affiliate themselves with that circle through their continued conversations in which they bond over the merits of a work of literature or the incompetence of Booker and Pulitzer juries. As Sheehan continues, “[t]his is important knowledge for brands to understand when deciding to partner with an influencer […]: be a friend, not a salesperson and create content that fits within the context of the digital communities you want your brand to have influence over” (qtd in Engine Group). This amicability permeates May’s persona on the platform. In the biography on her profile page, she stresses that “I will always be respectful of readers who have different opinions and I don’t think our different tastes mean we can’t be book-loving friends.” May lends weight to her persona as a friend whenever fellow users civilly disagree with May’s critique; when shaTonya, for instance, responds to May’s negative review of The Underground Railroad by outlining her own favorable assessment of the work, the reader of influence cordially replies: “I’m glad you loved it, shaTonya. There’s no experience quite like finding a book that really speaks to you and moves you :) Oh, and happy new year!” (“The Underground Railroad,” Goodreads). Yet, the power of friendship becomes never as manifest as when the influencer’s amicable atmosphere is temporarily disrupted. The moment Goodreads users address May in a her reviews in an offensive tone, her circle of friends and followers jumping to the influencer’s defense. A telling example is when reader of influence Tatiana teams up with May by countering some belligerent attacks to May’s review of The Testaments. “Linda, you are aware, that you don’t HAVE to read anyone’s reviews, right? There are literally thousands of people who loved this book. Why not join them in a joyous discussion instead of insulting someone else’s reading tastes and opinions?” (“The Testaments,” Goodreads).

Relational influence within the platform’s affectionate community, in summation, marks the reconsignment of influence on Goodreads. May’s meticulous management of her relationship(s) with her followers epitomizes how command of this configuration of influence is key to mastering the algorithmic rules regulating its visibility game. Mastering the rules, however, does not mean making the rules; when today’s digitally-emancipated bibliophiles role-play the literary authority, they still, ultimately, defer to the gamemaster. On her Instagram account, Emily May showcases two photographs in which she is accompanied by Goodreads’ CEO. “Just a casual meeting with @goodreads CEO, Otis Chandler,” May glosses a picture featuring herself and three other readers of influence encircling Chandler in the headquarters of the Web 2.0 corporation. A 2018 photograph, moreover, displays May’s attendance of the Goodreads Choice Award, side by side with Chandler. “Thank you @goodreads for inviting me!” Over and above that, she has related how her reading and reviewing process is informed by Amazon’s e-reading device, “mak[ing] notes and highlights (on Kindle) while I’m reading” (Marie). Albeit an ostensibly innocent observation, the eminence the reader of influence enjoys convert this comment into a conspicuous commercial for the conglomerate overseeing her performance on the platform. With a steadfast followership of 282,346 readers, so is every book May engages with in the largest community of readers; the most powerful players in the MMORPG end up assuming the part of sales advertisements team for the platform’s adoptive parent. As long as these players retain their relational influence and, as such, facilitate Amazon’s regulation of its preferred purchasing patterns, they retain their algorithmic authority. In the visibility game hosted on Goodreads, however, they are never free of the risk of the same retraction of influence they administered to the Booker and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

1

Murray here appears to be lumping together, a bit simplistically, all of the literary industries of the global contemporary.

2

With Penguin Random House’s purchase of its competitor Simon & Schuster in November 2020, the ‘Big Five’ powerhouses of anglophone trade publishing have shrunk to ‘Big Four’ (Alter & Lee).

3

It goes without saying that this pertains to the subjects to whom these networked participatory cultures are available.

4

This inquiry was conducted in October 2020, and, unless stated otherwise, the data and results yielded by it should be considered a reflection of that timeframe. Considering the ongoing and ever multiplying input of user data on platforms like Goodreads, these numbers are subject to change.

5

On NetGalley, both employed, recognized reviewers in the press and amateur reviewers on Goodreads or other online outlets are deemed “readers of influence.”

6

More recently, A Brief History of Seven Killings has been republished by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

7

These findings were obtained on July 7, 2022.

8

By this, I refer solely to the works of literature assessed for this survey.

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