Spilling the Tea: the Goodreads Choice Awards

Folks, it’s that time of year again! All around the world, readers are flocking to Goodreads to place their votes for which books were the “best” this year, in genres ranging from Historical Fiction to Romance to Memoir to Young Adult Fantasy. Close to 4 million votes have already been placed (3,948,345 as of the time I type this paragraph). It’s a fun, interactive way for the bookish community–both dedicated superfans and casual readers alike–to have a say in the determination of a literary award, and given that it is hosted through (probably) the most popular book-tracking website, it reaches a huge audience. In theory, it’s an awesome award and a good rally point for bookworms everywhere.

In practice, there are just SO MANY PROBLEMS with it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the concept of people being able to choose and vote for their favorites. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards, but for print media instead of movies and TV. But for a site run by the almighty Amazon, you would think that the logistics of this popular contest would be ironed out a little better. Some of my quibbles with it are small, others are quite substantial, but all of them add up to form a resounding impression that this contest just doesn’t work like it should. Here are some of my reasons why.

Genre classification

This should be an easy one: put books in the categories that they most closely align with. But, you know, some books defy categorization: last year, for example, Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing was a fusion of contemporary fiction and sci-fi/fantasy. Generally, a book with fantasy elements (as long as it is not magical realism) should be placed into the fantasy category, right? Because contemporary fantasy, literary fantasy, and urban fantasy are all still under the broader fantasy heading? Well, in this case, wrong; to my surprise, AART ended up in the general Fiction category instead.

I wish I could call that an isolated incident, but we see lines being blurred all over the place this year. The Water Dancer, a blend of Historical Fiction, literary fiction (which usually goes under the general Fiction header), and Fantasy, ended up in Historical Fiction, despite the very obviously literary/poetic nature of its prose and its strong magical elements. Again: is it fantasy? I guess not. Same goes for Again, But Better (which I have more to say about later…), a book whose whole premise revolves around a girl going back in time to redo part of her life, which was placed under general Young Adult instead of Young Adult Fantasy.

And in perhaps the most shocking (and hilarious) twist, some brilliant person decided that Verity belonged in the Romance category, rather than the Thriller one. I have yet to find a single person who would have made that classification in real life, even if it contains elements of both; the best guess I have is that Hoover is generally considered a romance author, and so her books are getting put in that category anyway. On the bright side for her, it probably has a stronger chance of winning in that category–last year, the top three finalists in Mystery/Thriller had 62,000; 55,000; and 39,000 votes each, while in Romance, the top three had 43,000; 32,000; and 28,000 votes, respectively. The competition in the Thriller category is harder, with more votes being placed overall but a thriller-romance might attract a wider audience and guarantee it a swift victory in Romances. And speaking of wider audiences…

Popularity contest: a timing issue

Look, I know this competition is meant to be one that shows which books are most popular. That much is fine. The problem is with the deadlines and cutoffs for books to be considered. Take a look at this timeline for the awards:

Opening Round (with nominations)Nov. 5 – 10
Semifinal RoundNov. 12 – 17
Final RoundNov. 19 – Dec. 2
Winners AnnouncedDec. 10

You with me so far? Cool. Now let me add one more piece of data for you: The cutoff date for a book to qualify is November 15th. Anything after that date is considered fair game for next year’s awards, but if you’re on or before November 15th, it’s this year or nothing.

Here’s the problem: some of these nominees are chosen ahead of time by people at Goodreads, based on things like average ratings and number of readers throughout the year. These are the books that show up in the opening round. The opening round also allows room for open nominations, though, so if a book you loved got neglected, you could write it in. From these write-ins, books are chosen for the semifinal, with both the opening round candidates AND some of the top write-ins. This enables books that otherwise would have been overlooked (for reasons including lower numbers of readers, lower average ratings despite lots of high ones, or general lack of “buzz”) to make it into the running and have a shot at winning.

But wait! That’s funny…the opening round closes before some of the qualifying books have even come out yet. You know what that means? Books that come out near the end of the qualifying period, unless they have enough buzz ahead of time (either a lot of ARCs went out, meaning there were lots of people to vote for it still, or the book had already made headlines), aren’t going to make it as write-ins. That’s grossly unfair to all the authors with mid-November publication dates, whose books will be unable to be considered for this very popular award (especially since it is one that tends to be more rooted in “what people like” than it is in “what pompous critics find to be worthy”).

Then, compound that with the fact that even the semifinals–which last for under a week but are responsible for the elimination of a large number of candidates–only run for another three days after those last-minute-qualifying books come out. The result is that those books, which are potentially very good, are being voted on largely by audiences who haven’t read them yet because they haven’t had a chance to. Which leads to the next point…

Voting on books you haven’t read

This ties into the problem with so many books coming out immediately before, during, or near the end of the voting period. This year, as many of you probably know, a TON of highly anticipated releases came out on November 3rd, especially in the YA community. With so little time between that date and the end of the first rounds, people are almost inevitably voting on books they haven’t had a chance to read yet and are operating on their interpretation of hype alone. There’s nothing wrong with voting for a book because you just generally like its author, or because you think it sounds like you’ll like it when you get around to it, but it puts a lot of stress on the voters (or at least it does for me, and I’ve heard some friends say the same). How do you decide what to vote for? Do you risk voting for something you haven’t read yet and therefore might end up actually hating? Do you vote for the book you read and sort-of-liked, or the one you haven’t had time to read yet but think you will love? It’s complicated.

Of course, these awards aren’t a huge deal in the scheme of things, but when you want to support authors–especially those who you love but who don’t get much recognition from the big-shots in the literary world because their works are enjoyable, not necessarily literary–you do want to make sure you vote from an informed perspective. It’s hard to do that when you are going in blind on a large number of options you’re strongly considering.

Lack of diversity

Plenty of posts have been written about this, so I’m not going to go into it too much on my own, and instead I’ll refer you to this excellent post by Reads Rainbow about LGBTQ+ rep in the Goodreads Choice Awards. I know there are posts out there about other areas in which diversity is lacking, including things like race, disability, and neurodivergence, but I can’t recall exactly which ones I’ve read and enjoyed recently (if you have one you would like to share, let me know in the comments and I’ll edit/add it to this!). The upshot is this: marginalized authors often don’t get the attention they deserve, and works featuring diverse characters tend to be underrepresented in the choices for many major awards, including this one. While the write-in votes do allow for readers to promote more of these diverse books and put them into the running, it’s not fair that the onus is put on the readers rather than those who run the site taking responsibility for making sure that those marginalized voices are amplified to sound just as loudly as anyone else’s.

“Buzzy” does not equal “good”

There are times when I wonder who the heck chooses the first books for the opening rounds, because there were some really weird selections in there. The example I’m going to focus on is Again, But Better, a novel which was highly anticipated for many readers this year, as it was written by famous Booktuber Christine Riccio. Personally I found to be a dumpster-fire, but I know some people liked it (though I struggle to fathom why). The thing is, yeah, there were people who liked it, but I don’t know of many, if any, who called the book their “favorite” or even in their top-few this year. It has a 3.7-star average rating, which isn’t bad, but certainly isn’t very good either. I guess it had some meager amount of popularity, because it (somehow????) made it into the finals, but it’s just one illustration of a broader phenomenon I’ve seen. Lots of people, in bookish Facebook groups and elsewhere, have commented that a lot of these books are ones they haven’t even heard of, or that got a lot of hype but then never carried the momentum.

Thoughts for improvement…?

With all the technology that Amazon has at its disposal, I’m surprised it hasn’t used sentiment analysis or another branch of natural language processing to parse reviews of the books it’s considering, prioritizing the ranking of ones that people frequently put on favorites shelves, mention the words “best” or “favorite” in their reviews, or have overall strong positive feelings toward the book. It would streamline the process substantially and would most likely provide a more realistic picture of what people are reading and liking, making the opening rounds and semifinals more representative of the books that deserve a shot at the awards. If a book is not super widely read but many of its readers say it is one of their favorite books of the year, surely that means something and makes it worthy of a spot on that list?

Piggybacking on that, and going back to my issue with timing, I think Goodreads should seriously consider changing its cutoff dates for eligibility. The final qualifying date should be a MINIMUM of two weeks before the start of the opening round, to allow time for books to enter the mainstream public consciousness. It isn’t much of a sacrifice: books after that cutoff will simply be counted in the tally for next year. It works out, right? There will still be only about a year, max, between when books are published and when they’re voted on, so the essence of the competition is the same; it just gives a slightly fairer shot to every book out there.

And in the meantime, definitely look into some other reader-generated book awards out there while Goodreads gets their act together. Epic Reads hosts the *Book Shimmy* Awards, which are entirely audience-nominated, though they only cover YA. Several bloggers are hosting their own versions of awards, focusing on specific communities that are neglected in the Goodreads algorithms.

What do you think?

Am I way off-base? Do you have similar frustrations with the Goodreads Choice Awards, or other complaints I haven’t voiced yet? Got any good articles/posts on marginalized voices in the Goodreads selections? And what are your favorite alternative reader-selected book awards?

As always,

Kathryn (“K-Specks”)

P.S. I think I’m going to start entitling all of these rant-type posts “Spilling the Tea.” Good idea? Bad idea? I’m always looking for feedback!

9 thoughts on “Spilling the Tea: the Goodreads Choice Awards

  1. alisbooks November 24, 2019 / 3:21 pm

    I also thought it very strange to see Verity classified as romance among other things. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathryn Speckels November 24, 2019 / 3:37 pm

      Thanks! (And right?? I had to ask multiple people to make sure I didn’t miss some memo about that book secretly being a romance or something…)

      Like

  2. dinipandareads November 25, 2019 / 8:14 am

    I think last year was the first time I voted for anything in the Goodreads Awards but it wasn’t until the nominations went up earlier this month that I started to really notice many of the issues that you brought up, especially about the lack of diversity and representation in the nominees. One of the things I love most about this community is how much awareness it brings me — not that I was willfully ignorant beforehand, I just really didn’t think about it (that’s probs worse, huh? LOL 🙈). But it’s definitely problematic. There was some comment from CoHo regarding Verity but it’s still a bit iffy. And then even though I haven’t read Again, But Better almost 98% of the reviews I’ve seen of it have called it trash, so I actually had to laugh that it made it as a finalist. I mean, Yikes! 🙊
    Good news is that some bloggers out there have created their own awards that include all the diversity and LGBTQ+ representation and it has been great fun to vote in those! Great post, Kathryn! Also, a big yes to titling these ranty posts ‘Spilling the Tea’! 😍

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathryn Speckels November 25, 2019 / 9:26 am

      I dunno, I think willful ignorance is probably worse than just not thinking about it–choosing to ignore it rather than just not having it cross your mind, right? We live in a world that, even with increasing diversity, is still pretty overwhelmingly straight/white/male in what is praised and promoted, so it’s hard to fault people for not always remembering that there’s more out there. Thank goodness we have the greater book community to remind us that there’s more out there!

      I’m curious what CoHo had to say re: Verity…do you know where that was? Like Twitter or an interview or something? And as to Again, But Better…consider yourself lucky you haven’t experienced that cringe-fest. I think a lot of its popularity might just stem from the fact that the author is a popular Booktuber; from what I’ve heard, lots of people have said that even if it sucks, they’ll love it and promote it because they like her as a person. Which I think is kind of crappy, not to mention unfair because this should be about the book, not the author, but it is what it is, I suppose.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Lexington Bookie December 12, 2019 / 9:13 am

    These are such strong and valid points, some of which I didn’t even consider! Definitely a great post, and I’m all for reading more “spill the tea” posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathryn Speckels December 12, 2019 / 9:38 am

      Thank you! So glad you liked it. And don’t worry; there is definitely more tea to be spilled in the future 😉

      (Tbh the review of Let’s Talk About Love I posted today was more or less a tea-spilling, even if not labeled as such lol)

      Liked by 1 person

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