I'm Done With Book Riot
[image description: a photo of an open book with its pages on fire. Note: it’s a stock photo––I’m not inclined to burn books.]
Oh, y’all. My ranty panties are on again. I could’ve written this post nearly a month ago when it all went down, but I was still trying to process it all.
I was trying to process why a media company that has historically been a haven for marginalized voices would reign down a nonsensical directive that would make marginalized people feel unsafe. I was trying to process why that same company, who profited off the most engaged fans in their audience, would dismiss those same people saying, “we don’t need you to keep the lights on.”
I was trying to process a community I love falling apart. I was trying to process how to make sense of the cobbled together spinoff community that spawned in the wake of the Book Riot-moderated community’s demise.
Truthfully, I’m still trying to process it all.
Let me back up.
I first started reading Book Riot in 2011, a time in which I proudly, smugly, called myself a book snob. I didn’t see the point in going out of my way to read about people or cultures I deemed weird. I didn’t really even see the point in reading anything much besides classics. I was misguided in the way that young, sheltered people often are, but I listened. I binged every Book Riot article posted every day. I binged every podcast episode posted. It was the first time I realized that there were people out there who were just as obsessed with books as me––something I didn’t see in my day-to-day life.
I came to trust their recommendations and before long when they said to read diversely, I listened. I’m glad I did. My reading life has improved a hundredfold. Book Riot was shouting the “read diverse books” message years before I heard anyone else doing it and I don’t know that I would’ve ever given diverse books a chance if it weren’t for them. I owe them that.
And when it came to starting my own book blog, their editorial direction inspired me. I didn’t want to cover the same things as them. I didn’t want to do link roundups or sponsored posts or any of that. But I did want to make sure that my book blog was a welcoming place for marginalized voices of all stripes. No more book snobbery. No more smugness. And this space is better for it. I owe Book Riot that, too.
About two years ago, Book Riot introduced this Insiders program with 3 subscription levels. They each had different perks, but I went for the big one––the $10 a month subscription, which got you special newsletters, extra podcasts, a discount in the Book Riot store, access to their new release index, and, most tempting of all, access to the Book Riot Insiders Slack community, where you could nerd out with hundreds of other bibliophiles around the world. I couldn’t sign up fast enough.
I met so many wonderful people there, people I soon began to follow on other social media channels and talk to regularly. People who have read my writing and cheered me on. People who I exchanged holiday cards with. People whom I admire for the way they show up in the world, particularly in their activism protesting, writing letters, community organizing, and doing their damnedest to make the world a better place with the means and resources they have. People who weren’t afraid to call out bigotry in no uncertain terms. And this only got amped up during the Trump administration.
I think I speak for pretty much everyone in the Book Riot Insiders community when I say we didn’t see the implosion coming. One day, we were chatting happily along in the Slack channel and the next minute, Book Riot’s hand was over the self-destruct button.
The Slack moderators rolled out this policy that said you can’t call out groups of people for the bad things they do; you have to specifically call out the problematic actions themselves. The examples they gave were “men” and “Republicans.” They said you can’t say “Have you seen the latest #MeToo scandal? Men are trash.” You have to say “Have you seen the latest #MeToo scandal? The offending man did a bad thing.” You can’t say “Republicans are the worst.” You have to say, “This new policy the Republicans rolled out is the worst.”
Essentially, this moderation policy takes the responsibility off the actual groups and systems of power and creates a #NotAllMen or #NotAllRepublicans scenario where the very people who are perpetuating the subjugation of others can simply opt out of taking ownership of the pain they cause. When it’s made easy for oppressors to say “oh, well that doesn’t apply to me; I’m not like that” they have no incentive to change.
Dozens of people in the community kindly pointed out why this policy is a form of silencing and seemingly against everything they’ve claimed to stand for, particularly the building of a safe haven for marginalized voices. People pointed out how the policy was a form of tone policing since dictating how oppressed people can express their frustration about being oppressed is not okay. People pointed out how the policy is a form of respectability politics because oppressed people shouldn’t have to tone down or make themselves more palatable in order to get treated like human beings by their oppressors. These are terms that Book Riot has used regularly when discussing the problematic actions of other people, groups, and companies on the bookternet.
Everyone gave them the benefit of the doubt. For a company that’s prided themselves on being “good allies” to marginalized people, saying repeatedly to LISTEN because you can’t be a good ally without listening, we assuming it would be a quick conversation. Surely they’d see that because men have more power, non-men calling them trash for their misogyny has no bearing on things like their hiring prospects, how much they’re paid, and death by domestic violence statistics, all things that womxn, nonbinary, and trans people all have to deal with at the hands of men and their patriarchal power, aided by their privilege. Surely they’d see that Republicans are a group that people opt into and choose to be a part of, and considering the power they hold in government which affects everyday people’s lives, that saying they suck is valid and warranted criticism, particularly in the current administration.
This shit ain’t rocket science.
But instead of listening, like the good allies they purport themselves to be, they doubled down. They scantly answered questions, refused to say who exactly or what exactly was behind the policy, then when they got tired of listening to dissent said they were logging off for the night.
It came out of nowhere and was wildly inappropriate.
When the discussion continued in the following days, the response from moderators got even more ambiguous and they seemed unsure of how they were going to enforce the policy outside of instances referring to men and Republicans. The tone of their messages also got increasingly cold and corporate. It seemed clear they didn’t anticipate the response they got. It seemed like they thought, perhaps because they’d been friendly to marginalized communities for awhile, that people would just trust them without question or accountability.
But safe spaces don’t create or maintain themselves. And when your core audience, your biggest fans and supporters, are almost ubiquitously social justice-literate, transparency should always be expected.
One of my friends in the group said that as a trans person, they didn’t feel safe with the new policy in place. To which a moderator replied, “I can guarantee you’re safe shouting books at me.” But that’s not how safety works. You don’t get to decide if someone else feels safe. And if someone is telling you they don’t feel safe because of a decision you made, dismissing their concerns is not an appropriate response. At all. Ever.
The moderators attempted to justify this policy by saying “if a white woman tells a black man he’s trash, how is that right?” This never actually happened in the community and they continually gave this hypothetical example as a means of shutting down any accusations of respectability politics and tone policing. However, the fact that they continued to use black men as a scapegoat to excuse the oppressive policy says a lot in itself.
The fact that they seem to think it impossible that a black man could recognize that he is both marginalized by his skin color and in a position of power due to his sex says a lot about what Book Riot thinks of black men and their capabilities. There are few men of color in the community, so the moderators could use black men as a scapegoat without having actual black men call them out on it. It’s easy to speak on behalf of people who are curiously absent from the table. It’s easy to speak out of turn when you don’t imagine you’ll actually be held accountable.
After the doubling down, it became clear that the moderators had no intention of listening, dozens of people announced they’d be leaving and cancelling their subscriptions to the community. The moderators replied that if we couldn’t get on board with the policy it was time to diverge paths and they didn’t need us and our money to keep the lights on.
Now, for some people $10 a month is nothing. But for other people, especially those who are low-income, that extra $10 a month means something. It’s over an hour of work if you make minimum wage. It’s a meal out or several meals in. It’s a weekend bus pass. To dismiss that financial contribution, particularly when there are people who gave up other things in order to be in that Book Riot Slack community, is at best rude as fuck and at worst willfully ignorant, elitist, and classist.
So one by one 121 of us left the Slack community and cancelled our memberships. That’s 121 people not paying by the month for that Slack community. 121 people who also aren’t going to be shopping in the Book Riot Store, clicking on Book Riot’s Amazon affiliate links, clicking their ads, reading their sponsored posts, listening to their ad-laden podcasts. By my calculations, that’s at least $20k in recurring annual revenue that they will no longer be getting. But hey, they said they didn’t need us to keep the lights on.
Coinciding with the exodus from the community, another of my friends who left started her own Slack community for all of us who were feeling displaced. (And she’s not charging us all to be there.) So now, all the best people from the Book Riot Slack are in another community all together.
Of course, there were some lurkers among us, mostly people who were hoping the moderators would make a last ditch effort to plug the hole in the sinking ship or otherwise just fuel our curiosity at what was happening over there. But it was quiet. Crickets. Radio silence.
It was so quiet in fact that it only took a couple of days for Book Riot to announce that they were closing the Slack community altogether.
The silence is odd and VERY telling. If all of us saying “men are trash” and “Republicans suck” was really keeping people in the community who disagreed quiet, or otherwise preventing people from participating in the discussions, wouldn’t conversation have flourished after we were gone?
And if Book Riot had herds of book nerds waiting to get into the Slack community, as they always said they did, and those book nerds would’ve appreciated the tone policing and respectability politics bullshit Book Riot was trying to pull, there would’ve been no need to shut down the community. Nothing about it makes sense.
And yes, there are receipts. I’ve got a whole folder in Google Drive with screenshots of all this. But I don’t fancy a potential lawsuit enough to share them here. You’ll just have to trust me. And if you don’t, you can email me and if you’re lucky I might just share the folder with you. Whisper networks have been used for centuries to fight bigotry and subvert those in power, and I don’t think the self-proclaimed watchdogs of the bookternet should be held to any standards lower than the ones they themselves set for everyone else.
But back to the new community.
It’s hard to criticize a place or to even look critically at them when you’re on their turf. In the new community, where there wasn’t an expectation of fealty to Book Riot, all kinds of things came to light.
We learned that, even as they touted themselves for being a safe space for marginalized people, they had, at least at one time, a woman of color moderating the cesspool of their comments and made no effort to pay her more for her work or offer her mental health compensation.
We learned about an incident where one of the moderators was openly queerphobic to a member.
We learned about another incident where another one of their editorial staffers was promoting a queerphobic book and bullied the people who called her out on it. We also learned this staffer was known to bully other contributors on a regular basis.
And sure, they could say all this is hearsay. The could say it’s unfounded. Maybe Book Riot has even deluded themselves into believing none of this is true and they really are as good and woke and ethical as they’d like you to believe. But I believe it’s important to believe people when they tell you about their experiences. If someone tells you they were raped, you believe them. If someone tells you someone was racist against them, you believe them. And if multiple people tell me Book Riot does this stuff, I believe them. The people telling their stories have nothing to gain from the falsehood.
And in an age when media companies treat their staff notoriously poorly and engage in all kinds of shady profiteering (I’m looking at you too HuffPo, Vice, and Bustle), why should I doubt Book Riot is any different.
Though it may sound silly to some, I took all this pretty hard. It was upsetting and emotionally draining. If I’m behind honest, I’m still upset about it all.
But if there’s one thing I learned from being in toxic relationships in the past, it’s that you can’t wish someone will be the person you want them to be. To do so is an exercise in disappointment and wasted time. That’s basically how I feel about Book Riot at this point.
I could speculate all day about what their motivations for destroying their most active community were. Maybe the white men at the top got uncomfortable with the liberal discourse. Maybe they’re trying to sell the site and want to clean up before the sale. Maybe one of their big ad buyers threatened to pull their money. Maybe they’re getting sued. Hell if I know.
But honestly, their reasons for doing it don’t matter half as much as the fact that they did it. As Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And Book Riot has made me feel like shit.
And that’s all there is to it.
Those lights they said they didn’t need help keeping on are flickering.
My friend emmy wrote a concise, beautifully articulated post about this as well. My post here is, I think, more on the emotional side, whereas theirs has more play-by-play and receipts. I highly recommend giving it a read if you’re interested in learning more about Book Riot’s shadiness on this issue. (Also, emmy’s book blog is one of my favorites so go ahead and follow them.) They requested I link to their ko-fi if you’d like to support their work.