Seeing More Stars: Rating and Ranking

Recently I published a post about an apparent disconnect between quality of writing and the ratings and reviews of books on Goodreads. There were a lot of comments, including one that linked to this article on “review bombing” on the Goodreads site.

Ratings and reviews are important for authors, especially indies. But given the inconsistencies and manipulations they’re subject to, maybe they shouldn’t be.

open books, grass

The standard rating scheme found on Amazon, Goodreads, and many other sites, is the five star system, in which five stars means “excellent” and one star means “abysmal.” It’s neat and simple, and because it involves numbers, may be considered quantitative. Never mind that it’s purely subjective and may be gamed.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip about books
Image source unknown

Ways to rate or label a book’s quality

  • Five star system.
  • Ten star system.
  • Binary system: Yes or No? Good or Bad?
  • Would you read this book again?
  • Would you recommend this book to a friend?
  • Would you recommend it to an enemy?
  • Emotional effect checklist: the book made me feel: happy, excited, scared, angry, disgusted, bored, etc.
  • No rating at all; read the reviews and make up your own mind.

The whole point of rating is to establish a value marker for a book. If you look up a title on Goodreads, you see the book’s collective star ranking below the title and author, expressed as both an image and a number, such as 4.39, 3.67, or whatever. Next to that is a “Rating details” link that shows how many readers have assigned each rating, both as a graph and numerically. It may look scientific and unarguable, but that’s deceptive when you think about where the data comes from.

open book against blue sky with white clouds

Is rating necessary or realistic for books? Is a book a “product,” like a vacuum cleaner or a t-shirt?

Maybe it depends on how readers use the information. To me, the numbers and rating profile are only a preliminary indication. I often look up reviews and ratings only after I’ve started reading a book and have formed an idea about it. At that point, I want to see what other readers think. I usually read reviews with ratings other than five stars because they go into into more detail than “I love, love, LOVE this book!” So ratings don’t have a direct bearing on whether I buy a book.

This is not true for other readers, I’m sure, and I know that ratings and reviews do have a great deal of influence on outcomes such as BookBub promotions and purchases by libraries.

Something to think about: Amazon’s ranking system is based on sales, not ratings. The star ratings are a separate thing. In theory, if enough people buy a book through Amazon it could be a Number 1 Bestseller, even if no one rates (or even reads) it.

Finally, what about those lazy (or malicious) people who give low ratings but don’t review? I notice this a lot on Goodreads. Okay, it’s way easier just to click on a star than to marshal your thoughts and put them into words, but it’s not terribly helpful for readers or authors. This is especially true of one and two star ratings. I think it’s important to specify why you think a book deserves a low rating. Are some of those reviewless 1-star ratings mean-spirited efforts to drag down the number attached to a particular book?

What about you, fellow writers and readers? What do you think of book ratings? Do you pay attention to them when selecting books to read? Would you prefer something other than the 5 stars?

Featured image from Pexels; other images from Pixabay, except as noted.

48 comments

  1. You raise some very valid points! Personally, with all ratings, I look at them but am not swayed by them as I do not know the expectations of the folks who left them. I had never considered the possibility of review bombing to skew the results.:-(

    Liked by 3 people

  2. A very sobering assessment on what is going on ‘out there’.
    As with many facets in Life the paths of the Indie authors are littered with agendas form outsiders. Many not writers, a grouping composed of folk with a political opinion, those who fancy themselves as critics, con-artists and outright extortionists (as shown in the chilling Goodreads article).
    The one and two star reviews are littered with them and unless the book screams ‘Highly Biased Agenda’ or ‘Hack-Writing’ then they tend to encourage me to give the work a second look.
    I feel very sorry for those who are professional writers trying to get by, those starting out, folk who are in the ‘escape velocity zone’ just starting to gain justified recognition and those trying to maintain their velocity.
    It might be as well if ratings were scraped altogether and readers were obliged to post up reviews, you can normally gauge the value of the review by the standard of objectivity.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I agree, Roger. It takes a few years for us writers and indie authors to figure these things out and develop a perspective on them. That applies to writing rules, best practices, marketing strategies, and how we see reviews and ratings. There’s no simple, one size fits all answer, unfortunately.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Unfortunately Audrey there is not.
        For writers hoping to ‘break through’ as it were, there are monumental problems which are not solved easily by simply purchasing a ‘How to….’ book.
        As with many other features of the current times, the Internet is a very mixed blessing. Whereas it allows a great deal of innovation and creativity to blossom that comes with price of also enabling folk of toxic dispositions and/ or ‘negligible character’* to pollute many a place.
        I suppose one answer would be for each dedicated reader or writer to give over part of their time to place honest and objective reviews in as much proliferation as they are able too and thus try and dilute the toxicity.

        * That’s a phrase from the Canadian/USA Western/Horror/Supernatural mash-up TV series ‘Wynonna Earp’. As used by Doc. Holiday. One of those I wish I had thought of first.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoy reading reviews, so those one star ratings with no reviews irritate me. They’re not helpful, and I don’t know why Amazon/Goodreads thinks they are.

    I also get irritated by five star reviews that are so vague it’s obvious the reviewer didn’t read the book. “Kept me up all night turning pages.” (A book on the interdisciplinary approach to architecture for the 21st century.) “I loved all the characters!!!” (A true crime book about a serial killer.)

    Liked by 5 people

  4. For me, the location or the subject can be as important as the plot. Sort of like watching a movie or play where bad acting can be ignored with a fun plot more than good acting can overcome a mediocre plot.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s why reviews tell you much more than a star rating. A reader may love the way the author presented the setting, but hate the characters or plot. Reading, like musical tastes, is intensely subjective.

      Like

  5. I don’t choose books to read based on ratings. They’re just numbers; the methods by which they’re generated aren’t valid. A star rating without a review is meaningless. As for the reviews- which-aren’t-reviews, perhaps we should start rating them:

    Glittery Generality = -1 star
    Nonsequitur = -2 stars
    Faulty Analogy = -3 stars
    Tautology = -4 stars
    Ad Hominem Fallacy = -5 stars

    Aside from word of mouth, I’ve always chosen books based on reviews by people qualified to write them. Literary magazines seem to be the best place to find these reviews now. Most newspapers have gotten rid of their books sections.

    And even then, some reviews read as though the reviewer has a personal vendetta against the author of the book (snubbed at a cocktail party, tit-for-tat review?).

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Interesting scale, Liz. I have often thought that many NY Times Book Reviews were more a mechanism for the reviewer to show off his/her knowledge than to actually review the book Sort like a written ego riff..

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Haha! I love those minus star ratings for non-reviews. I actually feel guilty calling the comments I leave on Goodreads “reviews,” because they’re nothing like the ones in literary journals, or even thorough reviews on some blogs. If those quick comments are reviews, then what I’m writing here is an essay (not!).
      As for serious reviews, I am reminded of literary culture (as opposed to book consumer culture) in which writers read and review each others’ works, sometimes resulting in grudges and revenge. Human nature at work!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. As I think you know, I hate numerical review systems. I’ve used this example before, but: two of my favorite books are “The King in Yellow” and “Right Ho, Jeeves.” I’d give both 5/5, 10/10, whatever, but really, what does that mean? Do I think someone who liked one would automatically like the other? Not at all; they are completely different types of books.

    I recently read an article about authors being extorted with “review bombing.” Apparently, they’ll get an email that says, in effect, “Nice book ya got here… would be a shame if it got a bunch of one-star reviews on Goodreads. Pay us to make sure that doesn’t happen.” If they removed the quantitative ratings, it would make this kind of scam much harder to run.

    I rarely read five star or one star reviews of anything, or if I do, it’s not with the expectation of learning anything about the book. The three star reviews are almost always the most interesting.

    Finally, people who give one star reviews and leave no explanation should be taken out and… given a stern talking-to. I hate that. Why do they even bother to do it?

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Haha, this is funny: I just realized you linked to the article in question at the top of this post. Somehow when I opened this post in my reader, it started me off reading below that line, so I didn’t realize you had already linked to it!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. On some of its pages, Goodreads has added the following, most likely in response to that extortion scheme: “As part of our commitment to supporting our community of readers and authors, we are currently investigating a small number of bad actors who have attempted a reviews-based extortion scam against some authors on Goodreads. We do not tolerate this kind of behavior. If you have any information that might help us in our investigation, please contact us using our Contact Us form (https://www.goodreads.com/about/contact_us). Thank you for your help as we continue to protect the authenticity of our reviews and protect our community.”

      The thing about star ratings is they’re quick and easy, which seems to be a requirement for almost anything now. Removing them would probably help prevent such scams. It’s amazing how much we sacrifice to the evil god of convenience.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Audrey,

    Reviews are sufficiently rare for me not to worry too much about them, and I tend to take notice only of those written by fellow writers who have explained their reasons for liking or not, and in a way that indicates they’ve read the book, as you have been kind enough to do yourself. That article was an eye-opener though – I’d never heard of review bombing. I’ve had my stuff pirated and that just makes me laugh now, but bare-faced extortion reveals the Internet as still a bit of a wild-west saloon haunted by unspeakable and apparently untraceable crooks. I’m aware my books have been scraped up by Goodreads, and I did set up an account some time ago to have a go a book reviewing myself, but I rarely venture there these days.

    I think the star rating system, when it’s not being tampered with, needs to be read in conjunction with the number of ratings – if say a thousand (genuine) people give a book five stars or one, then it’s likely a fair assessment of its appeal. If it’s only a dozen people, then it’s obviously a less reliable indication. Maybe it would be better if we had to write a review before we could award stars, then we could see the reviewer’s reasoning. But I guess that’s too complicated.

    When choosing a book, I’m wary of ratings and reviews. A writing friend of mine says the reviews often tell us more about the reviewer than the book. And some of the authors I’ve enjoyed have scored badly on Amazon for the most obscure reasons. I think the old-fashioned methods are still the best – do your author research, and take note of recommendations from friends and others whose judgement you trust. Although we’re reaching the stage where we’re all having to rely on the internet for doing the most basic of things, it’s still obviously a very weird and shifty place, one that needs more urban grungy street-smart wits than I possess, anyway.

    Best regards

    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the internet does seem to reward the quick and dirty. Recommendations from trustworthy friends, and one’s own reader instincts are the most reliable methods for choosing one’s own reading. Another comment reminds us of Amazon’s Look Inside feature. Smashwords allows you to download a percentage of the book before buying. Using those might be better than ploughing through dubious reviews.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Michael.

      Like

  8. One screwy thing about ratings on Amazon is that in some cases, the reviewer isn’t even reviewing the book in question, but the service — e.g., complaining that the book didn’t arrive when it was supposed to, or that the condition of the book was not as described by the seller, or that they were sent the wrong book, etc. Then they give the book a one-star rating because they’re ticked off about the lousy service.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, that’s totally unfair. You’d think Amazon would refine its algorithms to pick up on those kinds of reviews and delete them, after taking note of the possibly legitimate complaints. The author of the book shouldn’t have to take the blame, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I do look at star ratings when purchasing a book from an author I don’t know, Audrey. I figure, in general, that books are over-rated, so I often turn to the “look inside.” I can tell pretty quickly if the writing is polished and the book is going to capture my attention. A great topic for discussion, and a tough one when it comes to solutions.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the reminder of the Look Inside feature, Diana. Smashwords lets a prospective reader download a portion of the text (if the author has decided to use that feature). That cuts out the dubious middleman of the reviews and ratings.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It would be nice if the ratings were more reliable, but reviewers are individuals. I’m always shocked that a book I loved might get two stars, or something I DNF’d got a bunch of fives. The look inside works for me almost every time.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. So, you talked about rating systems. What of ranking, and amazon’s sales ranking doesn’t count.

    Even a simple “better than / worse than” would be more helpful that a 3 star rating. They could even be genre focused.

    I thought this book was better than:
    _ Stephen King’s The Shining
    _ Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire
    _ Bram Stoker’s Dracula
    _ Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
    _ Peter Straub’s Ghost Story
    _ None of the above

    The book was better than:
    _ Dune
    _ The Left Hand of Darkness
    _ Stranger in a Strange Land
    _ Fahrenheit 451
    _ Ender’s Game
    _ None of the above

    One point for each check box.
    Total the points and THEN you’d have a useful “rating” number.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would require work on the part of someone, because it’s genre-specific. Referring to Berthold’s comment above, you wouldn’t compare The King in Yellow to the same books as you would Right Ho, Jeeves. And the person doing the comparisons would have to have read those other books.
      If quick and easy is a requirement (and it seems to be for just about anything), you have to live with less than perfect results. The old “Good, Fast, Cheap–pick two!” thing again.
      Now I’m thinking a post on the consequences of convenience might be in order.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Bottom line, all anonymous judgement is meaningless. The only opinions that matter are those of people you know and trust.

        (For a site like Goodreads (owned by Amazon? Whaaa?) it would take me 1/2 a day to code up something like the above that would be dynamic, genre driven, unique and way more useful — just sayin’.)

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Amazon may have started out selling books, but it’s clear that books are just another product. No difference between paper books and toilet paper.
          But now that I think about it, authors assign or select keywords for their Amazon books, so comparison titles could be automatically generated.
          On the other hand, I often smile at the recommendations offered up to me on Goodreads. Some of them are wildly out of whack. Because I read a book of essays on gardening, they suggest a cozy mystery that has nothing to do with horticulture.

          Liked by 1 person

  11. In this age of instant information, people opt for the simplicity of a number. Given the silly reasons that someone will give a low rating (e.g., I don’t like books in this genre, I’ve never liked the name Fred, it just didn’t do it for me, and I’m not a vegetarian), perhaps it’s time to chuck the numbers and leave the thoughts about the books. Of course, that would involve actual reading, so we know that will never fly.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. As a reader, I tend not to pay attention to the ‘star system’. I might read a few of the ‘middle of the batch’ reviews which are usually the ones where someone has posted a review with a bit of thought behind it, but like someone else commented, the ‘look inside’ option is what sells it for me.
    As a writer, gimme 5-star reviews across the board, pleeeease! 😀 … not really 🙂 that’s my fragile writerly soul squeaking … (after some thinks being thunked) I think that if my writing moved someone enough that they composed a thoughtful review that laid out their pro’s and con’s, then I would be fine with whatever they said … maybe after getting Mrs Widds to read it first and prepare me. We do have to take care of our souls, after all. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good points, Widds! I have to admit to being thrilled at multi-stars, and even more at reading a thoughtful review that shows someone read one of my books and “got” it, or at least enjoyed reading it.
      Maybe it’s easier to be a tough reviewer if you aren’t also a writer, since you wouldn’t have experienced a critical or downright mean review.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I actually knew a writer who displeased some influencer and suddenly her latest book received a rash of 1 star reviews. This was on Amazon, some years ago, so I’m not surprised it spread to Goodreads.

    I’m a bit conflicted about ratings. I buy a lot of ebooks, all Indie, and if the blurb interests me, I’ll look up and /read/ one of the 5 star reviews and one of the 1 or 2 star reviews. If the review is obviously malicious, I’ll ignore the rating, but if there is a well thought out, reasoned review as to /why/ the book has been given a low rating, I’ll move on.

    If doing away with ratings altogether is the only way to stop the abuse, then they should go. They’re just a form of shorthand anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. I think we have to acknowledge though, that readers come in all shapes and sizes. Some use the look inside feature, some don’t. Some actually read reviews, some simply want to know that readers like them enjoyed the story. And even if they’re wrong, I’m sure many people shrug off a few wasted dollars spent on an Indie ebook.
        I read so much I can’t afford to waste money if I can avoid it, so mostly I rely on recommendations from readers [and writers] I know and trust.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes! I forgot about time wasted. I have discovered Indie authors the hard way – i.e. taking a punt on a story and a writer – but I much prefer being introduced via a friend.:)

            Liked by 1 person

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