five-star rating system

It’s the Reading Experience, Silly!

I can’t seem to shake off the subject of book reviews and ratings, maybe because I deal with it every time I finish reading a book. After my latest thoughts on what I called a “murky business,” I had a light bulb moment.

It’s not the book I’m rating, it’s my experience of reading the book.

That’s why a reader can give the same number of stars to Homer’s Iliad and a cozy mystery. That’s why one reader gives a literary award-winner five stars, while another honestly believes it deserves only one.

Every reader brings different preferences, moods, and expectations to their interactions with books. These of necessity influence their reading experiences — and their ratings.

The comments that go with the rating should explain it, perhaps citing typos and errors, pretentiousness, flat characters, or failure to engage. Or maybe a gripping plot, poetic prose, or characters so real they almost step off the page.

Those of you to whom all this is blindingly obvious may stop laughing now (but do leave a comment).

Images from Pixabay

Book Reviewing: a Murky Business

Continuing the theme of reading I started a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit the topic of book reviews. They are so important to writers, both for book sales and validation. These thoughts were prompted by other bloggers’ opinions about and experiences with reviewing books. While readers’ comments on books may seem essentially genteel and harmless, book reviews can stir up some visceral emotions. For a couple of examples, just Google “the greek seaman” or “author stalks reviewer.”

Hoping that “if you give, you get” applies to book reviews, I resolved some time ago to write a sincere, thoughtful review of every indie book I read. I would post the reviews on Goodreads, and also on Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I acquired the book.

I’ve found it’s easier to make this resolution than keep it. Reviews are best written right after finishing a book, but if I’m tired or distracted I don’t do it. Then I start reading something else; days go by, weeks go by and the review is unwritten. Even for books I really liked, that deserve a favourable review. Sometimes those reviews are never written.

Then there’s the DNF book, the one I give up on because it’s poorly written or just doesn’t interest me. My policy is not to review books I haven’t read from start to finish. It’s not always the book’s fault.

That brings us to the star ratings that accompany reviews. So far, I’ve written no one- or two-star reviews. Many think they are unnecessarily harsh and punitive and should be avoided. That leaves only 3, 4, or 5 stars, otherwise known as OK, Good, or Excellent. That’s a pretty narrow range.

I reserve five stars for books I love so much I think it’s likely I’ll read them again. If I want to buy myself a copy, especially a print one, after reading a book from the library or an ebook, that’s definitely a 5-star.

I give 4 stars to books that are reasonably well-written and interesting but fall just short of great because of what I call lumpy writing — awkward sentences and scene transitions or too many typos. Or, for some intangible reason, I just don’t think it’s a great book (subjectivity strikes again).

Three stars are for books I make myself finish only because I’ve committed myself to reading them, constantly checking the number of pages remaining. (Thinking back to comments on a recent post about reading, I might call these “life is too short” books and give up on them. Which means no review.) Three stars also go to books that aren’t bad but pretty much disappear from my conscious mind right after I read the last word. In other words, “Meh.”

And then there’s the question of whether it’s even possible to boil our thoughts about books down to a number. That’s why an actual review is helpful; it’s a place to explain the rating.

Something else that bothers me is too many of the “reviews” I write are just off-the-cuff remarks with little or no structure or planning. I think that’s how most readers write their reviews, although I sometimes see long, detailed, and serious reviews that make me think I ought to do a better job with mine. Which reminds me — a plot summary is not a review. The “blurb” or book description already provides as much of that as the reader needs and you want to avoid spoilers. So just say what you like or dislike about the book.

The hardest review to write is the less-than-enthusiastic one for a book whose author I’m acquainted with, if only through blogging. It’s like telling a friend their book is less than great. I consider some of those bloggers to be friends; the only difference is I don’t have to look them in the eye while delivering the bad news. Depending on the personalities and relationships involved, the best approach might be to send a private email rather than post a public review/rating.

What might happen if no one wrote negative reviews or never tagged books with one or two stars? Three stars might become the default “bad” rating. Come to think of it, some authors get upset at those already. And if the only reviews were positive ones, what would that say about books with no reviews? Some potential readers might dismiss them as no good, while the truth may be that those books were never read by anyone, or their readers were too lazy or preoccupied to bother posting reviews. Innocent books condemned without due process!

Maybe the “positive reviews only” practice is just a cop-out. It’s much easier to say nice things than critical ones. While it is possible to write a thoughtful, helpful, critical review, it does take more work than a positive one. If a reader is too busy/tired/distracted to write a even a positive review, they certainly aren’t going to attempt a negative but helpful one.

The best reviews, in my opinion, are nuanced. Positive but not wildly enthusiastic. Critical but not unqualified condemnations. I’ve actually been motivated to seek out and read certain books because critical reviews of them intrigued me.

Like so many other aspects of writing, book reviewing is complicated and there’s no easy formula. Nevertheless, knowing how important reviews are to authors, I will continue to write and post them.

Your turn, bloggers — what are your thoughts on reviews and ratings?

Image by olekowy from Pixabay

The Ratings Game

Now that I’ve rated quite a few books on Goodreads, Amazon and Smashwords, I’ve decided I don’t like the five-star system. It’s too limited, at least the way I use it.

I give five stars only to books I believe to be exceptional. One star is reserved for really abysmal books; I haven’t as yet given this rating to any book and would have to think long and hard before doing so. Three stars are for books I deem to be okay but not great (not always for the same reasons, of course) and two stars are for books with a good idea behind them but poor execution. I give four stars to books I think are well-written and interesting,

I would be happier with a 7, 8 or 10 star system — strange, because I consider myself to be a lumper rather than a splitter in most ways. When it comes to books, though, I see nuances and approximations. There have been occasions when I really wished I could give 3.5 or 4.5 stars; in such cases I struggle with whether to go with the lower or higher rating and often end up feeling bad about my choice.

The main problem with the star system is that it’s purely subjective, unfortunate when it’s perceived to have so much effect on book sales. My five-star book may be someone else’s two-star, with the reasons behind those ratings emotionally-based and ultimately indefensible by rational means. That’s why I don’t base my book acquisition decisions entirely on the star system or even on readers’ reviews although I do pay attention to them. I mostly ignore reader’s comments associated with five-star ratings and find that single stars often accompany complaints about a book’s formatting or other issues that have nothing to do with the writing. Four-, three- and two-star ratings tend to have the most interesting  and thoughtful reviews.

Some say that “customer” reviews can’t be trusted because they are supplied by the writer’s friends and family (if wildly positive) or (if negative) attempts by rival writers to “game” the ratings system. That may be so in some cases, and is yet another reason to distrust ones and fives.

Finally, I recognize that what people call “reviews” on Amazon or book-related social media sites are not reviews in the traditional sense. Rather, they are comments or opinions that range from ignorant to sophisticated. With all their faults, they do give a prospective reader or purchaser some idea of what a book is like.

I do wish there were more stars to play with.

Well, back to reading The Zombie Autopsies by Steven C. Schlozman, MD. No doubt I’ll be rating it and commenting on Goodreads once I’m finished. Right now I’ll just say that I don’t recommend reading it during meals. Along with a lot of queasiness-inducing stuff, it has pictures.