Wednesday 11 February 2015

Reviewing the Reviewing

(1) I hate it  |  (2) I don't like it  |  (3) It's ok  |  (4) I like it  |  (5) I love it

I've always felt that 5-stars are not enough to accurately rate a book or movie. Especially a book. More-especially, my book.

The 5-star rating system has pretty much been universally adopted across the internet. But the system, itself, affects the ratings, which means that it affects the entire publishing industry.

Twenty percent jumps between each star is a broad brush with which to outline the merits of one book versus another. If the book is simply not disappointing, then the rating must be above 50%. This leaves only 2.5 stars to distinguish a well written romance novel from a modern classic. Raters have little choice but to grant a well-crafted light-read the same rating as a proven classic.

On Amazon, people tend to give products either a 1 or a 5: Bad or good. There is no natural distribution of values over all the five stars. This indicates that this rating system really only distinguishes good from bad. As well, there is a built-in bias toward the "good" end of the scale, in part because that 3-star in the middle covers such a wide and critical range. In fact, most users rarely apply the 2- or  4-star ratings.

What this means to a writer is that the system is skewed so that if your product is good, it should get good ratings and if it lacks, it might still get good ratings. So don't get too cocky if your book gets 5-stars; it does not necessarily mean that you've written a timeless classic. Even with a 5-star rating across the board, if your phone rings, it's probably not Steven Spielberg. But answer it anyway. It might be your Mom.

Of course, we all know that those first 5-star book reviews are often less of an indication of an author's skills and talents than of how many friends and family members they have. Sometimes, it indicates a marketing campaign which includes reviews that have been purchased. This might serve some writers well, but ultimately, it serves none of us. If readers can not hope to find appropriate books through the rating system, then they will either ignore it or turn back to traditional publishers for the assurance of a professional product.

If you look up my book, The Space Between Thought, you will see only unsolicited reviews. The first is from a friend who insisted on reviewing the book because he felt so strongly about it. The rest are from strangers. Amassing reviews this way will be a slow process, but I hope that they will be accurate guideposts for prospective readers. It's part of a trust-building dialogue between myself and the readers. In the long-term, this process is sabotaged by inaccurately positive reviews just as surely as it would be by inaccurately negative ones.

One way to help make the system more accurate, and something that is often overlooked, is the ability to rate the reviews. On Amazon, for instance, you can answer "yes" or "no" to "was this review helpful." On Goodreads, you can LIKE the reviews that you feel are more accurate.

* Analytical and detailed article about the 5-star rating systems on various platforms. Amazon's ratings are discussed in detail, near the end of the article.
* A study of 1.2 million Amazon reviews:


  1. As one of those "strangers" who reviewed your book, I can tell you that I've felt a growing frustration with the 5-star system as well. I give either 4 or 5 stars to a book. If it doesn't rate "I liked it" or "I loved it", why would I spend time writing a review?

    There's more than one book that I loved, but that had problems with execution (usually OCR-style typos). That's the usual reason I award only 4 stars.

    I believe if a review doesn't spell out what the reader enjoyed (or disliked) about a book, but simply repeats in other words the star-rating phrase, it isn't worth the time to read, or the Author's worry about the opinions expressed.

    So, 5 stars on this post, William M. Dean! I enjoyed reading it! (grin)

    I hope others will take it to heart and Like or say "Yes, it was helpful" to my own reviews. Or not, as the reading moves them...

    1. Thanks for your comments, Pat. I'm pretty much over worrying about the accuracy of the review system, now that I've gotten it out of my system. But I agree with you that the text content of those reviews is extremely important. I almost always find something I liked about a book, and so even if I hated it, I might take some time to point out what another person might like. But most reviews are simply rehashing plot details + "I enjoyed it." Of what use is that to the next reader? None. I recently read Kirkus reviews for the first time and I extend this criticism to those, as well.