Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Rating system for books

By Jenny Hilborne
Author of mysteries and thrillers

Reviews are a hot topic. Another hotly debated item right now on many social media forums is the Amazon rating system and its usefulness for both readers and authors. I just wanted to share some thoughts and throw out a few questions on the subject:

When you're looking for a good book to read, you might go by recommendation (my preference) or by the overall ranking of a book. For the higher ranked books (those in the top 100), the star rating might not matter or even factor into your buying decision (it rarely factors into mine). After all, each rating is only one person's opinion. Lots of excellent books have a slew of low star ratings, which kind of skews the whole system if a star rating is designed to give readers an insight into a book's popularity.

The system is open to and ripe with abuse. We all know that "trolls" and "haters" exist who slate good books and drag ratings down with their bogus 1 and 2 star ratings. And the bogus 5 star ratings exist as well. We can also vote down or vote up star ratings by agreeing or disagreeing with what another "reviewer" says about a book. This also leaves the system open to abuse from those gaming the system. Nuff said on vitriolic ways in which the system can be used.

Properly crafted and genuine reviews often take a long time to write, which may be the reason so many readers don't write them. A genuine star rating is fast, takes only a second, and gives a snapshot of the popularity of the book. But it seems a pretty pointless exercise without a review to back it up and tell others what the reader did or did not like about the book. Doesn't it? How useful is a star rating without an explanation of why it got that rating (especially when rated 1 or 2 stars)?

Reviews are helpful to readers and authors. Would you (as readers) prefer to leave reviews and no star rating? And do stars aid at all in your buying decisions? Should Amazon reduce or remove the 20 word minimum for reviews, leaving readers free to write shorter critiques? If you could leave a star rating without a review, would you do so?

What about authors? Which would you prefer to see for your books? Do we need both?

For those opposed to the star rating, what would you have in its place?


  1. Goodreads allows people to rate a book without explanation. As a writer, I don't find that system particularly helpful.

    Any system that's accessible to people is accessible to being gamed. I don't see how you can stop that from happening. What's important for all of us to learn (and I think we have) is how to spot the charlatan reviews.

  2. To me, ratings without explanations make it too easy for people to not think very hard about what they're recommending or not recommending.

    I'm not sure, though, that reviews without ratings would be very helpful either and probably not very popular. You'd have to read through all of the reviews and try to figure out what the consensus is...very time-consuming.

  3. I agree with your comments, Judith. I see a lot of ratings without reviews on Goodreads, which I guess is more acceptable as they are not a retailer. However, it's not helpful. I don't think there is a perfect system. As Peg says, we have to just learn to spot (and ignore) the charlatans.

  4. This sure is a hot topic, Jenny! Thanks for bringing it up. I don't see any obvious solutions or better ways of doing it... I do prefer the combination of a star rating and a written review to back it up, not just one or the other.

  5. As one who has to leave with the "forget the critique, what's my grade" syndrome - ah, learning at its best! - I really don't like the star-review system. Let me qualify that - if it comes from a reputable critic, then it's a short hand for a valid and valued review. (I think of Roger Ebert in this regard, or Anthony Boucher in F&SF or the reviewers in the genre magazines in general.) I generally look at reviews first, stars second - unless the numbers are truly overwhelming. This ain't YouTube!

    When it comes to criticism, though (and reviews are just a critique), I always go back to Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism. I offer here a few lines from one of my favorite poems:

    'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
    Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
    But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
    To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
    Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
    Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;

    Some have at first for Wits, then Poets past,
    Turn'd Criticks next, and prov'd plain Fools at last;
    Some neither can for Wits nor Criticks pass,
    As heavy Mules are neither Horse or Ass.

  6. As a writer, I like it when readers explain why they felt the way they did when rating a book. As a reader, that explanation also helps me to decide if I have different reasons for liking a book than the reviewer. For me, both ways, star ratings without some sort of explanation aren't really worth much and are too easy to mess with.


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