Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Problem with Book Ratings

Maybe this has happened to you. Let's say you're on Amazon. You're looking at two books, and you CANNOT DECIDE which one to buy. You are miserable; you're losing sleep. You can't eat. All your fingernails are gone. I might be exaggerating slightly for comedic effect. But the upshot is, you've got to make this choice, and you've read good reviews for both. Finally, you turn to the star rating. One book has 4.25 stars. The other has 3.9. DONE. You buy the one that is better.

If you're a writer, maybe this has happened to you. You watch your book go up on Amazon, Goodreads, and every other site with a rating and review system. You cross all your crossables and hope it'll be okay. The reviews start to come in. They're sometimes ecstatic and sometimes NOT ecstatic, and that's okay too. A very small number are completely impossible, like the ratings that come before the ARCs are released, when you know for a fact who has read it and who hasn't.

Slowly, your rating starts to drop. When you think about it, you realize it's only to be expected. Your early readers were handpicked by you or by your publisher. They might even know you. They will be, for a variety of reasons, disposed to like this book. And their enthusiasm attracts people. Yay enthusiasm! But then you throw in a couple of one star reviews from people before the ARCs even come out, and then another two starrer from someone who gets most of the facts wrong and might have read a completely different book with your book jacket on it by mistake. The book's rating tanks.

Now you're panicked. People might not buy your book because of this rating! AUGH!

My advice? Chill out.

I think it's pretty obvious that I am a huge fan of book blogging. I do more interviews and things than are probably good for me, but that's because I can't fathom saying no to someone who's interested in spreading the word about my book. That's not a dig against people who don't do interviews and guest posts--I just happen to enjoy talking about myself and not everyone is crazy like that. And I'm down with star ratings on those book blogs. It's obvious when a heckload of work goes into determining how to fairly rate a book, and I find that crazy impressive.

I don't usually comment on the blogs themselves, because that seems very suck-uppery, but THANK YOU, BOOK BLOGGERS. I DON'T KNOW HOW YOU DO IT, BUT I'M GLAD YOU DO.

So my rating complaints aren't a dig at book bloggers, because quite frankly, I think I'm more of a fan of you than you are of me! My issue is with sites in which these ratings are compiled. The two that I have the most experience with are Amazon and Goodreads, so I'm going to mention them specifically, but that doesn't mean they're the only places that have these issues.

Here's my problem--A good average needs a lot of things. First, you've got to have a clear understanding of what each rating means, and everyone has to rate things the same way. But the unfortunate reality is that to me, a 5 might mean I liked it and would read it again. But another blogger might give out 5s only to life-changing books, maybe once or twice a year. So if you average our scores together, what does that tell you about how much we liked the book? Not a whole lot. If it's a book that we both enjoyed, I might give it a 5, and the other blogger might give it a 3, but we're trying to communicate the same information--I enjoyed this. It wasn't necessarily one of my favorite books ever, but I liked it. You can see how this could get really complicated when you factor in thousands of reviewers, even if you assume that they're all following the rules by reading the book. And a small percentage aren't.

So ultimately, there's no way to say what that average rating really MEANS. What happens if my book is rated by a lot of people who give out 5s, and one of my friends' books is rated by a bunch of reviewers who don't give them out very often? Now mine looks better, but if we traded reviewers, would the picture change? There's no way to know.

For me, that's the most difficult part of sites like Goodreads. I think there are a lot of great reviewers on there. I've discovered a lot of great books based on recommendations from reviewers I trust. But when you take a bunch of numbers based on different criteria and create an average, it doesn't tell you much that's useful. And that's not even going into issues like sampling--where the people most likely to comment are the ones who REALLY LOVED or REALLY HATED something, and not everyone who read the book. Or maybe there's a book about yeti goatherders, and a society of yeti goatherders read it, and they loved it. Yes, it gets 5 stars among the yeti goatherder population, but does that mean non-yeti goatherders will get all the inside jokes? Not necessarily.

Does this mean that I think places like Goodreads are useless? Heck no! I'm all for places where people can talk about books. But I think a lot of people get hung up on those stars--Why did she give me three stars but only said good things about my book? or Why is my rating taking a long, slow nosedive? I'LL NEVER SELL ANOTHER BOOK AGAIN! And what I say is that you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and realize that those numbers mean different things to different people. And the next time you're interested in learning more about the book, look past that average, because ultimately, it's influenced by so much more than the quality of the writing.

That's what I think, anyway. What's your take on it?


Yani {AvidReader} said...

I completely agree that the way people rate is very different. Like with the 3 out of 5 thing to a book you like but wasn't your favorite.
I myself struggle with how to rate things and for the most part I vote overall based on my connection with the book and then do other ratings for writing and plot and characters because I think that's totally different than how someone feels overall reading the book.

When I am searching for a book to buy and can't decide which one, I usually look at the negative reviews and look and see why someone didn't like it, if most of the negative reviews are because of something stupid, even if that book has a lower 'rating' I probably will pick it up still.

Really interesting post, all very true, I have been debated whether to get rid of ratings on my blog but decided not to only for the purpose of my readers, if we share similar tastes they can use my ratings to find a book they will enjoy.

Carrie Harris said...

Yani, thanks for commenting! And I've absolutely used reviews on a personal blog for exactly that! Especially since I can look at the rating system and understand what it means to you. You're consistent and it's easy to see where you're coming from. I think that's a great service.

*salaams* *applauds* *throws glitter*

And I think your negative review system's a good one too. For a while, I tried reading the 3 stars in the hopes that I'd get some idea of both the positives and the negatives, but the spoilers kill me!!! Not so much on book blogs, but I think that Goodreads has a spoiler fairy infestation or something. Have you ever run into that?

Anonymous said...

Love this post. I think I am guilty of giving a lot of books 5's. I can't help it. When I can't put the book down, I LOVE it and it gets 5 stars.

I try not to read other people's reviews too much though, especially on books that I am looking forward to reading, I know that is terrible, but I feel like my reading will be swayed by what was said. I have had a few books that were raved on about and I still didn't really dig them.

I try to be honest as possible with my ratings. My as I say in all of my reviews, it's just MY opinion, everyone has different taste.

And I think what Yani wrote about getting rid of the ratings is a great idea. I think just posting what you thought of the book and not rating it would help with the judgement on the readers that are actually interested in reading the book.

Sheesh, I hope all that made sense. LOL I'm babbling again. LOL

Carrie Harris said...

It makes sense to me, Terra Mae! I don't give out ratings, because it seems a little shoddy to me given that I'd be judging my colleagues. It would be kind of like letting all the ice skaters judge each other in competition, you know what I mean? But if I did, I'd give out a lot of fives. To me, a five means, "I'd like to have it on my bookshelf, and I'd gladly read it again!" Some of those books are so perfect that it makes me want to hide my head and cry because I'll never be that good, and some of them have faults, but I just enjoyed the ride so much! So I know what you mean about being a frequent fiver!

Kelly Jensen said...

And me, I am a harsh star giver-outer, but it doesn't mean my review won't talk about why the book was so good.

My philosophy is different than most people's, too, which is part of what you're getting at in the rating. I write the reviews for other readers; I give the stars for myself. So a 3-star book for me is still a REALLY GOOD BOOK, but it's not a 5-star book, which for me is a book that I GO TO when recommending books to someone who has no idea where to begin.

I don't rate on Amazon, though.

It's a tough thing, Carrie, it really is. I purposefully only rate on GoodReads, but I know there that people take those ratings in different ways.

There's more I want to say but don't want to in a public forum. :)

Red Boot Pearl said...

Ratings are so subjective. It kind of parallels the whole grading system, which as a teacher I realized how messed up the whole thing was... some teachers give lots of A's others are super stingy--it totally depends on who is grading you and what they think that grade means.

Yani {AvidReader} said...

Carrie I agree that goodreads reviews have too many spoiler sometimes. People need to learn to click the 'review contains spoilers button' lol... but I can understand why too, for me the hardest part of writing the review is not giving away anything.

I also see according to my stats that some people specifically search for spoilers and end up in my blog (don't know why), I think goodreads will be a better answer to those questions =)

Overall I think what people need to take away from this post most is that the rating doesn't define the book and everyone should pay attention to the content of the review. Ratings should be used more as enticement, like it has a good rating let me see what they actually said about the book.

Beth said...

This is a great post, and very fair. I think you covered the complexities of reviews well. I loved doing book reviews. It spreads the words about new books and promotes them. But I always did honest reviews, so if I didn't like a book I would say that. After hearing an agent say they wouldn't rep someone who didn't like their client's books, I've all but stopped reviewing. But I really like that you acknowledge the amount of work goes into a fair review. When I don't like something, I still try to point out it strengths, and when I love something I usually have to say I loved it but it had these problems.

Anonymous said...

I like this post and your right in a lot of ways I think I may make a rebuttal post to this and add some stuff

Anonymous said...

Not with books as much, but at least with products, I tend to, like Yani, look at WHY the low rating givers rated it as they did.

Having never been an author, I can only imagine how even random strangers giving someone's work a poor rating can tug and twist their emotions. That said, I would hope that most (good) authors don't do what they do to get 5 star ratings.

Regina said...

I really don't pay much attention to the rating and read what the book is about and if it is what I am looking for then I will check around on the book blogs and read some reviews. Mostly I will pick up the book and give it my own rating or review.

My tastes are not always the same as everyone else's.