One blog leads to another

I recently read a blog post from Kate Vane (@k8vane) about how, if you review books, worrying about star ratings messes with the way that you enjoy your reading.

I couldn’t agree more. Just knowing that you are going to have to write a review changes your whole approach to your reading, and not necessarily in a good way. And star ratings are the tool of the devil.

Why I review on my blog

I’ve already blogged about how I was planning to cut back on reviewing. Since I wrote that (just six weeks ago as I write this) I’ve done a couple of book reviews. They take time to write and are in addition to my regular blogs. So why on earth do I do it? In these two cases (and there are more on the way) I was asked to: not necessarily by the author. I get asked to review by authors, publishers and journals and I get books from NetGalley who expect a review in exchange for a regular supply of quality free books. And I like having my books reviewed, so it seems only fair to review books by other writers. Even so, I do often have my doubts. Then I get thanks from a reader who has enjoyed my review or from an author who is grateful for something I have said and then I seem to keep going.

So I write my review. My reviews are quite long and will probably mention things I felt didn’t quite work as well as the things that did. Some authors are less than thrilled at this approach, but the blog post is supposed to be a ‘proper’ review for critical readers. An edited (usually totally positive) version will make its way to Amazon in time. Which is where we meet the evil star system.

Star ratings

By the time it gets to Amazon, my 800 word nuanced blog post has already been reduced to 600 words or less explaining why it’s a good book. (If it isn’t a good book, I’ll generally try not to review it, though I’m happy to make an exception for people like Jacob Rees-Mogg.) But then my 600 words have to be reduced to one of five star ratings. It’s mad.

(The obvious answer is not to post on Amazon, but writers need those Amazon reviews to make sales, so in the end I’m going to post.)

What does it all mean?

Kate (Remember her? She wrote the blog that started this off) is one of those people who avoids 5* ratings.

I only give it 5* if it’s exceptional

A lot of my friends are like that, which is annoying if they are reviewing my books, because analysis of Amazon ratings shows that most people give 5* or (much less often) 1* ratings. Basically, they rate books as ‘Great’ (5*) or ‘Rubbish’ (1*). The middle rankings are less likely to feature.

There has been a lot of discussion on this on my Twitter feed so I’m adding this useful summary graph from (as posted by them on Quora)

But whether you tend to 4* or 5*, there really aren’t that many options for reviewers like me and Kate. Both of us avoid ratings under 3. She avoids 5 and I avoid 3 (we’ll see why in a moment), so basically both of us end up usually choosing between 3* and 4* (Kate) or 4* and 5* (me). Basically, for most books, my 800 word review has come down to a binary choice.

Interpreting the ratings

Kate gives an explanation of her ratings. 3* is ‘good but flawed’, 4* means she enjoyed it and 5*, as we’ve seen, is ‘exceptional’.

I’ve always been nervous to explain the ratings I give, but here they are:

5* — I recommend this book to anyone reading my review

4* — I think this book is a good read for anyone who likes this genre (“It’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing.”)

3* — It’s OK

2* — It’s not OK

1* — This book is a disaster.

The horror of the 3* rating

I have a friend who wrote a review of a book of mine, praising it to the skies and then giving it a 3* rating. When I pointed out that she had given it a negative review, she said that of course she hadn’t.

The thing is that if you are rating on Amazon, you are using the Amazon rating system and Amazon considers 3* a “critical” review. People are continually arguing with me about this, but Amazon are totally upfront about it. Click on ‘See all reviews’ for a book and this pops up:

Also remember that (as I said above) the commonest rating on Amazon is 5*. Most books will average somewhere around 4*. Giving them a 3* review will generally pull their rating down and, by and large, I don’t want to pull authors down. So I avoid 3* reviews. You may well feel differently, but just be aware what you are doing. A 3* review is not neutral.

Being nice – or not

This is the nub of the why I personally find the horror of the star rating hanging over me while I read.

I’m happy to say that I think a character is under-developed or that there are some unlikely coincidences holding a plot together. I know that I upset some writers by being critical, but I’m writing a review on my blog for people who are interested in writing. I doubt they will reject a book that I review (remember I generally only review books I like) because I said that I thought there was an unrealistic portrayal of women in the 19th century. It’s pretty well a given nowadays that 19th century women will be portrayed unrealistically: it’s only because I write about the 19th century myself that I either notice or care. But when the review gets onto Amazon people will reject a book because it has a 3* average rating. So what if I think that the portrayal of women as feisty lawyers is just too much to allow a 4* review? (I refused to review a book recently that centred on a woman planning a legal career before the law was changed to allow women lawyers in Britain.) If the book, apart from this one detail that hasn’t worried the publisher and won’t worry most readers, is quite a good read, do I post 3* or 4*? It’s clearly not really worth 4*, but most people aren’t going to be worried by its historical howler, so is it really just ’OK’ and getting the dreaded 3* rating? Or do I say it’s three and a bit and nudge up to four?

In the case of the book I mentioned, my decision was that, as it was likely 3* and I care about basic history, I would not read or review it at all. But there are other cases which are more marginal and there my rule of thumb is ‘always nudge up’. If the author is well-known with a big publisher behind them, then my rating doesn’t matter and I can unleash my inner critical Rottweiler, but self-published authors and writers at small presses rely on those Amazon ratings for their survival. Yes, if they are seriously bad books I will not rate them. If they deserve to be driven out of the writing community I will give them 2* or even 1*. But how many writers are so truly terrible that it is for me (or almost anyone else) to say that they just shouldn’t be writing? Because, as it gets harder and harder to get books seen in a crowded marketplace, a poor star rating can destroy any chance of serious sales. (And, in this context, ‘serious sales’ can mean hitting three figures.)

When I write a review, I can speak as I find. I have annoyed friends by being less than gushing about their work. But they have (mostly) forgiven me. But when I have to produce that wretched, meaningless, frankly obscene, Amazon star rating, I know that I can do real harm. Knowing that can suck some of the pleasure out of the book.

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