Authors and readers look at reviews differently

reviewChris had an excellent post recently about an author wanting to sue over a one-star review. A few days ago I discovered I had some ratings on my books on Goodreads. Both these events got me to thinking.

The ratings on my books are okay. I have a 4-star, a few 3-stars and a 2-star. My initial impulse was to be disappointed, but then I reconsidered. I pulled up the books I’ve reviewed on Goodreads and found what I had expected. I give very few 5-star reviews. The books I give them to have either touched me deeply in some way, stood out as being exceptional or, as in the case of books like The Lord of the Rings, are books I’ve read over and over again.

Then I took an honest assessment of my own books. I like them, obviously, or I wouldn’t continue to write them. However, if they had been written by someone else, would I have given them 5 stars? Probably not. 4 stars? Yes. I’m my own target market, and they are the types of books I like to read, so yes, I’d probably give them 4 stars, although even I might only rate my first one at 3.5.

So what conclusions (if any), can we draw from this? Readers and writers have different views on reviews. Authors want the 5-star reviews because it’s good for marketing, and, let’s face it, they feed the ego. Readers, however, assuming many of them are like me, are often more sparing with their ratings. I give a fair number of 3 star reviews for books I enjoyed and for books by authors I intend to read again. Why a 3 star? Because it was a good book but not exceptional. Take, for example the Richard Bolitho series by Alexander Kent. I’m making my way through the entire series on Scribd. I enjoy the sea battles and political maneuvering. I don’t enjoy Bolitho’s series of bad decisions of the heart. When a book has lots of good battles and no Bolitho thinking with his little head, I give the book 4 stars. When too much time is spent on the latest failed relationship, I knock the rating down to 3. However, I absolutely intend to finish the series and have read 17 of them so far.

There’s another factor. I did some research on the reader who gave me a 2 star rating. I looked at the other books she’s read and reviewed. What I discovered is that she’s not my target audience. (It looks like she wants more relationship/romance and less action. My books are the opposite.) I’m glad she bought the book and gave it a try. I’m not surprised that she didn’t find it to her tastes. That’s okay. Her rating (I hope) reflects more a difference in reading preferences than on the quality of my book. Assuming I’m correct, I wish she’d left a review so someone who is my target audience would have more information on which to base a decision, but hey, no one owes me a review. Just like no one owes me a purchase.

Where I’m going with this is that I think we need a new system. Do I think we’re going to get one? No, but I see services like Book Bub, which require a certain number of reviews and a certain numerical average, as feeding the skew on the system. Honestly, when I see wording like “over 100 5-star reviews” in marketing material, I get suspicious and wonder how many of those are real. As I watch ratings on Goodreads, the books I enjoy tend to average around 3.5 stars. Books with much higher ratings (and certainly anything over 4.5) tend not to be ones I enjoy.

So thoughts. Are you like me and are sparing with your stars, or does a 5-star review mean something different to you?

Image credit: Estoy Aqui under a Creative Commons License

11 Comments on Authors and readers look at reviews differently

  1. Joanna Cabot // April 28, 2014 at 1:52 pm //

    Five for me is a standout book thag I would never forget. I am definitely stingy with them. I also read in a lot of genres though, so for me there is nothing wrong with a three—it may not have been timeless and eternal, but maybe I was not looking for that. Maybe I just wanted a couple hours of fun, light entertainment. Three means it was good enough to read and finish…

  2. Interesting. I give a lot of five-star reviews. To me, three stars means the book wasn’t worth reading. Even four stars can put me off if I’m not familiar with the author. Life is short. Who has time to read books that people don’t love?

    Just my two cents.

    :)

  3. I am unlikely to give 5 star reviews unless a book really deserves it. Not many books can get me so intertwined with the plot, characters, and setting that I give them 5 stars.
    For me 1 and 2 stars mean it wasn’t worth reading. 3 is okay. with 4 and 5 meaning I’d read the next in the series and it blew my mind, respectively.

  4. The problem is that a 5-star rating doesn’t give enough of a rating resolution. A 10-star rating would be much better, A 7-star rating is much more accurate then a 3-star rating.

    Also, Goodreads has a major problem that they REFUSE to fix with their ratings. When a book is listed on GR, it’s allowed to be rated even before it’s released and even read. So when real ratings start to come out, they get lost in a sea of fake ratings. So the problem is how many books on GR have accurate ratings? I cannot say. Neither can the staff who don’t care about accurate ratings. They just care to feed the trolls more then cater to concerned readers.

  5. 5 stars- Loved it, expect it to stay in my mind forever and I want to recommend to the everyone I know.

    4 stars- Liked it and I want to recommend to everyone I know that likes the whatever genre.

    3 stars- Passing grade, nothing I’m terribly excited about but it was a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

    2 stars- I had some problems with it. Likely the author would go on my do not buy again list.

    1 star- Anything I can’t finish.

  6. How about this scale?

    5-stars – Outstanding
    4-stars – Above Average
    3-stars – Average
    2-stars – Below Average
    1-star – Poor

  7. For me as an avid reader:

    5 stars – I’ll re-read within a month, will go buy all other books by that author
    4 stars – I’ll re-read within 6 months, will go buy all the books by that author with plot lines that interest me, then if they are good maybe the rest too.
    3 stars – I’ll re-read within 1-3 years, will buy a couple more by author to see if I like them too
    2 stars – I didn’t hate it entirely but probably won’t ever re-read it, probably won’t buy any more by author
    1 star – I rarely rate this low it makes me feel mean, if it’s that bad I won’t rate it unless it actually makes me angry. Will actively avoid reading more books by that author.

    There should really be a 10 star rating system.

  8. As a reader, even if I get just one idea from the book, or read one great quotation that I haven’t read before, I will give the book a 4-star or 5-star review. I know how much work it is to write a book, even if it isn’t close to being the best book I have ever read.

    As a writer, these quotations resonate with me big time.

    “Pay no attention to the criticism of people who have never themselves written a notable work.”
    — Ezra Pound

    “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain … and most fools do.”
    — Dale Carnegie

    “A non-doer is very often a critic — that is, someone who sits back and watches doers, and then waxes philosophically about how the doers are doing. It’s easy to be a critic, but being a doer requires effort, risk, and change.”
    — Dr. Wayne Dyer

    “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
    — Albert Einstein

    “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
    — Mark Twain

    “Did you know that highly-spirited successful souls are thankful for the critics, the faultfinders, and the nit-pickers of this world for constantly trying to put them down? This gives these highly spirited souls the inspiration to learn how to fly above the crowd, to soar even higher with their dreams, to make an even bigger contribution to this world, and to be rewarded even more handsomely with the finer things of life that the Universe has to offer.”
    — from “Life’s Secret Handbook”

    Back to writing two books that I know will get a lot of 5-star reviews once I publish them. Of course, regardless of how good the books are, there will be several negative reviews.

    One last note. Yes I get my share of 1-star and 2-star reviews. So what? I experience significant inner contentment and completion when I read all the positive emails, phone calls, and letters that I get from readers who state that my books have made a significant difference in their lives. What’s more, people regularly approach me in airports and shopping malls and say things like, “Your book changed my life for the better so many years ago.” Although the significant profits that I make from my books sustain me in living prosperous and free, the personal expressions of gratitude from these adventurous souls are what sustain me in knowing that I am on purpose and making a big difference in this world.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    The Prosperity Guy
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 200,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  9. Good comments. Looks like many of you view reviews much like I do with 5-stars being something exceptional.

    I really like the 10-star system idea. It does give more room to make gradients. Perhaps someone will implement it. Amazon, are you listening? :)

  10. MarylandBill // April 29, 2014 at 4:27 pm //

    Based off of the fact that on Amazon 3-5 star reviews tend to all boil down to “I basically enjoyed the book” (based off of reading the reviews), here is how I generally approach book reviews when I am looking at reviews.

    1. I look at the most helpful critical reviews first (i.e., 3 stars or less). If those reviews actually are helpful, then I will probably base my decision on whether to read or not based on those.

    2. I then look at the most helpful favorable reviews.

    When I am giving reviews, I these days tend to rate higher than I think is necessarily fair. Way too many mediocre books have a vast majority of 5 star reviews while better books (imho) have a lower average rating. So I give 5 star reviews to most books I consider worth reading unless a book needs heavy editing in which case it generally gets 3 stars and a write up. 1 and 2 star reviews tend to get reserved for books that I find offensive (most likely to be books claiming to be factual, but which are obviously full of false information (as and example, though a TV series, I would rate the current version of cosmos as 2 stars for its fast and loose and often misleading approach to history).

  11. Since I began publishing my own work, I find I never write less than a 3-star review. If it would be less than that, I just don’t post a review. For my own books, I don’t obsess over the number of stars, because I know taste is totally subjective, but it does irk me if someone posts a negative review without giving a reason beyond “I didn’t like it.” I think generally, the most helpful reviews are those that say what you liked and what you didn’t like. Interestingly, the thing one reader cites as his favorite might well be the thing the next reviewer hated. So there. I find reading the beginning of the book more useful than most reviews, in any event.

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