The star rating system is the most widely used of the rating systems applied to evaluating books. The ratings typically range from one star (this book sucked) to five (I want to marry this book and have its babies). In such a system the prospective readers’ eyes are drawn immediately to the stars, and some rough equivalency is likely made between this system and the letter-grade system in public schools of A – B – C – D – F.

Authors care deeply about these little stars, and with some good reason. It is not only a matter of validation (they like me—they really, really like me), but the ratings of your book will very likely influence decisions about whether a reader will buy that book. After all, as the reader scans pages of books in a genre they love and see two titles with cover blurbs that pique interest, but one has merely a handful of three-star ratings while the other boasts a galaxy of five-star ratings, which do you think they might be inclined to purchase? If the books are comparably priced and equally interesting, the star rating could be the determining factor in a buyer’s book purchase decision.

This system of evaluation is deeply flawed for many reasons. Anybody can post a rating. The literary critic for the New York Times carries no more weight in this system than the author’s mommy. On some sites, a rating and review can be posted by someone who did not even purchase the book. In some cases it is evident the reviewer did not even read the book. Ostensibly, the author could post numerous five-star ratings (and reviews) under cyber-pseudonyms. Sadly, this has actually occurred. This flaw also makes it possible for enemies or competitors of the author to tank the ratings of a book out of malice. This has also happened.

Inter-rater reliability is huge problem because all the raters use their own criteria to determine how good or bad the book is. Those criteria often vary widely. No standard metric is applied.

There is also an inconsistent application of the rating system, and this goes to both ends of the spectrum: some raters have a policy of not rating a book at all unless they feel they can give it at least three stars; and some raters have a policy of never-ever assigning five stars. Tough luck, Hemingway, et al.

You may say to yourself, “So what? Even if it is nothing more than a popularity contest, it’s no worse than the People’s Choice Awards, right?”

The problem with this system is that it encourages bad behavior. I know that I can bump my ratings and therefore my sales by doing or encouraging others to do things that are clearly unethical. I can post a bunch of fake five-star ratings for my own book, and if that doesn’t send it up the list far enough, I can post a bunch of fake one-star ratings of my competitors’ books.

I have not and never will do such a thing. That’s not the way I roll. On the other hand, that may be the reason I am still poor. That may be the reason my book languishes on the shelves (or the server). This is ultimately business after all, and business is war. Right? Well, screw that. The system is horribly perverted but we seem to be stuck with it.

My book has great ratings on Goodreads. I find it amusing that on Goodreads, an author is welcome to post a review of his/her own book. As far as I know, everyone has rated their own book five stars, and why not? I haven’t rated my own book there, but I am toying with the idea of giving it one star and posting a review that admonishes people not to buy it—that it is so horrible, it may destroy their will to ever read again. Why? I don’t know. I’m a five-star rebel.

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Stephen Hise is the Founder and Co-Administrator of Indies Unlimited and author of the novel, UPGRADE. For more information, please see the IU Bio page and his website:


Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

12 thoughts on “Stargazing”

  1. I don't agree with the folks who say to post only a 3-star review or better. What if people did that with home appliances? What if a toaster burned down your house? I'd be on the site warning the world that this toaster was bad news. If I adhered to the "3-star or better" rule, then I'd be letting unsuspecting consumers purchase something that might burn down their house.

    Granted, a book isn't going to burn down your house, but a bad one will burn your *ss if you waste your money and your time reading it. I base a lot of my purchasing decisions on posted reviews. I don't want to waste my time and money and I'm relying on the people who did to be honest. I can tell if someone's just being petty or vindictive in a review. But I want the opportunity to make that decision myself.

  2. Good for you, Stephen, to stick to your principles, but don't get too concerned with star system … or any other rating system … they are all inherently flawed, and abuses will always be present … but they aren't likely go away anytime soon … all honest authors can do is just keep writing.

    1. You are right that all we can do is keep writing Christopher. I do hope something better comes along. I do not know how buyers can have any confidence in such a flawed system, and while you are also correct in that all such rating systems will have flaws, surely we can do better than this.

      My hope is that prospective readers will also give weight to the written reviews and not be guided (or misguided)by the stars alone, but it is the stars that determine the book's rank on the page after all, isn't it?

  3. One man's MacDonalds is another's Fillet Mignon. I've read reviews that say – rubbish editing, not bad story, but can't give it any more than a star because of the editing. Some say for the same book – not bad story, folks, 4 stars, but beware, the editing is pants. Depends so much on the readers observation abilities. Some don't notice misplaced commas, or POV changes or plot inconsistencies (if the author doesn't notice them, there is no reason the reader should…..hmmm). Interestingly, the book I am reading has consistently 4/5 star ratings. Personally, the editing level is irritating me along with the raggedy flow. I have only just started it, but I wonder how I will rate it, if my irritation overwhelms my enjoyment!

  4. Cathy,

    I'm with you. Reviews are one person's opinion of what they've read. Its subjective, there subject to their thoughts of how they story should be told. The best we can do is keep on keeping on!

    Ralph L. McNeal, Sr.

    Author: "Sleeper Cell"

  5. My mom's 5-star rating should count ten times as much as anyone else's, because she's my worst critic!

    As a reader, I don't put much weight in the overall ratings. If I like the book description, I go straight to the written reviews, read a few that were highly rated and a few that were lowly rated and see what people had in common that they liked and that they didn't like and decide how that jibes with my own tastes. If a book is a solid 3 because people either loved it or hated it, then I think it struck a chord and is probably worth reading. But I am immediately skeptical of a slew of 5-star ratings with no accompanying written review.

    I work with data for a living, so the lack of common criteria for "I liked it" is problematic for me, to say the least.

  6. Hi Steve,

    I realized there were problems with the ratings/review system when I read and enjoyed a book and someone wrote a rather malicious review on Amazon about it. It was as if we hadn't read the same book. So I countered it with a good review because I was mad. GRRRR.

    I usually rely heavily on the blurb on the back of the book, and if I've heard it was good from friends. I agree that the reviews need to be short. There should be a limit on how many words. After all, it's not a dissertation.

  7. Stephen, I used to write for a music website and loved it, but some of the joy went out of it when they introduced number ratings along with the reviews. The thing about reviews, for me, is they are an expression of the impact a piece of art has on the reviewer; they are *not* (or shouldn't be) just a consumer guide.

    Unfortunately, with internet-fueled ADD (as someone who often makes decisions on movies based on whether they have been deemed Fresh or Rotten, I consider myself just as susceptible as the next person to the quick-look convenience of ratings systems), this isn't going away, and as you point out, the wonderful democratization Amazon has facilitated with their system has the considerable downside of being open to abuses by both readers and authors.

    No answers here, just letting you know you made me think, which is a minor miracle in itself. 😉

  8. Personally, while I do glance at the star ratings, I will not buy the book unless the review that goes along with that rating is literate and seems well considered. If the reviewer can't write I suspect they are also not qualified to critique.

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