My God, It’s Full Of Stars!

This week, I’m going to be a little more serious than usual. No idea why. I just am. And I want to talk about star ratings. No, I don’t want to discuss the relative merits of Justin Bieber or Katy Perry, fascinating as that might be; I’m talking about the graded star method many websites use to rate various products, but specifically as it pertains to indie authors, that aspect of the review system used by the mighty Amazon.

Sometimes feeling like I’ve accidentally wandered into a cosmologist convention, I keep hearing my fellow writers discussing star systems, conversations that range from the alleged importance of 5-Star ratings to dire warnings of the career damage caused by 1-Star ratings. There are even dark tales of jealous authors deliberately dropping a single star on the book pages of their competitors… a frankly bizarre behaviour, if true, since my admittedly collectivist-hippie-skewed moral compass informs me we’re less competitors than we are colleagues. My favourite star-related content is our own M. Edward McNally’s regular inclusion of 1-Star customer ratings for classic novels. The ratings, along with their concomitant cluelessness, are hilarious.

But let’s back up for a moment… as the actress said to the… oh, wait. No. Serious, remember? When I started writing music reviews for PopMatters, a large and very eclectic online pop culture magazine, unlike other similar outlets at the time, we didn’t do number ratings. I liked that. We were encouraged to really delve into the guts of whatever we were reviewing, blending journalistic facts with a more personal exploration of the music. I don’t regret my time writing for them one little bit. At the time, I was reading the thoughts of other music writers, many of whom debated the purpose of reviews: some arguing they were basically consumer guides and others championing the so-called “think piece” aspects of the form, and everything in between. If you’re interested, Robert Christgau is a great proponent and practitioner of the former (he literally names his reviews dating back to 1969 “Consumer Guides”), while the latter would probably be best personified by the late Lester Bangs (if you haven’t read him, do so, he’s great).

Now, I won’t claim I stopped writing for the site on any regular basis solely due to their introduction of number ratings, but I’m sure it was a factor when I decided to move on. They honestly felt arbitrary. Was my job to grade or rate, or was it to explore? Some might say both, and I’ve some sympathy with that position, but regardless, my own emphasis was very much on the latter. Why did it matter what number I assigned? Surely, the exploration of my reactions to the music, maybe some insight into the music’s roots or influences, comparisons with similar artists, were more valuable than a numerical rating… otherwise, why bother with the written review at all? I’ve never subscribed to the view, incidentally, that sees critics as failed artists, as something parasitic or even malicious. Oh, sure, some of them can be—music writing in particular can often be damn near toxic with snark—but at its best, the great review is complementary to the art it describes or eulogizes. It can and ought to be a symbiotic relationship.

So Amazon is in the business of selling books. They know the consumer likes to see a product quantified, so star ratings make sense for them. But for me—and I know I’m not completely alone in this—I want to hear about someone’s emotional engagement with a work. I want to know how it made them feel, what other things it reminded them of, whether plot- or character-driven, whether the language was robust or fragile, pretty or brutal. The last thing I really care about is some fairly arbitrary star ratings. Because they are arbitrary. I’ve heard writers complain about a 3-Star rating they just had, which suggests they think it means the book is considered mediocre. For what it’s worth, if forced at gunpoint to care, I’d make a comparison to the movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, whereby a 60% rating is considered Fresh (as opposed to Rotten). Now, my math skills are as rudimentary as the reasoning abilities of a recently-defenstrated pygmy hedgehog, but even I can work out that 3 Stars is… uh … 60%. Right?

All of which is my roundabout way of saying: don’t sweat the numbers, read the reviews themselves—at their best, they’re far more crucial to an understanding of whether you will enjoy a work or not. And my fellow indie authors, unless you strongly suspect malice (and Amazon will remove reviews that are demonstrably vindictive or spiteful), try to ignore the numerical aspect of the review and really get to grips with the words themselves. They’re our stock-in-trade, after all, or we’d all be accountants instead. And, yeah, probably richer.

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David Antrobus is a contributing writer for Indies Unlimited and author of the nonfiction book Dissolute Kinship: A 9/11 Road Trip. For more information, please visit the IU Bio page, and his website: The Migrant Type. He also occasionally adds his stuff to the website BlergPop.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

27 thoughts on “My God, It’s Full Of Stars!”

      1. To the point of star ratings meaning different things for different people, this is a review I occasionally cite, in its entirety:

        "I haven't read any work from the author, so this is my first. It is an enjoyable read and I love the fact the female lead is strong character unlike most of the book which I've read which are typically weak. Overall is a good read."

        2 stars.

        1. Ha, it kind of meanders between a possible 2- to 4-star range! I love it. Maybe some reviews should be broken down into, say, 2-stars for characters, 3-stars for plot, 5-stars for the cover art… wait, no. Kill me for even thinking of something like that.

  1. I, too, wish we could dispense with the star ratings but unfortunately they seem to be required on many sites. One problem with them is that we do not all use the same criteria when giving a rating. One person says a three star is good, another sees it as a failure. Many even see four stars as less then adequate. This is true both for those receiving them as for those giving them, so in the long run they are meaningless. But people looking at them don't realise that and are swayed by them..

    1. Yes, that's another good point I didn't articulate, Yvonne. I mean, for me 3 stars seems fine, and I almost never give 5 stars in a review because since it's the highest rating, it can only be bestowed on the absolute stonewall classics. But that's just me… who cares so little about star ratings, he's now discussing them in the finest detail, lol.

      1. I feel the same way about 5 stars and ratings in general. Sometimes though I will give a 4.5/5 just to show how seriously good I considered a book to be. I hate having to rate books on say Goodreads.

  2. I also at one time reviewed music for a website that (while much smaller than Pop Matters) didn't use a star system. Then I did the same for small magazine that did. The former was much preferred. When I started my book review blog I seriously considered not using stars because they purport to quantify something that in many ways can't be quantified. But I wanted post the reviews elsewhere (and I'm sure the authors whose books I reviewed also wanted that). Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, et al kind of force that on the rest of the world.

    I'm amazed (although I shouldn't be) of the differences in perception of how the stars should go. Many infrequent reviewers on Amazon seem to think everything is either 1 or 5 stars. Yet others I know think a 5 star should be a 1 out of 100 occurrence.

    Even your contention that a 3 star is 60% is problematic. Does that mean you scored 60% on some system that grades on a score of 1-100? That might actually be okay, but it would be the equivalent of a D grade in school. Or does it mean the 60th percentile, (actually probably somewhere between 41st and 60st percentile) which would imply average, but also that at least 40 out of 100 books would get a 1 or 2 star from that reviewer.

    1. Oh, I know. It's rife with uncertainty, I agree. And my 60% argument was partly to reinforce that aspect, but also to point out that a movie review aggregator deems 60% as good, or "fresh" in their case. It's all completely arbitrary, which is why it's more important, in my opinion, for reviewers (and reviewees, of course) to focus on the impact of a work, all that good stuff. Yeah.

  3. Intellectually, I prefer the words. Is it the brainwashed schoolgirl in me, I wonder, that pines for the grade? Nice post, David. Now there are some awesome words.

    1. Oh, you just hit on something, Laurie! Were kind of primed for the star/grade thing by our school system, aren;t we? I had't thought of that. In psychology terms, it's Behaviour Modification in action. And guess what? After working with kids for so long, one thing I learned? B-Mod doesn't work! Between us, we could come up with a whole thesis on this, along the lines of: you're born, you go to school, you get a job, Amazon grades you, you die.

  4. I think a rating out of 10 stars would be much easier to give! 🙂 The weirdest thing is when you get a 1 or a 2 with no comment – which I've had (hides behind sofa), but it did make me improve the thing!

    1. Ha, Vickie. Or how about ratings out of 100? I remember the other big indie music site Pitchfork used to have ratings out of 10, but then they broke it down into, say, 8.1 and 9.3, etc. It got real crazy… and eventually kind of meaningless.

      Even though my message here is don't sweat the stars, though, leaving a 1 or 2 without any explanation is very unkind!

  5. I agree. It is more about what is said and not the stars/rating given. Personally, when I review an item, virtually nothing receives a 5-star rating. So few products (other than a few classics and very few contemporaries) make me "love" them. To me, a 4-star rating is exceptional; a 3-star still very good; 2-star is not bad, but not a favorite; and 1-star becomes a didn't like.

    If I REALLY dislike something and can alert the author, I simply decline to review the product. If, as a consumer, I really dislike it then I may review but make sure I state why I didn't like it. However, if I don't like something I usually don't finish it. If I can't finish a product, how can I write an honest review?

    I do think the rating system being a requirement is silly. I believe it should be an option to either write a review, rate it, or do both. Well, that's my two cents anyway.

    BC Brown ~ Paranormal, Mystery, Romance, Fantasy

    "Because Weird is Good."

      1. I would argue the opposite, that reserving 5 star rating for "iconic" literature is not the way to go. My justification for that is that a typical review (whether a "reader" review on Amazon or a review in the New York Review of Books by a professional critic) is done after one reading or, at most, multiple readings over a short period of time. I don't think anyone is going to recognize these the first time they read a book. The status of iconic normally comes over time with repeated readings, discussion with others, etc. Very few books are going to be considered iconic, either by an individual or by consensus, straight out of the box.

        David's "a 3 star is 60%" idea would seem to indicate that the rankings are linear and the top 20% should be 5 star. Every site/critic has their own definition of what each ranking means, but we're if we're going to be honest, what we're mostly looking at here is Amazon's reviews which are, by their definition, "I love it", "I like it", "It's okay" for 5, 4, and 3 star reviews, respectively. "I don't like it" and "I hate it" are 2 and 1 star. Even if we assume the distribution is a bell curve I think you end up with more than just "iconic literature" at the 5 star level.

        However, neither of these distributions is going to fit the reality of what any reviewer is going to end up with. A reader who does any vetting of their reading material at all before buying it is going to weed out many of the books they would end up giving 1 or 2 star reviews to, which means if they review every book they read their average should be higher than 3 stars, regardless of if they see the rankings distribution as on a curve or linear. I would venture that no review outlet (blog, newspaper, etc) is going to have a distribution that averages out to a 3 star (using a 5 star system) for similar reasons.

        I've heard it said that over time most books on Amazon that get a large volume of reviews end up in the range of 3.8 and 4.2 average stars. I don't know if this is correct, but it feels right from what I've seen.

        1. You're right, BigAl. I made it sound like I'd only ever give 5-Star reviews to canonical classics, which isn't quite true. There are plenty of classics I actively dislike and others that I'd argue ought to be considered as such, yet are too recent to have had the "classic" label attached. What I mean — and remember, this is so very subjective — is that a work has to be absolutely off-the-scale brilliant to get 5-Stars in the part of my brain that even cares about stars, if that makes sense!

  6. Wonderful thoughts, David.

    I agree that, in general, 5 stars should be reserved for iconic literature. However, I am thrilled when unsolicited reviews have rated my book 3, 4 or 5 stars, accompanied by comments that they would like to read the next in the series.

      1. That's because of what a 5 star would mean to you. 🙂

        I've also seen (as I'm sure most of us have, even if in private) authors get bent out of shape over a 3 star review. Sometimes even a 4 star. FWIW, I think the discussion has only served to strengthen your point, that stars are stupid. 🙂

  7. I never go by star rating alone – I've read many 3-star rating reviews that have been glowing, or if not glowing, certainly shimmering. Even some one-star reviews need closer inspection – sometimes the reader just didn't like the topic, or the style of rating – but it doesn't make it someone else's poor read.

      1. I'm glad I wrote this post, now, because the comments section in particular has clarified my thoughts on it. Thanks to everyone for your input.

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