Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Star Rankings - A help or a hindrance?

It turns out that a man named Edward O'Brien was responsible for this system I've both loved and hated. He was an author/editor who was working on an anthology of short stories around the turn of the last century. For his own filing ease, he decided to give each one a ranking of one, two or three stars, depending on whether he found them great, okay or deplorable. O'Brien's idea caught on among his peer group, or if they'd lived in our time it might be said to have 'gone viral'.

Eventually, his original three star ranking system expanded to the five star one we all know so well, for it's used for pretty much everything from motels and restaurants to cosmetics, household appliances and books. When it comes to books, I've had plenty of experience with stars, both on the giving and receiving end.

While I've had my author hat on, I've been warned by people who have expressed interest in reviewing my books, 'Just so you know, I rarely give five stars.' What do they expect in reply to that? Probably something like, 'I appreciate your honesty and all reviews are welcome,' which is what I do say. Even though that's true, I find it a bit sad that their high standards cause them to begin each book expecting to find something to lower their rankings. With that attitude, I'm certain they will. (When I put my reviewer hat on, I never say that to anyone. I prefer to approach every book hoping it will be a five or at least a four.)

I discovered an article by a couple of authors who have made an interesting point. In their opinion, deep in our hearts, we never regard the star ranking system as the simple scale it professes to be. Instead, it's actually a binary system consisting of only two levels, Pass (5 stars) and Fail (4 stars and less).

(How many people do you think are secretly a bit like Chandresh Christophe LeFevre, a character from 'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern? He savagely flung knives across the room at a glowing review he'd clipped from the paper, simply because it reported his spectacle as 'almost transcendant'. He took offense at the world 'almost' and decided he must be doing something wrong.)

But when you really think about it, nothing suggests a phony set-up more than a book which has only a handful of five star rankings, because the general public differ so markedly in their tastes and responses. In these cases, even if the author didn't rustle up a number of friends and relations to do them a favour, it certainly appears that way. (If a number of these happen to be 'one review wonders' or share the same surname as the author, it looks even more fishy. See my review of How to get good reviews on Amazon by Theo Rogers.) Fours are quite acceptable, thank you very much, and the majority of books seem to get the occasional ones and twos, because we're all so different, and the world is full of trolls

Do you think it would be nice to cut through all the angst and second guessing? Star rankings can evoke misleading impressions when they stare us in the face. People have told me, 'An author got upset because I gave their book three stars, but I don't understand why. Three means it's pretty good, doesn't it?' Well, I can tell them why. The sight of three stars out of five may scream ho-hum, mediocre, luke warm and lacklustre to some people. And as for a single star, I came across one reviewer who wrote about someone's book, 'This trash doesn't deserve any stars at all and I hate being forced to give it one, but had to, as it's necessary for me to post my review!' Why don't we scrap star rankings altogether and use emoticons instead, to give a broader impression of our visceral responses to the books we read.

  for 'Anne of Green Gables'

  for 'The Book Thief'

  for 'Ulysses'

I think that would work for me, because my rankings are based on the emotions they stir up anyway. When it comes to books many things can influence a ranking, but I think focusing on just one makes them more consistent across the board. I ask myself these sorts of questions? Did the author pour a lot of heart and soul into this book? Do I still dream about these characters after I finish the story? Do I hear their voices in my mind? Did I laugh or cry out loud? If the answers tend to be 'yes', then I've been known to give 5 stars even if the writing craft isn't quite right. In fact, if those technical issues are a bit off, yet the book still hooks me, it may be argued that it deserves five stars more than ever!

I'd give emojis my vote if I was asked, but I don't think it's something that will happen in the short term. We'll keep up our star-gazing, wondering what inscrutable reasons people have chosen to rank our books, and try to be fair and honest in our rankings of others. That's where a good review is invaluable. I try to explain reasons for my ranking, so that they're clear to anybody who wants to read them. Whether or not you agree with them, at least they're laid out, plain, simple and fair. And I appreciate it when others do the same for me.


  1. As a reader I'm not a fan of star ratings. I dislike being forced to synthesis all my thoughts on a book into a numeric value. I prefer to let my words speak for me, simply describing the aspects I liked and maybe those I disliked. Of course as a software developer I understand that Amazon needs something computational for their recommendation algorithms.

    You're totally right about the star system being binary. In Amazon's case it is actually "4 or 5 = Recommended", "3 or less = Not Recommended." This means that a 3 star rating means (to Amazon) "you should not buy this book". No wonder that author gets upset at the poor bewildered 3-star reviewer.

    Amazon have been experimenting with an alternative to the stars, a series of questions rated on a 3-way scale. Randomly, you have to answer one of these rather than giving a star rating. I dislike these even more than the stars. I had to rate the plot of a book that I loved by the following:
    1) Predictable, 2) Some twists, 3) Lots of twists and turns.
    Hmm, numerically I didn't think there were enough plot twists to count as lots, but the plot was top-notch. Is count of plot twists really the best way to rate the plot of a book?

    I don't mind your emoticon idea, though I'm not sure it would give engines such as Amazon sufficient data to make recommendations. Or maybe it would?

    1. Hi Adam,
      Yeah, I've come across the series of questions on Amazon too, and don't like them any more than you do. The wordings of those questions seem to force us to compartmentalise our thoughts even more than the stars.

      As you say, thoughts are pretty complex to be squeezed into a numeric value, but I also understand your point that Amazon needs something computational for their algorithms. That gets me thinking back to the fellow who first came up with the star ranking system in the early 1900s. Little did he know the technological changes ahead, to make his invention so widely used.

      As for the emoticon idea, maybe it could work if they restrict the board to a certain number, otherwise the sheer scope of all the possible expressions which could be used would probably make it way impractical.

    2. I didn't know about the original three-star system, but I like it! I don't agree that reviews are binary, but I do tend to see books in three categories: 1/2, 3, or 4/5.

      I like the emoticon idea, despite not being a fan of emoticons :)

      Surely the test of any novel is whether it makes us feel. My 3-stars are often the books which are perfectly good, but don't make me feel anything much, while the 1-star and 2-star books are the ones which inspire some kind of negative emotion.

      Adam, I agree with you about plot. A romance, for example, is predictable in one major respect: if the hero and heroine don't end up together, it's not a romance. But that predictability is exactly what romance readers are looking for. I always sigh when I get those questions on Amazon US, as there is more to a book than yes/no answers to a few simple questions.

    3. Iola, I think my criteria are very similar to yours, especially concerning the threes. Yes, how interesting the 3-star system might have been. You'd think it might make it easier to decide in many cases.

    4. The star system is different between Amazon and Goodreads which further confuses the issue. Rating a book on whether it had 'enough plot twists' seems to favour certain kinds of books and leave out a whole lot of other important elements (character, setting, depth, imagination etc).

      Personally, I don't mind the 5 star system, though sometimes wish I could award half-stars. I can see how it could work with 3 stars - but for me there is a difference between a 4 star (I loved it but it had some issues) to 5 star - it wowed my socks off :) I think reviews are more helpful, but not everyone wants to review - and sometimes emojis can be so confusing - do you cry with Book Thief because it was a beautiful, sad and moving story (my guess) or because it was so badly written it made you cry (I can't imagine that - but maybe). I guess no system is perfect.

    5. Hi Jenny,
      Yes, I've got my head around the differences between Amazon and Goodreads too. On GR, two stars means 'it was ok' and I can't help always thinking that should be three stars.

      I often add half stars to my reviews on this blog, and agree that it would great to be able to do it more widely. The Blogging for Books program allows us too, and I love that.

      You guessed right for my choice of emoticon with The Book Thief, but have raised a good question. We'd have to start trying to judge why each of us chose the faces we did, which might lead to far more second guessing than it does with the Stars.

      Sometimes I think it would be nice to scrap it all and go by reviews alone, but then as Adam pointed out, the computer algorithms are handy for big companies like Amazon.

    6. Also, far more people are willing to give a simple rating than take the time and effort to write a review - so maybe it's good to have more feedback (as star ratings) even if imperfect :)

    7. Oh yes, those mystery raters, who just leave their star rankings without ever a word for their reasons. I find them confusing and even annoying, but since they number in the thousands, getting rid of the star system probably would cause a major drop-off.

  2. Now see, yours would be the kind of review I would read. I tend to look at the highest and lowest star ratings when I research something and base my decision on reviews with substance.

    As for critics, I think everyone tends to look for reviewers that share their own interests. It's like having a friend. You aren't going to trust someone's view if they hate something you like, so you start with a reviewer who likes the same things you do. They are more likely to share your tastes.

    My own star ratings, over years of reviewing books:
    One star~ I hated this or I could not even finish it
    Two stars~ This is my own meh score. It was OK, but I've seen this done better.
    Three stars~ Good. I liked it.
    Four stars~ I loved it.
    Five stars~ I would read this again or force it on others. :)

    The problem with reviews, particularly book reviews, is that we are so changeable. Depending on our mood, we might like or hate something we read and it has nothing to do with the author. Even time and experience can change our opinion of a book. I actually have Huckleberry Finn on my list of books to reread because I hated it when I had to read it in high school. I wondered if I might like it now, in my 40's.

    Always an interesting thought-provoking read, Paula! Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Hi Cristina,
    It sounds like your system is a perfect match for Goodreads rather than Amazon. I do try to base each ranking on their own scales when I visit these sites.

    Like you, I tend to check out the polarised reviews before committing to buy, always reading a few ones as well as some fives. In fact, often the ones are more helpful than the fives. And a lot of times, it easy to tell from the tone of the review whether the person who wrote it is somebody whose opinions would probably gel with yours. The friend aspect.

    I agree with do change with time. I've looked back on some of my own reviews and thought them a bit generous or harsh, down the track.

    I've never read Huckleberry Finn at all, and still aim to do it someday, since I like some of Mark Twain's quotes and other writing.