Sunday, January 10, 2010

Seeing Stars

by Mike Knowles

As time goes on, I think I’m getting a thicker skin. Good reviews don’t make me jump up and down and bad reviews don’t bug me much. I wrote before on the blog about how I hated reviews that didn’t clearly give an opinion on the book, but this week I have decided that I hate something more. I hate the anonymous star reviews that pop up on different websites. Now to be fair, I haven’t done that bad in the star department. It’s usually hit or miss for me.

My issue with the star system is it’s ambiguity. The stars are there, but not why and the why makes all the difference. When I was thinking about this topic, I was reminded of an episode of Frasier I saw once. Frasier watched a panel of people listen to his show and everyone liked him except one person. The one guy had only one thing to say, “I hate him.” Frasier completely disregards all of the positive comments and begins stalking the one negative reviewer until he can get him to clarify his statement. The stars make me want to do the same thing.

Let’s be honest, the stars are dual purposed. They are to let the members of whatever site they appear on have a voice. But, the stars are also a marketing tool for the writers. There isn’t a lot of ways to make someone read or buy your book if you are an unknown and so writers hope that the presence of a few stars under their titles might sway a passerby into a purchase.

Problem is, not everyone reviews what they have read and those that do often do not justify the number of stars they graded the book with. I’ve never reviewed a book online. I buy plenty, but I don’t go back after I’ve read a good book and let the site know. I usually let the market know by buying more of the same writer’s stuff. I think that is a pretty common response to online book buying.

I think people are really more likely to make it a point to go back to report on something if they hated it. Think of a really good meal you had in a restaurant. I mean really good. Good food, good wine, good service. How often do you pull the manager aside, or the chef, to give him a fist bump? Conversely, how likely are you to speak with the manager if your meal is terrible. I’d say unhappiness breeds more criticism than satisfaction.

The lack of detail of a star review is also an issue for me. I’ve done this before, and not to get on a whole food rant, but let’s take my wife’s cooking for example. Last Sunday, my wife made orichetta with walnuts and broccoli topped with a parmesan and a butter sauce. If I were going to rate my wife’s dish, it would be a one star plate of food. Doesn’t sound like she can cook from my review does it?. But what if I told you that I hate broccoli, I find hand made orichetta pasta to be too small and its texture slimy and creepy, and that I don’t like butter on pasta. The dish was never going to be a winner with me. Never had a chance. It could have been the best possible representation of the dish in the world. I don’t like the components, so how would I like the finished product?

In the same vein, if a cosy reader or a James Patterson fan picked up one of my books, it probably won’t be what they are used to or even what they may like. Their star review will be as low as mine was for my wife’s cooking. But if they put a comment in like “too violent” or “too dark” or “not for cosy lovers.” Other people might see the review differently. I wouldn’t mind a book that would shock a cosy lover. In fact, I might buy a book that someone else thought was too dark.

When you read this, keep in mind my whole take on the star thing could be just one guy’s bitter reaction to criticism. Maybe my book sucks and I just hate hearing it, and I am being petulant. But for the sake of argument, and this blog, let’s just go with the assumption that I rock and everyone else is wrong.


Paul D Brazill said...

Oh, I agree. The star system is lazy and sloppy and another example of how we've all got limited attention sp

Rob Kitchin said...

Well as someone who uses stars, I'd better explain myself. I basically opted for this after reading something by Garbhan Downey about making it clear to the audience of my reviews my assessment of the book (see

What I'm aiming for is an honest review of a book that unambiguously sets out what I think about its merits and gives a clear indication of how I rate it vis-a-vis others, hence my use of stars as quick summary tied to a very explict explanation.

***** Outstanding. Get me the full back catalogue ASAP!

**** Quality stuff. Will be tracking down books by the same author and recommending to friends

*** An okay read and I might read other books by the same author

** Passable, but in no rush to read the author's other works

* Struggled with this and in no hurry to repeat the experience.

no stars - How did this get published?

Of course, this comes with a review, not simply stars. And if I give it low stars I always give links to reviews that were a lot more positive to make it clear that there are a variety of views on the book.

I think we have to accept that people have opinions and they are free to express them in a summary form of a set of stars. If this is on an open website such as Amazon most people accept them with a pinch of salt. If it is in a newspaper then it does need an explanation that states the reason for the rating, and if it is taste related it should say so. But otherwise, lazy or not, people are entitled to express an opinion. I'm sympathetic to your gripe - it can be damn frustrating, but so is just about everything about publishing and reviews, and stars whether we like them or not are here to stay.

Mike Knowles said...

But there lies the problem, Rob. You have your own rationale behind your star system, and I have mine. I look at stars like marks out of 5. 100%, 80%, 60%, 40%, 20%, and 0%. To you 3 out of 5 means an okay read, but to me 60% is a poor read. Two rankings of the same mark with two different opinions on what that mark means. Without some kind of explanation the stars do not serve any other purpose than vague self-expression.

Rob Kitchin said...

I'm used to marking essays where 40% is a pass and by definition okay but not stellar. It is an okay read. What is the point of having a 100% scale if 60% is considered poor? The vast majority of the scale becomes redundant. I'm happy to rate things that are average as 3* (as in the basis of a normal distribution). 3* is not poor, it is average - and let's face it there is a lot of average fiction out there.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't review new books with one or two exceptions on my blog. I cannot bear to say anything bad about a book because I know both the pain and the trouble it causes. But just doing good reviews would make me a shill. So there it is.

Steve Weddle said...

I blame the thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews.

How about we start a review site that gives ratings in office furniture.

GRINDER - an office chair
LET IT RIDE - a water cooler
WHEN ONE MAN DIES - a stapler

The problem, as Mike and Rob have mentioned, with stars or buttons or whatever without explanation is that they are worse than useless -- they're detrimental, confusing, evil little pieces of ugliness that clutter the world. (I'm paraphrasing their position.)

But even with the explanations, the star-rating is shown with the book title on so many shopping sites.

I don't know much about vacuum cleaners, so when I'm at the amazons or targets or overstocks I'll pay attention to the star-ratings. I don't look at anything with two stars. And folks might rate that as a two-star vacuum because they all opposed to brown vacuums, thinking the cleaner should not be the same color as the dirt.

Someone could rank GRINDER low because they hate books that mention charter boats. ("My father left my mother for a charter boat captain.") If they don't explain this, then you don't know to disregard their rating.

Rob Kitchin said...

I think we should give most people the credit of rating things on the basis of whether they a) liked it, b) it does what it says it does. I would think the vast majority of people rate a vacuum cleaner on the basis of whether it performs as it should, not on its colour (they'll always be a few anomalies, but let's give most people the credit of trying to be helpful rather than stupid of malicious). And I suspect most people who take the time to review a book will give a reasonably honest opinion as to whether they enjoyed it or not, rather whether they like charter boats or not (again there will always be a few anomalies but not many in the grand scheme of things). You can't have it both ways and use star ratings when it suits you, when buying a vacuum cleaner, but object when it doesn't - your own or other author's work being rated. Sometimes we just have to accept that some people think our work is poor, others average and others love it. And you can't just dismiss someone's opinion because it doesn't conform to yours or accuse them of not knowing what they are doing. The vast majority of people know how star systems work - they've had their work graded since they were very young. I doubt many people deviate very much off of 1* very poor, 2* poor, 3* average, 4* good, 5* very good. In that sense, I don't think they are worse than useless; they're an expression of a judgement (and few people leave a rating without some kind of explanation on Amazon and elsewhere).

Steve Weddle said...

I just looked at an application for my iPod Touch. One of the most recent reviews gave the application one star. The rationale? "This suxks!!"

And I absolutely agree with you, Rob, that people who take time to review a book usually provide a good reason for why they liked or didn't like the book. It's the people who don't take the time that make what's worst than useless, I think.

But really how much falls to us to read more than a few reviews? If I'm going to spend 10 hours reading a book -- or however long -- I should probably take 10 or 15 minutes and read many reviews. Many people have told me I wouldn't like a book that I read anyway and liked. I knew their tastes. Having them not like the book sent me to it. Probably the same thing online. The reasons people don't like a book could well be a reason I would like it. That's why it's important -- for the reviewer and the reader of the review -- to go beyond just looking at the number of stars.

John McFetridge said...

I find with Amazon reviews the negative ones are usually more about the type of book rather than the particluar book - they say things like, "Too much swearing," or "too violent."

The stars never tell me what the reviewer was looking for and didn't get. We can assume they knew what type of book it was but we all knw what happens to peple who assume ;)

This is kinda like the Frasier episode.

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