Reading your stars: starred book reviews in review

five stars 300x109 Reading your stars: starred book reviews in review

A few years ago I reviewed a book and gave it a rating of 3 stars, which in my rating scale equates to a book thats good. The author, however, took this star rating as quite the opposite, and posted a number of tweets and comments about my negative review. The authors response made me reflect on my use of star ratings in my reviews, and though with a few exceptions Ive continued to use them, but I still feel a little ambivalent about the whole star rating concept.

Below are a few thoughts on the role of the starred review and what they may mean to the reader or reviewer.

Starred ratings stand in for a review

Lets start with the obvious, and with the point that I suspect triggered the aforementioned authors response. I tend to write quite lengthy reviews, and I certainly dont expect that my readers read every word of each review (although, you know, I hope you do. Think of the blood and sweat that goes into them!). This is particularly true of one-off visitors or people who are interested in more of a quick yay or nay approach rather than an actual review. It wouldnt surprise me at all, then, if readers skip straight down to count the pretty stars at the bottom of the page.

One solution that might encourage my readers to read the whole review would be to remove my star ratings, or perhaps to break up my reviews into separate sections with each section given its own discrete star rating. But readers read in different ways and have different requirements, and while some readers are happy to listen as I rave on about world-building and themes, others probably get what they need from referring to the star rating. And I cant help but feel that by removing my ratings Id be forcing a certain reading approach on to my readers, and thats not necessarily fair.

One thing that I do wonder about is the placement of the star rating. My blog includes the rating in the category list at the top of the page, but the actual star graphic is at the bottom of the page. Id be curious to see whether the placement of the stars at the top or bottom influences whether a reader decides to read the full review.

Starred ratings can be indicative of whether you want to read a review

Starred ratings are of course limited in their facility. But again, the actual purpose of the starred review will very depending on your readers needs. A reader might not be interested in reading about a book that a reviewer has rated a poorly, so a quick check of the starred rating can provide them with the information that they need to decide whether to proceed. On the other hand, if a reviewer has given a negative rating to a book that has been otherwise universally acclaimed, this might be a reason for the reader to continuethey may wish to receive a different perspective.

The same applies for those looking to purchase a book: a star rating may encourage a potential buyer to read a review and then potentially go on (or not) to buy the book in question. Still, I suspect that the actual value of either the star rating or the review will depend on where the reader is in the buying cycle. Are they simply looking for an overview of the book? A quick and dirty good or bad rating? Or an in-depth review that will cement their commitment to purchase? The way that the reader engages with the star rating and review will likely depend on this.

The fact that authors are obsessed with their star ratings on sites such as Goodreads and Amazon shows that theres at least a perceived link between star ratings and 1) media/review coverage and 2) purchasing habits.

But NB: starred ratings dont have the same weighting across the board

Still, an obvious downside of using the stars is when readers such as the aforementioned author make an assumption about my star rating system. This, combined with the skim reading or non-reading of reviews can result in my reviews being seriously misconstrued. Star ratings are not weighted in the same manner from publication to publication or from blog to blog, and even within a reviewers body of work they can differ. As my familiarity with certain genres have grown, I find myself rating differently, and my ratings are also affected by my recent reads as well as subsequent reads to the book being reviewed. So not only are ratings variable between bloggers, but theres also intra-variation.

My star ratings are as follows:

1: quite terrible (I tend not to review such books);'1.5: serious flaws;'2: okay;'2.5: not bad;'3: good;'3.5: very good;'4: excellent;'4.5: superb;'5: flawless

As you can see, my ratings tend to skew towards the positive rather than the negative. For me, a three star book is certainly worthy of your attention, whereas for another blogger a three star book might be something best avoided. The author mentioned above was likely unaware of the positive weighting of my star ratings, and this combined with the fact that they (lets go with plural pronouns for simplicitys sake) did not read the body of the review meant that they read my review as being a negative one rather than picking up on what was actually overall a quite positive commentary.

Star ratings are arbitrary

I touched on reviewer variation above, and would like to expand on the idea a little further. Ive noted that my star ratings vary based on my growth as a reader/reviewer, and also based on my recent reads. But my ratings also vary across genres. Why? 'Because I try to review books based on to what degree they achieve what I think it is that theyre setting out to achieve (note that this, too, is open to interpretationan author may actually be striving for something utterly different from what I think they are). It would be ridiculous for me to review a horror novel with the same mindset as a romance novel or a classic. The conventions for each are different, and approaches to plot, character, theme and writing style are also highly variedalthough obviously elements such as good writing and characterisation etc clearly show through regardless of the norms of a particular genre. Im happy to reference or contrast books across different genres, but to say that Harry Potter'is not Anna Karenina'seems a little facetious.

Star ratings can be the result of a knee-jerk reaction

Where I, and likely most regular bloggers/reviewers, have a fairly systematic approach to applying a star rating to a book, readers and authors might want to take note that this isnt necessarily the case for others who are infrequent or one-time reviewers. Id argue that the vast majority of five star and one star reviews on sites such as Goodreads and Amazon can be discounted. The trend seems to be that any book that is enjoyed by the reader receives an immediate five star rating, which isnt really the most helpful approach, given that if you pick books that you enjoy, and therefore enjoy what you read, everything you read becomes an automatic five starred book, making the rubrik effectively useless.

On the other hand, one star reviews bring with them an entirely different set of problems. I suspect that the vast majority of one one star reviews come about not so much because a book is truly terrible, but rather because theres a disconnect between the book itself and the book that the reader was expecting to read. The one star review is therefore a sort of warning or a payback gesture given out of frustration at feeling that ones time or money has been wasted from picking up a book that was not the book a reader had expected to sit down with.

In sum: a starred rating is plenty of things, but its not a review

So what to take from all of this? A key point for me, personally, is that a starred rating and a review cant be conflated. One is not the other, and though some pictures may be worth a thousand words, I hardly think that this is the case where my rating graphics are involved.

pixel Reading your stars: starred book reviews in review


  1. Thing is, ratings do vary. And on the likes of Goodreads, which a lot of people read, three stars is meh. Its okay,but wont be standing in midnight queues for this writers next book. Thats what people think when they see your three-star rating, even if you do put a description up top. Even I, who do read your reviews whole, think, she gave this a rave review with one or two minor quibbles, why isnt it at least four stars? I do rate books on GR, but not on my blog. Maybe Im missing all the followers who check the ratings and not the post. ;-)
    Sue Bursztynski recently posted..Me Reading From Wolfborn

  2. Stephanie /

    Very good point about putting my reviews up on Goodreads, Sue. Perhaps I should amend them to reflect the general GR division of star ratings (but then, its hard to tell what that is!), or just put up reviews without star ratings?

    Almost all of what I read is at the very least decent, so it just seemed to make sense to condense the bad stuff into only a couple of stars and to allow for greater gradation at the upper end of the scale. For me, a 3 or 3.5 star book is one that Id recommend, but I probably wouldnt go shouting it from the rooftops. They tend also to be those that I liked but didnt *love*, but know that others likely will.

  3. I have been blogging for a long time now, and yet I still umm and ahh about putting ratings on reviews. I initially did at the beginning, and then I didnt for the longest time, and now I some times do and some times dont.

    A 3/5 for me means an okay book, not bad but not great either. I dont often rate below that, just as I dont often rate books at 5/5.

    I have been debating changing to a word rating. Start with Excellent, then Very Good, Good, Okay and go from there, but the thing is, I would still be rating on my spreadsheet listing and at places like Goodreads so in the end I dont think it would make all that difference.
    Marg recently posted..All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

  4. Stephanie /

    I feel weird rating classics, so I tend not to do that, and sometimes I feel strange rating very literary books, as though Im not qualified to do so.

    I rarely drop below a 2.5 (I think Ive maybe rated only a handful at 2 or below in the past two years), just as anything 4 and up is relatively rare (although Ive read a lot of excellent books so far this year). I maybe average 3-4 5 star reviews a year.

    Good point about the word ratingI use that in addition to my star rating to try to prevent any confusion from readers who think that three stars means that a book is terrible!

  5. I really liked this post. Before 2012, I didnt put star ratings on my reviews because I tried to get across my thoughts in my entry. But then I was told by a friend or two that they thought I really should be adding them. Then I also know that some people do like having them as a reference as part of the review. So I set up my own rating system where the number of stars is purely how much I enjoyed the book, but the type of star is what quality I believe the book to be.

    But like you, this has led to misunderstandings, such as my review of Mal Peets Keeper, which received a comment just today from someone saying that they would have given it 5 stars. But if they had read my review they would have known that I absolutely loved it, but the sporting content took away a bit for me, as I dont like sport.

    I know exactly what you mean with this entry and with all the time bloggers spend writing reviews, its be nice for them to read it before jumping to conclusions because of the stars at the bottom of the page (or top).

    It makes me feel like setting up a tumblr that is simply book cover and star rating and they can make of it what they will
    Michael Earp recently posted..Down the Rabbit Hole by Peter Abrahms

  6. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, Michael. I know where youre coming from with the ambivalence over providing starred reviews, particularly if, like Marg and me, youre adding your reviews to other sites such as Goodreads that require a starred rating.

    I think the skimming thing bothers me more with authors than with readers, to be honest, as readers have far less of an investment in a review. I suppose I feel that, particularly if an author has requested a review, they should give back to a blog in some way. I do think some degree of reciprocity is niceeven if its simply taking the time to read a review! But then that starts to get into the dangerous territory of whether its appropriate for an author to comment on a review, which can have a significant impact, I think, on the bloggers freedom to review. Um, but thats a whole post in itself!

  7. We assign identical values to our star ratings and like you sometimes mine have been misconstrued despite having explanations available. Its why I only include the star rating as a tag rather than an image. I find it satisfies those that are interested but doesnt replace the review.
    I do make adjustments when I am using the star rating elsewhere like at Goodreads and Amazon so sometimes the ratings might be slightly different from one place to another. personally I pay very little attention to stars id rather know what people are thinking.
    Shelleyrae recently posted..Australian Women Writers Feature: June Loves & Festival By The Sea

  8. Stephanie /

    Great minds, Shelleyrae! Like you I do sometimes round up/down or make a note of a half star on good reads because I am mindful that people may misconstrue my ratings, and I dont want to drag down the rating of a book that I think is excellent.

    I much prefer to read than skim, but I guess thats something that characterises bookish people like us!

  9. A lot of great points here. I love the star ratings as a quick idea of what people thought, but definitely rate differently based on genre and format and etc as well. And the more I delve into a type of book, the more accurate I feel my ratings get (to my opinions, not necessarily to what others think!). I think that people have to remember that we all have our own format or ranking and as you get to know a blog it makes more sense. And authors need to sometimes just calllllmmmmm down ;)
    Amy recently posted..Review: Blanche on the Lam by BarabaraNeely

  10. Star ratings are hard, because I can be totally in love with one book and give it five, and the next week read one thats even better, and it doesnt seem fair. Because I read a variety of genres, I tend to rate on my emotional response rather than literary merit. Ive contemplated removing the ratings but I think it gives a good at-a-glance sign of my overall feelings for the book.
    Belle recently posted..January in Review

  11. This As my familiarity with certain genres have grown, I find myself rating differently, and my ratings are also affected by my recent reads as well as subsequent reads to the book being reviewed. so true for me.

    I use a 5 star system but Ive been toying with ditching it for about a year now and still havent figured out what Ill replace with so Ive left it in place for now. I think the star rating has a place but its a difficult call because there are so many interpretations. For me, I like to see the rating because it gives me a glance at what the reader thought but I dont base everything on it. I read the review for that.
    Amy recently posted..The Sunday Salon ' Review. Can I use that word?

  12. Stephanie /

    Amy: I completely agree with all of your points. I made a bit of a gaffe a few months ago where I accused several romance novels of having a similar themeat that time I wasnt acquainted enough with the genre to know that this particular theme was a subgenre in its own right. Now that Im aware of that, Ill be able to review future books in that genre with a better eye for how well they meet the goals of that subgenre, rather than with my off-target preconceptions. It is a learning curve, and I think the best solution is to read (both books and other bloggers) and review widelyand to accept that no one can be an expert across all genres!

    Belle: Yes, exactly! Ive read so many excellent books in a row this year (maybe Im getting soft?) that Im starting to wonder whether perhaps I should go back and do some tweaking of the stars so that theres a little more cohesion. But youre right that those ratings represent how I felt about that book at that time, and that as my reading context grows, so too will my feelings about those books.

    Amy: I was talking with my fiance last night about what could be used to replace a star rating system. He suggested one of those quadrant-style images where you can plot things like characterisation, action, literariness and so on to give an overall picture of the book rather than a simple good vs bad scale.

  13. There are some other ideas out there. For example, Chris at Chrisbookarama uses Cupcakes and Apples.

    I have to look up every time what they mean, but it does make sense when you know what they are.
    Marg recently posted..Teaser Tuesday: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

  14. Stephanie /

    What a fabulous idea, Marg!

    Ive also seen something similar done by the publisher (Hachette?) of Nalini Singhs books: they have a series of fun little icons such as sexy, funny, action and so on, and insert a little tick next to each icon if the book meets the criterion.

  15. I worry about star ratings, too, and how people view them. I stick mine at the bottom of my posts so people are forced to read the review first before they get the rating, but I dont know how effective that is. The 3 star rating in particular bugs me, because I tend to think anything 3 and up is worth reading, but, like you said, some people (including authors) think anything under 4 means bad.

    Basically I think I rate things depending on how excited I am to write the review. If I want to write the review RIGHT NOW and tell everyone I can about about the book and stand in a line for 3 hours to meet the author, that means its a 5 star book. But just because Im not super excited to meet the author/promote the book/whatever doesnt mean its a bad book or that I didnt like reading it! You know?

    Sometimes I think Id be better off not rating stuff, buteh. I actually did experiment with not putting ratings on my reviews a while ago, and I think that turned people off reading them for some reason. It should be the opposite, should it? idk, really.
    Anastasia @ Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog recently posted..Happy release day, New Girl!

  16. Stephanie /

    I do the same Anastasia, but the star rating also shows up in my category/tag list at the top of the page. Still, I do wonder how many people scroll down to the star rating and then scroll up to read the rest of the review if it takes their fancy. I do think the rating is an important indicator for a reader about whether they want to read a review or not. I suppose those huge blocks of text can be daunting at first glance, and the star rating helps break it all down a little by offering a shorthand stop or go signal.

    I know what you mean about putting off writing a review (I have one from March 2010 that I havent yet written, and suspect I never will!), but I do find that I have to psych myself up to write a 5 star review. Any book worthy of 5 stars for me is something I want to bow down before, and I always get a distinct feeling of Im not worthy whenever Im facing the task of writing one!

  17. Interesting to read your thoughts on this, because Ive been having a hard time with the stars ratings on LibraryThing. I dont use them on my blog, but am now thinking maybe I should. For me, a 3-star rating is what you said: Its good, and worth reading, but isnt one that I loved and am going to recommend all over the place. But I feel bad to think I might be skewing ratings lower on LibraryThing by being skimpy with my stars.
    Laurie C recently posted..Zombies All Around: Rot & Ruin by Jonathan Maberry (Audio)

  18. I love it when book bloggers put stars on a review its not only a way for me to judge whether or not Il like the book but it also shows me whether or not I trust you as a reviewer. If you give a book I hate 5 stars and a book I love 3 stars, Ill think well, we have different tastes and I probably wont follow your blog. But when we both love the same books! well, then I know to rush out and buy a book youve given 5 stars. I like the stars up top because if youre a reviewer I trust I probably wont read the review of a book that has 3 stars or less, unless Ive already read the book and want to see what you think. Ill always read a 5 star review however, and have discovred many wodnerful new writers because of it.

  19. Stephanie /

    Laurie: I know what you mean about the skewing of ratings. But its hard to tell whether we really are unless everybody else comes to a consensus about what a three star rating really means and adheres to that.

    Kate: great points. I always read five star reviews from reviewers I trust, but youre right in that a lower rating from one I trust means that Im less likely to be looking to buy that book, and therefore wont necessarily be quite as invested in reading. (Although Im always curious about *why* a given book didnt work). I did read plenty of Murakami reviews after writing mine because I was so curious after all that hype!

  20. April X /

    Oh wow, great post! I like using/reading reviews that use stars because its a quick way to sum up how you felt about the book. I definitely agree with the 5 stars or 1 star ratings as knee jerk reactions, sometimes I find myself doing this too sometimes I feel like I hand out 5 stars reviews too easily, Im trying to figure out a good rating system for myself xD And sometimes I dont know whether to rate by how much I enjoyed it, or how good of a book it was.

  21. Stephanie /

    Thanks for visiting, April! I tend to ration my 5 star reviews so that I dont hand them out too freely, and so that the other ratings still feel legitimate. Great point about whether a star rating should be based on how technically good a book is how much you enjoyed it. Ive seen some bloggers with scales for both, so that might be a solution. Its a tough one!

  22. For me, star ratings in reviews indicates how the persons using the product rates the certain stuff. I do put 5 stars for excellent remarks and 4 for good and so on. Getting stars from my reviews can help me improve the way I talk about that certain product. So for me, stars in review symbolizes the product itself and how did I write the review about the certain product.

  23. Stephanie /

    Thanks for your thoughts, Faith!

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