I've had a bit of a lightbulb moment today, and it has to do with the number of stars we receive from Amazon reviewers in response to our books. Some of you who read my blog are also writers, and I expect that like me you cannot help but fret over the number of stars your books are given by reviewers. Well, fret no more because I've finally realised they honestly matter very little. Now isn't that liberating?
I came to this conclusion today while I was beefing up on the set book my CPE (English Proficiency) students have chosen to read for their exam. The book is by Penelope Lively and it's called Family Album. I haven't read it, but I thought I'd take a look and see what others have said about it.
Now the reviews from the major critical players (e.g. newspapers, famous people etc) are really glowing - ecstatic even, but then I had a look at what the readers have said. This seems to be rather different, but what is even more interesting is that the star ratings themselves are ambiguous.
Of the forty three customer reviews, only ten are five star. This surprised me considering Ms Lively is often vaunted as being one of the great writers of our time. However, that in itself wasn't the liberating factor. It was more that there are a number of reviews that undermine the value of star ratings at all.
Just for example, one reviewer gave Family Album three stars, saying the book was 'astutely written' and an interesting study of family life in a large old house. You'd think from reading this that the reviewer quite liked the book, and that three stars should therefore be quite positive, yes?
Another three star reviewer (the review, not the person) described it as 'turgid and unengaging' and proceeded to be, quite politely, very negative about the book. This would suggest that getting three stars is pretty lousy, wouldn't it? Kind of confusing when the other one was pretty positive.
Yet another reviewer gave the book four stars and then went on to be quite negative about it too, giving the lie to the intended idea that four stars means the reviewer liked the book very much .
So what does all this mean? Well, and this is the liberating part, I came to the conclusion that star ratings really don't mean as much to readers as they do to writers, and that as a result, we shouldn't worry too much about them either.
As a reader, I wish I didn't have to give stars. I'm constantly dithering and often wish there was a half star available. Actually, one of the things I like about Goodreads is that I don't have to rate a book to review it. That's really great as when I can't decide on how many stars I want to give, I can just leave that part out. So, when I see the reviews for Penelope Lively's Family Album and the mixed messages the stars send, I think others must have the same problem.
When it comes to my own books, I admit I've got my writer's hat on and my perspective is somewhat different. And it's also true I've sometimes been puzzled by the odd two or three star rating that has had quite a positive review attached, or at least, nothing negative (although I confess there have been a few of those too which I try to ignore). So seeing this range of comments and stars for Penelope Lively has comforted me no end.
What I do appreciate is genuine critical comment, and if it's relevant, then I take it and try and use it. That said, the reviewer who complained that when he started reading Harbour Ways he found it was about Holland and not about the English canals is one I dismiss without a second thought. Why anyone would admit to being so dumb in public, I'm not quite sure as the description of where it is set is very clearly written in the blurb. But others have suggested the pace could be faster now and then, or that the maps should be better - well, these I take seriously. But the range of stars? No, not anymore, not after seeing what I've seen today.
So, now I have to finish up by saying thank you to Penelope Lively! Thank you for (unwittingly) helping me get switched on to this realisation... this has definitely been one lightbulb moment that will keep on shining for me for as long as I keep on writing.