Monday, February 01, 2016

Why the stars don't matter

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?

Not necessarily.

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.


17 comments:

  1. Hello Val, I rather think that stars or point systems are a bit of a lottery because we all consider things differently.

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    1. Thank you, Mel. I agree! You can never really rely on people using the same criteria either. For many new and unknown writers, a poor star rating can be a killer, but since my books are not my main livelihood, I am luckily in a position to take any low ratings on the chin :)

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  2. I agree entirely - which is not to say I'm not blown over by your lovely review for Earthquake!

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    1. Ah Jo, but then like you, I'm both a reader and a writer and if I really love a book, I want to say so and shout it from the mountain tops! There are some I'd like to give ten stars to, and...well, I think you know how I feel about yours. Suffice to say I don't say I love them unless I really mean it. Now get back to those mountains and be careful up there, so you can write another book I will be sure to love!

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  3. So interesting Val, and it occurs to me the same thing applies when I am asked to do surveys on things other than books, eg medical or legal experiences. I find it difficult to choose from the five option, and sometimes no suitable option is even given. I end up feeling the survey doesn't even reflect my views.

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    1. Oh goodness, Patricia. i also feel like that about surveys. It's very often that none of the choices have anything to do with my feelings too!

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  4. I think it is a lottery too. I have written reviews of books I've adored only to find that they have few stars and indifferent reviews, so it is very subjective. Personally I'd ignore them ;)

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    1. That's the conclusion I have come to now, Jane. Thanks so much! I do value the reviews and without them, a book just quietly dies, but now I feel that whether I get two, three or four stars doesn't mean so much, and that's quite a relief! Of course, I love getting the full monty :)

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  5. I hate having to give stars to book reviews as I know they count for ratings on Amazon. However if I give most of the books four or five stars it will look strange too. I feel I say enough about a book in the review for people to know whether I thought it was bad or good. I must say that I read the reviews with one stars first and I have been startled at the reviews that say, "I didn't get past the first few pages" These reviews should be monitored and taken off. It's the same on Tripadvisor with hotel reviews. It really depends on how many people take the time to review a hotel where it appears on their list. I have been to hotels or restaurants with the most stars and they have been not so good and the ones with only a few reviews can be great. Back to books and some of my favourite books have quite a few terrible reviews. For a while it actually upset me but then we like what we like.

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    1. That is so true, Anne! And one of the reasons I like reading the reviews on your blog is that it's the review that counts - in fact, I don't think you give stars, do you? But you're right, we like what we like and that's fair enough. I only really worry about reviews if they criticise the way I've written or there's something about the presentation they don't like. As for those one stars where the 'reviewers' haven't even read the books, then I agree, they should just be removed!

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  6. I suppose everyone's 'starting point' is different. It can make a difference if you consider an 'okay' book is a two, three or even four. Me, I would always give you five stars as I love your style of writing xxx

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    1. Oh thank you so very much, Fran. You've made my day! But I think that's what's been liberating for me. As you say everyone's starting point is different. Some people never give five stars - a bit like the teacher who never gives a ten :)

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  7. Hi Val - I tend to go by the review: I see the stars and then look further. Reviewers often interpret books slightly differently and are coming at them from a different background and culture ...

    In fact I've just put a book on my wish list due to a bloggers review ... only to read two crits on it - one reasonable, one distinctly off ... so be it!

    That comment re the Dutch harbours is a classic isn't it .. stupid to say the least.

    Check in, make your own decision and read or move on ... glad the stars are back where they belong in the sky! Cheers Hilary

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    1. Blogger reviews are always my favourites too, Hilary. You learn so much from them. I always only read the full reviews on Amazon too. The one or two word responses are generally just people responding to Amazon's quick rating system and often done without much thought.

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  8. Thanks to everyone for your comments here. I've really appreciated reading them and it's good to know that others also don't worry so much about the number of stars. It's the thoughtfully written reviews that count for more. On that note, Anne Mackle's book blog is lovely and I really enjoy reading her reviews. You can find them on http://bookswithwineandchocolate.blogspot.com

    She often has some great suggestions! I've bought a few books on the basis of her reviews.

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    1. Oooer! I missed this post when you first posted it. Thanks for the words of wisdom. My worry is that I've had so few reviews compared with book sales - what do you make of that?? And another weird thing is the ratings in the "best-sellers" categories. My book has on occasion moved no less than 30 places up a chart and ten back within three days! Do readers take any notice of those, I wonder?

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    2. Roger, thank you for your comment here. I hadn't seen it before, but in answer to your question, not many people write reviews. Unless you have a good personal following, getting reviews can be difficult, so I wouldn't be surprised about the number being so much lower than the sales. You also have to be very careful that Amazon doesn't decide reviewers are personal friends. I have had reviews removed from people I've never met and only had internet interaction with. Amazon's response to them when they asked was that 'their activity indicates' that they know me. See if you can figure that one out, because I can't. I've asked them and I just get a nonsense reply. It's always possible then that people you have a connection with have tried to leave reviews and they haven't been posted.

      As for the ratings, I don't know if readers take any notice of them. I enjoy watching my ratings and I've been lucky enough to have some spells at number 1, so I shamelessly shout about it :)

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