Up for Discussion: Do you know your star ratings?

I spend a lot of time of Goodreads. Partially because I have a book out and feel uncontrollably compelled to obsessively check for new reviews and/or comments. But also partly because I just love perusing the forum threads, pontificating on who knows what, and generally making an online spectacle of myself. 

A thread that recently caught my attention questioned why Amazon reviews tend to be tougher than Goodreads reviews. To be honest this isn’t something I’ve noticed, but I trust that whomever started the thread had a reason (possibly personal) to ask the question. 

The actual 1st post said,

Why do you suppose Goodreads reviewers are harsher than Amazon reviewers? It’s an interesting phenomenon. I wonder if Amazon filters out some of the bad ones in order to boost sales numbers….

Responders came up with a number of plausible reasons. It might be that readers are at least peripherally aware that a book could be someone’s livelihood and are cautious about being too critical in the selling environment. Come on, it’s possible. It could be the terms and conditions or one website being more willing to enforce them than the other. It could be that readers are more likely to have purchased the books they review on Amazon since Goodreads is a great place to find free reads. 

Since the initial question wasn’t entirely clear whether it was referring to the actual review or the star ratings, my own contribution to the discussion centered on the later. Having thought a little more on the matter I think it is worth reviewing how each site classify 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 stars. 

Amazon:                                     Barnes & Nobles                                Goodreads:    
1. hate it                                      1. poor                                                     1. didn’t like it    
2. don’t like it                           2. below average                                 2. it was ok 
3. it’s ok                                      3. good                                                    3. liked it 
4. like it                                      4. very good                                           4. really liked it    
5. love it                                     5. exceptional                                        5. it was amazing  

As you can see an Amazon 3 stars and a Goodreads 2 stars actually mean the same thing, the reader thought the book was OK. While an Amazon 4 stars and a Goodreads 3 stars mean the reader liked the book. From this example it makes perfect sense that a Goodreads rating would seem harsher.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but if someone says a book was OK I take that to mean the person didn’t dislike it and it is still worth reading. I don’t have the same feeling about a 2 stars rating. It is below the median (just as Barnes and Nobles clearly states) and feels like a bad rating. I say that even though I’m currently looking at the break down of the rating system. The end result is that I could read the same review on both sites and be pleased with one and disappointed with the other. 

This is especially pertinent when one considers that a number of sites-Smashwords comes to mind-don’t dictate what their stars mean. It is up to the reviewer (and then the reader) to decide what they stand for. I suspect people have an innate sense of bad (1), good (3), better (5) and tend to not put too much thought into the ratings beyond that. But the next time you feel disappointed or put off by a review pause a moment and see what the number of stars is actually meant to mean.

5 thoughts on “Up for Discussion: Do you know your star ratings?

  1. Michael Cargill

    I think it’s a little bit of everything really.

    Amazon is just a retailer site that people buy from, and it has the added bonus of being able to rate and review the things you buy.

    Goodreads is far more specialised, with the rating and reviewing side of things far more prominent.

    Different audiences and stuff.

  2. John Blackport

    Since we can all agree reviews are subjective, I bring it a step further. The number of stars reflects the percentile of where the reviewed book would fall if ranked, top to bottom, according to your very subjective preference. This eliminates the convention of reserving the 1-star and 5-star ratings for only a tiny percentage of books each (which, if observed, doesn’t accomplish much really, other than practically reduce the 5-star system to a 3-star system).

    A full fifth of them should be worthy of 5 stars; another fifth, worthy of 4; and so forth.

    The problem is, given the use of this system, do you use the system of “all books I’ve ever read” — or the continuum of all books available for reading today, as you estimate their aggregate value to be?

    If you use the former, your reviews will tend to be harsher (since you arguably only read books to start with, if you believe there’s a chance you’ll enjoy them). If you use the latter, your reviews will, perhaps, be too easy if you believe (as many do) that “there’s a tsunami of crap out there”.

    1. Sadie Post author

      That is a well thought out and persuasive argument. I fully admit I don’t give 1/5’s worth of 1 or 5 star ratings. I feel bad giving someone a 2, so a 1 would be soul crushing. Similarly I really have to love something to give it a 5. I suppose I’m not too hard to please, though, because I love a lot more books than I hate.

      I don’t really think of the ratings as an aggregate of all reviews I’ve written or all the books available to rate. Rather I think individually, did I hate it or really love it. On this scale, where does this book fall.

      The question of what scale to use is especially interesting. I know from my own experience that when I joined Goodreads I tried to go through and add all of the books I recalled reading. A lot of them got 3 stars simply because I didn’t remember particularly liking or disliking them. But again, since I think of each book individually instead of in comparison to others it doesn’t really matter how they compare to each-other.

      The system you describe and the one I use would probably result in significantly different results, which only serves to further highlight the subjective nature of book reviewing.

  3. Jeanette Bennett

    This makes me feel better. My first review was 3 stars on Smashwords and I wasn’t sure what that meant. Apparently no one does. The reviewer had positive remarks and did recommend it as a “fun” book. Since I was going for that rather than great literature, it sounds positive. I guess the real rule if you go shopping for a book is to read the comments more than the stars.


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