The Fault In Our Stars
Generally speaking you’re given five stars, sometimes helpfully coloured in shades from red to green. You’re supposed to rank your delivery, or your ease of purchase, or how much you enjoyed elephants from one to five — or red to green — with five being the absolute best, and one being the utter pits. So on this scale a three would be the middle of the road, average, just a normal level of ok, a two would be not very good but not actually the worst possible, and a four would be good, but not the best you’d ever experienced. It seems simple
Except it doesn’t work that way, or not always.
For a lot of companies, when a customer ranks their employee’s work anything less than a five is considered bad. They don’t have a scale of Dreadful — Bad — Average — Good — Best. They just have a single level of Acceptable and then varying degrees of failure. Anything less than perfect cannot be tolerated Which is awful for all kinds of reasons, and is why I don’t leave rankings, even when I have comments I want to make, and also one of the reasons I try to avoid certain large scale delivery companies.
But I think we tend to look at book reviews, or at least book reviews that include stars, in a similar way. I do: if a book has five stars, and is in a genre I enjoy, I know I might want to read that book, but as soon as the rating slips to four, I’m less certain. After all, if I only have enough time to read a certain number of books, I want those to be really great books, not just pretty good.
Put like that, it sounds entirely sensible. It’s not. It’s bonkers. For one thing, a four star book is still a good book. It is — if we ignore the opinions of certain big box companies — better than the average book, and the average book is still not a bad book. If the bad books are the twos and ones, then even a three, an average book, is still ok. The three is still a book worth reading, never mind the four.
That’s if we go by the ratings, anyway.
The other thing, the most important thing really, is that a star rating tells you absolutely nothing about the book except whether an equally unknown person enjoyed it. It doesn’t tell you why the person didn’t enjoy the book, or what they usually look for in a book, or whether they bought the book as a present, or to read on holiday, or to use to prop up a particularly wobbly buhl end-table. All a five star rating tells you is that someone, for reasons known only to them, chose to give a book five stars. A one star rating doesn’t tell you anything more.
A one star rating doesn’t even tell you whether the person leaving the rating has actually read the book.
Remember when Captain Marvel came out at the cinema and got all those terrible reviews and ratings? Except it turned out that most of them had been left before the film was even screened. People do that with books too. In fact, until recently the top of my Goodreads Author Dashboard contained a neat little banner telling me what to do in cases of rating-based blackmail and extortion — people were literally extorting money from authors via the threat of tanking their ratings.
So a star rating alone doesn’t tell you much.
My friend Colette once got a terrible rating for one of her books.
At first she couldn’t understand it: the book wasn’t particularly different from anything else she’d written. It certainly wasn’t a bad book. So why had it got such a terrible response? The answer, once she worked it out, was simple: she was a highly rated author and her book was on sale.
Most of the people who had bought that book hadn’t picked it up because they enjoyed her work, or were intrigued by the concept, or even just because they liked the cover: they bought it because it was cheap, and because it was by a five starred author. Most of those people were probably not in the mood for gay romance.
Which is what Colette writes.
My own book has currently got a rating of four-point-six-two stars on Goodreads, and five stars on Amazon. Which is nice, for me, but doesn’t really tell you much except that all the people who have read the book and bothered to leave a review appear to have enjoyed it. Whether other people have read the book and not enjoyed it, I have no idea.
I’m going to pretend they haven’t, just for my own peace of mind.
So just looking at my star rating, even if I had ratings from hundreds of different people, wouldn’t give you much of an idea of whether you might want to read my book or whether, in fact, it was likely to leave you bleeding at the eyes, unable to utter anything but a bleak “Ia, ia, C’t’hulu f’thagn,” your mind wandering still among horrors unknowable to man.
A review might help with that.
It helped Colette. Once she’d finished staring in horror at what had become of her beautiful wickedness — I mean her star ratings, sorry — she started to look at the reviews and, yes, there they were: review on review from people who just hadn’t wanted to read a story about two boys kissing* today. Ironically, her five star rating, the thing that was supposed to help people find the books they wanted, had lead all those people to a book they didn’t want. And in response, they had tanked her rating.
There wasn’t much she could do about the ratings, but she knew now that there was nothing wrong with her book. And she also knew to avoid putting her books on sale. At least unless she could be really sure her readers knew what they were getting.
Honestly, as a reader, a one star review into which the writer has put time and effort, can be an unimaginable blessing. I’m not just talking about the funny ones, although I admit I adore them. There’s nothing better, on a day when you’re worrying about your own reviews, than to see that someone has downrated To Kill A Mockingbird (published in 1960, set in 1936) because the author didn’t take DNA evidence into account, or that The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe is apparently “Nothing but one long advert for a candy bar**.” There is nothing funnier than finding a one star review for A Brief History Of Time that complains “I asked for a watch,” there really isn’t. But even the unfunny one star reviews can be incredibly useful to a reader and, for that matter, to the writer as well.
I’m not talking about the unhelpful kind of review that gives a book one star because “The package had been tampered with,” or; “I eventually found my parcel halfway up the neighbour’s hedge.” Those are reviews for the delivery system and not the book, and have clearly gone as much astray as the original parcel had. No I’m talking about simple, well-stated reviews that say: “I hate this book because…” Because we don’t all enjoy the same things. If a book gets a one-star review because “This book was full of sex and I don’t want to see that,” it may well be funny — if the book is The Joy Of Sex — but it’s also a recommendation to people who do want to see that.
I remember wondering whether the Magnus Chase books by Rick Riordan would be a good fit for my kids. They’d enjoyed the Percy Jackson stories, after all, so maybe they’d like these as well.
I looked up the books and, to my surprise, I found a one star review. So, half-expecting another “Book eaten by my chihuahua before I could read it,” I took a look.
The reviewer wanted to warn people that these books were not suitable for children, because they contained discussions of gender and sexuality, including a gender-fluid character***. Reader, I bought them. And then I wrote a nice reply to her review, thanking her for the recommendation as I was now sure these were exactly the sort of books my children would enjoy.
It’s fun when you can be petty and sincere.
My point is that when it comes to reviews there’s really no such thing as bad publicity. Or there is, but it’s a one-or-two-star rating left without any explanation.
A bad review, even, or no especially a really rage-filled, hateful, loathing review, can be the best present an author can ever get. I promise you, if I ever get a review calling my book an unholy abomination****, I’m going to make that review part of my advertising. I’ll include it in my reviews, I’ll put a link in my sales page, I’ll call my local newspaper. Because that’s the sort of advertising you just can’t buy. So what I’m trying to say, really, is: always leave a review. If you like my book then yes, leave a five-star rating (please, please leave a five star rating) but tell people why you liked it, so they’ll know whether they might like it too. If you don’t, then if you could maybe drop the stars, just this once, as a favour to me, as a friend, then that would be lovely, but if you’re going to leave a one-star rating then at least leave a one-star review to match.
Maybe you’ll help someone find their next book. Or at least give them something to laugh about. And if your delivery was late, or your pizza wasn’t right, or your offspring is now lodged in the digestive tract of a particularly unfortunate giraffe, then by all means, fill in those little boxes and tell somebody what went wrong. But once you’ve done that, if you can’t in good conscience leave a five-star rating, then perhaps it’s best to leave the stars off altogether. *Or rather, two adult men embarking upon a relationship. But that just doesn’t have the same ring to it, somehow. **Maybe that reader didn’t fully understand the impact that enchanted Turkish delight could have on a confused child, lost and shivering in a snowy landscape, who had gone without sweets or even very exciting food for years under wartime rationing. Or maybe they’d tried some once and didn’t like it. I’m only sorry they didn’t mention the scene with Lucy and the sardines. ***She also wanted to tell readers that she was a Christian, although I’m not entirely sure why. ****Originally I was planning to talk about Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses here, but this is mostly a lighthearted sort of blog, even when I get serious, and there is nothing remotely lighthearted about fatwas, assassination attempts and murders, no matter how good the sales are.