Are Ratings on Book Reviews Worthwhile?

We are now so accustomed to being asked to review everything we buy online that we don’t think twice before selecting a rating and clicking ‘save’. But have you ever stopped to think about what you’re actually doing? When you are looking to buy something online, how much weight do you give to those ubiquitous stars lurking alongside the product?

I ask the question because when I decided to start this blog – which will include a lot of reviews – I had to think hard about the subject. Those of us who regularly post book reviews on other sites (Amazon and Goodreads for me) know that the rating seems to be everything. On Goodreads you can simply leave a rating; and although Amazon insists you write something, it only needs to be a word or two (I’ll come back to this particular point).

Setting up my own site, and publishing my own reviews, made me wonder whether I actually needed – or wanted – to give ratings. Surely what I wanted was for people to actually read what I had written, rather than just counting the stars, and moving on?

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that this really is a case of horses for courses. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but bear with me; it all comes down to context.

Suppose you’re looking for the proverbial widget and Argos or Amazon sell a selection of such widgets. When you go to the site you will see customer ratings by each product. If two options both have over 100 reviews, but one has an average of 1 out of 5, and the other has 4.5 out of 5, which one are you likely to investigate further? In this instance, the ratings appear helpful. 

But some sites pose different questions, because the ratings have a different meaning. On eBay, the ratings are for the seller, not the product. Whilst this is still helpful, it has a completely different emphasis to our widget example. It doesn’t allow us to evaluate the product itself.

If we now move on to what I might loosely call creative items, the whole thing becomes even less clear cut. Books, films and music are all things that we can only evaluate subjectively. We all have different tastes, different passions. It would be impossible to find any book, track, film or work of art on which everyone would agree a rating, whether it be a 1 or 5. 

So let’s narrow it down to books. Whether I like a book or not is often as much a reflection of me as it is of the author. After all, what would make a book ‘bad’ if you were trying to judge it objectively? You could list things from poor grammar and spelling mistakes to lack of structure and broken plot lines, but how many books are there out there with these problems? Some, certainly, but very few as a percentage of the whole. (Although an inordinate number of Kindle versions do seem unaware of the existence of proof-readers)

I read roughly equal numbers of fiction and non-fiction works, and it is slightly easier to rate non-fiction. Does the author really know the subject? (It’s surprising how often one questions this) Does the book add something new to the subject or is it a rehash of older work? Can they produce a cogent argument? Even here, of course there is subjectivity, and if it is the first book you’ve ever read on the topic, how do you know the books stated facts are accurate?

But with fiction, the task is immeasurably more difficult. Yes, there are certain conventions about how a work of fiction is structured; but such rules are there to be broken, and many authors do just that. Does that necessarily make a book ‘bad’? I hope not!

Now to the crux of the matter; how people actually rate and review books. The obvious truth is, we all do it differently, and I’ll illustrate this by explaining how I read reviews. When I am looking for a new book – and particularly a book or author I’m not familiar with – I do use reviews to help me, and I’ll use Amazon in this example, as they are so well known.

After seeing the average rating, I’ll look at the score breakdown. If there are only a handful of reviews then they’re not much help, but if there are a reasonable number, then I’ll go further. I tend to start, perversely, with the low ratings.

These tend to be of two types; firstly, the ones that are pointless. We’ve all seen them; ‘I didn’t order this book’, ‘book never arrived’, ‘delivery was slow’ – all problems for the reviewer, but this is not the place for them – or ‘rubbish’, ‘…’, ‘excellent book’, sometimes added in error or simply to allow the reader to leave a rating. 

Secondly, people who genuinely dislike the book, and leave a sensible review explaining why. These are obviously more useful, and I can weigh them against the more positive reviews which I will look at next before deciding whether to buy the book.

The other thing to watch out for is the ‘genius’. This is the person who is right… about everything… on any subject… in all situations. They tend to award 1 or 5, and offer little in the way of explanation (but often with CAPS LOCK FIRMLY ON). They seem to be the people who comment on your reviews if you don’t agree with their opinion, and seem obsessed with ‘fake reviews’ (i.e. any review that doesn’t agree with theirs). There are many serial offenders in this category!

The result of all this, is that ratings – and reviews themselves – need to be treated with caution. They are a guide, nothing more. They can – and occasionally are – abused. But most are left by people who love books and reading and are happy to take the time to encourage others to share their passion, and to offer encouragement to the authors whose work they have enjoyed.

In the end, I decided to include a rating in my reviews. Unlike some sites, I am going to mark out of ten, which I hope allows me to be a little more nuanced. But I would say the most important thing is to actually take a few minutes to read the review, whether mine, or those of others on Amazon or Goodreads, or anywhere else. It will give you a much better feel for the book than a row of stars ever could.