Sunday, 22 March 2015

Amazon Reviews - why stop at 5 stars? by Ali Bacon

We all know how important Amazon reviews are to writers, indie writers in particular. With most bookshop chains in thrall to marketing managers from the Big Six, how else can we make any impression on the market which seems to be expanding exponentially? And if we publish only in digital formats, the online review really is the only real way to get exposure. With this in mind I try to do my best for fellow writers and post reviews whenever I can. With my own novel, A Kettle of Fish, I am keen to have as many reviews as possible and although less than 4 stars (see below!)is always a disappointment, I’d rather have a less than wonderful review than one that’s insincere, or even no review at all.

And there’s the rub. As a reader (rather than a writer) I’m beginning to wonder how much faith I can put in the Amazon 5-star system. For instance, I’ve just read a novel which, being aware of the author’s reputation, I expected to like a lot. Well for me it was okay, but not a book where the plot or the characters really engaged me. In fact as a writer I itched (as you do!) to do a bit of editing, to take out the ‘flash forward’ that robbed the story of suspense in the opening chapters and to give more space to the sub-plot which I found at least as interesting as the main event. But what bothered me more was that the book had over 100 reviews which averaged at 4.9 stars, i.e. nearly all 5 star reviews. Did all these people really stay awake turning the pages? 

But hang on. For 5 stars, Amazon only asks that we ‘love’ the book. It doesn’t have to be an all-time classic. A while ago, I decided I should get over myself and be more generous. I gave 5 stars to a well-written rom-com, which I would not class as great literature but it did do exactly what it said on the tin and with some style, so why not give it the full five? The trouble is, that novel is now superficially on a par with books I have liked a lot more and that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Once upon a time, Amazon allowed us to grant half a star and I admit that 3.5 or 4.5 stars made life a lot easier for a ditherer like me. 3.5 was above average, suitable for many books which I felt were competently written but didn’t quite do it for me. Now that the half star has gone, I have to decide between 3 stars (which feels mean) and 4 which in the case of my latest read feels like too much.  I also suspect that this has contributed to a kind of grade inflation in book reviews. Suddenly anything less than four isn’t worth having.  
Looks like it might be a ten!
Come to think of it, a 1-to-5 star rating with nothing in between is a very crude measure of a book’s qualities. If Strictly used one to ten, can’t we use at least as many for books? Then we could award a joyous SEVEN for a very decent read, eight would be pretty damn good, and 9 or 10 would be very special indeed.Or maybe we are all hooked on maximum points and even a ten point scale would soon be debased, which for readers may not be a problem. 

But I think that writers would benefit from something a bit more refined. It might encourage readers to rate more books and to think a bit more about what that rating means. 
Isn’t that what we all want?


Photo credit: Strictly come dancing by Keith Laverack on Flickr with a Creative Commons License



15 comments:

Mari Biella said...

This is something of a problem from my point of view, Ali. There was a time when I only ever awarded 5 stars to books that I thought could be classed as ‘great literature’. Then it began to occur to me that maybe that was rather mean-minded; I began to think instead that a 5-star rating could also reasonably be applied to, for example, a chick lit novel that made no attempt to be great literature, but did what it was meant to do, and did it so well that to award it less than full marks seemed stingy. But then again ... I recently read a book by an indie author (nobody connected with AE!). It was a reasonably competent book, I’d have said, with a nice story. At the same time, it was nothing special (just my opinion, of course). Given some of the 5-star reviews that have been awarded to this book, though, you’d think the author was a genius on a par with Tolstoy or Dickens...

Perhaps this is why I’m not a great fan of the star rating system in general. The difference between 3 stars and 4 stars, or 4 stars and 5 stars, can be quite arbitrary. I very much doubt that someone’s considered opinion about a book can be summed up by a row of asterisks. When I’m reviewing a book on my own blog, or on EE, I don’t bother with star ratings for just this reason. Perhaps it’s time we paid less attention to the exact number of stars we’d give a book, and more to just writing considered, fair-minded reviews?

JO said...

I'm also not a fan of the system - I always reckon a significant proportion of 5-star reviews are written by someone's granny, and maybe a 1-star by someone who was having a bad day.

But the trouble is people read them and take note of what they say. We all bring our own 'stuff' to our reading, and it gets in the way of reviewing as much as our reading. And there's no way to weed that out.

Umberto Tosi said...

Good points, though all rating systems and even book reviews should be taken with large spoonfuls of salt. Nobody gives much credence to sell copy on print books either and most figure -- rightly or wrongly -- that the average notice in the media has been strongly influenced by the publisher's pushers and the prospect of ads and prestige. The best thing about Amazon for indie publisher/writers is the "look inside" function that allows readers to sample a work directly, and tell in a few minutes if they want to read it.

Dennis Hamley said...

I agree very much about this. I've always hated the star system. I suppose it, in a sort of way, helps the what I'll call for want of a better word the amateur reviewer but I also think it pretty well makes an open invitation to corruption. What really annoys me is when it's used by reputable professional journals. When Books for Keeps started using it I could never take it so seriously again. I'm quite happy about giving 5-stars to good, well-made books which give me pleasure: they aren't as common as people think. There has to be a special reason for me to review a book to which I wouldn't give 4 or 5 stars I don't think I have the right to give a book one star because I know what the author went through when writing it and I respect that. However, to give War and Peace 5 stars seems a bit impertinent and patronising so on that basis alone it's a rotten system. !

AliB said...

Hi all

It sounds like you all have the same feelings as me about those 5 star reviews which seem to be offered so widely. I'm the same as Dennis in not reviewing a book that's less than 4, because to be honest I'm not recommending it, and a review to me is a recommendation. But for me 3.5 (or7!) would be a recommendation without having to say it's one of the best books I've ever read.
Ali

Chris Longmuir said...

I suppose if I put my reader's hat on rather than my writer's hat, I award stars on the basis of enjoyment of story, did it keep me turning the pages, and is it well written. I don't really consider whether it is a great literary work of fiction, and I would guess most Amazon reviewers work from the same premise.

Lydia Bennet said...

Just to play devil's advocate here, amazon's star and review system is mainly for customers, (not just readers of books but buyers of spider hoovers and socks), not specifically for sellers/authors. I have no problem giving 5 stars on the stated rubric 'loved it', that's the system and making it out of ten would possibly put people off reviewing even more, as they'd have to think more about how many, and any existing corruption would simply result in tens, or ones. I wish I could get more reviews, some people get loads and some quite famous people have naff all, it's an odd system but no more dodgy than big publishers getting mates or past colleagues of the authors to write reviews in printed media or on blurbs. I've always wondered why some people agonise about giving five to anything less than perfection when the given system is not designed that way. It's not the same as grading work in school etc. I don't like grading much as it's too simplistic usually but it's what we get with all the advantages of Amazon's free service, like the ads down the RHS on facebook people kick off about, when they are using a free service employing a lot of people. It's like the star systems for films in mags and sites, they don't want 'perfection' for five stars or it would never be given and you'd only have four choices, so they make it 'unmissable' for five.

Lydia Bennet said...

or to put it more succinctly, I'm with Chris Longmuir on this!

Bill Kirton said...

Yes, add me to the Chris list, too. If I enjoy it, the author's done her/his job. (And, however gripping it is, an excess of typos, grammatical and spelling errors will spoil that enjoyment, so writing quality is an essential component.) As for some of the 'classics' or, more especially, 'cult' figures who've been 5-starred up to and beyond the hilt, they often bore me rigid.

Nick Green said...

Trouble is, multiple exchange rates. My star might actually be worth 3.34 times as much as yours, or only 0.72 times. Everyone has a different scale.

It's like in hospital. If you're in pain, they ask you to rank it on a scale of 1 to ten, with ten being the worst you ever felt. I said an eight, so they sent me home with codeine. I had a burst appendix. Appendicitis is supposed to be a ten, you see, but they never asked me what my ten was.

Pauline Chandler said...

I don't like the star system at all for book reviews. Tastes in reading are so different. Does anyone buy a book because of the stars? I don't use it as a guide myself.

AliB said...

Good point, Nick. We all have our own particular scale of pain or pleasure. And commiserations!
Pauline, I do notice the ratings if I'm undecided on buying, but would look at the actual review comments too.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I know what you mean - but I'm kind of with Chris and Valerie. I'm happy to give five star reviews on the basis of 'loving' a book, i.e. being thoroughly engaged, and enjoying it a lot. I pretty much never consider whether something is great literature or not. To be honest, I think only posterity will decide that. I've sometimes looked at one star reviews of books that are otherwise celebrated to see if it's just me or if other people feel the same, and they can be quite illuminating when they are well thought through and not just insulting. As far as buying is concerned, I pay more attention to reviews when I'm buying something purely practical, like a bed! If I really dislike a book I won't finish it, and consequently won't review it either.

Ann Turnbull said...

I dislike the star system and I'm sure I'd put up more reviews if I didn't (a) have to choose a star rating and (b) think up a title for my review. I too usually only review a book if I want to recommend it, which is why I give mostly 5 stars. But I would much prefer not to give stars at all. The 'Look Inside' facility, on the other hand, is brilliant and I use it all the time, not only for looking at a fiction writer's style before I commit, but also for checking what's in the index of a possible research book.

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