Friday, February 26, 2010

How Do You Use Ratings? Pt. 1

Ratings are fickle things. Most authors I've talked to have a wary view of them, particularly of the typical 5-star sort you find on sites such as Goodreads or Amazon. Some bloggers rate books almost obsessively, minutely breaking their rating down into numerous components such as writing, character appeal, romance, ending, cover, etc. Other bloggers don't assign ratings to books.

For publishers--and please, correct me if I'm horrendously wrong, as I am simply going off intuition here--blog ratings most likely don't mean two craps: the most important part is getting word of the book out there, which publishers will do for their big-name titles, no matter how bad the book is or how negative the critical reception has been (see: Fallen. Heh. I couldn't resist it. Sorry. Moving on now). The thing that "matters" for authors and publishers seem to be the starred reviews from the big honchos of book reviewing: publications such as Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews (long may ye reign!)--and even their importance is a little murky and shifting with today's customer-as-reviewer economy.

So in what context, then, should the ratings assigned to books by bloggers and found on book social networking sites be considered? And how can we best use the legend/threat/customer-is-always-right thing that is ratings to ensure the most pleasant reading and recommendation experience for the greatest number of people?

This topic will be broken up into two parts. In the first, this post, I break down how I use my 5-point rating system, what it means when you see a particular rating attached to a particular book, and how the rating is affected by factors such as genre and expectations. In the second, a post perhaps a week or so from now, I will talk about how I, as a reader of books and blogs, use the ratings I come across in different aspects of the blogosphere and the online book community.

I mention briefly in my review policy that I use a rating scale of 1 to 5, with half-"stars" (we'll call them stars here so we're on the same page) given. I break my rating down in 3 categories: writing (how well the author conveys his/her intention through the style he/she uses), characters (dimensionality, believability, interestingness), and plot (pacing, predictability, originality). Of course my ratings are subjective and moody just like myself, which is why they only truly add up to the overall rating I assign the book about 25% of the time. The remaining 75% accounting for my arithmetically challenged ratings can be explained by the "invisible", subjective factors--which I will attempt to describe below.

Here, then, is my breakdown of ratings, and why they might mean different things for books from different genres, etc. Think of it as one of those "holistic" rubrics that English teachers hand out before timed or standardized essays, bwahahaha. Okay, not. And NOTE! The following descriptions apply only to ratings that appear on this blog. Since Goodreads doesn't allow half-stars, I sometimes have to consolidate.

Now, since I like to end on a good note...

1 star. A book whose published status I sincerely and horrifically question. It reads like a brainstorming of a first draft of a writing exercise assigned by the most mediocre writing program desperate money can buy, a writing exercise that should probably be discarded and erased from one's consciousness the minute it's turned in for a (bad) grade. Unsurprisingly, a lot of self-published books would fall into this category for me. Without the helpful hand of critique partners, agents, or editors, these authors have invariably published a piece of drivel that they self-inflate to be the best thing since, like, The Da Vinci Code. I'm appalled to even post a review of this book up anywhere, let alone let the name of its title cross my lips. It truly, honestly, sincerely-with-all-my-heart deserves to be returned to the bottom of the "past writing projects" file cabinet, and revised only when the author has enough distance from it that he/she can see its multiple large flaws and completely overhaul the idea. I've only given one 1-star review on my blog ever, thankfully.

1.5 stars. The lowest rating that I've given to a book published by an established and respectable publishing house, figuring as at least two professionals in the publishing industry must have liked it to have published it. These books are--and it can't be put any other way--quite bad. Often it's a novel written by an author who's written about 20 books prior to it, and thus their publishing company has probably lost sight of the fact that this? their latest manuscript? Quite subpar compared to their very first book, the one that helped them break into the industry, y'know? Characters are flat, plots are either unoriginal or poorly executed (i.e. I'm not engaged). The story remains always a "story" and never escapes the borders that fiction has erected around it.

2 stars. Books that I give 2 stars to are, it seems, those that were probably marketed to the wrong audience, or bad books that were marketed precisely to the only audience that is able to indulge in them. So here you've got your paranormal romance MG/YA bestsellers whose mediocre writing and unoriginal characters/plot are covered up by the fact that it's *gasp* TRUE, ETERNAL, AND UNDYING LUV! and *swoon* VAMPIRES!--and those YA books written by authors who probably should've stuck with writing adult or children's fiction. These books just miss the mark for me: most of these have an established fan base, but are not the types of books that I'd read and enjoy on my own.

2.5 stars. 3 stars is pretty much the cutoff point for books that I would've picked up on my own and have finished; ratings less than 3 indicate that it's not a book I'd recommend. There's nothing too wrong about books I give 2.5 stars to; like 2-star books, they're usually just the wrong book for me. What distinguishes a 2.5 from a 2 is that the 2.5s are, in fact, pretty well written in their genre. There's an audience for these books; again, the audience just wasn't me.

3 stars. Here's where things get trickier. I've noticed that most of the books I give 3 stars to fall into 2 groups: books that are not my type (girly, semi-predictable, white suburban middle-class, happily-ever-after) but that I would still recommend for people who enjoy that type of books, and books that were raved about by fellow book-lovers and, sadly, fell way short of my expectations. The last 3-star book I reviewed that fell into the first group (let's call it Type A) was The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg--a perfectly pleasant and enjoyable teen romance novel that wasn't quite my cup of tea due to its predictability, saccharine romance, cardboard supporting characters, and cookie-cutter whiteness. I specifically named that example because I was still rather entertained by said book--call it a guilty pleasure, if you will. I won't give an example of a Type B 3-star book, as that is less flattering, but let's just say that Type B 3-star books tend to be books that have been long hyped about in the YA blogosphere and Twittersphere, and whose 5-star ratings on Goodreads typically consist of fangirly gushings of "OHMIGOD this is the best book I've ever read! Girl X and Boy Y are sooooo cute together!" and the like. As for some 2.5-star books, Type B books generally get a welcome reception into the world; it just wasn't really for me.

3.5 stars. Again, can mostly be divided up into Type A and Type B. A Type A novel (refresher: not the type of book that's usually on my radar, usually on account of excessive girliness, predictability, and commercialized appeal) that I would probably consider one of my favorites if, you know, I was the type of reader who loved those types of books. Type B books earn 3.5 stars if I can see the author's intentions and admire it but the intentions didn't quite manifest themselves completely in the book, or if it's a book I've been looking forward to that falls just a cut below my really liking it and wanting to recommend it to lots of people. I've also noticed that 3.5 tends to be the highest rating I give to middle-grade novels sent to me for review. Guess that means I'm a YA snob, eh? Ahh, I tried. Consider a 3.5 rating on a middle-grade novel very, very good, and pass it on to the middle schooler in your life.

4 stars. Okay, honestly? I know there are two more levels of ratings above this and all, but I just might love 4-star books the most, and this is hard for me to explain. There are several "categories" of 4-star books. There's the (usually) paranormal romance book with mass audience appeal that I still enjoyed despite the fact that it was most likely a done-before paranormal romance idea (at the most basic level: human girl with the irresistible supernatural male crush, magical element that threatens to keep the two lovers apart) with writing that reminds me of the first time I read Twilight: "Well, golly, this is easy to read. If she can get this published, so can I!" There's the good book written by the established YA author that will easily be up for awards, despite the fact that the story idea wasn't all that original and/or interesting and probably would not have been published had the manuscript been submitted by a first-time novelist. There's the aforementioned Type A novel that completely blows all my preconceptions away and makes me fall in giddy--though certainly not eternal and undying--love with it (e.g. Lovestruck Summer by Melissa Walker--great book!). There's the book with the so-so execution but brilliantly unique concept. There's the book that's funny in the way I love: smart, witty, and neither condescending nor forced. Essentially, humor I could never in my life accomplish (examples: Dream Life by Lauren Mechling; Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can't Have by Allen Zadoff).

And then there are The Books. Ohhh, The Books. How I love you. Most of the time I don't even know why I only give you 4 stars and not higher, because I usually cannot stop talking about you to other people and driving them crazy with my recommending it. These books are great: original concept, top-of-the-line writing, entertaining, enthralling, eye-opening. These I would love to read again for the first time; these I usually end up buying the finished copy of for my permanent book collection. And maybe that's where the distinction lies: I'd love to read these books again for the first time, because they made the experience of reading so incredible for me. Some of these I'd never even dare to learn from, as their level of writerly sophistication is so utterly different from whatever writerly sophistication I'd like to hope I can master one day. And sometimes these books have a great message that's slightly hampered by the author's writing style--a style that's good but not outstanding, not really something they can fix, and yet something that readers can, for the most part, ignore in favor of the story. Books in this special 4-star category include: Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, Soulless by Gail Carriger, The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee, The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzalez.
You can usually tell which type of 4-star book it is by the tone and content of my review.

4.5 stars. Really, really good books that seem to have very little unifying theme other than the fact that I believe they're all written in the style that best expresses what they're trying to express. Whereas with The Books in the 4-star range I'd love to read them again for the first time, 4.5-star books are most likely one-time reads for me, albeit incredible one-time reads. They were just so enjoyable and impressionable and completely in line with what I'd want to take from books as a writer that I feel satisfied with having read them once, and encouraging others to read them at least once too, as they are absolutely essential in that respect.

5 stars. There are also two types of 5-star books. There's the kind that so completely bowled me over by the strength of their writing that I completely excused any possible weaknesses the book might have (usually in characterization). And then there's the kind that I read and reread and still love to death every time I do so. This latter category is further broken down into two types: books that are exemplars of their more lighthearted (usually contemporary realism) genre (e.g. Fat Cat by Robin Brande, The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale, Poison Study by Maria Snyder), and books that effectively combine readerly engagement with thought-provoking concepts (e.g. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the upcoming Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien).


And there you have it! Did you learn something new? Dedicated readers of my blog, have you been able to see these trends and divisions in my reviews, and to take them into consideration when "using" my reviews? I look forward to next week's post about trends I've spotted in other bloggers I respect, when reviews do or don't influence me, and the deal with an excess of 5-star reviews... but in the meantime, I'd love to hear from you! If you want to write a similar post about your own rating styles, feel free to do so and link back to it here. If you have any comments or questions, mention them below, and I might be able to include them in next week's post.


  1. Very nice explanation of ratings. I give it four stars!

  2. I love how you actually have a system as to how you rate the books you read. Mine's 1 to 10, and it's pretty much what I think the book deserves. I should probably make it more uniform though haha. Thanks for inspiring me!

  3. Great explanation of your rating system!

    I don't use a rating system on my blog. I tend to go into detail on books and talk about what worked and what didn't for me and I just feel a rating system wouldn't work for me, since I can't really par how I feel about a book down to mere stars, like I agonize over what to rate a book on goodreads. If I give a book which is clearly brain candy but entertained me 5 stars, I wonder if I'm being judged for not being deep enough. Same goes for if I read a book and it didn't move me/I felt meh about it and gave it three or two stars. On my blog, I can avoid all that and not be cumbered by stars or tacky graphics.

  4. wow, what a great post! it's nice to know that there is so much structure and thought that goes into your rating system.

    i keep thinking about doing the same for mine, but keep putting it off. well worth the effort though, so thank you for taking the time to put this together.

  5. Lol, Anon.

    Great post. You have such a great writing style, I forgot I was reading about a potentially dry topic like rating systems.

  6. makes me want to re-work my rating system to make it more comprehensive. Sometimes a book will get my highest rating because I know the students will love it even if I didnt...

    Sometimes a book is so incredible I can't describe it accurately and I do that gushing scares me cause i'm not a gusher.

    I enjoyed this extra special glimpse into your, blog.

  7. Well, that was certainly comprehensive!

    I am not so analytical in my ratings - they are more of a gut reaction. A 5 star read for me isn't necessarily perfect, but it has to be something I loved and would heartily recommend to others.

    But then, I don't post my ratings on my blog (with the exception of the zombie chickens during this month for dystopia february, but that has to do with how I rate them within the genre, and not overall).

    I like LibraryThing's rating system since they let you use half stars. Sometimes, you just need half a star!

  8. I *love* how critical you are. Seriously.

    I'm not. I mean, in real life, I am. But online, I'm not. Every time I try to give a book a "star," I think "Well, I'd only give it 2...but I can see how someone else would give it 4." I'm so wishy-washy with assigning stars that way because I think I'm hyper-sensitive to how subjective it is.

    On the other hand, I truly appreciate it when people like you take a firm stand. I know your reviews are trust-worthy and honest!

  9. Really fantastic, informative post! Ratings are definitely a hot-button issue, and I would say that I use a very similar system (and rationale) to yours -- right down to the 5-star (with half stars) rating system. (I've been known to give .75 stars, too, if I'm being honest.)

    Though I think I'm consistent with the way in which I judge books, much of my gut-reaction to a book is very intangible.

    And, the more I read, the harder it is to read a book in isolation... not comparing it to other awesome young adult books I've read, for example. Fat Cat (oh, how we love Fat Cat!) basically wrecked me for YA right now; nothing I'm reading matches up. And that includes The Lonely Hearts Club, which I just finished today! Totally agree with your assessment!

  10. Wow. What an amazing post. I really got a kick out of how you broke down each of your ratings.

    As for me, I don't have any hard and fast rule for ranking a book - I actually don't even use a ranking system on my blog but for other sites like GoodReads, I tend to follow along similar lines as you. A 3 if it's something I'd liked but had issues with along the way or just was pretty good. But 5s? those are harder to quantify. They have something special. Sometimes I rank and book and then after re-reading it or thinking about it for a few weeks, I'll even go back and change the rating. I figure if I'm still thinking about it, I probably should either up it or lower it.

    Thanks for the thoughts though. I'm thinking I should hammer out something akin to this too.

  11. I have never used a rating system myself. and yet I really like it when other bloggers use them. Go figure.

    Also, I got some LOLz from those comics. :)

  12. Great explanation! The comics were cute too. I'm one of those bloggers who breaks things down and comes of with and x/50 final rating. I personally like it when bloggers do that and I think that pretty much summarizes the whole review with just a glance. I like the star rating system too, but sometimes I have a hard time figuring out exactly how many stars to give.

  13. This was a great post. Part of the reason I don't rate books is that I know I would bend and probably award things without fully thinking it through like you have. Besides, I feel like it is all so subjective that giving it a star rating wouldn't work for me.

    To be perfectly honest, I don't pay attention to ratings on blog posts, but I read the content. Words and description do a lot more for me than an image of 4 or 5 stars.

  14. Great post! I love posts like these. I personally don't have number/star ratings, as I feel that I can't place a specific number on each book I read - way too much stress - but I understand the appeal.

  15. Great post! I have been trying to figure out how to really do a good job at rating with stars and your explanation has really helped me in thinking that through. Sometimes we all just need to have that, "well, duh!!" moment of clarity! Great job!!

  16. This is a great post, and it's been really interesting hearing about all the factors that go into a rating for you.

    This is an issue I struggle with. I dropped ratings for my blog reviews at the end of 2009, mostly because I suspected that people don't take them in the manner they're intended. No matter how good your explanation, I think that people use them as an at-a-glance guide where five out of five means excellent and three out of five means average. I just couldn't get my head around writing a review about a book I thought was well-written, well-executed etc and then sticking a three star rating on it because the fact it's not a genre I'm particularly into means I'd never love it as much as other books which are less well-written. Because someone who loves that genre might glance at my rating and think I'm saying it's just average, when actually it's *the* book for them. Now without a rating, they might hopefully get from my review that it is the book for them, without letting the fact that it's not my favourite genre get in the way.

    Of course, I still put reviews up in places where I do have to rate out of five stars. There, I try to be as objective as I can but really, total objectivity is impossible. Like you say, there's always going to be a little bit of subjective moodiness.

    What I do like with ratings is a system where you're able to match your likes to someone else's and then see how someone with similar taste rated a particular book. That's why I like Goodreads. I know that if my tastes are 89 percent similar to someone else's then I should pay attention to their rating of a new book - 12% similar, not so much. That's kind of the experience I have reading your reviews because I've been reading your blog regularly for quite a while, and I know that in many areas we have similar tastes. Your explanation of your ratings actually sounds really similar to the way I was previously rating books, only much more clearly thought out. You have a lot of self-awareness about the process and that is admirable. In contrast, there's another blogger whose reviews I never agree with, even though I think she's just awesome. So I read her reviews and basically prepare to think the opposite. It's all about context for me.

  17. Wow, you have thought about this so much more than me. I am so subjective about my ratings. I go on gut instinct and my own experience with the book. I'm pretty clear on my blog that it is all about how I feel about a book so I don't worry about it.

  18. Funny. I was just thinking about these ratings..... and so I had fun reading this and also, since Melissa Walker is a very dearheart—love that you loved Lovestruck.

  19. I rate things with halfs and out of 5 and I always laugh when I look a your ratings because they are so much more in depth than mine. I too base my ratings off the writing, originaltiy of plot, character developmemt and whether or not they are flat. When
    I'm on the fence about a book (like you say, when there are books that don't appeal to you but you think other people may like them), I usually just go with a 3.

    I'm curious are there ever any books you regret giving them the rating you did (for better or for worse?) I was going through some odler reviews and I realized that A) this summer I need to re-write my earliest reviews because they are terrible, haha! and B)I've given some books ratings they didn't deserve (non deserved hgiher ratings instead lower, but I don't want to change them because that's not too fair).

    I agree though, I don't think publishing companies care about ratings from blogs it's all about the publicity. Some readers may care (if a book gets a 2 or lower rating and it's not a book I wanted to read, I won't bother with it unless I have nothing to read) about ratings but that's it.

    Another great discussion post, looking forward ot next week (how do you find the time for these posts?!)

    And I'm soooo excited to read the Red Umbrella. souless sounds excellent as well. And I must get Bleeding Violet before March is over! And I haven't finished the Agency yet (will be done this weekend) but I definitely trust your judgement and so far I agree.

  20. Some great ideas and thoughts in this post -- I so appreciated seeing how in-depth your ratings are. It makes me think that I need to revise how I do ratings/if I do ratings on my own blog.



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