The Case for 5-Star Ratings

Remember back in school when the teacher would give you one of three grades on a test: 100%, 80%, or failing?

Yeah, me neither. But that’s exactly what we authors and readers are up against with the 5-star rating system common to Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere.

Personally, I take subjective ratings of another’s art with an entire shipping container of salt—almost like people rating their favorite colors.

But in a literary world in which visibility is almost everything, ratings can make or break an author. Not so much for popular writers with die-hard fans whose name recognition can get the average reader to at least give their work a try. It’s the remaining 99.9% of emerging or “indie” writers for whom ratings can be the difference between getting the opportunity to write that next book or giving up on the craft entirely.

100% on a test means flawlessness, not a single thing wrong, which is what many believe a 5-star rating should be. While this way of judging art obviously has its limitations, I can see keeping track of points for elements like spelling/punctuation, coherent sentences, realistic dialogue, believable characters, comprehensible plot, etc.

And I get it that few things in life deserve a perfect score. Still, if you’re into grading fiction like this, do you really feel like any book that doesn’t quite reach the Platonic ideal should only get an 80%, aka 4 stars? That would mean if a given book was broken down into 100 questions, you could point out 20 the author got dead wrong.

I’ve heard some readers/writers/reviewers argue that 3 stars is still pretty darned good. But again, if you do the math, 3 stars is 60%. 40 out of 100 questions—almost half—incorrect. And let’s not forget that in almost every school in the world 60% is a failing grade.

If I feel like a book I’ve read has “failed,” to avoid destroying the score of an (often new) author—especially one writing in a subgenre that isn’t my cup of tea—I simply don’t rate it. (The exception might be a popular book from a popular author that I see promoted over and over again on my feed. My feedback, in this case, not only won’t damage this successful author’s career, if they pay attention to feedback it might help save it).

Two stars is a dismal 40%, which would mean more than half of what the author wrote is crapola. In other words, the book isn’t readable.

One star suggests almost nothing is right about this book, basically a chimpanzee banging out random letters on a typewriter.

If I find a book’s characters interesting, get carried along by the plot, and the story keeps my attention (no easy feat in a world in which the internet and smartphones have turned our brains to mush), I give it a 5. That doesn’t always mean I think it’s a masterpiece, but if I’d give it 4.5 or above, rounding up is more accurate than rounding down. And if I’d give it a 4.1, who am I to rob them of their .1?

The answer I’ve gotten from people who disagree with me is that they give low ratings to maintain the “fairness” of the system. Of course, I can’t help but wonder if they think it’s “fair” for a famous author to out-compete everyone else in the field thanks to a major publisher’s expensive marketing campaign. Or if they believe it’s “unfair” when publishers, editors, agents, and awards judges reserve spots for less represented voices (i.e. women, people of color, LBGTQ folks, etc.) writing in a given genre.

At the end of the day, I hope we can remember that the star economy isn’t like any other. You won’t run out if you give too many away. And it won’t hike prices in a kind of star inflation.

So, the next time you’re about to give a book 4 stars or less, see if you can point out at least 20 (or 40!) things wrong with it. If you can’t, why not be kind and generous and just give them 5 silly stars?

Subscribe to monthly issues of Josh’s Worst Nightmare and let Josh Schlossberg, author of MALINAE, be your guide through the dark landscape of biological horror fiction.

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