Thursday, May 3, 2012

In praise of one-star reviews

When I started thinking about this post, I was planning to call it The Curse of the Five-Star Review, and then I read this excellent blog post, The Dark Side Of Free, by Russell Blake. He's talking about the problems of free e-books (a contentious subject I've talked about several times before), and latches onto an aspect I've never really considered. When you give your book away, you end up with lots of people saying they didn't like it. As a result, you get a pile of one-star reviews, which he and many of his respondents, think is very unfair. All those nice 5-star reviews and a 4.8 average suddenly collapses under the weight of feedback that isn't unadulterated praise.

Who are you trying to kid?

Let me be honest here. If I see a self-published book with nothing but 4- and 5-star ratings, what's my reaction? Do I think, "wow, this must be an utterly amazing book and I must read it at once?"

No, I don't.

I immediately assume it's rigged and all those reviews are probably from family and friends, or they're paid reviews, or they're reviews swapped with other authors. I simply do not believe for a minute that nobody has anything bad to say about a book and that it's absolutely perfect. My reaction isn't to buy the book - quite the opposite! I assume it's probably mediocre and not worth my time.

I would far rather see a spread of honest reviews, telling me what's good and bad about a book. Sure, some people won't like it. That's fine. Some people don't like War and Peace. Some people don't like the Da Vinci Code. Some people don't like Tom Clancy's Op-Center. That doesn't stop people reading them. Frankly, if you're not getting negative reviews, you should be surprised. Nobody is exempt from criticism, and if you're not getting them, then you're probably surrounded by yes-men.

From a 3-star review of War and Peace on Amazon:
It's... overwritten, wordy,redundant, repetitious, chronologically clumsy, and loaded with structural defects, writer's errors and digressions. Tolstoy himself called it "verbose", and said it had too much that was "superfluous". I agree with Tolstoy.

What do these ratings mean anyhow?

As far as I'm concerned, ratings aren't objective. They're subjective. They tell you what I thought of the book, and I like to use the whole scale. An average book gets a 3 - and remember that average doesn't mean it was bad. It meant that I liked it. Something I really liked gets a 4, and a 5-star rating is reserved for those very rare books that absolutely blow my mind. On the other end, a 2 was disappointing, and a 1 is something I just couldn't finish or is really badly written.

Sadly, many authors don't see it that way. One author to whom I gave a 4-star rating asked why I'd "knocked a star off", even though I'd praised the book and said how much I liked it. They seem to see a 5-star rating as the default, and anything less is a failure. That, to me, totally negates the point of the rating system - how can I, or a potential customer, distinguish between a good book, a really good book, and an exceptional book if they all get 5 stars?

A 4-star or 5-star rating should be something to covet, not something to expect, and I actually think it does authors a disservice if they're led to believe that everything they write is as good as - or better than - the very best literature humanity has produced. If your YA fantasy really deserves that 4.5 average, why isn't it outselling Harry Potter with its mere 4.3 average? Is your 4.8-rated thriller really better than the 4.6-rated Day of the Jackal? Is your 5-star erotic short story a classic to overshadow the 4-star Delta of Venus? If you really want to know, then give it to a thousand people and they'll tell you what they really think - and if you can maintain that high rating, then congratulations, you're officially one of the greats! But don't be surprised if most of them aren't as awestruck by your masterpiece as your first few fans.

Who are ratings for?

The thing is, ratings aren't just for your benefit. They're for mine. Amazon recommend me books according to what I like, so if I tell them I didn't like a book, they won't recommend me other books like it. That 1-star review doesn't necessarily mean "this is a bad book," it means "it wasn't to my taste."

They're for my friends too. If Dave sees me give a book a 1-star rating, he can legitimately conclude he won't like it either. If he sees me give it a 4 or 5, he's likely to give it a try.

Tailored ratings systems

What I'd really like to see is a more sophisticated system like Netflix which shows me both the average rating and an assessment of how it fits to my personal tastes. When I look at a movie on Netflix, it's not unusual for it to get a high average review but a low score for me - or vice versa. The latest teen comedy may score really highly with some people, but Netflix is smart enough to figure out that people who like the same movies as me don't think much of it, and it tells me I probably won't like it. On the other hand, most people don't like silent German movies, but it knows that I do, and gives me a rating based on that knowledge.

Netflix spent a fortune developing that algorithm and saw a huge increase in viewer satisfaction. If Amazon and the booksellers could do the same, I'm sure it would pay dividends in terms of sales.  Authors would benefit too: if you do a better job of targeting your book to readers, you'll get more satisfied readers.

It comes down to this. When I read the reviews of books, I want to know whether I will like it, taking into account my tastes. If I can be sure that a 4-star book is probably excellent, I'm more likely to buy it than if 4-stars is considered a low rating.

So I'm sorry, authors, but I'll keep on dishing out the 1s and 2s.


Gwen Perkins said...

I can't agree more with this article. I strongly encourage everyone to read reviews rather than base it on number of stars... a book with nothing but five-star reviews always seems a bit suspect to me.

Dianne Gardner said...

Excellent article. Thanks for writing this.

Lisa M. Lilly said...

Thanks for this post. Several times I've bought books that were rated one or two stars because the very reason the reviewer gave for not liking the book convinced me I would love it. As an author, I hope I will not get a lot of one stars, but I appreciate any thoughtful review, no matter what the rating.

Jen Blood said...

Great review, Matt! I recently got a stellar 4-star review from the Kindle Book Review, and was totally thrilled... Then was amazed at the number of people who were annoyed the reviewer hadn't given me five stars. Total madness. Since when is four stars a bad thing?

As a reader, writer, and reviewer, I mourn the debasement of our old ratings system; as you mentioned, it makes it much less likely that quality, informed readers will place any value whatsoever on the reviews I get and those that I give. Great post -- thanks for writing it!

India Drummond said...

Part of the problem is so many people see ratings differently. For me 4 stars is "good, but not perfect", 3 is "mediocre", 5 is "I would recommend without reservation." (I don't give out 1 and 2 stars ratings publicly. I'm an author, and I've seen people get destroyed by retaliation for that.)

On the other hand, I had one author get furious with me (she still barely talks to me a year later) because I gave her a four star review. I asked her about her scale, and she said a 5 star was an "A grade", 4="B", 3="C" and so on.

Then she went through my reviews on Goodreads and said, "You liked Book X more than my book???? What about Book Y, I read it, and it was crap, but you gave it 5 stars!"

In her mind, she was the student, working hard to get good grades and I was the mean teacher, dinging her for no reason.

The thing is, she isn't *wrong* exactly. It's the rating system she uses, and ratings are personal and subjective. If she wants to treat reading like she's grading papers, who am I to say she's doing it wrong? Sadly, it's also a ratings system that is going to make her unhappy as an author, because nobody else I know rates books that way.

And one last thing... I think some of the reason authors get uptight is the way Amazon treats ratings. If a book has an average of less than 4 stars, it gets treated differently in the algorithm. It will be much less visible in searches, also-bought recommendations and "recommended for you" arrays. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but I can sympathise with the worry that a couple of bad reviews can send it into the aether, unfindable by anyone.

Matt Kelland said...

India - you make two good points. Retaliation is an issue. It's childish, but I've had people do that to me too, in one case, pretty much repeating my comments on their book verbatim, and in another case, quite literally saying "I haven't read your story but you gave me a bad review so I'm giving you one in return."

The grading, though, is a more interesting issue, and I think a lot of authors do think that way. They think they've worked hard and done well, so they deserve an A grade. That's fine if you're at school, but this isn't school. This is the real world. You're not being judged according you how well you've done in whatever class you're in now. You're being judged up against every writer ever. Work that might get you an A grade when you're in high school would get you failed in college. "Pretty good for a first novel" might get you an A in your writing class, but that doesn't justify a 5-star rating on Amazon.

Lisa - absolutely agreed. I've read books or watched films or bought music purely because I disagreed with the reviewer!