My quest for a universal book-assessment tool

I recently reviewed a couple of books on Amazon and Goodreads. Nothing so remarkable about that. But I found myself hesitating a long time before hitting the “submit” button on the Amazon reviews.

Universal Pain Assessment Tool

Universal Pain Assessment Tool (Photo credit: doublelibra)

What confounded me was not writing the reviews but choosing the accompanying star rating. I felt like a woman in labor who finds herself paralyzed by the nurse’s well-meaning question, “On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being no pain at all and 10 being the worst pain you have ever experienced, how do you feel?” (I have seen this happen in the course of my work as a birth doula.)

How can you even answer that question? What if you say 6 now, but the pain gets more than twice as bad later and you run out of numbers? How much worse is 4 than 2? Is the scale linear or exponential? Most important, does the number mean the same thing to the nurse as it means to me?

My nine is your three

In fairness to the medical profession, the universal pain-assessment tool is  tremendously valuable in helping to alleviate suffering among people who are ill or injured. (The pain-scale question might be somewhat irrelevant for women in labor since labor pain is intermittent, temporary, and part of the normal process of giving birth.)

The star rating system is a different beast. How can you hand out stars when—at least in the case of Amazon—they mean different things to different people?

Goodreads, at least, gives some guidance about what each star indicates:

* didn’t like it
** it was o.k.
*** liked it
**** really liked it
***** it was amazing

Reviewing books by friends and acquaintances

I do agonize more when reviewing books by authors I know. I want to be honest, but I don’t want my input to hurt their sales. This is why I have decided to follow my father’s edict: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Not the best child-rearing motto, perhaps, but helpful in this situation.

Just for kicks, I decided to look at Amazon star ratings for the latest novel from Ann Patchett next to mine. I have some selling to do to catch up.

That said, what if I really liked the book? Would it kill me to give it a 5-star rating? No… but I find myself unable to do that just because I know the author. Maybe I’m unusual, but to me, if 5 stars means “it was amazing,” it has to be amazing. And readers may be on to the possibility of star inflation. A friend’s publisher mentioned to her that five-star ratings often are looked upon with skepticism by readers.

I’ve decided to stick to my tough reviewer stance, in which five stars are reserved for absolute standouts. (I have given five stars to only three titles on Goodreads: William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” Norton Juster’s “The Phantom Tollbooth, and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.”)

I’d love to hear from readers and writers: what do review stars mean to you? And if you’ve ever given birth, what was your pain level during labor? (Just kidding.)

Here are a few interesting discussions of ratings and reviews:

Article from Techcrunch on Amazon reviews
Goodreads forum discussion of star ratings
Discussion by Elle Lothlorian on Digital Book World about why authors SHOULD respond to negative reviews
Fascinating tale on the Conjugal Felicity* site about author Robert Stanek and his Amazon reviews
*I sincerely hope I never appear on this site, which is devoted to “the sporking (detailed, page-by-page, snarky critique) of poorly written books. We also chronicle the dubious promotional methods of certain self-published authors.”

ROW80 Update

I am plugging away. I have done paper edits on about half the book and entered about half of those. I am probably not going to make my goal of a complete edit before handing off to my writing partner, who wants to take the manuscript with her on vacation in early August. That’s okay. I will edit for the next week and print whatever I have for her at the beginning of August.

Look for some thoughts about the editing process in future posts.

22 thoughts on “My quest for a universal book-assessment tool

  1. Hi, Audrey. I’m mingling from Susie’s party, although I never seem to know what to say at these functions. I don’t tend to write book reviews (except for one that I wish had had a minus star option, like negative 3 stars). But for ratings in general, I tend to rate high if I can. At my last job, customers would frequently get follow up calls to rate their satisfaction with our service. Any rating less than a 10 (on a scale of 1-10) was considered unacceptable, and we got dinged for it. And childbirth? Maybe it’s true what they say… with all the joy it brings, you just forget about the pain.

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    • Thanks for stopping by! I love the idea of a negative star rating. Although, come to think of it, that would probably just shift the scale. The idea of getting penalized for anything less that a 10 for customer satisfaction just seems completely ridiculous and unrealistic. Yeah, you do forget about the pain of childbirth–after it’s over!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dropping by from Susie’s party. As a frequent reviewer on Yelp we use the star system. One being horrible, two is meh, three is ok, four is I’m a fan, and five is fantastic. I also wish we could do half stars. Sometimes I’m in the middle on things.

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    • Thanks for stopping by. It’s nice when the star meanings are all spelled out. Half stars would be great, though I guess it leaves room for equivocating. But, as you say, sometimes that’s what’s called for!

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  3. It’s a real conundrum. I have given out a few inflated ratings, but for the most part, avoid the process just like your dad suggested.
    Great post! Thanks for bringing it to the party! Have fun mingling with the guests!

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  4. I’m with you. If I read something by a friend that I’m not wild about, I don’t leave a review. At least they have the money from the sale. Writing is such a winding path — one so-so book can be followed by an amazing book, and vice-versa. I left a couple of honest, not-wild-about reviews and felt so horrible about it, went back and took them down. Of course, this leaves me looking like a pollyanna, always leaving good reviews, but who cares?

    Beautifully put, and a subject many of us identify with. Cheers —

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    • For me this also falls in the “life’s too short” category. Why spread vitriol when there is so much good stuff out there? Or, as my father used to say (not in this context, and not all that helpfully for a shy girl), “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Robert Stanek is the worst of the worst. I was duped into buying a couple of self published “best sellers” on Amazon so I’m glad ALL his fake reviews were removed. They did remove the few REAL ones (including the one I wrote) too – but I don’t care. FEWER people will be duped into buying his trash now.

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  6. I applaud your honesty. A really fine post on a tough subject. If such rating systems are to mean anything, people doing the reviews have to be honest – and consistent. Reviewing people you know is the really tough part, and I like your take on it. Refrain from commenting publicly if you can’t honestly be supportive of what they’ve done. Good job.

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  7. Generally, I only leave positive reviews because I do not want to hurt anyone’s sales. It’s a personal choice. I tend to use 4 and 5 for standout books that were terrific reads. I only give a five if nothing jarred me and I found myself rereading passages to study how an author did something flawlessly.

    Three is the lowest I will go and that means a good effort some tiny kinks but overall a nicely written book.

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    • I like your approach and in general I think it’s in line with what I try to do too. I have been thinking more about it and a while it may seem weird never to give below three stars, it makes sense. I’m not a professional book reviewer, so I don’t have to read things I hate or that don’t interest me. I usually don’t finish reading the 1- and 2-star books. There are too many 4- and 5-star ones waiting to be read!

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  8. This is such an honest post. I couldn’t agree more with the motto of not saying anything if you can’t say something nice. But what to do if we like the writer, but not what is written? It’s such a quandary.

    It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided adding any reviews to Amazon yet. But I know I can only hide from it for so long, and soon I’ll have to do it. Like you I can’t give a book five stars unless it is amazing, Audrey. I can like it really well, even, but for five stars it just seems it must be one I can’t stop thinking and talking about. Goodreads has a better rating system by far.

    Great post.

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Funny how those tired old adages turn out to be so true: “Honesty is the best policy,” for example. I can’t imagine living–or writing–any other way. Yet there is definitely a place for tact and kindness. Honesty doesn’t have to be brutal!

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  9. This is a tricky subject. As writers, we hope for decent reviews and therefore aren’t keen to leave a bad review for another writer, especially if it’s an acquaintance, either in the online world or the “real.” But if we aren’t honest in our review, we risk artifically inflating a book’s merits. I tend towards the “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” I also wonder if this is one area where the quantity might outrank the quality. If a reader stumbles upon a book with five reviews, all of which are 5-star glowing reports, and then the reader previews the first chapter and wonders how that can be, then red flags should go off, and the reader can draw his or her own conclusions. On the other hand, if 200 reviews exist in a range of star values, that is likely more credible. But again, one really has to read the reviews. As some of those links you provided suggest, some reviewers are giving a book 1 star simply because it didn’t come out in a Kindle format.

    As always, word of mouth probably carries the most weight. But just how one gets those tongues wagging is the difficult part. 🙂

    Just a note on that final link you put up (thanks for doing so, by the way). I spent some time looking through it. That site seems a bit heartless to me. Is there no better use of one’s time than to trash someone’s book so ruthlessly? Then again, I’m sure the author of the “Grey” series is laughing all the way to the bank. I haven’t read those books and don’t intend to, but to that author, I say, “Good for you!” In my opinion, anything else would be sour grapes. Obviously, she wrote what people wanted. Who can fault her for that?

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    • You know, I did wonder about posting the link to the site that deconstructs (or is “tears apart” a better description?) poorly written prose. The whole issue of poorly written best sellers is a topic for another post. Yes, part of me wants to say “hats off” to writers who have managed to make a gazillion dollars from books that are poorly executed from a literary perspective. And yes, complaining about it does seem like sour grapes. But at the same time it’s frustrating to care so much about every word and spend so much time and energy writing, revising, polishing, learning from past mistakes, etc., only to see someone who appears to have done none of that rocket to fame.

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      • That’s certainly true. So I suppose the goal must be to spend the time and energy on every word but still create a page-turning read that a wide audience of readers want. That should be easy, right? 😉

        I admire those authors that do it so well–and I’m thinking Alexander McCall Smith, Chris Bohjalian, Anita Shreve, Stephen King–just to name a few that come to my mind. I wish I knew how they did it. 🙂

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