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.
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.
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.”
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.