What do the stars actually mean?
These days we are asked to rate pretty much everything. From our transactions online and holiday accommodation to books we’ve read and music we listen to. The question is what purpose does this achieve? The answer, to influence others to also buy or not.
I’m writing this now as it’s still early for me and my books have not been rated yet.
I rarely rate things, with the exception of on ebay. I don’t see why I should leave a track record of everything I’ve done, every place I’ve been and everything I’ve thought about it. For me I like to close the world out when I read and not have to then fill in surveys of what I’ve been doing. I mean it would be a bit like keeping a document online and updating it with my thoughts on books, there for all the world to see… hang on.
I get in some areas it’s important for there to be a track record of how good an experience has been. The afore-mentioned ebay is a case in point; there are scams out there so a list of happy customers helps differentiate good and genuine sellers from bad ones.
But do we need this where the whole experience is subjective?
I don’t really bother reading other people’s ratings too much. I have many reasons for this, one being when I read a book it’s about me and the book, I don’t want other people’s opinions colouring my experience. There is that danger that because everyone says a book is good I will have higher expectations of it. I know there is the whole argument being a strong person won’t let that happen, but if influencing didn’t work why do they have these things? And why does the marketing and advertising world spend so long and so much on doing it?
For me part of the journey of reading is the gamble taken when I take a leap into the unknown with a new author. I’ve read books I’ve loved and read other things by the author that I love as much, or other times the rest of the things I’ve read have disappointed. The fact is this is a conclusion I have reached with no help and I like it like that. It does mean I’ve picked up some rotten books at times but again it’s all part of the joy of reading for me, not knowing what I am going to get.
When I say I don’t like ratings I’m talking about the numbers out of five or the short reviews “Excellent” or “Rubbish”, because what exactly does this tell me? I’m not a fan of romance novels so if asked to read one and then rate it, the chances are I’ll give it a low rating, if that’s all I do it’s not really fair to the writer as those who will base their opinions on what I have done do not know the reason for this, or they may love romance literature. The same works the other way round I could give ten stars to a book I love, say a massive tome on the history of a small country; but someone with no interest in that country and who is not a fan of history isn’t going to come to the same conclusion.
A case in point is Moby Dick. I’ve read it and… really struggled with it; it was almost painful but the completest in me won’t let me not finish a novel. Honestly is was such hard work. Amazon have it at four out of five stars, I have no idea how it managed that. I just remember pages and pages about the use of whale oil in dry overly complex text and very little action at all.
With four stars it should generally be considered a good book but (and I know I could well be proven wrong here) I’ve not found anyone who started to read it who enjoyed it.
Even then some people are generous and if they quite liked something will give it four or five stars, for others only a very few will ever get their high scores; it’s an uneven playing ground. The same works the other way, for some one star is ok but far from perfect for others it means near on terrible. So put all these together and you have a very odd score. I know people say the Laws of Averages will work it out, but I refer back to my Moby Dick example.
Another example I can think of is a Doctor Who novel called White Darkness. This was released in 1993 and I loved it. It’s set in Haiti in the early 20th century and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I expected it to score well but it’s only got just over two stars. As a reader this might put me off, but then it’s only got two reviews so if I added mine the score would improve. Does this change the nature of the novel and how you might feel if you read it? As a book it’s no way near as well known as Moby Dick, so where that got hundreds of reviews this will never get as many. The Law of Averages is not fair for this in comparison, does that make it a worse book? I know which one I would read again.
I suppose my point being is as a writer, you don’t need to chase scores, just write what you feel is good and do your best to get it to the audience you had in mind who will appreciate it. Of course that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our best and learn how to improve, but we’d sacrifice so much of what we were capable of if we tried to keep everyone happy to get the scores, but didn’t write what was actually our voice.
If we are looking for commercial success, which we all are really, we do have to pay attention to how a book is doing but there are so many better ways.
I’m all for a like button, if you don’t like it don’t press it. After all the only time I do leave reviews on hotel websites is if I’ve a complaint, if it was good and what I expected I don’t. From conversations I know more people who do that same than review for all outcomes. Therefore these ratings will always be biased by extreme opinions. The other option is the other extreme, reviews giving proper reasons why that reader felt the way they did. But simple 0/5 “That was rubbish” or whatever should not, I feel, influence others on if they read the book.
In conclusion I feel with literature taking that leap into the unknown is a good thing, we don’t need what everyone else thought neatly packaged up in to a couple of words or numbers.
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