Why I’m Not a Big Fan of Star Ratings for Books – And Rarely Use Them

This is a topic that has been on my mind lately, and one I think I have to approach a little cautiously because it could be a sensitive one for some people. I really don’t intend for any of this to come across as mean or like I’m insulting anyone’s work, and I’m very aware it could come off that way. The truth is, I have a TON of respect and admiration for anyone writing stories, and especially the people who have the guts and the motivation to publish their work.

But I gotta be honest, I’m not a huge fan of star-based book ratings. For one, I find them unreliable and often unclear. Unless a reviewer has clearly defined criteria outlining what goes into their rating decision, it really isn’t a very useful tool for determining how good a book actually is. I do realize some websites and blogs do actually have a defined system for their ratings, which is awesome, but a lot of the ones that I’ve seen are somewhat vague.

If I’m being honest (and here’s where the “Wow she’s so mean!” part comes in) one BIG reason why I don’t have a ton of faith in star ratings is the lack of honesty that can go into them. There’s something that I’ve been noticing lately, which is the practice of some – not all, and probably not even many, but some – indie authors encouraging their friends, often other aspiring authors, to give their books high ratings. Then those friends go give it a 5 star rating out of loyalty, and perhaps hope that their friend will reciprocate, but…is it really a 5 star story?

In theory, 5 stars should mean the story is basically perfect. On a scale of 0 (or 1) to 5 stars, 5 is the maximum so it stands to reason that if you’re saying “This is a 5 star book” then there really isn’t much – or any – room for improvement.

I understand writers want those good reviews and high ratings because it boosts their ego and helps with ranking (which helps with sales of course) but telling someone that something is perfect when it’s not isn’t doing them, or potential new readers, any favors. For a star rating system to be effective, it needs to be honest.

I know I personally have read stories by lesser know or independent authors – that had a handful of reviews, all 5 stars and absolutely glowing – only to find that the story itself wasn’t very good. And not just “not very good” in terms of the content of the story, but also in the quality of the finished product. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, unrealistic dialogue or distracting repetitive phrases. Simple things that should have been caught in editing, but weren’t for whatever reason. I don’t mean to be harsh, but that’s not a 5 star book. Not yet at least. It could be a decent story with a ton of potential, but if it reads more like a first or second draft and it’s got a bunch of 5 star ratings, I’m definitely going to question where those reviews are coming from and I’m very unlikely to want to read anything by that author again.

Here’s the thing, even from the perspective of a hopeful writer the idea of being given 5 star reviews that aren’t deserved makes me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want anyone to completely rip apart my work but I would want honest opinions on it. How else do we grow and improve? Yeah it’s going to suck sometimes to see a 3 star or comments telling you your character development was a little weak or there were more spelling mistakes than a finished draft should have, but wouldn’t you rather find that out now so you can avoid making those same mistakes in your next book?

If I’m writing a book review – and admittedly I’m not very good at these but I’m trying to improve – I generally don’t bother with a star rating unless it’s a step I can’t skip, if it’s built into the platform for example and I can’t leave it blank. This may not be everyone’s preference when it comes to reviews. I’m sure a lot of people like the star rating system because it’s short and quick. But I prefer reviews that explain what the reviewer actually liked and didn’t like about a book. That gives me far more insight, which is something I value.

Now I understand rating and reviewing stories is subjective. My standards for what constitutes a great book could be very different from yours. In fact, I often read other reviews on GoodReads, as I’m writing a review (not necessarily to sway my opinion or anything but I like the way other perspectives make me consider things I might not have thought of or shine new light on things I might not have interpreted the right way, or put as much focus on as I should have.) and I do often find that sometimes the general consensus is kind of the opposite of how I felt about various stories. Which is fine, different opinions are great and even important, but it does go to show that it is very possible for one person to think a book is fantastic and another person to think that same book is flaming garbage. It happens. But I still think there should be more of a standard when it comes to giving a book that 5 star rating.

Just to be absolutely clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone rate books poorly just for the hell of it. Don’t be cruel or excessively critical. But I do think being honest is important. Don’t just give a book 5 stars because they’re your friend or because you don’t want to be mean, or because they gave you a copy for free (UGH! RUN AWAY if someone offers you a book in exchange for a specifically 5 star review. Even the best book isn’t worth your integrity.) If you didn’t like a story and don’t want to say anything negative, you can just skip it.

You are in no way obligated to write a review.

Let me know what you think about this topic. Do you use stars when you’re rating books? If so, do you have very defined criteria you follow? Are you ever disappointed to read a book with a lot of 5 star ratings, only to find it’s not very good? Or do you not really pay attention to any of that at all? Leave me a comment and let me know!

13 comments

  1. Ooh you make a lot of good points! I personally save 5 stars for the ones that I have nothing critical to say about…otherwise it kind of feels like it’s not *really* five stars, like you mentioned. I made a special ‘glowing 5 stars’/creme-de-la-creme shelf on Goodreads for the extra special ones, which makes me wonder if I need to lower some of my older 5-starred books 😂 Ah, well. I also use a lot of decimals for ones that were almost at 5 (or 4) but had a couple things holding it back. I absolutely agree honesty is the most important part of the review, whether or not you include star ratings or not! Great post.

  2. I’m not a fan of the star system either – mostly because it doesn’t really tell me whether I’ll like a book. What someone else honestly thinks is the best book ever written may not appeal to my tastes. What I think is awesome, may be a DNF to someone else. Happens ALL THE TIME. So, to me. the best information is in the text of a review. That is so much more informative in terms to guiding my choices and assessing what books I’ll enjoy. 😀

  3. Welcome to the ugliness of the indie world. Editors are the worst. 2 professionals paid big money and James and I are still finding TONS of issues in our books. It kills indie authors when we pay tons of money and put our faith into people who boast about being English majors. We are the storytellers, we need the technical eyes to help mold it. I wish I had friends who would beta read, critique, and review. Until that day I’ll take what I can get. And trying to get beta readers who don’t charge an arm and a leg? Forget it!

  4. Welcome to the world of indie authors. James and I are on round 3 of doing edits for our books. 2 high paid English major editors later and there’s still tons. Unfortunately nothing is cheap in the world of writing from editors to beta readers. I’d be psyched if my friends would beta reaf, critique, or review. I’m aware there’s plenty of people who swap 5 star reviews. Its dishonest but in my mind they’re doing what they have to in order to survive the hard world of writing.

    • Yeah you definitely get what you pay for when it comes to editors and things like that. I know a lot of people likely hold back with their true opinions when they don’t want to offend. I have quite a few friends who edit, I do too on the side, and it’s crazy the amount of things they’ll let slide because they don’t want to be rude. Whereas I’m that jerk being like, “NO ONE TALKS LIKE THIS, REWRITE THIS CONVERSATION!”

  5. I do use star ratings, because it is standard across places like goodreadd and amazon… it is hard to get away from, but I do try to rate according to my own criteria of just how many problems I run across, how much they matter against the enjoyment I get from the book, and how far off the mark I think the author is for their intended audience. It can be pretty nuanced, and I tend to rate books lower than most readers. Before I read a book I often check out the worst reviews it has to see what the complaints are and hardly read the good reviews at all. I find most negative or middling reviews are more honest.

    • I tend to agree with the points you’ve made here. I’m pretty harsh on things a lot of the time can be quite critical so I often don’t really agree with the 5 Star Glowing Reviews some books get, which might be part of my problem in the first place.

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