An alternative to stars on reviews

Five star ratings are becoming increasingly meaningless on Amazon and GoodReads.

Every writer loves five star reviews, and I’m certainly no exception. There’s no doubt, five star reviews sell books, but how accurate a measurement are they of a quality to be found in a story?

The problem is… how can you compare WOOL by Hugh Howey with THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway?

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WOOL is a wonderful story and has proven popular to a wide readership, gaining a phenomenal 7000+ reviews, but it is yet to have the longevity or literary impact of the Old Man.

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On the surface, WOOL is a better story than THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, but is that really the case? Or have we exposed how star ratings fail to adequately capture the essence of a book?

You see, the problem is we’re comparing apples and oranges. Both books are wonderful, but to make any kind of comparison between them is shortsighted. Ever tried orange pie?

The rating system on Amazon is structured like a footrace, ignoring the subtleties of literature.

I’d like to suggest we need an alternative means of rating books, one that perhaps runs in parallel with the star ratings, but one that categorizes content rather than judging enjoyment.

I’d recommend Amazon explores the possibility of developing a Briggs/Meyer style rating system where books are grouped by opposing characteristics, where no one characteristic is either good or bad. In this way, we can get honest representations of a book’s content. I’ll kick the discussion off with a few suggestions…


And then books that are AAA would be great for action/adventure, while DDD would be Proust, Hemingway, etc. In this way, people could match themselves with the writing styles they enjoy, and a five-star ABC book would not be confused with a five-star DDD, etc.

It may take a little more thought than clicking on a star, but if a reader really loves a story enough to leave a review, I think they’d like the opportunity express their estimation of the content accurately.

There is a world of difference between enjoying a book you read over the Christmas holidays and recognizing that a book transcends time and genre. Amazon’s current rating system doesn’t allow that distinction.

Come on, Amazon. Innovate!

PS: This doesn’t mean I don’t want reviews 🙂 Please, please, please leave honest reviews for everything you read regardless of the author. Your thoughts and opinions as a reader are invaluable to writers.

8 thoughts on “An alternative to stars on reviews

  1. I completely agree that the one through five star system isn’t all that useful. I actually read the reviews to see what they say because people sometimes give a book one star because someone used language they don’t feel is appropriate, which is another discussion altogether. However, in my opinion, I do think the ratings system should include other things as well. I would much rather be able to rate a book according to overall story, technical presentation, character development, world-building/setting and the like and have it give an average of those items to give a more accurate rating with maybe a 1 to 10 scale. Of course, maybe that would not work any better than what you’ve suggested. I just don’t know that I would find the example you’ve given very useful because that isn’t how I think about books when I’m reading them or choosing them. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work for others, but whether a secondary character has his own agenda or not isn’t something I would usually care about in a rating. Perhaps his agenda is some fantastic part of the story. Who knows until you’ve read it? It’s probably obvious I’ve thought about this quite a bit too. I’ve reviewed several of your books, but over time you have improved in overall mechanics, fluidity, storyline, etc. I’ve enjoyed your stories from the beginning because I feel you have a fresh perspective in your writing, but if I had been rating them with a more involved rating system there would be an upward curve in the ratings as you’ve continued to write and improve your craft. As it is with the five star rating system if you find a really good story you don’t want to knock the rating down too far for other aspects so that you don’t dissuade people from reading it because of a mediocre star rating. After all, in the end it’s really all about the story. I save five stars on Amazon for things I would read again without hesitation. Four stars means I enjoyed it enough I’ll keep it around to perhaps read again, and it kind of goes downhill from there. Sorry that was so long-winded, but definitely welcome the conversation about it. Now if we could only get Amazon to read your blog and join in.

    • TJ, good points… my thinking about the secondary characters was more so because I’m seeing that as an area I need to work on 🙂 I’m noticing writers likes GRRM are adept at fleshing these characters out, so for me it’s a hallmark of interesting writing, but it doesn’t suit every story.

      I’d love to see just a few questions like these (better than these) that form a basis for characterising stories. I think it would lead to a better fit between readers and writers

  2. Ratings without reason is useless. There has to be an explanation as to why someone would give a high rating to something, but at the same time, it should be understood that it is a subjective thing. What one person likes does not necessarily appeal to anyone else.
    The rating systems on sites like Amazon or even IMDB is often just based on common perception, barely taking into account the artistic merit of the works. People can easily say, “I like it,” and just drop a five-star rating, but very seldom say why.

    • Yeah, Amazon reviews are good in that readers get to express their reasoning behind a rating, but something other than the stars we used to get in third grade would be more meaningful 🙂

  3. Nice idea, Peter. It reminds me of a friend of mine’s take on restaurant reviews. His app breaks puts people into categories (symbolized by some animal) according to their tastes and then shows them reviews along various attributes from people in their same category. Like TJ, my wife and I often find ourselves needing to read reviews (not just with books) to see if the reviewer cares about what we care about.

  4. I give your post five stars! A better rating system is definitely needed. I like your idea of rating different aspects of the story as well, although I might like different criteria. I would also find it useful to have some measure of the person doing the rating or review, perhaps an average of the ratings they have given or their favorite book.

    • Yeah, my points are very much off-the-cuff, some proper analysis would probably reveal much better points, but the idea would be that books aren’t rated so much as categorized by characteristics. That way there’s no longer any rabid drive to hit a particular star rating, and readers can get a better feel for what they like in a story. Cheers, Peter

  5. Peter, you’re right that “proper analysis would probably reveal much better points”. And what you’re after, it seems to me, involves the reader not only in rating but also in classification and analysis of the writing – “categorized by characteristics”, in your words. I wonder whether it’s been done before?

    Perhaps some teacher of [Eng.] Lit. could chime in with some relevant research on classification-cum-analysis-cum-rating evaluation systems for literature. Most of us would want to see _some_ rating components in any multidimensional evaluation, to measure how well the writing meets some desirable goals e.g. (for fiction) enjoyability; (for non-fiction) relevance and focus; (for all) value for money. And how would we find your kind of writing without having clear-cut and detailed categories, e.g. “hard-science fiction”? (Note the hyphen!)

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