Star Ratings For Books: Is There An Ideal System?

It took me an embarrassingly long time to get on Goodreads. The platform has been around since 2006, and I’ve been reading books nearly twice that long. It boasts 25 million members, all booklovers flocking to a platform designed specially for them, and yet until this year I wasn’t one of them. Now that I’m there, I really don’t have any idea what the heck I’m doing.

See, for me, there’s one Really Big Difference between reviewing books on my blog and submitting reviews on Goodreads. Of course, the platform is different and the audience is different and all of that, but it’s not those differences that worry me. What makes me nervous is assigning star ratings for books. One star, two stars, three stars… it’s effectively mandatory for Goodreads users. (Don’t believe me? Try leaving a review without a rating, and see how you go.)

What’s the problem, I hear you ask?

Well, I’ve always hesitated to give star ratings for books. Even when I love a book more than I love my husband, I find myself pausing before I press that five. What if it’s not actually as good as I think it is? What if I change my mind when I re-read it? What if it doesn’t adequately capture how much better it is than Percy Jackson and the Olympians or The Vampire Academy Collection (both of which are listed among the highest ranked books on Goodreads, by the way, as of this afternoon). And if I didn’t enjoy the book, boy howdy — I could agonise over the decision on a star rating for hours.

I think this anxiety stems from the fact that I tend to think star ratings say “here’s what I think this book is worth to the world”, and it would seem that a lot of other writers and readers feel the same way. I generally shy away from making declarative statements out of subjective judgements. After all, who am I to decide a book’s worth?

That’s why, on my blog, I’ve stuck to a simple binary system. It’s a yes, or it’s a no. I tag books as “recommended” when they are so good that I would blindly recommend them to absolutely anyone, even if I knew nothing about them or their reading preferences. That’s high praise, so I’m super selective about which books I choose to recommend. The others that I review don’t get any kind of ranking or rating at all. I simply give my honest thoughts about what I enjoyed and what I didn’t, and that’s the way I like it… but on Goodreads, that system doesn’t work. I need to figure out a way to give a fair and honest rating to each of the books I read, without falling into an existential bookworm crisis every time.

I’m not the only one that takes issue with the Goodreads system!

But it would seem that most of the other complaints about Goodreads’ star ratings for book are based on the fact that users aren’t able to write in half stars. There’s no two-way bets on Goodreads: it’s all or nothing. What are you supposed to do about a book that’s better than a three, but not quite a four? It’s a question that has plagued users since Goodreads’ inception.

In fact, people bitch about it so incessantly that I’m amazed Goodreads hasn’t taken steps to address that limitation on their platform. I’m sure they have valid reasons for keeping the status quo, but when it bothers a not-insignificant proportion of your user base that much, surely there’s an alternative.

Of course, there are benefits to star ratings for books…

I’m not saying I don’t get any joy from it. One of my favourite pastimes is scrolling through one-star reviews of classic literature on Amazon. It never fails to cheer me up! The reviews give disgruntled teenagers a place to vent their frustration with assigned readings, and other dissatisfied customers an opportunity to vent about the author’s wordiness or reliance on cliche (or whatever else — you’d be amazed the reasons that people find to hate a book). In fact, I enjoy this little microcosm of the internet so much that I include some of my favourite one-star reviews at the bottom of every post on my blog. Check these out:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” — Kyle (The Scarlet Letter)
  • “I was told this was about fishing. It’s not. Because a whale is a mammal.” — Joe Octane (Moby Dick)
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” — Kevin Palmer (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)
  • “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” — Allen (Mrs Dalloway)
  • “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if the author knew this or not, but the teen in this book does quite a bit of drinking and I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to drink under 21. Now sure, we’ve all done it but does that make it right? Maybe. So I guess the real question here is, should we lower the drinking age? I don’t know. Ask JD Salinger.” — JACOB AND SUMMER (The Catcher in the Rye)

But back to the issue at hand…

A lot of other book reviewers and bloggers have implemented systems to make their star ratings for books more “objective” (or as objective as a completely subjective ranking can be, I suppose). One blogger I follow chooses to give (or withhold) a star for each element of the book: one star for structure, one star for characterisation, one star for language, etc. Another translates the stars into grades: a 5-star book is an A, an 4-star book is a B, a 3-star book is a C, and so on. These systems work really well for those bloggers, but they just don’t feel quite fight for me.

And regardless, most people ultimately just make a gut call when they choose a star rating, which brings me back to my original point: I worry that these subjective in-the-moment judgements are intended and/or interpreted as definitively saying “here’s what this book is worth to the world” and (given that those ratings have the potential to influence purchasing and publishing decisions, and by extension the author’s ability to pay rent next month), that just doesn’t seem fair to me.

What can I do about it?

I’ve stumbled upon a way of giving star ratings for books without hating myself, or worrying myself into oblivion. From now on, I will rate all books with the intention of communicating only “here’s how well this book suited my needs and personal tastes at the time I read it”. And I will commit to interpreting all other star ratings for books through that lens.

I think it’s an especially good philosophy, not just for me, but also for first-time and emerging authors who are eagerly checking Goodreads on their pub day. You can’t sweat the one- and two-star reviews: they’re merely an indication of where the reader was at when they read the book. They can’t honestly be taken as any indication of the quality of the book itself.

Making a point to consider these star ratings of books as a judgement of where I’m at, rather than the book’s value, seems to immediately give me a much clearer idea of how many stars to assign, and that’s what I set out to do. Back to Goodreads I go!

Now, please be my friend on Goodreads — I’m feeling mighty lonely over there! And while you’re at it, check out Keeping Up With The Penguins, too: the reviews aren’t quite as snarky as the ones you’ll find in Amazon’s one-star section, but I like to think they’re still pretty damn entertaining ;)

Question of the day: How do YOU assign star ratings for books? Tell me in the comments!