Thoughtful Thursday: Twinkle twinkle

First off, congratulations to David McKay and Gregoria for winning last week’s giveaway of the signed copies of The Towers of Midnight. Contact us as soon as possible so we can ship you your book.

Secondly, I have a question to ask you about star ratings.  We work on a five star rating system here at Fantasy Literature. Other sites use four stars or a 1-100 scale. My questions, spawned by a discussion we’ve had amongst the reviewers lately, is what the star ratings mean. When you see a book marked 2.5 stars, what do you think that means? For me, 2.5 stars is an average book. Three stars is slightly above average. Four is good and five is great.  I’ve gotten stingier about handing out five star ratings in the almost two years I’ve been reviewing here. Now, fives go on books that make my best book of the year short list. I think some people feel that a 2.5 is a fifty percent, which we all know is a failing grade, but that’s not what I intend with my ratings.

So I’m interested in feedback both from our other reviewers and readers. Reviewers, what does your star rating mean and readers, what do you think the star ratings mean? Let’s see if we can clear up any confusion.

Let us know what you think and we’ll enter you in a drawing to win the book of your choice from our stacks.


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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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23 comments

  1. Funny thing, when I try to distill it down into percentages, I’ll say a 2.5 is a 50…but I don’t really think of it as failing the same way a 50% would be in school. 2.5 is a mediocre book, or a book that could have been good but maybe has a plot hole or some other glaring flaw. It works out kind of like this in my head:

    5–Blew me away! Contender for best of the year, and probably made me either think a lot or cry a lot or both.

    4.5–Wow, that was really good! There may be some tiny thing that keeps it from getting 5, like maybe it didn’t grab me emotionally even though I could tell it was well-written, or maybe the plot was unoriginal but the author did it so well I almost didn’t care, or it just lacked some indescribable “oomph.”

    4–A fun book! I enjoyed it and would feel comfortable recommending it.

    3.5–I would recommend it with a reservation or two. To me, this is often either a four-star book with a single glaring flaw or a three-star book with a single bit of awesomeness that elevates it.

    3–Pleasantly passed the time, but I might not remember it a year from now.

    2.5–An average to slightly below average book. May have several big flaws.

    2–Zzzzzzzzz. I was bored by this book.

    1 or 1.5–this book actively ticked me off or was terribly written in the mechanical sense.

  2. The number of stars is not as important as the number of steps. A 5 star system (ranging from 1 to 5) without half stars may be quite different than a 5 star system with half stars (ranging from 1/2 to 5).

    A 5 star system wo/half-stars, ranging from 1 to 5 (5 steps) has the natural middle point at 3, which under normal circumstances would be average.

    A 5 star system wo/half-stars, ranging from 0 to 5 (6 steps) has the midpoint at 2.5.

    A 5 star system w/half stars, ranging from 1/2 to 5 (10 steps) has the midpoint at 2.25 (meaning you can’t actually rate a book at the midpoint, something no one ever considers despite the fact that this is a rather common system). Note that this is functionally identical to rating books from 1 to 10, although for some reason more people seem to be comfortable with a 5 star w/half-star system than a 10 point system.

    A 5 star system w/half stars, ranging from 0 to 5 (11 steps) has the midpoint at 2.5.

    A 5 star system w/half stars, ranging from 1 to 5 (9 steps) has the midpoint at 3.

    Systems that go from 1 to 100 (or 0 to 100) tend to actually suppress ratings because people get caught up in mental stress over whether something is an 82 or an 83. Also, many people ignore the finer scale divisions and in a 100 point system you’ll find an over-preponderance of ratings that are divisible by 5 or 10.

    Furthermore, if you take people who have rated a lot of books and look at their averages, you tend to find that their own personal average rating is much higher than “average”. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of the biggest factors is we don’t generally pick books to read at random (professional reviewers are in a somewhat different boat). We tend to try to read books which we a priori believe we’re going to like, and most serious readers are at least somewhat good at identifying books they might like before reading them, so on the whole, most of us don’t read as many “average” books as we might (and even fewer below average books).

    As you might guess, I’ve actually thought about this quite a lot. This topic comes up on GoodReads often, where they use a 5 star no half-star scale (1 to 5) which has some users up-in-arms about how the lack of stars makes all of the ratings inaccurate (although what they really mean is that they are imprecise). What further compounds the issue is that GoodReads specifically designated labels for the stars (which not everyone uses or looks at) and deliberately skewed the distribution to the positive, such that “Average” in their system is technically supposed to be 2 stars, rather than the natural 3 (many people ignore this and rate the way they rate or interpret stars the way they interpret, which I guess was the point of this “thoughtful” to begin with).

  3. I would say I pretty much agree with Kelly on her take on the 5-star system. 5-stars should absolutely be reserved for the really kick-ass reads.

  4. There are two things that annoy me tremendously in the book-reviewing part of the blogosphere:

    1) People who give almost every book 5 stars, or an “A++” or a “Highest Possible Recommendation”. There are a few blogs where I hardly read the reviews anymore and instead just scroll down to the very end of the review to see if, yes, there’s an “A+” or “A++” at the end – and usually there is. Sorry, but I don’t trust you as a reviewer if more than half of your ratings are 5 stars.

    2) People who put things like “Six stars!!!” in a five star system. Sorry, you’re doing it wrong. There are only 5 stars available here. Give 4 stars to the books you now give 5 stars, and 5 stars to the one you now give 6. There – that’s not so hard, right? (Alternatively, start your own blog and set up a 6 star system.)

    (Please note I’m being tongue in cheek here. I don’t care if you give out 18 stars to each of your next 10 books. Really – more power to you. I’m just trying to put things in the context of our own site, where we only have 5 stars to work with.)

    So, with that being said, here’s how I rate books.

    1 star – this is a bad book. Sorry. There’s nothing here that motivates me to recommend it to anyone.

    2 stars – this book is “okay”. Since most authors don’t shoot for “okay” when they set out to write a book, this is obviously not a positive rating, but it was still an “okay” read that I’d recommend, not to everyone but to people who e.g. read almost everything by this author.

    3 stars – this is a good book. This is a successful, well-written book that I enjoyed and would recommend. However, you may want to read the review to see if it’s your cup of tea.

    4 stars – this is an excellent book. This book sticks out from the pack. I loved this book. One of the best books I’ve read this year. I’d recommend this everyone who reads the genre.

    5 stars – this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. An all-time favorite. I’d recommend this book to everyone, whether you read the genre or not.

    I’ve apparently come to be known as “Stingy Stefan” here, but in my defense, I genuinely never want to be in a position where I feel like I need to give 6 stars to make a book stick out from the rest. Because of this, I’m very careful about giving out 5 stars. My GoodReads profile tells me that I’ve only given out 5 stars to 5% of the books I’ve read since joining the site (almost 800 now), and that sounds about right – it’s supposed to be for the very best books, after all. Most of my ratings fall in the 3 or 4 stars category, which makes sense because I tend to pick books I know I’ll like, but occasionally there’ll be a disappointing one or one that’s surprisingly good. If you see 4 stars from me, it’ll probably be on my “best of the year” list. If you see 5 stars from me, it’ll be on my “all-time favorites” list.

    For anthologies (given the recent hubbub), I actually score every single story and then take the average of all those scores. Simple. I rarely give the rating for every single story in the actual review, unless the antho only has 10 stories or less, but I’m always happy to discuss individual stories.

    One more note: Kat’s system at FanLit allows us to use half stars, which I used to avoid (because I felt like I had to make up mind, 3 or 4 stars, nothing in between) but have come to appreciate because it allows me to be more nuanced. 3.5 stars, for example, means a good book that had some qualities that almost made it excellent for me, or, cup half empty, an excellent book with some flaws that almost brought it down to merely “good”. The sffmeta.com system allows even more leeway with its scale from 0-100, but I usually just do 10 points for every half star, so 3 stars = 60, 4 stars = 80 (except for anthologies, where I’ll do the average of each story’s score). I’ll occasionally do “65” instead of “60” if it was one of those books where I doubted between 3 and 3.5 stars. I’ve never given a book 100, but a few got 95 and one even 99. (One of my writing professors had a saying: “80 is for my best student, 90 is for me, and 100 is for God. I think of this almost every time I rate a book.)

    Finally – this is all subjective. All of it. People will love a book I hated, or hate a book I loved. Fine – I don’t claim to have the right answer. De gustibus and all that. I’m just a guy who reads a fair amount and loves talking about books. If you don’t agree with a rating or review, I will happily discuss and/or defend it. You can also look at our individual reviewer pages to see an overview of all the books we’ve rated and reviewed, to see what our general tastes are like. If you hated the books I’ve rated highly in the past, there’s a good chance your taste doesn’t match mine. This is an extremely useful tool to see if a reviewer here matches your reading tastes.

    Wow. This got a lot longer than I meant it to be.

  5. I think where I differ from you, Stefan, is that I try (and sometimes fail) to avoid tagging something as an all time favorite until it’s been a few years. I think we’ve talked about this before in email–you seldom change your mind later about a book rating, but I sometimes do.

    For example, there was a book I rated 5 stars this year that was later deconstructed by another blogger in a way that made me look at the whole thing differently, and actually made me ticked off at the book, such that I might give it a 3 or 3.5 today (I still think the writing and plotting were good).

    Dramatic changes like that are rare, though. Usually it’s just that a 5-star book will turn out to have been 5 stars because it really suited me right then, but doesn’t stick with me–or a 4-star book decides it wants to stick with me and I find myself rereading it over and over, finding new meanings in it at different stages of my life. So I don’t always know if something will turn out to be an all-time favorite. Sometimes I guess right; other times I don’t.

    (And my Goodreads is totally skewed. It’s because of a particular lazy day I spent mucking around on there, digging up all my old favorites that I’d loved for decades and 5-starring them. LOL.)

    Your anthology system is sound, I think. I do the same thing in a way, though I don’t really quantify it; I kind of get a feel for how many of the stories I think are awesome, good, mediocre, or bad and settle on what seems to be about an average.

    Here’s another weird thing about me: When recommending books to friends, I feel more comfortable recommending my 4-star books than my 5-star books. Because my 5-star books are so meaningful to me that it actually hurts when people hate them. Whereas I can have a detached debate about a 4-star book or just agree to disagree.

  6. I considered asking Kat if I could go back and restar some of my reviews. K.J. Parker’s Purple and Black I gave a 4.5 star review, but it’s stuck with me in a way some of the other five star reviews I’ve given haven’t. And I struggle with that rating because there is a reason I knocked the half star off (I could see the end coming a mile away) but the rest of the story more than makes up for it, and I sometimes wonder if the obvious foreshadowing wasn’t a commentary on the characters and their motivations themselves.

    I went back and checked my reviews as I was writing the original post, and I have a lot of five star reviews, but I think I can stand by most of them. A few I might want to adjust by a star or half a star. But a lot of my five star reviews are on older books that I loved, and read to fill in gaps in our coverage or just because they are on my keeper shelf and I reviewed them when I reread them. When looking at books that I reviewed as ARCs or new releases, my ratings don’t skew nearly as high.

  7. I’ll sometimes re-rate books on GoodReads, but rarely. I’ve only once asked Kat to re-rate a book here. I’m usually pretty happy with my ratings as time goes by. That’s another reason I’m so stingy with the five star ratings – I’d hate to have to change them later on, so if there’s any shred of doubt in my mind, it’s going to be 4.5 stars.

    And in response to Kelly’s first post (which I only read after writing my own): I completely agree that 5 stars are usually only for books that made me think a lot or cry a lot – any emotional reaction, really. If a book doesn’t make me laugh out loud, or move me to tears, or (most commonly) give me the chills at some point, it usually doesn’t get the highest rating.

  8. I generally wont pick up a book unless it has 4/5 stars or greater on amazon, maybe 3.5 if I like the premise. I know there is a lot of shennanigans (i love that word) going on with their reviews lately but still i think genuine reviews outweigh those other ones

  9. My 3 stars are just “OK”- like if it’s a book in a series and you like the other books, it’s not gonna kill you to read this one, but if it’s a stand-alone book, it might be worth considering some thing else. And 3 star book really isn’t bad for an author’s first book.
    Less than 3 is starting to suck.
    4 stars is well worth a read, and 5 is awesome.

    A problem I have is; there are just so many books out there I want to read and my time is so limited, that it’s hard for me to stick with anything which I feel is less than 4 stars. So there’s a tendency for a lot of my reviews to be 4 and above.

    Also, for myself, I have to base my rating on how much I enjoyed the book, which may or may not override how well written it is. I can have a really good time reading some really cheesy or twisted stuff.

    I’m actually getting to be a little more stingy with my 5 star reviews, but my nature is I usually really like something or I don’t, so that’s a tricky thing for me too.

  10. Middling writing can be saved by a terrific plot, or vice versa. If something gets a 5, I probably loved both prose and plot, but I have plenty of 4s where the writing was merely “OK” or the plot was a little derivative.

    Another measure of a 5-star book, for me, is if I become completely useless while reading it! ;) (because it engrossed me so much.) Sometimes, if the book isn’t long and I’m not busy, that’ll lead to me blowing through it in one day. Other times, if it has to compete with work or other obligations, it’ll take longer…but I’m still spending almost all of my extra time devouring that book.

  11. My ratings on a five star system are

    1 star – it was a bad book that I wouldn’t recommend
    2 stars – it was an OK book but not somthing I’d read again
    3 stars – it was a good book and I’d read more books by that author
    4 books – I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to a friend
    5 stars – i couldn’t put the book down

  12. Camille /

    *delurking*

    5 — Purely emotional for me, something so delightful that it makes me not care about its flaws

  13. I agree, Camille. When I look at some of my all-time favorites, I can see their flaws but they’re outweighed by everything I love about the book.

  14. Camille /

    (All right I don’t know what happened there, but I don’t know how to delete. I’m sorry!)

    *delurking*

    5 — Purely emotional for me, something so delightful that it makes me not care about its flaws
    4 — Good, serviceable book — most things I read at all fall under this category, although I don’t usually write up an actual review anywhere unless I feel more strongly than this. Also could be a five-star book, but with flaws that I just can’t get over.
    3 — A bland number for me. An okay book, but something I can imagine other people enjoying, so I’m not willing to just outright pan it or dismiss it.
    2 — A bad book.
    1 — A book I find outright offensive, whether it’s just so poorly written it lowers the quality of world literature as a whole, or contains ideas/politics/messages I find execrable or actively harmful.

    The thing is, even on books that I review positively, I spend most of my time delineating what I thought was flawed about them or what didn’t work for me, and finish up with why I liked them anyway, why they were worthwhile, or why they were amazing regardless. So while I’m a bit over-nice, I think, with my stars, I think the reviews themselves balance it out?

  15. I use a star rating on my reviews because I think it’s an easy way for people to get my general feeling for the book if they don’t want to read all the crap I say in my reviews (which tend to be rather long). I also use a five star rating system because most websites use a five star system – it’s easy for me to rate a book on my blog and then rate it the same way on several different websites. If I rated a book on a scale of 1 – 10 and then had to convert it to a five star rating on a website… I don’t know, that’s just a pain in the butt to me and I’d spend way too much time thinking about the proper conversion between a scale of 1-10 and a 5 star system that websites like goodreads use.

    As for me, I wrote a thing on my blog describing my rating system and what each star means in the way I rate things. Now, I’m not a professional reviewer so I really usually don’t read books that rank below 3 stars. I don’t really want to spend my time reading stuff I wouldn’t enjoy so I think all of the books I’ve reviewed are 3 stars or above but I am VERY stingy on giving out 5 star ratings because, in my opinion, if a book is 5 stars it should be printed on gold leaf and placed next to your favorite holy book of choice – the book is divine if its 5 stars and few attain that level. Most of the books I choose to read hover somewhere around 4 stars. Hey, I’m not being paid to review so I figure I can read whatever I want – which means I don’t want to read crap unless a publisher sends me a review copy and I end up hating it (luckily that hasn’t happened yet but I’m expecting it will fairly soon…. I am new to this, after all).

    Anyway, here’s the explanation of my star rating system from my blog:

    1 star – I hated it. There was absolutely nothing in this book I enjoyed and the only reason it gets 1 star is because the author should be given at least some props for finding enough words to fill several hundred pages.

    2 stars – I didn’t like it, but if all the garbage was peeled away there was a kernel of promise in the work, whether it be plot, the idea was interesting, the writing (with some work) shows promise or whatever.

    3 stars – It was average. It was neither mind blowing nor insanely displeasing. Average isn’t bad. Average means that the book was probably enjoyable, there were a healthy number of flaws balanced equally with a healthy number of good aspects.

    4 stars – The book was good, very enjoyable, the good aspects outweigh the flaws.

    5 stars – The book was incredible, absolutely flawless (or so mind-blowing that the flaws are easily overlooked).

    I also use half steps, but that generally means the book was a hybrid between two different ratings.

    And, as an aside before I end this diatribe that is as long as my arm, I agree with comments above – book reviewers should be honest. I understand only reviewing books that are recommended, but not every book deserves the highest rating ever. I do think it discredits the reviewer if they aren’t willing to do an objective analysis of the work as a whole and be honest with that. Hey, you might really enjoy a book but objectively the work might have problems that could bug other readers. If a reviewer isn’t willing to discuss the positives and negatives about books, I don’t generally trust them. Nothing is perfect, and blogs filled with constant 5 star – or A++ ratings aren’t being objective in their analysis of the books they choose to review.

    — end of tangent —

  16. Wow, I didn’t realize how strong of feelings people have about ratings.

    My personal rating system is 1-5:
    5-outstanding, one of the best of the year, definite re-read at some point
    4-excellent
    3-good
    2-average
    1-poor

    Like other people stated, I usually read books that I should enjoy, so that is why my rating scale is skewed high (3 is not average). Most books I read are 3-4ss, I don’t know if I have ever finished a 1 before. And as a scientist, its funny, but my ratings are off pure gut feeling when I finish a book, no rubric or notes or anything.

  17. 5 – amazing/best of the year canidate, goes on the list of possible favorite of all time. I’ll give 5 stars to any book that I think is truly something special. A book I will never forget.

    4 – an excellent book. More than likely if you are a fan of the genre you should read this book.

    3 – Good book, read the review and decide if you might like it..I certainly

    2 – a decent book with some serious flaws. readable for sure, maybe even good. Read the review to find out what went wrong and decide if the issues are show stoppers for you.

    1 – A stinker, but I did read it all the way through, though likely due only to morbid curiosity.

    DNF (did not finish) – Books I didn’t finish fall in one of two categories. They were either so horrible they were a waste of my time, or they did not connect with me in any meaningful way and we decided to part ways before the end. I tend not to even post a review for the first category, I have posted books in the second category. I feel important to explain why I didn’t finish it, and still encourage or discourage others to give it a try. My review of Windup Girl is exactly that.

    If I could change a review in hindsight…it would Sonya Bateman’s Master of None. I stand by my score, but her book was unlucky enough to fall between a couple 5 star books. It made for a tough comparison. I think my actual review reflects my feelings precisely, just the stars seem awful low.

  18. Camille /

    I’m sorry, Kelly — I was getting used to the system and didn’t realize you had responded to me! But yes, for me more often than not a 5 is a gut feeling, just pure pleasure, something I’d start reading again right after hitting the last page. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to seriously impress me somehow.

  19. Camille & Kelly – I think a lot of this is gut feeling. It’s all up to the impression the book makes. I don’t sit here grading plot, prose, characterization and so on separately. If something affects me emotionally or if it’s the kind of book I just can’t put down, that will have an impact on how I rate it, even if it’s not crafted as masterfully as a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Basic enjoyment of the reading experience is a huge part of rating a book, I think.

  20. Yup, gut feeling is by far the biggest factor. And it’s when a book isn’t grabbing me on the gut level that I start noticing technical issues much more strongly.

    It goes back to how, years ago, I was pretty insecure about my ability to judge a book. If something bored the daylights out of me, I figured I just wasn’t smart enough to “get” it. But, in part because I’m an aspiring writer myself, I started trying to figure out what made a book work or not work. If I was confused or bored or irritated by a book, maybe it wasn’t my fault; maybe there was a flaw in the book. So if I found my attention wandering, I’d start looking at the technical aspects to see if there was a reason for that. (And I fully admit there are still books where I think my not liking them is “my fault” or just a mismatch. But as often as not, there’s some sort of flawed writing that makes it not work.)

    Whereas, if a book works for me on the gut level, I’m not going to be as analytical about it. The book is “working,” so I don’t take it apart to look at the gears and cogs nearly as much.

    (And sometimes, obviously, a good book will have one section that “doesn’t work” but the rest of it is fine.)

  21. Camille /

    Heh… you know me, Stefan — I actually am sitting there grading plot, characterization, use of language, typos… et cetera — because of my job. It’s frustrating, and its an effort to turn that nonsense off for my me-time entertainment! So for me, that’s precisely why a book that enables me let go of the #$&*&#$*#(&* internal editor and go with my emotion gets extra points.

  22. Camille /

    it’s. (See? Can’t turn it off. ;-D)

  23. I know what you mean. I catch myself reading with a mental red pencil sometimes too. It would be nice if there were a switch to turn that brain function off, no?

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