Why I Hate the Five Star Rating System

Why I Hate the Five Star Rating System

Awhile back, my friend Beth wrote about her frustrations with the five star rating system used by most sites, including Amazon and Goodreads. Even if you use half stars, cramming your opinion into such a small numerical scale is tricky. First of all, where do you draw the line between a three and a four? What about a 3.5 and a four? And what do you do with a solid 3.5 if the system doesn’t allow you to choose a half star rating?

Both Goodreads and Amazon suggest what rating to choose based on how much you like the book, but I’ll wager most people don’t pay attention to it. I never used to put much thought into how I rated books. But publishing my own has given me a new perspective. I know the value of a good review, and how frustrating it can be to get a low rating without any feedback. I’d feel irresponsible if my selection didn’t represent what I actually thought of the book.

This is hardly a new discussion. I’ve listened to video game critics argue for years about the limitations of a numerical rating system, five, ten or one hundred – it doesn’t matter. Especially since people look at the number and think that’s all there is to see. As if you can reduce your opinion of a game to one simple, easy to digest piece of information that means the same to everyone who looks at it – which is why number and star rating systems exist in the first place.

But I don’t know anyone who forms their opinion with a checklist. Mine rarely involves key categories, and differs from book to book. Plot may catch my eye during one novel, while a lack of editing becomes a sticking point with another. It’s hard to make my ratings consistent when they’re based on how something makes me feel.

How did the aforementioned video game critics solve the issue? They switched to a text-only system whereby they describe their opinion of the game without mentioning a numerical value. This lets them express the nuances of their opinions and ensures people read them, while also eliminating the flack they get over choosing to give a popular game a less than perfect rating. But when it comes to making a purchase, we want to see a quick and easy indicator of quality, so the five star rating system is unlikely to disappear.

Though I always give detailed feedback in my ratings, it’s still hard to rate consistently. Am I harsher on some books than others? Do I forgive some books transgressions I hold others accountable for? Can I explain why that happens? (Spoiler; no, I can’t.)

So I’ve decided to determine what each of the stars in the five star scale means to me so that I can stop agonizing over which to choose. Hopefully I can make these sentiments clear with my feedback.

Five Stars
I loved it! I only give five stars to books that wow me. If I can’t stop thinking about it, and can’t think of an area that needs improvement, it gets the five star rating. Maybe that’s harsh; I don’t give a lot of five star ratings. But if I tell someone I rated a book five stars, they know it’s something special.

Four Stars
I liked it. Every book has flaws, but I can usually look past the ones in four star books. I talk about the books I rate four stars as often as I talk about five star books, though sometimes I also mention the shortcomings. A four is nothing to be upset about. And, besides, you can’t please everyone all the time.

Three Stars
It was okay. Average. I think a lot of people consider a three star rating bad, but I don’t think that’s the case. Three star ratings can sometimes be the most informative and helpful – if there’s a weakness in the work, it can be found here. I’ve learned a lot from three star ratings in the past. If I give a book a three star rating, it’s probably because I was disappointed enough in an aspect of the book to be distracted, but not enough that I didn’t want to keep going.

This part of the scale trips me up – my three star books cover a wide range. Sometimes a book has a great plot, but is poorly written. Sometimes the book has an awful plot but was fantastically written. And they end up with the same rating. Sometimes, I’m not sure that’s fair. But a three star book always contains something I considered worth my time. This is where I really long for half-stars, so I could leave a more nuanced rating.

Two Stars
Not for me. Again, I think we all look at two star ratings and consider them bad (if they come without feedback, that’s certainly the assumption). I don’t necessarily think a book I gave two stars is bad. It just isn’t for me. I’m probably not the target audience, so I couldn’t connect to the book the way I hoped I would. Sometimes I try to mention the audience I think will enjoy the book – since I actually sometimes read lower star ratings when trying to get an idea whether or not I will like a book. (Bit more clarity on this one in the comments.)

One Star
I didn’t like it. I give these as rarely as five star ratings (so I’m harsh at both ends of the scale, I suppose). I don’t like to give out one star ratings, but sometimes you have to. I usually give a book one star if I think that it’s flaws will prevent everyone from enjoying it – unlike two star books which probably have an audience that just isn’t me. These are books that I just couldn’t recommend to anyone, and might tell others to avoid.

Zero Stars
Have you ever marked a book as read but given it no star rating? (This is a thing you can do on Goodreads.) I’ve only ever done this two or three times. I did it when the book was so bad I just couldn’t think of anything to say, so I quietly walked away.

As to how to handle books that deserve that extra half star; I round up based on the highly scientific factor of what feels right at the time. But I’ll always mention my verdict in the review.

How do you break down your ratings? I’d love to know!

5 Replies to “Why I Hate the Five Star Rating System”

  1. I tend to not leave a 2 or 1 star – my choice is to not leave a review/rating at all.
    The only time I do so is if a book has a bunch of four or five star ratings and reviews that are clearly undeserved. I’ve only done this once – and that’s exactly what I said.

    1. Interesting! I’ve chosen not to leave reviews a few times as well. I also think it’s interesting that we all seem to agree anything between 3 and 5 stars isn’t a bad review, it’s the 1 and 2 stars that should be red flags.

  2. I think I may have explained my reasoning for 2 star ratings poorly ^^;; Or at least incompletely. Usually if I think a book is good but not for me I’ll give it the rating I think it deserves (like a 3 or a 4) and mention why it didn’t really resonate with me. Usually if I can identify with a story enough to enjoy it, even if the writing is rough, I consider it a 3 star book. But with 2 star books, I’m completely unable to connect. I end up disliking it overall.

    But a lot of books I don’t like and fail to connect to have audiences who love them. If I can spot a redeeming quality in the book, something I think makes others love it, then I usually give it the 2 stars. But if I think it’s completely irredeemable then I give it only 1. (I feel like I must have written something like this but cut it because it felt verbose – sorry about that.) I don’t necessarily resign a really well-written ‘not for me’ book to 2 Stars.

    But this is also one of the reasons why choosing a rating really frustrates me :/ It’s easier to leave feedback in word form so I can say ‘this is what I liked, this is what I didn’t.’ But it feels weird to leave all word reviews without stars ^^;; I don’t want to be dragging people’s ratings down! (And I think on Amazon you *have* to choose stars.)

  3. I agree with everything you said except the reasoning behind your 2-star rating. I believe that books should be rated based on target audience. If I’m not in the target audience, then there is a strong likelihood that I won’t enjoy the book which is not the author’s fault. Rating it a 2 because of that is neither fair to the author nor to the intended audience.

    I agree that it is difficult to determine a rating. I always feel uneasy rating any book I didn’t completely enjoy, so the struggle is real.

  4. Overall this feels similar to my system. I’ve been trying to give fewer five-star ratings these days, instead reserving them for books that just blew me away. (I went through a period of feeling like I had to leave 5-star reviews for friends’ books, and I’m trying to get over that.)

    The only thing I do very differently is that I wouldn’t rate a book 2 stars for being “not for me.” Given that most people, I think, assume that ratings speak to a book’s quality, I’d simply not leave a review at all (or write a review but not leave a star rating) rather than give the impression that I thought the book was bad when in fact it just didn’t appeal to me.

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