Book Reviews? Let's Rate the Star System
November 19, 2012
Don’t let the stars get in your eyes, Don’t let the moon break your heart
Love blooms at night, In daylight it dies
Don’t let the stars get in your eyes
Or keep your heart from me…
The other day an author asked for my opinion of star ratings, expecting that I would say that I think they’re a load of malarkey (when’s the last time you heard that phrase?). I was reminded of the classic Perry Como song well-known to first- and second-generation Italian kids growing up in the 1950s. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima—the list goes on an on—were cornerstones of Italian-American culture. We weren’t raised as Italians; we were raised as Americans whose parents and grandparents happened to have been born in Italy. And so our role models tended to be assimilated Italians and Italian-Americans (although there were plenty of little old ladies in black dresses and stockings who barely spoke English to visit in Hell’s Kitchen and Little Italy).
Perry wasn’t warning us off stars completely. After all, he also advised us to “Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away…” It doesn’t make a difference if the stars are in your eyes, your pockets, or making you drool like pasta e fagioli, it’s difficult to ignore the star (and other clever bullet) ratings awarded by reviewers to the books they read. Do they have any validity? Like many issues that face buyers, the answer is a totally unambiguous “yes and no.”
The ratings would be meaningful as a quick reference when one doesn’t have the time to read an entire review if reviewers all stuck to the same formula (for example 5 stars = Excellent; 4 stars = Good; 3 stars = Eh; 2 stars = Don’t Bother; and 1 star = El Stinko Grande). Internet writers have a free hand, for the most part, and few are limited to a ratings system. Although five stars is relatively standard, there are others who may use ten (or any other quantity), and many of those using the five-star scale insist on splitting stars, awarding 3.5 stars or 1.4 stars.
Are reviews offering a star-rating read? That’s an easier question to answer. “Yes and no.” Some readers glance over the star ratings to get a general idea of a book’s reception, while others choose to read all or some of the reviews. I will not read a review until I’ve written mine so I won’t be influenced by other readers, however I tend to read reviews when a work has a mix of stars awarded, hoping that the variety of views reflect the readers’ experiences. Amazon.com allows nearly anyone to review any product and demands that a star-rating be awarded. When an independently-published book has 14 reviews and all are five-starred, the suspicion is that the writer got his friends and family to write reviews (or ghost-wrote the reviews for them). Experience warns us that Amazon-user product reviews (sauce pans, sweaters, clock radios…) are more reliable than Amazon-user book reviews. As for posting book reviews on Amazon.com, I post them only at the author’s or publicist’s request, and I post the same review I wrote for one of my regular columns.
Reading user reviews on any site for any item tells us that the reviews are being read, because users often cite other reviews—either agreeing or taking issue with the opinions expressed—or commenting that a particular review was helpful in making a decision. Evidence that star-rated reviews are read is provided simply because the professional (for-pay) reviewers wouldn’t keep writing them if no one read them; most are paid per page view.
When interpreting star ratings, it makes sense to read the review, particularly if the reviewer did not award the highest rating. Astute readers know that even people who hate a book may offer reasons why they should read it. As for writers…go ahead, let the stars get in your eyes. Just don’t take them too seriously. A handful of 5-star reviews from users and friends will never have the impact of glowing criticism in The New York Times Review of Books or a nice write-up in People. Few books are the recipients of such attention, so enjoy the stars you are getting, but remember that stars don’t pay the rent, sales do.