The one thing independent publishing has provided the industry is a torrent of discussions on reviews. Everything from “does a free book impact the review” to “is there any truth in 5 star ratings.” It’s on this last topic that I shall opine.
Some readers contend that reviewers arbitrarily assign five-star ratings to books that don’t deserve such accolades. Often the complaint segues into a direct or indirect suggestion that such high ratings are fixed. That is, the coveted five-star is provided by family, friends, sock puppets, or paid reviewers. A few readers even question the impact of ARC and other free copies on ratings a book received. At the heart of the discussion is blame and accusations of dishonesty—not on the part of the reader, but on the part of the author.
In a perfect world we could rely on reviews to provide a perfect and fair description. In the real world, such perfection is seldom a reality. With the internet and social media came the age of public communication. Everyone who wishes to have a say, may have one and we’ve learned many people who have things to say. Where once you had to rely on television ads, news reports or neighbors for product information, today mountains of opinions are just a Google search away.
A good business person knows the importance of great marketing. There isn’t a successful product in the world that doesn’t have a successful campaign behind it. One of today’s most critical campaigns is a social media/user community strategy. Whether you get your reviews at the seller’s website, Angie’s List or Yelp, you can be assured that the owner, employees or an agency are posting positive reviews. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry called Web Reputation Management. The sole purpose of these agencies are to overcome “bad” commentary by overwhelming the web with “good” stuff. In comparison, a few five-star reviews from family or friends is pretty benign. Indie authors have neither the time, resources nor money to launch any true manipulation of community ratings.
User ratings are little more than opinion. Everybody has one and opinions vary across a landscape of factors. With books, even factual things can be a huge concern to one reader and no concern to the next. For example, exactly how many typos before you can no longer continue reading a story? Maybe it’s five or maybe it’s fifty or maybe you don’t even notice if the story is that good. Until we all think alike and become a mindless collective, the variation in opinions will prevent a rating from being anything other than a subjective perception. The iPhone is one of the greatest technological advances in consumer communication—it gets four stars. James Joyce, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century only averages 3.72 stars for his classic Ulysses. The NoNo hair remover ( a hot iron for your leg hair) gets a 4.4—so go figure.
But still many readers are bitter with 5 star ratings. They feel cheated or feel as if the sanctity of literature is at stake. They long for the old days when the traditional publishing companies served as gatekeepers of quality and content. But today is not yesterday and independent publishing is not likely going away. Is there a solution?
“I won’t buy a book that only has five-star ratings,” a reader posted on a thread at Goodreads. She argued that no book is prefect and any book with a 5 star rating had not been objectively vetted. In her opinion 5 stars is an invalid opinion of the work. There is some logic to her point. As noted even James Joyce doesn’t rate a 5. The flaw in her logic however is to dismiss a book because of the rating alone. Ratings are opinions and the only one that really matters…is your own. Her point would have been more valid had she stated, “I don’t read newly published books.”
When a book is initially published many of the first readers are close to the author or perhaps took part in the production process. They do tend to think highly of the book. The 5 stars tend to be more prevalent. That doesn’t mean it’s a terrible book, it doesn’t mean it’s a great book and it doesn’t suggest dishonesty. I mean what mother was ever accused of dishonesty for thinking her baby was beautiful…even if others did think its head was a bit misshapen.
I don’t argue with the reader’s opinion. She can read or not read any damn book she wants. The logic is flawed however. If you’re “not” going to read a 5 star book does that mean you “are” going to read a 3 star book? Probably not. What she is suggesting, and this is where every author takes issue, is that high ratings on Indie books are dishonest and wrong, while low ratings are truthful and valid. So an Indie book can be terrible but never great. It suggests that the only ratings to be trusted are the 3 and 4 star reviews. And guess what? That’s the new strategy. Friends of authors are often rating books as 4 stars just to legitimize the review. So 4 is the new 5.
The frustration isn’t caused by a broken rating system, it’s created by the application of wishful thinking standards on book ratings. It’s “wishful” because “rating standards” don’t exist anywhere else that users leave their opinions. It’s not that the rating bar is too low—its that there is no ratings bar in the world of social media. The star system is the same for books as it is for any other product—a subjective feeling as to the perceived quality and strength of the product.
You can’t mandate the rules of such an open system. Readers can do as they like. There is no government regulation that exists to standardize such a system. You can complain, opine, scream and stamp your feet, but readers enjoy the complete freedom to rank and rate in accordance with their own rules. The only real and legitimate solution is for the reader to do the work and not rely on opinions.
If I’m going to invest myself into 300 pages I’m first going to do the leg work. I would after all not buy a car without a test drive even if it did receive a 4 star rating. I search the genre I like, I look at the cover and read the blurb. If it looks of interest, I read the “look inside” or flip through the pages. It doesn’t matter to me if 1000 people liked it or hated it—I’m a reader so I’ll form my own opinion.
As an author I love book reviews and I love getting 5 stars. When I get them I know I connected to my reader. When I don’t I look to see what they didn’t like…and try to use that information to improve my craft (where I can). Readers are free to review, to not review, and to rate things anyway they feel works. There is no burden on the reader to abide by any particular rating rules and there certainly is no reason to blame the author for getting a sky fall of 5 stars.