Saturday, February 16, 2013

How to Write a Review #2: Star Wars

How to Write A Review Part 2: Star Wars

As a retired teacher, I am biased in my view of ratings (pun intended). I came from the “old school”, literally. I never believed in scoring something unless there was a set of criteria laid out from the beginning. When I gave an assignment, I also gave the evaluation scheme with it. If the student wanted an A, I would describe what s/he had to do or demonstrate.

The most objective appraisals, of course, involve right or wrong answers such as 2 + 2 = 4. No debate. As for all other evaluations, some subjectivity is involved. However, when the assessor has knowledge of and experience with the task or skill being evaluated, the subjectivity is dependable.  
That brings me to Amazon reviews.

As a reader I am asked by the site to give the book I’ve just read a star rating. This score is extremely important to the author of the novel. Amazon uses the ratings to sell/promote the books. Readers most often only look at novels with a 4-5 star rating. But what are the criteria? What does the rating mean?
She loves me, she loves me not.

Well, there are no criteria. Unless you are a professional reviewer  and have studied the various genres, the rules a writer is supposed to follow, the techniques or skills to be admired, and so on, you will be completely subjective in your evaluation. You’ll have no scoring template to go by.

In fact, Amazon assumes that this is the case. Clearly the scoring guideline wants you to be totally subjective. Five stars means “I love it”. How much more biased can you be?? 4 stars = “I like it”. 3 stars = “It’s okay”. 2 stars = “I don’t like it”. 1 star = “I hate it”. You HATE a book? Oh my.

When I look at the ratings on my own books, I often cringe. The Bridgeman has a 4 star rating. I would expect that its score would be somewhat lower because the subject matter is dark. Despite the hopeful ending filled with love and community, it nevertheless describes the underbelly of society. Victim, on the other hand, is a pretty tame read. There’s lots of native philosophy, hope, and love. It has a four and a half star rating. Legacy and Seventh Fire both have 5 stars. 

 I have to admit, however, that the number of reviews is low. (Want to do a review for me??) See all the books here: My website or on Amazon .

My author rank today is 140,000 out of several million. Could be better, but still an achievement.

However – all of this ranking and promoting and highlighting and selling is partly the result of the number of stars a novel has. And the number of stars is so subjective that I don’t see how my books can possibly be compared to anyone else’s. What my readers love or hate may be polar opposite to what you love or hate. In fact, I often look at a one-star rating and wonder what planet that reader must be on in order to    despise a particular work that I loved. But that's all my own bias!

In addition, while I'm ranting, apparently some authors go into a competitors' review profile and put a one-star rating there on purpose. Huh? I sincerely hope this is some kind of urban myth, but maybe not.

So – what to do? One of my colleagues refuses to give stars at all. That might be a good strategy, except for the fact that Amazon bases its promotions and highlights on stars. My policy is that I never post a review that’s only 1 or 2-star worthy. In other words, I didn’t like the book at all. Maybe that skews my ratings, but so what? Nobody is going to look around for those lower ratings anyway. They’re going to go for the 4 & 5 star books. If there are one or two stars scattered among the other 5-star scores, the lower scores are going to be dismissed.

I will write a 3-star review if the reasons I didn’t like it are technical. Such as, the editing could be improved, but the plot and character descriptions, etc., are essentially good.

The only way to really get the low-down on the book is to read the review. Ignore or take the star rating lightly. (And I did have that previous rant on “how to write a review”, so go read that, too.) To me, it goes hand-in-hand with not bothering to post a 1 or 2 star reaction. 

Unless Amazon creates objective criteria for loving or hating a book, perhaps based on expert reviewers’ point systems, I am keeping with my policy. What about you?


John Kovacich said...

The five star ratings my books get seem more deserved if the reviewer has doled out 1 or 2 stars to other novels.

Yet, a lot of indie books are very poorly written and still garner more stars than they deserve.

You are right when you suggest reading the review. The stars at least give us a way to sort the reviews we want to read.

John Chapman said...

I've only once written a review for a book I rated one star. That book was full of spelling, grammar and formatting errors. It was full of scientific gaffs, had an awful cover and it's title included the words 'The new bestseller'. Despite that it had an intriguing plot and was clearly written by a very young author. Although my review pointed out the problems I finished it with words of encouragement to the author. Very much 'a good effort but...' review.

Now I do read the one star reviews. They basically fall into two categories. A detailed explanation of what's wrong or a short and often poorly written 'This book is rubish' type, (note the spelling), which can be safely ignored.

It's interesting to take a look at the reviews of a book such as 'Fifty Shades of Grey.' Today it has 8,501 five star reviews and 5,414 one star reviews. There are about 2,000 of each of the other star ratings. If ever there was a book which you either love or hate this has to be it. If you actually read a few of the reviews it's immediately apparent that the five star reviews are short and full of spelling and grammar mistakes but the one star reviews are long and detailed, explaining exactly why the reader disliked the book. The one star reviews are, in fact, a lot more entertaining than the book itself and virtually compel the reader to buy the book just to see if they agree.

It seems there is a purpose for one star reviews when the book promotes such feelings of anger that the reader (probably a less successful author) feels compelled to vent their anger and frustration at such a poor quality book achieving best-seller status.

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Anonymous said...

Great article but nothing is ever black and white. You said for instance that '2 + 2 = 4. No debate.' In actual fact 2+2 can equal 10 or 11 depending on whether your number base system is four or three rather than the ten you assume.
(Sorry - can't help it. I used to teach math and I'm a bit of a smart...)

As to those one star reviews being given by competing authors, they most certainly occur. You see creating a few sock-puppet reviews on a competing author's book will drag down their average star rating which effectively prevents them from advertising on some of the better known sites. There's a risk involved though. If Amazon gets smart and traces such a rogue through their IP address they risk a complete ban on all their books at Amazon and possibly legal action too.