Why I Don’t Read Five-Star Book Reviews

Amazon star ratingsEver since my very first Amazon book purchase on October 25, 2002, I’ve never stopped debating myself on the value of customer book reviews.

(If you ever want to enjoy a nostalgia-filled blast through the past, go through your Amazon purchase history order by order, year by year, back to the very beginning.)

On the one hand, professional reviewers aren’t always giving in-depth reviews of the books I read or want to read.  As well, there are way more customer reviewers out there; the law of averages alone suggests I’m more likely to share tastes with an amateur than a pro, many of whom fall into more similar social demographics to each other than to me.

That said, the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads aren’t necessarily as democratic as one might believe – not the by-the-people, for-the-people, objective measure of artistic and commercial merit one might hope for.

Reviews are bought and sold: there are actually people out there who supplement their living by writing customer reviews – either voracious readers or page-skimming bullshitters who promise a comprehensive five-star review for a price.

Meanwhile, those who buy reviews often just consider it another marketing strategy, like banner ads and social media blasts – something to help boost their book’s visibility on Amazon in hopes of reaching a critical mass of interest and sales.

As well, sometimes an author has hoards of fangirls and fanboys who worship the ground s/he walks in and, whether deliberately or not, skew the author’s rankings with scores of five-star reviews.

Reviewing to the extreme

I could always just not read reviews at all if I find them so untrustworthy.  But I’m the type of person who doesn’t really like surprises.  I’ll almost never go into a book blind, and it’s usually not enough to just read the blurb.  I want at least some idea of how people have received the book before committing to giving it a try.

I only have time to read about 12 books a year, so I want to choose good ones.  I dislike having to abandon a book because, as a writer, it feels disloyal to the author.  It also make me feel like a quitter and worried that I’ve missed out on something amazing – that if I’d just stuck with it, it might’ve gotten better.

As a result, I’ve changed my review-reading habits entirely.

For one, I no longer read five-star reviews.

What does, a five-star review really tell a person anyway?  In essence, that a reader really enjoyed a book.  Two five-star reviews tells me that two readers enjoyed it; 100 five-stars that 100 readers enjoyed it.

Why, specifically, they enjoyed it doesn’t even matter.  I already know what people consider good storytelling and believe there’s a lot less disagreement about that than what’s deemed bad.

(I do, however, make note of the number of five-star reviews compared to that of total reviews, for that ratio is valuable and informative.)

Neither do I read one-star reviews, which are often either mean-spirited – speaking less to the story itself and more to the perceived deficiencies of the book’s author or publisher – or among the shortest of reviews, and therefore useless in motivating an informed decision.

Or both.

Finding middle ground

One-star reviews also run counter to my personal philosophy of books and writing in general.  I’ve never in my life given a one-star review.  As a writer as well as a reader, I know the difficulty that goes into creating a novel – the crafting a story essentially out of thin air.

I have no problem saying I didn’t like some aspect of a book or even the entire story premise (I have given two-star reviews).  But I don’t believe any book is so awful as to have no redeeming qualities.

An example of this is the Twilight series, which many people love to hate.  Although I didn’t actually read those books, I did watch all five movies and write a post about what’s good about Twilight.  I haven’t yet read Fifty Shades of Grey, but when I do (it’s sitting on my bookshelf as I write this), I’m sure I can find something positive about it as well.

I subscribe to the Second Law of Library Science (and how awesome is it that Library Science has laws?), which states that “Every reader his/her book.”  That is to say that even if a given book isn’t completely to my taste, that neither makes it terrible nor means there’s nothing about it that I can’t enjoy or be inspired by as a writer.

Because of all this, the reviews I read most often and pay the most attention to are the three-star reviews.

Three-star reviews are like the English Lit essays of customer review world.  In being neither a gushing endorsement nor a scathing denunciation, a three-star ranking requires some explanation – some evidence to back up the reviewer’s thesis statement – especially for the elements s/he didn’t like.

In a particularly well-written three-star review, you get to learn not only why the reviewer subtracted stars (the reasons for which can be as diverse as they are and instructive), but a bit about the reviewer as a reader overall.  This reader profile, if similar enough to  my own reader profile, makes it almost like reading a review I myself wrote.

And who knows better what type of book I’ll like than me.

Do you read book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads?  Do you trust them?  Do you have any special review-reading habits?  Tell me about it in the comments.

Image source #1 – J.G. Noelle and #2)

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7 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Read Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Because I like DVDs and blu-ray disks of pre-digital era horror movies, I seek out the few reviews that discuss picture and sound quality more so than the quality of the art. I know what I’m getting into with these films and I’m knowledgeable about the genre. I just want to know if the releasing company did a respectable job of transferring the title onto DVD.

    With books, I typically don’t read reviews until after I have finished it. I know, what’s the point. I like seeing what people thought after I have formed my own opinion. When I have disliked a popular book, I’ll read to see if others saw a quality I missed.

    For science books, I read the 1-star reviews because they crack me up. Often times I discover that the author is possessed by Satan and wrote the book in order to deceive the innocent and weak-minded. That only scratches the surface. Anti-science reviews are a treasure chest of unintended comedy.

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    • I read book reviews after finishing the book sometimes, usually when I didn’t like the book for some reason but am having trouble articulating that reason; three-star reviews are useful for that as well. I do read five-star music reviews. I’m not sure why it is, but those reviewers tend to be the true/long-time fans of the artist who are able to embrace change and write critically about it while the three-star reviewers are among those who whine that the artist’s sound has evolved and s/he isn’t putting out the same think s/he did 10 years ago.

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  2. Indeed most well-read novels have a spread of reviews – even the most highly-rated have a scattering of ones and twos. That tells me that it’s different strokes for different folks. It’s rare that I’ll read anything on the basis of its pre-existing reviews.
    I do my share of reviewing too. Certainly those indie and debut novels maybe produced by my blogger mates, though if they suck (in my opinion) then I won’t review them rather than hurt someone’s feelings. I also review for a reviewing website and then I think I’m honour bound to mark it way down if it deserves it – though, like you, it surely will have redeeming qualities.
    Love the idea of fanboys and fangirls 🙂

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    • I try to be judicious in which books I choose to read so I don’t find myself wanting to give a one-star review. I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings either, plus it does seem like bad mojo for a writer to do that. But at that same time, I want to be honest since, any reviewer who only ever gives four and five stars might appear to lack integrity. Which is why I do use reviews to inform a lot of my reading choices.

      I wonder how many stars I’ll end up giving Fifty Shades of Grey…. 😯

      Fanboys and fangirls are great if they’re your fans; otherwise, they can seem to come on a little strong sometimes. Fandom is a remarkable phenomenon.

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  3. I rarely read right now – I have moved into the strange land of the finishing writer, where energy is expended carefully with an eyedropper and one doesn’t take on new reading for fear of startling the Muse.

    But normally, I read a few of the most negative reviews, looking for reasons not to try something. If a reviewer has made a cogent case why something isn’t good, I will then check a few of the positives and read the sample – and decide for myself.

    Well-written, reasoned 1-star reviews can be exactly what I need to realize a book and I have less in common than the negative reviewer and I, and all the positive reviews don’t mean a hill of beans – for me.

    This is a very idiosyncratic way to read, I know, but some things are deal breakers, and those are the ones that usually end up in the good 1-star reviews: Too-stupid-to-live heroines, endings that make no sense, endings so wrong they infuriate a reader in a way I can empathize with – all these drive ordinarily nice people to write a scathing review.

    Writing a good 1-star review is a gift. I don’t write them – if I don’t like something, I usually know long before reading to the bitter end just to find out what happened, and abandon the book – but it takes huge writing skills to prove, in a review, that the book which appeared okay on initial reading was mired in something the author thought was cute.

    I am older now. Reading time is a very valuable commodity that takes what little brainpower I have left, and diverts it into days of reading which lose me days of writing. I get to pick and choose. I was omnivorous when young, a top predator now: I only read the good stuff.

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    • Sounds like you and I are similar in that we ultimately make decisions on what to read (or not) based on negative reviews. Good to know I’m not the only one. I will very occasionally read a one-star review – usually when I disliked a book so much, I want to see the slag others heaped on it – but overall, I am philosophically opposed to one-stars. I suppose, by association, I’m philosophically opposed to five-stars as well, for if I don’t believe in absolute imperfection, I can’t agree in absolute perfection either.

      I’ve met other writers who find reading during certain parts of the writing process or all of the writing process distracting but I’ve never had that problem. I find inspiration and ideas for my own writing in every single thing I read (even books I dislike, even seemingly insignificant remarks or events in books) and I never want that well to run dry. (The entire premise of my WIP was inspired by a throwaway concept from a so-so book I read years ago, and I’m continually making changes/additions due to my ongoing reading.)

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      • I have only so much energy/day. If I get started on a good book, I can’t stop myself from reading – and I lose several writing days. And my life gets all fouled up because I stay up too late reading.

        I still probably read two books a month, but I resist – I can’t afford them, energy and sleep-wise. Maybe later.

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