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I have a problem: 3 or 5 stars?


I’m an avid reader and I review every single book I read. I force myself to write at least two paragraphs. This is useful to me because sometimes I forget I have read something; seeing and reading back my own reviews answers the ‘did I already read that’ question but also refreshes my memory on what I thought of it. I do this in Goodreads, where I’m asked to provide a star quality rating of the book, and that’s where the problem starts.

Normally, I rate them for myself and my rating is this:

  • 5: Amazing book, humanity is better off because this book exists and everyone should read it.
  • 4: Great book, will recommend it to most people.
  • 3: Good book, I enjoyed reading it.
  • 2: Bad book, I didn’t enjoy reading it.
  • 1: Terrible book, this is actively harmful for humanity and should not have been written.

This naturally means most of my books get 3 stars, some 4 and 2 and even less 5 and 1. It’s a bell curve! Which should surprise no one. Actually, I think there are way more books in the 1-star category out there for consumption, it’s just very rare I accidentally read one. 

But this is not how most people use star ratings. And it is also not how we are encouraged to use them either. Take Uber: in the event you did not give five stars, it specifically requests you to answer what was wrong with the trip. If the trip was perfectly adequate, it is expected that this be rated five stars. The upshot of this is that there is no way to reflect service that went above and beyond, or was otherwise better than ‘fine.’

So most people give 5 stars unless there’s something wrong, in which case they start removing stars. 1 thing wrong? 4 stars. 2 things wrong? 3 stars. I think this is a bad way of rating things because, as mentioned above, it means you have no way of differentiating good, great and amazing: they all get the same 5 stars. For a service like Uber this is not such a problem, but for artistic works and for books it doesn’t fit. 

I used to just do the rating for myself so I didn’t care I was using a different system to the rest. But when publishing on Goodreads and interacting with other people it became rather controversial: I have received both praise and criticism for this. Some people caught on and they know that when I give 4 and 5 stars, it’s a rarity and worth taking a look. Some people asked me why a book that I enjoyed, and recommended to them, is getting only 3 stars.

What’s really bothering me with my discrepant system is that an author gets a (small) penalty for me being interested in them. Granted, this is tiny and unlikely to be noticed in the grand scheme of readers, but it still bothers me. Their average will go down, which negatively affects public perception, even though it really shouldn’t be perceived that way (to my mind). It also bothers me that an author might see 3 or 4 stars and be hurt and then confused by my positive review.

Should I give up and remap my review system to what everyone else is doing? I dislike losing a way to signal “This book is amazing” By all means send your suggestions.

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