Why star ratings matter—and when they don’t

Why star ratings matter—and when they don’t

Readers have all kinds of complicated feelings about how they rate their books, and I am no exception. If you listen to my podcast What Should I Read Next or have discussed rating and reviewing with us in the MMD Book Club, you know my feelings about the common—and seemingly simple—star rating system are complex.

The nice thing about star ratings is they’re an easy-to-use shorthand to capture how much you enjoyed a book. The not-so-nice thing about star ratings is that it’s easy to conflate this rating—which is highly dependent on your taste in literature—with how well the book is written. These are not the same thing.

And yet, star ratings matter—at least public ones do. Readers use them every day to decide which books to read and which books to buy. Plenty of devoted readers say they’ll never read a book with less than a four-star rating. But these ratings are incredibly subjective. People give one-star reviews because the book cover was bent when it arrived in the mail, or they weren’t in the mood for a thriller, or there was too much profanity for their taste. (Did you catch that? For their taste.)

Not only that, there’s been a rise in review bombing, where there’s an intentional effort to negatively impact a book or author’s ranking. It’s not easy to tell when a book has been targeted so that makes it harder to know how much you can actually trust a site’s rating or the reviews left there by strangers.

All this means I’m hesitant to publicly share my own star ratings for the books I read—or put too much credence in the aggregated star ratings I see online.

But when it comes to your personal reading journal, star ratings are a whole different matter! And finding a way to elegantly capture your shorthand assessment of what you’ve read was a top priority while designing My Reading Life: A Book Journal.

The journal has 100 book log pages for readers to log what they’ve read, and to say I OBSESSED over how to design these pages is an understatement! I’m keenly aware of how what you track subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) changes what you pay attention to when you read, and I took that responsibility seriously.

I won’t go into every detail here today, but I do want to tell you how you’ll track your ratings in this journal.

I’ve seen it over and over again: readers benefit when they’re able to separate the questions of quality and enjoyment in their minds. In other words, if they can learn to ask themselves both “Was it good?” and “Did I like it?”, they’ll gain more insight about the books they’re reading and about their own personal taste. I needed the journal to simply capture their answers to both these questions. But how?

The solution was to give readers space to rate each book for three separate categories:

  1. Enjoyment: Was the book to their taste? How much did they enjoy it? (It’s worth noting that this is what the official Goodreads rating system captures.)
  2. Craft: Was the book well-written?
  3. Overall: What single rating do they think the book deserves? For me, this is typically the average of the previous two ratings, but sometimes I make exceptions. (Every reader can do what they want in their own reading journal!)

You’ll also notice that for rating purposes, we opted for diamonds instead of stars. I wanted this subtle difference from the stars to which many readers are accustomed to subtly signal that we’re inviting them to approach ratings in a fresh way. (We also carried the diamond motif throughout the journal. Check out its book lists and you’ll see!)

For a quick-and-easy way to remember what you thought about a book, ratings like these—in your private, personal book journal—are pretty darn great. I hope you find the rating feature we built into My Reading Life to do good things for your reading life—and I can’t wait for you to get yours so you can start using it!

I would love to hear your thoughts on star ratings and numerical ratings in general. Do you use the star rating system at all, or some other method? Tell us all about it in comments!

P.S. If you’re interested, follow me on Goodreads here. You can also hear me discuss the star rating system on this episode of What Should I Read Next.

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31 comments | Comment

31 comments

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  1. Christine O. says:

    This is exactly why I’m looking forward to My Reading Life: A Book Journal. I need the hand-holding of what sorts of things to write down so I remember why I liked or did not like certain titles. I found I actually like the rating page on Edelweiss, where it asks from 1 to 10 to rate writing quality, character development, “couldn’t put it down”-ness, intellectual depth, originality, and overall. Sometimes, I planned on giving a certain Overall rating, but when I looked at the individual ratings, I realized I needed to either bump it up or bump it down.
    I do use stars on Goodreads and Instagram for a “quick take” on a book. But I prefer a reading journal to get into the nitty-gritty of a book, including spoilers if it will help me remember a book better.

  2. Kate says:

    I am so looking forward to receiving my book journal! It looks like the perfect tool to help me remember more about the books I read and why I liked them (or didn’t).

    Maybe you can make another edition with the new MMD color scheme of blue linen and gold for next year??? I think the new branding is GORGEOUS and would love a journal to match 🙂

  3. Lisa says:

    I very much prefer a 1-10 rating system. I wish more people used this. I find myself wanting half’s ALL the time on Goodreads. I rate books on Goodreads mostly by my personal taste. I also accompany all of my ratings now with at least a few sentences. My ratings and reviews are for me and anyone who follows me can decide if we have similar tastes and can go from there as far as how to “use” my ratings. As far as a reading journal…I may be in the minority but I would prefer just a blank line to rate however I see fit (so a 1-10 system for me). 😊. I did order this journal though and will for sure make good use of it .

  4. Tracie says:

    I’m not sure I can always separate how much I enjoyed a book from how well it was written. Any tips on how to think about those things?

    • Rachel E says:

      I usually tease this out in community. There are so many books that I’ve loved that others don’t see as “good” writing and when they explain their thinking, I agree with them, but still felt like the experience for me was enjoyable.
      Other times, I find myself enjoying stories I know aren’t well written (clunky sentences, silly cliches), but the premise and characters create a space that is fun to experience.
      I feel like traumatic books also fit in this space: books that have really difficult subjects, that beautifully share hard or terrifying things that people have survived. I am in awe of the craft and the bravery and never want to read it again.

  5. Sharon Cumiskey says:

    I also use a 10 star rating in my journal. I gave up long ago believing the ratings on Goodreads; they are so arbitrary and limited. To me it doesn’t matter that I gave a book a 3 and you gave it a 7- we are different readers.

  6. I am so excited to get my reading journal! I’ve long wanted a better way to track what I am reading/my thoughts on the book. I do use Goodreads but hates the star system. I wish half or quarter stars were an option. I mostly use the stars to give others an idea of what I thought about a book. 3 is “just ok, 4 is great and 5 is SO GOOD. But it’s so subjective! I don’t write a review for every book but I will write something if I feel it bears mentioning (like trigger warnings for things or if something starts slow but gains momentum).

  7. Nick Ertz says:

    The star ratings have fallen on hard times. These days I only read the 3-star reviews. I find that too often the extreme of the ratings are used to grind someone’s ax. I want to know, will I like the book/movie/application. I want to read the comments to see what was good and what was bad about a book; Is it in a genre I like; does it have a likable hero; and is it well constructed?
    I take my personal rating system from an explanation I once heard from Siskel & Ebert. 5stars=I’ll buy you the book. 4starts=I will pester you constantly to read the book. 3stars=a good book that is well written and has a hero I can relate to. 2stars=missing something, either a poor writing/editing job, no strong character, or other such flaws. But only one, so if I like the genre I may give the author another try. 1star=too many flaws to bother with another try.

    • Dennis says:

      Agreed. Most 1 star are usually a poke at Amazon. “It took me three weeks to get the book and two pages fell out!” So what? Five stars can be similar: “Best thing in the history of mankind ever since the finger or G wrote on the Moses’s tablets!”

      So I stick with threes but mostly just buy what I want. I keep some and give away lots.

    • Diane says:

      I like that method. There are very few books that I read that I will recommend usually a literary fiction or non-fiction. This does not mean I don’t enjoy a thriller or a romance book but it’s my taste. Some people give four and five stars to everything. I think five should be held to a very high standard.

  8. Lisa F. says:

    Rating and reviewing books is still relatively new to me. I’ve never kept a journal of any kind before, although I have an extensive collection (in an overstuffed little pressed flower notebook) of quotes and passages I’ve loved and use jewel-toned little paper clips to mark pages in my books with the same.
    I’ve only been on Goodreads for a couple of years, and just started writing actual reviews this past spring. It’s mainly a place to record my thoughts on a book, without rehashing the plot/summary. It’s become like a “public” reading journal for me. I also wish half-stars were an option. Stars themselves don’t tell me much about a book, though. I usually want to know others’ thoughts, as I’m curious how they feel about a book and why. Anyway, I look at stars simplistically like this for me: 5=not enough superlatives, 4=excellent, 3=didn’t love or hate it, 2=didn’t care for, 1=waste of time. And books I didn’t finish don’t even get mentioned–I just delete them from my account.

  9. Dennis says:

    I rate most things that I read and write a lot of book reviews. I ALWAYS ask myself who is the book for, what are strong points and where is it weak? I detail that I make no money from Amazon.

    I want to be helpful. I often say that ‘if you like lots of bullets, and blood, and heart skipping action, well, Wuthering Heights might not be for you.

    I was excited about a book recently and read a review that it was really a 300 page advertisement. Next time I went to the book store, I went to see if the assessment was correct. It was, and I’m happy I didn’t spend 25 bucks on it sight sight unseen.

    My star rating is kind of like school grades are supposed to be: I rarely give 1 or 2 stars though it does happen. I’m a writer, too, and know what it takes to make a book. If a book is really that lousy, I just wont rate it and be glad I’m done. Three stars is good – good info, a good turn of phrase, good for your genre. Four stars is really good, high praise. Five stars is when the writing or story if so good I just can’t put it down. My most recent 5-star went to Anne Patchett for The Dutch House. Not everyone will like it but I thought it was wonderful. And I measure everything written by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

  10. elizabeth says:

    I wonder, why bother publicly rating a book anyway? Everyone knows it’s mostly BS. I use the back page of my planner, a simple list to keep track of what I’ve read. I give my books a letter grade: it takes a lot to get an A+, B- is common. Comments are limited, since I don’t like the pressure of writing a “book report”, but I sometimes include 3 words to help me remember the book later. 3 words, like the old “Game of Thrones” podcast game.

  11. Anne,
    I agree with you about the star ratings but Goodreads, NetGalley, etc. do not give us any options. I want to help authors with their books and I rarely give below a 3-star rating unless the book is a true dog. But, it makes things awkward when people are just giving out 4-star ratings (and I think NetGalley loves this) when a book doesn’t warrant that sort of rating. It’s a slippery slope and I don’t know how the book industry is going to handle this moving forward. A very good post.
    Thanks,
    Mimi
    IG: @bookbimbo

  12. Audrey Fowler says:

    Dear Anne,

    First I cannot wait to get your reading journal – it is supposed to be delivered
    September 21st and I am on pins and needles! I have used your forms in the past, but think this will be so much better. I learned about from a friend of mine who heard you in a bookstore (yours) and I really like your columns. Sometimes I just skim until something catches my eye. I am not only a reader. but an audiophile as well. I am reading one “real” book with actual pages, listening on my phone when out walking which I do a lot of, and listening to a CD book in my car.
    I do post reviews of my books on Goodreads and for the most part mine rate 5 stars with a few 4s thrown in. The star system is as you say very personal and right now I am obsessed with only a few genres – mostly historical fiction when I am actually reading a book, and thrillers when I am walking with a few other types in the car. I do find that many people do not understand the difference between a review and a synopsis. A review is not meant to be the latter.
    Thanks for all your recommendations.

    Sincerely,
    Audrey Fowler

  13. Beverly J Wrigglesworth says:

    The star ratings I give on GoodReads are completely subjective–how much I personally loved or hated a book. And my ratings don’t necessarily have to do with the writing quality of the book; just how I felt about the book after reading it. 5 stars–one of the best books I have ever read in my life and will probably want to re-read it over and over. 4 stars–I liked the book a lot, but may not ever re-read it. 3 stars–I liked the book OK, but not one I’ll ever go back to or think about again, probably. 2 stars–There was probably something in the book that I didn’t like very much–a character, or the plot, or the resolution. 1 star–the book was either terrible (writing, illustration, or both); or the book offended me greatly in some way. And I don’t expect other people to necessarily agree with my ratings. I don’t write a lot of reviews; and sometimes I only write a sentence or two about a book. Much of the time, I don’t bother writing anything, because I don’t have the time, or I can’t think of anything to write about that particular book.

  14. I’m in for a WSIRN alternative to Goodreads with these things in mind! Would love to be able so separate quality from enjoyment in my ratings. Sometimes I give 5 stars on GR if I didn’t personally love a thing but feel the author accomplished what they were trying to. Sometimes I rate more personally, and I do feel this hurts the author sometimes, e.g, it’s not her fault that I did not want to see Anne and Gilbert get it on. 🙂 In my book journal I have 5 positive categories and 5 negative. Such overkill, but I use them all – things like “Right book, right time” for that NF that hit the spot but I probably won’t revisit or recommend. I use “Enchanting” or “Creative” for those books that stood out as unique and unputdownable but fell short of perfect for me because of the dark, twisty, or otherwise outside-my-taste kind of things. It’s crazy fun choosing a category instead of stars for my personal rating of a book. (FYI, one of my didn’t like categories is “Not for me”. Solves the quality vs. enjoyment issue perfectly.)

  15. Suzanne says:

    I have been conflicted on my Goodreads ratings in the past. I was a hoarder of 5 stars as if it’s the best book I read, how can anything top that. Recently (can’t remember if it was pre pandemic or not) I went back through some that I really, really liked and changed them to 5 stars. Most of my books get a 3, I liked them. But, it could also depend on what was going on in my life when I read the book, maybe I was going through something and didn’t get into the book like I would if I read it at a different time. I joined Goodreads in 2010 and have read over 610 books but only gave 5 stars to 4 books and 2 were in 2010 and if I rated them now they would have probably been a 3 but at the time just starting, I wasn’t too sure of my ratings.

  16. I love giving star ratings if they are a 3 star or above. I have a hard time giving 1 or 2 star ratings because I feel bad, but I also take book reviewing seriously and my followers trust that I will be honest about what I read and recommend. Thankfully, I’ve honed my reading tastes enough that I have very few 1 and 2 star ratings every year. I’ve also been more willing to DNF books and then they don’t get a rating. I may have loved 2/3 of a book and disliked 1/3 (The Dutch House, I’m talking to you) so what would have been a 5 star, got bumped to a 3.5 star, but then since I listened to Tom Hanks read it aloud, that jumped it back up to a 4 star rating. I really do try to factor all kinds of things into my ratings. Even though I’m not a huge thriller fan, when I read them I try to think of readers that typically read thrillers and if they would like the story or not when I give my rating.

  17. Maryann Horner says:

    Hi Anne
    I’m not that sophisticated of a reader. But I am eager to grow. In the future could you share what is the difference between “enjoying a book” and “the craft of writing “? In my mind if the writing isn’t good I’m not going to enjoy it 🤷‍♀️ Thanks

  18. Lori says:

    The quality of writing definitely impacts my rating. I just can’t give a high rating to a book that is poorly written and a book that is exceptionally well written may get an extra point even if it wasn’t top of my list for enjoyment. I guess that’s why so many books with 4+ ratings on goodreads have disappointed me, because I’m not giving a book a 4 or 5 unless the writing is very strong

  19. I too use Goodreads for my reading history, but in the past couple of years have done more than just use the stars. I write a non-spoiler review, without restating the synopsis, that will help me remember the book, and give others an idea of why I rated the way I did. I do like that with using the Goodreads site, I have enough ratings for the ‘Recommendations’ section to suggest new titles is getting on the mark more often with books I might like.

  20. I decided long ago to separate these two ideas (enjoyment vs quality). My star ratings, where I give them, reflect my enjoyment of the book, whether expectations were met, etc., and are subject to change upon re-reads and new thoughts as the books “settle” in my mind. Written reviews are where I share my ideas on the quality of the book, whether it was “well written” and the criteria by which I made that judgement. I’ve found it also helps for me to think of the star ratings in terms of percentages (1 star = 20% enjoyment, 2 = 40% enjoyment, 3 = 60%, etc), I’m not sure why it helps but it does make assigning a star rating easier!

  21. Suzanne C says:

    Since Goodreads refuses to provide the option for half stars, when my personal rating includes a half star, I leave their rating space blank and just make a note in the review section of what my rating is.

    I’m still weighing a full migration to StoryGraph. It’s not ideal, but Goodreads is getting out of hand and I do not like the proposed ‘upgrades’ they’re testing.

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