Book Talk: Star Ratings: Love 'Em and Hate 'Em

Star Ratings: Why They’re Important, & Why They Don’t Matter

Posted November 23, 2020 by Amber in Bookish Things / 8 Comments


People love to hate star ratings.

It’s one of the biggest criticisms I hear about Goodreads (and one I feel myself) – a five star rating simply isn’t nuanced enough to give what feels like an accurate impression of the book.  For some of us, adding in the review section helps because there, we can vent our frustrations about why this book was really more like three and a half stars instead of four and how we wish that was an option.

And I love reviews, I do.  I generally read a bunch before starting a new book.  But whether we like them or not… star ratings are kinda important.

But why?

They give a quick glance at book quality.  Of course, this would all be more straightforward if, as readers, we all strictly kept to the provided definitions of each star rating.  Or if books were less complicated.  Books we love and hate are simple – five stars and one star.  It’s the in-betweens that get murky.

Not everyone is going to read every single review of a book.  There simply isn’t enough time in the world.  Things like the average rating of a book give good insight as to the quality… or at least the hype.  For myself, I know I hesitate when I see a book has been rated at 3.34 stars overall.  Do I really want to read this book still?  I find myself re-reading the description, assessing my choices… and then, often filtering down to those mid-range and bad reviews to see why it’s rated like that.  Was there a controversy?  Is the world building rubbish?  Did it fail to pull in readers because the writing style was overly simple?  For me, a rating is often a jumping off point when it comes to whether or not I decide to still read a book.

And there are certainly others who will only rate a book.  And who will only look at ratings.  Here in the bookish world, reviews are a part of our blood.  We write them en masse and seek out each other’s opinions on the novels we loved, hated, and are thinking about putting on our TBR.  But the general populous is filled with different sorts of people, and for many the rating is the only factor they go by.  So in that way, rating things is important.  Whether we like the stars or not.

But, I do agree with the populous when we talk about how rigid the ratings are when you’re limited to just five stars and no in-betweens.  Particularly when we’re talking about entertainment.  You may have a visually stunning movie, for example, but the plot is rubbish.  How do you rate something that is really good at one thing, and really bad at another?

One of the ways I deal with the uncertainty is by using a weighted rating system, which you’ll see in my review posts.  For example, here’s my breakdown for The Beautiful:

Ratings Breakdown for The Beautiful

Depending on the type of book (fiction, non-fiction, graphic art, poetry) I have different categories I use to break down my feelings and find a more objective rating for the overall book.  I like this system because I feel like it’s more fair to the book than my just going “ugh I hated it” or something.  Which a lot of people do and that’s fine, but it’s not for me personally.

Problem with this, though, is that we all have our systems.  Some people respond technically, others are more emotional.  We see books racking up one-star ratings when authors fight or behave badly on social media, which are more a reflection of someone’s opinion of the author than the actual book quality.  The variety of ratings styles means that unless you know the system you’re looking at, a truly great book may be underrated for your tastes, or a poor one may be overrated.  So sometimes… the stars just aren’t accurate.

Additionally, there’s no way to get around that when it comes to entertainment media – books, music, movies, games – our own personal tastes are going to play into our ratings. There’s no way to be truly objective.  I see this a lot when my husband and I talk about books – we both love fantasy, but I read YA and he reads adult.  He’s more likely to give three stars to something I read because it’s too simple for him, while I’m liable to mark down something he loves because it’s boring or pretentious.  It’s the same book, crafted by the same words, but our personal preferences come into play.

Matilda I'm Smart You're Dumb I'm big you're little i'm right you're wrong gif

At the end of the day, star ratings are so helpful, but they should also be taken with a grain of salt.  I will always leave a rating on a review (of a book I finish) because I know that there are people who rely on the direct simplicity of that rating.  But for myself, I need to know why something rated low so I can judge for myself whether that would taint my own experience.

And, for those like me who are constantly frustrated by the lack of half stars, or are hesitant to read reviews because there are trigger warnings… please consider checking out The StoryGraph.  It’s still in beta and has, in my opinion, surpassed Goodreads as a tool to discover and organize my books.  Plus, they have half-ratings and user-driven content warnings on books.  The only two features I’m missing from Goodreads (custom tags and reading updates) are being built now and Nadia and her team constantly solicit and apply user feedback.


Do you use the star ratings on sites like Goodreads?  Do you feel like they’re accurate to your experience of a book?  Do you feel they’re useless?  Let me know in the comments!

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8 responses to “Star Ratings: Why They’re Important, & Why They Don’t Matter

  1. This is such an interesting discussion! I think you put it perfectly when you mentioned that ultimately star ratings are different for all of us, which I think is why star ratings can be a handy guide but it’s the written reviews themselves that are really going to give us a clue about whether or not we’ll enjoy a book.

    I suppose it depends how we’re reading our reviews, too? Different bloggers might use star ratings differently, but the more familiar we become with various bloggers’ tastes, the more we can understand how they use star ratings and it gives us a better idea of whether or not it’s a book we would like. If we only use Goodreads, on the other hand, it can become a little confusing when two reviewers are saying the exact same thing about a book but one person has rated it 5 stars and another person has rated it 3. (And that Goodreads unhelpfully lets people rate books that haven’t even been published yet!)

    Jess @ Jessticulates recently posted: #SciFiMonth Let’s (not) do the time warp (at all)
    • Amber

      I agree – I am not a fan of Goodreads as a port of reviewing? Especially because the community consensus is that the lack of half stars and their descriptions of what each star means is… not helpful? I love reading blogger take-in the books I’m interested in instead… and I especially love it when bloggers talk about what three stars means to *them*… or five stars! For a lot of readers, what I call “five” would only be “four” so yeah… confusing!

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. In the back of my mind, I always had thoughts about star ratings and this made me really consider things from different angles. I think that the variety of reviews out and styles, as well as the different weights stars have on people really makes the community even more interesting!
    I actually made a response post to this in the form of a blog post because I anticipated that my thoughts would end up being a bit lengthy, aha.

    • Amber

      Oh my gosh, a full post response, that’s super cool – I’ll check it out!

      For me, the stars are meaningless without the “why” behind them. :/ I need to know what made people like/dislike things to know if I will like/dislike them. And that goes for anything, not just books!

  3. Monica Laurette

    I always love reading your opinion because it’s always so thoughtful and well-written. I agree with you that reviews are important.
    To me, I love that our emotions play into our reviews because it helps to show the impact that it left on us, or even the world, and sometimes a more emotional review full of praise will get me to read a book when there are technical or grammatical errors that other reviewers gave it a low score for. If it touched one person that strongly, maybe it could be the same for me, right?
    I also feel that not having 1/2 stars really hurts when trying to get an accurate rating on my own books that I’ve rated.
    My mom and I read vastly different genres, I read fantasy and sci-fi whereas my mom reads more like…cop? mysteries. She loves the Alex Cross series from Patterson and Patricia Cornwell works. To me her favorites just don’t work for me, so I’d rate them lower. She’d rate the books I like low because she would call them childish and ‘stupid’. But that’s a whole other discussion.

    I will be bookmarking The StoryGraph and checking that out soon because I’ve been wanting to find a site that was like Goodreads but not GR.

    • Amber

      Aw, thank you Monica!

      DEFINITELY CHECK OUT THE STORYGRAPH. I have a whole fangirlling post outlining a bunch of its features coming up soon (this week or next, I think) if you want to know a bit more.

      We really can’t go into books without opinions and YES you’re totally right, genre-lines do deeply affect the way people perceive books. Your examples were a perfect comparison.

  4. I like star ratings, but I know I use the differently to some people. I have real life friends who tell me to stop reading so many three-star-books, because they view three stars as a low rating. For me, three stars is average-to-good. If I rate something three stars, I liked it.

    I want four and five stars to be rarer, to be ‘I really liked this’ or ‘I loved this!’. It feels more special that way, and apparently that’s important to me. So that’s something I learned about myself, I guess.

    • Amber

      Interpretation in star ratings is *exactly* why I added my ratings chart in my sidebar! I agree – four ad five start ratings are extremely common. I admit to being one of those people who rate very generous as well. Three stars, though? It honestly should mean “this book was fine”. Fine isn’t bad! Fine is “it didn’t blow my mind, but I didn’t dislike it”. Still recommendable! I very much agree that three stars should not be a “bad” rating.