The star rating for books (as with much else) is ubiquitous; it gives a good indication of whether the book was liked or not at a glance, which given the sheer volume of books out there can only be a good thing. Across Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords (my major reviewing platforms) the 5 star rating rules. No half stars, just 1 to 5 stars.
But what do the star ratings mean? I saw a recent comment posted on Goodread's anniversary that the reviews on there were useless because most of the ratings given to books were 4 and 5 stars, implying that the system was flawed because if the vast majority of ratings are that high then all books look good.
This got me thinking about my reviews, how I choose the star rating and what that means to me and if I should maybe modify how I rate books.
I definitely give more 4 and 5 star ratings than I do other ratings but I do give 3 stars relative frequently. I very rarely give 1 or 2 stars as for me the book would have to be very poor and show no promise at all, and even with the boom in self publishing most authors are very much capable of producing a good book.
I would suspect that the casual reader (rather than someone like me who reviews on request) they tend to read books they like, and often from authors they already know they like. This means that for any given book they are more than likely to give a higher review. I suspect this is the reason for the high ratings at Goodreads - most people are reviewing books they know they will like beforehand, and very rarely encounter something that disappoints. There is also the consideration that they may be reviewing books they have read in the past, and books that were enjoyed are far more likely to be remembered than those that were disliked or were simply unengaging. This inevitably skews any reviews towards the higher ratings.
There is also pressure to produce 1 star ratings, which I think is especially true of Amazon, where readers who were very disappointed in a book will take the time to register a low rating and a ppor review. Some of time they genuinely didn't enjoy the book (which is fine) but sometimes there is a poor rating for something outside the author's control - the book arrived late when ordered, or was damaged etc - in which case the author suffers for something that is not their fault.
So what do I mean when I give my star ratings? I will say right here that I am not over critical of books. I know some reviewers go through them with a fine toothed comb and take lots of notes when reading, but my reviews are more about how I reacted to the book on an emotional level. Sometimes it takes a few days after I have finished a book to work out how I felt about it. Sometimes I know by the end of the first chapter that this is going to be 5 stars. I can ignore a few spelling errors or mis-words here and there as long as they don't distract from the narrative, for example, but lazy plotting or lack of character is a serious flaw.
If I award 5 stars then I really enjoyed the book and looked forward to each reading session. This could have been because the plot was superb or because the language and prose itself was just enjoyable to read. I know some reviews reserve this for only books that are truly outstanding. That is fine but really not for me. I will sort out some sort of ordering when I do my top ten books of the year and a lot of that is influenced by how some books live with me for longer than others.
4 stars are used for those books that I generally enjoyed but I felt could perhaps have been improved in some way or didn't quite engage me as much other works. It's still a good book and worth a read and I would recommend it to others without hesitation (I retweet my 4 and 5 star reviews regularly). I try to make it clear in the review why I felt it didn't quite deserve the final star.
The middle of the star range and does indeed indicate a middling book; this usually means that I enjoyed some parts of the book but that others just didn't work for me (others may disagree). Sometimes I have to force myself to finish a book; this will probably mean a 3 star rating if the overall plot or some of the ideas are still worthy of attention. I will also use it for books where it could just have been that the author was struggling to express what they meant and I will give them the benefit of the doubt because there is promise in the premise (if you will).
I really really don't want to give a 2 star rating and will try to talk myself out of it and find reasons to bump the book up to 3 stars. It will generally mean that the author has got something really fundamental wrong with the book; it is either devoid of any interest, just plain dull or the plot is so flawed it ruins anything of merit. To date I think I've only ever given one 2 star review, for The Long Utopia by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett. It hurt to do but I really couldn't justify a higher mark.
Simply put: I couldn't dinish it. And I will grimly read a lot of uninspiring pages just to get to the end of a book. If I can't see any redeeming features then it's going to get 1 star. That has happened with precisely one book, Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire which I know a lot of people rate very highly but I really didn't think it offered anything new in the fantasy world (people had been doing more 'realistic' and darker fantasy for a long time beforehand) and wasn't in fact very well written (in my opinion).
Sometimes I sort of wish there were half stars I could use but that actually makes the job harder rather than easier. At least the divisions above are reasonably clear cut; what's the difference between 3 stars and 3.5 stars? No idea so although some books fall on the borderline between whole stars, on balance I'd rather have to decide to move them up or down rather than have a wider range to choose from.