How Do You Rate a Book? – A Commentary on the Goodness of Goodreads

A few weeks ago I noticed a small trend/discussion on Twitter from several authors commenting about their distaste for Goodreads and it got me thinking. Some of their points were extremely valid while others came across as simply complaining. What really sparked my thoughts was how exactly do we “rate” a book?

Before I go into my thoughts about how we rate books, I want to give some context as to what these authors were grumbling about. They claimed not to like Goodreads because people could “rate” their work without having actually read it. I remember now what sparked the conversation. Certain people or bots were creating accounts on Goodreads and rating books with one star. Some of these accounts were mimicking several authors who were and were not active on Goodreads, and crazily enough, they were giving some books one star whereas the real author had given the book five stars. Goodreads apparently had not acted or responded to several requests that these fake accounts be deleted.

Since technology can easily be used to manipulate markets and flood our screens with targeted information, are such systems meant for social interaction and shared interests safe places that provide us with relevant information? Or is that information being changed on a whim by computer algorithms?

A loaded question, I know. I agree with many of the authors concerns. I don’t necessarily think it is fair that even authentic accounts can go in and provide a rating for a book they have not read or did not finish (DNF). The rating system so ingrained in our culture has pros and cons but is definitely at risk of manipulation. Think about how ratings impact your decisions. Do you ever decide not to buy something, say on Amazon, because the average rating is low or you found a similar product with a higher rating? Do you peruse what the reviews say about the product or check to see how many people were included in the average rating? Are you someone who uses reviews to make decisions but never leaves reviews of the products you buy?

We use the information and opinions of thousands of strangers as a basis for finding good products. But how does that work with books? How can one rating system be suitable for a medium that spans hundreds of years and millions of interests? To me, Goodreads (or similar programs) is a tool I use mainly for personal use. I don’t have too many “friends” on Goodreads and I don’t really use the social aspect of the program. Though I do think it is great that you can find people who love books and see what your friends are reading and what they like since a friend’s recommendation holds much more weight than a mass of strangers. I personally only take recommendations in person when it comes to books. I also write book recommendations on this blog as my own way of giving actual feedback about the books I read.

I use the rating system simply for myself, but lately I’ve been questioning my own method of rating books. If I DNF a book, I will not rate it because I don’t believe you should rate a book you did not read. That would be like saying something tastes good before actually taking a bite. You don’t have the full experience. Sure it looks good, but it could taste terrible and vice-versa. I hardly ever give two stars or lower. If I don’t care much for a book, I usually don’t care to comment on it. I give three stars if I like the book, four if I really like it, and five stars if I absolutely love it and have already recommended it to all my friends (which is really the highest “rating” you can give a book). These ratings are my opinion. I think they allow any stranger that looks at my profile to see what I like and give them an idea of what I like to read. I love it when two people can rave about the same book. Books have the ability to form friendships and encourage passionate discussions. This is one reason I love them and want to write books of my own (it will be interesting when my own books show up and get rated on Goodreads, which will likely provide a different perspective for me).

But again, how do you rate a book? How can you rate books in the same system when they have nothing in common? I like to branch out and read new things. I’ve recently been reading much more nonfiction. So how do I rate a nonfiction book seemingly in comparison to a book of fiction? If I give them both three stars, does that mean I liked them equally despite having totally different experiences? Usually not. It is just in the moment after finishing the book when I consider if I liked it and how much. I then give the rating. I don’t compare the book to others I have read (with a few exceptions like if the book is better than other in the same series). I don’t think about how that rating may impact the overall rating for that book, which in turn may influence a complete strangers decision to read the book or not. I hope no one (or not many people) actually makes a decision to read a book based on a rating. Books are not kitchen appliances. But ratings do influence opinions and sales.

As with any rating system or criticisms, there are plenty of books people rate highly that I thought were just alright and there are books I love which others didn’t seem to enjoy. Some people love to gripe about anything. I worked in customer service for years and 90% of the interactions where a customer needed my attention as a manager was when they were dissatisfied. Rarely did anyone come up and praise anything or say how much they enjoyed their experience. I don’t think the same necessarily applies to rating books, but we use the same scales for businesses and the internet emboldens those grumpy customers to post one-star ratings on Yelp or Google or whatever they use. Sometimes they will use several so their nasty opinion can do the most damage. Some people just suck.

I use Goodreads and its rating system. But it is strictly for my own purposes. I refuse to be nasty about anything because I don’t need to add to that pile of poison already rotting the internet. I also use Goodreads to keep lists of books I want to read. I could not rate books and still use Goodreads simply to keep lists. Perhaps I may make that change. The program is a tool after all and can be used however you like. Just like any tool, it can be misused by the wielder. I do think Goodreads should authenticate accounts and remove any bots that try to alter ratings with false input. However, I also choose to read books based on my own interests and will not let a simple rating deter me from potentially discovering an amazing book. I will decide for myself if I like it. I am my own person. As are you.

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