One-Star Review?

There are certainly books that deserve a one-star reader review, but there’s one phenomenon that I find amusing in a cynical way. That’s when more than ninety percent of the hundreds or thousands of reader reviews of a book are four or five stars and the one star-reviews barely register.

All of that suggests to me, in such instances, that the handful or less of readers who post one-star reviews not only don’t get the fact that the book isn’t one-star bad, but they’re screaming in print that no matter what the universe says, that their opinion is the only one that counts. That’s true in the sense that their opinion is all that matters to them.

But why post a one-star rating or review that suggests, not that the book is bad, but far more that the author didn’t do what you wanted?

No author does what every reader wants. Some authors come closer than others, and some authors who are critically acclaimed can be a sales disaster. One award-winning author published a SF novel with a 98% return rate, according to the late David Hartwell, who definitely knew. That makes The Green Progression, my worst-selling book, look like a best-seller in comparison, even if comparisons are odious, a phrase that has been around since 1440, and has been joyfully pirated by Cervantes, Marlow, Dunne, and, of course, Shakespeare.

But then, despite their insidious and often overwhelming presence in our electronic society, ratings are all too often overrated. Of the 50 highest rated books on Goodreads with more than 10,000 ratings, 39 (if I counted correctly) are part of a series of some sort. Most are genre books of some sort. And what does that indicate? Only that people rate what they like as excellent, which means that ratings are indeed excellent for determining what people like, but far less valuable for determining any form of excellence besides popular appeal.

But then, that’s why I’ve found that some highly-reader-rated books left me cold enough that I never finished them. Unfortunately, I’ve found a number of books with great reviews from critics that I only finished through sheet willpower.

12 thoughts on “One-Star Review?”

  1. Postagoras says:

    The really odd thing is that people don’t value a good recommendation. Many towns used to have a video store staffed with movie nerds, good for a suggestion. These stores all went out of business because folks like low prices and won’t pay for a knowledgeable recommendation.

    Similarly, good curators or influencers use social media to make suggestions, but folks won’t pay for that. The best they can do is to make a cut by someone clicking a link.

    The number of people that contribute to a Patreon account or to Wikipedia are a fraction of the consumers of that content. I don’t know what the fraction is, but I don’t think it’s very big.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      I saw some tweets implying that one author had gone on a spree of downrating other authors, to the point of being kicked off one particular site. That strikes me as particularly poor and unprofessional conduct.

      Some portion of high volume positive ratings might also be rigged; that sometimes seems the case for non-books on a certain very large multi-product marketplace site (esp. for products by 3rd party sellers), and I don’t see that books would be exempt.

      One might suppose that ratings which include not obviously repetitive comments might possibly be of a higher quality; at least someone may have taken more time to think about it.

      Lots of non-authors don’t consider the various elements of storytelling, but strongly like or dislike certain aspects regardless of the totality. I think it should be possible to like the totality even if not liking every feature, provided it all fits together and the characters are well-realized.

      Art is communication, and should demonstrate some skill in the particular medium. But most artists need their work to be commercially viable; not all of it perhaps, but enough. As long as they can afford to keep doing what they apparently enjoy doing, I’m not sure ratings matter that much. Even controversy is publicity, although I think seeking it is a strategy that seldom advances the art.

  2. Daze says:

    I recall a one-star review for a hotel we were booking in the mountains near Granada. The complaint was that, although the hotel and the staff were lovely, they only had duvets, and they didn’t manage to remake the bed with blankets until the following day. Given that probably they went out and bought some blankets especially for that guest, I thought that deserved a 5-star, but the reviewer didn’t!

  3. KevinJ says:

    People rarely bother to distinguish between taste and quality. If they like it, it must be “good.”

    On the other hand, I read a book that falls into what LEM said about 90% very positive reviews and a small percentage of 1-star’s. And in fact, both sides had a point. The 1-star’s decried how the book was a succession of very similar scenes without much character development or dialog, and the positives were all “I love this series!”

    If you liked the series there was a good chance you’d like the book, and if you wanted a well-rounded work, you wouldn’t.

  4. Chris says:

    Most rating systems really shouldn’t be treated as a measure of quality. Instead they should be treated as a measure of how much a given person liked something. When treated in such a way, and you have also rated a bunch of items yourself, it can be used to correlate what you like with what others like, and thus provide recommendations for you based on what other with similar preferences to you liked. This doesn’t work if you haven’t rated many things yourself, or if you try to treat it like a quality rating system though.

  5. Alan says:

    The only caveat that I would suggest is where a discerning eye can pick out the bots. Any number of books, and other products/services, have reviews which are mostly fake. ‘This was great’, ‘Wonderful product’, etc. Usually you can filter out the bot reviews, but this tactic artificially inflates the review scores and can make an absolute garbage product appear to be quality.

    1. Lourain says:

      Yes, I always question a great review that is full of superlatives. Nothing is THAT good.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Very rarely, something is even if not perfect, exceptionally close to perfect. A tendency to rate below maximum to always (for instance) leave room for improvement does not take full advantage of the range of ratings; that perhaps applies as well to a tendency to rate at least one level above minimum. That could be spotted if one could easily see the range of multiple ratings by a particular rater.

        1. Darcherd says:

          To his dying day, my father would grouse about one of his professors in college who refused to give any student an “A” because, “An ‘A’ is perfect, and only God is perfect.”

          Needless to say, this was college in the late 1940’s, long before student online evaluation of professors and the inevitable grade inflation that ensues.

        2. Lourain Pennington says:

          It’s the superlatives that get me.
          Marvelous! Stupendous! Colossal!

  6. Michael Creek says:

    I have always liked SF and Fantasy. My tastes have changed over the years, books that I used to love impress me much less now. What I have learned is to find a group of authors whose works you like and buy whatever they release. Mostly, this works for me. The group of authors I will automatically purchase include Guy Gavriel Kay, Lois McMaster Bujold, Miles Cameron, L E MOdessit Jr, and a few others. Jim Butcher’s Furies series. When I look at ratings of books, it’s very much a lottery. Sometimes you find a pearl and a new author to follow. Mostly you find mediocrity filled with grammatical and plot mistakes. And, often, it’s the one star and two star reviews that are most influential in the purchase or not decision.

  7. New England Yankee says:

    I have learned to wait for any book that has an instant flood of rapturous reviews. One, two and three star reviews are useful for this reader, because the reviewers often actually read the book.

    Often a book that begins with hundreds of five star reviews will settle down to 3, 3.5 stars in 12 months, once real people have a chance to read the book. In a way, a very high rating off the bat from many reviewers is a sign to me that it’s a book that’s being pushed.

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