Monday, 22 September 2014

Five Star Reads? Choosing up book by its ratings

Not so long ago choosing a new book to read, particularly by a new or little known author, was pot luck. You might get a good one or you might get a real dud. Even established, popular or critically acclaimed authors are no guarantee you won't get an absolute howler. You looked at a book in the bookshop, read the blurb on the back cover and maybe if you were really dedicated the first few pages. That was usually all you had to go on though, unless there'd been a review in the newspaper or a friend was recommending it. Nowadays however there is such a wealth of information - books reviewed on blogs and websites, discussion forums for like minded readers, automated recommendation tools and more. One of the biggest and best resources to help choose a book though are the millions of customer reviews and ratings available on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. You can easily see what other people thought of the book, and what the average rating of a book gets. How much does this help you choose a good book though, and how can you best use this vast resource?

On its own, a random reader's review and rating might not be as reliable as a critics review. A critic will invariably go some way towards trying to offer a balanced review, if they are reasonably competent. An ordinary reader however reviewing a book on Amazon predominantly relates their own personal review, and their tastes might be very different from your own. What elevates reader reviews and ratings over critics however is when a large number of ratings are combined. This will include a large number of readers of all types with wide variation in tastes. Together, they will form an average rating that is arguably quite a reliable barometer of the quality and enjoyability of a book.

I admit that I often look at a book's rating before choosing whether to read it. Rarely will I start reading a book without a quick check and maybe reading a review or two. As something of a veteran peruser of customer feedback, here are a few pointers to help you better use them to determine whether you might enjoy a book.

  1. Safety in numbers. If there are only one or two reviews they aren't that reliable. Those reviews/ratings could be the author themselves, their wife, best friend, next door neighbour, you get the idea. Authors sometimes even pay people to write positive reviews for them. If there are a large number of reviews and ratings however, it is much harder for the author to influence and will likely contain mostly genuine reviews.
  2. Pay attention to negative reviews. These can often be more helpful then glowing five star reviews, as they will often explain why the reader didn't like the book. You can then sometimes judge whether you might me likely to dislike the same things.
  3. Watch out for irrelevant complaints. There are always some people, particularly on Amazon, who give a 1 star rating which has nothing to do with the actual content or story of the book. This might be a complaint against the website itself because of poor service, or perhaps because there was once a temporary glitch in the system which meant the book was mis-described. I've seen multiple one star ratings because a book was published under one title in a the USA and another title in the UK. People buy the book then are unhappy because they've already read it...
  4. Out of date/earlier versions. You sometimes get poor ratings for a particular version of the book, whether because of a poor binding or lots of typos and copyediting mistakes. This is particularly common with Kindle books. Amazon usually combines reviews for all editions/versions so these all get mixed together. Also, errors in early print runs and Kindle editions often get sorted out within a few months.
  5. Sequel syndrome. If an author writes a book and then writes sequels or later books in a series, then ratings tend to get skewed. The first book has a broad reader base, and this is likely reflected in the reviews and ratings. Sequels and later books in a series are likely to be mostly read by people who have already read the previous books in the series and are already 'fans' of that author or series. So ratings of later books are often higher, unless the author starts to disappoint their fans. 
  6. Not what was expected. The majority of authors write the same type of books each time, and their readership know what to expect. If the author then decides to do something a bit different, it might be very good, but could appeal to a different audience. This is often the case when an author, as most inevitably do, decides to write a children's or young adults book.
  7. Jumping on the bandwagon or sheep readers... Each year, there are a few standout successes in the book world, shifting books in their millions. It will probably be the book everyone's talking about at the office and reading on the train home. There will be thousands of reviews on Amazon, most of them giving it 5 stars. People just don't want to be seen bucking the trend and criticizing the 'in book'. 
  8. When the tough gets going... Some books are just hard work... Catch 22, A Brief History of Time, Ulyssess... Some reviews read, "On the fifth attempt I managed to get through this" and yet still give it 5 stars. If people really work at reading a book, they are almost compelled to look for the good in it, and don't want to think that their time and efforts have been wasted. They "know" it is good, so give it top rating even if they didn't enjoy or really even understand it.
  9. The critics review. This is most common with genre books. The reader likes reading literary and mainstream books and for whatever reason decides to have a go at a Tom Clancy thriller or some epic space opera. Then they'll say things like, "the premise was flimsy", "it was so unrealistic", "it was full of complicated made up things" or "Or I just couldn't empathize with the main character (a little green alien from the other side of the galaxy). No, you don't get it, that's not the type of book it is. Oh never mind...
  10. Look at other reviews by the reviewer. If they've written a bad review, but have reviewed very little else, then they could just be having a rant. If they have written lots of reviews, particularly of similar types of books and ones you like, their opinion could be worth a lot to you.

A final warning. Watch out for spoilers if you are looking through reviews. Most people do flag these up in their reviews so you can avoid them, but not everyone. So if you are the sort that can't bare to find out anything before you read the book, don't get too hung up on reading the reviews. Otherwise, they can really help weed out the duds and free up more time for reading good books you'll actually enjoy!