Regarding the Five Star Rating System

Part of reading books is stacking them up against each other with each one you finish. Whether you then write a review for the book or not, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you finish reading the book you picked up from the library last week or the one you downloaded to your Kindle yesterday afternoon, you are going to rank that book in some fashion against the other books you’ve read recently. You may just say to yourself, “I liked that book more than anything I’ve read in the last few months,” or, maybe you’ll be more specific and think, “You know, that book is the strongest ending of a trilogy I’ve ever read.” It doesn’t matter how specific you are, but you really can’t stop yourself from grading everything you read in some fashion.

In the world of book blogging and reviewing, the five-star system is the general standard for rating books; five stars being the best and one star being the worst, with occasional use of zero stars for the truly terrible. Let me be clear in stating that there is nothing inherently wrong with the five-star rating system. The problem I have is oftentimes the five-star rating system is used incorrectly or in ways that dilute it in some fashion.

Here is a collection of examples of what I see happen more often than not:

  • Someone grabs a book by their previously established favorite author and reads it. Then, simply because that author is their favorite author, they give it five stars.
  • “For no other reason than I liked this book, I give it five stars.”
  • Someone reads a book recommended by another book blogger or friend who gave it five stars and gives it five stars as well so they don’t start a fight.
  • Someone reads a book by an author with a different political/social/moral viewpoint than their own and then proceeds give it zero stars.
  • Someone discovers a few punctuation or small grammar mistakes in a book and then gives it one star.
  • Reader: “I don’t like first person viewpoints.” Gives all first person viewpoint novels two stars regardless of anything else.

And my personal favorite:

  • Someone reads a book written by a family member, friend, or friend of a family member, and then gives it four or five stars so as not to give offense to someone they might actually have to talk to at a later date.

I feel very strongly that all of these listed usages of the five-star system are wrong. Not only do they show that the person giving the rating has no idea how a five-star rating system is supposed to work, but they also serve to make it impossible for someone trying to decide if a book is worth their time to get an accurate assessment.

When looking at a five-star rating system objectively, despite its inherent subjectivity, there are some things that can be established as benchmarks that assist in keeping most interpretations within acceptable boundaries.

First, in a system where you have five options, the middle option is the equivalent of “average.” That is to say, a three star rating means the book was average. It did not do anything wrong, and it did not do anything especially unique. A big problem with the use of the five-star rating in today’s world of book blogging and reviewing is that everyone feels giving something a three star rating means that the book was “bad” or “sub par.” In actuality, a three star rating means the book set out to do what it should: tell a story in a coherent, engaging manner without plot holes, flat characters, or any other large oversights. It could be argued that any book someone starts reading gets the benefit of the doubt of having a three star rating until it proves itself otherwise. I don’t think that happens very often, which is disappointing. I am of the opinion that 85-90% of books are worthy of a three star rating. No more, no less.

Second, the use of “half stars” between the delineated 1,2,3,4, and 5 star ratings serves no purpose but to dilute the system and turn it into a ten star rating system. If you think a book is truly deserving of three and a half stars, give it a three star rating or a four star rating and then explain yourself in more detail during your review. Do not use “half stars” as a crutch.

Third, it’s my feeling that ratings should be from one to five stars. No zero star ratings. I have yet to see a zero star rating where the reviewer was not just being petty and insulting for the sake of being so in an antagonistic manner. If you don’t find anything redeeming about the novel, give it one star and move along. There is no need to be disrespectful by slamming the author further into the ground for no reason but your own satisfaction.

By establishing these three ground rules, the five-star rating system begins to have a lot more structure and reviewers can help readers more accurately determine the worth of a book. Allowing your fanboy emotions for a particular author to grant higher ratings than a book is actually worth doesn’t help. Neither does slamming a book because of your personal prejudices.

Some might have noticed that I do not provide ratings, grades, or any other such system with my book reviews any longer. I had a grading system a while back and I’ve dabbled in the idea of using the five-star system a little bit, but I don’t trust that others will interpret my ratings for what they actually are: as objective as I can make them. Instead, I imagine those reading my blog, be they casual readers, other book bloggers, or authors, will see any three star ratings as some sort of insult. If I were an author, I’d be thrilled if a bulk of my ratings were three star ratings and any four or five-star ratings would just be icing on the cake.

For the sake of argument, and because I have been considering the use of the five-star rating system again in the near future for my own reviews, here are the guidelines I personally use when rating a book after having read it (with included examples of books I’ve read in the past year or so that fit within each rating level):

Five Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. In addition they feature unique magic systems, plot devices, or character development that is not found anywhere else in their respective genre. I read these books very quickly; staying up all night to finish them or avoiding important responsibilities to keep reading. These are books I sincerely believe to be deserving of any and all literary awards they are eligible for at the time. I would recommend a five-star book to anyone at anytime regardless of their genre preferences.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Five Star Rating:

  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke
  • The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez
  • The Enceladus Crisis by Michael J. Martinez
  • Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Four Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. In addition it utilizes common genre tropes in interesting new ways that keep them from being stale. I read these books rather quickly, possibly staying up an hour or two late, or ignoring smaller responsibilities to keep reading. I would recommend these books to anyone who is a fan of its respective genre as well as selected people who are not generally readers of that genre. These books would be deserving of at least consideration to be nominated for some literary awards.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Four Star Rating:

  • Defenders by Will McIntosh
  • Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood
  • The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
  • Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole
  • The Stormlight Archive: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Three Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent, engaging story that is free of major grammatical errors, large plot holes, undeveloped characters, and any other things that would take me out of the story. I tend to read books of this type over the course of a few days without avoiding other responsibilities or staying up late to keep reading. I would recommend a three star book to just about anyone that I know enjoys the genre it falls within.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Three Star Rating:

  • The Iron Druid Chronicles: Hounded by Kevin Hearne
  • Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos
  • Lock In by John Scalzi
  • Soulminder by Timothy Zahn
  • Paradox Series: Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

Two Star Rating: A book at this level has managed to tell me a coherent story that may have a few plot holes or characters that are in need of better overall development. These books are free from any major grammatical errors, but may have a higher number of smaller errors than is ideal for a reading experience. I often find myself reading these books more slowly and sometimes reading a better book at the same time. I rarely stop reading these books in the middle, but I do have a hard time recommending them to others unless there is something very specific I feel that person will enjoy due to their personal tastes.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a Two Star Rating:

  • The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning by Hallgrimur Helgason
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
  • Moon College by Geoffrey Litwack

One Star Rating: A book at this level has most likely not managed to tell me a complete story. It suffers from major plot holes, unrealistic or unbelievable characters, significant grammatical or formatting errors, or failing to feel like a cohesive piece of literature. A book at this level may also be full of offensive material not suited for general consumption, or it may just be so confusing that a reader cannot follow the plot from point A to point B effectively. I make a point of not recommending one star books to others.

Examples of books I consider worthy of a One Star Rating:

  • Shattered Soul by David Bentley
  • Soulminder by Blake Walker

I’m not saying that my way is necessarily the right way, but I do believe it’s a lot closer to the correct way of using a five-star rating system than what I see happen on a lot of blogs and other review locations such as Amazon or Goodreads. Everyone loves getting a five-star rating on something they’ve written or otherwise created through hard work and determination, but I would much rather a five-star rating on something I’ve created be coming from a place of as much objectivity as possible rather than subjective whims.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much structure one tries to apply to any kind of rating system because the very nature of reading and enjoying a book means no system will be 100% objective because opinion by default cannot be applied 100% objectively. Take for example the fact that I think The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a lousy book when it is generally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. Enjoying a book is always going to have a subjective element to it, but that doesn’t mean the rating system preferred by most couldn’t be applied a little more consistently across the board.

The Crossroad of Blogging and Reading

I’ve been blogging about books here since March 2012 and I’ve had a lot of fun for the past two and a half years. My hope is that I’ll continue having fun blogging for many years to come, but right now I’m dealing with lots of things pulling me in a lot of different directions. As much as I wish this blog were a cash cow that pays all the bills with money left over, the fact of the matter is that I make nothing off of my endeavors here.

You know what? I’m entirely okay with not making any money off of my blogging because I started 20four12 as a way to fill time when nothing else was going on during slow days at the office. It seemed like a great way to get all of the great things I had in my head about the books I read down somewhere I could share them with others and for years I had been wanting to give blogging a try anyway. Making money from blogging would be great, but it’s not something I currently plan on doing here.

However, because I don’t make any money from 20four12, it’s also very difficult to put it ahead of other things that need my attention. I’ve got a wonderful wife and two young children need me to spend time with them as any good husband and father should. I’m also making a lot of adjustments in my career as a web developer at the moment as I try to take on more responsibilities at the office as well as improve my skill set for future projects I’m thinking about. Add all of that to the general hustle and bustle of everyday life and right now the time I have to spend writing, planning, and posting blog entries seems to be dwindling more and more.

Why is any of that important? I suppose in the grand scheme of things it really isn’t, this is just a book blog written by an amateur who reads a lot of books. I’m not changing the world or anything here, but I do like to do things right and not halfway. There are people who read this blog regularly through their RSS feeds, visiting the site directly, or in some other fashion, and for whatever reason I feel like if I’m not going to be blogging as much for the next little while I should at least give them a heads up, even if fewer posts here won’t be the end of the world for anyone.

So what am I going to do?

First, I am going to focus on one particular goal I set for myself this year. The one I set to read 100 books for the year. As of right now I’m three books behind pace, which should be easy enough to make up with six months remaining in 2014, but I need to stay very focused to make it happen. I set a lot of goals at the beginning of the year and some of them were a little to ambitious, but the one for reading 100 books is the one I really don’t want to give up trying to accomplish. With that in mind, writing a review about every single book I read is something I’m probably not going to have the ability to do.

Why can’t I write a review for every book? Because I need to free up some time. Why do I need time? That’s easy to explain: I want to move 20four12 away from being hosted on WordPress to being self-hosted. That’s the second thing I want to do in the last six months of this year. I have the requisite skills needed to make the change, but finding the time is a much more difficult proposition. If I back off on the actual blogging for a little while I might just be able to find those slices of time I really need to make it happen.

So, the end result of this decision is that my posting on 20four12 is probably going to be a little sporadic over the coming months. I’ll still be writing my monthly update on which books I’ve read to keep both myself and any interested parties up to speed on my goal for completing 100 books. I will also write an occasional review, but likely just for the books that really speak to me as I’m reading them. This is me giving myself permission to keep the blog going but also to get some other things done that have been piling up.

Perhaps none of this will mean a thing and I’ll somehow find myself with all the time in the world to get the new projects finished and still read all of the books and blog about them, but I have a feeling 20four12 will be a little less busy for a little while, and while I wish that didn’t have to be the case, I’ve accepted that it’s okay and nobody is going to go screaming through the streets in despair while I step back for a bit. I’ll blog when I can and I’ll make sure those posts are as amazing as they can be when I write them.

Top Ten Reasons I Love Being a Blogger/Reader

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

I’ve been a reader since I was four years old, but I’ve only been a blogger for about two years or so. Regardless, there are lots of reasons why I love doing both, and today the theme for the week asks me to share a few of them with you.

I love being a reader because… there is always somewhere to escape. I found this to be true during my pre-teen and teenage years when all I wanted was to be somewhere else than real life because real life was excruciatingly boring.

I love being a reader because… it makes me a better worker. It sounds strange, but reading so much when I was younger helped me immensely when it came to knowing what other people were talking about and with comprehending complex things. Reading strengthens the mind in fantastic ways, and it’s fun to boot!

I love being a reader because… there is always something new. Whenever I think I’ve read everything I can and that there can’t possibly be a new way of portraying alien invasions or magic dragons, all I have to do is go browse a library or a friend’s bookshelf and I’m guaranteed to find something fresh and new.

I love being a reader because… you can take a book anywhere. You might run out of power for your laptop, or your battery might die in the phone, but if you keep a book nearby you’ll never be at a loss for something to do while waiting in lines or if the power goes out. The printed page survives all!

I love being a reader because… sometimes the only way to come out of a depressing time is to fall back on the friends you’ve found in the pages of a book. I’m not saying that reading is the sure for every sad situation, but sometimes when the stress is piled high and things in life seem too overwhelming a couple of hours ignoring all of it and re-reading a favorite book can be just the jump-start you need.

I love being a blogger because… there is always something new to learn. It might be a trick for organizing my posting schedule, a new software platform, or just a new way to talk about books, but there is always something new to discover.

I love being a blogger because… it means I find more books to read. Easily half of the books I’ve read in the past two years I never would have picked up if not for the fact that they were recommended by bloggers I trust. You can see everything on your own and being an active blogger brings you news of things you would have missed.

I love being a blogger because… of the potential. I still allow myself the dream that I could turn this into a viable paying job at some point down the road. It’s a bit of a crazy dream, but it isn’t impossible either.

I love being a blogger because… it forces me to read new things. My taste in books was really very narrow a couple of years ago, but it’s much more expansive now that I’ve seen the wealth of reading material offered in places I wasn’t looking before.

I love being a blogger because… sometimes the bragging rights are a lot of fun. I don’t brag often, but once in a while I get talking about how many books I read and how I blog about them and more often than not people find that pretty cool. A little bit of an ego boost every so often isn’t a bad thing.

Looking Back at 2013

For the past two days I’ve been writing about my personal reading goals and the blogging goals I’ll be working on for 2014. Now, three days into the new year it’s time to take one last look back at 2013 and how things went. I sort of fell off the band wagon a bit in the second half of the year, really losing a lot of steam in regards to how often I was publishing new posts, especially book reviews. But, 2014 should be better.

Let’s start by taking a quick look at the last few books I finished before the new year. The weeks of the year saw me driving my way through six pieces of literature, just narrowly surpassing my total pages read mark from last year. They were:

The Daedalus Incident was an absolutely spectacular debut for Michael J. Martinez, so much so that I’ve added him to my “must read” list already. He took some amazing chances with his storytelling and put together a tale that is unlike anything I’ve seen. Abaddon’s Gate was a wonderful installment to the continuing story that is The Expanse and I can’t wait for the next book in a few months.

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft gave me a lot of motivation and hope for my own fledgling writing dreams and I’m hoping I can incorporate some of the insights and lessons I took from it into my routines this year at some point. The other three items on the list were all short stories written by the authors to add a bit of depth to the universes they exist in between the most recently released books and the upcoming ones. I enjoyed all three of them immensely. It was a good month of reading for me in the realm of quality writing.

As far as reading statistics go, here are a couple that might be interesting:

  • Total Books Read: 84
  • Total Pages Read: 31,512
  • Average Book Length: 375 pages

I had sort of hoped I could get all the way to 100 books read, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me. I had to navigate my way through some unexpected circumstances during the middle of the year that took my focus away from blogging and put it elsewhere.

In the world of blogging statistics, 20four12 saw 7,600 unique visitors over the course of the year for an average of about 20-21 visitors per day. That’s not too bad, but I would like to see it be significantly higher by the time this new year is finished.

And, last but not least, let’s take a look at two lists. In reading 84 books and novellas over the course of the year it is inevitable that I would find some favorites and least favorites. Part of me thought I should only list my favorites, but then I decided I was interested in seeing if any of the ones on my least favorite list would incite some discussion. Maybe some of them are favorites to other people, or maybe even some of the books I considered my favorite from this year are hated by others. I always find that to be incredibly fascinating. In no particular order:

Ten Favorite Books I Read in 2013:

Honorable Mention

Ten Least Favorite Books I Read in 2013:

I feel compelled to note that of the books listed in the least favorite category, I only find two of them to be absolutely atrocious, but I’m not going to tell you which ones. All of the others I just didn’t like as much as I wanted to, or they just simply were not my style when all was said and done. Take, The Great Gatsby for example. Widely considered to be a premier piece of fiction, I can’t stand it. It’s a matter of taste.

So, there you have it, a snapshot of my reading and blogging experiences from 2013. It was an interesting year for me as both a reader and as a blogger, but ultimately I feel like I did an okay job with both. Here’s to 2014 and making 20four12 really shine!

Blogging Goals for 2014

Yesterday I wrote about my reading goals for this year and outlined a few things I wanted to accomplish in that regard. Today I’d like to talk about some of the goals I’ve set specifically about the act of blogging for the year. I’ve made the decision that I want 2014 to be the year that 20four12 really takes off as a science fiction and fantasy book blog. There are so many great things about those genres that I want to share.

So, here are my blogging goals for 2014:

Goal #1: Write 100 Reviews

I had really high hopes for my review writing in 2013 and while I did manage to post 44 book reviews during the year, it was far, far short of my hoped for 100 or more. A lot of things got in the way of writing book reviews last year and this year I resolve to make sure I don’t let those things get in the way again. Making a significant improvement in the number of reviews I write for the year shouldn’t be hard if I just stick to the simple rule of writing a review for a book as soon as I’ve finished it and before I start the next book on my reading list. Too many times last year I would read nine or ten books without writing the reviews and then be lost as to what I should write. No more!

Further, when it comes to reviews, I’m going to allow myself to write reviews for novellas and short stories and still count them towards the total. I really want to read some science fiction anthologies this year and I think it would be really fun to write reviews for each of the works included in them.

Goal #2: Increase Participation on Other Blogs

Want to know a dirty little secret? I may write a book blog, but I only actually actively follow about four or five other book blogs and I basically never comment on the posts I read on those few I follow. I really need to change that.

One part of reaching this goal will be to cultivate a grand list of book blogs that are well-written to follow with my RSS app of choice on the iPad. I’d like to have a list of about 25 to 30 quality book blogs at my disposal if I can manage it, a majority of them focused on the science fiction and fantasy genre if possible.

The second part to reaching this goal is going to be commenting and actively participating in discussions on these blogs I find. There are lots of great people writing lots of great things about lots of great books and all I need to do is set aside a few minutes each day to make a handful of comments and meet some of these fine folks.

Goal #3: Increase Exposure for 20four12

If I want 20four12 to really shine and become a book blog that “people” know about then I need to increase its exposure and drive readership to a much higher level. As of today the traffic to 20four12 is about 10-15 unique visitors a day. That’s much more than I probably deserve, but I think with some dedication on my part I can get that number up to 50 unique visitors a day or more. That’s the goal at least.

How am I going to do this? Lots of ways! I intend to write full-length book reviews here on the blog, but then add shorter versions of the review to Amazon and Goodreads for every book, which may help drive a little traffic this direction. I also plan on signing up to participate in things like Blog Tours for upcoming books, Read-a-Longs with other bloggers, and being much more involved in having other book bloggers guest post here on 20four12 as well as guest posting elsewhere myself.

I’m sure there are several other things I can do to help gain more exposure, drive traffic to the site, and increase readership, and I intend to find those things and use them. If you are interested in teaming up for some of the things I’ve mentioned then keep an eye out over the next few weeks as I make some more detailed posts about them. And, if you have ideas you want to share, I’m definitely willing to listen. Mostly, I think putting myself out there into the blogging community will be the biggest thing that helps.

Goal #4: Post Every Single Day of 2014

This is the big one. The one that is going to take all the determination I have to make happen. As of the time of this post I’ll have written 366 posts for this blog. That’s basically the equivalent of one entire leap year. If I meet this goal I’ll literally double the number of available posts to read on the site.

That’s a big, freaking, deal.

Can I do it? I really don’t know, but I’m going to try. I might make it until the end of January, the middle of May, or barely into next week, but I’m going to try. It’s going to mean stretching myself to find new and interesting topics to write about, adding some new types of posts to the rotation, and simply pushing through the tough days when I just don’t want to write anything, but doing it anyways.

Goal #5: Write About More Than Just Books

But it’s a book blog! I can hear the cries of confusion already. Yes, 20four12 is a book blog and always will be a book blog, but the tagline for the site has been “book reviews and other things” for a really long time and I’ve just never gotten around to writing about other things all that often. Granted, of the 365 posts I intend to write this year, well over 300 of them are probably going to be about books, but if I were to mix in 50-75 posts about other things I don’t think anyone will complain too much.

Especially when my first plan for meeting this goal is to talk about science fiction… television shows! I’ve always wanted to try my hand at watching a television show and writing commentary and recaps of what happened in each episode. Doing so with a brand new show about to start would be ideal, but I don’t trust television executives not to mess with my plans and not cancel shows I find interesting. So, instead I’m going to start by making my way through a couple of shows on Netflix that I’ve always wanted to watch and see if I like writing about the episodes.

First off I’m going to start with Terra Nova which lasted one season of 13 episodes. Then I’ll move on to The Dresden Files which also lasted one season of 12 episodes. If I like doing those posts at that point I’ll decide what to watch next. These posts are going to be the new feature post for Sundays in 2014, so if you are interested in that sort of thing, check back each week on Sunday to see what I think of whatever show I’m watching. I think it will be fun.

And… there you have it! My blogging goals for 2014 all laid out in a nice little row. I’m going to try very hard to accomplish all of them, but if I fall a little short on a couple I’ll be okay because it means I probably did accomplish the others.

So, what are your blogging goals for 2014?