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.