Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Thoughts on GoodReads Ratings (and why I give so many 5-star ones…)

The bookshelves in my bedroom are organized by personal preference. My favorite books get top shelf status, the ones I’m slightly ashamed of get hidden at the bottom, and everything else falls in between. No one can navigate my system but me, and whenever my mom goes hunting for a book, I tell her “Bookshelf by the side wall, second row down, purple spine in the middle.”

I used to use a similar ranking system on GoodReads: my all-time favorite books got 5 stars (I didn’t give out a ton of these, usually reserving them for the Harry Potter series and Sarah Dessen’s novels), everything else was usually a 4 or 3. Books I gave up on got a 1 or 2.

Then one of my grad school professors (Jonathan Auxier, author of middle-grade novels THE NIGHT GARDENER and PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES) spoke about GoodReads ratings in class. He explained that GoodReads Authors (authors who’ve set up author profiles attached to their books) can receive email notifications when  users rate their books. He also expressed his frustration (and the frustration of his fellow authors) about readers who rate books 3 or 4 stars with the explanation of, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it…it just didn’t really do it for me.”

As a writer, I’m coming to understand this more and more. After years of workshop classes, I’ve learned to turn off the part of my brain that imagines what I’d like the story to do. When I read now, I try and base my opinions solely on what is presented to me. “You can’t write someone else’s story for them,” my undergrad fiction professor always said. We look at what the writer has put on the page and figure out how to make it work best.

Is every book I rate 5 stars a Masterpiece? No. But does it follow through with the concept it presents at the beginning? Yes. Does it develop its characters well? Was it solidly plotted? Did it feel original? These are the criteria I look at when rating books.

Also, the star-rating system leaves no room for explanation, so I would much rather have people read my written reviews instead of basing their opinion on a book off my star-rating. I don't use star-ratings to distinguish my favorites anymore. I add books I love to separate GoodReads shelves ("beautiful books," "favorite contemporaries," etc), just like I've organized my physical bookshelves in my room. 

The last reason I have so many 5-star books on my “Read” shelf? I try not to read bad books! Before I pick up a book, I read (or watch on YouTube) at least four or five reviews. I hate wasting my money on disappointing books, so if I’m not pretty sure I’ll enjoy a book, I usually don’t buy it.

What are your thoughts on the GoodReads rating system? How do you score books?  


  1. Interesting post! I side more with your thoughts--if a book is well laid out and nicely written, it gets 5-stars (I'm pretty generous with these). If there are plot holes or too shallow characters, but the story itself is actually pretty okay, it gets 4-stars. If a book totally looses my interest, I just don't rate it. Maybe I'm a softy, but as an author, I can't smash someone else's writing, not when I know how much sweat, hope and how many dreams are buried in those pages. Maybe I just need an extra cup of 'evil-juice' in the morning ;)

    1. I feel the same way about not rating books I didn't like. If I don't enjoy a book because it's not my personal taste (but can see why other people would like it), I usually don't rate it. But if I see major problems with character/plot development/other structural stuff, I might rate it a little low.

      But overall I'm a pretty big softy too! :)

  2. This is very interesting, Kaitlin. I don't love the way the star rating system is set up on Goodreads (I wish there was the option of 1/2 stars), and yet I do find it very helpful. For me, if I see a book that's rated five stars, I'm more likely to spend my money on it. Which is why I feel it's important to save my five stars for only those books that I loved. There are many books that I give five stars, but there are far more that get four stars from me because they didn't wow me as much as that other group of books.

    If I'm not sure how I feel about a book, or if I'm not happy with it and it would get three stars or less from me, I simply don't rate it. As aspiring authors, I think we all know that should we get published one day, those low ratings might come back to haunt us. That said, I'm appreciative of the people who do give three-star ratings because it helps in my decision-making process when it comes to buying books. To be honest, I find the overall star rating on most books to be pretty close to how I end up feeling. A 3.5 overall rating doesn't mean I won't read a book, but it might mean the difference between buying and borrowing from the library for me.

    I sometimes have a hard time separating how I feel about a book and looking at it more subjectively like you mention. I don't always leave reviews of books, but I think even a few short sentences can explain your star rating. It can clarify why this book was only a four-star instead of a five-star read for you. It's definitely not a perfect system though! :-)

    1. Thanks for sharing all your thoughts, Jaime! I wish GoodReads had 1/2 star ratings too - I feel like users have been asking for that option for ages. I like your division between 4 and 5 star books about which you spend money on. And I 100% agree about looking at the rating system as an aspiring author, refraining from rating a book if you plan to give it 3 stars or less. Especially if it’s a debut.

      I’ve had this deep internal struggle (I’m being a little dramatic, haha!) about GoodReads ratings lately. I realized how many high ratings I’ve given and worried I’m becoming less of a “tough” reader. Which is kind of silly – maybe it means I’m getting better at discovering books I’m guaranteed to enjoy. But that’s where this post came from, that reading-as-a-reader vs. reading-like-a-writer struggle.

      Thanks for weighing in! :)


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