Benchmarking Book Reviews, Or How To Untwist One’s Knickers

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For a blogger, there’s nothing quite as sweet as gaggles of people getting their knickers in a twist over something.

(Those of you who don’t blog yourselves probably don’t know that the blogging equivalent of Natural Law is a list, called “Things That People Get Very Angry About On The Internet”. Whenever we’re stuck for an idea of something to blog about, we simply refer to this list, a copy of which can be purchased for 6 Emoji and a funny cat picture.)

Knicker-twisting items on the list I’ve written most about are as follows:

  1. Book Reviews
  2. Book Marketing Abuses
  3. Writers Who Think They Don’t Need Editors
  4. Writers Who Take Everything Personally
  5. Writer Earnings And Complaining Thereof

It’s been a while, so I’m back to Number 1: Book Reviews, as it occurred to me lately that the assignment of a star rating seems to be very much dependent on genre.

Benchmarking Book Reviews, Or How To Untwist One's Knickers

Like many other people, I read in different genres. I am a big fan of the Literary Fiction Thing. I like to relax with the odd gory Crime Thriller. When modern times are bad, I love to escape into Historical Fiction. Every now and then, I retire to the cupboard with a shameful Romance. I rarely read biographies, but it still might amount to 1 a year. And when I’m feeling intelligent, or a bit of self-loathing after a particularly badly-written romance, I might try and heal my soul with a bit of light philosophy.

All of these genres are written differently, and reviewed differently. I have to keep this in mind when I’m choosing the books I buy. If more writers kept this in mind, they might get a longer life out of their underwear. So without further ado, here is a very serious and official guide to reading star ratings and reviews, by genre.

1.   Romance

Star Rating Requirement: 5* or (heaving) Bust

Nothing less than 5 stars will do in this category. This is because romance reviews, in the main, can be pretty poor in themselves. A 5* rating can mean anything from

“I read this!!!!”


“OMG the guy in this is the hottest ever!!!”


“yeah this was ok but I prefer XXX by X”.


“Cried my eyes out. Loved the characterisations. The story was fresh, free of cliché, and penetrated my soul to the extent that I immediately went out and told everyone in my family how much I loved them. Best book I’ve ever read”

The bottom line is that this is the one category where it appears that anything less than 5 stars is negative. It’s ridiculous, but there you go.

Benchmarking Book Reviews, Or How To Untwist One's Knickers

 2.  Crime/Thriller

Star Rating Requirement: 4* is Deadly

Generally in a crime thriller the plot is the key, so it’s much tougher to please people with the reveal of the whodunit, whydunit, or howdunit, let alone hope for your readership to figure it all out at exactly the same time. And then there’s the reaction to Gone Girl: the ending became a polarising factor, deciding who liked it and who didn’t. 4* in this category is bloody good, because crime reviewers very often reserve that elusive 5* review for that one blockbuster back in 1998 which blew their mind. Not getting 5* is not failure.

 3.  Literary Fiction

Star Rating Requirement: 3* or 4* or… oh, never mind. We all die in the end.

Hardly anyone is yet buying Lit-Fic based on reviews, let alone star ratings, so it doesn’t much matter what star rating you get here. In this genre, it’s prizes and long- and short-listings you need, not stars. Stars are about as valuable as a second-hand copy of Fifty Shades.

4.  Historical Fiction

Star Rating Requirement: 4* is Terribly Nice Of You

For authors lucky enough to receive a review for a Historical novel – although this is a growing number – the rating system is tough to quantify. Historical novels are generally longer than other books, and so are their reviews. Most often, what the reviewer is saying is far more important than the stars they assign. Whether it’s 5* or not is therefore not the issue. It’s whether it’s at on the positive end or on the negative end. Anything over 3* is a win.

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5.  Biography [i.e. another form of fiction]

Star Rating Requirement: 5* For Stars

This is an odd category, full of famous people who have ghost writers, and hitherto unknown people who have ghosts. For the unknown authors, whether the review is a judgement upon the biography subject or a judgement upon the biography, 4* or 5* are going to be needed to sell more books. Star ratings for celebrities are a red herring, because even the worst-written and reviewed biographies will be bought by people who are interested in seeing either how the subject looked at age 19 before they got their teeth done, or what really happened between their ex-spouse and the nubile neighbour.


There are 6.3 besquillion other genres of non-fiction books out there giving me a headache, so that warrants a whole other post. But suffice to say, not all 5-star ratings are alike, and some can even be off-putting. If you’re an author, you could make yourself feel better, by benchmarking your reviews to your genre. And for the love of Blog, don’t ask people you know to swap or write you 5* reviews. Everyone knows what they are, and they won’t help sell your book.

Do you find yourself grading by genre? What’s your reviewing system?

  38 comments for “Benchmarking Book Reviews, Or How To Untwist One’s Knickers

  1. February 20, 2015 at 1:52 pm

    Interesting Tara, particularly amused by your take on star ratings for Romance! Have to admit that I rarely give less than a 3 star, I just wouldn’t bother reviewing it if I didn’t think it was good. I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing it either. Rarely give 5 stars though. For me there’s a huge jump between a 3 star and a 4 star, 3 means I finished it but it wasn’t good enough to recommend really, 4 star means I really liked it, 5 star means it’s in the running for one of the best books I’ve ever read – but maybe I’m a tad harsh? I was talking to someone during the week who said that Goodreads ratings are different to Amazon, in that a goodreads 3 star is a 4 star on Amazon (at least I think that’s the way!) which I had never considered before. Maybe that’s a whole other blog post??
    Note to self – to use goodreads more!
    I do love getting reviews though, particularly when by someone I don’t know.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 20, 2015 at 3:47 pm

      I believe each reviewing scale depends upon the reviewer, no matter whether it’s GoodReads or Amazon… You have clear guidelines for yourself. Wish everyone did!

      I don’t think your scale is harsh at all, but that’s probably because it’s so similar to my own.


  2. February 20, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Reblogged this on International Book Promotion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. February 20, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    I won’t give two stars or one star, but that does mean that I read a lot of books that I don’t then review. A young Dutch lady recently gave my only non-fiction book 2 stars and said (in effect), “The book is worth four stars but I’m giving it two because you referred to The Netherlands as Holland and I’m punishing your arrogance”. Well, okay, lieveling; whatever you say. But doesn’t the value of a second hand copy of Fifty Shades depend on the condition of the pages and therefore on whether it was read by a man or a woman?
    Whatever the genre, three stars from me means “I enjoyed this and I recommend it” but rating inflation is here to stay and you won’t change it.


    • February 20, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      You posit some interesting positives there, true. But whaddya mean, I won’t change rating inflation?? They told me if I wrote a blog, I’d change the world! I’m disgusted. Those people need a 2 star review in punishment, so they do.


  4. February 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    _full of famous people who have ghost writers, and hitherto unknown people who have ghosts_

    Ah ha ha, I see what you did there.

    I benchmark reviews not by genre but by reviewer, which is maybe the boring answer that you don’t want to hear. To use one of your examples, if Mary Murphy has read and understood the ending of Gone Girl, then I’ll take her review more seriously until I notice that she gave five stars and a rave review to The DaVinci Code and has more than one of the Twilight books on her Top Reads Evah list.

    Although the more interesting technique is to look at a reviewer’s one and two star reviews, and judge them accordingly. Not that you’d be judgmental, but I totally am.


    • February 20, 2015 at 4:12 pm

      But Fionna, ALL the books I’ve read are on my Top Reads Evah list!!!! [exclamation point, etc].

      I totally review reviewers by their reviews and take more notice of their 2- and 3-star reviews. Not only that, I judge books by their 2 star reviews. More often than not, I take an immediate dislike to the review, and buy the book. HAHAHAHA.


  5. February 20, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I’m sorry you didn’t include my area of writing in your wonderful discussion. Sci fi/fantasy is big in the states and it sure would be nice to know what the stars mean there. I haven’t a clue!


    • February 20, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      Do you know, I completely forgot?! Let’s throw it out to the floor. What do people out there think is the scale for fantasy?


      • February 20, 2015 at 5:31 pm

        Anything by Tolkien, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, possibly Asimov when he’s not non-Alpha bashing and the Games of Thrones series is 5*. The rest can hope for 4* but make do with 3* just for having the ‘original’ idea in the 1st place… I’m being harsh but really there’s so many hackneyed ideas out there it’s untrue and really it’s probably the most post modern of all genres (sci-fi and fantasy and subs – it’s all pie in the sky more or less) in making it difficult to have a truly novel take on things 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 20, 2015 at 7:35 pm

          A novel novel, Jan. Not a typo, but rarely typed. Ahahaha.


      • February 20, 2015 at 5:58 pm

        I read a lot of scifi/fantasy; I think I can speak to this. Fantasy: 4* or Here There Be Dragons. There’s an exciting quest, an evil about to darken the land, a variety of fantasy critters and beings that actual fit in well with the story. There tends to be some woods, mountains and snow. Someone or something dies that you’ve grown to love. Once you’re down to 3 stars, the story is, well, so-so. You just can’t do so-so fantasy. Scifi: at least 3 or 4 stars or Keep Your Blaster on High. One must evaluate the reviews. Was the reviewer into the mechanics (ships, weapons, time machines) of the story and didn’t get enough future tech; or the life of the story (aliens, humans, almost humans) and didn’t get enough tears to water the desert planet? And then it depends on if you’re a techie or a tearie. Oh, and the peaceful philosophers of the planets and those wearing red shirts all die. Never wear red on a space ship; if you’re the philosopher, stay next to the guy whose blaster is on high.

        Liked by 1 person

        • February 20, 2015 at 7:34 pm

          Excellent stuff, Marian – what we need is a naming convention suitable for each genre (possibly another post pending…) until we run into problems in the Lit-Fic genre (2*, not enough woe; 1*, woeful)

          In the meantime, I will be exceptionally careful not to wear red on a space ship. Why don’t people tell us these things earlier?!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. February 20, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    Reblogged this on Jan Hawke INKorporated and commented:
    More words of whimsical wisdom from the peerless Tara Sparling!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. annerallen
    February 20, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    LOL. Great piece, Tara. It’s also important to take into account where the review is posted. Three stars on Amazon is considered BY AMAZON to be “a critical review”. Three stars on Goodreads is “good average book.”

    But if you write humor, you’re lucky to get three stars anywhere. Even the bestselling humor writers get tons of one-stars from literal-minded readers who only skim for plot and complain that Douglas Adams “isn’t realistic” and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum “doesn’t learn and grow from her mistakes.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 20, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      I’ve often wondered, Anne, how many people there are reading humour who have any sense of humour at all. They do have a point. Douglas Adams isn’t realistic. He should never have named a character after a 1970s car unrecognisable to any child born after 1975.

      A few people are making the distinction between Amazon and GoodReads reviews. I’m not well versed in this, but I wonder how many reviewers on those 2 sites actually read the guidelines for the star ratings?


  8. February 20, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    I had a similar post a few months back about the issue with star ratings. I don’t review books on my blog but I do recommend those I’ve enjoyed. I also don’t give out bad reviews, preferring not to review a book if I don’t like it. This does mean my average review score is quite high, so I am part of the problem with inflated reviews. What was interesting, is that the non-writers who follow my blog almost unanimously said they use the star rating of a book as an eye-catcher, similar to a cover, but it’s the body of the reviews that either win them over or not.
    Lorna is correct about there being a difference between Amazon and Goodreads. If you check the description of the star ratings, to win 5 stars on Amazon you have to have ‘loved it’, but to get 5 stars on Goodreads you have to have thought the book ‘amazing’. I love many books but there are far fewer I feel are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 20, 2015 at 6:37 pm

      Oh, and science fiction genre fans can be either too loyal and gushing to a fault, or very, very picky!


      • February 20, 2015 at 7:42 pm

        I don’t know if you do contribute to inflated reviews, Dylan. Whichever way the numbers are crunched, nobody wants 1- and 2 star reviews: they’re never good, and I’m unlikely to bother posting those reviews myself. I think the problem lies in the assignment of stars between 3* and 5*. I think I’ve written several posts about the fact that I find the vast majority of 5* reviews fairly odious.

        And you do bring up the point too of genre fanaticism – I think certain genres such as fantasy and science fiction have fans which are far more passionate than those of, say, Lit Fic.


  9. February 20, 2015 at 11:13 pm

    I avoid reviewing on Amazon because I will have produce stars. Now I have joined goodreads and I am going to have start teething on this particular bullet. Personally I am just thrilled to have a review at all – and the last one for Border Line has said all the things I wanted to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 21, 2015 at 9:38 am

      Every review does indeed count, Hilary. But it’s even better if they are thoughtful and sincere. Good luck on GoodReads!


  10. February 21, 2015 at 8:59 am

    I’ve always thought review writing is an art form in itself. How about a star review system for reviews? Or am I just being unhelpful now? *long horrible pause* OK, gotcha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

      Unhelpful, Tenderness? Not at all. I am downright judgemental when it comes up reviews. In fact, I’ve been known to grade them on the annoyance scale, from “would have a drink with” right down to “would throw a drink at”

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Alex Hurst
    February 21, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    What a fun (and funny) list! I’d like to see what ratings mean in the SF and Fantasy brackets. 😉


    • February 21, 2015 at 6:28 pm

      Yep, a serious omission on my part. Thankfully some commenters have already ridden to the rescue- please feel free to add any insight yourself! 😃

      Liked by 1 person

  12. February 23, 2015 at 8:35 am

    I use Marxist principles when handing out stars. If I review a big fat famous book I’ll give it what I think the book deserves. When I review small, unknown books (like mine) I give the stars I think the author deserves. There is so much drivel around far too rich in stars I believe in doing my bit to redistribute the wealth. Having said that, I only review the indie books I’ve enjoyed so I’d never give 4 stars to something I threw in the fire at page 3. If I liked it, I say so. I’d never knock an indie struggling to pay the rent on the garret, I just wouldn’t read the book.


    • February 23, 2015 at 1:40 pm

      I’m with you, Jane, if I don’t like an indie, I don’t review it. I’ve seen commentary from both sides – ones says that traditional books are treated more harshly by reviewers because they have the weight of a publisher behind them, the other that indie books are treated more harshly because some reviewers think it’s their right/prerogative to put themselves into the role of an editor, or point out parts of the book they want to see changed. Perhaps the bottom line is that all authors need to look at the substance of a review, rather than stars, and heed accordingly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • February 23, 2015 at 2:50 pm

        I’ve read comments to the effect that a reviewer has ‘a duty’ not to mislead by giving a book too much praise. I say, there’s the look inside feature. Use it. How did people manage before Amazon? They went into a bookshop, they picked up the books, opened them and had a quick read. Then they bought what they liked. As a technique it was pretty low tech, but efficient.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. February 24, 2015 at 12:54 am

    Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.


  14. February 24, 2015 at 12:54 am
  15. February 25, 2015 at 4:30 pm

    I rate honestly on books I read, whether it is a famous book or an Indie one. It doesn’t always go over well with Indie authors if I give a 3 star review but I take it seriously reviewing books. If I like a book then I sing it from the rooftops, as I did with my post spotlight on Irina’s book yesterday. If it’s ho-hum then I say so. I know readers trust my judgement and I’m determined not to deliver them less than what they deserve to hear. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • February 25, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      It’s important that reviews can be trusted, Christy, so I’m a big fan of reviewers that are honest above all else. I get that nobody wants to discourage authors, but every review is one person’s opinion and thin skins don’t work in this business!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. March 2, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    I never twigged the difference in descriptions between the ratings on Goodreads or Amazon. To me a 5 star is a book that really affects you, makes you feel a longing that everything will work out for a character, a sick feeling that revisits long after a book ends if something bad happens, or just a book,that won’t budge out of your head and you feel that everybody MUST read it.As for chick lit, a book where a romantic scenes sticks in your head or that causes you to laugh out loud even AFTER you’ve read it. Outside of chick lit where I have a number(probably proves your point on romance being 5 star or abysmal), I have under 10 5 star books. 5 star reviews drive me bonkers. Anything I’ve shared I’ve done with instructions to give an honest rating and review. As I’ve said before, I’m sure, I read one and two stars first to see if the reviewer had differing tastes to mine. Then I check out the 4 stars-then 5. I’ve found a number of books recently that had an insane amount of 5 stars and equivalent 1stars-I wonder is this people reading through the bs or is it that too much hype led them to the book and too much crap pulled them away?


    • March 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm

      I hadn’t really thought about the difference between GoodReads and Amazon scales either, but I wonder how many reviewers really abide by it. They may have different guidelines, including differences by genre, but I’ve said before that I believe most readers have their own individual interpretations of the scales and apply them whichever way takes their fancy.

      Like you, the 5* books I’ve read are few – even though my number would be closer to 20. And like you, most 5* reviews I read drive me batty. I don’t believe the vast majority of them, and nothing will sell a book to me more than a 2* review which indicates that the reviewer and I would not be going for a pint any time soon, or a 4* review which sounds both reasoned and reasonable.

      If a book has nothing except an equivalent number of 5* and 1* reviews, I tend to walk away. (Which is difficult to do when you’re online. Metaphorical movement is hard.)

      Liked by 1 person

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