Book Reviews and Ratings: Grade Inflation or the Teacher you Just Can’t Please? Part I

BlackboardAs a reader, I rarely review books, unless they are very good (Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman, anyone?) or very bad (an unnamed author whose female characters are less realistic than blow-up dolls, but he’s mega-popular so my review doesn’t matter anyway). There are two reasons. First, the practical: I live in a place where internet isn’t easily accessible, and even getting a cell phone signal involves Cirque du Soleil-esque contortions perched on the highest object in your line of sight. I think of advanced communications on a triage basis: these are the 7 things that must be done in the 18 minutes that the wind is blowing in the right direction or the satellite gods are smiling on us. Then, and only then, can I move on to things that don’t contribute to me being paid or involve buying French Market coffee online (the caffeine of which also contributes to me getting paid). Second, the philosophical: I’m just not that person. If something excites me, I’m motivated to share that excitement, but I don’t want to critique everything I read just for the exercise of critiquing. I’ve had my fill of that already as a former English major and recovering attorney.

Now, as an indie writer, reviews are a whole different animal. They are one of those 7 priority items, and high up the list. Maybe above paying the car insurance on time. (Really, what are the chances you’ll need it?) As many writers know, and most readers do not, popular advertisers for ebooks routinely require that your book has a minimum number of reviews as a condition of advertising. Not only that, often your book must have a minimum average rating of four stars. Four stars out of five. Seriously? I can understand if promotional lists want to maintain some quality control or integrity to their brand, but I find it hard to believe there are enough four-star books looking to advertise to fill all these newsletters every day. That’s not because I think the quality of current books is generally bad—I haven’t read nearly enough of them to say—but because, to me, a four-star book should be an exceptionally good book. By definition, every book can’t be exceptionally good. It’s that wily exception part.

Ok, this is the part where authors might want to start poo-flinging, but please read to the end of the post before you do. To me as a reader, an average, solid, well-written book, the kind you don’t regret spending the time reading but aren’t going to use as a conversation-starter, merits three stars. That’s true whether it’s self-published, traditionally published, or inscribed in stone. Better than average, 3 1/2 stars. (But of course, most places won’t let you go halfsies.) Ass-kickingly good (did I mention Ben Winters’ Last Policeman?), four stars. A five-star review should be like the Holy Grail of reviews. Well, maybe not that singular. Blue moon? An honest politician? You get the idea. I could just be that teacher who never smiles and only believes in giving one “A” each semester (you know who you are, and maybe I did subconsciously put my saxophone on my final project on purpose). I have asked a couple of other people about this, and they fell in the same range, but that’s a small sample size and they were pure readers, not readers/writers.

To recap, on the one hand, we have the demanding teacher that keeps the star sprinter off the team or ruins your for GPA for the Ivy League (i.e. BookBub). On the other hand, we have the culture of grade inflation where everyone gets a ribbon for making it around the track, but good luck finding the genius who not only crossed the line first, but did so running on her hands. What’s the happy middle ground? I don’t know. But I do know that, as a writer, I personally don’t want to keep someone out of the competition unless he or she stumbled onto the track by accident on the way to the restroom. (And yes, that analogy did stretch at the seams a bit by the end.)

Part II… My Reader and Writer meet and try to create a Code of Conduct