Friday, January 11, 2013


Julie Coulter Bellon posted the other day about - among other things - book reviews. She was disgusted that a book had lots of four and five star ratings, but ended up being... not good. She was more vocal on twitter, but since her blog was fairly demure, I'll leave it there. 

I've posted before about my personal feelings about book reviews and book reviewers. In case you don't want to click that link, here's the TL;DR version: Book reviewers should be honest, but not mean. Sometimes they should be giving out one and two star reviews. Some reviewers don't hold to that standard, they insist on only reviewing books if they can give at least three stars (though I am seeing these people "fall" more often - they give in and post a one star review, along with a rant about the suckiness of the book).

I've created a system for judging books on Goodreads (you could easily apply this to Amazon, too).

I look at the rating details of the book. Up near the top of the page, next to the average rating, you click on rating details, and this handy-dandy little box flies out. This is for the entire Harry Potter boxset, and you can see that not everybody liked it:

This would be a good place to note that box sets and sequels are likely rated higher than the first book, or than the series often deserves. The people who continue to book two are usually those who liked book one, and so on. The people who seek out the box set or series to rate are usually fans. Not always, but usually.

In order for me to read a book, the book has to have one of two criteria met.

1) Over a 4.00 average rating.


2) When the four star and five star ratings are added together, they make up more than half of readers. If most readers rate it four stars, this can sometimes happen. For book one of the Heir Chronicles by Cinda Williams Chima, 71% of readers rated it four or five stars, even though the average was below the 4.00 average:

As you can see, The Jane Austen Book Club meets neither of these criteria. Had it not been assigned in a class (yes, for real), I would not have read it.

Of course, in order for this whole formula to work, there has to be a significant number of reviews available. My cut is usually a thousand, though I've definitely bent that rule a number of times. I would say a few hundred is necessary to be able to go off of reviews and stars alone.

And here is why:
This book, Rain Plays Barefoot, is rated as one of the highest rated self-published novels on Goodreads. Buuuuuut... only twenty-two people have reviewed it. Once you account for the authors immediate family, best friends, and possibly a critique partner or two... that's all twenty-two people who have vouched for her.

And not even all of them could bring themselves to give her five stars.

Hint: If it looks as though the author's mommy can't give her baby girl five stars, the book is probably not worth your time.

(NOTE: I have NOT read Rain Plays Barefoot. I do not know the author, I have received absolutely zero information about her book. It could be lovely. It could be life altering. I don't know. I'm simply using this one book as an example for my formula. If any of you have read and loved this book, let me know, and I'll pick on somebody else.)

That all said, it's important to remember that NO BOOK EVER will be nothing but four and five star reviews. Ever.


The most popular book on Goodreads is The Great Gatsby, with 1.2 million readers reviewing it.

The best selling novel of all time (so far as we can accurately calculate... or so far as I'm willing to research for the purposes of this blog post that only a few hundred people will read) is A Tale of Two Cities.
Two of the most popular books of all time, two of the best selling books of all time, both deemed classics by anybody whose opinion matters (no, fifteen year old self, your opinion does not matter), both influential works that have touched millions of lives. 

I've heard arguments made by well-read and intelligent people that those books are among the best, if not the very best, ever written. If THEY don't even have all four and five star reviews... then you should never, ever trust a book with nothing but four and five star reviews. There need to be detractors for me to legitimately consider reading a book.

(note that both books would easily qualify to be added to my TBR list... if I hadn't already)

Once again, the TL;DR version: 

Books should have a lot of reviews, and some of them should be bad for you to consider it a legitimate option.

I will not pick up a book that doesn't have at least a four star average, or that half of readers enjoyed. Otherwise, it needs to come highly recommended from a trusted source (there are only about a half dozen of these).

What's your criteria? How do you decide what moves to the top of the TBR pile?


  1. I agree with what you're saying, for the most part but I've read books that have horrible reviews that I absolutely love. I can't name one right now but I have an example of the opposite. One of my least favorite books, and one that I couldn't even finish, was City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. I tried reading this on two separate occasions and I couldn't get past page 100. I read it with intent to enjoy it, because of the rave reviews, but I just couldn't get into it. I've never been able to pinpoint why this books turns me off and that's a little frustrating.

  2. It's true--if a book has all good reviews, I get suspicious.

  3. You're right, it's not a foolproof system, but it's a whole lot better than just looking at a star average and not digging deeper. For unheard of or widely unpopular books, I do rely on word of mouth (especially being Mormon, and doing the whole homeschooling-mommy-housewife thing, I do read stuff that a lot of people deem "anti-feminist crap"). There are only about six people that I will take their word over the system, though.

    On the other hand, there will ALWAYS be wildly popular books that I don't enjoy. I started Beautiful Creatures, which is a major bestseller, super high ratings, etc. IT WAS TERRIBLE. I hated it. I rolled my eyes and dropped it at least five times in the eighty pages I read. That's how far I made it. Eighty pages.

    But it passed the goodreads test.

    That's when I have to be willing to just put things down, because life is far, far too short to spend reading crappy books.

  4. Right? There needs to be detractors, or I assume the author's friends are rigging the ratings.

  5. Gina, I hear you. I am a voracious reader and I am "friends" (loosely bc this is Goodreads after all) with a bunch of famous YA reviewers. I really trust their reviews for the most part. We have discussions on their comment threads, even if I hated the book and they loved it - their reviews often bring in points I didn't even think of. For the record everyone RAVES about Beautiful Creatures and I got 25 pages in, not kidding and had to shut it because I did not believe the male voice. (Come straight guy talks THAT much about clothes LOL!!!). It's interesting to see the movie trailers bc they seem to have put Lena front and center when it's ETHAN that is the main character.

  6. The switch of the MC confused me, too.

    And, come on, a sixteen year old boy wore the same sneakers for three years?!?!?!?!!?? Not.

    Also, thank you for coming out as a Beautiful Creatures detractor with me. We'll start a club or something.

  7. I totally agree with your system. I don't really trust ratings when there are not so many reviewers because, um, well in my research a population of 20 is just not big enough to draw conclusions from. I like to apply the same logic to book reviews. :)

    Even though I totally think there need to be more honest reviews, I also think, well, this is the internet you know? I generally take anything below 4 stars (ish) on the internet to be not good. 5 stars is fab, 4 is okay, and anything below seems to be awful. it's funny, but it seems like SOMEHOW the anonymous nature of the internet does not apply so much to reviews. Everyone endeavours to be polite instead of honest?

    But yes, also, all 5 stars is a big red warning light for me.


  8. I pay a lot less attention to what has already said/reviewed about a book, but I think I'm an anomaly. I do, after all, dedicate a big chunk of time to reading bad things. I don't always do it on purpose, but you know.

  9. I like the overall structure of your system, but I don't have nearly as high a cutoff point for the number of reviews required. I give more weight to those of my goodreads friends whose compatibility with my tastes is highest, especially in the same genre. If even two or three friends with better than 80% compatibility lin that genre liked a book, the chances are high that I will too. Also, I try to read a lot of non-fiction, and many of the books on my "to read" shelf are there because of their subject matter, few coming anywhere near 500 ratings or 100 reviews.