Commentary on Reviews: I Like When The Averages Are Flipping Me Off

Shopping cart of booksI do a good amount of shopping for books, and looking at reviews, and reading about books, and I've noticed something.

I really, and I mean REALLY like when the review averages are flipping me off.

No, really. 

Here's what I mean. 

Suppose you see a book review average graph at GoodReads that looks like this: 

EXHIBIT A:

A Rating detail graph with an overwhelming number of 5 star reviews

 

Compare that to a ratings review that looks like this: 

EXHIBIT B:

Rating details from GR that shows more 4 star reviews than five stars then three stars. It looks like the graphs were they fingers are flipping you the bird

 

Now THAT is a book I'm interested in. See how the green lines sort of look like a hand that's flipping you the middle finger? 

PERFECT. 

 

EXHIBIT C:

Another graph flipping you the bird

 

I like it even more when the 3 stars are more represented:

 

EXHIBIT D:

Another, this one with more four then three then five star reviews

 

And this is not just because my fourth finger is longer than my index finger (which I think is normal in the scheme of fingers but I don't study phalanges as a rule).

Even this type of middle-finger layout makes me more curious about a book: 

 

EXHIBIT E:

middle finger with most three star, then four then two then five

 

Though I prefer the former bird-flipping-review layout for maximum interest. 

I like when there's some disagreement about a book, with some people going, “YAY!” and other's saying, “AW, NO.” That kind of review disparity does two things for me as a buyer: 

1. It makes me wonder where I fit into the divide.

Would this be a YAY or an AW, NO book for me? I should read it and find out.  (Seriously, nothing makes me get all up in the clicky-buy-buy like review disparity. 

2. It makes me trust the set of reviews as a whole. 

When there's a range of ratings, I trust that the reviewers as a whole are honest. When every single review is squee-tastic five-star OMG SQUEE A++++++++ USER smileycheekysmileyheartyesyesangel I back away slowly.

This kind of rating average: 

 

EXHIBIT F:

Amazon review average showing 257 five stars 47 4s 20 3s 17 2s and 5 single stars.

holds no interest for me as a reader. 

It makes me think someone set the squee-cannon to STUN. I don't believe any of it, except maybe the low-star reviews.

First, because not every book I read is a 5-star book. Most of the time, the books I read, I'm hoping will be four-star books. Many are 3s. It's rare for me to be laid out in post-reading-euphoria by a book. Maybe that happens once a year, or twice. It's rare for me. 

I don't presume that every reader is like me, but I have read enough reviews and looked at enough averages to know that all-fives is most likely hype, bother, and likely bullshit. Have you seen how divided people are on things like how to hang toilet paper? Forget universal agreement about a book. 

And this kind of review average:

 

EXHIBIT G: 

A review average with mostly 1 star reviews followed by three, five, two and four star

STOP THE PRESSES because that looks like a trainwreck in green, and makes me think, “Dude, I need to spend the next six hours reading that page and possibly the book, too, because what the HELL happened there? Did somebody piss off the internet?”

Which brings me back to point the first: disparity in reviews makes me more curious than anything else, especially if the largest number of reviews are in the 3s and 4s, because I want to know what my review will be. How do I fit in the green fingers flipping me off? 

The more reviews of varying types there are, the more I as a reader trust the average of those reviews. Disagreement to me seems more likely to be honest instead of a hype bomb from the squee-cannon. As I said before – it's easy to fake hype. It's much harder to fake anger or the process of working out how one feels about a book through a thoughtful discussion of pros and cons.

What about you? Do you pay attention to how many reviews of which type there are when the stars or ponies or rainbows or beer steins of measurement are averaged out? Do you like when the reviews are flipping you off?

Which of the above review averages makes you the most interested (and yes, I wrote down which screencap was for which book, mwahahah)? 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Lisa J says:

    I don’t trust all positive reviews.  Call me cynical, but it is impossible for me to believe everyone in the world can agree this one book is the best thing ever.  I always read the three star and sometimes the two star reviews to see why the book didn’t work for the reader.  If the issue is something I think I can live with, I’ll probably buy the book.  It also gives me a good perspective of what worked for other readers.

  2. 2
    Diana says:

    I would read the top reviews for A and perhaps, if bored, B and C. I would read the bad reviews for F.
    And then decide.

    I tend to listen to others’ opinions, and if a book has a high average (above 4, but distributed evenly among 3-5 stars) I look at the reviews on the first page. I skip the reviews that start with a copy of the blurb (call me a nitpicker, but the blurb is right up there, why copy it again?), and go straight to people actually expressing opinions :).

    If the book has too many good reviews, I go straight to the bad reviews (1-3 stars)

  3. 3

    I don’t care how everyone rated the book, I care how my GR friends rated the book. These days, with my TBR out of control, whenever there’s a $1-$2 sale or deal around the interwebz and I think I might be interested, I check GR friend ratings/reviews. (Granted, thanks to GR’s recent shooting itself in the foot, I have fewer GR friends whose shelves to check.)

    (Trufax: my positive “reviews” are pretty much useless to all and sundry. (Except myself, a year or two later, when I want to check how I felt about the book. My memory = Swiss cheese.) They’re all *happy sigh* and SQUEEEEE! My negative reviews, OTOH, are more rage-y and go into a little more detail about why the book didn’t work for me.)

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    @msbookjunkie: yes, I have that problem, too. When I really love a book it can be SO difficult to articulate all the reasons why without either spoiling the hell out of the book or just squeebombing the entire page. I’ve set the squee-cannon to stun and aim it at myself plenty of times.

    It’s difficult to explain, I think, why a book worked so well for me, and a lot easier for me to list when things bother me. That said, I really dislike reviews that are 5-stars and say, “The characters were true to life” and “the plot moved quickly.” That tells me nothing, and yet I empathize with the inability to explain why something was enjoyably good.

  5. 5
    Mandi says:

    I use Goodreads alllll the time when deciding if I should read a book. If I go there and scan down reviews and all I see are 5-stars my first thoughts are – the author has all of his/her friends rating the book and they probably haven’t even read it. Or – the author has all his/her street team over to rate the book. It’s not genuine. Let readers rate the book. Not your friends and family.

    Give me a book with a wide range of ratings and YES. I’m all over it. I always look for the reviews with criticism – even if they are 4-stars – at least I know I’m reading a more genuine review.

  6. 6

    Unfortunately, there’s so much review gaming these days that I’ve given up buying books that are reviewed on Amazon, etc. Instead, I go to the review sites and blogs, where the people who review are individuals whose taste I can follow over several books. If her taste agrees with mine, then I’m interested.

  7. 7
    Lizabeth S. Tucker says:

    To be perfectly honest, I don’t usually read reviews.  I make my decisions on the following: synopsis, the author, a trusted reading friend’s recommendation.  Normally I won’t even read a review until after I’ve gotten the book and/or read it. 

    However, if I stumble across a book that is all 5 stars, I tend to avoid it.  I don’t trust it.  I’d say that would be a shame, but I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that I wouldn’t like it ever.

  8. 8
    pooks says:

    I check out the 1-star reviews first—just a quick skim—to see what kinds of things people are complaining about. If they are the same things that annoy me there is a good chance I’m skipping that book. Even if I am willing to consider it, I read the good reviews with the cautions of the bad reviews in mind, which sets the bar higher for whether I am going to spend any time and money on the book.

  9. 9
    Sarah Wynde says:

    My editor self is ridiculously troubled by why the 4-stars high reviews are flipping the middle finger. Wouldn’t they be pointing, instead? 5 as the thumb, 4 as the index, etc.? How are you holding your hand to make that work right? Sorry for the ridiculous question! 

    I’m not interested, generally, in books that are the 3-star high middle finger—if a lot of people were neutral, I suspect I’ll probably be neutral, too, and I don’t have time to read neutral books. But I’m always interested in extremes. Say the aloha hand sign, lots of fives (the pinky, so that it’s more 5s than 1s) and a liberal sprinkling of 1s as the thumb.

    But as an author, I do think it makes a difference where you’re looking at the reviews. In my experience, Amazon reviews get higher ratings, probably because Amazon says a 3-star review is negative, while Goodreads says that it means you liked the book. On Amazon my first book has twice as many five stars as four stars (88 vs 42) while on Goodreads that number is reversed (28 five vs 53 four). So the same book has different finger shapes on different sites. (Um, I feel like I should add, just in case that makes someone curious, please don’t buy the book. It’s free on smashwords & B&N, I just haven’t managed to convince Amazon to make it free.)

  10. 10
    rayvyn2k says:

    I take reviews with a grain of salt. My decision is based on the synopsis, blog reviews and price. And, I’ve never seen a Goodreads review, I don’t think.

    Oh, and Hype Bomb from the Squee-cannon is the name of my next Bon Jovi cover band.

  11. 11

    The reason I find it hard to accept all five-star reviews is that anything that is that knock-you-out-with-its-overwhelming-goodness is going to be polarizing. People should feel strongly about it, but usually they feel strongly one way or the other. All the books I’ve absolutely adored are ones I’ve seen others rail on (often for the things that I thought made the book so vibrant). So, if not one person posts a “y’all are crazy” review to balance the five-star ones, the collection of reviews lose their credibility for me.

  12. 12
    Nicci August says:

    I have a general rule of thumb: if a book on Goodreads has pages of reviews filled with animated gifs or jpgs of pretty models/actors, then no matter how tempting the blurb or how enthusiastic the reviews, it’s probably not the book for me.

    People who review in pictures (coughs)younger readers(coughs) often seem to have different tastes than I do, and while there are exceptions to that rule, so far it’s served me well.

  13. 13
    Vicki says:

    I’ll read the latest three or four reviews and then the ones. If the ones are mostly about grammar or “just not for me,” I may take a chance. If, otoh, they have cogent complaints about plot or lack of research, I will skip. I will say that my best source for what I want to read is the young women or the mothers who come to my office and read while waiting to see me. I always ask what they are reading and how they like it. They have convinced me to read a couple books I would not have otherwise read and am glad I did.

  14. 14
    Kwana says:

    Great post and really puts things in perspective. I promptly went to GR and looked for the finger on my 2 books. I smiled when I got flipped the bird. A difference of opinion does give a certain amount of legitimacy to reviews and to me as a writer and a reader it shows a passion for the work. That it hit on a nerve. Good reviews and well as bad can sell a book for me.

  15. 15
    Vivian Arend says:

    I agree that I tend to use your thought process for first books in the series. I like to know WHY a book works or didn’t work for people, and undefined squeeing doesn’t help.

    By the time we hit third and fourth books and etc in a series, though? I expect that long tail on the 4 & 5 stars to increase substantially because by that point a lot of the people who the author’s voice/style/series themes don’t work for have fallen away.

    In fact, I’d be shocked to find a finger review (heheh) on a later book in the series unless the author really did something out of the ordinary that was nigh unforgivable (ie killing previous hero comes to mind)

  16. 16
    Lostshadows says:

    I generally only look at reviews if I’m on the fence about buying the book and can’t read the first few pages.

    At that point, the spread of reviews doesn’t interest me at all. I just start by looking at the 3-1 star reviews, and if I’m still unsure, I’ll read the 4 star ones.

    5 star reviews, are pretty useless to read and also a pita to write. (I loved The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, but I still can’t figure out how to articulate why.)

  17. 17

    love this theory -

    another way to appreciate the 1 and 2 stars is there is always one fellow reader that you never see eye-to-eye with—>>>>> SO I always like to check out the books she/he did not rate high.

    BTW – I never squee, although it seems like it may be fun? for a book or two?

  18. 18
    Wendy says:

    I like a mix of reviews, too. In addition to checking the hand configuration of the graph (hilarious analogy, thank you!), I will read a few reviews, both good and bad, to figure out the reviewers’ purpose in writing the review. Many people write only when they hated a book, many only when they loved a book, and reviews can be so intensely personal and highly idiosyncratic as to be of no use whatsoever to a potential reader. Bad reviews can be based purely on the fact that the MC’s name was the same as the reviewer’s ex, and good reviews can arise from the reviewer imagining the MC as a favourite celebrity, or knowing that a certain actor has played the part in film or television. I look for reviews that talk about the story, and the writing (because I have no time for bad writing). And honestly, my first stop for reviews, certainly of romance novels, is right here at SBTB. And on the podcast. Because your taste and mine overlap in a good place, Sarah. Keep up the fine work!

  19. 19

    I noticed the other day that my most popular book (Aftershock) has no 3-star reviews on Amazon, just 2-stars and 4,5 etc. I’m proud of that. I don’t want to be average or to read average books. I’m a little more critical than most readers, so I tend to suspect a book with a 3-star average is actually quite poor. A book with a bunch of 1-stars signals bad writing/editing to me. Of course, I’ve seen awful writing in bestsellers with hundreds of 5-stars, too. I look for mentions of writing quality in reviews, but I really have to read the sample before I buy. The vast majority of readers aren’t as picky as I am about writing.

  20. 20
    Lindsay says:

    I noticed that I don’t usually look at reviews for auto-buy authors for me, so I took a quick look, and a lot of them are all in the 5-star range with some 1-stars thrown in for good measure. The 1-stars tend to be one lines of “This had a lot of sex in it” or “Terrible smut and writing will not buy from this author again”, the 5-stars talk about what they really enjoyed and didn’t enjoy.

    BUT! This is also like book 6 in a series where people are invested in the characters and world, so anyone who didn’t really enjoy books 1 and 2 have probably not read further, and the people leaving 1-stars… I have no idea why people write reviews that they are shocked there was sex in an erotica series.

    For authors I don’t know, however, I much prefer to see a big scattering of reviews because 3-star and below generally articulate what they didn’t like about the book really concisely, and that usually tells me if it WILL work for me, or if the things they’re warning about are absolutely not up my alley.

    If a book has 70,000 1-star reviews I automatically assume it’s FSOG or Twilight (or a classic a teacher made kids write an amazon review for, there are a LOT of those!) and half of the reviews are by people who haven’t read the book but are here to tell you why it’s bad to like things that other people like, or that they personally dislike.

    So yes, I like it when the review numbers flip me off, but I guess I also like to see genuine 5s because I still believe people leave them for books they really adore or just had to say something about, in between all the hype. If I’m glossing over free books I will pick up something with a higher star rating because I probably won’t put much time into reading reviews, but if I’m spending money and it hasn’t come directly recommended from folks here or at DA (or close friends) then I will be digging into the reviews.

  21. 21
    MissB2U says:

    Before I married my husband my mother gave me some excellent advice.  “Consider whatever it is about him that bothers you.  In ten years it will bother you ten times more.  Can you live with that for the rest of your life?”  I took her advice and hubby and I just celebrated 29 years of connubial bliss.

    Turns out this is true for writing as well.  My personal pet peeves are poor editing for both grammar and plot.  I just can’t stand it.  It’s like finding a hair in my meal.  So I look at those mistakes in chapter 1 and know that by chapter 3 I’ll be filing for divorce.  As a result, I tend to read the negative reviews first, and if there are complaints about my pet peeves I definitely won’t buy the book.  I’ll read the positive reviews that actually SAY something, (Elyse, why aren’t you working day and night reviewing every romance book ever written?), and if there’s something there that makes me still want the book I’ll get it from the library.

  22. 22
    cleo says:

    I don’t think I’ve paid attn to the review graph, although that makes sense. I don’t use reviews at GR or Amazon when deciding to try a new to me author – that’s almost always based on suggestions from trusted friends or reviewers. Although I will check out the 1 stars to look for deal breakers or pet peeves before I actually purchase.

    I do use goodreads for continuing series – it’s useful if I need to decide tif I should spend my limited book budget or wait for the library. I assume that the reviewers are fans of the series, as I am, and reading the 2, 3 and 4 star reviews can help me decide. I’ll do the same with new releases of favorite authors.

  23. 23
    Emily A. says:

    That’s interesting theory on the books.

    On the finger theory my ring fingers are longer than my index finger, but that’s not the same for everyone. Some people have longer index fingers and some people have index and ring fingers that are basically the same size and it’s all good. I read an article that said if a man’s ring finger is longer than his index finger it means he’s really well-endowed sexually (not talking about his hands). Have no idea if this true (although maybe research?…), and I also have no idea what it means for us women. I think it’s interesting.

  24. 24
    Mo says:

    Totally use reviews like Lostshadows @#16: only if I can’t make up my mind.  But I only read the one star reviews. 

    @Jill (#19):  I can’t say I am surprised by the lack of 3 star ratings.  I read it (and rated/reviewed it, won it on Goodreads Giveaways) and I thought it was a very polarizing book and that it was meant that way.

    Interestingly, when I review, I tend to emphasize what I didn’t like about a book but my ratings emphasize my overall reaction to a book.  It’s kind of funny when I go back to look at them and see a 4 star book with a review about how awful all this stuff was.

  25. 25
    Elyse says:

    I don’t pay attention to the stars, typically. I’ll peruse the reviews looking for why the book did/didn’t appeal to the reader. Reviews that say “OMG I loved this book! H/h are the best ever!” but doesn’t elborate tells me nothing. Similarly “this book sucked” is not helpful either. I need the WHY!

  26. 26
    Kristi Davis says:

    I don’t want to see that many C reviews. I want lots of A’s all the way!

  27. 27
    Dread Pirate Rachel says:

    I like the ones with a good chunk of five- and one-star reviews. I like to see what people loved, and what people hated, and once I’ve seen that, I can decide if the loves will outweigh the hates for me.

    More importantly, I feel that I should share this. I persistently read “Averages” as “Avengers,” and thus had a wonderful image of the “Review avengers flipping [you] off.” Think Iron Man, but with a book instead of a glowy-chest-thing.

  28. 28
    Heather S says:

    I don’t read reviews unless it’s a book I’m really curious about but on the fence about reading—then I tend to go for the middle ground (threes, and sometimes fours – if they contain an honest review).

    I actually think that I pretty much only read reviews of books I’ve already read, because I want to see what other people thought. There were people giving four and five stars (on Amazon) to Charlotte Featherstone’s “Temptation and Twilight”, a book that sent me into a flailing rage because the “hero” was a Rapetastic Alph-hole of the 80’s variety. I hated him so much and nothing could make me forgive him for the way he treated the heroine. I was generous and gave “Love Overdue” by Pamela Morsi two stars because it had a librarian heroine – but the cute “fluffy romance” cover hides a world of Dark Bad Things that would have made me avoid that book like the plague, had I know what it really contained. I was so bothered that I struggled to come up with words, so I just did a Pros/Cons list with trigger warnings posted at the top.

  29. 29

    I agree with you. If the “index” finger is too long, I just ignore the whole thing. When I am curious about a book, I read the three-star reviews first, then the two-stars, then the one-stars. Generally, I don’t care what people who loved the book to pieces have to say on a commercial site (none of this applies on a blog/review site because those reviews are in-depth).

    Usually with three-stars people will at least try to give some mention of what they liked and what they didn’t. Even if I don’t agree, I can get a sense of the pros and cons.

    I sort of think no one can write something everyone loves. Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, Conrad, Joyce…all of them will get 5 stars from one person, 1 star from another. And books get rejected by publisher after publisher before finding one that loves them…why should we expect readers to have monolithic experiences with them?

    So when I see anything that’s radically tilted to the 5-star, it just presses my cynic buttons.

  30. 30

    I’ve never thought about it before but I, too, prefer it when the average is flipping me off :) A lot of my friends’ 4 star books will be 4 if not 5 for me, so I use them for recommendations. My friends’ 5 star books cover different requirements than mine. The thing that pushes them over the edge and makes them 5 stars instead of 4 may not be the same thing that works for me.

    On the rare occasion I look at Amazon reviews, I go straight for the two stars. Nothing else is believable, because Amazon like to get trigger happy and delete 1 star reviews.

    My favourite screenshots are a toss up between B and C. I want more people t have 5 starred it than 3 starred it, but more people to have 4 starred it than 5 starred it.

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