First of all, if you aren’t on GoodReads, go get on GoodReads, and hook up with me there.

If you poke around on my page, or if you notice tweets from me generated by GoodReads every time I finish a book, you may notice that I absolutely adore every single book I read. And you might then be tempted to think I have no opinions at all, that I’m astoundingly lucky that everything I choose to read isn’t just pretty good but maximum-remarkable, or that I’m trying to suck up to authors (many of whom have been dead for decades or longer) by giving them five star reviews so they’ll… what? I’m not sure. Hire me to (posthumously) edit their books?

You might even think I don’t understand what these star ratings are supposed to accomplish.

Those are all easily enough dismissed:

Of course I have opinions of my own, I just don’t always think everyone wants or needs to hear all of them all the time.

I wish I was so lucky that everything I read is maximum-remarkable, but everything I read is at least slightly educational, even if it comes down to “yeesh… never do that!”

I love authors and if that sounds like sucking up, well, that’s fine.

And at last, I do, indeed, understand what the star ratings are meant to do—and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

First, though, here’s what prompted this discussion this week.

I keep a folder of bookmarks on my Internet browser called FOLLOW UP ON THIS, where I save links to things that catch my eye on any give day, then take maybe half an hour each morning to read through a couple and (maybe) post them on Twitter. This morning I got to a post from GoodReads entitled “How Books Earn Five-Star Ratings From Readers” and as I started reading through it I realized I couldn’t just post a link to this and run. This, I had to talk about in more detail.

Now, of course we all want a bunch of maximum-number-of-stars reviews wherever stars are available to count—we want people to like what we write and to tell their friends. I’m not, generally speaking, either opposed to or immune to that thinking, even though I steadfastly refuse to read reviews of anything ever and advise all authors to do the same—especially reviews (positive or negative) of our own work. Reviews exist for the reviewer and no one else. Give them power, one way or another, and I promise you’ll live to regret it.

And here’s a place where that regret might begin.

This post gives us authors “advice” (at least, I think it’s meant to be advice) for how to get five-star reviews that range from the cogent:

“It means the characters came to matter to me; they were authentic; they drew me in and I came to care about them. A five-star book has changed me in some way that I can’t even necessarily name.” says “Gracie.”

…to the absurd:

It cured my depression, cleared my acne, and aligned my chakras,” says “Brooklyn.”

Thankfully the list is quite short so unlikely to cause any serious damage to either authors or readers, but still, authors who try to alter their own writing to fit into anything here, or anything like this—lists of “what people like”—are in for a long and painful journey. And I mean longer and more painful than writing can already be (though no, writing doesn’t have to be either of those things!).

I give every book (with a very few exceptions*) five stars on GoodReads because I do know how the star ratings are actually used by GoodReads/Amazon, and other online communities and services like Netflix. They want to know what I like and don’t like so they can feed me things they think are the same as or similar to the things I told them I liked while pushing things that are the same as or similar to the things I told them I didn’t like off my screen.

But I don’t want to read the same or similar book, watch the same or similar TV series or movie, over and over and over again. Not to mention trust in these mysterious algorithms that are gleefully overridden by anyone who pays for the privilege.

So then how do I avoid ending up in Algorithm Hell? If I give everything one star, GoodReads’ computers will think I hate everything and end up recommending nothing. That’s no good, especially sense I don’t want anyone to think I hate everything. So I decided to give everything five stars so the algorithm won’t have a list of what I don’t like. And since I do actually read over a fairly inclusive spread of genres and categories, it will then be forced to push through… everything. Anything.

And from that pool of (non) recommendations I can then engage my own individual agency and maybe read another book in a series I like or by an author I’ve read in the past… or I might just try something completely new, completely unknown to me. I might discover my new favorite novel of all time. Or, I might discover my new least favorite (though I also have an aversion to lists like that).

Either way, it gets five stars.

If you think this sounds like me trying to defeat a system designed to help me, I hope you’ll pause before you comment and ask yourself, “Am I willingly marching into the Algorithm Dystopia with the rest of my culture?”

End of sermon.


—Philip Athans


* I will admit to the occasional moment of emotional weakness in which I… just… couldn’t… Nobody’s perfect!


Follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans

Link up with me on LinkedIn

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Or contact me for editing, coaching, ghostwriting, and more at Athans & Associates Creative Consulting.

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. DoveLyn says:

    I like this thinking regarding star ratings. I hate giving ratings to begin with, but this makes more sense.

    I am also stealing your “Follow up on this” bookmark folder!

  2. JM Williams says:

    I read reviews of most things before I make a purchase. I think most people do. I wouldn’t discount the power and necessity of reviews. They are important to customers, not just for the ego of the reviewer. To that end, I usually give indie authors a boost and rate indie books at five stars, four if they are problematic. I write reviews on Goodreads under my author name, so I need to be somewhat honest. That being said, I don’t hold back with main stream, blockbuster books. Those authors don’t need my help. And interestingly, I have found that the big, award-winning books have often been less appealing to me compared to the indies.

  3. Pingback: CRITICS, REVIEWS, AND REALITY | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  4. mythwrights says:

    I think your opinion on reviews here was mostly on the subject of media. I could be wrong, but if that’s the case I generally agree. If there’s a book or a movie that catches my eye, I don’t really feel the need to see what other people think of it, at least until I’ve experienced it and curiosity takes hold.

    I’d agree with the above, however, that sometimes reviews can be quite valuable. I’d just say that that’s mostly for products or services. If I’m buying a vacuum cleaner, I’d like to hear what other people hear about it. Again though, I don’t think that’s what you were referring to.

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