Over the past few weeks I've heard from a number of authors who have been upset by ratings on public rating boards. A couple were ones I gave lower ratings than they felt they deserved, but mostly they were writers who just wanted to vent their frustration with low ratings, what they felt were attacks by trolls, the unwieldy number of people added to GoodReads simply because they're face book friends, or other aspects of the rating game that annoyed them.
Every year about this time I stop posting stars or numbers on Good Reads, LDS Publisher, Amazon, Deseret Book, etc. I and a couple of other authors and reviewers do this rather than let our views influence the Whitney judges and voters. Our influence might be nonexistent, but it helps us feel we're doing our part to encourage others to make up their own minds rather than follow whatever is the popular vote. Lately I've been thinking I might give up rating books on these sites altogether.
There are several problems I've become aware of in the past few years concerning assigning a number or star rating to a book. To begin with, the ratings mean different things to different people. I consider these rankings personal opinions; others consider them professional judgments. If I give a book a five it's because I think it's worthy of Whitney Award consideration and it has enough depth to have me thinking about it long after I finish reading it, a four means it didn't interest me as much as a five or it might have a few flaws, but it's still worthy of Whitney consideration, a three generally means I liked most of it, but it just didn't capture my whole-hearted attention, a two means I couldn't really get into it, and a one means boring, crude, offensive, or a waste of time. No marking can mean potential Whitney, so boring or disgusting I didn't finish it, I forgot to rate it, well written, but I didn't like it, or almost anything. You'll notice none of my ratings have to do with how well the book is written; they mostly have to do with my reading tastes. Another reviewer whom I respect a great deal recently rated the same book I rated on one of these sites with very different numbers. She loved it; I didn't. She works with teenagers and loves teen fiction; I don't so much. We both agreed the author has style, writes well, uses great dialog, but I found all the teen angst less than fascinating while she thought the story delved into serious issues. One of us is not right and the other wrong; we each rated the book according to our personal response to it. (By the way I don't dislike all teen fiction and I've read quite a bit of it lately while I've been recuperating from surgery. Some were superb and I hope they receive awards and recognition for a job well done. I may even review a couple of them here on this blog.)
A Romance fan is probably going to rate Sarah Eden higher than Orson Scott Card and Anita Stansfield's fans are probably not as enamored with Dan Wells as they are with her. Those ratings are a measurement of how much the reader enjoyed the book and the reader's personal taste in reading material. I have two books on my keeper shelf that are not well written, in fact from a professional standpoint, they're pretty clumsy and amateurish, but I love them and would rate them high, if I rated them, because of their strong personal appeal and excellent research. On the other hand I've seen wonderful books marked down because the reader expected one genre and the book picked up proved to be something else.
Another problem I'm aware of in this rating game is people who troll. That is, they give negative ratings to people they're jealous of, to get revenge, because they think it's a funny game, to make a friend look better by comparison, because the author is perceived to support a cause or belong to a group they oppose, etc. The anonymous nature of the internet seems to bring out the worst in some people. One writer claims she got one star ratings on a book that hasn't even been released yet and the ratings weren't given by reviewers who often do get advance readers copies.
Sometimes the opposite problem arises when writers who belong to the same critique group, guild, town, family, or other organization attempt to show their loyalty to each other by flooding rating sites with high marks for the work of one of their own. Also some writers and groups have campaigns to get everyone they know to go to a particular site and rate their books high. This is sad and misleading since the majority of readers aren't aware they can rate the books they read or are uninterested in doing so. Many readers don't even know where to go to do it.
(There's a link on my sidebar)
I, and almost every other writer I know, have had our feelings hurt at some time by someone who gave us a low rating on a book we spent months, possibly years, writing. After being a writer as long as I have, I recognize that not everyone is going to like my books and those who do will like some of them better than others. I freely admit that I don't like every book some of my favorite writers have written, but that isn't because they aren't well-written and they won't appeal to someone else. It's easy to say, "Get over it. Don't take ratings on these public pages so seriously." Most writers know ratings have little to do with sales or popularity, but still low marks hurt.
If someone really wants to know how well written a book is or if it's the kind of book he or she wants to read, I suggest going to a reputable newspaper, magazine, or blog reviewer. They can also checkout the synopsis of the book listed by the bookstore or on the bookliner. Another source is friends whose taste in reading material is similar to their own. To anyone who likes to look for ratings, I say go ahead, it's kind of fun, but remember they don't really mean much, and if you're one of those who bestows ratings, be honest, but don't be deliberately hurtful. And to my fellow writers, I suggest growing a thick skin, consider the source, and avoid making career choices based on those ratings. Not only have I received a one star rating, but I've seen one star ratings for Brandon Mull, Rachel Nunes, Josi Killpack, Stephanie Black, Jeff Savage, and many other authors who are doing just fine and are counted among the best. The rating that matters is the number of books sold.