Thursday, February 17, 2011

Context Is Everything

I have been thinking about grading scales lately.

About how some folks consider a 3-star rating "good" (which, technically, it is on Goodreads) and some folks (authors) who receive a 3 star rating want to fling their bodies off a bridge.

I tend to be an easy grader. If I like a book, I give it 4 or 5 stars. No fudging around. It's good, and I'm recommending it. According to my scale....

A= 5 stars
B= 4 stars
C= 3 stars
D= 2 stars
F= 1 star

3 stars is mediocre, not a great book. That's a C rating for me.

This is NOT the scale used at Goodreads, where....

1 star= didn't like it
2 stars= it was OK
3 stars= liked it
4 stars= really like it
5 stars= it was amazing

How the hell did Goodreads come up with this scale? I have no idea. No where else is an average rating considered "good"...which is the equivalent of "liked it" in my opinion.

Anyhow, back to the topic at hand. Which is context. I do not grade a book by a debut author in the same way that I grade a book by Nora Roberts. I also do not grade a quickie erotica book in the same way I grade a full-length historical. Why?

Consider this analogy. You're a food critic. One day you go to a diner, the next to a chi-chi French gourmet restaurant. You have to grade the food. Well, food is food, right? Your grading scale should be based on taste. The same criteria apply to both places.

Bull pucky.

This makes no logical sense. A diner serves greasy, fattening comfort food. Large quantities of it. A French gourmet restaurant serves tiny portions of artistically arranged food, using more unusual and sophisticated ingredients. Food is not food. Your expectations at the French restaurant are completely different than at the diner. If the French restaurant served you a big ass bowl of macaroni and cheese, they would probably get a 1-star rating (whereas that same food could earn the diner a 5 star rating if the mac was tasty!). Likewise, if a diner served 3 sprigs of arugula on a plate you would be outraged and demand your money back.

Context is everything.

A quickie erotica should be sexy and satisfying. I'm not looking for in-depth character development in a 20 page story. But I expect the sex scenes to be entertaining and not repetitive. A full-length historical by Eloisa James has a different set of expectations. I am looking for fully formed, flawed characters, a satisfying storyline, luscious sex scenes, and an intense and emotional romance. A debut author with a small publisher? Can she write, is the story cohesive, satisfying, entertaining? I don't expect a contemporary to have the same world-building details as a sci fi romance, or a fantasy/UF to have the same level of spice as an erotica. Each sub-genre has its own set of expectations.

Context is everything.

So, my 5-star rating for a debut author doesn't necessarily mean the same thing as a 5-star rating for Julia Quinn. Nor should it. I don't expect a newbie writer to have the same level of mastery of fiction-writing as Julia Quinn.

Some folks will disagree with me (oh, the horror!)....but this is my not-so-humble opinion about reviewing.

Luckily for me, I like macaroni and cheese, and arugula salad. Each has its merits and drawbacks, but I can appreciate both when they are done well.

Appreciating the vast diversity of the romance genre,


smexys_sidekick said...

I'm like you. If I like but could put it down and not really think about it-it's a 3. If I liked and had a hard time putting down-then it's a 4/B. If I stayed up all night reading and I will read it again and again-5/A.
When I review-I really don't think about the authors pub status. New, old...I just review the book. I tend to review on content but I'm sure I subconsciously do take author into consideration.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Tori! I think your "3" is better than my "3"....a 3 star or C for me is something I'm not impressed with. It might have some good mixed in with the bad, so it averages out, but otherwise....meh.

Amber said...

I absolutely grade newbie authors more leniently than established ones. Which is why the fake "debut" authors make me see red.

I will also be harder on an established author if I feel their current book is worse than their otherwise stellar backlist. Even if it would still rate a B if it were written by a newbie.

As for Goodreads, I admit I don't grade according to their scale. When 4/5 of the ratings are positive? It's not an effective scale. So a 3 star for me is anywhere from a B-to a C.

Penny Watson said...

Amber....I'm right with you about established authors. That's why I dinged Julia Quinn for her marshmallow fluff book....I know she can do much, much better (can you say Bridgerton series?). When an established author starts writing duds, I am def. more harsh with my critique.

I agree about 3-stars at Goodreads....3-stars for me is somewhere around average....B-/C+/C.

Nina Pierce said...

It's funny you should bring this up because I've been thinking a lot about this. As a reader I wouldn't run out to buy a book with 3 stars, even if the interpretation is that the reviewer enjoyed it. To me a 3 says "meh, nothing to see here, keep moving".

As an author the number of stars given to a review of my books really hits home. And I find it interesting when the review rating doesn't seem to match the reviewers enthusiasm (or lack of). Take this a small portion from one of my reviews:
"I think you’ll agree that Ms. Pierce has a very talented voice for menage as well as out of this world action/adventure."

There were other glowing quotes throughout the review, but I'm not using it. Why? The reviewer only gave the book 3.5 stars. Please don't hear that as complaining, I'm only trying to make your point. The rating just seemed to be such a disconnect from the true level of the reviewers enjoyment.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Nina! Thanks so much for stopping by! I totally hear you about the disconnect. However, I disagree about using good quotes....if you have a good soundbite from a review, use it! No one needs to know what the overall rating was. In fact, for the very reason that this grading scale business is so subjective, the overall rating should probably be left off your site....just use the positive quotes and you'll be all set!

Nina Pierce said...

I should also mention I've had the opposite happen. The reviewer gave the book 4 or 5 stars and then just went on to say all the things she didn't like about it. Huh?

In the end I don't know how much a reader who isn't familiar with my books would use the recommendation of a reviewer to decide to pick up one of my stories for the first time. (LOL! That was a long sentence ... but you get the idea.

Penny Watson said...

Nina---another good point about high ratings with lots of goes both ways!

I think excerpts and reviews are very important for new readers....My decision to buy a book from an author new-to-me is based on the excerpt and recommendations from reviewers I know and respect. That's why I think you should totally use positive quotes on your site!

Carolyn Crane said...

Great post, Penelope. Totally agree. I tend to hold the writers I love, especially, to really high standards.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Carolyn! How are you doing, missy????? Yes, it's a double-edged sword for writers. If you write a great book, then your readers have super high expectations...that's a lot of pressure!

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Oh, I totally agree. I look at grades like school grades - I never allowed myself to get anything less than an A. A 'C' is average. It's meh...not good, not bad. Which is why reviewers who say they really like a book yet give it a C, IMO, didn't really like it all that much.
And yes...CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. Don't hold the corner burrito place to the same standards you hold The French Laundry too, and vice versa.

If I were a reviewer, which I'm not, I would put a great deal of thought into a review. What worked, what didn't and why. You might even need to use a sliding scale.
I do have a nonfiction review scheduled on Dirty Sexy Books for March 11, and I had to use a sliding scale. This book might be a 5-star for an academic and a 1-star for a romance reader.
Context context context.

Amber said...

One more thing that bugs me is when reviewers give a book a B and there is nothing indicating what they didn't like about the book.

I try to always at least articulate what bugged me. Even if it's nitpicky, petty, or so tied into my own reader preferences that it likely wouldn't apply for anyone else.

If it's not an A, at least say why. Even if it's just "I liked it but it didn't wow me." or "It was fun, but I won't read it again."


And JQ has disappointed me lately, too. It's like someone sucked out the soul from her stories.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Julia....can't wait to see your review! A nonfiction review? Can you tell what it is? I'm curious!

Penny Watson said...

Hey Amber...that brings up another good point. Some people think you need to justify why it wasn't a "A"....its shortcomings. Some people think you need to include what was good about it (if it gets a less than stellar rating). I think every book has good and bad points...and you're right, the reviewer should try to point these out.

As to JQ...I think historicals are getting stale for her. She needs to mix it up...maybe a M/M BDSM erotica? hee that would be funny!

Julie said...

Great post. I used to get confused when I rated a book. So now I just rate it according to whether or not I'm ever going to want to read it again. 3 for me means "liked it while I was reading it but it's going to be donated when I'm done". I like how you mention that authors that we know can write a great book, we tend to hold them up to a higher standard. Probably not totally fair, but completely true! I'm glad you said it and not me. ;)

Penny Watson said...

Hey Julie!--I think it's fair. If an author has established herself as a stellar writer, then she's gotta keep crankin' out the goodies....I'm not going to accept sub-par work if I know she's capable of better. Dem da breaks.

The Romance Girl said...

I don't think this is what the post is getting at, but it really irks me when reviews rate every book they read as 4 or 5 stars. I know average has this really negative connotation, but in my opinion it shouldn't (as long as people aren't aiming for average). In reality, not every book is that good! Seeing people who rate like that makes me feel like their opinions and recommendations are totally unreliable.

Penny Watson said...

Hey're right...not every book is good, but I think some people just like to write reviews for books they like. I have no problem talking about books that I don't like, but I point out why, because I have my own quirky stuff that bothers me (like excessive violence) that does not necessarily bother other readers.

Ella Drake said...

Quick response to DL's comment about people who seem to rate most books highly. I think there are a few reasons people do this, but I know that the reason I do it is that I'm not a reviewer. (I don't have the skill to write a good review. I lack that gene, or something). And, I've made the decision not to rate Romance. (My own personal decision & I don't think my decision has bearing on what other people do). I occasionally make an exception but only for books I'd rate 5-star & all of these are books from my keeper shelf.

Overall, I've noticed that goodreads ratings tend toward 3. When I'm shopping for a book as a reader, I read both the good reviews and the bad to see if it's something I'd like.

What I do find interesting is that I've seen reviewers rate the same book a different score on goodreads vs. Amazon. I think they're doing so because of Context, as you mentioned.

Great post, Penny!

Barbara Wallace said...

Great post Penelope! You're right, reviews are so subjective as are the the way they are graded.

Personally, I also look at a C or 3 star review as not bad per se, but "average" meaning not great, not bad. Had some good stuff, could be better. Same as with my son's English papers. Would I prefer an A? Absolutely, but it's the reviewers job to give their readers an honest opinion - not give me a grade that will sell books or make me feel better. (Much as I wish it was)

BTW, I got one C review that actually sold books since what the reviewer didn't like, other readers found intriguing. So you never know.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Ella! You bring up some good points...

1) Most people like talking about books they love (hence the high no. of 4/5 star reviews), & aren't as interested in discussing "avg" books....

2) Not a good idea for writers to rate their colleagues' books unless they are good ratings! (if you don't like their books, keep your mouth shut...he hee!)

3)The discrepancy between Goodreads and Amazon is bec. of Goodreads' weird grading scale. They really should change that!

Penny Watson said...

Hi Barb! My 2 worst reviews (3 stars or the equivalent) also helped me to sell books....both reviewers admitted they didn't like "sweet" stories so my book wasn't their cup of tea. But a lot of readers do like sweet stories, so they were interested.....

Which is why authors should NEVER get into a sparring match with reviewers...Bad form all around.

Terri Brisbin said...

One of the things that 'gets' me as an author is when reviewers hold the length of the story against the author and grade it down because it was too short...or not long enough.

I wish reviewers would understand that a short story is actually a different format and shouldn't be judged as though it should have been a longer one...

Other than that, I understand that reviews are the personal opinion of one person and I'm not going to say anything else...LOL!

Terri B

Penny Watson said...

Hi Terri! Me, too! A short story should be judged accordingly--a quickie is an "amuse bouche" only....just a taste to whet the appetite, hopefully delicious and satisfying, but not the same as a full course meal. It's a huge challenge to write a short story well...I am always impressed with anthologies that are successful.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic, Penny! For my ratings on Goodreads, I made a decision, as an author and, like Ella, not a book reviewer by any means, to only score books I'd rate a 4 or higher. Just a personal choice. Anything I just "liked" (3) or worse, I don't bother to shelve.

I've been fortunate to have gotten some lovely reviews of THE LANGUAGE OF SOULS and would personally like to blow kisses to all you wonderful book bloggers. You know who you are. ;)

Also, I agree with the notion to cull good quotes out of "bad" to "meh" reviews. It's called making lemonade. LOL You see this all the time for movie quotes, like: "SCINTILLATING". *grin*

Penny Watson said...

Hi Lena! Your book is a perfect example of a well-written short's short but still wonderfully romantic and satisfying! Folks who don't like shorts should not review them.

Teddy Pig said...

Well to be honest with you most books simply will fall into a C range.

A is extremely rare and B is pretty dang good but the truth is A and B is what I will most likely make the effort to write a review about.

So that's the problem really. I just do not have much to say about a C grade and will most likely not write a review about it.

Generally I will only write about D or F to talk about what the problem was as an example of something that drives me buggy.

So if I do write a C review that's pretty rare and I obviously want to mention that author.

But it is not a totally bad thing though.

Penny Watson said...

Hi Teddy Pig! I think that's why so many people have A/B reviews....when you read something really great, you wanna talk about it and tell people. When you read something meh (C) you don't really care that much. When you read something that's a piece o' crap, sometimes you are so irked you want to write a review. Especially if it's a long-term fav writer who is letting you down.