Goodreads Ratings and the Curse of the One-Star Review


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Book reviews.  Authors love to have them.  Perspective buyers love to peruse them.  Readers can sometimes be successfully cajoled into leaving them if there is some kind of valuable bribe involved.  Those five little stars are so critically important to making sales and hitting goals that authors will bludgeon all their friends, acquaintances, Twitter followers, and blog browsers into leaving just a few kind words and a rating that might push them an inch or two higher up the best-sellers list.  We agonize over every criticism and nod our heads in agreement at every minor piece of praise, soaking up admiration like particularly snooty sponges each time a reader sees it our way.

A good review is one of the best things that can happen to a writer whose self-esteem hangs by a thread, and getting panned can sting so badly that it wipes out weeks of potential productivity as wounds are nursed and fragile egos rebuilt with the aid of cookies, kitty cuddles, and hard drugs.

But what’s worse than a bad review from a reader who didn’t like a character or felt cheated by an ending?  An unintentionally bad review, left completely by accident, that is still displayed prominently and drags down a book’s average rating.

Anyone who has browsed Goodreads has probably come across this painful phenomenon.  Books that haven’t been released yet have user ratings down in the two-and-a-halfs, or novels that have received nearly universal acclaim still have a smattering of one-star reviews next to random readers’ names.  These one-star users never leave a comment explaining their decision.  They may give four and five stars to everything else on their book list.  They appear callous, heartless, and careless: the enemy of all that is good about exchanging opinions with fellow readers; the bane of authors everywhere.

Why do they do this?  Because, most of the time, they have absolutely no idea that they are causing the author so much unwarranted angst.

In my experience, one-star reviews on Goodreads are nearly always the product of mistaken identity.  The user hasn’t the faintest recollection of having rated the book.

Before Dark the Night Descending was available for purchase, I had at least three one-star reviews on my record, and the first impression was terrible.  I was tearing my hair out.  How could anyone hate something so much when they hadn’t even read it?  No one was going to take a chance on the first book of a new, self-published series if it was already being condemned by the all-important stars.  It wasn’t fair, and it spurred me to action.

I messaged each of the users.   “It was just a stray click.  I was trying to add it to my reading list,” one said. “I had no idea – I’m so sorry,” said the others.  They were looking for an excerpt, or trying to click away, or perform some other harmless action that tripped them up.  All of the users involved retracted their reviews immediately and promised they would review my book again after they had actually read it.  Everyone was very nice, and I thanked them all profusely, but the experience wasn’t just embarrassing for both sides of the equation.  It should be totally unnecessary.

Readers trust Goodreads for advice from their peers about what to pick up during their next trip to the bookstore, and authors count on Goodreads for the publicity that keeps everyone in business.  So why is it so easy for readers to accidently mislead their fellows, hurting authors and the reputation of Goodreads in the process?  Why do we have to experience so much grief over something that seems so easy to fix?

One solution would be to require, as Amazon does, a minimum amount of text before posting a review.  But I can see why Goodreads wouldn’t want to change their dual-review system quite that much.  I like the fact that you can just leave a star without thinking of some pithy comment to put with it.  Leaving a star is easy, and encourages readers to rate more books more quickly, which is generally a good thing.

Another solution would be to ask a reader, “Are you sure you meant to leave one star?” before allowing them to submit the entry.  I suppose that might run the risk of artificially inflating the rankings of books that really are total stinkers – a snap review is often a more honest one, and I think that usually works in everyone’s favor.  You don’t want someone second-guessing themselves if they actually did hate something.

So here’s my answer: just make the reader aware of what they did.  Add a little pop-up to the review process that says, “You just gave a one-star rating to Dark the Night Descending.”  If they meant to do it, they’ll ignore the prompt.  If they didn’t mean it, maybe they’ll go back and change their mistake.  Everyone wins.  Authors won’t suffer, readers won’t be unduly inconvenienced, and the integrity of the Goodreads empire will remain whole.

Readers, does that sound fair?  Authors, wouldn’t you like to see a little more quality control?  Let’s make sure that what we’re doing matters, and that our opinions are properly counted.  That seems like a five-star idea to me.

8 Replies to “Goodreads Ratings and the Curse of the One-Star Review”

  1. Interesting!

    I actually decided at some point last year that I wasn’t going to write negative book reviews anymore. My reasons were various (if you’re curious you can read my blog post, linked below) but basically I decided I wanted to spend my limited time talking about things I love, not things I hate.

    However, I also wanted to be honest about whether or not I liked a book, so I would give out 1 and 2 stars on Goodreads to books I felt deserved them. I actually prefer Goodreads reviews to Amazon’s because I don’t have to write a lengthy review for every book, I can just rate how well I liked it and move on.

    As an author, do you really want to know why someone disliked your book? Is it helpful? I’m a writer too–not published yet–and while of course I’d always welcome constructive criticism, I’m not sure how a negative online review would be helpful to me. But again, I’m not published yet, so maybe once that actually starts happening, I’ll crave some explanations to go along with any 1-star ratings.

  2. Personally, I think if you’re going to give me a one or two star rating anyway, I’d prefer to understand why you felt that way. Maybe that explanation will help me clarify or improve something in the future, or maybe it helps another reader decide whether or not to take a chance. What you hated might be what someone else loves.

    I don’t think you can ever go wrong with communication, even if it’s not always pleasant for an author to hear. After all, no one can improve without feedback!

  3. Not requiring any text with a rating is a blunder. As a published author, I do crave constructive criticism and I have learned a lot from it. The most valuable review I ever received was a 2-star review on Amazon where the reviewer taught me about some grammar minutia that I used incorrectly. I was able to fix it and update the Kindle book. Until I read this article, I had no idea that a lot of 1-star ratings (without reviews) on GoodReads were mistakes. That is maddening for many reasons, one of which is the hole it digs for the author. You might think that for every accidental 1 star, there is an accidental 5 star and they balance out to a 3-star. Right? Unfortunately, many of the promotional services (the independent authors main PR tool) only accept books with ratings of 4 or higher). It takes a lot of 5’s to climb out of the crater left by an accidental 1. GoodReads could fix this by requiring something as simple as a ten word minimum per review; the extra thirty seconds would not be an onerous burden on the reader who just spent 10 hours reading the book. Out of the 50+ ratings on GoodReads that my book has received, five of them are 1-star. Without any words, I have no idea why.

  4. Wow! Thank you. I found this post today (over a year later) when I searched for the ‘meaning of Goodreads ratings’ . I have known about Goodreads for some time, but with all the signing in and signing up, I have never reviewed a book myself. Plus it would take a lot of time and pondering over what to write… And I’m shy about things like that. However, I have, myself been writing fiction, and recently self published an E-book. I wrote this, mainly for my Mum… and with her consent, I self published to ‘learn how it is done’ . I immediately wanted to make some changes to the manuscript, and had not pressed the ‘advertise and promote button’ … however, on looking at my own kindle I noticed that it had already received ‘two stars’ on Goodreads. Now I’m not saying this book deserved five stars, but its lone rating made me want to find out if the rater had written anything. Unfortunately, the kindle device led me to a list of books (really famous books) and stars, and in turning the page, I too am guilty of adding stars … probably five to the books listed, and, embarrassingly, my own! … Then to add to what is turning into a short story… I found out that the rater was someone I know! Really hoping I have fallen victim to the ‘mistaken rating’ you wrote about. This happened to me earlier this morning, and I haven’t dared look at my kindle, email the rater, or check what I did on Goodreads… I’m going to have to face it, thanks for the post.

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