This is probably not the first opportunity you've had to question the five-star review system that Amazon and others seem so dependent upon. People pay for reviews, or get friends and family to post reviews, and Amazon doesn't seem to be able to police it well. Dave Chesson says readers ignore five-star reviews and focus on more objective three-star reviews, and yet authors must keep their overall average up, because some readers won't touch a book with less than four stars. So you probably already had your doubts, but here's Betsey Kulakowski, terrific author of The Veritas Codex paranormal adventure novels, to explain why. _______________________________________________________________
In my 28-year career as a safety professional, one of my favorite assignments was managing a program that collected data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics under a grant. While not a statistician by education, I learned quite a bit about collecting good data. In fact, in many of the classes I teach on OSHA Recordkeeping, I am oft to say, “Good data in equals good data out.” Now, as an author, I’m highly focused on the feedback provided from my readers, most of which comes in the form of reviews with stars associated. Everyone wants those coveted five-star reviews. Negative reviews have been known to make or break a new author, and good reviews are one of the best selling points available. Sadly, the five-star rating system is flawed. A system that includes an obvious middle option, known as a central bias, isn’t reliable. Bias is a statistical term which means a systematic deviation from the actual value. There are two problems created by a central bias: 1) the data may be inaccurate and 2) the data will be unhelpful. If customers rate something in the middle of the scale simply because they’re afraid of providing an extreme rating, this means the data collected in the survey may be inaccurate and not reflect the true quality of the product. And, if readers rate a book in the middle, it’s difficult for other readers to decide to purchase it. Another issue with the five-star review system is that there’s no definition of what each star means. That makes the review subjective to whatever the reviewer thinks it means. It’s not surprising to see a review where the reader gives a book a high star rating, but their written comments don’t support the number of stars they assigned. Because there’s no clear definition, there’s also the risk of a high-rating bias, as well as a low-rating bias. If a reader only gives five-star reviews, anyone who looks at their rating history may figure that out (though I doubt there are too many people who would take the time to do that much research). But if a book only has five-star reviews, that might discredit the value of the data to a skeptical reader. Likewise, when a book that has a lot of great reviews, but only a couple seemingly harsh negative reviews, readers may decide those are outliers (and they usually are). As an author, I have been told repeatedly, “Don’t read the reviews.” I guess those who give that advice have had a bad review that really stung. I think we all have at some point. But what’s an author to do? You can’t control what people write about your books, and you never want to respond to a negative review. Let’s face it, who wants more drama? Not me. Another thing you might hear me say is, “There are lies, damned lies … and statistics.” So, for me, I collect all the data, look for the outliers and watch for the biases, then, at the end of the day, I’ll take and apply the feedback I can actually use, celebrate the accolades, and move on. I realize, my books are not Nutella. They can’t make everyone happy … but I can sure try.
(Note: This article was published in the December 2021 Issue of The Red Sneaker Writer's Newsletter! To Learn More about The Red Sneaker Writers Center, podcast, books, conference and newsletter visit: www.williambernhardt.com.)