I’ve been using Goodreads since early 2008, just a mere year or so after the site launched. I was a full-time graduate student in Information Studies (aka: librarianship) and it was a wonderful way to keep track of everything I read.
My most popular review to date is the one star review I gave to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society, which I read back during the height of the book’s popularity. It did nothing for me, and I was pretty honest in saying that.
I cannot for the life of me remember what I wrote about it, aside from not liking it and being very much done with the overuse of the word “feckless,” but I know many people engaged with that review because it was a single, lone star. To this day, I get comments and responses to the post.
Star ratings were something I took a lot of pride in over the years. For me, 3 stars was a “good book.” Most books I read were 3 star books. Many others were 2 stars (“it was okay”). A rare few earned 4 stars (“great”) and even fewer saw a 5 star (“amazing”). I’d say the distribution of 1 stars (“not great”) mirrored the 5s. It was a system that worked for me.
Until it was a system that didn’t work for me.
I’m a Goodreads author*, but I am and continue to be engaged in book reviewing. I don’t find it a conflict of interest to review books by my peers and to be honest about their strengths and weaknesses. But I also review in a manner that reflects not only my opinion of the book, but also the way I can see the book working for another reader. I might loathe the story and writing style, but I can pinpoint what sort of reader would like it. This is a skill I learned through reading a lot, through my education, and through my on-the-ground work as a librarian. I might not be the reader who needs a specific book, but I know there’s a reader out there who does (see: Raganathan’s 2nd and 3rd laws).
Before I made the profile conversion, though, I did something radical: I stopped using star ratings.
Star ratings, as much as they worked as a personal system, allowed too much room for quick-fire reactions from other readers. Not understanding the way my system worked, it was easy to assume that because I gave 4 stars to the Twilight graphic novel, I thought it was outstanding. This isn’t true; I thought it was quite successful at making the leap to graphic format and that readers who loved the books would be satisfied with trying this format. I couldn’t tell you the faintest about the book now, what it did or didn’t leave out, but I can return to that review and recall exactly why I rated it as such.
Because, as I found out through comments and responses left on my reviews over the years, once you use a starred rating, many people don’t read the actual review. Or, they read only the reviews which merit a low star rating or a high one, ignoring all of those reviews falling squarely in the center.
It’s those reviews in the center that I as a reader care most about.
In dropping my ratings and sticking to merely written reviews—some lengthy, some short, nearly all with a note about who the book might be perfect for or what books it’s similar to—I’ve invited much more nuanced and thoughtful commentary from other readers. They’re not always in agreement, but, the thought behind those responses is far more critical and worthy of consideration (from myself and other readers!) than those I found when using a star rating in conjunction with a review.
I’m a voracious reader, and I’ve found another benefit in dropping my ratings: I take more time to consider the things I want to remember about each specific book, rather than quickly judge its merit and move on. Even when I consider my old reviews which had both stars and reviews, I still catch myself looking first at the star rating before considering whether to read my notes or not. My brain wants the lazy route, and by not offering that tool anymore—and I haven’t in a couple of years—I’m forcing myself to slow down, consider, and spend more time wading in slowly to what it is I really want to remember.
It’s also allowed me to consider the sort of energy I do and don’t have when it comes to engaging with other readers on Goodreads. One reason I use it is for the social aspect; but I want to be social in ways that are useful. I can’t remember the details of every book I read, say, six years ago. I can, however, remember those I read six months ago. When I made the conscious choice to move from star ratings to pure reviews, I also made the conscious choice to note that I only respond to comments on reviews from the six previous months.
I’ve found my love for Goodreads to be much higher because I can respond better. Because I find myself reading other people’s reviews more carefully. Because I no longer feel I need to give readers a number and allow them to judge what it means by their brain’s easy routes.
If we’ve learned anything about Goodreads ratings, it’s that Goodreads star ratings mean different things to different people. By eliminating them all together, I feel like I’m better conveying what I got out of the book and what it is another reader might get out of it, too. Or where they might find themselves loving a title I didn’t connect with (and vice versa).
Dropping stars from my reviews made me a more thoughtful reviewer and a more thoughtful member of the community.
I’m never looking back…unless it’s to enjoy how many more people have loved the one-star review I left of a book that certainly saw no repercussions from it.
*Reviews are for readers and not for authors, so I feel compelled to note that I don’t read the reviews of my own books, unless it’s sent to me by someone else as a thoughtful, positive review worth looking at. We all need a little sparkle in our days sometimes.