Sunday Post #42: Ratings

Sunday Post

Greetings on this frigid Sunday in New England. My wonderful hubby actually ventured outside today to help our neighbor jump start his car. I told him, and I meant it, that he’s a good neighbor. He said the air felt like frozen knives. I am glad it’s warming up before I have to go back to school after the holiday weekend.

I have been giving some thought to book ratings. I find that Amazon’s ratings are sometimes a bit on the high side, and otherwise, they can be a mixed bag in terms of helpfulness as many customers rate things like packaging. I find that infuriating because it doesn’t tell me anything about the book. Of course, the more popular a book is, the more accurate the ratings seem to be.

Goodreads, on the other hand, has a rating system that works as follows:

Rating: ★★★★★ = it was amazing
Rating: ★★★★☆ = really liked it
Rating: ★★★☆☆ = liked it
Rating: ★★☆☆☆ = it was ok
Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ = did not like it

I don’t really like this rating system, so on my Goodreads profile, I explain what my own ratings mean. To me, 3 stars is a bit low for a book that I liked. To me, that’s an okay book. I think 2 stars is low for an okay book. To me, that’s “I didn’t like it.” I reserve 1 star for books I hate. I don’t give 1 star ratings often because I don’t finish books I hate very often. Same with books I don’t really like. So I have a lot of higher ratings, or at least a lot of ratings from 3-5 stars. I know a lot of folks who reserve 5 star ratings for the best books of all time. I don’t. I give 5 stars to books I love. They might not even be my favorite books, but if I loved reading them, then they get 5 stars. I suppose we all need to figure out our own system for rating books, and I don’t usually hear much from others about my ratings. However, a few years back, a Goodreads friend (someone I don’t know well) commented about my higher book ratings. I didn’t unfriend him over it, but I thought about it because I thought he was rude. I disagree with many of my friends’ ratings, but our responses to books are personal, and no two people ever read the same book, so it’s natural that we will feel differently. I don’t let anyone shame me into “grading harder.” I think that’s ridiculous.

I don’t know why that was on my mind, but it was. Today, I recorded my last lesson for the online guitar class I have been taking through Berklee College of Music and Coursera. It has been a lot of fun. The instructor is quite good, and I found I learned a lot more theory this time around than I did when I took guitar classes in high school and college. Actually, I learned more theory than all the years I was in school band, come to that. I found it really fascinating, and now I want to take the music theory course on Coursera. I would really like a more advanced guitar course, but I am not sure there are plans to create one. I’m not the only student who is interested, though, if the forums are any way to judge. I am starting to get some good callouses on my left hand fingers.

I am glad I have a three-day weekend. I am hoping to catch up on some reading tomorrow. I am nearly finished listening to the third book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life. I might be able to finish it tomorrow some time, in which case I’ll post a review here (with my own star rating, too). I have been trying to finish Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. It’s hard to tell because I’m reading on Kindle, and the book has a lot of end notes, but I think I’m getting close to the end. At any rate, the Bastille has been stormed and the royals have been forced to the Tuileries. I am not really sure how I’m feeling about I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. I can tell you I don’t like the really long chapters. I feel like I have to stop in the middle of something because I can’t read chapters that long in a go. I’m also not grabbing the book when I want to read, which is telling.

I am turning in. I need to do a bit of planning tomorrow, and I want to read a bit before I go to sleep. I hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

The Trouble with Amazon Reviews

Amazon reviews can be helpful. I find them particularly valuable when I’m buying an appliance I’m not too sure about, but I admit that there are some aspects of Amazon reviews—of all types—that I find problematic. I never rely on Amazon book reviews, for instance.

In order to present my case, I selected a book I read in the last few years, Jude Morgan’s [amazon_link id=”B004P5OPAW” target=”_blank” ]Charlotte and Emily: A Novel of the Brontës[/amazon_link]. You can read my review of this book here. For the record, I loved it.

Charlotte and Emily by Jude MorganForgive the apostrophe error in the title; it’s not mine. Note that the book is rated at 4.5 stars with only 12 reviews.

On Goodreads, the same book:

Charlotte and Emily by Jude Morgan The rating is 3.76 stars with 120 reviews and 471 ratings.

To be fair, this book’s title in the UK is The Taste of Sorrow (much better title, but the publisher likely thought Americans wouldn’t get it), and Goodreads compiles reviews for both titles. Amazon does not, so I searched for that book and found only 5 more reviews (all 5-stars). Amazon UK’s site has 58 reviews for The Taste of Sorrow averaging 4 stars.

The first issue I see is that literary fiction, especially from authors who are not as well known (especially in the US), don’t receive a lot of reviews on Amazon. Compare the number of ratings for each book. The novel was rated only 12 times by Amazon reviews, but it received 471 total ratings, 120 of which also had written reviews, on Goodreads. As a result, one review, either direction, makes a big difference. With books that receive a large number of Amazon reviews, the ratings tend to even out to numbers that resemble those on Goodreads more closely, but for niche books that don’t have a wide audience, Amazon isn’t often that helpful for readers trying to decide whether or not to read a book.

Amazon requires written reviews; readers cannot simply rate a book on a star system without writing an explanation of their rating. While I find that requirement helpful, as often understanding the reason for the review helps me more than a simple star-rating, I can understand why some people might not want to bother.

On the other hand, I find Amazon reviews often focus on the packaging or some other insignificant detail of the book when what I want to know is whether it’s a good book or not. I find it maddening that so many Amazon reviewers still do not understand this concept: the review is for the product itself, not for the service, the packaging, or any other element. I don’t care if it was packaged well and arrived promptly.

One recent trend I’ve noticed on Amazon is for reviewers to write amusing, over-the-top reviews for products that it’s clear they haven’t used, but that they find funny. A case in point is the product page for Sugar Free Gummi Bears, which has pretty much devolved into TMI toilet humor. It’s so bad that the same kind of reviews are being written on the product pages for regular Gummi Bears, which, to my knowledge, do not seem to have the same purported laxative effect as the sugar-free ones. Amazon doesn’t do anything to prevent these kinds of reviews. I don’t want to be a downer, as I actually do think these kinds of reviews can be fun (maybe not the Gummi Bears in particular, but you have to admit the reviews for the Mountain’s Three Wolf Moon tee-shirt are classic). I like amusing reviews. I just want to know that people who are reviewing a product are familiar with it and not just writing reviews to be funny. There is a way to write funny reviews that are also helpful.

A final issue I have with Amazon reviews is that you can rate reviews as either helpful or not. A lot of people use this function exactly as it’s supposed to be used: to upvote reviews that are particularly helpful and downvote reviews that are not helpful. However, a significant number of Amazon users use this feature to downvote reviews with which they disagree, especially if you didn’t like a book they loved or if you loved a book they hated. Or perhaps because they’re capricious and/or ignorant. Who knows?

One of the reasons I started a book blog many years ago is that I didn’t like reviewing my books on Amazon, for all the reasons I’ve shared here. Had Goodreads existed back when I started this blog, the blog might not exist, as I still find Goodreads very helpful and probably would have decided to write books reviews there. Barnes and Noble, with its focus on books and more literary bent, is also helpful, though it suffers from the same issues with literary fiction as Amazon: Charlotte and Emily has only 7 reviews on their site.

I very rarely write Amazon reviews, but at this stage, I think I’m giving up on writing them completely. Any authors who share books with me with the hopes of seeing them reviewed on Amazon have a right to know so that they can decide whether they want to share books if they will be reviewed only on my blog, Goodreads, and Shelfari. I think Amazon’s review system is broken, and I believe sharing my reviews in these other venues is ultimately more helpful, even if fewer people will read them.

None of my concerns about Amazon reviews prevent me from purchasing products from the site, but they prevent the site from being as useful as it might be.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Trends I’d Like to See More/Less Of

Top Ten Tuesday

More, Please!

  1. Supporting indie bookstores. I don’t have a good one nearby, but if I did, I’d be there all the time. We used to have a really cute one called Coffee Buy the Book, but they closed (not shocking, but sad). Very cute little store, and really convenient to my house. There is an awfully cute one in Decatur called Little Shop of Stories, but dang, that’s far away clear on the other side of all that Atlanta traffic. Sigh. We always go when we hit the Decatur Book Festival, though.
  2. Great book blogs. The more the merrier! I love reading about other people reading.
  3. Including book bloggers and Goodreads members in ARC’s, galleys, and free books like other reviewers. I love to read, and I review every book I read. Sometimes it’s nice to get a free book. It doesn’t influence my reviews, but it does ease the strain on my pocketbook.
  4. Witches. I love books about witches. Keep writing them, writers! Witches are so cool, whether they are witches with real powers or just misunderstood women accused of witchcraft in historical fiction. You know, Salem was kind of kitschy with the witches, but I would totally live there if it were feasible. I loved it.
  5. Pottermore! It’s fun to once again be waiting on tenterhooks for new stuff from Jo! I scored an early registration. Have you tried to get one yet? I think you have four more chances!

No, Thanks!

  1. Vampires with no fangs. Vegetarian vampires? Really? I don’t mind scary vampires who actually suck blood and might be dangerous. But vampires would wouldn’t hurt a person because they suck animal blood? Meh. That’s weak. I understand it. You don’t want your hero to be evil. But sucking blood is evil! Make it a plot point, like Lestat and Louis, who wrestle with their consciences about being vampires (a little bit—Louis, more than Lestat).
  2. Harry Potter fanfic pr0n. Don’t get it, never will. Slash or straight or whatever, it’s not right, especially when students are paired with teachers.
  3. Overpriced Kindle books. Kindle books used to be reliably cheaper than paper books. Now publishers are driving up the prices. Having manufactured a Kindle book myself, I can tell you it involves almost no cost. I am all for supporting the authors, but somehow I don’t think they’re the ones profiting from the high cost of Kindle books.
  4. Amazon hate. I understand it. I think I know where it’s coming from. I know folks blame stores like Amazon for Borders closing (Borders made several mistakes that contributed). I know supporting independent stores or even chain brick-and-mortar stores is good. I would do more of it if I had one nearby, but I have to drive quite a ways to reach one, and I live in the suburbs of a large metropolitan area. If brick-and-mortar stores could offer me the same services as Amazon, I might be a more frequent customer. Amazon, however, offers me free shipping (most of the time), allows me to download books instantly on my Kindle, replaced my Kindle with no questions asked when I broke it, and gives me a small commission in gift certificates as an Amazon Associate (which helps me support my book habit). They have been good to me, and I’ve been doing business with them for about thirteen years or so.
  5. Book banning and censoring. You heard that Wesley Scroggins managed to have Kurt Vonnegut’s [amazon_link id=”0385333846″ target=”_blank” ]Slaughterhouse Five[/amazon_link] and Sarah Ockler’s [amazon_link id=”0316051586″ target=”_blank” ]Twenty Boy Summer[/amazon_link] removed from school curricula and libraries in Republic, Missouri, right? He is far from alone. I absolutely support a parent’s right to make decisions about what his/her own children read, but that parent has no right to tell me what my kids can read. Teachers always, always, always provide alternatives to individual students who cannot read a book either due to parental objections or their own. As Vonnegut himself said about censorship:

    And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

    So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

The Future for Amazon Associates

George is Keeping an Eye On You!

I have mentioned many times that I’m an Amazon associate, and I have been very happy with Amazon. It look me years to build up to the point at which I regularly received a commission that allowed me to buy books, but I persevered. I still usually earn between $20-30 a month in gift certificates to Amazon, excepting the odd really good month, but that allows me to buy two or three books each month.

Some of the states have begun passing laws that require online retailers to charge sales tax, and as a result, Amazon is dropping associates in all of those affected states. I haven’t heard of any pending legislation in my home state of Georgia, but I admit the trend has me worried. Being an Amazon associate is what keeps me in books and allows me to run this blog. Affected states include California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, Rhode Island, or Connecticut—and soon, Arkansas. Massachusetts is also considering a law. If I were ever to move to any of these states, Amazon would drop me as an associate after more than 10 years. According to this New York Times piece, Amazon doesn’t have any fulfillment warehouses, corporate offices, customer service, or other facilities in Georgia, so I might personally never be affected, but it does have such facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and it does not collect tax in any of these states. Amazon collects sales taxes in Kentucky, New York, Washington, North Dakota, and Kansas.

If Amazon is not willing to work with associates in states with these tax laws, then I hope they are at least informing associates when impending legislation is being considered in their state legislatures so they can choose whether to write their representatives or drop their affiliation with Amazon. A lot of associates are understandably angry and feel Amazon is throwing them under the bus. Amazon has indicated they plan to challenge the new law in California.

You can read more about the issue at The Los Angeles Times and NPR.

photo credit: peasap

Musing Mondays

Musing Mondays—May 30, 2011

Musing MondaysThis week’s musing asks

Describe the last time you were stumped for something to read, and you took measures to remedy that—either by going to the bookstore, the library, or shopping elsewhere. What book did you choose? Did it get you out of your slump?

My problem is never lacking for something to read, but I often have trouble choosing what to read next. One thing I have done to solve my dilemma in the past is to lay my choices in front of my daughter Maggie and ask her to choose for me. The last time I asked Maggie was a long time ago, and I can no longer remember what she chose for me. I also asked readers to vote on my next book once when I was stumped. They chose [amazon_link id=”0060558121″ target=”_blank” ]American Gods[/amazon_link]. Most recently, I have also used the Randomizer after assigning numbers to around five choices. It chose Melanie Clegg’s [amazon_link id=”B004R1Q9PI” target=”_blank” ]The Secret Diary of a Princess[/amazon_link], which I was leaning toward reading next anyway. I can’t really say I’ve been in a slump for a very long time. I just read whatever I have on hand or I download something new on my [amazon_link id=”B002FQJT3Q” target=”_blank” ]Kindle[/amazon_link].

Speaking of going to the bookstore, you know, I can’t remember the last time I went to one. I usually order books from Amazon or download them on my Kindle. I know I should frequent indie stores, but the closest one I know of (besides the used bookstores) is one all the way over in Decatur, and whenever we go to the Decatur Book Festival, we do in fact visit the Little Shop of Stories. However, I also note that I pay more for books in places like that. As an Amazon Associate, I earn a bit of a commission whenever people buy books I link to or visit Amazon and purchase items after following a link from my site. Most months, my commission is enough to buy two books. Some months, it’s more than that. I consider it fair trade for all the business I throw their way, and in turn, I use the gift certificates I earn from Amazon to purchase more books. It’s more cost effective for me to shop at Amazon than it is an indie store—on a variety of levels. And bottom line? I am a happy customer. They’ve always been good to me; even after I broke my Kindle, they asked no questions and replaced it free of charge. I have never had a complaint with them. My only quibble is that they won’t allow associates to delete associate ID’s they no longer use, and I have about three of those.

I haven’t been to the library in a long time either. Here is my problem with libraries: I don’t like the time pressure to finish books, and I am almost always late returning books. I also like to be able to keep books I liked and perhaps even mark in them. Libraries are so important. They perform critical functions in our society. Keeping up with library books nowadays isn’t all that difficult. I can check my account online. I have just found it one more thing I have trouble keeping track of.

I don’t often buy books from other types of stores. The selections are just too sparse and not usually to my taste. One place I do find lots of good books is from other book bloggers. I heard about most of the books I’ve picked up lately from a fellow book blogger or from Goodreads.

Monstrous Vermin


I hate pests. Up until yesterday or the day before, I followed someone on Twitter who made book recommendations and linked to items for sale on Amazon. I have nothing against being an Amazon affiliate, obviously, as I am one myself. What does bother me is when folks use any sort of hard sell, pressure, or guilt as tactics to convince you to buy through their affiliate links. A simple link that announces you’re an Amazon affiliate and thanks you for buying books through your site is absolutely fine, and I might even be encouraged to help you out. A direct message sent to all your followers encouraging people to buy through your site and guilting said followers by mentioning selling through Amazon is a part time job for you, well, that’s just wrong. Times are hard, and I don’t begrudge folks trying to earn a buck, but it’s not the first time this person has used this tactic, and frankly the value of the book recommendations isn’t worth it to me. If I buy anything through an affiliate, it should be because I want to, and perhaps because they’ve made it easy for me. One thing you’ll never have to worry about me doing is pressuring or guilting anyone into buying books I link to through my Amazon affiliate code. I do, of course, thank you if you do. It helps keep me in books. But it’s just wrong for anyone to send a message to all their followers or all the folks in their email address book or Facebook friends asking that folks buy through you. Don’t you think? Or am I just touchy?

photo credit: Furryscaly

Kindle Singles and Amazon’s iPhone App

kindle3I have two pieces of news from Amazon that might interest you.

First, Kindle is introducing Kindle Singles, which Amazon describes as “Kindle books that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” It looks like Amazon is trying to attract writers who want to self-publish for the Kindle.

Amazon has also updated its iPhone app to include barcode scanning. It only works on the iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4. What can you do with it? Scan the barcode of an item and check Amazon’s inventory for it. You might save yourself some money if you’re out book shopping (or shopping for anything else, considering how Amazon has branched out).

photo credit: daz smith

To Stieg or Not to Stieg

The Millennium TrilogyIt seems like virtually everyone is reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. I saw it tucked under the arms of people at work. Book bloggers were reviewing it. It appeared in ads for Amazon’s Kindle. I began to wonder if I should read the books. Some reviews tend to tell me that perhaps they wouldn’t be my thing, but others rave about the books. Who to trust? Who to believe?

Then this link went out over Twitter, and I forgot who tweeted it, but it’s some pretty harsh criticism of Larsson and his work. What do you think? Have you read them? Does Janet Potter have a point? Or do you disagree with her completely?

In other news, my beloved Kindle is broken. It looks like this:

Kindle WTF

I did some research and discovered it can happen with even moderate pressure, and I fully admit it probably received some moderate pressure. I called Amazon, and they are shipping a replacement to me, which will arrive by Tuesday. They didn’t ask how it got like this, nor did they charge me for the replacement. Even though my Kindle is still under warranty, most companies would try to charge the customer for damage like this. I am to send my broken Kindle back, probably so it can be fixed and sold as a refurbished model. In fact, the one I’m getting in the mail is probably refurbished. The customer service couldn’t have been better. I had to fight back tears when I discovered it was broken last night, but Amazon made it all better again. I know they have taken some PR hits lately, but I’ve been a customer for twelve years, and I’ve never had anything but great service. If we had an indie bookstore around here anymore (Coffee Buy the Book closed a long time ago), I might buy from indies more often. I always get something from the Little Shop of Stories when I am in the vicinity of Decatur. As it is, I don’t really have an indie to support, and Amazon has been great to me.

photo credit: Terry Chay

Amazon Acquires Lexcycle

Lexcycle announced today that it has been acquired by Amazon. Lexcycle is the developer of the popular iPhone app Stanza. While Lexcycle is currently promising no “changes in the Stanza application or user experience as a result of the acquisition,” I’m not sure I believe that. Am I still going to be able to download books for free from Project Gutenberg and Feedbooks? Why would Amazon want to continue developing Stanza, which could be seen as a direct competitor with their own Kindle app? I don’t have anything against Amazon, but it has been great to be able to download free classics like The Woman in White, Persuasion, and A Tale of Two Cities (among others I plan to read) in a perfectly readable format for free. After all, I can find them online for free. The format in Stanza makes the text more readable than using a computer to read. I would hate to see Stanza change, but I don’t see how it won’t. It doesn’t make sense to me for Amazon not to at least stop offering free books—they’re all about making a profit from reading, aren’t they?

Borders Online

Borders, my favorite offline bookstore, which used to be a partner of my favorite online bookstore, Amazon, has launched its own online version. I really like being an Amazon affiliate. I opted to receive payment in the form of gift certificates from Amazon, and every once in a while I earn enough referral fees to get some free books for my classroom (or for me!) — books I might not ordinarily purchase for various reasons. If Borders online wants to win me over from Amazon, they will need to introduce an affiliate program that beats Amazon’s. However the site design is very attractive, and I will probably browse it for deals when I think Amazon’s prices are too high.