Another bit on star-ranking on Amazon

In light of some feedback I received on the preceding blog entry, I should clarify a couple of things about my anti-star-ranking argument.

1. I’m very much in favor of reader reviews from whomever, even negative ones, so long as they’re actually about the book and not about some kind of delivery problem unrelated to the book itself. I think it’s obvious why reviews are good for writers and readers alike. I’m only arguing against the star-rankings on fictional works, which are useless for the reasons outlined in the first blog.

2. I probably didn’t emphasize enough how ridiculous the star-rankings really are as measures of aggregate opinion, so let me give you an example. I’ll use a fictional one, because I don’t want to generate confusion between hypothetical criticism and real criticism of a particular book.  Let’s call the book, The Desert War, and we’ll say that it’s a Tom Clancy-like military thriller about covert Seal team operations in North Africa set in modern times— the gist of it is all you really need to make sense of the examples.

Reviewer ‘A’ has a military background and he also knows a lot about the geography and ethnic composition of North Africa. He saw major mistakes in Desert War that spoiled the book for him. He gives it 1 star.

Reviewer ‘B’ is an accountant who loves the genre. He doesn’t notice any problems and the plot seemed exciting and action-packed to him; he gave it 5 stars.

Now, ask yourself: could 2.5 stars be an aggregate impression of the book? It suggests that readers found it “so-so,” when one type of reader loved it and another type of reader hated it. So the 2.5 star rating is actually misleading in this case, because it implies that there is an “average reader” between these two readers who thought the book was mediocre, when in fact neither thought of the book that way. More to the point, there’s no such thing as the average reader. It should be obvious that the star ranking is actually wrong in this case, since it doesn’t reflect anyone’s true opinion of the book.

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