On Ratings and Reviewing

A few recent blog post and comments on my own blog have put me in a musing mood so please bear with me. I have been thinking about reviewing in general and blogging specifically; especially within the context of this site. I talk about blogging itself on twitter and at times on various forums but on the site I rarely bring it up. This is purposeful, I try to keep reviews on point. Even when I am being silly with them I want the text to be about the book or series I am reviewing. In the early stages I took this so far as to write all reviews in third person to keep ME completely off the page (before quickly realizing how silly that was). So this is a little different for me.

It is fair to say that while I had moderate hopes for Fantasy Review Barn I can’t claim I ever saw it becoming what it has. By no means the biggest blog around but I can no longer pretend it is an unknown entity, nor that we are not know in some circles. With that of course comes the extra layers of scrutiny. I have never had my honesty questions but more and more my reviews get attention from unexpected places and I would hate for that to change.  So I want to talk about what often gets the most attention; that rating that sits at the bottom of each page.

I have thought about doing away with a star rating completely. I do believe a review should tell you what is important and that in some ways a star rating is a crutch. But it is a useful one. For myself it helps steer a discussion, ‘this is why specifically I rated the book this way.’ For a reader who trusts my judgment it is a quick and dirty way to scan for what they truly want to read; not everyone has time every day to scar thousand word reviews.

But it has its own issues. To start with I don’t eve follow the rating system on the review policy anymore and should probably revise it at some point. Stars 2-5 are the same but I have stopped using 1 Star ratings for books I don’t finish. Instead I just write about why I didn’t finish and leave a rating off. I save the single star for books so hideously insulting I want to throw it; overtly racist or something of the like would be needed. And because I don’t often go into books blind I am not likely to be reading 1 star books all that often.

This of course tips the scale; two stars are now books I just find to be really bad. Which leads to the real issue I have been having – Three star ratings. I know I have gotten progressively tougher on books as time has gone on; early reviews probably were inflated a bit high at times. But to me a 3 star book is still a good book, a book worth reading. Four stars are books I recommend without reservation, and five stars are books that did something extra well to me. But, again, a three star book is perfectly fine.

Not everyone sees it that way. My comments prove that to me regularly. And I am not sure what to do about it. But it is tied to another quirk in my style. What leads to the ratings in the first place? Some people have some very interesting systems for rating books. Wastrel has a seven part system he uses; you can see everything he is thinking before the final rating is set. Author Zachary Jernigan gives two different ratings; and objective one and a personal one. But I use only one all encompassing, quickly set and decided onstar rating. Want my secret? The magic formula that I use?

I give ratings based purely on how I feel about the book when I finish it. No formula, no heavy thoughts. Did I love it? Rave about it? Or merely read it. That rating, almost he lest important part of the review process, gets the time it deserves in my mind. Yet it seems to count for so much. A Goodreads comment summed it up best. I was asked how I could give 4 stars to Blood Song but 5 to The Barrow. And good old Wastrel again swooped in; ‘Presumably he preferred the other book to this one? ’  But in my mind I was thinking ‘why did I even write a review for each if the rating is all that matters?’

Why does it matter? It may not. But it is important that people know where I am coming from. Because I would hate to have my judgment questions by the nature of the blog. It is true that I get a good portion of my reading material from publishers and authors at this point. When Fantasy Review Barn first started up there was a long e-mail chain between me and Pauline. One of the things that was important to her was that we not become a mouth piece of the publishing industry; something I agreed with. She doesn’t accept ARCs, didn’t want the blog to get into a race with other blogs, didn’t want ‘content’ that didn’t actually consist of anything.

Two years past and I have broken a great many of those early promises; though I hope it is understood that I have kept the spirit of our vision. I continue to read because I like to read, and write because I love to write. This blog is a hobby to me, if it wasn’t fun I would do it. And I should thinkI have proven ..that I like to have fun ..from time to time. But by accepting, nay requesting ARCS, and by participating in giveaways, I am certainly part of the authors/publishers publicity machine (though I quickly realized that ANY review put in a public space is part of this machine). I have lines that I set for myself, things I have absolutely no problems with other blogs doing but have personally kept away from. I don’t do posts that spotlight a book without saying something about it. Be it cover reveals or Waiting on Wednesday or what have you, it just isn’t for me (a part of me thinks that Tough Travels is probably the most effective marketing tool that has come out this blog and it was designed completely to be a celebration of good books). Thereare things I often love reading and often helm me to discover new books, but they don’t fit my own vision.

One of my biggest struggles last year was deciding if I wanted to run a giveaway for a book I wasn’t that found of. Ultimately I decided to go with it; it was a net benefit to the readers of this blog. Different tastes run through out and just because someone enjoys Fantasy Review Barn certainly doesn’t mean they would agree with our tastes one hundred percent of the time. But in the back of my mind I know that is the type of thing that makes some readers not trust review sites. Many of the same sites reviewing products of all kinds are also accepting getting the majority of their revenue from the people making them.  And while I am not making money or running ads the monetary value of the books sent my way cannot be ignored. It can be perceived as a conflict.

Luckily I am a confident person. I know there is no conflict and I know it shows. So all of this was a long winded way of making a promise that shouldn’t have to be made, and was in all honesty completely unasked for. I will continue to read books I enjoy. I will write about those books in which ever style I feel like and post the reviews on my own time schedule. And you will always, ALWAYS get my true feelings about a book no matter how it was acquired.


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