Mar 20, 2012

A New Rating System

I've often quarreled with the concept of rating genre fiction. People like numbers - something they can quickly use to judge a book's worth in lieu of reading an entire review. (500 whole words, do I have to?) When I started reviewing, I attempted to stick to SF Signal's 5 star system, allowing for half stars in between, which more or less correlated to a X out of 10 type system. 

Unfortunately, I soon became dissatisfied with my system, mostly because the numbers started to bunch up in the 3.5-4.0 range. I typically read books I'm interested in so I don't often loathe books to enough to give them fewer than 2.5 stars. I also was reluctant to give out 4.5 and 5 stars, mostly because as good as a book was, it still wasn't a perfect 5/5. Ignoring the very few outliers, I was more or less working between the 2.5 and 4.5 range. 

With such a wide range of subgenres and styles in the genre, I found it increasingly impossible to compare books on a numeric basis. After all, how does a flawlessly executed but pulpy urban fantasy novel compare to a more original concept that had a few flaws? If a YA novel is perfect for teenagers but pathetic for adults, where does that rate? How do you compare Jim Butcher and Michael Chabon, John Scalzi and Neil Gaiman? Good authors all, but for very different reasons. 

And don't get me started on the other blogs who had long ago abandoned any sense of logic. For some, a perfect book would garner 8.25 out of 10 but a terrible embarrassment of a novel somehow still managed to pick up 6.5. Some blogs gave away A+ ratings like candy on halloween (but inexplicably reserved A++++ ratings for the really good books); for others, the mere mention of a genre book denotes an absolute masterpiece. Over any extended period of time, numeric systems become more and more distorted to the point where they are essentially meaningless, particularly if you are not a regular reader of the reviewing site. Blegh.

Eventually, I became so frustrated trying to make sense out of these values that I removed numeric rankings from my reviews altogether.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I happened upon a full explanation of the ranking system employed by the Michelin Guide (yes that Michelin), the premiere global ranking system for restaurants. (I happened to be in a two star restaurant at a time. So good....)

The Michelin system is simple and works as follows. 

  • A restaurant is reviewed and assigned 0, 1, 2, or 3 stars.
  • One star indicates "very good cuisine in its category"
  • Two-star ranking represents "excellent cuisine, worth a detour,"
  • Three stars are awarded to restaurants offering "exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey"
Simple, clean, clear. If I didn't like a book or it wasn't anything special, it gets zero stars. No longer do I need to worry about slotting a mediocre high fantasy above or below a fun, if flawed steampunk adventure. 

If a book merits a star, it gets one or more according to the rules outlined below.

A one star review indicates a book that is "a great example of its subgenre and one that is highly recommended for those who enjoy that specific subgenre or are looking to break into the subgenre"

A two star tome denotes a book that is "a standout novel that demonstrates a unique approach or exceptional execution, likely to be one of the year's best and definitely worth reading, regardless of subgenre or preference. Strengths outweigh the weakness by a large margin"

Three stars will be reserved for any book that is "an instant classic in my mind, a soul crushing work of such brilliance that it annihilates any hope of every writing a novel as good, and an absolute must read. Virtually flawless"

To provide a little bit more context, if I were going to fit some recent books into this new rating system, it would probably look something like this

One Star (A lot more here but a few off the top of my head)
Arctic Rising - Tobias Buckell
The Quantum Thief - Hannu Rajaniemi
Leviathan Wakes - James S. A. Corey
Slights - Kaaron Warren
Fuzzy Nation - John Scalzi

The Inheritance Trilogy - N.K. Jemisin

Two Star
Pandemonium - Daryl Gregory

Moxyland - Lauren Beukes
Changes - Jim Butcher
The City and The City - China Mieville
Bitter Seeds / The Coldest War - Ian Tregillis
Ready Player One - Ernest Cline
The Heroes - Joe Abercrombie

Three Star
The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card
American Gods - Neil Gaiman
The Windup Girl (debatable) - Paolo Bacigalupi

I could see myself giving out 10-15 starred reviews a year (if the books are good enough), 5 or fewer two star reviews, and no more than 2 (probably 0) three star reviews. I'm also tempted to give out YetiStomps for those books which just plain suck but that might just be mean.

Let the new system commence! 


  1. This is where I tease you about how many reviews you've written this year ;) I like the system, very elegant.

  2. @Justin - I think I'm still ahead of you in quality reviews though ;P

  3. You've switched from one flawed system to one with even less granularity to differentiate between books (and I'm talking about books from the same genre). The point of a scale, be it numeric or otherwise, is to give the readers a sense of difference between books. Lets say you've rated two books with one star. Ok, so both of them are "a great example of their subgenre", but which one is better? If I haven't read any of the two, I don't know with which to start. Keep in mind that I'm not saying that the 5-star, 10-star and whatever-star systems don't have the same problem, it's just that it's a lot easier to differentiate books when your scale has a higher granularity.

    The fact is, you are going to get range compression with any system you choose, simply because it's impossible to represent, through a single numeric value, the plethora of differences between books. It could probably work when comparing two books from the same genre (as you've observed too), but it's impossible to apply on an entire library.

    I've been interested in this subject for a very long time. There is an excellent discussion over at Quora that I recommend you read:, and I've also found this article on the subject interesting too:

    There are alternatives to the 5-star system. Better systems, that even out the distribution of values over time. Unfortunately, the 5-star system is so common, even if you implement a better one, you will still have to explain it to your readers, thereby losing all the advantages of the "visual review".

  4. To me, the review rating, whether five ten or however many stars, is more of an afterthought. I could easily read a review without a rating and still be satisfied with the reviewers input. In a sense, the rating system provides a closing summary that, although true, is incomplete without the writers opinion.

  5. @Joshua: I actually appreciate it when a reviewer places the star-rating (or whatever system she uses, I really don't care) at the top of the review, because I can decide whether or not to read the whole review right then and there. Some reviewers have tastes so similar to mine that, if they didn't like a book and award it something like 2 out of 5 stars, I can make my mind on whether I should read the book or not immediately. I know the website owner put effort into writing a complete review, and I enjoy it when people read my own reviews. However, I don't read reviews for the sake of reading reviews, I read reviews in order to find out about good books, and for readers such as myself the star rating is useful, especially if I'm already familiar with the reviewer's tastes.

  6. Yup, I like that idea - often people end up effectively panning a novel because it's simply not for them. This way if it's not starred it's not (necessarily) you saying it's rubbish, just that it didn't go to the top of the pile for you. Think it'd be a good idea to mention any stars at the top, but if you don't give it one, just don't put anything and let people draw their own conclusions from the review itself or move on as they wish.

  7. I think this change is a great idea. I've thought much the same for quite a while and debated on a rating system like adding some descriptive to my rating like "epic fantasy" or "urban fantasy," etc. But I think yours is better. And I love Hell's Kitchen. Just saying.


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