I’ll admit, I can’t stand the five star rating system, especially for books. Actually, it’s not the rating system itself that I mind as much as the impact these ratings can have on a book’s ability to fail or succeed.

For one, the enjoyment of a book boils down to personal taste, which is both subjective and fickle. Not only is there a broad spectrum of individual tastes, but one’s individual tastes can vary over time. There are books I’ve started and put down because I wasn’t into them for some reason, but then picked up later and ended up loving them.

Maybe it was a POV thing, I’d just read two books told in first person and wasn’t in the mood for another. Or it could be a style thing, I’m tired and stressed and not in the mood for something nuanced and symbolic.

This recently happened to me while reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. It’s told in the present tense, and I had just finished Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King, which is told in the present tense as well. I only made it about thirty pages into Chabon’s book before putting it aside. It felt laborious and inert; it just seemed to drag. Had I been forced to rate it, it would not have fared well.

I finished another couple of books, and then decided to try it again. This time those first thirty pages crackled with an energetic zeal that sucked me in and never let go. I ended up loving the book. Make me rate it and I’d happily give it five shiny stars.

Having to navigate the nuanced shifts in an individual’s subjective taste is tricky enough. Try contending with people for whom your book was not intended for in the first place. How about the minister’s wife who bought a horror book by mistake and decided to give a one star rating as a warning to those in jeopardy of doing the same. Now that book will have a harder time reaching the readers it was intended for, depriving sickos like me our glorious scenes of night stalkers and bleeding stumps.

But it’s not just the subjective nature of the rating system that concerns me. I’m also concerned with the system’s ability to be manipulated and controlled. It would be fairly easy to help steer a book towards failure or success by coercing a group of people to submit poor or positive ratings (as I’m sure happens already). Ratings can be purchased, they can be pleaded for, they can be inadvertently acquired by pissing someone off.

Art galleries wouldn’t allow a jilted boyfriend to come vomit on the canvas of his ex’s painting after an ugly breakup. Or permit paid actors to stand there and applaud. Then again, not many original paintings are sold through Amazon, which is more of a commercial enterprise than a bastion of art.

What I think needs to be examined is the ultimate purpose of the rating system. I’m assuming it’s to help booksellers sell more books. Well then, there are two components to this equation:

  • A large number of positive ratings tells Amazon (or whoever) that a particular book is popular and worth marketing to other people. Thus identifying the books with the greatest overall sales potential.
  • It can presumably help identify people of similar interests who would be most likely to enjoy a particular book. Thus helping identify target audiences for specific titles.

Let’s look at these two parts.

1) Selling more books: Arguably, the most effective way to sell books is through word-of-mouth. So what booksellers should really do is help people recommend books that they liked to people with similar interests. Under this scenario, the rating system could be boiled down to two simple options: YES, I WOULD RECOMMED THIS BOOK, or NO, I WOULD NOT RECOMMEND THIS BOOK. This still doesn’t solve the problem of having people rig the system, but it at least starts to simplify the process.

Then, for those who said, “Yes,” there could be a quick and easy application that allows for these advocates to share book recommendations with their friends,  or “consumer groups” created within a vendor’s network. Amazon could look to Goodreads for ways to build groups around certain authors, or for people looking for the same types of books.

2) Helping people find books: Rather than have complex algorithms based on subjective rating systems that are easy to manipulate, Amazon should emphasize the same type of technology that content aggregators and distributors, like Pandora, use. Now, they do have this to a certain degree. But a much simpler, more overt, “If you like this, you should try this,” model could be explored. I know I’d appreciate that.

The intersection between commerce and art has always been a dodgy area. But if we’re to travel it, we should look to make it as pleasant as possible. Writers want to write. Readers want to read. We just need to find more elegant ways for the two groups to interact.

Thoughts? Ideas? I’d love to hear them.