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The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 138): Panel Discussion of Book Reviews

In episode 138 of the Hugo Nominated SF Signal Podcast, Patrick Hester asks our irregulars to weigh in on: Book Reviews. Are they still relevant? Do they shape your purchases?

This week’s panel:

© 2012
Featuring original music by John Anealio

About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

11 Comments on The SF Signal Podcast (Episode 138): Panel Discussion of Book Reviews

  1. My 2 pennies on star ratings

    • Regarding people who look only at star ratings and move on: Their loss. If they don’t make the effort to find out why a particular rating was used, then they are potentially missing out on finding books they may like. Look at it this way: someone comes up to you and says The Dark Knight Rises sucks and walks away. Do you take them at their word, or do you demand to know more and make your own assessment? If you take them at their word, you are shortchanging yourself. And, so we’re clear, the incomplete reading of a review is not really a star rating issue. You cannot force a review reader to read the whole review in any case, whether or not you use a rating system. It is beyond your control.
    • So why use a rating system? I find that without star reviews two things can happen: (1) a reviewer can mask their assessment of the book in clever or ambiguous wording, leading to (2) a reader of the review not being able to tell whether the reviewer liked the book or not, rendering the review useless. How many times have you read a review and come away not knowing whether the reviewer like a book? For me, a lot. Using a rating/pros/cons format keeps the reviewer honest and the review clear. There’s no ambiguity on how much I enjoyed the book, and the good and the bad is clearly stated (and hopefully backed up in the body of the review).
    • Fwiw, I don’t *require* our reviewers to use star ratings, though it is preferred by me, for the reasons stated above. 🙂

    I also think it’s important for readers of reviews to know what any individual reviewer uses as their criteria. It helps people understand where a reviewer is coming from and whether their reading tastes are in alignment. Mine are here, and liked to in all my reviews. (Correction: Grrr! All my reviews are pointing to the old, pre-wordpress link, which is no longer valid. I need to update my old reviews to point to the new url.)

    • Thanks, John.

      It would be funny if I stopped using stars, and everyone else was using them. Too weird to try. And you are right, you can’t make someone read a review, but I do feel the stars are an excuse for people to “TL;DR”

  2. I am 51% in favor of starred reviews for the precise reason John D mentions. Reviewers often mask their overall impression of the book, typically caught up in their own cleverness. I have read reviews on blogs that have gone gaga over a particular book, then I happen to catch it on goodreads and see the same review merits 3 or 4 stars. What was I missing?

    I think it is important too to mention that star ratings are not (or should not be) a blogger’s objective grade of a book, but rather a grade of the impression the book made on that particular reader. Subtle difference.

  3. I can go either way. The reviews on Strange Horizons are excellent and do not use stars but the reviewers have a lot of space to make their point as do the reviewers in Analog, Asmov’s, and F & SF. But if I am considering buying a much older book I may have to use Amazon and use the star system with care. You have to evaluate how does the reviewer make their point. Is it logical? Or just a rave or a pan without much critical insight.

  4. As I said in a mind meld a few months back, the purpose of me reading reviews is to decide if the books is worth my time and money.

    I dont see them as a type of entertainment, I see them simply as an information gathering tool.


    Ratings (stars, letters, whatever) are handy as a quick judge when you know the reviewer’s tastes. Id much rather glance at a trusted reviewer’s “rating” instead of having to read a thousand words to find out about the book. Plus they are handy as a guide when looking at a “new to me” reviewer’s body of work. If I can look at the entire body their reviews and see books we have in common, and at a glance how that reviewer tends to judge books, It keeps me from having to dedicate lots of time in discovery.

    A reviewer that gives nothing but positive reviews is pretty worthless to me. If you cant give a book less than a “better than average” rating, stop reviewing and go into promotions. What reviewer dislikes can say as much, if not more, in regards to the question of whether the reviewer and I have taste in common, as a dozen positive reviews.

    Reading reviews does more to reduce my “Mt Toberead” than increase it. But then I am a contrarian.

  5. I don’t think podcasts that have author interviews can be totally honest talking about books, for risk of offending. For brutal honesty, you have to go to something like The Incomparable podcast (when they talk books).

    • I’ve always been brutally honest in my reviews here at SF Signal, to the point where I was criticized for giving my very honest opinion (which ran contrary to the vox populi of the time).

  6. Just want to start out and say that I really enjoy your podcasts, and I can understand why you are Hugo-nominated. Keep up the great work!

    I have a blog where I review Science Fiction books. While I agree that it is possible to game the star rating system on sites like Amazon with reviews from “friends,” I don’t think this means that they should be eliminated. Here’s why: we live in a society of mass distraction. Smartphones & tablets allow for near constant interruptions-some important, and some not. As much as I hope every visitor to my blog reads the full review of a book they are considering reading, I recognize that they just may not have time. If someone is about to get on a flight and they have 3 minutes to make a decision about which book to purchase, they may only have time to look at the number of stars assigned to a book. Should this person be punished because they don’t have enough time to read the full review?

    Yes, the star-rating system is imperfect, just a Cliff’s notes are not a substitute for reading an actual book, but if they help a reader make a more informed decision in a compressed period of time, then I think they still have value.

    For what it’s worth, on my site, I have a separate batch of stars at the top of each review that enables visitors to cast their own rating. I also have open comments below each review where I encourage visitors to share their feedback whether they agree or disagree.

    Thanks again for a great podcast!

  7. Randy Stafford // July 25, 2012 at 8:07 am //

    In the bit of reviewing I’ve done, I find the star system to be kind of counterproductive.

    I tend to use stars on a demerit basis. Everybody gets five until they make a mistake. How many they lose depends on the type and number of those mistakes.

    But I’ll admit this leads to a problem with the whole quantatative rating idea. Books with high ambition and novelty and competently done may get the same ranking as a book which, essentially, is an old idea done very well.

    As to forcing the reviewer to be clear about his ultimate judgement of the book, I lean toward lack of clear writing reflecting lack of clear thought. You probably should stay clear of a reviewer who doesn’t write clearly or distorts a description of a book just to use a clever line. That’s one of the reasons I’m kind of distrustful of humorously written reviews. In my experience, few reviewers can be both funny and accurate in summing up a book.

  8. One thing I was hoping would get brought up in this discussion was the role of authors as book reviewers. This is something I’m continually torn about. As Shaun Farrel of AISFP podcast says, you never know how your honest review may burn a bridge between another author because they will never forget. This upsets me. I want to be friends with all authors, but the book loving side of me also wants to share what I thought about the books I’ve read. My stance has been not finishing books that aren’t 4 or 5 star quality, but for the 3 stars I finish and grade as being fun reads, I’m hesitant about posting a review because I think most people see a 3 star as a negative. The difference between 4 and 5 for me, is 4 can be flawless, 5 may or may not be flawless but it blew me away with emotional, life-changing impact. If a book doesn’t do that, it stays a 4 no matter how few mistakes I find.

  9. Dittoing some of the comments above, I also use stars/rankings to identify reviewers I want to follow. Many of the book reviews I consume are through Goodreads, and after I finish a book I typically go through the following process: (1) See who else ranked the book similarly to me, (2) Read the review to see if I agreed with their analysis or thought they raised interesting points, (3) If so, follow that reviewer so that I get their future reviews–in the hopes of finding more books I would enjoy. To be clear, I don’t care what the overall star ranking is, but if people whose opinions I trust rank a book highly, I pay extra attention. So I use the stars as a way to curate book reviewers.

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