The sticky business of rating books

I blogged about rating books last month, but I’d like to revisit that topic today. In the last week, I’ve read at least three blog posts about rating books, which have caused me to wonder if my criteria is too strict. Since I started an account at Goodreads, I’ve been giving most books a 3-stars rating, but now I know many people see that as a thumbs down.

Currently, this is what my ratings mean:
•    5 stars = I loved the book and will read it again … possibly more than once.

•    4 stars = I really liked the book and most likely will read it again.

•    3 stars = I liked the book and enjoyed the read, but might not read it again. You never know. Sometimes a 3 star turns into a 4 star for me.

•    2 stars = Reading it wasn’t a waste of time, but I had problems with it. I doubt I’d read it again.

•    1 star = For me, reading it was a waste of time, and I might not have finished it.

Often, I just rate the book, not write a review, so it’s likely my 3-stars has been seen as a negative. I’m probably bringing down the average rating, when that was not my intent. I’m wondering if I should spend time re-evaluating my posted ratings.

Your turn, a lot of questions today: What does a 3-stars rating mean to you? Do you have a personal rating system? In a five-star system, what percentage of books do you rate 5-stars? Do you consider the average rating on a book before you rate it, or stick to your standards no matter what?


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68 thoughts on “The sticky business of rating books

  1. I see a three star as average, not a great book, but I finished reading it. Most of my books get three to four stars. It has to utterly blow my mind to get a five star rating.

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  2. Hey Linda…I read a book really fast the first time..within a day..if it’s a good read I go back..if it isn’t I just pass it on…my system is somewhat less sophisticated than yours but works for me. Maybe I should try stars!
    Chris

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    1. Wow, bridgesburning, I don’t believe I’ve ever read a book in one day … except for picture books. 🙂 I did recently read a thriller, Cathryn Grant’s The Demise of the Soccer Moms, in two days. And I could have read Michelle Davidson Argyle’s novella Cinders in a day, I think, but life intervened. I don’t think I’m really a slow reader, just an oft interrupted one.

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  3. Your rating system seems good – i find 3 stars to be different – you didn’t really like or dislike it and for me that’s rare. I’d prob give 4 stars the most if I was on there – 5 stars reserved for my fave books, the ones that will always been on my bookshelf.

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  4. I never reread a novel. I like scify. But the religion and history I read has to be read over and over again. I measure the enjoyability of a book by whether I am concerned enough to go back to the doctor’s office to retrieve it having left it in the waiting room or get another copy if I lost it and was not finished. I always have a book or crossword with me because I know when it says “waiting room” it really does mean “waiting” room.That type always gets a whole galaxy of stars.

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      1. Nope. I think its like buying a movie CD of what you have seen already. Quite silly. On the other hand, I can read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Longfellow, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, Dillon Thomas, e e cummings and the New Testament over and over and over…

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  5. Three is better than two, and not as good as four. That’s it. Unless the rating system specifies a particular quality associated with each level, (condoms that are apparently only available as large, very large and enormous for instance), three is simply the middle. Better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, and not so great as caviar on skinny chips (if you’re that way inclined). Of course, if you’re a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person, you’re likely to interpret a five as somebody doing you a favour. You just can’t win with some people!

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  6. I treat it as a letter grade: A B C D and F. A 3 star to me is a C grade–average. D (2 star) is passing. I even have an “I” grade, for incomplete, as in abandoned. Sometimes I feel like the teacher who rarely gives an A, but I look at my Goodreads and see it isn’t so. I’m pretty generous with the A’s and B’s.

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  7. I find nothing wrong with your rating system. In fact is is very similar to mine. To achieve five stars a book must rank in the top 10% of books I’ve ever read. Even four stars means the book is above average in composition and/or story. Three is the average rating I give for a book I like and would recommend. Now if I give a two you can guarantee I won’t recommend it to anyone and If I give out a one, you can place bets on the odds that I’m going to complain about it.

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  8. 3 for is ehhhhh. Ok, but not Wow. 4 is really good. 5 is amazing!
    I think it all comes down to more or less the same thing. Seems that way with the comments you’re receiving.

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      1. I wish there were half stars on Goodreads too – so often I need them! You’re ratings are in line with what Goodreads have tho – they say that a three star rating is ‘liked it’. I had a hard time with that initially, but usually the books I read range from 3-4 stars. I tend to rate up – if something is more than a 3, but not quite a 4, I rate it a 4 and then say in my review that it would have been a 3.5 if I’d been able. Or if I didn’t really like it, but it had some merits, I’ll rate it a 3 and say it would have got a 2.5. and so on…

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  9. Goodreads, like most general rating systems on the ‘Net, uses 5 stars for best, 1 for worst, and the reviewer can choose a rating based on their personal criteria. You seem to heavily weight your criteria based on whether you’ll read a book again or not. I personally think there is much more to the quality of a book than whether I want to read it again. For me, I rarely reread fiction books, even acclaimed ones like Grisham’s. Most of my fiction reading is for the purpose of escapist entertainment. The exceptions for me are fiction with a lesson, such as Ayn Rand’s fiction, many of which I’ve read twice or more, or books like Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, which I have not read twice yet. I am more inclined to read non-fiction twice in order to better learn the facts I read the first time. Regardless of one’s personal criteria I think the ratings are a general reference to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

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    1. Interesting, John. I reread to get lost in the experience again. I don’t read Grisham or similar authors because their stories are not usually something I would get lost in. But, as a writer of fiction, I reread books that inspired me by the story, but also by the author’s writing skill. So in that sense, I reread fiction “in order to better learn.”

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    2. I am with John RH on this one. I practically never re-read fiction, because I remember it too well. What gives “stars” to my personal reading is the quality of the writing and the staying power of the insight or thought. Sometimes I need a “no brainer” for entertainment purposes only. The five star books I will stay up into the wee hours to finish. What fries me is when authors solve difficult situations by killing off a character or more. What I recommend to others to read depends on what their current needs are: entertainment? information? insight? humor?
      Mary Jean

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      1. Mary Jean, those I never reread would be 3-stars and below, whether fiction or non-fiction. Though as I said, sometimes a 3-starrer comes back to “haunt ” me and ends up a 4-stars rating. But as a writer of fiction, I can’t afford not to reread great books. They are my teachers.

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  10. Oh, man. When it comes to writing a review, I turn to mush. I hate giving less than four stars because I think to myself how hard it was to have written so much… but if I’m completely honest to myself, a three-star is probably the most accurrate. Besides, I think it’s your personal rating system. Do you take into consideration the quality of the writing? Because a book can have the most beautiful writing, but completely lack plot, and boring at times. For me, a three-star is exactly your defiinition. And most books I read are three-stars or two-stars. There are few times when I can actually re-read a book. All in all, my rating system is similar to yours

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Bianca. Maybe I’ve misread the average book rater. Yes, as a writer, I find it hard not to consider the quality of writing. The solution for me, I think, is to leave at least a brief text review explaining my rating. Something like 4 stars for story, 3 stars for writing quality.

      The process has recently become complicated for me for two reasons. I’m now reading more books by authors I “know” and I’m a published author myself. I can’t help but factor in my knowledge of the author personally as well as the knowledge of how much work it is to get a book to the publishing stage.

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  11. I think of a 3 star review as average… I’m stingy with my 5 star reviews, and find myself handing out mostly 4’s (I really liked it) and 3’s (It was good, but nothing to shout up and down over).

    When I see a book with only 5 star reviews, I’m always skeptical of it (because so many people hand them out for every book)… so I think the 3 or 4 star reviews are usually the best to read… the most honest.

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    1. Thank you for stopping by, Austin. I agree with the “all-fives” losing credibility. If it’s a book with only a few reviews — all 5-stars, I tend to think those are left by close friends and family. If it’s a reviewer that leaves only 5-star ratings, I tend to doubt their judgment.

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  12. I think you’re using the star rating system correctly. 3 out of 5 in a 5 star system would be average, right? I don’t see how you can be bringing down the average with a “3” when that’s a ‘fair’ grade. 3 would be a “C” if compared to school grades, meaning average, 4 would have to be better than average (like a “B” in school) and 5 then has got to be excellent (and “A”). That leaves 2 as a “D”, and 1 as an “F”, for fail, which is pretty much what you said. I’d stick to my guns if I were you. If you throw the curve off by giving out a lot of 4’s, then 4 becomes average and 5 becomes better than average, so what’s left for excellent? And 1 drops off the scale completely because no published books (or very few) are likely to be that bad. If you’re overly generous with 4’s, everything else gets shifted over a position — 2 becomes 1, 3 becomes 2, and so forth. I personally think your assessment of how to use this system is right. It’s exactly how I’d do it.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion, Julee. I think at least two of those sites I referenced were book bloggers, so maybe they’re just overly generous in their ratings. Or less discriminating. 😉

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  13. Linda, I’m a lot like Bianca. I hate to give anything less than 4 stars, knowing how much work goes into a book. Of course, that shouldn’t be the only criteria, right? Just because you put a lot of effort into something doesn’t necessarily mean the quality is good. So what I do to avoid having to give less than 4 stars and still be honest is not review books I don’t really like. But even that way, I’m probably a little too generous. Then again, there are more than enough people out there who are all too willing to write negative reviews. So, it seems to even out.
    Christa

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    1. Oh my, Christa, you’re right about those negative reviewers. Sometimes, I can’t believe the weak reasons people cite for giving a book 1 or 2 stars. For me, it’s hard to give less than three, but I think my best bet is to start explaining my threes … or at least some of them.

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  14. I normally categorize books into a three-to-five zone… I’m always saying: “*add book title here* is a great book! Definitely worth reading!” My friends claim I overload them with good books… Hehe. 😀
    A three for me is normally an average book, one I managed to finish. I probably won’t read it again, and it was probably predictable and didn’t give me the rush I wanted.

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    1. I’m almost always a 3 to 5-er too, peacesigngirl. I rarely finish a book I’d rate 1 or 2, and I don’t rate books unless I read the whole thing. I appreciate all the feedback I’m getting on this. I’m feeling good about being “average” today. 🙂

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  15. Hi, Linda. This is good that you have been discussing this subject. sometimes I wonder whether I have backed myself into some corners. I have been rating books for awhile, and perhaps have been guilty of doing so by the seat of my pants. I’d like to reserve the five stars for the brilliant work, something like Pat Conroy’s “Beach Music”. On the other hand, some of my (our) blogosphere friends, doing nearly everything themselves, with no big publishing house behind them, have also written some fantastic novels that should be worthy of shelves all across the world, so I think they should be given some extra credit. Therefore I don’t judge them quite as harshly. Does that make any sense?
    As I said, perhaps a bit of a pantser.
    Great topic!

    -Jimmy

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    1. Thanks for your view, Jimmy. Having self-published writer friends is another consideration. Yes, I do know how much work is behind their books and feel they deserve extra credit. I think I’m too self-conscious. I imagine my Goodreads friends looking at my book list and shaking their heads at some of my ratings. My ratings are my opinion, that’s all. And those who know me, know I frequently have no idea what I’m doing. 😉

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  16. While I understand the value, I despise the stars. I end up feeling as if I’m comparing Shakespeare with S. King. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of literary fiction, but also some genre and the scale, for me, can’t capture all of that. As a result, I’ve been completely inconsistent.

    And maybe that’s my problem … I’m comparing the books too much, instead of saying I liked this book this much … which is what you do! Ack. I feel like I bumped my head and I’m seeing stars.

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    1. I’ve done that too, Cathryn. I see that I gave this “serious” book 4 stars and question how I could give this “just fun” book the same. I really enjoyed them both, just for different reasons. And this is why I’ve only been doing the rating … I felt that all I could say is that I loved it, liked it, or didn’t like it. Now, I think I need to make a better effort to explain myself. 😉

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  17. Well, as I said in my post about reviewing books… I hate the 5-star system. It’s too limiting. And I am one of those people who sees the stars as letter grades, but in my head, they also equate to percentages. So a 3-star isn’t a “C” to me–it’s a 60% or a D-. A 4-star is 80% or a B-.

    I realize that the problem with my perspective is that I would then equate the 5-star rating with 100%, and there are no “perfect” books. But I see this as a limitation of the 5-star system… Even a 10-star system would be better, or as you suggested, Linda, a + or -.

    Another problem I see with the 5-star system is that everyone seems to ascribe a different meaning to it. That’s okay, because it’s a very personal, subjective thing, but it means that when someone gives what he/she thinks is a good or fair rating, it might mean something different to someone else. If I look at your reviews and see mostly 3-stars, I’ll assume you’re really hard to please, when really, you just mean you probably won’t re-read those books and you actually did enjoy them.

    I’m not saying you should change what you’re doing. I’m just saying this is the problem I see with the sytem.

    But this is why I’ve decided to no longer rate or review books publicly. For one thing, I’m a terrible critic unless I have to critique something for a writing partner or an instructor. When I read, I just want to be entertained or informed. If one of those things is accomplished, I’m happy. For another thing, I don’t want other people misinterpreting my ratings. And finally, I don’t want to pee where I sleep by rating and reviewing the writers I “hang out” with. 🙂 The ratings and reviews I’ve already done I’ll leave up, but I’m not going to do any more.

    I have decided, though, that if I like something, I’ll put it on my website as a recommended read. No one has to know how I really critiqued it that way, and I can still help out authors I like in some small way.

    Good discussion!

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    1. Ah-ha, Amy! See, I knew someone I knew had a radically different view of 3-stars! I use Goodreads as a way to track my books read, so at first I didn’t even star rate many of them. But then, when I started thinking about self-publishing, I realized I would appreciate fair ratings of my books.

      So, you don’t rate books by the writers you “hang out” with, and you don’t expect them to rate yours either? Since I’m a brand new published writer, and almost everyone I hang out with is also a writer, that would really limit it to only my family and a couple friends rating my books — at least until I become an over-night sensation. 🙂

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      1. I did review a couple of books by authors I “hang out” with online, and I’ve reviewed a few traditionally published books, too. (I’m talking about on Goodreads, Amazon, and Smashwords–not my blog. I don’t want to do blog reviews.) Those books I’ve already reviewed I’ll leave alone, but I’m just not going to do it anymore.

        And no, I absolutely do NOT expect ANYONE to rate or review my books just because he/she hangs out with me, online or in person! 🙂 I started out asking people to do that, but very few of my friends felt comfortable with it, and a few just said “thanks, but no thanks,” so I decided to drop it. I’d rather they review if they fell compelled or led to. I’m not going to ask anymore.

        This is part of my whole new zen approach to the indie publishing game. I’m going to let the market drive things as much as possible while I write and release books. 🙂 We’ll see how well I can stick with this new approach… 🙂

        Amy

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        1. Okay, Amy, let me know if I have it straight now. You do review books, just not on your blog.

          I’m trying to find my comfort level in promoting my book. I’m certainly not a hard sell person. I don’t EXPECT any family member, friend, or acquaintance to read it … and I would never ask if they had. And neither would I expect them to review it, if they did read it. I would hope they would, especially if they liked it, but pushing them to review is like forcing someone to say they love you. It doesn’t mean much. 😉

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          1. Well… I HAVE reviewed books in the past. A few. But not on my blog, and I’m not going to do it anymore. Does that make sense? My brain has not been engaged at all today… 🙂 I just mean I started out thinking I’d do it, did a few, changed my mind, and stopped.

            I agree with you on pushing for reviews being like forcing someone to say they love you. That’s a great analogy. 🙂

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  18. Ugh, maybe because I used to teach college students, I LOATHE rating systems and the assignment of narrowly-defined grades to anything or anyone. I’m happy to tell folks about books I’ve enjoyed – or not – and occasionally I’ll blog about a book that impressed me. But in terms of putting reviews on Goodreads or Amazon or wherever – eh. And in terms of RATING a book for Goodreads or Amazon – I’d probably prefer having a root canal.

    With one exception: If I’ve read a book by an emerging/independent/fledgling/barely known/debut author who could benefit from a decent review – and I could write that positive review HONESTLY – then I’m happy to do it to help spread the good word, get the author some positive publicity and help them get a little boost in ratings.

    If I didn’t feel I could give a 4 or 5 star rating, though, I think I’d remain silent. To me, a 3 star rating means someone thought the work was average, middling, mediocre, and really – who needs that kind of ‘praise’?

    Frankly, if an unknown-to-me author had a bunch of 3 star ratings and NO accompanying reviews (c’mon folks – if you’re going to ‘rate’ a book, the least you can do is write a review to say WHY you ranked it as you did) I’d pass the book by. But if there were some interesting reviews that piqued my curiosity, I wouldn’t care about the stars – probably wouldn’t notice them.

    And I’m with Amy here; I don’t want to pee where I sleep either. 🙂

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    1. Whoops, where’s the ‘edit’ key? – I meant something different than Amy did about peeing where I sleep. (note to self: don’t operate a live keyboard after a glass of wine). I meant I wanted to support my writing buddies – which I do, whole-heartedly – and if I couldn’t give an honest, positive review I’d keep silent rather than giving an honest, negative review.

      I still don’t want to pee where I sleep, though.

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      1. Yuck, did my teacher voice come through? 😮 Sorry! I just think ratings and rankings – especially when they stand alone – are meaningless. Just like you wouldn’t want a crit partner to review your manuscript and after reading it say, ‘Yup, it’s a 68%.’ And that’s it.

        On the other hand, if you have to choose between writing reviews of your 150 Goodreads books, and writing your next novel, OF COURSE you should be writing your next novel!

        Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to reading this interesting novel by a debut author I know… The Brevity of Roses, I think it’s called…

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  19. I think your scale sounds pretty accurate. Don’t rate anything higher than you feel it deserves just because you don’t want to “bring down the average”. Honesty yields more accurate reviews and ratings than sympathy.

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  20. Boy, Linda, there’s some great discussion going on here. Like many, I’m not a big fan of the star system, though I see its validity. I’ll be honest, I rarely score a book at a 3 unless I really didn’t like it, meaning it was difficult for me to get through it. And, whether I rate a 4 or a 5, I always focus on the positive. I guess I’m more of a book promoter than a reviewer, which means, like someone else mentioned above, if I don’t like the book I’ll just remain silent.

    I do appreciate seeing your ratings spelled out, though. It’s given me some nice food for thought.

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    1. Well, Christi, since we each have varying opinions on what our ratings mean, I guess it really doesn’t work well at all as being useful to others. 🙂 And I like your idea of being a book promoter.

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  21. I’m a tough reviewer, also, though most of the time I do leave reviews or go back to review when I have (make) time for that. I give a three if I enjoyed it okay but wasn’t terribly impressed. I give a four if I enjoyed it quite a bit but saw problems that threw me. I rarely give a 5 and that’s generally for authors such as Marilynne Robinson and Ernest Hemingway who really are as close to perfect as a writer can get, in my opinion. Of course, it’s all subjective. I detest the idea of giving all books, or all of your friends, 5 star reviews just to be nice. I guess I’m just not that nice. I think you should work hard for those stars!

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    1. Welcome to my blog, LK. I want to support my fellow writers, but I also want to reflect my true judgment of a book. I wonder if I could have kept my author self separate from my reader self at Goodreads?

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  22. Great point, Linda. I have to say I see 3 stars as readable but not out-of-the-park-grand-slam readable. I do agree that lots of people see 3 stars as a negative. Which is why it’s so important to read the review too and not just look at the rating (as we all can be guilty of doing). Oftentimes I’ve read a 2 star review that had glowing things to say–just not the majority of the review.

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  23. Oh, and I never read a book twice, either. There are too many I still want to find time to read and once I know the story, I know it. I might make an exception for Ms. Robinson’s Housekeeping, though, just to study the prose. I also rarely watch a movie more than once, other than Mr. Depps’s and very few others.

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    1. Well, LK, I’ve accepted that there’s no way I could ever read all the books I think I should read, so I’ve accepted that I’ll read the books that sort of get in my face. You know? And if it’s a book that I particularly loved experiencing, or learned from, I feel there’s a reason for that and I might not have gotten all I could from it in one pass.

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  24. Linda,

    I agree with you. I don’t think it’s up to us to pad a rating, we’d be slighting other readers. Ratings are opinions in the end, and we all take a book from a personal perspective. I’m going to rave about a book to give it 5 stars, and be enthralled and entertained to give it 4. A 3 star rating is still good to me, but I may have been a little let down. 2 stars means I wouldn’t recommend it and 1, well, I don’t even have to say.

    In all, I’d rather not read reviews before I pick up a book. I like a story to become my own experience and to that end, I take my own sweet time.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Victoria. I don’t read reviews before I read the book either. I do often look at the star rating though. If it’s a favorite author, I know I’m going to read the book anyway so I don’t bother with either.

      But I don’t want to pad my ratings either. But I think occasionally, my 3-stars rating is more heavily influenced by the editor me than the reader me. 😉

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