On Rating Books


You may have noticed that I read a lot of four- and five-star books. That’s not me being generous with my ratings, it’s because most were prequalified recommendations from those whose tastes I trust. Neo-noir, crime fiction, southern gothic, literary fiction: these are my preferred genres. I have little interest right now in young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, bizarro, alt-lit, or most of the speculative fictions involving creatures. Exceptions exist, and have certainly provided some eyebrow-raising reads, especially those which transcend or subvert their genre’s prescriptions. But with so many excellent purchased books lying in wait, well … hopefully I’ll live to see retirement (and my eyesight holds up) so that I may partake in new genre adventures.

What does a five-star rating really mean, anyway? That’s it’s a perfect book? No. Even loosely defined, few would be worthy in this reader’s opinion. It means it’s in the top 20th percentile of all books. Four stars would mean it’s better than 60-80% of others. That’s not such rarefied air when you consider the sheer quantity of pulp populating the shelves.

I know a lot of authors. We chat online, socialize at events, even edit each other’s work. Of the 120 to-be-read books on my shelf, 45 are by those I consider friends or peers: most of whom you’re unlikely to find on chain-store shelves, deserving as they may be. Am I biased? Of course! It’s subjective, just like anyone’s reviews. Who knows, my friendship may be worth an extra star, but that’s not to inflate their ratings for marketing purposes, merely my own opinion, which may be subject to influence in the same way you’ll cheer for a local band because you know the bass player. My own books of course receive five self-stars because I wouldn’t have published them were they not my very best effort at that time.

Star ratings in general I only find useful as a consensus just like how I trust Rotten Tomatoes for movies. The detailed reviews are what I read, for context. Even if I rate a book four stars, I’ll still use that opportunity for critique as well as praise. Similarly, reading a two-star review might still get me excited for a book if they detail elements where our tastes differ. When I only leave stars in lieu of a text review, that’s probably for a popular title that’s been sufficiently discussed, where I have nothing new to add. Or it was a bad book that will ultimately die of its own hand without public flogging from me (that’s what happy hour is for). I do wish authors were more willing to be critical of one another’s work these days, but it’s offset by readers having a public voice/platform that used to be the sole domain of journalists. If I’m going to spend the extra energy doing a write-up, it’s probably for an underserved book worth celebrating. Regarding my own titles, I care nothing about ratings, only that readers made an attempt to engage with it and that their analysis is thoughtful, for better or worse.

If you’ve read an indie or small-press author’s work, the best thing you can do for them is to spread the word. Goodreads reviews are appreciated, but what we really want is for you to post on the retailers’ product pages: the point of purchase where many potential readers make their decisions. It requires little effort to copy/paste these across platforms, and can help the author tremendously.

For those unfamiliar with my own work, I recommend starting with my novel Flashover. I also have a collection of stories and verse called Submission Windows, as well as my debut novel, Major Inversions, recently released in audiobook.

Also, it’s Short Story Month (#shortstorymonth)! I’ve read nearly a hundred so far, and encourage you to check out some of the online freebies I’ve linked.

About Gordon

Gordon Highland is the author of the novels Flashover and Major Inversions, with short stories in such publications as Word Riot, Black Heart, Noir at the Bar Vol. 2, and Warmed and Bound, among others. He lives in the Kansas City area, where he makes videos by day and music by night.
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