Friday, June 22, 2012

Single Figure of Merit and the Rating of Your Book

I've been reading a number of author's blogs recently and several have expressed concern or been upset when they receive a one star review.  They post their book on Amazon and wait for purchasers to rate their book.  They are excited by the early four and five star reviews.  More books sell.  Maybe they climb the rankings and hit a best seller list and then WHAM! they start getting one and two star reviews.  These purchasers give low ratings because the book is not to their liking, perhaps it was just not their kind of book.  Their reviews are flippant.  How dare they, the authors cry.  Clearly the book is well written as it received many high ratings already.  The low raters must be mistaken or are using the rating system incorrectly.

I see things differently.  The primary purpose of the rating system is not to help a specific book sell; it is to help Amazon to sell as many books as possible.  (Or so I assume as I can't read Amazon's mind.  Given that I don't have telepathic powers and corporations don't have minds, this isn't particularly surprising).  The rating system isn't your college creative writing class.  You aren't being graded.  (If you want to be graded send hate mail to John @scalzi on Whatever).

Let's take a look at the Amazon ratings.  They go from 1 (lowest) to 5.  Here are the guidelines:
  1. I hate it
  2. I don't like it
  3. It's ok
  4. I like it
  5. I love it
Notice how 1 is not "Wow, you really don't know how to write -- it's just B.A.D. bad."  Nor is 5 "Your prose is incomparable.  Prepare to receive a Pulitzer."  It's just 1 for I hate it for whatever reason and 5 for I love it whether it's because it's really good or because it's got cats.

Now if this whole rating thing's purpose was to provide feedback to the author, then we would probably not use a single figure of merit to rate the book.  Rather we'd break it down into a couple different values.  Maybe something for how much the buyer really liked it, as we have now, plus a separate rating covering whether we thought it was good, that is a quality score (this would be the one that the author's want to see).  In an ideal universe we could ask the rater to separately score how much they want the book to sell because it's their book or how much they want it to fail because they hold a grudge against the author (both of these last two would be ignored in the recommendation engine).

No one would rate books if we had to think about so many categories.  Instead, we've got a single overall rating; did the rater like the book or not?  Are the raters screwing up the usefulness of the rating system when they give a low score to a good book just because they didn't like it?  I think not.  I think the rating system is doing its job because of its ability to do long tail matching.

If a rater rates an author's book low as well as other books they don't like, then other potential buyers who also rated the first rater's book low, but haven't read the author's book yet, will not be recommended the author's book.  Did that make sense?  Let's try again.  If A hates X and Y and B hates Y, then Amazon won't recommend to B that he or she buy X.  That's ok, because they were unlikely to like it anyway and the good thing is that it leaves more room on the recommended list for books that they should like.  In other words, the low ratings on books are helping correctly match buyers and books.  Even though the low scores might be knocking down the rating of their books (and their egos), all authors benefit because more appropriate books are presented.

Anyway, as I do my final edits and prepare to upload my book, that's what I'm telling myself.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Greetings and welcome to my blog.

I intend to post about random things that interest me.  Currently that's writing, self-publishing, science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers in one semi-related bucket of topics as well as games, game programming, game design, MMO's, and FPS's in another.  I'm also interested in Internet technology and advertising.  No doubt other things will come up.

The blog title "Way Outside the Box" comes from my interest in unconventional solutions to conventional problems.