Do Book Reviews Have Genres Too?
Most writers will tell you that nothing matters more than the reviews they get for the books they write. Reviews are feared and loved and loathed in equal measures, and manage to cause more knicker-twisting than royalty statements, bestseller lists and dubious book covers combined.
Whether they like it or not, book reviews matter. We all might wish that star ratings didn’t matter, but unfortunately, just like bikini lines, breakfast, and politics, they do. But it occurred to me lately that the assignment of a star rating seems to be very much dependent on genre.
Like many other people, I read in different genres. I am a big fan of the Literary Fiction Thing (even though none of us have an iota of a clue what that actually is). I like to relax with the odd gory Crime Thriller. When modern times are bad (which nowadays is most of the time) I love to escape into Historical Fiction. Every now and then, I retire to the cupboard with a shameful Romance.
I rarely read biographies, but it still might amount to 1 a year. And when I’m feeling intelligent, or have a bit of self-loathing after a particularly underwritten romance, I might try and heal my soul with a bit of light philosophy.
All of these genres are written differently, and reviewed differently. So differently, in fact, that a 4-star review in one genre might be the equivalent of a 5-star in another, or a 2-star in another.
I have to keep this in mind when I’m choosing the books I buy. If more writers kept this in mind, they might get a longer life out of their underwear. So without further ado, here is a very serious and official guide to reading star ratings and reviews, by genre.
Star Rating Requirement: 5* or (heaving) Bust
Nothing less than 5 stars will do in this category. This is because romance reviews are often even thinner than their heroines. A 5* rating can mean anything from
“I read this!!!!”
“OMG the guy in this is the hottest ever!!!”
“yeah this was ok but I prefer XXX by X”.
“Cried my eyes out. Loved the characterisations. The story was fresh, free of cliché, and penetrated my soul to the extent that I immediately went out and told everyone in my family how much I loved them. Best book I’ve ever read”
The bottom line is that this is the one category where it appears that anything less than 5 stars is cause for ugly tears. It’s ridiculous, but there you go.
Star Rating Requirement: 4* is Deadly
Generally in a crime thriller the plot is the key, so it’s much tougher to please people with the reveal of the whodunit, whydunit, or howdunit, let alone hope for your readership to figure it all out at exactly the same time.
And then there’s the trend in recent years for ‘shocking’ twists: making the endings a polarising factor, deciding who likes it and who doesn’t.
4* in this category is bloody good, because crime reviewers very often reserve that elusive 5* review for that one blockbuster back in 1998 which blew their mind. Not getting 5* is NOT failure. Unfortunately, when it comes to telling crime authors this useful information, it’s a case of ‘Nobodydunit’.
Star Rating Requirement: 3* or 4* or… oh, never mind. We all die in the end.
Hardly anyone is yet buying Lit-Fic based on reviews, let alone star ratings, so it doesn’t much matter what star rating you get here. In this genre, it’s prizes and long- and short-listings you need, not stars. Stars are about as valuable as a second-hand copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Star Rating Requirement: 4* is Terribly Nice Of You
For authors lucky enough to receive a review for a historical novel – although this is a growing number – the rating system is tough to quantify. Historical novels are generally longer than other books, and so are their reviews.
Here, what the reviewer is saying is far more important than the stars they assign. Whether it’s 5* or not is therefore not the issue. It’s whether the content of the review sits more heavily at on the positive end or on the negative end. Anything over 3* could actually be a good win.
[i.e. another form of fiction]
Star Rating Requirement: 5* For Stars
This is an odd category, full of famous people who have ghost writers, and hitherto unknown people who have ghosts.
For the unknown authors, whether the review is a judgement upon the biography subject or a judgement upon the biography, 4* or 5* are going to be needed to sell more books.
Star ratings for celebrities are a red herring, because even the worst-written and reviewed biographies will be bought by people who are interested in seeing either how the subject looked at age 19 before they got their teeth done, or what really happened between their ex-spouse and the dog groomer.
High-Handed Conclusion Time
There are 6.3 besquillion other genres of non-fiction books out there giving me a headache, so that warrants a whole other post. But suffice to say, not all 5-star ratings are alike, and some can even be off-putting. And if you’re an author, you could make yourself feel better, by benchmarking your reviews to your genre.
And for the love of Blog, don’t ask people you know to swap or write you 5* reviews. Everyone knows what they are; Amazon punishes you for it; and they rarely help to sell your book.
Tara Sparling writes fiction and satire. Her blog www.tarasparlingwrites.com looks at book humour, bestselling book trends, the realities of traditional and self-publishing, writing follies, book marketing, author success stories and spectacular failures. She also pokes a lot of fun at character and genre stereotypes. She can be found lurking @TaraSparling on Twitter.