Editorial reviews or ratings by the masses?

I was in another city's library the other day and read the first few pages of Say Anything. It looked interesting so when I got home, I looked it up on Amazon – I no longer acquire a book without first checking ratings on Amazon.

Say Anything is obviously not a popular book. First I had a hard time finding it as Amazon assumed I really wanted to know about lots of other movies and books with "Say Anything" in the titles. Then the rating … it only rated 3 stars. A book which only rated 3 stars is one I'd usually pass on. I've got several hundred to read on my list that all rate much higher. But then I saw it only had 4 reviews (which reinforced the fact that it's not a popular book) so I scrolled further down … and noticed that it had some very respectable editorial reviewers like Seth Godin, Craig Newmark, Lisa Stone and Howard Rheingold. I puzzled it over for a while and then went back and reread the editorial reviews – and realized that with one exception, none of the seven editorial reviewers said anything great about the book. And obviously they didn't all take the time to go to Amazon and rate the book to help out the author.

I've added Say Everything
to my Paperbackswap wish list and if I read it, I'll let you know how it goes, but for now I'm going to continue to trust the ratings by the masses or what my friends recommend, not the number or caliber of editorial reviewers.

What do you think? What do you pay attention to when deciding to read a book or not?

7 Replies to “Editorial reviews or ratings by the masses?”

  1. “Number of stars” are completely context-free, useless to me. I only care about opinions from people who I already “know” to some degree, or at least can assess from their comments. I’m not much interested in “ratings by the masses”–and indeed, that’s not really what you reacted to here, but rather “(non)ratings by people you know well enough to trust.”
    As for “editorial reviews” … sources like Library Journal can be useful, but I gave up on “celebrity reviews” a long time ago. Either you know the “celebrity” well enough to qualify as above, or you don’t, and they could mean anything. (I burned out on Science Fiction reviews by Theodore Sturgeon: he’s an amazingly humane and kind writer, and I love his work, but his book-jacket reviews are just utterly useless. I think his warm-and-compassionate side rears up and prevents him saying anything not glowingly positive!)

  2. Opinions are only really useful to me if I can judge the value of those opinions. So recommendations from a friend with similar tastes to me, that’s useful. Comments from random strangers, not so much.
    That’s partly why I don’t actually get buy much on Amazon – unless I’m looking for a specific book that’s been recommended to me, I’d rather buy for a store where I can have a good browse through the book before deciding if it’s worth buying…

  3. “Opinions are only really useful to me if I can judge the value of those opinions. So recommendations from a friend with similar tastes to me, that’s useful. Comments from random strangers, not so much.”
    Same here. I like what I like. I have very little faith in “editorial” reviews, as you can never be certain of their motivation when it comes to expressing their opinion on a particular piece of work. A great example is the movie “Speed Racer”. It was panned by the critics to heck and back. But some of my friends raved about the special effects and action scenes, so I watched it anyway and enjoyed it so much it was one of the first Bluray movies I ever purchased.

  4. Maybe what you get with the stars is really about what people think about the book. Sometimes the stars dont tell you anything, but that nearly nobody knows a book/product.
    On products I have seen that if some people dont get how a product works they might rate it with 1 star, because it doesnt work at all for them. I dont think people often rate realistic. I know it from myself – I rather have these levels:
    1. I dont like something at all: 1 star
    2. I dont like it, but is readable: 2 stars
    3. – nothing really
    4. Its perfect: 5 stars
    5. Its not yet perfect: 4 stars
    I think with books stars dont really work well. I mostly trust people with the same taste as I have.

  5. Stars definitely have their limitations. For example, I’d like to easily add a “I didn’t finish this book” aspect. And then there are several reasons I don’t finish a book, maybe the writing style was terrible, maybe it was boring, maybe I didn’t like the content, …
    But overall, I’ve found that if a book gets 4-5 stars on Amazon by hundreds of people, it’s usually very readable. To figure out whether I’ll like it or not, I have to do more research.

  6. I think it’s even harder to judge movies by review than books.
    Netflix has the feature of “other people like you like these” … that didn’t work really well for me either. (Especially not if you have more than one person ordering movies on the same account!)

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