What does ★★★★ mean and should I watch/read it?

After spending 15 minutes trying to find a good Bollywood (the Indian version of Hollywood, here is a good example) movie to watch on Netflix the other day, I realized that there is a noticeable problem with five-star rating systems like those used by Netflix, Amazon, and Goodreads.

While a five-star system is certainly helpful when rating a book (I personally tend to be very hesitant about giving out either ★ or ★★★★★ ratings unless I think they are the best or the worst book/movie I have ever experienced), the average ratings that we end up encountering when searching for new entertainment are far from helpful.

Take for example the current 10 most reviewed books on Amazon:

Only one of them has less than 4 stars, the rest of them are all between 4 and 4.5 stars. Based on the stars and that many readers, it appears to be a very safe assumption that any of these books would be good choices to read.

The problem with that assumption is that the average rating doesn’t show the breakdown of the ratings, nor does it include the people who got bored reading a title and never finished, or those readers who didn’t hate it quite enough to write a scathing 1-star review themselves.

What is more interesting and maybe a little more helpful when looking at reviews, is the % of reviewers that gave the book only 1 star. Looking at the same titles a second time, you can see that close to 30% of the people who reviewed the first title rated it only 1 star.

Looking at the # of reviews even closer, we can see from the breakdown of the reviews for that title that most people either really loved it or really hated this title. While this breakdown might tell you that the book is a more controversial one, it still does nothing to tell you whether you yourself will actually enjoy reading the book (not to mention, who wants to take the time to do this for every new book or movie they consider!).

So how can you really tell whether you are actually going to enjoy a book or a movie before you commit to it?

One thing I’ve found that works well on Netflix is comparing the rating to similar movies or movies in the same genre. For example, I know I will enjoy a Bollywood movie with a rating of 3.5 stars or higher and love one with a rating of 4 stars, but if it has less than 3.5 stars it will be one of those ‘meh’ movies I only watched because I was bored. On Amazon, I’ve found that reading some of the “most helpful” reviews can also help give a much better idea of whether or not I will enjoy the book. Granted, you still have to be wary as some of them are less than serious and still won’t be very helpful. Here are some of my personal favorite examples of entertaining (but less than helpful) Amazon reviews: Hutzler 571 Banana SlicerUranium Ore, A Million Random Digits, How to Avoid Huge Ships.

All in all, there is still nothing that beats the recommendation of a good friend or librarian who knows what you enjoy and is willing to recommend something new. Feel free to speak up next time your friend is looking for a movie to watch or a book to read. You just might lead them to their next favorite one!

~Evan McCarthy, Trade Book Sales & Marketing

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For helpful reviews from a Mennonite/Anabaptist perspective (mostly movies, but also current music, a few books, some TV) check our sister website, Third Way Cafe. You can also sign up for a free weekly review sent to your email.

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