Visitor asks: Why no star rating for indies?

ScienceThrillers followers may have noticed that I give “indies” special treatment. I do not give these books star ratings, I list my indie reviews on a special page, and I often use a different reviewing format.

(What is an indie? Generally I define this as any book not published by one of the Big 6 publishing companies. These books are either self-published or released by small presses.)

Well, a shrewd and inquisitive follower of this blog asked why don’t I give star ratings for indies.

Unlike others, at I base my star rating on a curve. 5 stars doesn’t mean only that I enjoyed reading the book. In my system it means the book is in the top 10-15% of science thrillers I’ve ever read. Three stars is a good book that is about average for the genre (and therefore worth reading).

I’ll probably take heat for saying this, but in general indie (self-published and very small press) novels are not at the same quality level as traditionally published thrillers. Based on my reading experience, if I were to graph the quality of indies vs traditionally published books, I would get two bell curves (normal distributions):

x axis: subjective book quality; y axis: number of books. m1 group: indies; m2 group: traditionally published books.
Image Source:

As you can see, the curves overlap. That means the “quality” difference is not absolute.  There certainly are indie novels I’ve read which are better than some traditionally published books. But at the extremes–really, really bad and really, memorably good–I have to say the graph fits.

So what does this have to do with my rating system? Well, mentally draw a vertical line down the center of this graph. This marks the location of the “average”, where half the books are better, half the books are worse. By my system, everything on the line or to the right would get 3, 4, or 5 stars; everything on the line or to the left would get 3, 2,  or 1 stars.

What would the indies get? Almost entirely 3 stars or lower, because the indie curve is almost entirely to the left of the average.

So why don’t I just hand out those one, two, and three star ratings to indie books?

Because most people browsing my website do not understand that the ratings at are curved. The zeitgeist of our time says 5 stars means “I loved it” and 2 stars is pretty close to saying it sucked. That is NOT what my ratings mean. To avoid misunderstanding about the meaning of my curved ratings, I choose a blanket policy of giving no rating at all to indies.

Ah, now you ask, why give 2 or 1 star ratings to traditionally published books but not indies?

The reason is because I have a heart. For an author there is a psychological difference between self-pub and trad pub. With trad pub, you have the affirmation of a big company saying “We like your book!” You know some readers and critics will pan your book, but perhaps you won’t be tortured or angered as much as an author who is seeking affirmation directly from readers. Giving one or two stars to a decent debut novel by a self-published author seems likely to cause unnecessary pain. I don’t need that in my karma–or my email inbox.

Plus, the snapshot of a two-star rating doesn’t do justice to many of the indies I read. These are good books, many worth reading for genre fans. In my lengthy written reviews I can highlight the features of a book that will guide the right readers to the books they might like.

I invite readers and authors to share their thoughts on my approach to rating.

Dr. Amy Rogers is an educator, author, critic, and fan of science and medical themed thrillers. She is the creator of and sole reviewer at She is also the indie author of PETROPLAGUE, a science thriller in which oil-eating bacteria contaminate the fuel supply of Los Angeles and paralyze the city. For her next book she would very much enjoy the affirmation of a Big 6 publishing contract.

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13 Responses to Visitor asks: Why no star rating for indies?

  1. Marika says:

    As of recently I decided to no longer give star ratings on my book reviews either, so I was looking for others doing the same, and I found your post.

    However, unlike you, I took off the rating from all the books. I just didn’t feel comfortable giving a Jack Reacher book a rating while giving an unknown character from some Createspace published book no rating at all. Plus, I don’t like death threats either 😀

    So to make it fair for everyone, I no longer show those cute little stars on my blog. I do give enough information in my reviews, though, for the reader to understand just where I stand about loving the book (or not so much). And yes, I review plenty of indie books on my site.

    • Amy Rogers says:

      The “star” rating system is broken, across the whole Internet, not just book reviews. We all have a different sense of what the star number means, so I also find the words written in a review to be the part that matters. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Moschops says:

    Also, the indies take it really badly and send death threats and all sorts 🙁

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  7. Have you seen AwesomeIndies? This site specifically finds Indie published books that compete in quality with Trad published offerings. I point it out, not just because my own book is reviewed there, but because times are changing, and we need reviewers like your good self to help bring up the standard for Indie Authors.

    I believe in the coming years, authors will only ever find trad publishers by self publishing first, and gaining an audience — this is how the music industry has operated for years! (Of course there will always be high profile exceptions)

    For the record, I agree with your rating system regarding 3 being an average novel. Unfortunately, rating inflation has gripped the book market and a three star review on Amazon is almost a kiss of death!

    • techeditor says:

      I might be reading your comment incorrectly, but it seems to me that you don’t realize that Amy DOES regularly review Indie books. Maybe you just wanted to slip your Web site in there.

      I agree with what Amy says, except I think reviews should be for readers, not writers and should, therefore, all be rated on the same scale. If Indies can compete, readers want to know. If indies aren’t as good, readers should know that, too.

      Reviews and ratings should be honest. The publisher of a book should not determine whether it is rated.

      • Oops… no I didn’t realise, I hadn’t put 2+2 together. (of course, I just wanted to slip my website in there as well,).

        Apologies for looking like a plonker.

      • Amy Rogers says:

        Techeditor, you’re right, of course. Readers want to know which are the best books; they don’t care about the publishing imprint. (Although if the publishers ever get their act together and start conferring name-brand status on their imprints, that could change. Right now Harlequin stands alone in that regard.)

        I find myself squeezed between competing desires. I want to give indie writers exposure and a fair verbal description of their work. I even, on occasion, send them private emails detailing criticisms that might help them improve their next book. My decision to not give star ratings to this group is entirely personal. I don’t want to deal with the fallout.

        I believe my reviews are thorough enough that readers can get an accurate sense of whether an indie book is a good choice for them without any star rating.

  8. techeditor says:

    When you don’t rate some books but do rate others, this is the message I get:
    books not rated don’t rate, i.e., they rate less than 1.

    I appreciate ratings. I depend on ratings for the most part unless I am already familiar with an author’s other books.

    I understand your reasoning and, if I were you, I’d do the same. But when I review books, they are all rated on the same scale, regardless of publisher.

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