Judging Books by (more than) Their Cover

Why a two-star rating doesn’t mean I think your book is bad

Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I love to read. I read non-fiction almost exclusively, and strive to read about diverse topics, from the hard sciences to the social sciences, education to current affairs, to history and memoirs. Most books are good, some great, and a handful are, honestly, pretty bad.

But, just because I don’t love a book, doesn’t mean it’s a bad book.

Recently, I left a written review of a book online, which read:

This is an excellent overview of human evolution. Reading it I find myself thinking it would be great for use in an undergrad human evolution course. The style of the book and writing, however, I didn’t find very enjoyable as a casual read. It’s a review book rather than a presentation of a clear original thesis. Cross between a textbook and popular book.

With it, I gave a 2-star rating.

I was a bit surprised, when a few days later, I got a seemingly not-so-happy response from the author defending their book, and ending with, “I guess it isn’t for everyone.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel bad. An enormous amount of work and dedication go into creating a final book, and hearing criticism of that work can be uncomfortable. But my review was honest and praised the book more than it criticized it. The negative piece of my review was that I didn’t find it enjoyable as a casual read.

This is a critical point of my review. The book delivered a certain type of experience for the reader; an experience that I wasn’t in the mood for, despite the book being “good” with regard to content and purpose.

I didn’t say the book was bad. I just didn’t enjoy it for a casual read.

This got me thinking how a five-star rating system doesn’t capture how I evaluate books very well. Books can be interesting, but not my favorite. Books can more academic, conveying high-quality research, or more casually enjoyable for a lay audience. Books can have an important thesis, yet fail to deliver on organization and prose.

A book is more than just “good” or “bad”. A book is a product, a collection of features that are delivered as a package to the reader. The content and writing are but two features of that final package.

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When I evaluate a book, I assess three general categories of information: (1) the physical book, (2) the content, and (3) the holistic product. Here’s what I look for.

The Physical Book

Evaluating the physical book is really an evaluation of the publisher given that they are the one primarily responsible for the physical book. When evaluating the book, I look at three specific aspects.

  • Cover: Yes, I judge books by their cover. Not exclusively, of course. For books by authors that I am familiar with, covers play less of a role in my decision making, but when I am browsing a bookstore the cover plays a huge role in the (initial) evaluation of the book – and whether I pick it up at all! Discounting the role of a book’s cover is actually quite insulting to the artists, designers, and marketing professionals that work with publishers and authors. Covers definitely matter!

  • Binding: Nearly all the books I read are recent releases and are therefore hardback books. The binding of the book is important, as I am not super delicate with my books. I backpack with them, travel with them; I read them. I want a good binding that will hold up and not break.

  • Heft: The heft of the book directly impacts the reading experience, especially for large books (>400 pages). As the length of the book increases, the actual weight of the book becomes a concern. If a book is too large and the publisher doesn’t balance the weight with thinner, lighter pages, it can be uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time. On the other hand, a shorter book with thin pages and light material feels… cheap.

The Content

The content – the book’s actual words – are the meat of the book, and also the main point of writing a book. Evaluating the content is primarily a reflection of the author, but the editor plays a key role here too, as it is their job to help develop the contents of the book and support the authors. Here’s what I look for when evaluating content.

  • Book Organization: How the book is organized is an important feature I assess when I first open a book. My eyes first go to the table of contents to evaluate how the book is set up. I first want to know how long the average chapter is. Why? Because it directly impacts my reading approach to the book. I’ve found that I prefer books with chapters that are about 20 pages long. Chapters that are shorter don’t impact my experience as much as chapters that are longer. Twenty-page chapters are easily digestible in one sitting and reduce the likelihood that I’ll have to break partway through a chapter, which I find annoying. When I open a book and see chapters that are 50+ pages, I find myself suspecting that the flow is mediocre and the chapters are unfocused.

  • Thesis: This may be the whole point of an author writing a book: what’s your point? A whole book should deliver on a key point, a thesis, that can be stated in a tweet size statement. If there is a not a clear thesis, the book becomes essentially a lengthy review, which may be useful and appropriate in some contexts (e.g., history or memoirs), but usually not good when it comes to science books in particular (see my review above).

  • Writing Style: There is a difference between academic writing and popular writing, and most non-fiction books I read fall somewhere on this continuum. And my preference typically errs on the side of popular writing because it’s more enjoyable as a casual read in the evening (when I do most of my reading), but becomes more essential as I read books increasingly outside my domain expertise area.

The Holistic Product

When I click the stars on Goodreads, I am making a quick calculation on how all above points balance out, and how I feel about the book in a more holistic manner, based on the points below. If I have more to say about a book, then I elaborate in the written review about some of these key features. When evaluating the whole book, I look at the following points.

  • How it Delivers: How a book delivers is a culmination of the six domains above, asking myself to assess the quality of the book as a holistic product. I can certainly love and hate particular aspects of a book, such as a good thesis, a beautiful cover, or great writing, but books are sold as whole units, and my overall ‘delivery’ assessment treats it as such.

  • My Expectations:  What do I want when I sit down to read a book? No longer a traditional academic, I read largely for pleasure and to learn about new perspectives on interesting topics. This means that dense academic-style books are less enjoyable to read on the couch in the evening than they were when I was still a graduate student. I prefer more casual writing, especially as I expand my reading horizons. Some books I expect to be dense, whereas others I expect to present a provocative thesis, and others I expect to be punchy short takes on a topic. My expectations are made by evaluating the superficial aspects of the book: the title, the jacket summary, and the author. The alignment of the book to my expectations matters. The greater the discrepancy, (usually) the lower the rating.

  • Interest and Value Add: How interesting I find a book is one of the most heavily weighted aspects I use to form a rating – and one that is highly subjective! My interest in a book is somewhat related to my pre-existing knowledge on the subject. Because I spent years studying human evolution, my threshold for a human evolution book being deemed “very interesting” is higher than for topics I know relatively little about. This says little about the objective quality of a book though! I want to learn new things and be exposed to different perspectives when I read. The more interesting the book is, the more I want to recommend it and rate it. In fact, each year I share the most interesting books I read that year (see 2019 and 2020), indicative to how much this subjective assessment impacts my star ratings of books online.

There are so many ways to evaluate a book. There are objective aspects that all good books share – good writing, organization, and a well-produced product. But there are many reasons for why I might rate a book “poorly” – most of which are heavily influenced by subjective assessments. Hopefully this piece explains why my 2-star rating doesn’t mean your book is bad.

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