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Jim Cox Report: October 2020

Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:

It is always a pleasure to see something I've written get picked up and passed along by others. Check out what Diane Haugen has done at

Every now and then I, in turn, get interesting articles relevant to writing and publishing that I think deserve as wide an audience as possible within the publishing industry we are all a part of.

Here's the latest and on the subject of book ratings by Peter Blaisdell:

Subject: Potential Note for Inclusion In MWBR
Date: 9/13/2020 11:12:48 PM Central Standard Time

Hi Jim,

Please find below a note for consideration for inclusion in your newsletter or elsewhere within the sprawling MWBR empire re inflated book ratings/reviews. I've just posted it on my blog. Obviously, delete if there's no interest.

Regards, Peter

In Praise of Three Star Book Reviews

Consumers of everything from lipstick to lawn mowers are misled by inflated product ratings and reviews on ecommerce platforms. Like everyone else, readers face this challenge when they buy books. So, what to do for an honest critique? As these platforms use a 1 – 5 rating scale with 1 representing ‘awful’ and 5 representing ‘spectacular’, the following note argues that reviews associated with a 3 star (intermediate) rating are the best guide to a particular book’s qualities. For the sake of brevity, I’ll lump 1 and 2 star reviews together while grouping 4 and 5 star reviews – acknowledging that this may miss some of the finer gradations in reader opinion.

Tainted ratings/reviews fall into several categories including outright fakes posted by individuals who never bought or read the book, but have nonetheless received a quid pro quo for a flattering rating/review. Supposedly, platforms including Amazon are working to minimize these and indeed some suspect reviews have been deleted. Amazon also now flags reviews from a ‘verified purchase’ to give some assurance that the reviewer at least bought the book being rated. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they read it and readers occasionally confess that their high ratings are based on nothing more than positive feelings toward the author.

Commendable loyalty!

Another category of, if not illicit, at least misleading rating/reviews are posted by individuals who actually read a book, but then assigned an inflated 5-star grade to unexceptional writing. In fact, it’s common to see books with 50, 75, or even 100% 5 star ratings on Amazon or Goodreads. No doubt, a few of these volumes are truly modern classics warranting high ratings and correspondingly ecstatic plaudits, but even a cursory glance at the first dozen pages (conveniently available as a free sample on Amazon) shows that much of the highly-rated work is mediocre. So it seems that grade inflation is prevalent. Typically, these ratings are accompanied by reviews replete with quotes along the lines of ‘author X is God’s gift to the literary world’, or ‘grandly entertaining while bringing otherworldly nuance to the characters’.

For heaven’s sake!

So why do ratings often skew so high? An author may encourage friends and social media followers to post rapturous reviews. However, this isn’t always boosterism by the author or publisher. Indeed, the sentiment behind elevated ratings may be entirely genuine. It’s easy to assign a rating, but writing and posting even a brief book review needs effort and therefore many times only an author’s most rabid supporters do it which explains why 4 and 5 star reviews read more like fan mail than a balanced book critique.

Conversely – though more rarely – a book may garner 1 star ratings and very poor reviews unreflective of the real quality of the book. Sometimes, these reviews are posted by rival writers (or their supporters), or they’re posted by reviewers sincerely hating on a given author. Once again, reading the first dozen pages for free gives a reader considering purchasing a book a sense of whether the negativity is justified.

There are various tactics to sort insightful reviews from fawning platitudes, but they’re beyond the scope of this brief note. So, for the busy book buyer, a simple approach is to search exclusively for 3 star reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. Conveniently, these sites allow you to do just that with their sort functionality.

What makes reviews associated with 3 star ratings particularly helpful? In an era of much emotion and not much thoughtful insight, 3 star reviews are often what a good review should be: neither gushy nor mindlessly spiteful. Instead, they tend to be balanced and call out the good as well as the bad features of a book. The reviewers may be fans of a given author’s oeuvre, but they aren’t blind to defects in that author’s output. And they seem to be intent on actually helping other potential buyers make a good choice about whether to get the book in question. In fact, they may be a whole lot more informative than reviewers for the major literary journals without the pretensions and self-aggrandizement pervading ‘high-brow’ publications (more on the differences between Amazon/Goodreads and literary journal reviewers in a separate posting).

In sum, focusing on 3 star reviews allows book buyers to suss out helpful ratings and reviews from the fakery and flattery.

Now here is a review of a book that is of particular and special interest to writers and publishers:

27 Essential Principles of Story
Daniel Joshua Rubin
Workman Publishing Company
225 Varick Street, New York, NY 10014-4381
9781523507160, $19.95 PB, $9.99 Kindle, $39.99 Audio CD, 374pp

Synopsis: Experienced author Daniel Joshua Rubin unlocks the secrets of what makes a story work and then shows aspiring writers just how to understand and use these principles in their own writing. The result is nothing short of an invaluable and practical writing resource that covers such literary issues as: Escalating risk (with an example from Pulp Fiction); Writing characters to the top of their intelligence (from the Eminem song "Stan"); Earning transformations (draw from Alison Bechdel's Fun Home); Attacking your theme (from The Brothers Karamazov).

Critique: Expertly written and a thoroughly 'user friendly' DIY instructional guide and 'how to' manual, "27 Essential Principles of Story: Master the Secrets of Great Storytelling, from Shakespeare to South Park" is essentially a master class in the art of written down storytelling and should be a part of every aspiring writer's reference shelf. While unreservedly recommended for both community and college/university library Writing/Publishing collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "27 Essential Principles of Story is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $9.99) and as a complete and unabridged audio book (Blackstone Audio, 9781664460829, $39.99, CD).

Finally, "The Midwest Book Review Postage Stamp Hall Of Fame & Appreciation" is a monthly roster of well-wishers and supporters. These are the generous folk who decided to say 'thank you' and 'support the cause' that is the Midwest Book Review by donating to our postage stamp fund this past month:

R. D. Palmer
Alison Morgan
Xixuan Collins
Matthew McReynolds
Eva Sandor -- "Fool's Proof"
Toshi Ikagawa -- "Maddy's Sunflower"
Bob Stockton -- "Volunteer: A Vietnam War Odyssey"
Robert Fleshner -- "Photographic Memories: A Story of Shinjitsu"
C. M. H. Koenig - Old Testament Readings & Devotionals, Volume 1
Clarisse Tur -- "Of Lovers, Lonely Hearts, and the Psychotic Spell Called Falling in Love"
Clare Ellis - Stone Pier Press
John R. Spencer -- DeerVale Publishing
Mayer Music LLC
Winged Hussar Publishing LLC
Elizabeth Waldman Frazier -- Waldmania!
Barbara C. Wall -- The Barrett Company, LLC

In lieu of (or in addition to!) postage stamp donations, we also accept PayPal gifts of support to our postage stamp fund for what we try to accomplish in behalf of the small press community. Simply log onto your PayPal account and direct your kindness (in any amount and at your discretion) to the Midwest Book Review at:

SupportMBR [at]

(The @ is replaced by "[at]" in the above email address, in an attempt to avoid email-harvesting spambots.)

If you have postage stamps to donate, or if you have a book you'd like considered for review, then send those postage stamps (always appreciated, never required), or a published copy of that book (no galleys, uncorrected proofs, or Advance Reading Copies), accompanied by a cover letter and some form of publicity release to my attention at the address below.

All of the previous issues of the "Jim Cox Report" are archived on the Midwest Book Review website at If you'd like to receive the "Jim Cox Report" directly (and for free), just send me an email asking to be signed up for it.

So until next time -- goodbye, good luck, and good reading!

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI, 53575

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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