3-Star Reviews and Why They’re Not a Bad Thing

First, let’s get one thing straight:  A 3-star (or -heart) review isn’t a bad thing.  Amazon may call it the beginning of the “negative” reviews, but it’s really not.  A 3-star review is exactly whatever it says in the review.  For me, a 3-star review may mean many things.  It may mean that the book didn’t grab me, but I saw its merits; it may means that I saw too many minor faults and didn’t love it enough to overcome those faults; it may mean I was conflicted about the book (see Gone Girl); or it may mean it was just a “meh” book.  For me.  And when I review, rather than just rate, I explain why it didn’t work for me.  Of course, when I review 4- or 5-star books, I may go off on the things that didn’t work for me too, even though I overall enjoyed the book.  And in 2-star reviews (I rarely give 1 stars), I may explain a good thing or two (usually what got me to pick up the book in the first place).

Here’s my rating system, by the way (YMMV):

  • 5 stars: OMG, I love it!  I’ll probably read it again next year.  I may have some nitpicks.
  • 4 stars: I enjoyed this a lot, though I probably have some nitpicks. If the sequel’s out now, I’ll probably get it, but I might not be as enthusiastic about it in a year
  • 3 stars: It was okay.  I can see why others might love it.  I almost certainly have some thoughts about what does and doesn’t work for me
  • 2 stars: I had way too many problems to overcome with the few good things about the book.
  • 1 star: Wow, I really disliked this book.  How did I manage to finish it?  (It must have been short or a book I read for review)

I also use half stars in my review, and I’m inconsistent about whether the half will round up or down, but I have a feeling about “low” half stars and “high” half stars, and explain which in my reviews.  My average rating on Goodreads is 3.98, and I reread a lot of my 5-star books during the course of the year, and rarely get into books I would have rated 1 star enough to rate it.

Of course, every reviewer is different, and for some, 3 stars may be a negative review.  I think authors see 3 stars as negative all the time.  But it’s not.

3 stars is the middle.  It’s average.  Not everyone is going to love every book, so average is a pretty good expectation as an author, and we can celebrate anything above that and cry over anything lower than that.

And that’s why you, as an author, want 3-star reviews.  Readers expect to see some people rate a book average.  They may expect to see some people rate a book below average too.  If I go to Amazon and only see 5-star ratings on a book, I steer clear of that book because I assume that every review was written by the author’s friends (an exception is if there is a very small number of reviews, like 1 to 3, because the book just came out).  Worse still, if I see that all the 5-star ratings are “rated up,” and the 3-or-lower-star ratings are “rated down.”  At that point, I assume that the author or the author’s friends are having a hissy fit about “negative” reviews and making sure that they are buried below their 5-star reviews.

This is what I saw for a book I reviewed on Amazon recently.  (I’m not naming names, but I’ll admit right here that I wouldn’t be surprised if you could figure out which book.)

Call me neurotic, but I occasionally check in to books that I’ve had some critical thoughts about to see what other reviewers are saying.  It fascinates me, for example, that one book that I read and reviewed about a year ago with a detailed 2-star review continuously gets high ratings, but that many readers have voted my review as the most helpful by a wide margin even though it disagrees with the others.  So I checked in with this new book to see what the most recent reviewers said and was surprised to see that I had an unhelpful vote.  Okay, while I take “helpful” literally and would never rate a well-though-out review as “unhelpful” myself, to each his own.  Maybe the reader thought I had said something that was so wildly incorrect that my review would then be unhelpful.  I’m not going to complain about a deviation from my interpretation of what is “helpful.”

And then I looked at the other 3-star reviews.  Each of them had been voted unhelpful by at least one person (and eventually as helpful by me), and both were written intelligently.  There were 24 reviews, and three were 3-star, and nobody had rated it below 3.  But every 4- or 5-star review had at least one helpful vote, and all three 3-stars had at least one unhelpful vote.  This made me look further into those 5-star reviews (which I wouldn’t have done if not for the situation).  Big surprise, many of them had only reviewed this single book, which lends each of those reviews to suspicion.  And then I found that the author herself had given a 5-star review, speaking about herself in the third person with glowing language about her own writing.   Now that is an unhelpful review. (I reported it to Amazon, and it was since removed, but the identical review on Goodreads, under another name, still remains)

But this post isn’t about an author behaving badly, and I have no intention of crucifying her (nor am I looking for people to rate her book poorly or up-vote my review; please don’t, unless the review is truly helpful to you or you truly believe the book, not the author, deserves it.).  This is about why those 3-star (or even 2- and 1-star) reviews are important to books without many reviews, particularly the ones that are either self-published or published by a small house.  The fact is that they lend legitimacy to your reviews.  If all you have are 5-star reviews, discerning readers are going to look deeper into those 5-star reviews with great suspicion.  It’s pretty easy to tell when all your reviews are by people you know.  Plenty of readers I know won’t even look at 5-star or 1-star reviews.  They want the 2-, 3-, and 4-star reviews because those will tell them what they really want to know, and are almost certainly a real opinion.

And seriously, folks, 3 stars is a decent rating.  Don’t get worked up over them.

Lots of love,


2 thoughts on “3-Star Reviews and Why They’re Not a Bad Thing

  1. I usually end up giving 3 star reviews to books that weren’t necessarily bad (or at least I couldn’t think of a reason why they were bad), but it wasn’t good enough for the book to be memorable. I tend to have stronger feelings about 1- and 2-star books than about 3-star books, so in that sense, “3 stars” is one of the worst reviews I can give. (Sometimes I’ll change a 4-star review to a 3-star review a few months down the line when I realize that I haven’t thought of the book even once since I finished it.)

    I also think the “helpful vs unhelpful” debate is weird. It seems like the only people who would consider a review “helpful” are the people who agreed with it. Unless a review is loaded with spoilers (and no spoiler warning) or is completely irrelevant to the book, I don’t see how a review could be “unhelpful.” I much prefer Goodread’s “like” system.

    • Yeah, I think most book reviewers use “Was this review helpful to you?” like a “Like” button, only there’s an “Dislike” option. And there are times, in my opinion, that it’d be nice to be able to dislike a review (like for example, knowing that it’s the author’s, or when people post 50 GIFS of people screaming in excitement about a book before it’s out and there’s no way to easily find the real reviews), but I think overall it’s better to just have a “like” option.

      I’ve been known to lower a rating on a book later, if the things that stick with me are the things I didn’t like. I’ve only increased a rating in one of the rare times that I reread a book that wasn’t a 5 star.

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