Amazon Book Reviews: 3 Stars or 4?


I’ll admit it: I’m chintzy with my book review stars.  I save my 5-star recommendations for books that are perfect – the ones I stay up all night for, the ones I’d re-read immediately, the ones for which I’d grab a total stranger by the shoulders and yell, “You’ve GOT to read this book!”

Okay, I’ve never really done that last one, but I’ve felt like it.  And when I do, that’s the book that gets 5 stars from me.

Most other books get 3 or 4 stars.  Four if I really liked it: well-written, good characters, no plot problems, and it leaves me with a good feeling.  Not necessarily a happy ending, but the right one.  (I don’t bother reviewing just to give 1 or 2 stars unless a book really makes me angry.)

Three stars go to books that I liked, but weren’t quite as smooth.  Sometimes books I enjoy but aren’t unputdownable, but also books that have plot or character or formatting issues that make me shake my head, but I enjoy the story enough to say “who cares?”

No more.

In my recent web browsing (now that school has slacked off), I came across Amazon Book  Reviews: 10 Cardinal Rules of Using Reviewing Power from Patricia de Hemricourt at

In the article, she explains that Amazon considers a good review to be 4 or 5 stars, while 3 stars or less is a negative mark.  And too many 3 star reviews can kill a book.

Wow, who knew?

She suggests that if you want to support an author but you think it only rates 3 stars, that you instead give it 4 stars and an explanation of what didn’t click with you.

Interested?  She also talks about Likes and Tags and what constitutes a review in Amazon’s eyes – at least until the next time they change the algorithm.   So take a minute, go click on the link up there and read the whole thing.  C’mon, that means you, too.  Yes, you, still sitting here reading my words.

Hurry up, I’m waiting.

Now that you’re back, what did you think?  For me, I first apologize to any authors to whom I gave 3 star reviews.  I really didn’t mean to give you a negative ranking – I promise.  Second, in the future I’ll be much more generous with 4 star reviews, with full comments describing what I liked and what I thought fell short.  I may even hand out a few more 5s.  And third, when I have the chance, I’ll explain why I don’t give 3s so other readers can understand too.

One other thought:  now that Amazon has bought GoodReads, none of us know how the reviews there will affect book rankings on Amazon.  So to be safe, I’ll use the 3 star understanding over there, too.

What about you? Were you already savvy about the 3/4 star issue?  Does it affect how you rate books?  Leave a comment below and let’s get talking!

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12 Responses to Amazon Book Reviews: 3 Stars or 4?

  1. I’d heard this a little while back. I now save three star reviews for books that upset me in some way. I’ll give a four star to a book I enjoyed, and clarify anything I didn’t like in the review. Five stars means I loved it.
    Marcy Kennedy recently posted..Top 5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Foods that Sound Good Enough to EatMy Profile

  2. Kim Terry says:

    Thanks for the info, Jennifer. Valuable advice for those “reads” that fall between 3 and 4 stars.
    Kim Terry recently posted..Trip AdvisorMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, Kim. Quite a revelation, isn’t it? But I’m glad I know now. Pass the word where you can!

  3. Well, crap! I just gave a 3-star review to a short the other day, and I thought I was helping the author out by boosting the number of her ‘positive’ reviews.

    Being a teacher, I tend to think in terms of grades I would give on papers. To me, 5-stars is an A, a really great job (doesn’t have to be perfect, but I definitely loved it). 4-stars is a B+. I enjoyed it; it was well-written, but I didn’t quite love it. 3-stars has been a C+ to B-.

    Like you, no more. If I can’t give it 4-stars, I won’t review at all. Or like you’re saying, if it’s borderline I’ll give it 4 stars but say more about what I didn’t like in the review itself.
    Kassandra Lamb recently posted..When Does a Stressor Become a Stressor?My Profile

  4. Jennifer Jensen says:

    Hi, Kassandra & Marcy. I don’t usually respond to something I read right away, but this hit me the same way as it did you. Who knew?

    The other questions is how do we let people know this *before* they leave a review? Is it okay to tell people that anything less than 4 stars is negative, when we’re sending books in exchange for a fair review?

  5. Catie Rhodes says:

    I almost didn’t reply to this blog post because I worried my comment would come off as mean. And I don’t like to be ugly to anybody. I am a big believer in treating people the way I’d like to be treated. Because of that, I’m going to be very careful about what I say.

    (sorry this is so long, too)

    As a reviewer:

    Most of the books I review receive 5 Stars. If I were to leave 5 Stars only on books I think are perfect, there would be fewer than 10 books to which I’d award 5 Stars.

    As it is, I finish very few of the books I start. If there are big problems or if the story is not to my liking, I just can’t wade through. I don’t have the patience. So I consider the ones I finish to be very good and worthy of 4 or 5 stars.

    4 Stars is when I loved a book but had a problem with some aspect of it–either fact checking or writing craft related. And the problem has to really drive me bananas before I’ll leave a 4 Star review. In the past, I’ve explained what the problem was and will continue to do so.

    All the rest of my reviews get 5 Stars. Even if I did not like every single thing about that book, I pick what I did love and gush about it.

    My reasoning for this policy: If I did finish a book, there was *something* I absolutely loved. In the spirit of treating people as I’d like to be treated, I write a review that honestly showcases what I saw as the book’s strengths.

    As a reader:

    I’d never consider a 3-star review a recommendation of a book. I read 3 Star reviews to see reasons I might not want to spend my time, money, and energy on a particular book.

    This is especially true if that author’s work has not particularly impressed me in the past, but their new offering sounds interesting. So, yes, I consider 3 Stars negative. In fact, if a book has mostly 3 Star reviews, I won’t even download the sample, no matter how good the description sounds.

    As an author:

    I get where you’re coming from about wanting to let reviewers know what 3 Stars really means to Amazon. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do it without coming off as “authors behaving badly.”

    Personally, I have been careful when giving free books in exchange for reviews because of what you’ve talked about here.

    If I think a particular person won’t like the book and won’t leave a review that’ll help sell the book, they don’t get a free copy. They can buy a copy and leave a bad review. At least I’ll get royalties off the sale.

    Or, if I see a particular person leaves mostly 2-3 Star reviews with a few 4 Stars thrown in, no free book.

    When I sent out ARCs, I was very honest with advance reviewers that they were getting an ARC and might find errors. I suppose including an explanation of what the stars really mean on Amazon reviews is possible. But I suspect it would be frowned upon as authors trying to force reviewers to leave “good” reviews.

    The truth is this: any book that sells a lot of copies is going to have its fair share of negative reviews. Pick an author or book (one you think is really good or perfect) and go look at their reviews. Most of the time, the reviews are all over the place.

    11/22/63 by Stephen King has 138 one-star reviews, 133 two-star reviews, and 242 three-star reviews. I know it’s different for him than it is for me, but low star reviews are a fact of life. And it’s a book I really enjoyed reading and found nothing wrong with.

    People give the number of stars they give for myriad reasons–some of which suck. I hate to say it, but I’m afraid this is one of those things we must accept because we cannot change it.
    Catie Rhodes recently posted..A Tale of Two ReviewsMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Don’t worry about a comment being long, Catie – you had thoughtful and thought-provoking things to say, and I’m glad you said them. And I don’t think anything sounded mean at all. *g*

      I’d have to admit that I do probably only have ten books I’ve given 5 stars to. That will go up now as my thinking shifts, and I’ll give a lot more 4 stars. I tend to finish books, though, unless they’re really, really badly written, or if there’s too much blood/sex/language that my soul doesn’t like it. Needless to say, I’ve read a lot of poorly researched, poorly plotted books with flat characters (not usually all in the same book!). Sometimes I finish one and wonder why I kept with it, and I”m slowly learning to put one down that isn’t worth the time. (Hmm, I feel another blog topic coming on.) But most of those I just don’t review at all.

      I like how you discuss your feelings about review stars from three points of view – very enlightening, and hopefully helpful to others. I don’t have a book out yet, so I have no experience handing out ARCs. As a reviewer, knowing how those stars affect sales will make a difference on how I rate a book. As a reader, I appreciate a review telling me what they liked and didn’t, and how well the plot and characters worked. I really don’t need a whole recap of the plot, and I ignore all the 5-star reviews that say “Wonderful book!” or “I loved this!” because they sound like someone gushing over their friend’s book.

      I could ramble on forever, but in any case, thanks so much for stopping and spending the time to put your thoughts into words for the rest of us. Cheers!

  6. I am stunned. Yet, when I think about it I don’t go for the books with 3 star reviews when I’m thinking about purchasing a book. Why had I not thought of that when I was reviewing others? I think because I was thinking as a writer, not a reader/buyer. Fortunately, I don’t often bother to write a review for a 3 star book. But thanks to your post, Jennifer, I will remember to think of the review in terms of a reader/buyer in the future.
    Lynette M. Burrows recently posted..Going to Mars Word by Word With Kim Stanley RobinsonMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Hi, Lynette. I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees stars differently when I’m in a different role! We’ll be readers/buyers together.

  7. Diane Capri says:

    Hmmmm…..Very interesting post and good comments from everyone. Thanks for this!

    I’d say that the post is almost a year old and everything at Amazon changes constantly, so I’m not sure that reviews by “mere readers” have as much power to hurt authors and books as the “big Amazon reviewers” can. So if we’ve given 3 star reviews in the past, it’s probably not fatal to the author or the book. Hopefully.

    The single most important factor for reviews is sheer number. The more reviews a book has, the more people have at least attempted to read it. If a lot of people have read it, then browsers think, “This one must be worth the time.” This is why a lot of negative reviews doesn’t hurt a book as much and why a lot of positive ones don’t help as much, once a certain “critical mass” in number of reviews has been reached.

    But I agree that as writers, we tend to judge books more harshly than readers who are not writers do. I think that’s a common thing in all walks of life, maybe? How many times have film critics (presumably people in the film biz) criticized a film harshly that we loved as viewers? Zillions!

    That said, when I post reviews, I rarely will post anything negative at all. The internet is full of critics. Some are downright mean — about everything. Trolls, we call them. I don’t enjoy being on the receiving end of that, so I try my best not to dish it out, either.

    I guess it’s back to what my mother taught me: If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all. Since today is Mother’s Day, I’m sure my mom will be glad that something she taught me stuck!
    Diane Capri recently posted..Get Back Jack: Chasing Suspects in ManhattanMy Profile

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Good thoughts, Diane. It’s nice to know that once a tipping point is reached, that it’s numbers not stars. So glad we’ve got gurus like you around to keep us straight!

      And I guess I need to be softer in my criticisms (in any phase of my life, for that matter) because there are a lot of movies that I like that the reviewers panned or said so-so. Just went to see “42” and loved it, so that’s another one. I agree–as a writer I see more of the flaws and they stick with me longer than they would if it were my mother or sister reading it.

      So here’s to sticking to our mothers’ wisdom – what kind of people would we be without them?

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