Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reviews: Is Four Stars the New Five Stars?

I’m glad that my books have received a lot of five-star reviews on Amazon. But I’m starting to wonder if four-star reviews might actually be better.

How is this possible? Given what I’ve heard on some listserves, people are starting to be suspicious of five-star reviews. The idea is that if a potential buyer sees a lot of five-star reviews, they’ll just assume those reviews are by the author’s family and friends and therefore biased. And sometimes that’s true.

Apparently it’s also possible to buy five-star reviews for as little as $5 from people who’ve never read your book. It’s questionable how well those work, though, if they don’t contain any real content. Personally, I think I can judge whether a review is biased or not based on the content of the review, though that does take time. In general if I’m browsing for new books on Amazon, I’ll look for those that have at least 15 reviews so that any fake or biased reviews are somewhat outweighed by unbiased ones.

Sure, those could all be friends and family reviews – but speaking as an author, it’s really hard to get people to review your books, even family and friends, even assuming your family and friends have actually read your books (often not the case). There’s just that overhead of going to Amazon, signing into your account, getting to the review page... and then coming up with something to say. People are intimidated by this. Even other writers are intimidated by this.

When someone I know tells me they liked one of my books, I try to politely say, “Reviews are always appreciated, of course!” I emphasize that I do not expect a five-star review or a in-depth analysis. An honest review is preferred. You can briefly mention something you liked – and it’s fine to also mention something that didn’t work for you. After all, reviews work best when they let the reader know whether or not they would really like the book. “This is the greatest book ever!” doesn’t really help, as that’s a matter of opinion that obviously won’t be true for every reader. But commenting that the book had too much sex/violence/raunchy humor/cute animals for your taste, or not enough, helps a potential reader make her own decision based on her own tastes.

I’ve heard of authors getting horribly upset over three-star reviews. In my opinion, three stars isn’t bad at all, especially if the review mentions some positives and negatives. That helps me make my own decision. If the reviewer mentions a lot of typos, I know that would bother me, so I’ll skip the book. But some people don’t care, so they may buy the book if the story sounds interesting.

And again, all opinions on literary quality are personal. We don’t all like the same thing. If someone gives a book 3 stars because “I was hoping for more of a mystery but the romantic elements were stronger,” that’s a great review in terms of letting the reader know what to expect.

When I’m browsing new authors, I’ll particularly look at the bad reviews. They won’t necessarily keep me from trying the book, but I want to know what bothered other people. Than I can make my own decision.

Knowing how valuable reviews are to authors, I’m trying to do more on both Amazon and Good Reads. (And it is hard to find the time.) I won’t trash a book, but I will give a review as low as three stars, trying to point out what worked and didn’t for me. (If I’d give a book lower than three stars, I probably quit after the first chapter or two so I won’t review it.)

What do you think? Are we seeing star inflation in the same way some schools complain about grade inflation? Is there a backlash against five stars? Do you even read reviews, and if so, how do they influence your buying decisions? If you review books, are you afraid to give a bad review?

The truth behind the reviews? Rattledhas 19 Amazon reviews, many of them from people I don't know, averaging over four stars. Whispers in the Darkwhich I consider to be a stronger book, has seven reviews, six of them five-star reviews from people I know.


  1. I don't trust reviews at all! My reasons are exactly what you said above - family and friends, paid-for. I have also seen some book reviews (of books I have started to read) that cough up five stars for a novel I couldn't even read past the first chapter because it was so poorly written or is riddled with typos, etc. I read voraciously, but of course not all genres are my favorite. The basic principle of “well-told story” determines my opinion on a book. Of the hundred books I’ve read this year, I would give only a couple of them five stars.

  2. I agree with you about typos, Karen, but apparently some people simply don't notice them, so it is possible someone would honestly give a book a high rating even with typos. One of my favorite review sites is BigAl's Books and Pals, which just reviews Indie (self published) books. He does a great analytical review of the content, and also has a section mentioning proofreading errors, for those who care.

  3. I've only seen a couple of cases where I thought the review was phony or by the author's friends/family. In that case, the voices of two 5 star reviews were exactly the same as the author's, and it was a truly badly written-book. But most times, I think reviews are pretty reliable, showing the reviewers taste and worth a glance. While I like to read reviews, I have to confess that I do my own shopping by scanning the book jacket, blurbs, and the table of contest to see if it looks interesting. And a good title always grabs me.

  4. I meant to say "in one case", not "in that case"

  5. I haven't thought about it that way, but you're absolutely right. It should be a red flag. I'll keep that in mind, though now that it's out in the open, authors might start asking friends and family to give four-star ratings instead.

    I do read reviews, but what I appreciate more are the excerpts. That gives me a true idea of the voice, style, language etc. and I can make up my mind pretty quickly. Sometimes, even if all those mentioned above are great, the book just might not be to my taste. So, it's a combination of both, reviews and excerpts.

    Rosie Pova

  6. Rosie, I'd like to think that some five star reviews are honest! But I do think that even friends/family/fellow author colleagues will be likely to bump up the star rating so as not to offend the author. So maybe they would legitimately give a book four stars, but are more generous and give five stars when they know the author.

    I just checked back on my reviews for Rattled (written as Kris Bock). The reviews by people I don't know are about evenly split between three, four, and five stars. Curiously, the comments they make are not all that different-- if you didn't have a star rating, you'd probably think they all enjoyed the book enter recommending it. So it may be that some people just have a higher standard for what makes a five star book. If you know the author, you're likely to be more generous with the stars.

    People I know left reviews with similar comments, but typically the five star rating. I hope they are not lying about liking the book -- several were in my critique group, so they had a chance to let me know anything they didn't like along the way -- but even though I specifically tell people they don't have to leave a five star review, obviously they feel they should.

  7. I don't trust a book with all five star reviews. Most of the books I give five stars to tend to get about a 3.5 aggregate anyway. For me to love them, they must be different and challenging enough that some readers don't like or get them at all.

  8. I choose books by reviews alone, actually. I'm much less interested in the stars (as most books average 3.5-4.5 anyway), but I read as many reviews as I possibly can, usually right on my kindle. I find a reviewer who notices the *kind* of things I notice in books. If they have the same pet peeves as me, then I pay special attention to their review. I don't read reviews that are written in all-caps, good or bad.

    After reading reviews, if it still sounds like the kind of book I'd like, I read the sample. If I read through the sample and am dying to know what happens next (usually because of a strong sense of conflict or mystery), then I buy the book.

    If there's no sample, or no reviews, I don't buy the book.

  9. Good point, Kell and Christine -- tastes vary, so every book should eventually get a wide range of star ratings. But noting specifics in the reviews can still be helpful.

    And in my comment above, that should be 'they all enjoyed the book and are recommending it.' Is it still a typo if it was voice recognition?

  10. I'm happy to learn this perspective on the star ratings. Since I'm a new author with a debut novel out just last December, I've jumped for joy with every review I've received. I mean, come's all new and fabulously exciting at this point!!! Happily, I didn't twist anyone's arm to get my reviews, though I may have asked in my sweetest voice! :D

    However, though I have stars in my new-author eyes, I don't have brain damage. I think you are right, Chris. We do need a mixture of opinions on our work. Books with an inordinate number of typos, though they may be an excellent read, should not be rated five stars in my opinion. A fairly good book with perfect punctuation still shouldn't rate top-of-the-line billing, but maybe a three- or four-star rating.

    Bottom line: I'm sending this blog to every author I know so we can group-contemplate this subject. Thanks, Chris!

  11. Instead of authors hoping for 4 stars instead of 5, I hope Amazon finds a way to validate reviews. Thanks for this thoughtful post. The subject is a major concern right now.