What Do Those Stars Mean on Amazon?


If you take anything away from my blogging about reviews, it should be to review books and leave them high marks. Granted, not every book is the best—and some truly deserve low reviews, but there’s a lot of room in between.

One of the primary problems with the Amazon 1-5 star rating/review system is that it’s highly subjective—but not just as a matter of opinions about writing and stories… but also about the review system itself. If you read a perfectly average book with no major problems, and you enjoyed the story line, but it’s not changing cracking your all-time top ten novel list, it should be a three star rating, right?

Wrong. It should be five stars.

People tend to set up their reviews based on a system of product comparison, but a 5 star review does not have to be the best book you ever read; neither does it have to be perfect (lots of books have the occasional error in the minutia). A 5-star book doesn’t even have to be better than the last book  you read. Three is not the middle, and in fact a three star review shows up as a “critical review” under the Amazon system… i.e. you thought the book was bad.

Here is what each of those star ratings mean:
5: you enjoyed this book in the way that it was meant (has the expected tropes, themes, etc.)
4: you generally liked the book but you have at least one major issue with the book and it detracted from your enjoyment (lots of repetition in the writing, a major plot hole, far too many typos, etc.)
3: a novel you neither liked nor disliked—you didn’t care if you finished it or not. You might read it if you were stuck on a desert island and this was all you had… then again, you might use it for TP instead.  Because some advertisers and listing services don’t allow 3-star books, consider leaving no review out of apathy and sympathy. This review hurts an author’s rating.
2: the novel is plagued by multiple, serious issues and you want to prevent others from suffering in an attempt to read this book. There are typos on practically each page (lack of editing,) serious inconsistencies, or a glaring lack of research. There was a plot, characters, and setting, but you didn’t really enjoy it.
1: a colossal failure. You hate this book so much that it keeps you up at night—there was no plot. Don’t leave a 1 star review unless you truly feel the author should never write again—this is not the appropriate review to leave if you bought a romance that you thought was a “Clean Christian romance” from the cover/title but it actually turned out to be an Amish bodice ripper.

Perhaps the best blog I’ve read on this topic (which I obviously borrowed some thoughts from) come from https://teylarachelbranton.com/reviews-what-those-stars-mean-to-authors/ (her list of Dos and Don’ts for reviewing is highly recommended).
Teyla Branton frames it in the context of a school report card: 5 stars is a B+ to A, 4 stars is a C+ to B, 3 stars is a C or C-, 2 stars is a D or D-, and 1 is an F.

On that report card theme, imagine you believe in a literal divine creation narrative from the Judeo Christian perspective (that God created the earth and everything on it in six days and that evolution doesn’t exist.) You’re also in high school and take a chapter test on Darwinian evolution. You can score 100% on the test despite having vastly different beliefs than those in a textbook. That’s kind of how this system is supposed to work: you can give 5 stars even if the book wasn’t your cup of tea. However, if the book was presented as a fantasy novel but turns out to be a literary novel about a man who thinks he is a wizard dealing with life in a mental institution, it would be a 4 star novel unless it clearly states it’s about a man with mental illness. “Does the book share the story it sets out to tell?”

Because Amazon runs with an average and because 3 star reviews actually translate as negative, this is how to interpret the 1-5 star rating system:
5 Stars: probably only has 1 review, otherwise excellent
4 1/2 Stars: excellent
4 Stars: okay
3 1/2 Stars: crap
3 Stars: crap
2 1/2 Stars: crap
2 Stars: crap
1 1/2 Stars: crap
1 Star: crap

Remember—this might be the most important thing for any given author! Handing out low reviews is perhaps the biggest kind of insult you can give any author. Remember that movie you saw in the theater—the one that you didn’t hate and kinda liked, but the details and plot were a little fuzzy in your memory by day two? It’s not much different than what Hollywood churns out on a daily basis to the tune of millions of dollars. Make an author feel like a million bucks today: leave a 5 star review… they probably deserve it more than you’ve ever even realized.


7 thoughts on “What Do Those Stars Mean on Amazon?

  1. Most of my reviews are either 4 – 5 star.
    5 – Exceptional in my opinion.
    4 – Really good and fun read, but it was just missing something to put it over the top.
    3 – It was an okay to good story, I’ve read worst, but, I’ve definitely read better.
    2 – Never use it. If it’s not worth at least a three rating it deserves a 1.
    1 – Complete waste of my time, will not continue with that author, may not have eve finished
    the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Did this information come directly from Amazon? If so, then I will consider a change to my reviewing process. If not, then I’m ok with the way I currently review. I also explain in my review why that rating was given. I have never given less than a 3-star review. Even then I agonize over it. I do appreciate you bringing this to my attention, and giving me something to ponder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If I don’t like the book, or if there were a lot of issues about it, I will not leave a review. Granted, I feel guilty, as I did not warn off other readers about the low quality of the book. But others may like it, so who am I to judge? I have been known to leave a 4 or 5 star review with a few negative comments for future readers to consider. But again, who am I to judge what others may enjoy that I did not.


  4. Here are some of opinions on reviews, as an author. Feedback is useful, though comments are much better than stars. If there is a quality issue then I prefer if Amazon is contacted re quality issues or the author is contacted directly by email if their address is known.

    I received a couple of one star reviews for a single typo, in one case in the blurb, the “reviewer” had not looked at the book. Typos are easy to correct, especially for ebooks,
    and may be corrected in days while the redundant comment remains forever.

    I did an experimental series of interactive books which is not to everyones taste, but clearly to some people as some have bought all the books while one person gave it one star when it was not to their taste.


  5. Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with my Amazon ratings for books, as I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings on Goodreads for really memorable books (eg. books that change the way I look at the world, or at least that I’d potentially re-read at some future date), but that doesn’t seem to equate on Amazon and other commercial sites. Your words have really helped me clarify my thoughts – I’ll be leaving a lot more 5-star reviews!


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