Inside the Inkwell

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 (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.