There is a phenomenon out there in the book world so strange, so mystifying, that writers and readers alike look upon it and scratch their heads. Sometimes enlightening, sometimes confusing, this phenomenon defies logic. And yet, it’s always entertaining.
I’m talking, of course, about 3-star reviews.
Now, 4- and 5-star reviews are clearly awesome. They glow with praise, pointing out all the things about a given book that made it stand out above the crowd for the reader. They are the mark of a book that was truly enjoyed. 1- and 2-star reviews are universally disappointing to an author. They mean that you missed the mark with a given reader or that your skills need a little brushing up. But at least most of the time you’re pretty sure what the reviewer is trying to say.
(Every once in a blue moon a reviewer will write a sparklingly great review, but whether by oversight or technical glitch, it will come out as a 1-star review.)
Ah, but then there are the 3-star reviews.
3-stars may technically represent “Good”, especially on Goodreads’ scale. I’ve heard from some reader/reviewers who have lost patience with every decent book being given 4- and 5-star reviews when, in their opinion, those marks should be reserved for modern-day classics. For this discerning group of reviewers, 3-stars is a good thing. You don’t suck, but you aren’t J.K. Rowling either.
In my experience, and judging from some comments I’ve seen from my fellow authors behind the scenes, reading a 3-star review is like opening what might be a can of peanuts packed tight with springy-snakes. 3-star reviews are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.
Some of my favorite reviews of my own books have been 3-star reviews. The first one I got will always hold a particularly special place in my heart:
“I enjoyed reading this book. It was fun and engaging.
If I was going to offer the author some pointers I’d say
a) Add a little more description to set the scene. I kind of know what medieval England might look like but not everyone would. It would also add to the atmosphere.
b) All the characters need a little more depth, back history, motivation and detail. Why and how is Aubrey so good with a sword? What did Crispin do that was so awful in the past? Why don’t the people of Ethan’s estates want him back?
c) Find another word for smirk!
OK, so the last one was a bit pedantic but it was used enough that I started to notice it.
In spite of these points and a few other minor quibbles it was a pleasure to read and I should say that the sex scenes are really well written. It all moves along at a good pace. I liked it enough that I’ll be reading the sequel.”
That review was for The Loyal Heart and it was written by a careful and considerate reviewer. They gave me cogent advice on how I could improve my prose going forward. I was a little upset when I got it (this was before “The 1-Star Review That Shall Not Be Named”), but I worked hard to follow the advice that was given.
Other 3-star reviews, given to both my books and other people’s books, leave me blinking at my computer screen, not sure what to make of it all.
“I give this book 3 stars because the PLOT is a definite grabber. However, the author did not stay true to the time period of this story. Characters act and speak as though they come from the 21st Century not the 12th. This fact distracted me to the point I could not go on reading. I could only see modern people dressed up in costumes … my time to read is valuable and I want to feel a part of the story. I went on and if you are like me you will as well. Don’t waste your time or money.”
Believe it or not, I smiled at this review when I got it. I love it when a reviewer is honest about what they do and don’t want to read and when their own personality shines through. I’m also happy that they picked up on the fact that I wrote the entire Noble Hearts series in the vein of the movie “A Knight’s Tale”, which is deliberately anachronistic. They just didn’t like that unusual take, is all.
And then there was this….
“I have not read even half the book as yet, it is almost like a Romance novel, you know, he touches me and I tingle. It is interesting enough tho.”
Hmm… Almost like a Romance novel, eh? You don’t say! Believe it or not, we authors get a lot of reviews like this. I know I have. “Too much sex”, “Reads like a Romance novel”. Once I even saw one that blasted the author for writing an m/m romance … when the cover clearly showed two men, it was in the Gay Romance category, and the description stated that it was about two men. But they still gave it 3 stars. What tickles me is not that the reviewers in these cases failed to notice the category that the book was filed in, it’s that they at least partially enjoyed “that trashy romance genre”.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not hating on these reviewers at all. I enjoy what they have to say and the way they say it. Obviously they don’t outright hate the books we write. Otherwise they would just give it 1 or 2 stars. Clearly they thought about what they were reading. Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered to leave a review at all. I love that there are readers out there genuinely thinking about the books they read. Of all the people who have reviewed my books, these are the ones I would love to sit down and have coffee with. I’d love to dig more into what they’re thinking, learn what their expectations were and what books they like. It wouldn’t change the way I write, but I’m always interested to know what demographic my stories are going to appeal to.
So what about you? Writers, have you received any 3-star reviews that left you scratching your head? Readers, have you ever left a 3-star review?