The Curious Phenomenon of Three-Star Reviews


Three Stars!  Woot! © Kheng Guan Toh |

Three Stars! Woot!
© Kheng Guan Toh |

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.”

© Abdone |

© Abdone |

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?

14 thoughts on “The Curious Phenomenon of Three-Star Reviews

  1. I’ve left 3-star ratings on goodreads, but if I did’t enjoy a book enough to give it 4 stars (a book I really enjoyed) or five (will recommend to everyone I meet, and will probably re-read, an all-time favourite), I might not leave a review. What a jerk, right? I give 3 stars to books I liked, but that I thought had major flaws (grammatical issues that I found distracting, characters acting out of character, too-convenient coincidences, the writing was competent but something was missing, etc.)

    Then again, if I can’t give four or five stars, I usually don’t leave anything at all. It’s not that I feel I can’t contribute, it’s just that I know some authors get nutty about anything less than four stars (five for some!), and I don’t want that coming back at me when I’m getting reviews, myself. Reviews can be scary from both ends…

    • Yeah, I sort of feel like Goodreads reviews fall into an entirely different category than all other reviews for exactly those reasons. Goodreads is so much better at defining what each star-rating represents than any other site. And in my experience, Goodreads reviewers are more thorough and in some cases thoughtful about how they review. Ironically, that’s one of the reasons I don’t ever read my Goodreads reviews. Someone once commented that Goodreads is for readers, not authors, and I’m very much inclined to agree with that! I need to be present there, but what is said there is none of my business. 😉

  2. Hi, Merry! I had one where the reviewer seemed to really dislike the book, but gave it three stars. It was kind of nice, since her review seemed to be more of a one or two star at most.

    I’ve given three star ratings when I liked the book, but wasn’t overawed by it. I don’t consider three stars a bad rating. And four, to me, is a very good rating. I reserve five for books that I can’t put down and can’t stop thinking about after reaching the end.

    • You know what that reminds me of? My high school. I went to an all-girl’s prep school. (Family members worked for the school so I got to go for free. I was NOT one of the rich girls, let me tell you!) It was extremely competitive academically. I graduated with a 94 average in the MIDDLE of my class. There were girls in my class who would weep if they got a 95! The teachers had to remind us all over and over that C was average and B was pretty darn good. How soon we forget!

  3. Merry, I also got one 3-star review that sounded like it ought to be a 2-star. It’s balanced out by all the 4 and 5-star reviews, so it doesn’t bother me. Much. 😉

    • That’s a really good point. I feel like a lot of the time we need those 1, 2, & 3 star reviews to balance out the 4s & 5s and to provide legitimacy. I can’t take books seriously when they have only glowing reviews.

  4. I’m like Kate Sparks, if I can’t leave a four or five star review, I don’t leave anything at all. BUT what made me have a private chuckle to myself–and this is a bit snarky, forgive me–was recently a writer friend had her first book published and got a three star review. She was mystified by this, however, I’ve seen her rip apart some truly gifted authors in her reviews. In other words she gave these authors two stars or less when she thought there was tiny problems with the book. And I mean tiny, like one typo in the book would get two stars from her. Karma . . . I know I think about it. I hope others do too.

    • Ah, karma! Funny how it works. I’m with you guys. These days if I can’t leave a 4 or 5 star review, I keep my mouth shut. Actually, I have a hard time reviewing books at all these days. I just kind of feel that it’s not my place as a writer to review at all. It’s a conflict of interest. But sometimes I still do. (Not if I know the author though, and I know more and more authors!)

  5. I’ve gotten three 3-star reviews. Two say they didn’t like the start of the book, but loved it at the end and wanted to read the next one. I figured out they had both fallen in love the Marcus and didn’t understand what was holding Phoebe back. After all, it’s no big deal when a large drunk man paws an innocent 15 year old. One liked the book a lot. What fried me was the 4 star review where the reviewer didn’t believe a Regency lady would never punch a man. Tweeted.

  6. With some reviews, you just have to smile, you know? I received a 3 star on my medieval (which at the beginning of the blurb says “Medieval England. 1245. etc.” and the reviewer said she bought the book to learn more about imperial Rome and was disappointed. sigh. I agree on Goodreads – that is the readers place and I stay out of it for the most part. As an author, I do think we need to treat how we give reviews very carefully. Like most of your commenters, I only give reviews for stories I really enjoyed – when I have time to read that is! LOL. Great post, Merry! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Great post! I also don’t leave reviews for books unless I loved them/want to recommend them. One reason: I don’t finish a book if I’m not loving it. I don’t have time! Move along, next book please! Second reason: It might just be me. There are plenty of high-profile books out there that make my friends’ hearts just sing, and did absolutely nothing for me. Not every book is for every person: that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile book, so why should I drag that author’s average down?

    I do chuckle at reviews sometimes, especially the one that simply stated the reader didn’t think any Regency character would ever behave the way any of my characters did, ever. That was kind of the point of the book. 🙂 But what can you do?

    Great blog!

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