What The Hell Do Star Ratings For Books Mean, Anyway?

mans sitting on top bookcase photoMy post on the general uselessness of 5 star reviews generated a lot of interesting discussion, not least because of how passionately some people – both authors and reviewers – defended their 5 star reviews, and how violently other people – including me – dismissed them.

But it does raise an extremely interesting point: what does a 5 star review mean to you, anyway? Or 4 stars, 3 or 2? I think everyone could agree that a 1 star review is never good. But my 4 star review of your book might mean that I absolutely loved it. For someone else, it is the opining equivalent of “meh”.

Amazon and GoodReads don’t give any clear or immediately visible guidance on what their star ratings are supposed to mean. This is a problem, because interpretations are wildly different.

This reviewer, for example, makes it clear on his site, at least, that 4 stars means “I loved it” whereas 5 stars means “I couldn’t put it down”. There is a difference. 

My scale would be roughly the same. For me, 4 stars means that I think you wrote a very excellent book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and if you were standing beside me right now, I would shake your hand, pat your back, and buy you a cup of tea. Unless you didn’t like tea, in which case, I might buy you an ice-cream, or a bus ticket. Or perhaps… I might even buy myself another one of your books.

5 stars, however, means that you brought me to another country entirely, depositing every single one of my brain cells and all synaptic derring-do into your story, and making me forget all my troubles and most of everybody else’s. You eventually made me feel very sad indeed that I had to come out of it at all, let alone at the end, when I felt utterly devastated and bereft, because I was never going to be able to read your story for the first time ever again.

3 StarsThere are too many authors who think that anything less than a 5 star review is a failure, and too many reviewers who think that if they finished a book and enjoyed it for the most part, they’ll chuck 5 stars at it before moving on to the next thing and never ever thinking about it again.

But whilst I’m not suggesting we can standardise an emotional response to a book, shouldn’t there be clearer meanings attached to the lazy assignment of stars?

What about you? What do star ratings mean to you? How would you define your scale?

  11 comments for “What The Hell Do Star Ratings For Books Mean, Anyway?

  1. scarlettparrish
    October 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    Something I’ve found in erotic romance epublishing is that 5-star reviews are as common as muck. Hell, even I’ve had them! There’s a culture of “Be nice,” though, and if you give someone less than 4 stars, you’re Nasty McNasterson and in epublishing we all have to be nice to each other. I don’t trust reviewers who hand out 5 stars like they’re sweets on Halloween. Even the ones who look favourably upon my books. I wonder “Are you saying this because I’m the bastard lovechild of Ian McEwan and Kazuo Ishiguro, or because you’re too scared to admit there are books out there you don’t like?”

    For me, 5 stars mean the book blew my socks off. A braingasm in book form. Hardly ever happens. I read upwards of 150 books a year and my ‘favourite books’ list which covers my entire LIFE has less than 40 books on it. None of them erotic romance, by the way. I’d be very surprised if I read something in that genre that made me love it like WHOA. Publication schedules are fast, turnover is fast, authors need to keep producing at a rate of knots and I’ve yet to trip over a book in my own genre that was unforgettable.

    4 stars means it was good, but didn’t quite make it. 3 stars? Okay, but it had problems. 2 stars means the book had a hell of a lot of problems but hey, at least I finished it. 1 star means the book was bloody awful and if it came in print form, I likely used it for toilet paper after finishing it. Lower than that is a DNF rating, which stands for “did not finish”.


    • October 30, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      One thing I’ve noticed – and I can’t say I don’t empathise – is the fear a lot of authors have that if they leave a less-than-stellar review, it’ll come back and bite them on the arse. Whether it’s a belief in karma or not, nobody wants to tempt fate. Although the only karma-relevant thing which should happen, when you think about it, is that if your writing is poor, you get poor reviews.

      Non-author reviewers have no such excuse. 5 stars should never be awarded to anything less than the sort of book you describe – the unforgettable, unputdownable piece of never-less-than genius (in your personal opinion, obviously). Nobody wants to get to a stage where every reviewer has to explain themselves in every review, but an indication of what they mean would at least be helpful! I like your star descriptions. Maybe we should adopt them for a new GoodReads rival called “www.actualhonest(foronce)bookreviews.com”


      • scarlettparrish
        October 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

        That’s definitely the problem, the belief in karma. It’s thought that if you give a less-than-stellar review to a book, its author could end up getting a job as an editor somewhere you later submit a manuscript, and the rest you can imagine. Career suicide. It’s possible; there are many authors I know who are also editors, but they do both jobs under different names, so it’s hard to tell unless you pay attention to the erom epub grapevine.

        Now I’m of a mind to go through my 5-star book list and re-read some old favourites. There’s always so much drama in the publishing world that I think all too often, we lose sight of what it should all be about – not touting for 5-star reviews, but writing 5-star-worthy books! 🙂


        • October 30, 2013 at 3:28 pm

          I’d be interested to hear about some of the books which genuinely blew your socks off. Mind you, having said that, I’m not sure I can remember more than 5 or 6 that did it for me, myself. I’m sure they exist, but I can be a fickle person with all the loyalty of an overboiled string bean.


  2. October 30, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    HI Tara –

    Great post and a topic I’ve thought a lot about recently.

    To me. the star is less important than the number of reviews and what the reviews say in them. Since publishing my first novel, I have changed my rating system to all of nothing for first-time authors. I give them 5* or don’t give it a rating at all. Why? Anyone who has published their first book has gone through a ton of effort and deserves a pat on the back for making it through the mill. If their first book is pretty good that is just a major life accomplishment in my book (pun intended) and they deserve the credit. If the book sucks, they won’t get many readers and won’t have many reviews,

    Ironically, one my best reviews in terms of actual review quality was from a 3-star review who wrote a very detailed analysis of what was good and needed work in my novel.

    Having gone through my own reviews, my conclusion is that books are like ice cream. Some flavors speak to you and some don’t.


    • October 30, 2013 at 10:01 pm

      Why isn’t 4* enough for a book that is “pretty good”, though? Should 5* not be for particularly exceptional books only, regardless of who wrote them or how many books they have out?

      I’d be deliriously happy with 4* myself. If more people saw a four-star review as an above average achievement, which it should be, then more authors would be happy, more authors would still strive for better, and five-star reviews would be more meaningful.


  3. October 31, 2013 at 8:14 am

    Personally, as a reader, the content of the review is more important to me than the star rating. I am wary of 5-star only reviews, but would have no hesitation in considering any book with 3-stars and upwards. Lower ratings may be more problematic, I admit, but again, my decision to purchase would be made on the review content and not the actual rating as such.. I would have no problem awarding 5 stars for a truly deserving book, but if I do award the highest accolade, I feel I should be able to say why, rather than just filing a ‘this is a great book and I really enjoyed it’ sort of review. If a reviewer explains in their review where their star level is at, then it makes the rating more user-friendly, I think.


    • October 31, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      Yip, couldn’t agree more. If they can’t say why they like or dislike something, they’re not worth even the time we must take to dismiss them.


  4. October 31, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Then there is the question of paid reviews. Do these skew star ratings? I imagine if people pay for reviews they do so in expectation of receiving five stars. Perhaps not — I was not even aware paid reviews existed until recently. If we want more detailed reviews that indicate why the reader rates a work highly, then perhaps reviews that are paid for should indicate this. I suspect this might be controversial.


    • October 31, 2013 at 4:35 pm

      Shouldn’t reviewers be 100% impartial whether they’re paid or not? If a reviewer gives a higher rating for a paid review, then they’re as trustworthy as my left knee is for predicting rain and not worth the brown envelope, let alone the cash.

      By all means paid reviews could be flagged, but only if we’re admitting we believe none of them to be honest. The only alternative is for reviews to be paid for by the review site rather than the author or publisher – but this is hardly practical, considering massively tangled relationships and Amazon’s power as a publisher itself.

      The only even partial solution I can see is to insist that reviews must be detailed in order to be taken seriously. I can happily disagree or agree with a reviewer if they give their reasons for liking or disliking something. If they’re merely chucking 5 or even 4 stars at it and saying “I liked this book LOL” then they should be given about as much credence as a 4-year old telling you that broccoli is yucky.


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