In Praise of Three Star Book Reviews

Consumers of everything from lipstick to lawn mowers are misled by inflated product ratings and reviews on ecommerce platforms. Like everyone else, readers face this challenge when they buy books. So, what to do for an honest critique? As these platforms use a 1 – 5 rating scale with 1 representing ‘awful’ and 5 representing ‘spectacular’, the following note argues that reviews associated with a 3 star (intermediate) rating are the best guide to a particular book’s qualities. For the sake of brevity, I’ll lump 1 and 2 star reviews together while grouping 4 and 5 star reviews – acknowledging that this may miss some of the finer gradations in reader opinion. 

Tainted ratings/reviews fall into several categories including outright fakes posted by individuals who never bought or read the book, but have nonetheless received a quid pro quo for a flattering rating/review. Supposedly, platforms including Amazon are working to minimize these and indeed some suspect reviews have been deleted. Amazon also now flags reviews from a ‘verified purchase’ to give some assurance that the reviewer at least bought the book being rated. Of course, there’s no guarantee that they read it and readers occasionally confess that their high ratings are based on nothing more than positive feelings toward the author.

Commendable loyalty!

Another category of, if not illicit, at least misleading rating/reviews are posted by individuals who actually read a book, but then assigned an inflated 5-star grade to unexceptional writing. In fact, it’s common to see books with 50, 75, or even 100% 5 star ratings on Amazon or Goodreads. No doubt, a few of these volumes are truly modern classics warranting high ratings and correspondingly ecstatic plaudits, but even a cursory glance at the first dozen pages (conveniently available as a free sample on Amazon) shows that much of the highly-rated work is mediocre. So it seems that grade inflation is prevalent. Typically, these ratings are accompanied by reviews replete with quotes along the lines of ‘author X is God’s gift to the literary world’, or ‘grandly entertaining while bringing otherworldly nuance to the characters’.

For heaven’s sake!

So why do ratings often skew so high? An author may encourage friends and social media followers to post rapturous reviews. However, this isn’t always boosterism by the author or publisher. Indeed, the sentiment behind elevated ratings may be entirely genuine. It’s easy to assign a rating, but writing and posting even a brief book review needs effort and therefore many times only an author’s most rabid supporters do it which explains why 4 and 5 star reviews read more like fan mail than a balanced book critique.

Conversely – though more rarely – a book may garner 1 star ratings and very poor reviews unreflective of the real quality of the book. Sometimes, these reviews are posted by rival writers (or their supporters), or they’re posted by reviewers sincerely hating on a given author. Once again, reading the first dozen pages for free gives a reader considering purchasing a book a sense of whether the negativity is justified.

There are various tactics to sort insightful reviews from fawning platitudes, but they’re beyond the scope of this brief note. So, for the busy book buyer, a simple approach is to search exclusively for 3 star reviews on either Amazon or Goodreads. Conveniently, these sites allow you to do just that with their sort functionality.

What makes reviews associated with 3 star ratings particularly helpful? In an era of much emotion and not much thoughtful insight, 3 star reviews are often what a good review should be: neither gushy nor mindlessly spiteful. Instead, they tend to be balanced and call out the good as well as the bad features of a book. The reviewers may be fans of a given author’s oeuvre, but they aren’t blind to defects in that author’s output. And they seem to be intent on actually helping other potential buyers make a good choice about whether to get the book in question. In fact, they may be a whole lot more informative than reviewers for the major literary journals without the pretensions and self-aggrandizement pervading ‘high-brow’ publications (more on the differences between Amazon/Goodreads and literary journal reviewers in a separate posting). 

In sum, focusing on 3 star reviews allows book buyers to suss out helpful ratings and reviews from the fakery and flattery.

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