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3 Stars Is the New 5 stars

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

Okay, I apologize for that clickbaity title. Of course 3 stars hasn't transposed 5. But I do want to talk about the 3-Star Review and why I generally like them.

This started last week when I received a couple of 3-star reviews for my new novel, Ghostland. Both were great reviews. (Just so I'm not mistaken, I appreciate all of my reviews and the readers who provide them, whether they liked the book or didn't think much of it.) The first of these reviews was critical and made several excellent points, but the reader still enjoyed the book and was looking forward to more. The second stated the rating was actually a 3.5 - but neither Goodreads nor Amazon allow decimals in their ratings. (More on that later.)

I run in several different circles within the horror community. Since I'm a writer I know a lot of other writers. For the same reason, I know and speak with a lot of readers. And - you get the picture - I happen to know a lot of bloggers/reviewers. I speak to a lot of people who read and review, is what I'm saying. And in speaking with them I noticed something.

Not everyone has the same opinion about 3-star reviews.

Some people think they're a "critical" review, as Amazon states. Others believe they mean "I like it," as it says on the Goodreads breakdown. Technically speaking, 3/5 is 60%. In most people's estimation, that's pretty good. Not wow, maybe - but serviceable. Whatever the product, it did the job and maybe a little bit more.

Being curious, I decided to do a poll. I'm a member of several large horror-related groups on Facebook. One of my favorites is Books of Horror. It's a great place for horror fans to talk about all things horror (mostly books, hence the name) and to find new reads. And I learned a lot about what people from all sides of the horror genre feel about 3-star reviews (from now on I'll refer to them as 3SRs because I'm sick of typing the whole damn phrase), which I think is likely applicable to other genres as well.

Poll results.

Overall 148 people voted for 3 stars being a good review. 117 said 3 stars is neutral. 17 said they enjoy biscuits with gravy (like Karl from Sling Blade, I prefer mine with mustard, mm-hmm). 6 said neither good nor bad. Not a lot voted singularly for bad, but there were more people in the comments who believed 3SRs were critical and/or negative.

Most people agreed that a 3SR meant the reader liked the book but it wasn't stellar. Something might have been lacking, or the reader may have been expecting a different book entirely than what they got. There seemed to be a general consensus that if a book is 3 stars across the boards it is likely mediocre.

Some suggested that 3SRs are more trustworthy than 1s or 5s because the ratings on either end of the spectrum tend to be from the gut rather than deeply considered. I don't know if this is true, but I believe it deserves consideration. Most people said they only give 5-star reviews to books that really wowed them. And they'd only give 1-star reviews to books they wouldn't even leave in their wills to their most despised relatives.

Later I got to talking with a writer friend about 3SRs. He pointed out that Amazon counts 3SRs as "critical reviews." They have a section which lists 3SRs among "Top Critical Reviews." Now my first thought was that this is harmful. Why does Amazon feel 3SRs are critical, ie. negative? To me, a 3SR with a written review is gold. Goodreads agrees - over there, according to their ratings system, it means "I like it." But Amazon thinks 3 is just "okay."

When Amazon took over Goodreads, I worried they would scrap their Goodreads ratings system to be more streamlined and match what they use for Amazon. Because when you're reviewing things like Huggies and Nicolas Cage throw pillows, you're more likely to say "it's okay" than rave about them. Unless you're a really big fan of Raising Arizona.

So in a sense, if a Goodreads reader uses the GR system for an Amazon review, potential readers could feasibly misconstrue their "I liked it" review as a "meh, it was okay." In that sense, I can see where some people - writers and publishers in particular, I suppose - could feel like 3SRs would "drag down a book" and hurt its "visibility." This is a notion I very much disagree with, just so you know. In my mind, the 3 stars, even the 2s and 1s, they're what give your 4- and 5-star reviews more credibility.

But I've come to realize there's an even better reason for writers and publishers to appreciate 3-star reviews.

When Amazon counts 3SRs as critical, it means if your "most helpful"

3SR is more "helpful" to customers than your 2s and 1s,

this is what will show first under "Top Criticial Reviews."

In this way, it's kind of a loophole to having more positive comments show up where more critical (and potentially nasty) reviews would normally be seen. It's like a "complisult."

So what do you think? Are 3-star reviews good, bad or neutral? If you're a writer or publisher, do you find them helpful? And if you're a reader/reviewer, do you believe they are beneficial or harmful? Let me know in the comments.

(And speaking of Goodreads, there's an excellent horror group on there called Horror Afficionados. They're featuring my latest novel as a Group Read for December. If you love discussing horror as much as I do, consider joining. I'll be popping in an out of the Group Read throughout the month to answer questions about the book and just about anything else.)

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Usually, if I get a 3-star review, the reader has mostly positive things to say about the book, so I see it as a decent rating. Having said that, I'm grateful whenever anyone takes the time to read and review my work, even if they didn't enjoy it.


I really enjoyed your post, and I can't wait to check out Ghostland!

Mar 08, 2021
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Thanks for reading! Hope you enjoy Ghostland if you pick it up!



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