Book Reviewing: Four Stars = Not Enough?

Mpepper/ September 25, 2023/ Reviews, Think Pieces

So I stumbled onto this story via social media. (I’m not someone who frequents Reddit, but that’s where this led me.) And I have to say I think ESH. But, at the same time, there is no easy or “correct” answer.

Allow me to summarize: a book reviewer (who evidently reads and reviews a lot of books and says they have many “followers” though it’s not clear where) gave a friend’s book four stars. The friend is angry. The reviewer says that they give five stars to very few books, and that the review they wrote was completely positive. They did not, in the review, explain why the book is only four stars, and the author insists anything less than five will tank their marketing abilities.

I have so many thoughts and feelings about this it’s difficult to marshal them, but I will try.

  1. No one is “owed” a review, or a specific number of stars. No, not even if you’ve been friends with the author for 30+ years. As an author and reviewer myself, I know the pain of having friends who either don’t read your work or don’t review the work even if they do read it. It really hurts. But that expectation should never be more than a HOPE that they will read and review your book. And ideally praise it.
  2. IF your friend reads your book and doesn’t actually enjoy it… Would you really want to know? That’s a personal decision, but the phrase “ignorance is bliss” exists for a reason.
  3. Reviews are for readers, not authors. I understand the desire to check your star ratings, but authors should NEVER challenge reviewers’ opinions. If a friend reviews your book and you find the review… less than supportive… obviously, that’s between you and the friend and should be handled personally. BUT, at the same time, if you want to be a professional author, accosting anyone, even a friend, over a four-star review is unprofessional behavior and a bad look.

Okay, that’s all in support of the friend/reviewer, but let’s look at the other side.

  1. While star ratings have “suggested” meanings and are largely personal from reviewer to reviewer, overall there are negative results for anyone who has fewer than 4.3 stars on Amazon and other sites. It’s not fair, but it’s true. With so many choices, buyers are less inclined to try anything that doesn’t show 4.5 yellow stars, and you only get that half star at 4.3.
  2. Coincidentally, not having those stars means reviews probably won’t even get seen/read if you don’t already have the star rating. So, no matter how glowing a review, potential readers/buyers won’t even look at a book that has fewer stars.
  3. IF you have a personal metric that means you don’t give every good book five stars, you should make that clear in your review. Otherwise, people reading the review are going to walk away wondering what was wrong with the book that caused you to deduct a star. Reviewers should be very clear, for the sake of other readers, to explain their ratings. No, they don’t have to. They have no obligations to defend their position, but it IS helpful for other readers to understand why.

Where does that leave us? Honestly, the entire reviewing system is broken because there is no standardization and the star ratings are biased against anything that isn’t either somehow perfect, universally beloved, or can get a tidal wave of supporters. While we’d like to say 3 stars is average (okay, good), 4 is better than average, and 5 is excellent, the behaviors around these ratings are very different. Readers–and therefore authors–find anything less than 4.5 stars unworthy and, by extension, inexcusable. No book is perfect, and (as mentioned in a post a few weeks ago) not every book is for every reader. Nor should it be. This means that content of reviews should matter more than star ratings, but human behavior simply does not support that. We like things that are quick and easy at a glance, and stars give us that.

What should happen, then, is a revision of how we perceive those stars and ratings. We should see 3 as “good.” But, unfortunately, we typically only want the best. That works for many consumer items, but you can’t apply the same rules to art. Still, I don’t see a shift in mindset coming any time soon.

So, should the reviewer friend have thrown the author a bone and given him five stars, even if that goes against her personal metric? Should she have at least explained in her review why she only gave it four stars? Should the author have left it alone? (Honestly, yes to that last one.) It’s a complex dynamic, and both sides could have done better. But the real culprit is a system that causes these kinds of issues to begin with.

Share this Post