are five star book reviews bad for sales

Are 5-Star Book Reviews Bad for Sales?

5-star book reviews have become a bane.

They are everywhere you look. And it’s understandable—in this age of indie- and self-publishing and platform-building, what better way of garnering attention (and hopefully sales) than the come-hither testament of a glowing 5-star review?  Everyone and his uncle seem to have written the next Great American Novel. Perhaps you’ve been asked by a friend to review her book. Perhaps you’ve requested an acquaintance to review yours. And this is great—unless your book isn’t.

A 5-star review is the pinnacle–a sign of near-perfection, that gilded endorsement and validation every writer seeks. But the absolute deluge of perfect ratings suggests we have a big issue in giving honest literary feedback. See for yourself: how many 5-star reviews have you ultimately agreed with, upon reading the book for yourself? What’s more, how many reviewers put their money where their fawning mouths are and proffer specific, cogent validation of why they conferred such veneration? Not nearly enough.

5-Star Book Reviews Are Discrediting Your Book

The glut of 5-star book reviews has taken much of the luster off the once-shining achievement. You got a 5-star book review? Great! But so did Susie and Alan and every other person I see mentioned on Twitter. And it seems Susie gave Alan her 5-star review, and he tendered hers.

Let me say this: there are many amazing works out there, and some merit the lofty ratings. But even many good manuscripts do not. Many are more deserving of, say, a 4, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And yes, some are not 4s, either. Some work is not so hot, and bestowing undeserved estimation upon it is a disservice on many levels. The writer and reader forfeit credibility when others feel misled and disagree with the rating/review. Plus, the author loses a valuable opportunity to improve his product/craft.

5-Star Book Reviews Are Undermining Your Literary Community

I’ve written of the importance of building literary community, and while these relationships, when properly nurtured, can prove invaluable, there is a risk inherent in what sometimes becomes the misunderstanding of well-intended reciprocity. Genuine relationships rely upon the spirit of reciprocity, but things can careen all too easily off the tracks when various notions of quid pro quo arise. Offering to read and provide feedback of one another’s’ work is standard, one of the most essential ingredients in the recipe of mutual literary support. But what happens if your literary pal loves your manuscript, posts a 5-star review on Amazon, and now it’s your turn? You excitedly take up his novel and… thud. It’s not good. Oops.

How did you like it? he eagerly inquires. It is easy for me to say hey, just be honest, every writer wants your honest response, but the fact is writers are people too (a revelation, I know), and we people often get caught up in these pesky things called feelings. And they can get messy. It’s far easier, it turns out, to help our characters cope with theirs than it is to readily navigate our own. Studies confirm that negative feedback impacts folks exponentially more than positive, so it is no wonder we often tread cautiously, and sometimes disingenuously. That is most unfortunate, and we all too often end up trading in the currency of frivolous  accolades, when all the while it is the invaluable bartering of genuine, honest feedback with which we ought ply our trade.

What’s the Solution?

Embrace honesty. Asking friends for reviews is fine, but ask the ones you know will be brutally honest. If she is a good friend, then the relationship will be strengthened, not damaged, by her candid feedback, since it is intended to help you. Give honest feedback if you have agreed to do a review (again, whether before or after publication—if after, and you don’t care for the book, you’ll obviously want to tactfully but honestly explain that to the author privately, rather than eviscerating them publicly or being dishonest in your review). Point out what you liked, with examples, and what you didn’t, with examples and possible suggestions.

What’s the Result of Honest Feedback?

When honest feedback is sought, provided, and accepted, both the writer and the product improve. The reader has done a service, and the larger audience of potential readers will benefit from honest reviews and ultimately a better read. Even better, the eventual earning of a 5-star review—or a 4-star, again, nothing to sneeze at–will mean that much more for everyone, and help the author reach greater success.

Join the honesty revolution! Truth is couth. Give and demand candid feedback, and talk openly with your friends and kindred writerly spirits about the importance of doing so. The literary gods shall smile upon you.

Tell me your opinion? Have you faced the 5-star conundrum? How did you handle it?

are five star book reviews bad for sales

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About Daryl Rothman | @daryl_dcrdrr

Daryl Rothman is a father, author, early childhood leader and public speaker. His website features his blog, publications, interviews, and writing. He has guest blogged for K.M. Weiland, C.S. Lakin, Gilda Evans, Joanna Penn, Maggie James, Carol Tice, and Firepole Marketing and published short fiction. Daryl is on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+ . Daryl is not sure why he is speaking of himself in 3rd-person—like George, he likes his chicken spicy.

Comments

  1. A very real issue, Daryl. You ask “What’s the Solution?” but I don’t find your answer very helpful. I’d like to be able to find out if a book is truly worth buying/reading. Amazon and Goodreads etc. ratings are of no use in that respect, since they are obviously strongly influenced by peer pressure, as you suggest.
    Does an honest rating platform exist at all? How could one be created/managed?

  2. Thanks Viktor I appreciate your perspective. I sometimes look at sales, talk to friends/writers/readers whose opinions I trust–sometimes literary journals/mags will have reviews–and of course some of the newspapers. I look for reviews which are good but give concrete, believable examples of why the book is good and I’m more prone to take a chance on a 4-rated book which is described as imperfect but has some specific exs of really positive traits, than I am to roll the dice on a 5-Star which seems to be only described in more ethereal descriptors and hyperbole.

    But what I am saying about honesty is important, I think, and applies across the board. I believe–and feel free to disagree–that this isn’t a case where Amazon and Goodreads are simply overrun with liars–not at all. I believe our tendency to embellish–for the reasons I detailed–is a pretty universal tendency and I am not so sure there is a magical forum where the honest people go. My exhortation toward honesty and objectivity is intended toward every forum and every reviewer and every one of us. I think that paradigm shift and commitment to honest reviews has to occur and that is an essential ingredient to the “honest rating platform” whose creation you seek. Every rater and rating system is vulnerable to the tendencies to overrate, I think–and so yes, I am of the mind this shift must be achieved. I would concur it won’t be easy–but I’m game if you are. :)

    Thanks again and best wishes!

  3. I do understand the mentality, I really do. It’s the idea that this new publishing environment needs to be encouraged while the self-publishing sector gains legitimacy. I agree with this to a point. However, it’s so easy to publish that we are getting flooded with 90 day novels, and their quality shows it. I avoid saying they are bad. I just say they are premature… I’ve contemplated creating a blog that analyzes the first 5 pages of self-published books just to give people a head’s up. I may still do it, but I’m not sure if I want to inflict that on myself. But there is a very real difference for the most part between traditional and self-published works. Mostly it has to do with quality.

  4. Thanks Steve some excellent points and if be interested to hear if you indeed end up doing that on your blog…best wishes!

    • You’re welcome, Daryl… Another important thing to do is read through the full review rather than just skim it. For me, misspelled words are an indication that the reviewer might not be the best judge of quality writing. Just sayin’. ;-) 3′s seem to be the most honest reviews. But isn’t context important? If I’m reviewing a zombie novel (which I wouldn’t, because zombies and clowns freak me out!), I wouldn’t compare it to The Fault in Our Stars or even Zone One. Context is important when it comes to book evals.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Daryl!

  6. Thank you for having me again–it’s always an honor & a privilege!

  7. I would also say, don’t complain on your podcast about someone not giving a give star review.

    This happened to me recently, I listen to an authors podcast, when he released a new book I read it and gave an honest review. The very next podcast he called my review out complaining that I gave it 4 out of 5 stars. You would have thought I committed the cardinal sin because the review didn’t say the book was perfect.

    • Oh, that’s awful! Probably put you off wanting to read anything else by this author, whose work it sounds like you otherwise enjoyed.

  8. thomas h cullen says:

    A perfectly legitimate article – I empathise however with both sides.

    I myself, have of late been encouraging people online and local to me to read The Representative – the text that I’ve recently self-published. However:

    With me, the end result isn’t garnering sales on the back of The Representative – it’s just making people aware of it. (Such is the treatment it deserves.)

  9. I know a couple of independent authors. Based on what they say, especially on Amazon, it seems like the ratings can make a major difference to how much they show up and where they show up based on Amazon’s alogrithms. As a purchaser I would be happy to look at a book that somebody else gave a 3 or 4. But, it sounds like the difference between say a 4.1 and a 4.6 is significant. I now hesitate to give an indie book I like 3 or 4 stars there just because if the book average is higher than that it may hurt them in search.

  10. It is very easy to find out if a book is worthy of the 5 or 4 star ratings. Simply look at the quantity of the ratings and comments in relationship to the authors other works and other books in the same genre. This weeds out bad purchases and focuses on books that attracted a large amount of people to comment/rate the book. I find it hard to believe I will not like a book that received 20,000 comments and is rated at 4 stars in my favorite genre. There is no way a book would garnish that many comments or ratings unless it had something worth looking into.

  11. Thank you for these words of encouragement. I work as a reviewer for The Christian Manifesto, and am known for being “hard” on books. I’ve given very few 5 star reviews because 1.) a five star book in my opinion has to linger with me for one positive reason or another and 2.) the only place a writer can go when I give their work 5 stars, is down. Yes, technically they could stay at the 5 star level with their books but it’s highly unlikely that they will. Starting with a lower score for their first attempt means that they have room to grow.

    But there is pressure, mainly from readers who like certain writers, to inflate the score. I’m told “you’re mean” or “you’re jealous because you aren’t published” or “those who can’t write, review” and after a while I start to think, it’s just not worth the headache I get from being truthful in my reviews. So thank you for the encouragement. Now, back into the trenches.

  12. As a reader, I don’t even read 5-star reviews. I always head straight for the 3-stars (and sometimes 2-stars), for I find people who leave those are more likely to explain in specifics what they liked and disliked, from which I can base my decision of whether or not to read the book on whether I like or dislike the same things.

  13. Thank you so much for addressing this issue! Five stars are given out so often for the most mediocre if not stupid things. It’s often easy to tell that people who give them really like something but don’t understand quality or just don’t want to admit there is flaws (assuming it’s not a self published author writing the review to sell it). I feel like the reasons I’ve mentioned and the ones you have mentioned are the reason five stars doesn’t mean much anymore and why it may never again if people keep overusing it.

  14. Great topic!

    I’ve gotten all ranges of reviews for my books and welcome them all. Some are just personal opinions with no real feedback, while others are very constructive. People (writers and reviewers) can be unnecessarily nasty about the whole process which is a shame as their negative responses take away from the whole point of reviews, which to me is creating a relationship between author and reader.

    In my opinion, bias reviews will always be around. Personally, I use the ‘look inside’ option and read the book to see if I like the story or the author’s writing style when making the decision to buy.

  15. Wendy Jones says:

    I agree that we need to be honest and honest reviews help the reader to make an informed decision. However, what is one mans meat is another man’s poison. I may love a book and other people think it is awful. I have given 3 star reviews to Booker Prize winners. I tend to look inside rather than rely on the star ratings.

  16. thanks all for such great feedback…lots of prescient thoughts shared, thank you…I think yes, biased reviews will always exist and some of it is unavoidable given human nature and perhaps nature of the industry but it’s because of that, not in spite of it, that I maintain we need to remain mindful of such vulnerability, its consequences, and in this cognizance do what we can to combat it.

    It is indeed unfortunate when people get nasty. Remember–I am encouraging honesty–not brutality. I am no more recommending nastiness than I am undeserved kudos. We should seek to give and receive honest feedback and always, always comport ourselves with decency and professionalism. Thanks again and good luck to all!

  17. Thank you Daryl, excellent post. I agree this is a difficult problem. It’s definitely awkward when you don’t feel able to give 5 stars to a fellow indie author, especially if they say they’ve given you a glowing review. I’d prefer to write reviews without having to give a star rating as well.
    Not sure what the solution is. As a reader, I try and identify reviewers whose views I trust. As a reviewer, I try and be sensitive to the author’s feelings as well as honest about my response to the book. As an author, I’m tentative about asking for reviews, and avoid reading them. This is good for my sanity, but not for book sales!

  18. Wendy I surely agree–I wrote this, however, in reaction to what statistically appears to me to be a fairly undeniable trend and glut of 5-Stars. I think this surge is occurring in tandem with the number of people on so many different social media venues, along with that whole frantic mindset we fall into about ratings and likes and pageviews and followers and comments etc…Funny thing, in fact: after a recent guest post I had on another terrific site, the author(site’s owner) contacted me and said she was going to limit the number of my responses to the comments, or else it may appear I am “comment-padding.” Huh? I thought it was courtesy to respond to folks but she was dead serious. Evidently people obsess over such things and at end of the day I agree with much of what has been said in these comments…look inside if you can, decide for yourself, and for the reasons I cited and you guys have cited, keep ratings/stars in proper perspective.

  19. I agree with you wholeheartedly. In fact, I’ll go a step further. I don’t put much stock into reviews done by the average reader. As an average reader myself, I can’t distinguish, for instance, the best verb to use, just a better one. My review of a book/story is going to be subjective only. It would be my personal bias opinion. With someone like a professional editor, that person has a better chance of being objective when reviewing.

    When and if I get this 1st writing project finished and hopefully published, I want someone with some education in the craft of writing to review my work. Kudos from friends and family are nice, no doubt about it, but if I want to improve, I need that knowledgeable opinion.

  20. I really enjoyed your article, Daryl. This is a problem I’ve observed for some time, and I rarely even read the five star reviews any more. I go straight to the 2-4 star reviews to try to get an honest and objective opinion.

    When giving a review, I prefer to choose books that I can offer 3-5 stars on; but the five star books are rare. :) And even then, it always comes with suggestions for improvement.

    This is a huge problem, and sad that people don’t read books more objectively. We need readers with discerning mindsets to help authors write better books.

    Thanks again!

    ~Schuyler

  21. I try not to take too much heed of ratings before reading a book, I don’t like going in with any preconceptions, but when shopping online for ebooks etc all it usually takes is a glance at the comments to see whether it actually is five star by whether it is outweighed by negative reviews.

  22. it’s tricksy, though, because an ACTUAL/HONEST 5 star review by one person won’t necessarily be a 5 star read for another, so while we could be thinking THEY LIED – IT’S NOT THAT GOOD they could have honestly meant it.

    I’ve given a 5 star review to a book, despite not thinking it was PERFECT, but i DID think it was well written, and it entertained me, and kept me engaged, and that’s all we’re really looking for, i think?

    I’m currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and while the ACTUAL WRITING should probably be a 5 star, the book isn’t engaging me or forcing me to keep reading because the characters are SO interesting i can’t stop, so i won’t give it a 5.

    like i say – tricksy. imho. but interesting.

    8^>

  23. My wife’s a novelist and I know she pretty much agrees with you on this. In fact she recently posted an article very much related to yours.

    The direct link to the article if you care to read it.
    http://www.writingwinters.com/friday-roundup-unicorn-farts-glitter-rainbows-and-car-accidents/

  24. Very appreciative of all the comments and perspectives…some very impassioned and insightful viewpoints. I really concur with the notion that reviews can be so tricky and elusive and subjective and that digging in and finding what speaks to you is so important.

    Thanks!

  25. Darryl, thanks for this honest and frank look at the ratings of book reviews. For a year plus, I hosted a book review blog. What made me give it up? The inconsistency of ratings among other reviewers, on Amazon and Goodreads, and many other venues. I determined not to use a star rating on my blog and just post my honest review and recommendations to readers. I hesitate and frankly won’t give a 5-star review unless the book is so well written and engaging that I can’t put it down. I have on occasion contacted an author or publisher to advise that I can’t review a book because I am not enjoying it and the review I am likely to give will be a “2-star or less.” I think it only fair that I not slam an author/book unless they are aware that I will. Usually the book was returned and the review cancelled. I cannot rate dishonestly. Finally, I became so disillusioned with the whole process, I shut down my blog and stopped reviewing other than memoir and memoir-related books on my writing blog and faith-related books on my spiritual blog.

    This blog post is the kind of post that needs to be circulated far and wide so that reviewers of all ilk might read it and take heed that the reviewing process is becoming more harmful than helpful to the authors and their books. I will be sharing it as many places as possible.

  26. Thanks Sherrey, I much appreciate your commitment to honest and helpful reviews, and I also appreciate your intent to circulate the article because I think it is a frank discussion we all need to have. Thanks for all you do for the literary community.

  27. I skim 5-star reviews. I’ve found that relying on 4 or 5 star reviews has led to disappointment sometimes. I usually go for the 1-3 star reviews. Seeing what people hated about a book helps me make my mind up better than just reading the positive reviews. You just need the balance between good and bad.

  28. Oh, I so agree with this.

    In fact, my first book just started garnering three star reviews, and I was really quite glad for it because I feel like the most honest reviews are three stars. Not to say that I want to be down voted, or that low ranking books are things I’ll buy, but that the range of opinions can help with credibility.

    Besides that, Amazon has deleted 8 of my 5 star reviews anyway.

  29. I get what you’re saying, and I think it is a problem. I think the biggest issue is at the heart of Amazon’s rating system. As I understand it, anything below a 4 star means “not recommended” or “do not buy”. This seems a bit lopsided. I just can’t bring myself to give a ‘do not buy’ feedback on a book, unless it really is irredeemable. Knowing the hard work that has gone into making a book, I can’t bring myself to do such a dis-service to an author as to say “this book is completely worthless and nobody should ever read it”. That’s essentially what I’d be saying if I gave a 3-star review. This then reduces the sample space to only two scores – 4 or 5.

    I actually dislike the whole idea of having to reduce my thoughts on a book to a numerical value. I prefer to just outline in words what I think of a book – praise its good points and discuss what aspects I thought could have been stronger. The other problem with star ratings is that they mean different things to different reviewers, so even if Amazon redefined their system, people will just do whatever they think.

    • I hear you Adam, but unfortunately star ratings are quick and easy marketing wise, but as you say this phenomenon makes things more confusing than things should be. Although numerical value is silly to an extent the main issue is that some people write brief and rushed paragraph about why they rated it the way they did. No matter what ratings mean to each person, they are more reliable to the customer if there number is supported. The combined factor is what makes a review honest convincing and clear. I also think there are more reliable systems in general such as 1-10. People can still abuse that and have different opinions on what constitutes, but at least it gives more variety while still being quick and easy for customers.

  30. Personally, I don’t bother to review a book unless I loved it, so I only do 5* reviews. As a reader, I don’t utilize reviews to make my decision at all – no two people read the same book. What I love someone else will despise, and vice versa. It’s a fact of life – just look at the 1* reviews on even the most popular and well-lauded books. Instead I use the method I’ve always used – the cover gets me to read the blurb, the blurb entices me to sample the writing and then I either buy or not. It’s the same method of chosing a book I’ve used for almost half a century. The problem is that somewhere along the way, other people’s opinions started being looked at as something we need to base our own choices on. It’s silly and it needs to stop. Make up your own mind, reviews are for authors, not readers as one size never fits all.

Trackbacks

  1. […] has been told. And the more that authors jockey to get fans to leave four and five-star reviews,  the less authority those reviews are going to have. Just like printing more paper money in a bad economy eventually is going to make the paper money […]

  2. […] Rothman presents Are 5-Star Book Reviews Bad for Sales? posted at Helping Writers Become Authors, saying, “thanks for your consideration–this […]

  3. […] Daryl Rothman wrote a guest post, Are 5-Star Book Reviews Bad For Sales? earlier this summer at the site of author and editor K.M. Weiland. His points bear serious […]

  4. […] Daryl Rothman wrote a guest post, Are 5-Star Book Reviews Bad For Sales? earlier this summer at the site of author and editor K.M. Weiland. His points bear serious […]

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