The Uncertainty of the Three Star Review: A Thought Piece

Bookish Discussion

Hey everyone!

I haven’t really done a proper thought piece in a while but myself and my friend were chatting about three star reviews a little while ago which inspired me to set up a poll over on my Twitter account asking my fellow book blogers and readers their feelings about what is meant by a three star rating.

I posed the simple question:

When using a five star rating system do you think a 3 star rating for a book is positive or negative?

From a pool of 1,211 votes the results were 87% of readers and reviewers viewing a three star rating in a positive light as opposed to 13% against.

I purposefully did not ask the question if they felt it was a neutral rating because I wanted that gut instinct that people get when an answer has to be an absolute.

My Personal Opinion When I Rate a Book Three Stars

Three star reviews (out of a five star rating system) are always tricky to write because to me they are a positive recommendation of the book.

Reasons for a book getting three stars from me will include one or two of the following:

  • too many stereotyped characters
  • a bland ending that fell too safely into the realm of well-worn tropes
  • writing that was a little perfunctory rather than lyrical
  • overtly obvious attempts to create a plot twist that never surprises
  • an initial book in a series that serves only as a means to sell the subsequent book instead of truly focusing on having its own solid storyline. Note this does not mean cliffhanger endings.

One or two of these issues together is really not that damning and thusly means that I will very much have enjoyed the book.

It also implies that sometimes I am simply not the right reader for this book.

Take for example my issue with books in a series not having a story that I believe is strong enough for that book. This comes from my personal dislike of series books, it is an established fact that my preference as a reader is for standalones whereas I know many other bloggers and readers that love reading series books.

Similar can be said for my love of lyrical prose. What to me is beautiful and poetic is overly verbose purple prose to another.

And therefore, a review and rating of three stars from me can mean that I will direct this book into the hands of the right reader.

Interpreting the Results

I must admit I was surprised to see such a heavy bias for three star ratings being viewed in a positive light because the idea is out there that three star ratings are not that favorable. I had thought that my view of three stars being positive would be in the minority as, for instance, I believe the majority of blog tours would not include a three star post in their tour. The defacto system would instead request that a reviewer who rates a book three stars should either step back from the tour altogether (holding off their review until after the tour has completed), or shine a spotlight on the book in a different manner e.g. author interview, book excerpt etc.

So these results do beg the question that maybe authors, publishers and blog tour operators should feel more positive about a three star rating. I had a number of authors respond to my poll who said they were heartened by all the discussion as they now appreciated that the vast majority of readers and reviewers from my sample pool declared that a three star review was not a damning indictment of a book.

Further Breakdown and Feedback from My Twitter Poll Voters

So many of the people who voted in my Twitter poll were really kind enough to engage further in discussion with me and elaborated on their standpoint. One of the questions I posed to these people was would they read another book by an author that they had rated threes stars to previously, and I also asked if a three star rating from another reader/reviewer would put them off reading that book or any book by that three starred author.

From the three stars is negative camp there were people that told me that they used ratings along the following lines:

  • 3.5 was one person’s lowest rating for a book they would finish, if they were not enjoying the book to that rating they would simply DNF.
  • For me personally, a 3 star is negative. If as many people hated your book as liked it, that’s a negative in my opinion. Ratings are often times skewed and misleading though. Many people throw out 5s and 1s unjustly so everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.
  • 1 – hated it 2 – really didn’t like it 3 – didn’t like it 4 – liked it 5 – loved it; 60% on a test is negative. So is a 3 star rating.
  • As an author I see 3 stars as negative. Basically the reader wasn’t that bothered about it.

A lot of people also replied to me and said that their choice for saying that three stars was positive was a very lukewarm sort of positive. For example:

  • I won’t review anything under 3 stars because if it’s less, I DNF. I would say it’s positive, not great obviously, but enjoyable enough that I finished it. I’ve rated some 3 stars and gone on to read others by the same author.
  • It was okay, I liked it a little
  • 3 is pretty much the lowest rating I’ll to a book I finished. 1 and 2 star books are usually DNF for me. So basically, a 3 star means I tolerated it enough to finish it, but not necessarily a book of recommend.
  • Covers a wide range, from the ‘not bad and I’d like to accentuate the positive’ to the ‘not very good but I don’t want to go as low as 2
  • It really is true neutral. When I give 3 stars, it means it’s a book that was fine to read, and a relatively enjoyable experience, but not one I’d necessarily recommend as it wasn’t the best read possible but certainly is not negative, so I voted positive.
  • To me, three stars is “it was okay”. Two stars is “yikes but had potential”. One star is “get this away from me.
  • A three star review from someone else wouldn’t put me off reading the book and if I give a book three stars it probably wouldn’t stop me reading other books by the same author.
  • For me, a 3 is low balling it… I tolerated the book just to say I finished basically. Anything below that, I really didn’t like it. I would never “not” recommend an author to anyone… what floats my boat may make the next boat sink, or vice versa. As far as reading more from that author, I’d be reluctant, but I won’t ban them from my bookshelf unless I read something else that I hated.
  • 3 to me is an okay; more positive than negative, but has room for improvement.
  • Personally I think I may be neutral but if I see 3 star reviews that others have done that doesn’t automatically put me off a book. Overall I feel 3 is positive rather than negative. Definitely something that divides opinions though
  • Overall, 3 stars is generally neutral/positive to me. Usually it means that it wasn’t my cup of tea personally, but I can understand why other people might enjoy it, and I’ll still recommend it based on that
  • It is average for me. Just okay. Just because I give an author a 3 star doesn’t mean I will never read them again. Every author has an off day or a book that doesn’t resonate with the public. Plus, I just love to read. No need in banishing those books to the slush pile.
  • 3 stars, for me, is kind of a nothing rating. it wasn’t bad enough for a lower rating and there was nothing stellar to give it a higher rating. generally though, i would consider a 3 to be on the positive end of my disappointment spectrum
  • It can be either. It’s where I find a lot of constructive criticism. And not just in reviews for my books either, lol. Before I became an author, I was a blogger, and a 3* for me was where I saw a book had faults but was worth continuing the series to see if it got stronger.

But the majority of people who said they voted that 3 stars was positive came back and told me things like this:

  • I think 3 stars is/can be positive it doesn’t have to always make you feel like you have been taken out of this world… if it made you smile for a bit then that’s great.
  • Definitely positive. I rate books 3 stars if I like them and will recommend them to the right people. It mostly depends on whether or not I was emotionally moved.
  • I think it’s positive! I usually rate a book 3 stars when I enjoy it, but there isn’t anything about the book that stands out to me
  • Positive! 3 stars means I really enjoyed it, but that just something didn’t work for me – it might I found the world building to not quite have enough depth, or I didn’t vibe with some of the characters, but I would still recommend it!
  • Positive. 2.5 stars is neutral, and anything below that is negative.
  • 3 stars for me means I liked it. It didn’t blow me away but there were elements done well and I’d be interested in seeing the author improve.
  • Positive. 3 stars for me means that I still really liked it but there were some flaws I couldn’t get past but would absolutely read something else by this author.
  • I consider 3 stars to be positive. It can be an enjoyable book that wasn’t groundbreaking or not quite to my individual tastes but I know others would enjoy it.
  • I think it’s positive. It can mean that the book was good, enjoyable but not mind-blowing
  • If I see someone rate I book I rated at 5 stars with only 3 stars, I get a little offended, lol. But if I am rating the book, 3 stars is ok. It means I liked it but wasn’t wowed or it wasn’t my personal taste. I think I would be willing to give the author another go if the book intrigued me
  • I rarely give 5 stars, so a 3 is positive. 5 = amazing & I must tell everyone about it at every chance, 4 = I really liked it & it stood out above others of the same genre, 3 = I liked it & most likely would read more by the same author, 2 = it was okay
  • I see 3 stars positively. First, it tells me that the reviewer thought it was worthwhile to finish reading. It’s like a steak lover savoring a good hamburger – sure, the meat has less quality, but sometimes it fits my mood better to just chill out and relax.
  • For me 3 is good, 4 is great and 5 is excellent. Majority of my reviews are 3. Even if I would maybe rate it halfway to a great, I’d put 3.
  • 3 stars for me is “I didn’t love it, but I definitely didn’t regret using my time to read it”. I would definitely read another by the author though. I have found 5 star books and 1 star books by the same author, so I would typically read another book by them
  • 3 is positive for me and means I enjoyed the book enough that I would recommend it to friends and would read the author’s work again. For me, books get 4/5 stars when I get completely invested in the story/emotional and there’s memorable characters/worlds
  • 3 is above half so I think it’s a positive thing. For me it means I enjoyed it but there were may a few things that gave me pause.
  • Positive. In my experience, the real kiss of death is two stars.
  • I believe 3 is a positive for me because I only ever rate a book 3 if I liked it. Else it’d be a 2 or lower.
  • I’d say positive. For me it’s a it didn’t wow me or have me completely hooked but there were some aspects that I liked and enjoyed.
  • 3/5 is more than 50% which means I liked more than I disliked.
  • A critical but fair three star review can tell you far more about your book than twenty ‘Great book, loved it’ 5 star reviews. It means the reviewer liked what they read, but cared enough about it to seek to correct the flaws. Cherish them.

The Final Debate

So from this poll of my twitter followers who are mostly book twitter people it seems that we need to rethink the negative view of the three star review.

And perhaps we should start to appreciate the fact that the reader/reviewer for the most part views the novel as an enjoyable reading experience that is recommendable to other readers and is also an author that they will most likely read another book by.

So dear friends I open the floor to you all for further debate and discussions.

  • Where do you stand on the interpretation of the three star rating in a five star rating system? Do you think three stars is mostly positive like 87% of my poll believes? Or do you side with the 13% who say it is negative? Or are you truly neutral? (I find this stance very difficult to reconcile with as I always think there is a little part of us that will mostly like or mostly dislike something. I guess ambivalence is not in my nature!)
  • And possibly most controversially of all, and the reason I was inspired to organise my poll and write this thought piece, is do you as a reader feel that there is a place for a three star review on a blog tour?
    • Just for a second forget the fact that between author/publisher and blog tour organiser there is a fee. This is purely a thought debate as we can all understand why people in the book business want four and five star reviews for that promotional and hype aspect. But why is the thoughtful three star review relegated to post-blog tour?
    • Why is it on NetGalley that the three star review is said to be I neither liked nor disliked this book? Is it a case of publishers/authors trying to skew our ratings to give falsely high results?? Because if we liked a book then we surely can’t rate it only three stars… can we? But do these poll results not show that we most certainly can and do rate books that we like three stars?
  • And to any of my author friends that are readers of this blog, how do you feel about getting a three star review? If you had engaged a blog tour company to promote your book what is the lowest rating you would feel comfortable with? What about reviews on Amazon or other similar retail sites from readers of ARC copies of your books? Would you like them to only leave a review above a certain rating? Do these comments that I collected from Twitter alter your viewpoint in any way? Or has it been further strengthened?

Please share any and all opinions you have as I would love to hear from all sides of the debate.

42 thoughts on “The Uncertainty of the Three Star Review: A Thought Piece

  1. This is a very late response, but I’m starting to draft my own post about my rating philosophy and found your poll to be super interesting!

    I personally fall into the “3 stars = lukewarm positive” camp. To me, a 3 star book is a good book and one I enjoyed reading, but not a standout read either. I didn’t feel strongly positive or strongly negative about a book. I’d recommend it to other people, but only if they were asking for a recommendation for a specific kind of book and only if I didn’t have any other better suggestions to offer.

    As a reader, I absolutely think there’s room for a 3 star review on a blog tour. I might actually end up enjoying the blogger more for being honest (but hopefully kind) about their perspectives. I understand that there are certain pressures reviewers face to give a 4/5 star review. But at the same time, it’s also somewhat suspect to me if every single blogger on a book tour gives a book a 5 star review.

    Unless this is a truly stand-out book, there’s a small sample size of bloggers on the tour, and those bloggers all love reading similar things, I’d expect there to be at least some disagreement about the rating. I’m actually more inclined to buy something if the reviewer notes any flaws about something! And it also reflects positively on the author/publisher for me, that they would let a reviewer give anything less than a 4 or 5.


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