Star Rating System for Books: More Complicated than you think

As readers, we rely on the five-star rating system to help decide whether to buy a book. 

As authors, we rely on the system to sell books. Good reviews help sell books, and bad reviews will kill a book. 

Obviously, the system is subjective. Books recognized to be great works of literature written by Nobel Prize or Pulitzer Prize-winning authors receive one-star reviews, while books that are poorly written and poorly edited (by and large the self-publishing world) get barrels of five-star reviews.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads are the primary places you’ll see reviews. It’s interesting, though, to see their rating systems differ. Here’s how each sees it:

        Amazon        Goodreads            B&N        

1 Star          Hate it           Did not like          Poor
2 Stars       Don’t like      It was ok              Below average
3 Stars       It’s ok            Liked it                Good
4 Stars       Like it           Really liked          Very good
5 Stars       Love it          It was amazing    Exceptional

But there’s a difference between that, and what the author hears. Here’s how the author interprets the ratings, no matter the platform:

1 Star        It really sucked        
2 Stars      It sucked    
3 Stars      It sucked, but not that bad        
4 Stars      I thought it was ok        
5 Stars      I liked it

It’s interesting that the description for the ratings for each platform is so different. They agree at the one-star and five-star levels, but the other ratings are open to interpretation.

Actually, I don’t think anyone pays much attention to the descriptions of the ratings when making it, and certainly not when looking at it. When you look at a review on any of the platforms, it simply has the star rating. It doesn’t say what that rating means for that platform. For that reason, I think readers form a general concept of what each rating means to them, without regard to the platform.

In other words, for me, a three-star book is a three-star book, no matter where the rating is. It means they thought it was ok, but not great. That’s what Amazon says it means. But in Goodreads, it means they liked it, and in B&N they thought it was good. I don’t think that “ok” and “good” mean the same thing. 

So, when you rate a book, I suggest using the author’s interpretation as the standard.