Why Five-Star Reviews Hurt Your Book Sales

Did you know that five-star reviews can actually hurt a book's sales? Why I don't leave five-star reviews on books (unless they really deserve it) and why you shouldn't, either. Via The Writersaurus. #amwriting #writingtips

We’ve all been there– you click on a promising-looking book title on Amazon. The cover is nice, the summary sounds interesting … but there are only two reviews; both of which give it five stars. Each says that the book is one of the best the reviewer has ever read, without citing any reasons to support this claim. There is an excess of exclamation points. At best, these reviews were written by the author’s well-meaning friends and family; at worst, they were purchased from one of the ever-more-notorious review mills.

Do you buy the book? Probably not.

People don’t trust five-star reviews

People generally don’t trust five-star reviews, as is shown by this article on how to spot a fake review. In fact, people will usually look for a three- or four-star review, as they tend to be more honest about both the positive and negatives. Some people won’t even consider buying a book unless it has at least one one-star rating.

Let’s be clear, here: the real problem isn’t actually five-star reviews per se, but dishonest five-star reviews. The ones written by people who know the writer or are paid to write reviews–both these groups have either an emotional or monetary incentive to lie. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to tell the honest reviews from the dishonest ones.

The flip-side of this is that some people–rivals or those who’ve been bitten by the green-eyed monster–leave dishonest negative reviews in the hopes of hurting the author’s bottom line.

This is why people trust three- and four-star reviews–they seem more honest. If the reviewer was trying to lie, they would leave a rating that will have a bigger effect on the book’s rank, right?

It’s insulting to the writers

Look, I think we have lost sight of what “five stars” is supposed to mean. It means the best of the best; that whatever you’re rating possesses all, or nearly all, of the objectively (or not-so-objectively) positive possible traits, and few of the negative ones. Unfortunately, many people now see “five stars” as simply meaning adequate. It did its job; I guess I’ll give it five stars. This may work out for other products and goods, but not for books. There is so much variation in quality, and often, to succeed in one area, the writer has to actively fail in another. It just comes with the territory.

I read a lot of books, and I almost never rate them five stars. That doesn’t mean that they’re not good; they might even be great. There are just certain areas that they could improve upon. Four out of five simply means that there is room for improvement, which there almost always is.

The thing is, your author friend will recognize this type of patronization. They’ll be grateful that you care enough about their success to be kind; but deep down, they’ll feel like you are not taking them seriously. They will most likely appreciate a thoughtful three-star review that treats their work like any other with comments on both it’s good and bad aspects, rather than a vague “I loved it!! Must read!!!”

The take-away for writers is this: It’s possible that five-star reviews hurt your book sales. And for the indie writer, every sale counts.

How to Mitigate this Problem

You’re probably wondering what you as a writer and as a reader who wants to support authors can do to fix this … below, I’ve given a couple suggestions in the form of answers to questions that I feel will probably pop up. If you have questions that aren’t answered below, leave a comment or get in touch!

For Writers

Everyone’s leaving me five stars, but the reviews don’t say anything meaningful! So you’ve recently published a book, and all your family and friends are in a mad rush to support you by leaving positive reviews. Chances are, you know that these reviews may be less than honest, and that these people might actually feel your book is more worthy of three or four stars–but they don’t want to hurt your feelings, and don’t want the confrontation that may come along with it.

What can you do? Be sure to let them know when they buy the book (or you give it to them) that an honest three or four star review is more valuable than an unendlessly positive one that was obviously written by someone with an emotional connection to the author and incentive to lie. If you’re sending out a review file of your book via email, the text body of the message may be a good place to say this; you can also include it as a call to action on the last page of your book.

What if I talk myself out of some “real” five-star ratings? This is possible–that’s why you shouldn’t say or imply that five-star reviews are bad. Instead, you want to stress the importance of honesty. Here’s how I would word such a call to action:

“Thanks for reading my book! If you liked it, please leave an honest review on Amazon. Five-star reviews are great, but three or four stars is equally helpful. Thanks!”

For Readers

Review honestly whether the book was written by your best friend or if its been on the New York Times bestseller list for the past year. Also, writing a review on a site like Goodreads is nice, but leaving a review on Amazon has way more positive effects. So leave your review on Amazon first!

Will they know I left the review? Amazon does display your name next to your review, so there is a good chance that your friend will know what rating you gave.

What if I hurt their feelings? If you’re worried about hurting their feelings, or a possible confrontation, consider telling them (in person or via text/email) that you read their book. Reassure them that you loved it, and mention that you’re going to write a review, and that you’ve heard that people actually are more likely to buy books with three or four star reviews.

If they protest, tell them that their book was written well enough to be judged on the same scale as other books, if you think they’re reasonable enough to respond to that. If they still seem upset, you may have to choose between hurting a friend and being honest. In this case, you might want to just leave five stars, or nothing at all.

You might also just leave an honest review, and only give the above spiel if they ask you about it. This may be the safest, less-confrontational route, though it might also lead to unspoken hostility.

What if I don’t think they’ll take it well? Some writers are simply not mature enough to take an honest review, even if it’s in their best interests. If you think your loved one might fall into this category, it’s probably your best bet to just leave a five star review–or no review at all, if you feel you can’t leave five stars.

What if I feel like the book is worth less than three stars? If the book is so bad you can’t even muster up enough enthusiasm to leave three stars, it’s probably kinder to leave no review at all, especially if the writer is a friend of yours. A lot of one- and two-star reviews will drive down a books standing on Amazon, which could hurt its sales.

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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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