The true meaning of a three star rating

three stars A while ago I had a conversation with an author whose book I read and reviewed and rated three stars. The author wanted to know, why only three? Was there something I didn’t like about the book? So began a back and forth of emails in which I tried to explain my rating. I found the question a bit weird but a part of me understood why the author wanted to know.                  Wouldn’t you, as an author? Wouldn’t I, if I ever publish that fantasy novel I’ve been working on?
The online conversation was very nice and polite – I felt that the author was genuinely trying to discover why I had not given the book a higher rating. As I explained in my emails, there was nothing wrong with the book, but rather with my perception of it. In fact my review was rather on the positive side with the negative being entirely subjective. Still, I thought three stars was a good review for the book and a good review generally speaking and I stand by my decision.

I’ve been a member on Goodreads for nearly six years. In that time I read and rated a number of books based on the system available on the site. If you’re not familiar with it, here it is:

*did not like it
** it was ok
***liked it
****really liked it
*****it was amazing

So, three stars was not “I’m not sure if I like this book and I’m still making up my mind” but “liked it”. That’s it, I liked it. Isn’t that good? Is it bad? Does it mean I didn’t quite make up my mind? No. It means I liked it. Sure, there were parts I liked less, but the overall impression was good. Would I read another book by the same author? It’s entirely possible. After all, as you can see below, Stephen King’s books fall into both categories and I’m a huge fan. So I went back to my reading list on Goodreads and searched for books I rated three stars. Here are some of them:

three star books

2010 A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
2011 Weaveworld – Clive Barker
2012 Anatomy of a Disappearance – Hisham Matar
2013 Joyland – Stephen King
2014 Love Minus Eighty – Will McIntosh
2015 And The Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini


and five star books

2010 After Dark – Haruki Murakami
2011 Fahrenheit 451- Ray Bradbury
2012 The Yellow Wallpaper and Selected Writings – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
2013 Dracula – Bram Stoker
2014 The Shining – Stephen King
2015 The Farseer Trilogy – Robin Hobb

Here are my questions for you, book lovers and reviewers: what does a 3 stars review mean to you? Is it good, is it bad, is it in between? Would this rating make you click away, in search of a higher rated book? Would you read another book by an author whose book you rated 3 stars? Do you rate the book thinking about that emotional connection or do you try and look at it with a rational mind? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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29 Responses to The true meaning of a three star rating

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Though I do not use a star system I understand and in many ways like the idea.

    In a world of Shakespeare and other greats I think five stars should be very rare and four stars reserved for “everyday” brilliance. I would give books that I really enjoyed and still got a lot out of 3 stars.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      That sounds a lot like how I would go about the 5 star rating system. Glad to see you consider a 3 star book something you can enjoy and get a lot out of. Besides, a book you rate 3 stars might be 4 or 5 for somebody else.

  2. M-----l says:

    I prefer a 1-10 system if I’m using stars, but I’ve had to adjust my ratings to reflect the 5 star system used on Amazon and Goodreads (which I started using again last week). The way I rank things now, a 3-star rating roughly means “if I had a time machine that allowed me to go back to the moment before I started reading the book, I’d probably go back and read something else”.

    I consider a 3-star book (or movie or album) to be a waste of my time.

    • Delia says:

      Hi M—l,
      If 3 out of 5 stars is a waste of time for you, it means you don’t use the Goodreads system but your own personal rating. 3 out of 10 is a waste of time, I agree, but 3 out of 5 means average at least.

      • M-----l says:

        I consider an “average” book to be a waste of my time. If there are 4 and 5-star books out there, why would I ever be satisfied reading a 3-star one?

        • Delia says:

          Nothing but the best, eh? I can understand that, but then I think you should give 1 star to those books you consider a waste of your time. I’m not arguing with you, I’m just trying to understand why 3 stars is bad when 5 is the maximum.

  3. Three stars means I liked it! Three stars means, it was good but it wasn’t anything exceptional (for me). I mean star ratings are so subjective anyway — for me, it generally means that I enjoyed reading the book but probably won’t reread it or seek out additional books by that author necessarily, unless I get a specific recommendation to do so. Good but not great, is what it means.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Jenny,
      I agree with you, star ratings are subjective, what I consider a brilliant book might bore you to death and vice-versa. I’m just trying to see how people view a 3 out of 5 rating. Even now, looking back at some of the books I rated I feel like maybe I was too harsh in rating some of them. 🙂

  4. I completely agree with you. 3 stars mean I liked it; it’s a good book. I sometimes think I’m rating a bit too harsh on Goodreads (especially when I looked back on my GR books and realized how few I rated 5 stars), but why should I exaggerate? In the end, reviews are subjective anyway, and I usually don’t go by the star rating but by what people are saying about it.

    • Delia says:

      Hi TJ,
      I completely agree, reviews/ratings are subjective but when we are given the rating system and it says “3 stars = liked it”, then if we rate a book 3 stars it means we liked it. I read books regardless of rating. If the story sounds good, I’m in. I like to make up my own mind about the book.
      I know what you mean by changing your mind about a rating. I feel the same way at times but I remind myself that that’s how I felt at the time. Maybe when/if I read the book again I’ll change my mind. That’s entirely possible. I find that so much depends on the emotional state we’re in when reading the book. We may put it aside when we first start on it because it just doesn’t click but when picking it up after a while we may totally fall in love with it.

  5. Hi Delia,

    I was mad at myself for giving four-stars to one of my most favourite books — The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

    I wrote quite a few blogs after reading that book, and in most stories, I had quoted it. I have been using many lines from the book in my daily conversations. Not a lot of books get that close to me. So many of my Facebook friends should be contemplating about ‘unfriending’ me, for I have spammed their walls with my favourite passages from The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

    Since the time I realised that I had given unfair rating to that poignant book, I have been debating with myself. Some questions that I tried answering: What are the criteria that help me decide how good a book is? Do I approach the rating system logically? Do I allow some time for the book to sink in? How often do I rate a book feverishly? How often do I go back and change the rating? I had answers for some of it. But, I could not streamline my thoughts about the criteria. I understand that it’s hard to be objective while judging a book. However, it bothers me when I fail to recognise some books in a responsible fashion.

    Besides The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I remember changing the rating that I gave for Winnie the Pooh. Initially, I gave it four-stars. A few months later, I changed it to five.

    These days, I have become generous. I give four and five without paying a second thought, to books that I immensely enjoyed. So, in my Goodreads page, 4 = 5. 🙂 And, 3 = Okay, not too bad. 2 = I. Did. Not. Like. It. 🙂 I think, I have never given 1. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deepika,
      How could you give The Ocean at the End of the Lane four stars?! Just kidding. 🙂 I love that book as well. You probably convinced some of your friends to read it with those quotes.

      Your rating system is similar to mine, although for me there is a difference between a 5 star book and a 4 star one.
      About changing your mind – I can understand that so well. Maybe we need some guidelines, maybe we should rate according to the story, emotional impact, writing style, characters, and so on. I have the feeling I just made things more complicated, didn’t I?

  6. Vishy says:

    Wonderful post, Delia! I think 3-stars is a fair rating for a book which one likes, but I think books come up in recommended lists in Amazon, Goodreads and other sites only if they have 4 or 5 stars. So authors and publishers typically hope for and push readers to give a book 4 or 5 stars. The general understanding among the author-publisher community is that less than 4 stars means that the book is not good. My own take on it is that I typically give books I like 4-stars and exceptional ones 5-stars. When I consider a book for 5-stars, I compare it with the best 5-star books I have read (for example ‘The Wall’ by Marlen Haushofer or ‘Possession’ by A.S.Byatt or ‘Ex Libris’ by Anne Fadiman) and see where it fares. For me the star rating system as I use it is a personal thing – I think it is impossible to rate a book objectively. (as evidence, I would say that most of the critics and readers during Shakespeare’s time thought that he was a copycat and an inferior playwright, because he had borrowed all of his plots and most of his dialogue (around 80%) from older works, but today he is regarded as a genius. His star rating would have been different during his lifetime and now.) I normally give a book 3-stars if I think it is readable once. Books which I wouldn’t recommend to friends and other readers – they get 1 or 2 stars. Your post made me think a lot. Thanks 🙂

    • Vishy says:

      I forgot to mention one more thing. It is interesting that you have included a Stephen King book under 3-star books 🙂 And it is so wonderful to see ‘Dracula’ under 5-stars 🙂

      • Delia says:

        Hi Vishy,
        I didn’t know about the 4 and 5 star reviews but if that’s the case it totally makes sense. That is a shame in a way, because 3 stars doesn’t mean a book is bad. I wonder, have we become extremists, is it either great or not good at all, black or white?
        Perceptions change, who knows how Shakespeare will be regarded by the next generations? That reminded me of an interview I read in which Margaret Atwood was talking about being part of a project in which influential writers of our age were asked to write a novel which won’t be available for reading until 100 years have gone by.
        To turn back to our rating discussion – I think 1 and 2 stars are pretty low and I’ve rated books by the same author with 2 and 5 stars. Bram Stoker was one – I loved “Dracula” but was completely turned off by “The Lair of the White Worm”. Interestingly enough, Dracula was written first.

        Would you read another book by the same author whose previous novel you rated 3 stars? Have you done that?

  7. Rating systems are so difficult and different! I have to say I completely agree with your rating of 3 stars. I use goodreads as well and a 3 star rating really does mean I simply liked the book. I didn’t love it, there was no spark or special connection but it was a good book and I liked it fine. I have to say that I wish goodreads would allow half star ratings, because sometimes a book really is 3,5 stars for me and I’d love to show others and authors that it was close to 4 starts.
    I have to admit my ratings are usually 3 at the worst, but that’s because of good research, great recommendations etc.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Bina,
      I’m with you on the half stars. I so wish Goodreads would have them. Also, a note at the end of each “to be read” book where we could write how we found out about the book.

      Does this mean you don’t usually read a book you know nothing about? Do you do your research first?

  8. Melinda says:

    I also liked And the Mountains Echoed. The hemingway one, I still need to pick up! Interesting to see Dracula has five stars with you, I started with it, but can’t get into it, yet.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Melinda,
      I’m glad to see you liked “And the Mountains Echoed”. While this was a 3 star book for me, I gave 5 stars to his other two novels, “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”. Still, I would probably read the next one as well, even though by now his novels have a pattern and I sort of know what to expect.
      I hope you get to read the Hemingway, it’s a nice book.
      As for Dracula, I’m a fan of vampires (the dark, evil&good mix, not the glittery type) and I enjoyed this very much. I hope you’ll like it too. Why do you find it difficult to get into?

  9. Priya says:

    Such an interesting question. It is great to read so many perspectives. Ratings always confuse me. Like you, I follow the Goodreads system where 3 stars means I liked the book, it is probably my average rating too. 3 star-rated books are those I may have a few problems with but can overlook them in the big picture. But I am more generous in rating books I receive for review, or books that have fewer Goodreads ratings – because the rating is inevitably the first thing a prospective reader checks out and to newbie authors the rating seems to matter quite a bit.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Priya,
      We do seem to look at the 3 star rating from the same perspective. I noticed the new authors seem to take ratings to heart, even if they get a majority of 4 and 5 star ratings and only very few 3 star ones. I can imagine well established authors like Lee Child or Stephen King don’t care about that much by now. I mean not every book a certain author writes will have the same rating. Some books will be more successful than others.

  10. Caroline says:

    I’m not keen on star ratings. I never do it that’s why I don’t really use Goodreads. It doesn’t mean much. Giving 3 stars to one book might mean something entirely different than 3 stars for another one. In general though. – I sometimes rate movies- 3 stars is pretty bad. Not awful but not good. A Movable Feast was one of my 4.5 – so I think it’s important for an author to look at the ratings someone gives. I find it shameful that an author contacts someone for this reason. On the other hand, you say he was polite.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Caroline,
      I agree, star ratings, and ratings in general are subjective. And what you consider a 3 star book maybe I rate 5 stars.

      Do you rate movies 3 stars out of 5 or 3 out of 10? Ratings give a general idea so they are important up to a point. I never let a bad rating keep me away from a book – it’s true I gave low ratings to books ranked pretty high up on the rating scale, so, again, it’s a personal thing.

      I find it interesting that the author contacted me, considering that I said pretty much all I had to say in the review. I think this happens especially with new authors who are taken aback when their book doesn’t rate higher. It would make more sense to me if the rating was low overall, but when it’s one or two low(er) ratings and the rest of the reviews are good, it doesn’t. Oh well, it was an experience to learn from. 🙂

  11. Athira says:

    For me, a book gets three stars if I liked it but didn’t enjoy it too much. Still, like you said, it’s more positive than negative. If I didn’t like it at all – it would get 2 or a 1. But if I valued the time I spent with the book, it gets 3 stars. Would I read the book if I knew in advance that I was going to rate it 3 stars? Probably not. I guess that’s my big difference between a 3 star and a 4/5 star book.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Athira,
      You make a good point. Still, we never know what we might get when we read a book, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? What if someone told you most of the books you’ll read this year will be 3 star books? Would you read less? Just curious. 🙂

  12. Deb Atwood says:

    What a great discussion you have generated, Delia!

    As you say, ratings are so subjective. For instance, looking at your 3 star list, I really liked Joyland and loved Love Minus Eighty. Part of the problem is that most people are oriented to the Amazon system in which 4 stars means I liked it and 3 starts means it’s okay. When I’m reading and rating, I often find myself in the 3.5 star range. It really becomes subjective there. If the author is traditionally published with many ratings and a strong publishing house (and if I think the author was lazy, relying on past successes) I might go down to 3 whereas if the author is indie, I sometimes move up to 4. So, yes, subjective.

    When purchasing books, I will buy a book with some 3 star ratings as long as there are some 4 star ratings to balance it out. In fact, having some 3 stars is not a bad thing as it signals to readers that the reviews (or at least some of them) are not from friends and family members.

    As an indie author myself, I would not do what your author did and contact the reviewer. That’s considered gauche in most author circles, and chances are your author hoped to change your mind. An exception to the no-contact rule might be to thank a reviewer for a particularly nice write-up.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deb,
      Looking at most answers here it seems 3 stars is not a bad rating overall. Sure, every writer hopes for more but especially when it comes to new authors, a few 3 star ratings won’t turn people away from a book.
      Interesting to see you would look at the ratings before buying the book. I rarely do that. If I read the first book in a series and really like it, I will definitely read the next one, regardless of how it’s rated. I’m more interested in how I like the book rather that what the world thinks of it. It’s my money I’m spending after all.

      I get your point on traditionally published authors vs indie authors. Personally I don’t pay that much attention to that, for me the story is the most important thing.

      I agree that it’s not something that it should be done, asking a reader why he (or she) rated the book less than the author expected but since I’ve interacted with the author before and I won the book in a giveaway, I thought why not. I think in a corner of my mind I felt I owed the author that much.
      What I don’t like is when people try to convince me the book was worth more stars especially after I justified my rating. Like you said, book rating is subjective and if I tried to convince everybody that Stephen King was a great writer or go into lengthy debates regarding the literary merit of The Dark Tower let’s say, we would be going nowhere. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and they’re free to like or hate a book regardless of how others feel about it.
      On the other hand I like it when I get to interact with authors. I like to see the person behind the words, to see what inspired them to write a particular story. It makes me appreciate their book more because I can see where it’s coming from. It’s nice when the author writes back. Not all of them do.

  13. Bellezza says:

    I think it’s so hard to score a book, per se. I just had a parent furious with me for giving her daughter a C+. Last I checked, a C was average, and it was a very generous grade for a percentage of 68 on tests and quizes. But, no one wants to be average. No one wants just, “I liked it.” I guess we’re all looking for, “It was amazing! You are incredible!” But, there are only a few books out there which deserve such credit.

    • Delia says:

      Meredith, you have hit the nail on the head. Everybody wants to have their book/child’s work, etc., rated as the best but few are actually ready to accept that maybe it’s not the case. I guess it’s hard to be objective when it comes to very personal things and harder still to just accept the fact that others may not see them in the same light.
      The way I see it, we should enjoy things no matter their rating. If I can take away something from a 3 star book (and certainly most 3 star books I’ve read had that “something”), then I consider it a good experience.

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