I talked last week about writing reviews on Amazon.com. With any luck, I’m only a few weeks away from reading online reviews of my first novel. That’s exciting, and it’s also crucial: Online reviews are absolutely critical to the successful launch of a new book these days, especially a book by a new author. I am, of course, hoping to see praise heaped upon my work, but I will not be surprised if some folk don’t like it. What I’m really afraid of are no reviews at all—or even worse: The 3-star review.

Why do I fear the 3-star review? To explain that, I have to explain what Amazon reviews really are.

Here’s what they’re not: Reviews. Nobody reads an Amazon review to learn about the inner depths, the hidden themes, and the profound meanings of a book. They read them to get a sense of whether other people liked the book—to figure out whether they might, too. To decide whether or not to buy the book.

And that’s the secret: Amazon’s system isn’t really about reviews—it’s about recommendations. When people read Amazon reviews, what they’re really trying to suss out is whether they’ll like the book in question. And Amazon’s internal systems use reviews (and particularly star ratings) to determine which books get put in front of unsuspecting shoppers. It really helps to think about this as you’re formulating your comments. Because:

Amazon’s 5-star system is really just a 3-star system.

  • 5 stars means you strongly recommend it
  • 4 stars means you recommend it, but with caveats or reservations
  • 1, 2, and 3 stars are all different shades of “don’t bother”

Which brings me to why I fear 3 stars even more than 1. A person who writes a 1-star review probably didn’t like the book. Fair enough. But chances are, most people who write 3-star reviews probably think it’s got a lot going for it. Might even think it’s a great read. But it’s no 100 Years of Solitude. In the world of hotel reviews, or restaurant reviews, or even movie reviews, something that’s decent but not world-class might get 3 stars, and that would be all right.

But not on Amazon, where a 3-star review means the same thing, to both readers and Amazon’s internal systems. “Don’t bother.” So the 3-star review sucks because the person who wrote it probably didn’t mean that.

Am I saying you should never write a 3-star review? Certainly not. I’m just pointing out what that means: The highest of three levels of “don’t bother.” If that’s what you feel about it, by all means that’s what you should give it.

So I hope to see a lot of reviews when the novel goes live. And I hope most of them will rave about the book and give it many, many stars. But I won’t be surprised if there’s some dissent—I just hope it’s good, honest, 1- and 2-star dissent.

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