16 October 2021

What Do Three Stars Mean?

Photo by DDP on Unsplash
I got my beta reading reports from Independent Book Review earlier this month, and I've sat on them for about ten days or so, trying to process them. 

They had pages and pages of compliments, yay! But the critical parts of their reports threw me for a loop, with contradictions that make me unsure of what changes I should implement. I know I can't please everyone, and based on the reports I got, I think it's showing me how impossible it is to, given how each reader had very different tastes and often the opposite opinions. 

Overall I was very happy with the reports despite still being confused about what to do, and I plan on using the service in the future for other books. But I'm still trying to work my way through everything that was said, and the largest one is that my book, which I thought was finished, is not. 

The clearest indicator of that is the rating they used--the most popular method, the five-star rating system. They explained that the rating they gave my manuscript reflects what they thought if the book were to be published today. My scores: 3, 3.5, and 3. 

It felt like a slap in the face, especially after all of the glowing commentary I'd received. Why did they say such positive things about my book if it was only worth three stars to them? I thought for certain I'd handed them a four-star book at least, and that it was ready to go. 

Three stars is only one star less than four, yet the difference between them seems so huge. Why did I have such a strong negative reaction to three stars?  What do three stars mean?  

I thought I'd reflect but also do a little bit of digging into whether or not three stars is a negative review.

My initial thoughts: Three stars is in the middle, therefore three stars is average, or a C. Not bad, but not good; just meh. And in a world where everything is competing for your attention, why would you spend money on something that isn't going to wow you? Who signs up for so-so? This is why I thought 3 stars was a bad rating. 

Let's see what the rest of the internet says. 

Author Teyla Rachel Branton, like me, compared the star rating to letter grades in her blog post, and refers to the three-star rating as the "kiss of death." She writes, 

3 stars is a C or a C-. So only average or NEUTRAL. You neither liked it or disliked it. This really is the kiss of death rating. The “okay” novel. If you give a novel this rating, there should be SERIOUS issues because, remember, many advertisers won’t accept novels with this overall rating. So the 3-star novel should be one you didn’t feel compelled to finish, or one whose overall plot didn’t quite make sense (and you feel wouldn’t make sense to others). This is a novel that you wouldn’t recommend unless it was the only thing someone had to read and they were stuck in an airport for two hours.

This kind of aligns with my own thoughts about the three stars! This is why my star rating hurt me, because after I got the compliments that I did, and was told that I had a really strong manuscript and that I was a talented writer, I wondered why I didn't score higher. Most of the issues the beta readers brought up were valid, but I didn't think it would lower the score so much. This is what indicated to me that the book needs more work than I anticipated, and admittedly brought me down a bit. 

Author Duncan Ralston did an unofficial Facebook survey asking whether three stars was a good review, and the majority of participants marked it as a positive, followed up by the next most-popular response, neutral. From his comments, he discovered,

Most people agreed that a 3SR [3 star rating] meant the reader liked the book but it wasn't stellar. Something might have been lacking, or the reader may have been expecting a different book entirely than what they got. There seemed to be a general consensus that if a book is 3 stars across the boards it is likely mediocre.

 That phrase, "mediocre," really stings! 

And yet, despite these interpretations that align with what I think three stars to be, there are other people out there who say that three stars is good. 

Brenna Clarke Gray over at BookRiot wrote a whole article titled "The Truth: A Three-Star Review is Not a Bad Review."Gray assures us that it's not so much that the book is mediocre, but satisfactory. Here's what she says about three stars from her point of view:

  • this book was totally fine
  • I didn’t hate reading this book
  • at no point did I regret purchasing this book
  • some things in this book were good, and other things were not
  • generally, the good outweighed the bad, but not so much that I forgot the bad bits
  • there’s nothing terribly wrong with this book
  • there’s nothing terribly outstanding about this book
  • this is a book that other people will probably also not regret reading
  • if I knew someone who liked this kind of book, I would tell them to maybe read this one
  • I will probably read the next thing this author writes

The majority of these points are positive! But the ones stuck in my mind are "nothing terribly outstanding about this book" and "generally the good outweighed the bad, but not so much that I forgot the bad bits." I want people to think my book is outstanding, and I don't want people to remember bad things about it, so, by Gray's explanation, I would still consider a 3 a negative review. 

Other book bloggers who have their own ratings systems tend to consider threes good ratings, with their own explanations. 

Victoria Papers at Paper and Vices argues that three stars is a good review, and her specific breakdown says,

Three Stars –

Solid book. Good plot, interesting characters/dialogue. Would consider recommending it. Decent editing and worldbuilding. Possibly some things that took me out of the narrative a few times, but overall an enjoyable read. I Will likely read the next installment if in a series, or look at the author’s other/future work. Possibly worthy of a re-read when the mood strikes. This is a good rating.

Of course, my eyes focus on the "possibly some things that took me out of the narrative." There seems to be a pattern here where I can't accept anything positive and only hone in on the negative! 

Girl Plus Books offers a specific breakdown of three stars in "Discussion: The Curse of the Three Star Review,"

•This book was totally fine.
• I didn't dislike this book.
• I don't regret reading this book.
• Some things in this book were good, some were not.
• The good outweighed the bad and there is nothing terribly wrong with it.
• Maybe other readers would enjoy this more than me.
• I would recommend it to readers who enjoy the tropes/themes it employs.

This makes me feel a little bit better, but again, I can't help but bear in mind that this score notes that there were still bad things in the book to prevent the score from being higher, even though there isn't anything "terribly wrong." 

Éimhear at A Little Haze Book Blog goes into further detail about what merits a three-star score.   

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.

Based on my feedback from the beta readers, I don't think my book suffers from these specific issues, but they're still something to bear in mind when I consider what to revise in my book. 

Annemieke at A Dance with Books writes that "a 3 star rating might not be stellar but it certainly gets a passing grade" and adds that:

Often to me 3 star reads are either:

  1. Books that I had high expectations of that were not met
  2. Books that were not for me character or plot wise but still well written that I can other see [sic] really liking.
  3. I enjoyed reading it but it did not stand out.

Lastly, Rosie Amber writes about the star reviews on her website, breaking down the Amazon Star Rating system versus Goodreads. According to Amazon, three stars means "it's ok" while on Goodreads it means "liked it." That's a little confusing seeing as how Amazon owns Goodreads, so there's no consistency there, but whatever. 

It looks like that the constant thread among all of these reviews is that three means "passable," "satisfactory," "average," "mediocre," but also that there were things to like about the book. 

I did walk out of my beta reading experience feeling like everyone did like the book, but there are issues keeping it from reaching its full potential, and that's probably where the threes came from. 

I have a lot of work to do if I want to meet my goal of putting out a four-star book. 

Please wish me luck!

~*~

Readers, what do three stars mean to you? 

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