The inestimable value of one and two star reviews

Justin Swanton

Loving the view from up here.
Aug 18, 2015
Durban, South Africa
I have to admit I never read 5 or 4 star reviews on Amazon (or anywhere else) because I learnt long ago not to trust them.* People give 5 or 4 stars for all sorts of reasons: they're the author's parents, childhood friends, the author gave their book a glowing review, or they just like reading that kind of trash. But 1 or 2 star reviews - those are given by people who have no motivation to say anything else except what they really think.

Sifting through them, it doesn't take me very long to figure out whether there is a real problem with the book or whether the reviewers just don't like it. A lot of 1 star reviews that don't say anything other than that the reader didn't get the slang or didn't like the science part tell me that the book has real potential. A bunch of raspberry reviews that concur on the contrived plot, shallow character development and poor story conclusion tell me, yep, this novel has problems.
Naturally, I don't what this to be taken as an encouragement to give my work any thumbs-down reviews.

*I recall several books with glowing reviews that were atrociously written. Ah, how this world is given to lying!
Last edited:
Though just personal opinion, the volume of reviews weighs more on me than the ratings (past ditching the highs and lows and focusing on the mean). Reason is, something passable but not actually falling to the end extremes, doesn't encourage people to write a review. So, it gets ignored, not worth their time after reading it to write about it.

The moment it becomes something worth spending their time on, writing a review--still disregarding the highs and lows--says it is worth looking at. Granted, everyone might write 2-3 star reviews because it upset them they read it, but you'll figure that out quickly enough.

But 1 or 2 star reviews - those are given by people who have no motivation to say anything else except what they really think.

That's not inevitably true though. I have heard (so you may take this with a grain of salt if you choose) of competing authors—very unprofessional ones, I will add, because writers don't really compete for readers, and the more books people read the better for all of us—will write bad reviews on books they haven't even read, for mere spite, or because they want to drag down the rating. And I have actually seen many one star book reviews from readers who were incensed because the book didn't arrive on time, or because one page was bent down at the corner—individuals who don't know the difference between product reviews and book reviews.

So I read a sampling of all the reviews, some high reviews, some low reviews, some middling reviews, to get an idea of what readers are reacting to. Sometimes a poor review will complain that the author does too much of something I actually quite like in a book, and will therefore convince me to give the book a closer look as something I might really like to read. Sometimes a rave review will go on and on about things the reader likes but I tend to hate in a book. That generally stops me in my tracks in a way that the most devastating one star review never could. I think, "If this is the best they can say about the book, the reason they are recommending it, this book is most definitely not for me."

Also, one and two star reviews are often very short, limited to one line, "it was boring" or "it was slow" which don't really tell me much. To be fair, I can see why they are so short. I wouldn't want to waste my time writing a long review on a book when I felt like I'd wasted my time reading it to begin with. But that still doesn't tell me whether I might find the book of interest. Enthusiastic reviewers, on the other hand, the kind that write long five and four star reviews, often go into the details, what they liked and what they didn't like, so I can decide whether it sounds like something I would actually enjoy.

The family members and friends who just write something to give a writer a bunch of five star reviews (and probably didn't read the book) tend to stick to one or two lines so those are easy to winnow out.

Really, regardless of the number of stars, I pay more attention to a long review, feeling it is more likely to be thoughtful and balanced, than the very short ones.
Generally I look over the bad reviews and skim the good ones. It's an easy way to find features I may like what other readers don't like. I am not looking for a detailed reason(s) why I should read a fiction book. If the book is factual, I am looking at the reviews to see if it might have what I am interested in.
Agreed on long positive reviews generally being more thoughtful hence honest and yes, I do read them (sometimes). But bad ones, short or long, generally give me what I need to know more quickly.
I like reading reviews . Most books that receive large numbers of them will always have a mix of good and negative . The negative are often shorter and more amusing to read .
Contra wise .... I usually don't read reviews for a couple of reasons.
1. Often they are banal.
2. Sometimes they spoil the book.
a. by giving away too much plot.
b. by giving me expectations that do not come to pass.
3. Why read the reviews if you can often read a part of the book for free anyway? (I don't do this often either.)

But I do pay attention to the number of ratings and how many stars they are given. Any book with less than 10 ratings is going to have to catch me by something else. I might know the author personally, thanks Crons! Or I might have liked other things that they wrote before. If it has 50 or less ratings, the score needs to be something close to 5 (My belief is that ratings like grades today are vastly inflated.) If it has 100 ratings or more and it sounds interesting and the ratings average is above 4.0 I'm probably sold. If the book has 5000 or more ratings, I might read it even if it doesn't sound interesting, unless the average is under 3.0, because it probably has something to say about the cultural milieu of the time. Something which is critical to keep track of if you want to be relevant as a preacher.
I, on the other hand, download and read lots of the samples. It's a more reliable way to form an opinion, I have found, than by reading the reviews. Although I have been caught a few times when right after I bought the book there appeared some thing on the very next page (usually something stupid on the part of the author, which heralded more stupidity ahead) that made me wish that I hadn't bought it. However, without the samples I'd probably have this problem much more often than I do.
I think a problem for me is the 5 star system itself, you're limited to chunks of 20%, and if you go off the Goodreads system, 2 stars and above is like a 50/100 "It was okay". On there, 1 star is the only way of saying you didn't like the book, and 5 stars is basically saying it was perfect (which I don't think many if any books can ever be).

I'd much prefer a granular percentage system.

On the original topic though, I tend to read the 'top' reviews whatever the ratings, then search out a few of the low star ones to see if I can find a problem that would put me off.

When it comes to writing those 1 and 2 star reviews, I only usually bother if the majority of reviews are the opposite end of the spectrum, and rarely write glowing reviews at all since there are usually so many already there and who wants to read yet another one (not that I won't rate it, I'll just not write anything).
I read bad reviews and the sample.(By then I should have a good idea of which reviews are on target.)
If there is no sample then I likely won't buy it unless it's an author I already know.
However even when I read bad reviews I look only for ones that say Verified purchase--otherwise it's a waste of time; because if they didn't purchase it then, however they obtained it, they are likely biased one way or the other.(or they never read it.)