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Why A 4-Star Review on Amazon Isn't Bad

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

If Amazon named their stores "4-Star," 4 star ratings must be good!

If Amazon named their stores "4-Star," 4 star ratings must be good!

I posted a video on social media where I said I reserve five-star reviews on Amazon for only the best books I read and that I often gave four-star reviews when I thought there was something that could be improved.

I got a comment from a young small business owner saying that four-star reviews hurt owners more than if I didn’t buy his products and that I could keep my money. I replied that I was a small business owner, too, for over 20 years and that expecting all five-star reviews isn’t realistic, that four stars aren’t bad, and that this attitude leads to stress and anxiety. He then replied that you get fewer sales with a four-star rating, that I should just give a four-star rating, and put my unwanted criticism in the comments of a review.

Whoa! I almost don’t even know where to start. But here we go . . .

Myth: Anything Less Than 5 Stars Is A Bad Review

This is just not true. How do I know? Well, Amazon launched brick-and-mortar retail stores in 2018. What did they name these stores? The Amazon 4-Star Store. Only products that rank four stars or more on Amazon are eligible to be sold in those stores. Do you think Amazon would purposely put “4-Star” in their store’s name if they thought that was a bad rating? Of course not! Ratings of four stars or above are considered good to excellent.

On Amazon’s FAQ for their 4-Star Stores, they explained why they didn’t open a “5-Star Store” with:

As with any device or product, there will be a range of customer opinions, but anything that achieves an average of 4 stars or above demonstrates a consistent thumbs up from our customers.

Notice also that Amazon says “average of 4 stars.” Amazon recognizes that there will be a variety of ratings that impacts the average.

I think that ends that discussion. Let’s move on.

Fragile Egos

The commenter said he should be given a five-star rating and that he didn’t want the sale if it wouldn’t get him a five-star rating. He also didn’t want any criticism. Imagine if you went into a brick-and-mortar retail store and a sales associate at the door said, “If you’re not going to give your purchase today a five-star review, you must leave now and not buy anything.” This is crazy and unprofitable. What is going on here? This sounds like a demand for positive approval from others to protect a fragile ego.

Authors can go down this emotional rabbit hole, too, when they receive a negative review and/or low-star rating. They interpret that as a “bad” review. They don’t see ratings and reviews as feedback, they see them as rewards doled out by buyers. And if the reward isn’t what they expect, or it’s even negative, they feel the buyers are just being mean and hurtful.

But there is a way to avoid these challenges to your self esteem. Don’t publish or sell anything. You need a thick emotional skin to sell anything to the public, especially on Amazon.

Genuine Reviews are Precious, Regardless of Rating

One of the things that shocks many new authors and sellers on Amazon is that most people don’t review their purchases. According to a USA Today article, "That review you wrote on Amazon? Priceless," which discussed the Amazon review system, only 5% to 10% of buyers actually review their purchases. I’ve heard other estimates as low as 1% to 2% of purchases get reviewed or rated. So reviews are precious, even those that may not be exactly as high as you want.

Even some of the greatest writers do not get five-star reviews on Amazon.

Even some of the greatest writers do not get five-star reviews on Amazon.

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5-Star Reviews Don’t Equate with Quality

If it’s any encouragement, as of this original post date, here are the percentages of five-star reviews that are shown on Amazon for some books you may have heard of:

  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 72%
  • 1984 by George Orwell 76%
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 82%
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 75%
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway 74%

If these titans of literary and cultural history can’t even get 100 percent five-star reviews, why do you think your product or self-published book should garner five stars 100 percent of the time?

The USA Today article mentioned earlier goes on to say that according to research, uniformly good reviews are often not believed by buyers and that a rating of 4.2 to 4.4 is considered optimal. Yes, average ratings in the four-star zone are considered optimal.

Five-star reviews have nothing—nothing!—to do with the quality of the offering. It only has to do with the buyer’s personal experience which may be positive or negative.

Lovers and Haters

Personally, I always suspect there’s been some behind-the-scenes finagling of the reviews if I see all five-star reviews. As evidenced by the previous discussion, there is little likelihood that 100 percent of people will love your book 100 percent of the time.

This is why I’m not a proponent of book launch teams where authors might be tempted to juice their ratings by encouraging the book launch team to post glowing reviews. Amazon might flag product listings that have extraordinarily high reviews, but low actual and/or verified purchase sales, because you can be sure that Amazon will go to lengths to protect the integrity of their platform and ratings systems.

Some buyers just consistently give negative or low reviews. You cannot stop them from doing so, except in cases where their ratings violate Amazon’s Community Guidelines. Just because it doesn’t meet your expectations for perfect ratings doesn’t mean it violates those guidelines.

Amazon’s average rating is a weighted score that could take into consideration the number of reviews, how recent they are, and whether the reviews appear legitimate and follow community guidelines.

Amazon’s average rating is a weighted score that could take into consideration the number of reviews, how recent they are, and whether the reviews appear legitimate and follow community guidelines.

Nobody Knows Amazon’s Algorithm Except Amazon

Like the commenter, when Amazon conspiracy theorists and inexperienced online sellers see a low average rating for their offerings, they naively assume that’s the reason for low sales. If only it were that simple! I know enough about how Amazon’s algorithms work to know that I don’t know enough about how Amazon’s algorithms work. (Did you follow me there?)

From my reading about this topic, it appears that Amazon’s average ratings are not simple averages. The average rating is a weighted score that could take into consideration the number of reviews, how recent they are, and whether the reviews appear legitimate and follow community guidelines . . . only Amazon knows how their algorithms work. And like Google, they’re not sharing that algorithm with anyone outside their company and are updating it constantly. Even their sales rankings are updated hourly. Hourly!

Having a High Average Star Rating on Amazon Does Not Mean Amazon Will Display Your Book to Buyers

Even if you have a book or product with a four- or five-star average rating, Amazon will not automatically display your book or product to potential buyers unless, of course, you advertise on Amazon or are a legitimate best seller which most self published books are not. There has to be demand for your offering. You should create that demand before a customer even gets to Amazon. You do that by building your author platform.

Competition is Fierce on Amazon

If you have a “me too” book or product that has lots of competition, and the only thing between you and your competitors is a difference in star rating, your sales will get crushed on Amazon because you’re a commodity. You need to be building demand off Amazon for your offering on Amazon.

You Have No Control Over When and How People Buy, Rate, or Review Your Book

Amazon is a 24/7/365, totally automated e-commerce platform. People may buy and review your book at any time. If you’re concerned about influencing the buying process personally, don’t sell online or on Amazon. That type of sales process is usually reserved for higher-priced and customized products and services. To be that personally involved in a book sale of less than $20, maybe even $0.99, is completely unprofitable. No, you won’t make it up on a high volume of unit sales, especially if it costs so much in personal attention to make each individual sale.

Do Lower Ratings Really Mean Lower Sales?

Remember that correlation does not equal causation. If you have low sales and low ratings, that does not mean that the low ratings caused the low sales. Most self-published books and niche products don’t have a high enough volume of sales or ratings to statistically conclude that low ratings were the cause.

As well, there are many factors that impact both the volume of sales and volume of ratings. Any one or many of the following could impact your sales. This list is not exhaustive, and there could be other factors, too.

  • Book title and subtitle.
  • Book description.
  • Keywords chosen when publishing to KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).
  • Categories chosen when publishing to KDP.
  • Your author platform (fan base) size and quality.
  • Volume of competing books similar to yours.
  • Low market demand due to narrow niche subject/product or being off-trend.
  • Kindle Unlimited reading, which reduces the number of actual unit sales.

In our ratings-centric culture, it’s tempting to make ratings and reviews the reason for our success or failure and even a reward. Put ratings and reviews in perspective. They're just feedback.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2020 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 15, 2020:

Hi Lawrence!

I think a 4-star review is great, too! But there are some people who are just not satisfied with anything. I'll take as many reviews of all stars that I can get.

Thanks so much for sharing your Amazon review experience! Have a wonderful day!

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on July 14, 2020:


Not sure that I believe there are folks who think a four star review is bad!

I guess it takes all kinds to make a world!

My books don't have many reviews, but they average out at 3.6 stars first the first (eight reviews) and 4 star for book three (four reviews). Book two only has one 5 star so I must be doing something right!

Thanks for a really good article.


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 20, 2020:

Peggy, you're not alone! I'm the same way for regular products. But for books, I almost always leave a review or a rating at minimum.

If all the rating are 1-star, like you, I might think twice about purchasing. But since I know how this whole ratings and review game goes, I'm less influenced by ratings in the 3 and 4-star zone.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the issue! Have a great weekend!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 20, 2020:

You are correct in saying that few people even take the time to give reviews on Amazon. I think that I have only given something in between 12 to perhaps 20 reviews ever. When reading reviews, I only shy away from purchasing something if the majority of people give low scores. Anything 3 or higher, I will consider.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 11, 2020:

Adrienne, I'm thrilled if someone gives me a 4-star rating on my books! I used to give out more pity 5-star ratings years ago. Now? No. I don't think it helps the author or seller. And, like you, I want to reserve those top ratings for those that deserve it.

Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Have a wonderful day!

Adrienne Farricelli on June 11, 2020:

I think a four-star rating on Amazon is good! I tend to reserve five-star reviews for things that are out of this world, being as close to perfect. It seems that perfect products are not easy to come by these days.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 10, 2020:

Hi Maria! Ego is such a big factor in the publishing game! Maybe Amazon needs to offer some self esteem training before allowing authors to upload their books. :)

Seriously, low ratings just can't tank a good book or product if the author creates something that his or her fan base really needs and wants.

I used to give more 5-star reviews, too, because I know what commitment it takes to bring a book into the world and into the market. But then I realized that I might not be doing the author any favors by creating a false sense of achievement. It's a tough decision though.

Thanks for the very thoughtful comments! Have a lovely day!

Maria Giunta from Sydney, Australia on June 09, 2020:

Ego plays a big part in how an author perceives their book sales and reviews. A 4-star review is great and shouldn't be ignored. Too many authors don't have a thick skin. This is certainly necessary if you're selling because everyone has an opinion.

You're right Heidi, low star reviews don't mean low book sales and vice-versa. However, in our ratings-centric culture (as you put it), unfortunately, there are people out there who will purchase only by the rating. Also, I was giving 5-star ratings to be nice because authors pour their heart and soul into their stories, but I realise this is not helpful. Good article, it's food for thought for many authors.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 05, 2020:

Liz, sounds like we think alike in that regard! If I think a book is really good in terms of its content, but maybe is poorly edited or organized, I'll give that 4 stars.

I used to give out more 5 star ratings, just to be nice. Then I realized I wasn't doing the author (or seller) or fellow readers any good by being nice instead of honest.

Hope you're staying well! Thanks for commenting. Have a beautiful weekend!

Liz Westwood from UK on June 04, 2020:

I agree with the point you are making. Some hotels (pre-pandemic) used to ask guests to rate their stay out of 10. Even in the best I would generally give 9 at best on the basis that there is always room for improvement. A top score suggests perfection to me, which is rarely attainable.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 04, 2020:

Flourish, those negative Nellies are everywhere!

Statistically controlling the review issue would be an expensive and intensive effort. Self published authors don't have the bucks to do anything like that. Yet they fret over what they can't control. Talk about anxiety! Maybe therapists should target self published authors as clients. ;)

And, yes, this guy is way too sensitive. Maybe a product of "participation trophies." I'm sure with your background you understand that.

Thanks for adding your usual sense of logic and humor to the discussion! Have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 04, 2020:

Linda, you cannot imagine how messed up authors get over reviews. It's just crazy. Glad you found this peek into the Amazon review system interesting. Thanks for commenting, as always, and have a lovely day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 04, 2020:

Well, John, I'm definitely eligible to review. ;) But if you were eligible, I'm sure you'd give honest reviews. Thanks for adding that point to the conversation! Cheers!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 04, 2020:

John, agreed, 4-star ratings are good almost everywhere, even on 5-star scale sites.

I am also totally amazed at which of my books get reviews and ratings, and which ones don't, on Amazon. You just never know.

I'm on a freelance site, too, where I get to rate the buyer. Luckily, most of them have been 5-star quality. Love that story about your 4-star buyer! :) You were probably very generous.

Thanks so much for sharing your 4-star experience! Have a great day!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 03, 2020:

This is an interesting article containing great information and advice about reviews. The advice makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks for sharing it, Heidi.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 03, 2020:

Ratings are a part of my background educationally. Long story short, there are contaminating factors like a person’s negative affectivity wherein someone is consistently just a negative Nellie towards lots of things — puppies, Christmas, grandma’s apple pie, the price of bread, and yes, your product or book!) Although there are ways you can sometimes statistically control for it, this isn’t one of those situations. The guy is just being too sensitive. It’s probably a factor of his inexperience. Your advice is spot on.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 03, 2020:

Oh I need to add, that to be eligible to leave a review on a product on Amazon you have to have spent $50 or more there in the last year. I never have so I have never been able to leave a review. I may buy on average one item a year from Amazon.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on June 03, 2020:

I found this article very interesting Heidi. Everywhere else in the world a four star rating stands for good, restaurants etc. why should Amazon and the Internet be any different. I have only one book for sale on Amazon that has sold about 100 copies and it only has one review. I also have one on Lulu that has only sold six copies but has three reviews..go figure.

People seem to be obsessed with five star reviews, even the Freelancing site I am part of. I gave a difficult buyer a 4 star review and he questioned my reasoning. I told him that it was because he was difficult to deal with, so he was lucky to get that lol.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 03, 2020:

Bill, I definitely think reviews are more crucial in travel than on Amazon. Though, like you, I've run across some 3-4 star sites that I would definitely go to again.

Thanks for adding that angle to the conversation! Hope you're doing even though your travel plans have been largely put on hold. Take care!

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 03, 2020:

Interesting, Heidi. The area where I read reviews extensively is when searching for accommodations while traveling. To me there is very little difference between a 4-star and a 5-star. In fact, some of the nicest places we have ever stayed in were rated 3-star.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 03, 2020:

Doug, I've experienced about the same review rate, too. Glad for any that I get! All of my books are nonfiction and, for the most part, get pretty good ratings and reviews when I do get them.

Indeed, sometimes reviewers aren't evaluating our work, but the topic itself. Just goes with the territory in Amazon-land.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience and thoughtful comments! Have a wonderful day!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 03, 2020:

Bill, you and me both! Those reviews are so precious. And it means so much to me that they did review. Thanks for chiming in! I'll give your comment 5 stars by the way. :)

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 03, 2020:

Hi, Pamela! People love to read reviews and use them in making purchases, but they rarely review purchases themselves. Crazy, eh? Honestly, I get a kick out of reading reviews, though I rarely use them as a decision to purchase. My husband uses reviews a lot when purchasing.

Glad you found it interesting. Thanks for reading and commenting! Have a great day!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 03, 2020:

This is an eye-opening article. I thought more people rated their purchases, especially books. I like to read the reviews before I buy a book and there are all kinds of people in this world, so some are ignored. I also usually write a review on a fictional book. This was a well-written very interesting article, Heidi.

Stay safe and healthy.

Doug West from Missouri on June 03, 2020:

Good article. I would have to say based on the thousands of books I have sold on Amazon that the review rate is less than 5 percent. They are few and far between and I appreciate each one of them. Most of my books are non-fiction. The majority of my reviews have been good (4 to 5 stars) but I have gotten a few bad reviews many times based on the topic. For example, I wrote a book Mike Pence four years ago and a reader gave me a very negative review, not because of the book's contents, rather he didn't like Mike Pence. Same thing happened on a book I wrote about Hitler, the reviewer thought I was too negative about Hitler (is that possible?). Sometime you just can't win.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 03, 2020:

I'm happy with a 4-star. I'm ecstatic with a 5-star. I'm happy, really, with any review, because it means the reader was at least invested enough in my work to take the time to write the review. :)

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