Navigating Amazon Kindle Reviews – for Readers – Author C.T. O'Leary (2022)

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon reviews lately, and thought I might write some of the thoughts down in case it helps anyone else. I have some things to say to readers about leaving reviews on books, and some things to say to authors, so I decided to split it in two. This one’s for readers.

We’ve all had it happen. You buy a cheap Chinese cable for your game system, or download an app you use once. Suddenly, you’re getting requests left and right, via email, pop ups, and more saying “Leave us a review!” Then we proceed to ignore the request.

We may also have finished a book, liked it, hated it, whatever, and read on the last page, “Leave me a review on Amazon!” Similarly, we’ve all probably ignored this, at least some of the time.

Why leave reviews?

Everyone wishes they had more time. Why should we take the time to review books we read? Well, here are a few reasons:

  • It helps the author by both learning what works and what doesn’t.
  • It helps other readers find things they will enjoy, or avoid things they won’t.
  • It may be just what the emotionally struggling author needs to get kick-started on their next project. What do you mean that sounds specific?
  • It helps the author gain some ground in the ever shifting world of the Amazon algorithm.

But, dear reader, not all reviews are created equal. How can you leave a helpful review?

How to leave helpful reviews

I was in a discussion recently on a Facebook page where a whole bunch of authors and readers hang out, and someone brought up Amazon reviews. Maybe that’s what brought on all of these thoughts, or maybe it was the crippling anxiety as I watched my first book’s Amazon star rating waffle between 4.2 and 4.3, which is the point in which you gain or lose ‘half a star’ in their 5 star system. 4.2 looks, at a glance, like 4.0. 4.3 looks, at a glance, like 4.5.

Either way, I noticed that a surprising number of people flat out said they never read 5 star reviews. I was a little shocked, as I’ve left 5 star reviews for some of my favorite books of all time, and I put a decent amount of thought into them. Do people really just skip them? Why?

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It only takes a brief spin around the old ‘zon to see why. A huge majority of 5 star reviews on books are about one sentence long, and almost all say “Great book! Would recommend!” That’s it.

Don’t misunderstand me, though, us authors absolutely appreciate the 5 stars, and it legitimately can help us be noticed more by people perusing Amazon. Aside from that, though, we’ve gained nothing. If it’s between leaving no review, and leaving a canned 5 star, go ahead and leave that generic one-liner. But. If you have just a little more energy, let’s get more out of it by following these steps.

1. Use Amazon’s star system correctly.

Amazon’s ranking system is by and large used to rank products. I’d wager a large portion of those products are manufactured overseas, white labeled, and drop shipped to the buyer’s door without any direct interaction from the seller. This is what, in my opinion, their system tailors to.

We need to be mindful of that, when we’re using it to review a book we purchased, or read as part of a borrowing program (Kindle Unlimited) that likely took the author hundreds of hours to produce. Here’s my suggestions on how to pick your star count for reviewing a book.

  • 5 stars: I loved this book. I will definitely read another of the series or by the author.
  • 4 stars: I liked this book. I might read another of the series or by the author.
  • 3 stars: I did not like this book. I will probably not read another of the series or by the author.
  • 2 stars: I really disliked this book, I don’t think anyone else should read it either. It has typos or political ideals that I disagree with. Maybe I didn’t finish it. I definitely won’t read another in the series or by the author.
  • 1 star: It’s unreadable (due to typos, translation, or formatting issues), it’s stolen content (in this case you should alert the original creator ASAP), or the description was an outright lie pertaining to what I’d receive with this book.

“But wait,” you say, “shouldn’t 3 stars be average?”

Yeah, it probably should, but it isn’t. At least in Amazon’s opinion. Don’t believe me? Go to the Amazon page of your favorite book right now. I’ll wait. Scroll down to the reviews section and click ‘see all reviews’. At the time of this writing, you’re taken to a new page with all the reviews. There will be a ‘top positive review’ (good), and a ‘top critical review’ (bad). Guess where the 3 stars are lumped in? Right, Amazon considers them bad/negative reviews. In their 5 star system, only 4 and 5 are positive, there is no neutral, and 1, 2, and 3 are negative.

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This is something I don’t think many people understand about Amazon. Not to pick on this individual (I really appreciate anyone that takes time to leave a review), but here’s a screenshot of one of my ‘critical’ reviews on Amazon:

  • Navigating Amazon Kindle Reviews – for Readers – Author C.T. O'Leary (1)

My guess is that this person thought they were leaving a good, neutral review, but it just doesn’t jive with Amazon’s star system.

A book receiving many negative reviews (3 stars included in that) will show up way less often in search results for whichever 7 terms they’ve chosen to show up for. A newly released book may never be seen by the masses because a particularly early buyer read the first chapter, hated it, and left a 1 star review. Amazon’s algo says, “Whoa, this product sucks, I’m going to show searchers products that sell better so I can make more money!”

Something like this very well could have happened to my first novel, released a couple of months ago, too. There is a 1 star on my book, where the reviewer says something akin to, “I stopped reading when the main character chose a melee class instead of mage.” Though not so politely.

If I had received this as one of my first 5 reviews, for instance, instead of something like my 50th, it could have absolutely nuked my book into oblivion. Maybe people realize that, maybe they don’t, but us upstanding, indie-author supporting citizens have to fight back with good, helpful reviews.

Ok, enough with the star talk. What else makes a good review?

2. Tell the author, and other potential readers what you liked. Specifically!

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A good, model review, like the one we’re trying to craft, isn’t generic. It tells the author: I liked the character Professor Thinksalot. I liked the section of the book where they fought the microscopic sized baluga whales. Give us more microscopic baluga whales.

Try not to be spoiler-y, but a well written review will also tell the other readers that there are parts, not generic “loved the book” parts, but real specific instances that you liked, and why.

On the flip side:

3. Tell the author, and other potential readers what you didn’t like.

There isn’t a perfect book. I’d challenge that you could read through your favorite story of all time and point out things that bothered you, even if it’s just a little. If you can think of some constructive criticism to give the author, do it. Don’t be afraid that it’ll scare off other readers, it may in fact do the opposite and make them see your review as genuine.

Alternatively, if you hated the book, try to leave your feedback in a way that can be actually used by the author to improve their writing. Screeching “It sux” doesn’t help anyone. If you want good books to read, help your authors grow and improve. Ten years down the line you may look back and say, “Whoa, that crappy book I read was written by the same person who wrote this masterpiece?” Maybe you had a hand in it. </cheese>

Writing the review

Actually having the follow through to write the review can be difficult. I know from experience, I read 50 books last year, and 71 the year before that (spreadsheets are for nerds, just like me). I certainly didn’t find the time to review all of those books, but I probably should have.

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This is especially true for indie authors. We don’t have massive advertising machines behind us, we rely pretty heavily on organic growth from Amazon’s algorithms, and that happens when our books get a lot of good reviews.

Final thoughts

Hopefully I’ve convinced some of you to start taking reviews on Amazon a bit more seriously, and hopefully I’ve showed some of you how Amazon treats 3 stars. Here are some random final thoughts that I couldn’t fit in anywhere above:

  • The star average is not your responsibility.

I’ve seen multiple reviews on Amazon recently, not on my own book, where the reviewer basically says something like, “This was probably a 2 star but leaving a 1 star since the score is too high.” Bruh. You’re completely misunderstanding how this whole average thing works. A true aggregate average forms when everyone leaves their real, actual score, and then ‘zon uses some crazy machine learning to come up with the book’s score (it’s not a straight average, it really is machine learning, neat huh?)

If you think it’s a 2, rate it a 2. Just because you disliked it doesn’t mean that everyone who gave it a 4 or a 5 has an invalid ranking. That’s what they thought! It’s not your job or your right to “correct” that.

  • Reviews are for people who read the book, and no one else.

Similar to the above, I’ve seen a couple of people leave 1 star on books on Amazon because they think the price is too high. “I didn’t buy this, but $4.99 for a 166 page book! Who would buy that?” I actually agree with the sentiment, but in this instance, you should be voting with your dollar, not your precious stars. The star rating should be for the few who think it’s reasonable to buy the book, and then give their opinion of if it was worth it or not.

  • If you leave only negative reviews, maybe it’s time to find another genre or hobby

In my review clicking rabbit-holes, I’ve stumbled across several accounts that, as far as I could tell, only leave 1 or 2 star reviews. They often have the same complaints for every book. I even came across one profile that copy and pasted their 1 star review to all books in a 5 book series.

I have a suspicion that these might have been fake accounts by some authors with confused (nonexistent?) morals, but I have no proof of that. If they are real people, I think it’s time to re-read your old favorites, try some new genres, or get a new hobby.

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Ok, that’s all I have for now. If you made it this far, I’m actually impressed. Look for part 2 soon, if you want to see what I have to say to authors.

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