How to Read a Book Review

Reading a book review is not as simple as you might think. Other readers’ views are often not particularly helpful. Because what you want to know, and what they want to say, are not the same.

Image of a woman looking at a laptop screen with an expression of confusion.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

I’m not talking about professional book reviewers here. Or people who review books on blogs, podcasts, social media, or video sites, as a service to readers. That’s a whole other conversation. This post is about reviews on book retailer websites, or reading websites. Which can be posted by almost anyone.

You may have very different preferences and views to the reviewer. So is there even any value in reading the reviews? How do you filter the useful reviews from the unhelpful ones?

Ratings versus reviews

Let’s start with the difference between ratings and reviews. Ratings are the number of stars a book has been given, out of five. Reviews are the written comments that explain why the reader gave that rating. 

Ratings without explanations are not particularly helpful. But they can be damaging. Here’s an example of a review I saw recently on Amazon. The customer gave the book one star – because the back page said the book was printed by Amazon. This happens when the author uses Amazon’s print on demand service. Large print runs come at a large financial and environmental cost. 

Print on demand is great for new authors with no track record of selling books. And for authors who sell more ebooks than paperbacks or hardbacks. A paper book is only printed when someone orders one. No materials are wasted. No-one has to put their money at risk paying for lots of books that may, or may not, be bought. 

How that translated into a one star rating is just baffling. After reading the written comment, we know we can ignore that rating. But what if the written comment wasn’t there? People who don’t explain their rating still affect the overall rating of the book.

There are many readers with baffling rating systems. Some readers only give five star ratings. If they dislike a book, they just don’t review it. So a five star rating from them simply means the book wasn’t terrible. I’ve seen others who see ratings as binary. If they didn’t like a book, they give two stars. If they did like it, they give three stars.

And then there are the people who like to leave a one or two star rating with no written review. These ratings are of no use to potential buyers but drag down the average rating. Which can make it very difficult for the author to find new readers.

This is why written reviews are far more valuable than star ratings. And written reviews are the only option if you want to know anything specific.

How to read the written reviews

Some written reviews are not helpful either. If a review has been condensed into a few words, you are not going to learn much from it. ‘I loved it’, or ‘This is rubbish’, doesn’t mean anyone else will feel the same. What matters is why someone liked or disliked a book. You can just skip past any reviews that don’t give a reason.

Reviews that are rude, or non-specific, can be ignored too. Some readers use reviews to take out their frustrations. If the review doesn’t seem specific to the book, it won’t help you.

Once you’ve filtered out the noise, you are left with helpful information. But you still need to identify which parts are personal preference, and which are facts about the book.

By facts, I mean things like: genre, style, setting, and time period. Other facts include length, typographical accuracy, and level of research. How much each of these things will affect you is personal. You may love historical fiction, but dislike books that weren’t properly researched. Or maybe you may prefer shorter books, and be happy to overlook an occasional spelling error. We’re all different.

Opinions and personal preferences aren’t generally helpful. But it’s not always easy to identify them. This is because opinions are sometimes presented as facts. For example, one of my favourite books has a review saying the plot is overly complicated. What the reviewer is actually saying is that they, personally, disliked the complexity of the plot.

I like a plot filled with twists and turns. So I see that as a positive review. Even though at first glance it seems like a negative one. And it came with a low star rating.

If a reviewer says they liked, or disliked, a particular character, that’s an opinion. But you can still take something useful away. The author must have written a multi-dimensional, believable character, to have evoked a strong feeling.

It can be tempting just to read the latest two or three reviews. But it’s definitely worth reading more if you can.

If a particular point features in several reviews, it is probably going to affect your enjoyment of the book.

Plus, there are so many different aspects to books, you’re not going to find everything that matters to you in a couple of reviews.

Not enough reviews to help you make a decision?

This is often the case with new, and indie books. Please don’t give up and buy a book from a big name author instead! The book retailer you are planning to buy from isn’t the only place you can find reviews. 

Keen readers often post reviews on reading sites like Goodreads and Bookbub. And you can check other reviews they have posted too. Getting familiar with a reader’s review style helps you understand whether a point they’ve made is relevant to you. It can also help you understand their rating system. You can go to their profile page, and see what ratings they’ve given other books. That’s if you’re still paying any attention to the ratings.

Some people don’t trust the initial reviews for any book. They think they are probably from family and friends of the author. Knowing how long it took me to get a handful of reviews on any website, I can tell you this is probably not true. Most books have reviews in numerous countries, and on multiple retailer’s sites. Establishing which reviews are potentially from people they know would be impossible. As far as I’m concerned, a review is a review.

How useful do you find book reviews?

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14 thoughts on “How to Read a Book Review

  1. Hi Deborah – Terrific blog. You included much that gives me food for thought. I think I’ll be posting reviews a bit differently in the future. Take care. Phyllis

    On Thu, Apr 7, 2022 at 6:14 AM Deborah Grant-Dudley wrote:

    > deborahgrantdudley posted: ” Reading a book review is not as simple as you > might think. Other readers’ views are often not particularly helpful. > Because what you want to know, and what they want to say, are not the same. > Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on I’m not talking” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Phyllis. I’m glad this was helpful. I wrote this mainly for people reading reviews because it can be hard to find the salient points sometimes! But if it also helps with posting reviews, that’s great. On a personal note, I really appreciate your reviews!


  2. This is a really great topic. As a reviewer, I want to be honest. As a fellow author, I want to be sensitive. So, I’ve worked out a really careful review process where if I can’t give a book at least three stars, I won’t review it. I also feel like negative reviews aren’t as helpful as positive ones, to either the writer or the people reading the reviews. I’ve also gotten more generous with handing out five stars and avoid nitpicking at any tiny criticisms. But because reviews are essentially individual opinions, there is no way to please everyone. Some authors have asked me to take down my three star reviews or have questioned why I haven’t rated them higher. Some reviewers are always going to give negative reviews for no good reason. So, it’s definitely a tricky aspect of the publishing industry, but at the end of the day, still a useful tool to help gauge the quality of a book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not a fan of the star rating system to “rate” a book. A book isn’t a washing machine from Best Buy. I try to focus on my reading experience when I write a review. Hopefully, this will help potential readers decide if that is a type of experience they would enjoy.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I never understand how people can leave low star reviews and put no comments! Whether it’s book reviews, product reviews or service reviews – it’s pointless and tells the next buyer (not to mention, in cases of business and services) the seller nothing so they can’t make any appropriate changes.

    Liked by 1 person

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