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All fired up!

Recently I saw a post on the TeleRead blog about an interesting event: Kindle owners were giving the book GAME CHANGE (a political tell-all about the 2008 presidential campaign) one-star reviews because there was no Kindle version available. [Note that There is now a pre-order button for the Kindle version, but the ebook won't be delivered until February 23.] My friend mindyklasky, author of the classic Glasswrights fantasy series, as well as several charming and funny contemporary fantasy/romance books was appalled at people evaluating a book by the formats it came in when the author often has no control over what the publisher makes available (not true for the J.K. Rowlings of the world, but then she's not worried about reviews). Here are the stats for GAME CHANGE reviews as of today:

256 Reviews (average 2.2 out of 5 stars)
5 star: (65)
4 star: (14)
3 star: (2)
2 star: (3)
1 star: (172)

A few things struck me as interesting. One was that a lot of Amazon customers were annoyed with these angry Kindle owners for diluting their "book reviews" into "product reviews." The second thing was that there were a lot of one-star reviews. When you read them, it's plain that some are people who didn't like the book's content (although it's not clear if they read the book; they tend to sound like they don't like the writers' politics), and others are Kindle owners who are pissed, but there are a lot more Kindle owners than conservatives.

And thirdly, I realized this is one small skirmish is a war that has already begun: the Battle of the Book.

On one side there are publishers, who acquire, edit, print, bind, and distribute print books, and sometimes (but not always) sell them as ebooks. On the other side are the readers who buy the books (or borrow them from a library).

Publishers are constantly trying to increase revenue. They do this by acquiring the most popular books they can, and by finding ways to get people to pay more for all the books they publish. A favorite tactic is to publish new books in hardback only, and then to price the book at $25 and up (sometimes way up, especially if it's nonfiction). It used to be the hardback would come out, and then about a year later the same book would be issued in mass market (MM) paperback, but for much less (often $6 to $8). Now, they have trade paperback, an in-between thing: nicer looking than an MM but also more expensive. Really popular books take from one to two years to go from hardback to trade paper, to MM. Also, MM prices are creeping up; a new twist is "super-sized" MM books, which are just slightly taller, and (no surprise) cost a little more.

On the other side is the customer, and among some of the book-buying public, a revolt is fomenting. A lot of readers don't like hardbacks. They are not only expensive, they take a lot of room on the shelf. Reading a hardback while traveling is a royal pain. At one extreme, voracious readers who spend considerable bucks for a dedicated eReader want to be able to read books on it. They want ebooks for convenience and ease of reading, and they don't want to wait. Now mind you, in the past there were plenty of folks who were annoyed about books being out only in hardback. But because publishers had conditioned them so well to the cycle, they mostly never thought to protest. If they couldn't wait, they went to the library or a used book store. That might not be true anymore. I have a good friend who is a truly voracious reader of romance, fantasy and science fiction, mostly of print books, and she is mad as hell about so many books in those genres now coming out as either trade paperback or as "enhanced MM," not only because of the cost but because of the increased shelf space.

In fact, an earlier skirmish was fought using bad Amazon reviews as a tactic against David Baldacci's FIRST FAMILY, which was released on the Kindle at the same time as the hardback, but the Kindle version was priced at about $15. Baldacci's stats aren't quite as lopsided, but there are lot of one-star reviews. This might be because the book is now $9.99 on Kindle, so those reviews have stopped coming in.

209 Reviews (looks like a 3.5 star average)
5 star: (80)
4 star: (41)
3 star: (32)
2 star: (18)
1 star: (38)

What this tells me is that the war is heating up. Publishers are scrambling to learn new ways to make money in the digital age. But it's clear that when readers are also digital consumers, they're more vocal and more demanding. Mindy likes to call the one-star review "the nuclear option," but since GAME CHANGE appears headed for the NYT best seller list, it's hard to see the Kindlers' campaign as anything more than a shot fire across the publishers' bow, and not a particularly big cannon at that, at least when used on a book that's getting a lot of attention.

So, publishers on one side, readers on the other. Who does that leave in the middle? The authors, of course. They're playing the part of the rope in this tug of war, and I expect some of them feel pretty frayed. The thing is, in the long run, ebooks may help authors a lot; it's the short run that's proving so painful.

One proposal is to make it so a customer had to have bought the item to post a review of it. Amazon has never, ever tried to enforce that, although they do now show if someone is a "verified purchaser." I expect that's partly because Amazon wants people to write reviews on the theory that more reviews mean more purchases. They do allow people to comment on reviews, and to rate them as useful or not useful, and mostly these one-star reviews are rated not useful.

So, think it over. Do you think Amazon customers should be able to post reviews of a book they haven't bought? Would you ever rate a book down for something beside the content?

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 23rd, 2010 09:07 am (UTC)
I would feel really aggrieved if somebody used me for their protest :-( Also, the publishers are running scared and don't know what to do about ebooks. Should they nurture the cuckoo that is going to render them pointless? Tough choices there.
Jan. 23rd, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
Some pretty tough choices all around. I think publishers need to figure it out fast, though, or they will be in real trouble. I work for a legal and regulatory publisher and we dealt with all this stuff a decade ago. We're still publishing in print, but that revenue goes down a little bit every year while digital goes up.
Jan. 24th, 2010 08:57 am (UTC)
No, to both questions.

I think this is absolutely appalling. For a good while now, my opinion of Amazon reviews has steadily lowered because of stuff like this.

Good post!
Jan. 25th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
There seems to be a real difference of opinion between folks who see it as a "book review" and those who feel they are reviewing a product. The odd thing to me, is they are giving bad reviews to something they want!
Jan. 25th, 2010 04:23 am (UTC)
I think that if Amazon tried to allow only people who purchased a book from themselves to review it, there would be big problems.

One reason why people go to look at Amazon reviews are because they are open. Sure, there's a bit of the Wild West in there, but if I were reduced to providing ratings for only material I purchased from Amazon there'd be far fewer ratings. I was purchasing books and recordings long before Amazon existed, and I refuse to become a one trick pony in my purchasing habits.

If Amazon decides to actually do this, I can guarantee that any open review site like Good Reads would instantly gain in popularity.
Jan. 25th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
I can see that. I suppose the "verified purchaser" thing is better than no solution. But of course, ALL the reviews are used to generate the score. And it's not like these folks go back and change the number of stars after it comes out on Kindle and they can read it.

Interestingly, a related problem is there is no good way to report formatting errors in ebooks. Amazon doesn't off "review by format" so folks who have complaints about that end up posting comments about crappy, hard-to-read formatting in the same set of reviews as the print.

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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