50

We have extensively covered consumers using the Amazon one-star “nuclear option” as a method of protest—first with the DRM-laden game Spore, then with the first books to be “windowed”—withheld from the Kindle for a few months at the publisher’s behest.

Joanna (nee Ficbot) made waves with her controversial post about using this method to protest Kindle e-book pricing and quality issues, “Maybe we should be hurting the authors”, then posted a more temperate follow-up.

Now author Paul Carr has posted a rant against the practice on TechCrunch. He feels that those leaving one-star protest reviews on Amazon are, to put it politely, misguided.

I speak from pained experience as an author when I say that we have absolutely no say on when our books are released, in what format and at what price. And yet we’re the ones who have the most to lose from negative Amazon reviews. A book’s overall star rating is one of the most prominent pieces of information on an Amazon page and many readers – quite reasonably – equate a low average rating with a poorly written book. This damages sales of the book and also damages our reputations as writers. Almost nobody – unless they click through and read the full text of the negative reviews – sees a one star rating and assumes its a comment on the decision by the publisher to withhold an electronic edition.

Carr links to another blogger’s post on the subject calling the practice “collective bullying” and goes on to talk about other one-star reviews based on matters unrelated to the book’s content, such as the author’s gender, race, politics, and so forth. He suggests that Amazon should change its review policy to allow reviews only by people who have purchased the book.

As someone points out in the comment discussion that follows, Apple previously had a similar problem in its iPhone app store until it restricted reviews of apps to those who had actually purchased them.

However, there is a key difference: Apple is the only (legitimate) source for those apps, so in order to own it the person would have had to buy it from them. Amazon, on the other hand, sells a commodity you can buy from dozens of places, or even read in the library without buying at all.

Restricting reviews to only those who purchased from Amazon itself would severely lessen the utility of Amazon as a review source by considerably decreasing the quantity of eligible reviewers for a given item.

This is hardly the first time that negative reviews have made waves on Amazon. Lest we forget, Amazon’s practice of allowing all reviews, positive and negative, has been controversial from the very beginning. Jeff Bezos has said:

“We had publishers writing to us, saying “Why in the world would you allow negative reviews? Maybe you don’t understand your business–you make money when you sell things. Get rid of the negative reviews, and leave the positive ones.”

Yes, negative reviews can hurt sales in the short term, but over the long term, allowing criticism builds credibility. Having negative reviews along with positive ones helps buyers decide, says Bezos: “We don’t make money when we sell things, we make money when we help people make purchase decisions.”

It doesn’t seem likely Bezos is going to change his tune now.

And in a sense these review writers are doing just what they are supposed to: judging a product based on its utility to them and stating their opinion. Most people I know, on seeing mediocre reviews, will be inclined to look further at those reviews, good and bad, to see why people dislike it, since not everyone looks for the same criteria in a book. People to whom a Kindle edition is irrelevant will pay more attention to the good reviews, since they are the ones that are useful to them.

In a way, Amazon one-starrers can take this as a sign that their campaign is working. They want to annoy authors? Well, they’re getting authors annoyed. It is unclear, however, whether this will result in the outcome they are seeking, since it is the publishers and not the authors who have control over the book’s release.

Related:

 
50