Paul Carr slams Amazon one-star protest reviews

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.

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50 Comments on Paul Carr slams Amazon one-star protest reviews

  1. Whatever it takes. Annoying authors and costing publshers money/sales are the only things that will work in the long run for readers. Authors need to remember that everything is negotable. So if they don’t like the fact that they have no say about something, like publication dates,they should negotiate better. And for those who say they don’t have a negotiating position, try it. If you don’t even ask, don’t expect them to give it to you. Readers need to use every tool available if we expect to get what we want, you can be sure the publishers will, if they want to affect our behaviour/buying habits.

  2. Richard Askenase // March 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm //

    I have left a single one-star review pritesting the delayed release of “Impact” by Douglas Preston- and my review kicked off a huge furor with over 50 comments including several from Mr. Preston himself some of which were directed to me personally. So I know whereof I speak.

    I agree that these negative reviews which affect a “political” aspect of the book rather than the book itself are conroversial. BUT, that does not make them wrong. I wrote it to get people’s attention- and in that I certainly succeeded.

    I would personally restrict one-star political reviews as follows:
    1) mostly to well known authors and NOT indie writers (they can better weather the financial hit).
    2) I would note the reason for the negative review in the title of the review, not buried in the review.

    Finally, as I posted in the Douglas Preston debate, I do NOT accept that the author has NO ROLE in when an ebook is released. He can have an impact on that decision if he chooses to do so and pushes his publisher. I am less certain about the author’s impact on pricing. But as the above comment suggests, if you don’t try, then you suffer the consequences.

    And, it does appear that the one-star reviews are getting the attention of the authors and from them the publishers. And that is why they are written in the first place.
    Rick Askenase

  3. “Finally, as I posted in the Douglas Preston debate, I do NOT accept that the author has NO ROLE in when an ebook is released.”

    This is because you don’t know what you’re talking about. Go away.

  4. Jason Kottke has a much more interesting and, in my view, on target analysis of the issue:

    “Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading). Format matters. There’s an old adage in photography: the best camera is the one you have with you. Now that our media is available in so many formats, we can say that the best book is the one on your Kindle or the best movie is the one on your iPhone…That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.”

    http://kottke.org/10/03/the-new-rules-for-reviewing-media

  5. Get another publisher 😛

  6. Right on target, Bminata.

    If your publisher refuses to give you any input, and continues to do CONSUMER-HOSTILE things, and you the author suffer for it, then you have to make that tough decision to ‘fire’ your publisher.

    Choose publishers who are consumer-friendly and you won’t get those negative reviews over your publisher’s consumer-hostile actions.

    And DensityDuck, your reply reeks of the arrogance that people are tired of seeing come out of the mouths and keyboards of publishers and authors. Where does ALL the money that supports your industry come from? Yeah, from consumers. Mock them at your own peril.

  7. Unfortunately, it’s generally not as simple as “firing” your publisher because most publishing contracts these days include a “first dibs” clause meaning that the writer has to offer his next book to them first.

  8. Yes, Chris, or they may even have a multi-book contract, or some other thing that consumers (like me) honestly don’t understand.

    But over time, things can change. Not all authors will be able to immediately have an impact, but many could.

    What is to stop an author in that situation from coming out publicly against what their publisher is doing? I bet you anything that if an author put up a nice letter explaining how they are against the publisher’s policies, how they are trying to get out of business with that publisher, and how long it will be before they can do so, that they wouldn’t get nearly the number of one-star reviews from angry consumers.

    Well, what is to stop it might be contract language, but I bet that wouldn’t hold up in court, if it even exists.

    When ficbot said “maybe it’s time to start hurting the authors” I read that partially as “maybe it’s time for the authors to start standing up for the consumers and themselves against the publisher’s customer- and author-hostile policies”

  9. “Whatever it takes.” I agree with this. I recently wrote to an author about missing books in the series, and got a stock response from her rep about how the author has no say and there isn’t anything she can do about it. This is a series author who has hit the best-seller list with nearly all of her books. A littler author, maybe I could buy that they tale the offer they get and so be it. But you really mean to tell me that if Sue Grafton calls up her agent, they are going to tell her they don’t care? I’m sorry, I just don’t believe it. What I do believe is that the issue has not hit home for her yet in a way that sufficiently motivates her to go to bat for us. If we could find the button to push for authors like her who ARE big enough, maybe we could get something done. *sigh* It should NOT be this hard to get someone else to take your money…

  10. What do authors expect people to do? Just ignore the problems, buy the content and live with it? If consumers can’t voice their dissatisfaction with something then they will continue to be ignored.

  11. Binko Barnes // March 23, 2010 at 3:38 pm //

    The age of the all powerful publisher is ending. Of course, like all dying beasts, the old school publishers will thrash and fight and do a lot of damage before they go down for good.

    Authors now have the power to retain the rights to their works and relate directly with their readers. The publisher has one single consuming interest – to maximize profits. Authors and readers both care about many issues that are not important to publishers.

    Personally, I’m sick to death of spending money on ebooks that are riddled with typos and formatting errors. Publishers want the extra profits from ebooks. But they aren’t willing to put a little effort into proof-reading and formatting.

    So maybe it’s time for Authors to step up to the plate and take a little responsibility for the way that their works are presented to the public.

  12. This is absolute bull.

    First, people are influenced when they go to a product page and see very low ratings. If there are a lot of reviews, they may not take the time to go through to see if the reviews are actually from people who have read the book.

    In addition, product offerings at Amazon can be sorted by review rating, so a book that has several 1 star ratings from people who are having a hissy fit because they don’t agree with the price or it isn’t out on Kindle is pushed further back.

    More importantly, though, it’s not easy on an author to see poor ratings on our books. If it’s deserved, OK, we have to live with it. If it’s based on a publisher or Amazon decision, though, what a crappy way to treat authors. And no, the vast majority of authors do not have control over when and how our books are published.

    So here’s an idea:

    Don’t like the price of the book? Then don’t buy it.

    Not happy that the book isn’t out on Kindle yet? Did you have the same reaction when it didn’t come out on paperback right away? If not, then why is it so different for an ebook?

    No, seriously, I want to know. Where were all the complaints about later releases for paperback books? Now, why are ebooks different?

    Isn’t it really because ebooks cater to the “gimme now!” mindset? Can’t wait, have to have it now. Gimme gimme gimme!

    Amazon won’t fix this process, because it’s using folks that do these kinds of reviews to do its dirty work — to force publishers, and hence authors, to dance to its tune.

    Is this really what folks are protesting for? Amazon’s business model?

  13. @Shelley

    “Don’t like the price of the book? Then don’t buy it.”

    Agreed

    “Not happy that the book isn’t out on Kindle yet? Did you have the same reaction when it didn’t come out on paperback right away? If not, then why is it so different for an ebook?

    No, seriously, I want to know. Where were all the complaints about later releases for paperback books? Now, why are ebooks different?”

    Ask the publishers as they’re the ones changing things, for the most part it’s something recent the publishers are pulling. Especially when a lot of those windowed releases are still going to have a high list price like a hardcover would. The past few years ebooks, again for the most part, have been released at a hardcover like price point and then “adjusted” to reflect the paperback price point later. It was the publishers that decided to follow the print model with their ebook releases, you can’t totally blame folks for being a bit angry after investing in their devices and everything, that the pubs are changing things willy nilly and they keep changing things back and forth so when you get accustomed to one model things change yet again.

    “Isn’t it really because ebooks cater to the “gimme now!” mindset? Can’t wait, have to have it now. Gimme gimme gimme!”

    Maybe somewhat, but isn’t most of society that way now? Why would ebooks be any different.

    “Amazon won’t fix this process, because it’s using folks that do these kinds of reviews to do its dirty work — to force publishers, and hence authors, to dance to its tune.”

    You can report those reviews as inappropriate. Don’t know about books, but I’ve seen reviews for other products that didn’t really review the product get removed after being reported.

    I know it drives me nuts when I’m shopping on Amazon and there are one and two star reviews that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality or a persons experience with a product.

  14. I do not like delayed releases, but think it is extremely tacky and ill-advised to punish the author with a one-star review. It’s not like authors can just shop around and pick any publisher they want. An author I know who ASKED to have her book made available for the Kindle was turned down by her publisher. So it is her fault? Fortunately none of the Inquisition here has discovered this book and it has 5 and 4 star ratings. None of your 1-stars to bring it down. Really, guys, the punishment does NOT fit the crime. You are punishing the wrong one.

  15. I think that Amazon should implement a control that you can only review a book if you’ve purchased the book on that account. It would also cleanup the 5 star reviews for books that haven’t even been released yet.

  16. Logan Kennelly // March 23, 2010 at 5:22 pm //

    @Shelley: “Don’t like the price of the book? Then don’t buy it.”

    Jason Kottke (referenced above) has about the right of it. As an author, you want readers to review the content because it makes you feel better about your work. As a customer, though, I am reviewing a _product_ and have a temporary soapbox to inform other potential customers about the terrible quality of what they are looking to buy.

    If a defect in the glue resulted in the paperback version of a book falling apart before the end of a single reading, can I in good conscience still review it solely on the story?

    The problem authors are seeing is the combined review system of Amazon. The Kindle reviews are “poisoning” the paper reviews which can be particularly irksome when the minority product reviews have an overwhelming voice for the majority-sales product. I believe this may be a factor when Amazon decided not to combine reviews for video games, where publishers pull similar anti-customer stunts with select platforms.

    @Shelley: “No, seriously, I want to know. Where were all the complaints about later releases for paperback books? Now, why are ebooks different?”

    Partly, as AnemicOak points out, it is about established expectations. Further, though, a hardcover is generally viewed as an acceptable substitute for a paperback, but the same cannot be said of ebooks. They are different products.

    Many of the people buying ebooks today are the book enthusiasts that have found they prefer the electronic product. They are from the group that bought the hardcover simply because they couldn’t wait to read a book (in some cases, they _still_ buy the hardcover edition). Now the publishers are telling them that they are an undesirable market and will be punished. Wouldn’t you be upset?

    Fortunately, publishers are quickly going to realize that this windowing experiment is foolish and give it up. Much like 1-star attacks on poor products, publishers created ebook windowing as an attack on Amazon’s control of pricing (with the customer being the casualty in this case). Publishers know they can get a higher price for an ebook from many of these enthusiasts, while Amazon believes that the massive increase in sales at a lower price point (especially when the book is new) will more than compensate for the “loss” of ebooks to enthusiasts.

    Ebook windowing will disappear as soon as publishers come to understand that Amazon is correct or gain enough control that they can begin squeezing enthusiasts again.

  17. It may be “punishing the authors”, but it’s punishing the publishers more. After all, the authors only get 15% of list; the publisher takes the rest of the wholesale price.

    It’s worth noting, also, that publishers are only hurting themselves by windowing. Many of those who would have bought the book will get it from the library instead. Some might even go to peer-to-peer and get it there (where some kind soul will have scanned and OCR’d the paper version).

    And as was mentioned in Joanna’s posts that I linked to at the top of mine, there just doesn’t seem to be any other way to get publishers to listen. The one-star reviewers are taking the only avenue they see as open to them: trying to shame the publishers into getting rid of windowing, and pressure the authors into putting pressure on the publishers.

  18. Felix Torres // March 23, 2010 at 7:58 pm //

    Correctly or incorrectly, the BPHs have created the impression they are out to rip-off ebook readers and punish them for *their* failure to meet their own expectations of sales.

    They’re the ones who for the past 50 years have steadily raised prices claiming “print costs” “pulp costs” “energy coss” or whatever smokescreen they could get away with and now suddenly turn arund and say print costs are irrelevant.

    They’re the ones releasing cost “breakdowns” that mysteriously fail to address any overhead costs, any corporate gold-plating, any absurd advances, instead pretending all books have the same costs, the same revenues.

    They’re the ones releasing tone-deaf pronouncements bragging about how they’re going to squeeze more money out of eook readers by price-fixing.

    They’re the ones adopting the price-fixing schemes that pretend to charge the same for super-advance name authors and unknown newcomers and mid-listers.

    Against all that, what recourse do readers have?
    Not buy and let the publishers pretend ebooks isn’t a viable business?

    Riiighhhtt!

    Not while they can register their discontent vocally and visibly.

    For those that dont like it: tough luck!
    In case you hadn’t noticed, its the 21st century out there and there’s this thing called the internet where freedom of expression rules and where there are hundreds of websites dedicated to critizing everybody and everything.

    We’ve been living in a consumerist society for 50 years now (Hello, Ralph Nader!); most companies have long since adapted and recognized consumers will not be ignored by anybody.

    And that includes ostriches.

  19. AstroDigital // March 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm //

    I think everyone should keep in mind that the content of an ebook is exactly the same as with a hardcover or paperback. If there are negative criticisms of this content then it is as with all formats the book is delivered in.
    eBooks are still an emerging and evolving technology and frustration with this tech should definitely not be taking a toll on the author.
    Availability of content is what should be focused on here whether it is hardcover, ebook or softcover. The authors rights and payments should be the same regardless of deliverable method as the author guarantees the content not the format.

  20. @ Shelley

    “Not happy that the book isn’t out on Kindle yet? Did you have the same reaction when it didn’t come out on paperback right away? If not, then why is it so different for an ebook?”

    Because when the paperback comes out, it’s priced as a paperback. When an ebook comes out (if it does) delayed and costing the same as the hardcover released several months earlier, or more than the recently released paperback, there’s definetly something wrong.

    “No, seriously, I want to know. Where were all the complaints about later releases for paperback books? Now, why are ebooks different?”

    Because they are delayed like paperbacks, but they are not priced like paperbacks. That’s the difference.

    “Isn’t it really because ebooks cater to the “gimme now!” mindset? Can’t wait, have to have it now. Gimme gimme gimme!”

    No. It’s because ebook buyers are sick of being treated as lesser customers. That said, some ebook buyers (as some buyers of just about anything) do want the product as soon as it comes out. Those will probably be willing to pay hardcover price for a decently formated and proof read product released along with the hardcover. But if the publisher forces them to wait (for a product riddled with typos and formatting errors), than the publisher is just trying to give them the paperback deal for the full hardcover price. Would you pay hardcover price for a paperback?

  21. Shelley, what I want to know from authors is why they are so supportive of practices that make it hard for me to give them money. Why are you not more angry at these barriers your legitimate customers are facing? Why are incensed authors not banding together and petitioning to solve these problems? Why are they expecting customers to do all the work FOR them at changing things to make a better system because they think THEY have the least power? Instead of getting defensive because your feelings are hurt by comments from people who haven;t even read the book, why not focus your energy on getting the book into their hands so they actually CAN read it and write the kinds of reviews you want? I think the real issue is that authors are focusing on the wrong problem here. The one-star review is not your real problem. The real problem is, that review represents a paying customer who tried to give you money and was prevented from doing so.

  22. Thiago, I am a Kindle owner, and I’ve not yet seen a Kindle eBook priced at or higher than the physical book. There can be a transition period when the paperback is out where the ebook is more than the paperback, but less than the hard cover, but the price usually drops within a month.

    Again, though, if you feel the book isn’t worth the cost, don’t buy the book. The price will, most likely, come down at some point. At least, this happens with popular fiction (non-fiction, less so).

    Others: is the publisher really punished? With this book, it’s the number one book in its category. The publisher is doing fine.

    For smaller authors, though, when it receives enough 1 star ratings, it doesn’t show up on the first page for searches on subjects. It can influence readers looking for a new author, or other books by the same author.

    It shouldn’t but it can.

    ficbot, I’m not writing in support of the publisher, I’m writing in support of book authors. And you really don’t know the book business if you think most authors have any influence on publishers and their processes.

    As it is, all of the Kindle 1 star raters are playing right into Amazon’s hands. Must be nice to turn loose a load of fanboys to do your dirty work.

  23. Maybe if authors stopped being sheep and stuck together, they could have more say in how their books are published. It takes two parties to sign a contract and one of those two is the author or author’s representative. As it is, most authors don’t care and don’t want to care about the business of publishing their books. Now, when they see how pissed off their customers are and that it is starting to affect their bottom line of royalties, maybe they will wake up and realize that they do need to care about how their books are published.

  24. Why is there an Author’s Guild if not for author’s voices to be heard? Has the Author’s Guild never been able to effect any positive changes on author’s behalf with publishers? Contract changes, for example?

    Use your combined voices to squash consumer-hostile behavior by your publishers.

    To be sure, the publishers are NEVER going to listen to the consumers. So now consumers are fighting back the only way they know how, and hoping it trickles down (up?) to the publishers.

  25. Shelley, when you say things like “Must be nice to turn loose a load of fanboys to do your dirty work.” you just come off as bitter.

    If this plays into Amazon’s hands then it is just coincidence that the consumer’s interests and Amazon’s interests line up in this case.

    Also an interesting point… do you remember all the 1-star reviews of the Kindle itself because of DRM and the 1984 “scandal”? Most of those people had never even seen a kindle. But as far as I know, those negative reviews are all still there (there are 1186 1-star reviews of the Kindle). Amazon does not exempt themselves and their own products from this kind of activism.

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