Sunday, April 10, 2011

How not to behave as a reader

Last weekend, I wrote about bad behavior by one very passionate but unwise author as well as a publisher behaving badly. This week, I want to talk about things readers do that have repercussions on authors they might not think about.

Over the last week or so, there has been a great deal written about the number of one star reviews Michael Connelly's latest book, The Fifth Witness, has received for its digital version. Now, it's not unusual for a best seller like Connelly to have a few one star reviews for a title. There's always that one person who buys the book and reads it, expecting something the book isn't. But we're not talking a few readers who aren't satisfied with what Connelly wrote. No, we're talking about hundreds of readers who have given the book one star reviews -- and who very well may not have read it.

If you go to the kindle page for The Fifth Witness, you'll see that there have been 167 customer reviews that average out to a 2 star rating. Specifically, there have been 38 five star reviews, 4 four star reviews, 1 three star reviews, 4 two star reviews and a whopping 120 one star reviews. While the B&N rankings aren't quite as one-sided, they do show the readers' frustration.

Why all the low rankings? Well, when this book first came out, it cost more for the e-book than for the hard cover. Yep, that's right. On amazon, you could get a copy of the hard cover for $14.28 while the e-book was $14.99. At bn, the prices were $14.73 for the hard cover and $14.99 for the e-book.

Needless to say, the discussion boards went wild. And so did the negative reviews. I understand readers doing this to protest something the publisher has control over. (For the record, the publisher of this book is one of the publishers following the agency model of pricing for e-books. You can always tell if a book is affected by this because Amazon adds the following under the price -- This price was set by the publisher.) The problem is, when you give reviews based solely on price, you are hurting the author. There are people out there who might not read the reviews but they do look at how many stars a book has. When they see a disparate amount of one or two stars as opposed to four or five stars, they make a decision not to buy the book. And that is how it impacts the author.

Now, surprisingly, the publisher did listen to the readers who protested the price. A check of both Amazon and BN this morning shows that the price for the e-book has been lowered to $12.99. While that is still more than what a number of e-book purchasers see as the upper limit on what they will pay, it is lower than the physical copy of the book. But the damage has already been done. The bad reviews based on price are there and the only being hurt by them is Mr. Connelly.

I'll admit, I might not have paid as much attention to what happened to Mr. Connelly but for a review one of NRP's short stories received. This particular reviewer either posted the review to the wrong title -- there is another title very similar to ours that is a novel where our title is a short story -- or this particular reviewer didn't pay attention to the file size when buying the title. Why, you ask, do I say this? Because the reviewer complained about having to pay for something that was, in his opinion, nothing but a "review" of a book. That review, coming around the same time as the kerfluffle over Connelly's book, really made me start thinking about what damage such reviews can do.

Is there an easy answer? Sure. Sellers such as Amazon and BN can add another level to their review process, one where you rate the price of the book that is separate from the review of the content. Will it happen? Doubtful. So it falls into our hands as readers to be responsible. Review the book -- read it and write a thoughtful and thought out -- review of the contents. Then add any concerns you might have about the price of the book. Publishers aren't going to be hurt all that badly by the loss of sales for one author's books. But that author will be. Numbers are everything in the publishing world. Authors don't have control over what their publishers price a book -- paper or digital -- at. So don't punish them.

If the price is more than you want to spend, then pass on the book until the price comes down. Speak up about the price on your blog, in discussion boards, in emails to the author and to the publisher. Email amazon and bn and other e-tailers asking them to change their review system to allow you to rate the price as well as the content. That, to me, is a much more fair approach.

In the meantime, let's hope the agency model of pricing falls by the wayside in the near future.


Synova said...

It's unfortunate since the author doesn't have any control, and I realize that this is entirely too easy for me to say, but I don't think that other methods of protest would reach the publisher at all. And while this sort of tramples the poor author, it does have at least the potential of reaching the publisher. If authors have little power, readers seem to have even less ability to let their displeasure be known.

And I do think that people look at the bad reviews with some discretion, don't they? I saw one bad review of a translated David Weber e-book, one star, because the reviewer didn't read German. Really?

Of course, if the same people are going to the paper version and giving it one star, I take everything back again.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Amanda. It's an interesting scenario. I guess it is positive if it actually changed the publisher's behaviour, but it's a little tough on the poor author.

Negative reviews hurt, but I would think lack of income hurts more. I wonder how much the reviews actually really impact the sales? Do hard copy reviews impact more than electronic? Or vice verca?

There is so much potential for feedback loops on the net, I guess electronic reviews - especially driven by some other issue (like price) - can really drive a big response.

As the author it must be kind of frightening watching all that happen.

Dave Freer said...

Well, I find myself in more sympathy with Synova's POV - because Mr Connelly could (and IMO, should) come out in public and stop carrying the can for the publisher - who, I may assure you, would not do that for him. If they had that sense of integrity and degree of honor, the CEO and the various executives concerned with setting the price would have stepped up to the plate and told the world that they at 'big5 publishers' are entirely responsible for setting the price, and that it is unfair to blame Michael Connelly for their actions. But as they're perfectly happy to let him take the heat and the damage rather than themselves, I'd say he should at the very least release a statement on his blog, putting blame where it belongs AND showing how much he benefits from their action - it will be cents for their dollars. It won't go down too well with the publisher, of course. But it's rather like the abused wife putting on makeup so the bruises don't show, because showing the world only makes him angry - the abuser won't treat his wife any better for covering for him - in fact it'll make him worse, and neither will the publisher.

Chris McMahon said...

Good analogy, Dave. Scary, but spot on.

Mike said...

Question? If'n we don't like that nasty old "wholesale" model (which I think of as a "retailers" model, but most places seem to call it the "wholesale model") and we don't like that new "agency model" because the agents aren't very friendly... what kind of a model do we like, anyway? I mean, sad to say, somehow in all this, the authors (and others) need to get paid, and the readers want to get their stuff. There's the TV model (advertising!) and the free model (just give it away), but there aren't too many ways to play this game? Patrons?

So... what's the new rules? Just wondering... I hate to see us toss a new model when we aren't sure where the next icefloe will be as we dance along on the spring floods.

Brendan said...

I don't think there was anything particularly wrong with the retail model except that the sales force in most publishers caved into the big retailers to such an extent that more and more books had to be huge sellers to make money.

When I first became interested in the publishing industry the current wisdom was retailers paid 60% of the RRP. now I understand that this, at least for the big buyers is closer to 30%. The costs this discounting created, I think, bear a big part in the publishing industry death spiral that seems to be going on.

I wonder what position the industry would be in if it had resisted the downwards % creep or forced retailers who wanted to pay less into non-traditional contract terms(like a no return policy)

Amanda said...

Synova, the problem is that these sorts of protests haven't worked in the past. Why this one was different would be interesting to find out. I have a feeling something went on behind the scenes -- possibly Connelly himself got involved. I know that, in the past, some of the authors involved have been emailed by their fans upset over pricing issues and those authors have admitted they didn't realize what their publishers were doing. Most of those have promised to talk to their publishers -- some have gone so far as to blog or fb/tweet about the issue.

The real issue is that the reviews do seem to bleed over between editions. If you look up Connelly's book on Amazon, you see the same reviews -- and stars -- for the hard cover edition that you do for the digital.

Amanda Green said...

Chris, as I pointed out to Synova, the problem with the system as it is currently set up is that the reviews aren't segregated between those for the digital version as opposed to the hard copy version. So the potential harm to sales -- and the author's pocketbook -- is frightening.

I'm not sure the reviews hurt sales initially. Especially not for an author like Connelly who is automatically classed as a best seller. Where the harm will come is a month from now, after the initial word of mouth and hype has died down. Folks will come to Amazon, B%N, etc., to get the book and will see that, out of almost 200 reviews, the vast majority are negative. I'm afraid too many of the won't take the time to read why the book has been downgraded, and that translates into fewer sales.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I don't know if Connelly did as you said he should, but I do know a number of other authors have -- usually to the consternation of their agents and publishers. It is also why Amazon adds the comment below the price for all titles falling under the agency model that the price is set by the publisher.

I also think we need to lay a large chunk of the blame at the feet of Steve Jobs who started this whole agency model debacle. He insisted that the publishers sign contracts with Apple -- and with other digital outlets -- that their titles would never be offered anywhere at a price lower than it was offered through iBookstore. Sorry, but that smacks of price fixing. It is why several states attorneys general are looking into the agency model and why it is illegal in Australia and under review in England.

Amanda Green said...

Mike, it wasn't the consumer who didn't like the old model. It allowed for competition between outlets on prices,etc. It was the publishers -- with encouragement from Steve Jobs -- who pitched a fit.

What is happening as a result is that while the big six publishers may be seeing their digital sales increasing, and deluding themselves as a result that they are on the right track, their sales aren't increasing as much as other publishers' are. Readers are looking for e-books that don't cost as much as hard copy books.

The main reason the big 6 publishers have given for such high prices for e-books is to prevent the sales of e-books from "cannibalizing" hard cover sales. The problem is, even as their e-book sales grow (although not at the rate of other publishers) they aren't growing at the same rate as hard cover sales are decreasing. All that is really happening is that they are now pricing both hard cover and digital formats beyond what most folks can afford.

The new model really isn't all that new. It's been around for more than ten years now. It's just that the big 6 don't want to see it, much less admit it. That new model is the same one Baen has used for the sales of its e-books in conjunction with hard copies. It's the same model a lot of other smaller publishers have been using. It's a model where the publisher doesn't try to play the shell game with their customers.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, you hit a couple of very important points. As for where the industry would be if it hadn't given in to retailers on the return issue and others, it very well might be healthier. I don't know. I do suspect, however, that it would have forced retailers like Borders to have been more responsible with their own finances. And that would have been better for the industry as a whole.

Mike said...

Okay, that makes sense to me. But we need a spiffy name for it... wholesale model, agency model, how about "readers' model"? After all, letting readers have their fix at a reasonable price, without trying to play shell games -- and even letting them have eArcs early for a bonus that is STILL less than many of the other publishers are charging for their hardbacks or ebooks? What are you going to call it? Exemplary service to the readers?

I'll buy that. (lots of nuance intended :-)