User Reviews as Outlet for Venting

More and more often, users on Amazon.com are using the review function to express their opinion, not about the content of the work, but about its format. TechCrunch points out one recent example, where a book is getting one-star reviews because it’s not available for the Kindle.

You can also see this on DVDs, where people complain about a soundtrack change from the original airing or that the special features aren’t available unless you buy the Blu-ray version. Another popular example is when a video game is marked down because of the DRM protection features that get in the way of gameplay.

Is this just a clever new way to electronically boycott inferior goods? These reviews, technically speaking, aren’t accurate. They don’t speak to whether the book is a good read or the movie enjoyable to watch. But looked at another way, customers are repurposing the review function in a way that they find more useful and might cause the decision-makers to pay attention.

People aren’t able to enjoy the content in the way they want to because of technological limitations that have been introduced to raise company profits. Of course, that’s the right of the producer/publisher. But it’s also the case that customers will speak out against artificial restrictions that prevent them from spending the money they want to spend. Readers want to give the publisher money for an online book. Viewers want to buy a DVD with extra features. If producers don’t want to create products for that audience, fine, but you can no longer expect the audience to passively sit silently about it. Because now we have the internet.

TechCrunch bemoans the practice of one-star reviews because it hurts the author, but the author doesn’t have the power to fix the problem. That seems a little naive. Can’t an author, in at least some cases, draft a contract that requires ebook releases? The piece goes on to quote someone else as calling the practice “bullying”. That’s an extreme, inaccurate reaction. Many smart sellers WANT customers to express their desires, so they can fill them and become more successful, or at least understand what factors into buyer decision-making. There’s no way to respond directly to many media producers, so people are using an open forum instead.

Jason Kottke, on the other hand, thinks that paying attention to format is a sign of how regular people are more forward-thinking than “traditional media reviewers”.

In the end, people don’t buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.

I wonder if part of the reason for that is because traditional reviewers may not see the final format. They may get a screener DVD with no packaging and no forced trailers at the start, or an advance reading copy that’s a copied paperback instead of a nicely presented hardcover. That’s another way the publishers save money, in a way that may come back to bite them in the long run.

Update: (3/24/10) At an Amazon forum, users debate the tactic. From that, I learned that Amazon has a link near the book that says “Tell the publisher I’d like to read this book on Kindle”. So there is an alternative notification method, although not one that collates response data publicly.


24 Responses to “User Reviews as Outlet for Venting”

  1. Nick Marino Says:

    i’m actually really glad that Amazon reviews have shifted in this direction in the past year or so. by the time i’m ready to go on Amazon and buy something, i already know that i like the concept or the story or the characters — i want to know about the product. is the gameplay as good as other installments? is the DVD tricked out and comes in sturdy packaging? does the TV show still have the original soundtrack? stuff like that. i search Google for content reviews. i search Amazon for product reviews.

  2. SKleefeld Says:

    I think it’s totally fair to rate a product based on more than simply the content. If a book publisher, for example, uses absurdly cheap paper and, and the colors on the no-heavier-than-interior-pages cover are mis-aligned, that impacts the experience, even if you’re reading the world’s best novel.

    This is one of the reasons, in fact, why publishers can keep publishing multiple versions of the same PD books. One might be a leather-bound “collector’s edition” while another is a cheap paperback. Maybe one is heavily edited and another has an introduction by another author. The bulk of the content is identical in these cases, but people would be paying for the different “features” and it’s perfectly reasonable to rate/review the different editions based on that.

    That said, I think that’s a different notion entirely than rating one product (a pulped wood copy of a book) based on the failings of another (the lack of existence of a Kindle version of same).

  3. Johanna Says:

    Those are good points and additional justifications. I know that I often use Amazon reviews to find out if DVDs have special features and how good they are, since the product description more often these days doesn’t include that detail.

  4. Thad Says:

    In extreme cases, it’s used for pure mob justice. A psychologist mindlessly trashed Mass Effect, sight unseen, on Fox News a couple of years back, and angry gamers retaliated by bombarding her book with 1-star reviews. She wound up issuing a mea culpa — which of course reinforces that kind of behavior.

    I don’t support slamming something you don’t actually have any familiarity with — though, on the other hand, that’s exactly what SHE had done, and I’ll acknowledge a certain poetic justice in the angry mob’s choice of retaliation.

    I wouldn’t criticize a movie based on the theater I saw it in (unless it was Avatar), but these aren’t called content reviews, they’re called PRODUCT reviews. It’s perfectly reasonable to judge the entire package — I haven’t bought a new-release movie on DVD since 2005, because I got sick of seeing Special Editions released a year after the initial barebones DVD release.

    (And sometimes the reviews simply point out flaws in Amazon bundles — I remember seeing a bunch of 1-star reviews on an Amazon Wii Remote/MotionPlus bundle that cost more than the two components individually. That’s not a critique of the product at all, but it’s certainly useful information for a potential buyer.)

    Spore’s DRM WAS a real problem, and the blitz of 1-star reviews called attention to it and eventually got the restrictions reduced — all without having any visible impact on sales. But of course that was an A-list title from the biggest publisher in the western hemisphere, by the designer of the highest-selling PC game ever. Smaller releases could potentially see a bigger impact from negative reviews — although, on the other hand, smaller-profile releases aren’t likely to be the targets of major backlash.

    I DO think that giving a negative review to a printed book for not being available as an eBook is problematic — hell, there goes Kurt Vonnegut’s entire library. Or you could trash the Beatles’ catalog for not being available on iTunes.

    …this is one of those where I just kinda have to trail off and say “It’s complicated.”

  5. Johanna Says:

    Is mob justice always a bad thing, though? Well, that phrase makes it sound as if it is. What if we called it “collective evaluation”?

  6. Jessica Says:

    “Can’t an author, in at least some cases, draft a contract that requires ebook releases?”

    Not usually. I mean, I’m sure Jodi Picoult or James Patterson can get publishers to play ball, but for most of us, not so much. I sure can’t. These are tough times, little missy, and they’ll publish in the format they want and I’ll like it. So while I can agree with giving a game that doesn’t work because of its DRM protection a bad review, since that’s an issue with that product, I can’t get behind rating down a book because it’s not in the format you want when you want it. It’s not the publisher that suffers most from that; it’s the midlister whose book stops selling and whose contract gets dropped. You want the publisher to hear you, talk to them.

  7. Lyle Says:

    In the case of video games, I think DRM issues are a legitimate issue. In some cases DRM does affect gameplay. For example, there’s an upcoming game that requires a constant internet connection to play, not for any game feature that takes advantage of being online just so that the game can phone home, and if your connection goes out you get cut from the game. That makes that game more inconvenient to play.

    In some cases, if the DRM were as reported, giving a game one star for the DRM would be like giving an appliance that damaged your home because they were poorly built.

  8. Holden Carver Says:

    “You can also see this on DVDs, where people complain about a soundtrack change from the original airing or that the special features aren’t available unless you buy the Blu-Ray version. Another popular example is when a video game is marked down because of the DRM protection features that get in the way of gameplay.”

    These examples above are not at all the same as the example that TechCrunch highlights.

    Giving a DVD a lower mark due to soundtrack changes is entirely legitimate, especially if the music that has been changed is music that could be considered integral to the show (I say show as it’s almost always TV that suffers soundtrack changes, not film). An example would be the UK TV show ‘Skins’, each episode of which features a large amount of music, prominently played, that cleverly worked well with each scene. Changing the music for the DVD release had an effect on the whole product, and many people (myself included) didn’t buy it as a result.

    Giving a lower mark for missing special features is borderline, but I’d allow it. Maybe not one-starring the review, but certainly the reviewer should be allowed to knock at least one star off, maybe two. Especially if it’s the case that the DVD has unused space on it which *could* have the special features on it, as this would reinforce the view that special features are being left off to force people to upgrade to Blu-Ray. Similarly, I myself would have little hesistation giving one-star reviews to DVDs that lack subtitles. The point here is that Amazon reviews are reviewing the whole PRODUCT, not just the tiny part that is the story, and if any part of the product could be deemed defective, that’s a legitimate area to mark it down it.

    The same applies to the videogame DRM issue. If you can’t play a game unless you’re on the internet, or if a game secretly installs software on your computer to administer the DRM used in the game, then that’s a legitimate reason to mark down the game. It could be the best game since sliced bread, but when the container is a spiky chalice of pain and poison, that doesn’t matter.

    All those examples, as I say, are different to the TechCrunch article, where a BOOK is being badly ‘reviewed’ because there is no E-BOOK version. That would be like a DVD getting bad reviews because there’s no Blu-Ray, or a video-game – say, Heavy Rain – getting bad reviews because there’s no X-Box or Wii version. Those are all factors which have no connection whatsoever to the product under review, and in those cases I think Amazon really should be removing them. By the same token, I hate seeing five-star reviews on unreleased DVDs saying “This is the best film ever and I can’t wait to buy it, like you all should!” because they tell me nothing about the product, and I’d love to see those removed from Amazon too.

    “Can’t an author, in at least some cases, draft a contract that requires ebook releases?”

    Absolutely not, no publisher would allow it. Unless, possibly, the author was a mega-selling powerhouse like Stephenie Meyer, or James Patterson, in which case they wouldn’t need to include such a clause anyway. But 99.9999999999% of authors have absolutely no leverage to enforce such a clause. Bluntly put, it’s not their job to decide what the best format to release a book in is, anyway. The publisher is the one placed to know this stuff. If they think they can make money with an ebook, they will. If they think a ebook will *cost* them money and so they hold it back until paperback release, then that’s their choice too. But they’d no more let an author have a clause *forcing* an ebook release than they’d let an author having a clause forcing them to release deluxe-sized illustrated editions with leather covers, gold edges, and a personalised dedication in each one (in a limited run of 237 copies).

  9. Johanna Says:

    Jessica: How, exactly, does one talk to a publisher publicly? Do they have message boards? It’s the group action that makes this a perceived powerful statement — sending an email doesn’t have the same effect.

  10. Dave Says:

    If a Blu-Ray disc is released with more features than it’s DVD counterpart, I simply boycott both versions. I don’t want to miss out on a product I wanted to buy, but I don’t want to encourage Blu-Ray to replace DVDs in the same way DVDs replaced VHS tapes. I have too many programs to convert formats again.

    While I don’t like the attitudes which accompany many of the reviews, I do value those reviews which inform me of the positive and negative aspects of whatever item I’m considering purchasing.

  11. Jessica Says:

    Well, that’s the thing. Downrating a particular book isn’t viewed as a group effort against the _publisher_ by the publisher; it’s viewed as a reaction to the author and the book. So you’re not affecting the right “person.” Unless you boycott absolutely everything a publisher puts out that isn’t in e-book format (if that’s the issue) until they pony up the e-books, it’s not treated as a format issue. It’s “Bob’s book has failed, so bye, Bob.” An e-mail campaign might be your best option. Not a great option, I agree, but better than denigrating a book you liked or haven’t read because of something over which the author has no control.

    (Also, the “little missy” in my previous comment was meant to be my publisher talking to me, not me talking to you. I didn’t catch the ambiguity the first time. Curse of rush-commenting!)

  12. James Schee Says:

    Of course doesn’t this buy into the notion that people or businesses feel online reviews and comments really matter? Yes I know the oddity of saying that on an online comic reviews site.:)

    I love Johanna’s site and she’s pointed me towards many a wonderful item over the years. Yet I can’t think of a single instance where something negative she said kept me from getting something I’d planned on.

    One thing anyone’s seen online who has been online long enough, is that any area seems to take on a certain mentality. Most of which are negative comments, because people who are happy with something rarely feel the need to be heard.

    I’m reading those comments or as they call it reviews. To me that mob or hive mentality that seems to be coming through works more against than for them. They are obviously there because they have an agenda (I don’t want to buy anything but DVDs/I want all books to be ebooks!)

    Which are valid viewpoints to have, but once you state it, then it becomes easier to tune out when you oftenly repeat it after wards.

  13. Johanna Says:

    Dave, I feel the same way about not buying DVDs that have been stripped of the features of interest.

    Jessica, I didn’t take it as meaning me, but thank you for clearing that up. It sounds as though there’s really no way to accomplish what customers want to accomplish, since you’re saying that publishers are too stupid to read the actual comments. :) I mean, if people are saying “I am giving this one star because I want an ebook version and the publisher won’t give me one” and the publisher thinks “oh, it got one star because of the author”, they’re just demonstrating ignorance.

    James, good point. I think, in this case, the authors think the ratings matter, because many of them are the ones getting upset. They don’t like being used as pawns in a battle between consumer and publisher, and I can’t blame them for that. And yes, people lose interest and quit paying attention quickly. I heard lots of things about that video game rate-down when it first happened. I’m sure it’s been done on other games since then, but at that point, it’s not news anymore.

  14. Thom Says:

    The Lord of the Rings Blu-Ray has over 2,000 1 star ratings soley because the studio is releasing the theatrical release first.

  15. Johanna Says:

    I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened with Avatar, given their planned three-tier release.

  16. Thom Says:

    I don’t know. I mean, there are people who want the theatrical cuts instead of extended versions of the movies, And I do not have a real problem with the delays as I am sure the hi-def for the extended cuts is probably a longer process.

    I know I am not planning to buy Avatar because their excuse for not having any special features holds no water. How hard is it to include a second disc. None of my multi-disc blu-rays (with special features on a second blu-ray disc) were any costlier than a single disc.

  17. Thom Says:

    One addition, I can see giving a product a lower mark for what it lacks, but the one rating smacks almost of the dreaded sense of entitlement. “I deserve to get the version of the product I want when I want it.”

  18. Jessica Says:

    “It sounds as though there’s really no way to accomplish what customers want to accomplish, since you’re saying that publishers are too stupid to read the actual comments.”

    Ha! Yes, very stupid, and very unwilling to make anything their fault. Well, I’m being unfair (kinda); they’re mostly just slow. Slow to react and slow to change. And they’re more interested in the raw numbers than what people are saying. Quantifying saves so much time, even if it elides important things.

    The particular example used in the TechCrunch post, though, is probably not the right test case if people want to use downrating to force a publisher’s hand. Thirty seconds shows that all of Michael Lewis’s other books are in Kindle format already, all except this very newest one. There’s no reason to believe this one will be any different, just because it’s not out _yet_. And why would it be? The paperback doesn’t come out at the same time as the hardcover. The DVD doesn’t coincide with the theatrical run. The day might come when e-formats are the dominant publishing choice, but currently, they’re still a niche market. The fact that people might have to wait a bit for said format’s release should be neither a surprise nor a crisis.

  19. Johanna Says:

    Good point — I think customers are thinking of ebooks as books (content), not another format, while publishers feel the opposite. No wonder their opinions (and interests) conflict!

  20. Hsifeng Says:

    Thad Says:

    “…I wouldn’t criticize a movie based on the theater I saw it in (unless it was Avatar), but these aren’t called content reviews, they’re called PRODUCT reviews. It’s perfectly reasonable to judge the entire package — I haven’t bought a new-release movie on DVD since 2005, because I got sick of seeing Special Editions released a year after the initial barebones DVD release…”

    Good point. Also, if Amazon.com reviews were supposed to be for the content instead of the product, then what about reviews for all the non-media products sold there too? How would a “review the content, not the product” custom apply to, say, the Eureka 313A Enviro Hard-Surface Floor Steamer?

  21. Danielle Says:

    I am ONLY commenting on what the author can do.

    NO – the author, creator, whatever – has NO SAY IN ANYTHING in regards to publishing.

    We don’t control DRM. We can’t control if it is e-book published. We can do NOTHING.

    I am not saying don’t mention those extras – i.e. if a CD has some sort of DRM on it so that it can’t be copied to your computer. That is a useful thing to know. However, people think we ‘Talent’ have a lot more control than we do. Unless you are Stephen King or Nora Roberts, they could give a figgity fig what the creator wants.

  22. Thom Says:

    I am wondering how effective this is turning out. It does not seem to be impacting sales. Lord of the Rings is the third top selling Blu-Ray, in spite of:
    5 star: (189)
    4 star: (26)
    3 star: (41)
    2 star: (42)
    1 star: (2,832)

    Why are the studios going to be inclined to listen, especially since overwhelmingly, those negative reviews were people had not actually seen the product?

  23. Johanna Says:

    There’s always the presumption that they could have been the #1 selling Blu-ray if they’d been able to satisfy those customers, but that’s hypothetical. You’re right in pointing out that sales are what matter to the studios.

  24. Thom Says:

    Honestly, I would have a hard time as the studio seeing the negative reviews of a product many clearly want-the theatrical version in this case-almost all being given before the product’s release as not very useful. And I say the same as a customer. I want the extended cut on blu-ray as well. But giving a different product a negative review… a product you are pretty much giving a negative review because you want a different product…so sight unseen you are giving it a negative rating to send a message? That is a message begging to be ignored by the people who you want to hear it.

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