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Control, and Lack Thereof

As a writer, I have no control.

I have no control over whether any individual editor will like my work.  I have no control over whether a publisher's purchase committee will take a chance on what I write.  I have no control over the cover that they place on my book.  I have no control over where they place my book in their catalog, or how they pitch it to buyers at the large chain stores, or what marketing money, including co-op money, they decide to invest in me.  I have no control over the editions that my publisher chooses to issue (hardcover, trade, mass market, electronic), and I have no control over the prices that they demand for those editions.  I have no control over the actual physical production of the book - what quality of paper they use, what glue they use, whether the books are packed carefully in their boxes so that covers remain pristine.  I have no control over warehousing, over how efficient the distributors are, over the shipping of my books, or the unpacking of my books, or the placement of my books on the shelves in stores.  I have absolutely no leverage to change any publisher-created policy regarding the distribution of their work.

After I have written the best story I can write, I have no control.

And, of course, I'm not unique.  Most authors (all of us whose last name isn't Roberts or King or Rowling or Grisham or maybe a half dozen others) have no control.

Therefore, it *enrages* me when Kindle owners choose to employ the "nuclear option", to rate a book one star (out of five) because the publisher decided to release the Kindle edition later than the print edition.  (See, e.g., http://tinyurl.com/ycx2bws - a link that I first received from karen_w_newton ) 

Angry Kindle owners have lots of other options open to them, options that don't jeopardize the sales -- and thereby, the careers -- of authors.  Kindle owners can give one-star ratings to the Kindle, thereby providing an incentive to Amazon to throw around its massive weight with the publishers.  Kindle owners can organize campaigns against those publishers, taking advantage of electronic and print contacts to express their displeasure at late releases.  Kindle owners can even choose not to buy late-release books when they are released.

Kindle owners, though, should not deflate other sales by giving the unwarranted impression that an author's best work isn't good enough.  The "nuclear option" corrupts the entire concept of reader reviews.  (Yes, I'm fully aware that reader reviews in an unmoderated or very-loosely-moderated system are already somewhat corrupt.)  Angry, deprived Kindle owners distort the review system so that potential customers believe the quality of a book is less than it is; they give the lowest rating even though -- indeed, *because* -- they haven't read the book in question.

Don't get me wrong.  I think that delayed release of prime titles is a poor business decision on the part of publishers.  I think that same-day release of expensive hardcover editions at a somewhat reduced electronic-edition price is one of the main reasons anyone would choose to buy a Kindle.  But Kindle owners who attack authors are directing their anger in absolutely the wrong place.

The authors have no control.

Mindy, off to write the best first chapter of a vampire novel that she can write


( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
Otherwise known as "blaming the victim."
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:29 pm (UTC)
Yet *another* example, eh? We don't get no respect...
Jan. 14th, 2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
Hi Mindy,

I agree. This bothers me too. One of my girlfriends received a one-star review for an SF novel because the paragraphs in the kindle edition had been "smooshed" together.

JC and I had a fan do a huge vent session on how greedy and awful we are (along with a one star review for a book she hadn't read) when our publisher decided to move us to hard cover.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:31 pm (UTC)
Yep - yet another example. I wouldn't mind it so much, if Amazon had two separate ratings - "physical product" and "content". Maybe I'm weird, in that I consider the content of books to be so much more important than the physical product... Now, if we were talking about dishes, I'd consider the physical product much more important than, say, the design painted on it...
Jan. 14th, 2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
I really wish Amazon would put some controls on their rating system -- at the very least require the poster to have bought the book via Amazon/gotten it through their "Vine" program, even if they can't prove the reviewer read it. I mean, they are a retailer, yes? So they shouldn't have any problem locking their review system to customers....

Jan. 15th, 2010 01:32 pm (UTC)
I don't understand their failure to lock down, either. I'd think they'd want to do it to encourage purchases through their system. Of course, I'd think they'd also want to let extreme negative reviews age and drift down the comment queue, but they don't do that either. (And I realize that letting comments age is much more controversial!)
Jan. 14th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
I agree. I do give one-star reviews when I think a book deserves only one star out of five, but never because of something like formatting or release date. I had no idea people did that since I don't read Amazon reviews and I have no intention of getting a Kindle, but this just blows my mind. I know that people want to read the latest from an author they like, but a) they could get it from the library, or b) they could find something else to read while they're waiting.

Maybe I just have more patience than the average reader, though. I like to wait until an entire series is out before I start reading the first book. Back when I had the money to buy books on a regular basis I'd wait until they were all out in paperback so the wait would be even longer.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:33 pm (UTC)
There are some series that I haven't started reading because I'm waiting for them to end - it's easier to be patient for the entire treat, than to be waiting for just one final bite. Of course, that invites the horror of "spoilage", of finding out what happens in earlier books, while I'm waiting...
Jan. 14th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Actually on the amazon kindle forums, a lot of kindle owners agree with you and have mentioned that upset readers should contact the publisher (contacting amazon does no good since it is not amazon who decides when the kindle version comes out.) Generally people read the one star reviews and realize it doesn't apply to the book itself. In fact a number of readers hunt out one star reviews to see why it was rated low so in these cases, hopefully it doesn't hurt the author.
Jan. 14th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Sorry, didn't mean to leave an anon--that was me. :>)

Jan. 15th, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)

Been there, done that. Thanks for the clarification!
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see a study of how people use the ratings - *I* never take them into account with books, but I do rely on them (reading carefully to see why negatives were given) for other products.
Jan. 14th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
And while I can't do anything to directly change the effect of these people, I can throw your name around as a recommendation of books which must be read!
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)

I appreciate name checks, any time! In this instance, I should clarify that I'm not affected by the nuclear option; my books have had their Kindle versions appear at the same time as print.
Jan. 14th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
They also give one stars to people who's ebooks cost more than 9.99. Like the author sets the price.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
It seems as if we authors have a lot of customer-education to do. And I'm not sure how to do that...
Jan. 15th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
I know it's whose.

Or should I say its whose.

Or it's who's?

I think it's impossible.
Jan. 14th, 2010 07:52 pm (UTC)
*Insert screaming here*
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:35 pm (UTC)
Glad that I could supply you with a touch of morning nightmare...
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:37 pm (UTC)
Oh, please...this whole week has been a morning nightmare. You just put the cherry on top :-)

Thanks so much...

Tell me again why I want to be an author?
Jan. 14th, 2010 08:59 pm (UTC)
I always read the lowest reviews on a product and then weigh the reviews accordingly (people complain about the dumbest things). Of course, that doesn't help your overall ratings but hopefully more people are discerning than not.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:36 pm (UTC)
I read the low ratings for goods-not-books (e.g., the camera I just bought), but I tend not to read any Amazon ratings for books. I agree that people complain about the dumbest things. I suppose they also rave about the dumbest things, too...
Jan. 14th, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
A fair number of readers seem annoyed with the Kindle folks who are giving the one-star reviews; they are rating these reviews as not helpful. I went and checked Amazon, and there are plenty of one-star reviews for the Kindle. A few of them mention not being able to find specific ebooks, but more were dissatisfied with the device itself, for one reason or another. A few folks didn't seem to own a Kindle but just didn't like the idea of them.

All in all, another good illustration of the limitations of Amazon's review system.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:38 pm (UTC)
As Laura Anne mentions above, it seems fair to me for Amazon to require raters to have purchased the item from Amazon. Then, you at least increase the chances that the users are familiar with the item... (As opposed to, say, Kindle low-raters who have never used one but don't believe in any e-Readers.)
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:47 pm (UTC)
They have started to put "Verified purchaser" on reviews now, but I don't think they have a way to make that retroactive. And they don't seem to treat those reviews any differently except in the display when you call one up.
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:27 am (UTC)
It is up to individual Amazon reviewers whether they want to have the "Amazon Verified Purchase" tag applied to their reviews retroactively. I, personally, have done so.

One catch: Amazon's US website cannot tell that I bought a book from their UK site. They have some sort of privacy firewall between their different national sites. However, when I go to make a purchase in either place, they have my up-to-date credit card information, etc. Go figure.

Bob Shepard of Denver

P.S. Here is a link to Amazon's "Top Reviewers" forum if you want to read more about "Amazon Verified Purchase", in all its gory details:

Jan. 16th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that info! I always wondered how the US vs. UK vs. other countries thing played out. When I was in Mexico, if I put amazon.com in the URL, it took me to the MX version of their store. With ebooks, though, that geographic restriction is harder to enforce. I'm glad it's not my job to write contracts about publishing rights in this day and age.

And I will explore the verified feature, too.
Jan. 15th, 2010 02:51 am (UTC)
I've been cheerfully fielding queries from fans asking when my newest will be out in Kindle format. I explain it's beyond my control, but I'll be happy to notify each and every one of them when it's available, and thanks for thinking of me and hanging in there.

*Sigh* I am very grateful to my Kindle using fans who've asked me to add them to my list. I had no idea there were angry readers playing "blame the victim" by penalizing authors with one star reviews that mean nothing.
Jan. 15th, 2010 01:39 pm (UTC)
I get the same type of questions - not about Kindle, but about audiobooks. I'd *love* to have those available, but alas, not yet...
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:51 am (UTC)
I was an Amazon reviewer for about ten years, but since October of 2008 have become greatly disenchanted with Amazon's whole way of doing things. It's reached the point that I seldom even buy anything from them any more.

Essentially, when I started out back in 2000 or so, it was a great forum for me to satisfy my writing urge and get some feedback via the "Helpful/Not Helpful" buttons. Through trial and error I learned what kind of reviews tended to be viewed positively, and would produce, on average, about six a year. It was a useful hobby.

Unfortunately, over time, Amazon became increasingly less hospitable for reviewers like me. Early on, they would have a couple or three "Spotlight" reviews on the front page, and, right under these, a few of the most recent reviews. That way, if I felt I had some valuable observation to make which hadn't already been made, I could do so, and would have a reasonable chance of people actually noticing.

Nowadays, only the "Spotlight" reviews appear prominently on the front page. The most recent ten are relegated to insignificant links on the side. Thus, if you aren't one of the first reviewers and gain enough favorable votes to capture that coveted spotlight position, your efforts will most likely be buried. I don't like to feel rushed in writing reviews.

Amazon has also drastically changed the way they tabulate those "helpful" votes, again making it much less likely that my efforts will even be noticed.

And the general atmosphere at Amazon has degenerated considerably, with trolls running rampant. One of the worst innovations was the ability to comment on a review. All too often, this leads to flame wars rather than anything constructive. If someone decides they don't like you, they can even click on a "report this" button which, after a few clicks, has your review automatically deleted. You then have to fight to get it back. It hasn't happened to me, but others have reported it.

There were a whole bunch of things which all added up. So I threw in the towel. I still "lurk" in the "Top Reviewers" forum, waiting to see if the environment may change in the future, but I'm not optimistic.

And don't even get me started on that whole Amazon Vine thing. I was invited in, only to drop out after a few months when I understood exactly what a racket it is.

What I really need to do is start writing fiction again.

Bob Shepard of Denver
Jan. 18th, 2010 10:31 pm (UTC)
Bob - thanks for stopping by, and for giving us new insight!
Jan. 20th, 2010 08:16 pm (UTC)
I got linked here from "Dear Author." I have to say that I read 1-star reviews to see why the reviewer didn't like it, to see if their reasons would be something I don't care about. As I don't have a Kindle, I find these 1-stars for product format unsporting but I would merely ignore them if I were considering a purchase.

To be honest, those rave reviews where it appears the author or author's fan club rabidly over-rate a new release en masse are much more misleading.
Jan. 21st, 2010 01:04 am (UTC)
Thanks for coming by!

I find that the star-system works for buyers like you (and me) because we read and we parse. My biggest concern is the potential buyers who take quick looks and make snap decisions based on summarized reviews. (I'd love more information on Amazon customer behavior - e.g., how many reviews are read by the average purchaser, prior to purchase.)
Jan. 22nd, 2010 06:04 am (UTC)
The useful thing about Amazon's star system for me is that I can quickly jump to the one- and two-star reviews and see what people DON'T like about the product. If their concerns seem to be well-founded, I can move on to something else. If it's just silly stuff like griping about Kindle, then I'll start scrutinizing the positive reviews.

It's not unheard of for me to wade through ten pages of reviews, just to look for that one key clue. I've gotten burned too many times buying "promising" books which end up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Worse is bad software which can completely wreck my computer and ruin my whole month.

Even with Amazon's recent unwelcome changes, it's still my primary resource for product research.

Bob Shepard of Denver
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )

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