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Penalizing Authors for Issues Other than Content Quality

January 13, 2013

Before e-readers came along, it wasn’t uncommon to pay $25 or more for a new hardcover version of a book. With e-readers, the same book is available for as little as $10. While e-books don’t require manufacturing, in the traditional sense, or shipment, there’s still value attached to the book. But a certain expectation has been established, price-wise, and when you, or your publisher, violate that expectation, you can be prepared to suffer the consequences.

The latest to feel the wrath is TOR author Robert Jordan. A Memory of Light, a book written Brandon Sanderson (Jordan is dead), is available in hardcover for $34.99. It’s the final book in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and the e-book version will not be released until April. The book has 284 reviews in Amazon (as of 1/10), and 155 of them are one-star. Most of the one-star reviews take issue with the decision to delay the release of the e-book.

Of all the reviews on the first page, only one deals with the quality of the book–and that actually deals with the quality of the book itself, rather than the writing. Several called Jordan’s widow or authors, publishers, and retailers greedy. Sanderson’s blog says the decision to delay the e-book was made by Jordan’s widow Harriet, who wanted to make sure the last book in the series would hit number 1, as all the others have. Sanderson also says the decision isn’t about money “for her, as the monetary difference between the two is negligible here.”

Perhaps her cut is negligible, but for readers, the difference between $34.99 and whatever the e-book will cost isn’t. That having been said, more than half of the reviews for this book are one-star because of this business decision.

When RJ Ellory admitted to faking reviews against his competitors, there was a great outcry about the purity of on-line reviews. Ideally, they should be from real readers based on the actual book itself. They should from people who’ve read the book. They should be real.

While these one-star reviews aren’t in the same class as Ellory’s sock-puppetry, they aren’t from people who’ve actually read the book. They are from people complaining about pricing. Given that Jordan’s widow made the decision, this isn’t one of those cases where the author is the innocent victim of a business decision they didn’t control. But this is the exception.

The reality is, customers have more choices than ever before. If they don’t want to wait for the e-book, or they don’t want to pay more than $9.99, the have options. They can get the book from the library. Or they can get a pirated version. Considering Jordan’s genre and its audience, one suspects there’s probably an electronic copy available somewhere on the Internet for free, now.

As a writer, little of this seems right to me. The review should be based on the quality of the book, not the decision to delay e-book publication. And the reader does not have the right to expect books to always cost $10 or less. But the economic reality dictates otherwise.

It’s all part of the re-ordering of this industry that’s currently happening. And it’s not going to stop because we think it’s wrong.

  1. January 13, 2013 6:27 am

    Amazon should have a system to omit comments that don’t relate to content. Regarding pricing, I know the public thinks it’s great that they can buy a book for 99 cents but it hurts the industry and writers, in my opinion. Books (e-books as well) should have value and the fact that they are so devalued in the marketplace right now is painful to watch. With that said, I would not pay $34.99 for the above book but that is just me. And I think an e-book for $9.99 is great, because as you point out, there is no printing involved so it should be less. It becomes a bit alarming when books sell for under that price point. Of course the free market rules but as in all things there is a price to be paid (pun intended!) Tough decisions right now. As with any there are pros and cons and arguments can be made for and against. I want to see good writers become authors and have their hard work valued by the public who consumes it.

  2. January 13, 2013 7:34 am

    Mrs. Jordan tried to rape the readers and got slammed for it. I don’t see the problem. As for the star rating system – it’s pretty easy to see the reason the commenter gives for the star. It didn’t take any effort for you to see the commenters were giving one star for the extreme price point. It isn’t any more effort for anyone else to do the same. What’s really happening here is a lack of understanding between comments and reviews. Reviews relate to the quality of the product. Comments are – like this one – comments. If the people buying your book can read for comprehension (and one would assume a person buying a book could do just that), they’ll figure out pretty quickly that one star for insane pricing is different from one star for wooden characters and act accordingly. As an aside, although I love the Wheel of Time series, I own none of it in hardback. Why? The hardbacks were always way overpriced, and they didn’t publish the softcover for two years. As a matter of principle, I don’t support people who try to rape me. In other words- business as usual for the Jordans. PS. Did you know that Brandon Sanderson is a Mormon?

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    January 13, 2013 8:59 am

    I did not know that.

    Some people will always review things based on other criteria than content. I know people who refuse to watch movies or TV shows with any number of actors or actresses based solely on that person’s political beliefs. I know book reviews in newspapers sometimes happen the same way.

    Ted Williams lost MVP votes because sports writers didn’t like him. And a lot of authors were hammered when the houses when to the agency model for e-book pricing.

    Sometimes the author is greedy, but even if you believe that of Mrs. Jordan, the author typically doesn’t have this level of power. And though it’s unfair to slam an author because the publish wants to charge $14 for an e-book, rather than $10, that’s the system we have.

    If you review based on something other than content, it takes someone to read that and make the judgement. If I’m Amazon, I don’t see a value proposition there.

    The bigger point, to writers at least, is that there’s downward pressure on book prices and that’s not going to stop. Neither will the practice of people slamming the book in a review, regardless of who sets the price.

    • January 14, 2013 1:53 am

      I think rating the book for the price is harsh and agree with Kathy that Amazon (who deleted some questionable reviews already on other titles) should consider deleting them. The really crazy part is that people can always wait for the ebook (just a few months away) or wait until the book appears in libraries if they are so irked about the price differential.

      On a slightly tangential note, has anyone noticed lately that Amazon no longer lets you rate books that haven’t officially come out yet even if the title’s page is up? I noticed because I occasionally get early copies of books to review for a local magazine and when I wanted to also add an Amazon review (I’m not being paid for the reviews at all by the author or the publisher or anyone else except with the free book), I wasn’t allowed to post the review. While this was inconvenient for me, it shows Amazon is willing to make changes.

  4. January 14, 2013 7:39 pm

    I agree that if Amazon deleted reviews it thought were fake, it can delete “reviews” that are useless. I understand Judi’s point about a smart reader being able to tell the difference. But as I understand it, Amazon’s referral algorithms use the average rating as a ranking factor. And anytime someone does a search and then sorts the results by rating, it’s going to be a problem. For now, I guess all we can do it click the “Was this helpful?” No button. But I’m not really up for doing that 155 times.

  5. Robert Lynch permalink
    January 14, 2013 11:59 pm

    I see no problem with holding back on the e-book. Long before e-books came to be, it was common practice to hold back paperbacks for a year or more. We may not have liked it, but we accepted that if we didn’t want to shell out the high price of the hardcover, we would have to wait–or go to the library, as someone else mentioned. It’s a business first, and the idea of business is to make money. You can go to the theater and dump $10 – $20.00 per ticket the day a movie is released, or you can wait till half the world has seen the movie, and then rent it for $5.00 and watch it with the whole family. That’s the way the world works.

    • January 15, 2013 6:47 am

      Wholeheartedly agree and well said. And once publishers stop making money (at least a small profit) they will go out of business and stop producing books.

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