Friday, March 5, 2010

Kindle ebook prices, poor reviews and entitlement

Customer boycott trends & bad reviews

Several months ago, I wrote about my annoyance with 1 star reviews based on price. Since then, I've seen the trend grow, and the increasing number of reviewers jumping in with 1 star reviews or boycotts based only on ebook price (without even reading the book), or because they read a free preview and now want the whole book for free, really just worries me.

Boycotts are one thing... they are not permanent and of course, if you feel something is too expensive by all means, don't buy it. When the price comes down, for example, you can end your boycott and buy the book. 1 star reviews bother me though. They cannot be changed and can do a lot to damage sales and therefore future chances of publication for an author.

Whenever I've given a 1 star on any product, I've thought long and hard about my reasons and whether they are justified. For example, was my dropping a star for poor editing just being picky or did the bad editing really ruin the enjoyment of the book? Dropping a star because I didn't like the genre when I didn't bother checking first - well that's not justified, in my opinion. It's my fault for picking something I wouldn't like.

I've noticed over the past few years consumers getting more demanding, expecting more for less. Not just with ebooks, but with many products. Douglas Preston got himself into a mess by voicing something similar with his "entitlement" comment:

“The sense of entitlement of the American consumer is absolutely astonishing,... it's the Wal-Mart mentality, which in my view is very unhealthy for our country. It’s this notion of not wanting to pay the real price of something.”

Preston's comment led to a rash of 1 star reviews on Amazon. He later followed up with an explanation on his website, with an open letter to readers that it is the publishers with all the say-so, not the writers.

Nico Vreeland followed up with disgust that it's not the consumers feeling entitled that's the problem but... 
"The problem with this is that no publisher has yet advanced any logical explanation as to why the ebook editions SHOULDN’T be cheaper than the hardcovers. The burden of proof is on the publishers, and they haven’t convinced anybody."

Honestly? I think they are both pretty close to the truth. I do think as a society we've become spoiled and we do feel entitled - Preston was just a bit tactless about it. Generally speaking, we've become reliant on cheap imported products, businesses fighting it out with loss leaders and over the top no quibble return policies. We grumble and moan about what society has become, how jobs are outsourced, how you can't get anything made locally anymore. But anyone who works in customer services can tell you many horror stories of over demanding customers: those who expect everything now, everything perfect, and everything as cheap as can be. And I do blame the mega-retailers - not the consumers - for creating this monster scenario. [I've boycotted Walmart for years for this reason.] But as consumers, we can't have it both ways: we can't have the society of old and still expect it at rolled back prices, delivered early and with a cherry on top.

My colleague & I were discussing something similar the other day, after getting fed up with customers wanting our US handmade products for cheaper than the Chinese sweatshop-made alternatives. We've reached the point of asking the customer, "Which craftsman do they think should take the pay cut this week?" or "If I drop the price, which part of the product don't you want?" Yes, rude I know. But really not as insulting as the assumptions that producers [makers, artists, writers, farmers etc] are ripping off the consumer or being greedy. Our small company makes about 2% profit by the time we've paid our bills and covered all our costs, so why do I find myself constantly defending prices? The thing is, the requests for unreasonable discounts, free products, double-the-order-for-nothing are not unusual! Sadly, they are becoming more of the norm.

Managing expectations

For the most part, as Vreeland says about publishers, it's about managing customers expectations. The massive retailers have made this hard for those at the start of the chain: the manufacturers, the writers, the  artists, the farmers etc. Self-publishing ebook authors are perhaps ahead of the game here... although they certainly don't get the benefits of a being with a publishing house, perhaps their main advantage in the ebook world is having more control of their pricing.

Bufocalvin, in his blog I Love My Kindle, does a great job at explaining some of this in his article Poof! You're a Milkshake, where he impartially warns, be careful what you wish for. As a former bookstore manager & a regular on the Amazon community forums, he has much more of an "insider" understanding than I do about book prices. He discusses the dangers of demanding price limits, why you might not be able to get the whole of a series on ebook format, and compares DTB prices with ebook prices. And ultimately, how authors are not at the root of the pricing controversy [so why keep punishing them with the bad reviews?], how it's not always the retailers fault - and how sometimes, not being able to get an ebook is nobody's fault! It is what it is.

Bufo brings up the excellent point about the gaming industry: people will spend $50+ for a game on disc at the drop of a hat. My kids will save up their allowance for $30 to $40 DS games. The gaming industry has done an excellent job of managing customer expectations: we expect to pay the high price for the games console and then again for the games. We'll continue to pay those prices for several years, until the developer comes out with something new and even more expensive. And then we'll buy that too. Maybe the publishing industry need to take a lesson from the gaming industry. Or should readers be learning from the gamers?

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