Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

okay, let's review

Jason Kottke seems to like it when Amazon reviewers give a book, or some other item, a low rating because of availability issues: “the early reviews for Michael Lewis' The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device.”

Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. . . .

Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There's little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it's better to wait until the director's cut comes out. 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.

Interesting that Kottke thinks that “reviewing” and “giving buying advice” are the same thing; or, in other words, there’s no difference between the “review” that appears in a newspaper or magazine and the “review” that appears on Amazon.com. This is a classic case of false synonymity.

When I review a book I don't even think about whether the reader of my review is going to purchase the book — it never crosses my mind. I am trying to engage, intellectually, with what I am reviewing, to respond fairly and charitably to it, but also with proper critical acuity (which I think charity demands). I am trying to be a good reader, but to be one in public, as it were.

This approach to reviewing is, first of all incompatible with handing out stars, which is an intrinsically stupid system anyway. But if we have to hand out stars, shouldn't we make a distinction between what we think about the movie or book or game and what we think about its delivery system? Isn't it possible that The Big Short is a terrific book that just doesn't happen to be available on the Kindle at the moment? And if that is possible, does the one-star review capture that distinction? Maybe Amazon needs a new system to take such matters into account.

7 comments:

  • I mostly agree with you. I understand your point that the primary purpose of a review should be interaction with the content. And I agree that it is stupid to review a book based on availability.

    But I do think that it is reasonable to comment on format. It should not be the primary purpose of the review. But if the kindle version is horribly formated, or the narrator cannot pronounce the names of the characters and has awful pacing, I want to know that. There are some authors that are better in audiobook, some are better in print. When we have the option of four or five different formats, it is reasonable to want to know what format is better.

  • Adam, I totally agree, and have benefited from that kind of information. But giving low ratings to a book or film or whatever based only on that kind of thing doesn't seem fair to authors and artists, who often have no control over format, distribution, etc. That's why I say Amazon needs a new system: maybe one ranking for the work itself and another for the metadata.

  • I blogged about something similar a few weeks ago -- books getting one-star reviews due to their Kindle prices -- and I'm in agreement with you. Because Amazon doesn't (as far as I know) go through and cull reviews long after they're posted, reviews should cover the aspects of a book or other form of entertainment that aren't subject to change later. A meta-ranking system seems liked it'd be in order.

    That said, I think Kottke makes a worthwhile point, even if it needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. I don't think there's anything wrong with a professional reviewer saying, "Don't wait for this to come out on DVD -- it should be seen on the big screen." And assuming that in five years or so, publishers are taking better advantage of the electronic nature of ebooks, and outfitting them with audio or video or increased hyperlinks or other features, reviewers will have to discuss delivery mechanisms. It'll be interesting: The snooties who always say, "Oh, the book was so much better than the movie" will be able to add, "And the book was so much better than the ebook, too."

  • While it seems odd to criticize a book because of access issues (which would lead to poor reviews of most scholarly works), many good reviews critique a book’s “delivery system” (from sloppy copyediting to shoddy bindings—I just read one that praised a “lavishly published” book). To what extent can reviews be docetic?

  • For some products, Amazon already lets reviewers give multi-part rankings. Reviewers of toys and (non-video) games, for example, give an overall five-star ranking as well as five-star sub-rankings called “Durability,” “Fun,” and “Educational.” Reviewers of video games apparently get to assign an overall ranking and one additional sub-ranking: “Fun.” (Make of that difference what you will.)

    Perhaps those sub-categories are a little more closely connected to the games’ most important intrinsic qualities than some of the format and availability complaints that Kottke mentions, but it shouldn’t be too difficult, at least as a technical matter, for Amazon to separate out different kinds of concerns. (As a practical matter, I can’t think of snappy one-word titles that would distinguish between, on one hand, reviewers’ comments about ideas, substance, and writing, and on the other hand, comments about packaging, medium, and delivery.)

  • Michael Straight said...

    I'd much rather read your style of review than a review that's about "Should I buy this?"

    But surely if the latter has a place, it's on the Amazon website. It would be utterly bizarre for you to post one of your Books & Culture articles in the Amazon review section. If I'm reading Amazon reviews, it's almost always because I'm trying to decide "Should I buy this?"

  • I agree that (1) Amazon reviews are mostly a crowdsourced way of sharing whether future buyers will enjoy a book or powertool or what have you, and (2) it makes sense to comment on formatting issues. For example, if a particular book on tape is recorded by Gilbert Gottfried, or if the binding on a paperback is faulty, that's good to know.

    However, giving a book 1 star because there is no kindle edition doesn't help that goal. I *know* there is no kindle edition - I can see that perfectly well. Assuming I want to buy a different edition, 1 star reviews from frustrated would be kindle readers just decreases the signal to noise ratio. That's blackmail (or vandalism), not criticism.

    I'm personally frustrated that some books that I really enjoy are out of print. Does it make any sense for me to give them 1 star reviews because I can't buy them?

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