Kindle Content Reviews: Reading, Writing, and Understanding Their Impact

There is always going to be a certain amount of skepticism that has to be exercised toward online reviews of any sort.  Those who are least satisfied will also always be the most motivated to post something, and there isn’t necessarily any way to confirm whether the problem being experienced was in any way the related to the product experience that another customer might get.  With something like the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, or the Amazon Appstore for Android now that the Kindle Fire is around, this can be especially problematic for a provider.

These authors and developers often have no other major avenue through which to sell the product of their labor, which means that a misinformed negative review can have a major impact.  However much we might wish it weren’t so, the first thing many people look at when considering a new book, app, toy, etc., is the overall review.  Particularly the number of truly negative ones.  Now, Amazon has done some good by adding in a product review rating system that allows users to tag particularly helpful or unhelpful contributions, but that only matters if you actually go so far as to read them.

If you are considering a purchase, especially with regard to digital content from the Appstore, it might be particularly helpful to read carefully.  Right now, as the attempt to cater to an impressively diverse selection of Android devices can be problematic, many apps are overrun by 1-Star reviews for being incompatible with specific phones or tablets.  It is not unknown for this to be the case even when owners of these devices could clearly see that their device was not listed as compatible.  Don’t let this sort of behavior dissuade you from picking up an otherwise excellent piece of software.

If you are writing the review of an eBook or App, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

First, unlike what you might expect, anything 3-Star and below is considered a negative review.  If you rate a product below 4-Stars, you are essentially telling Amazon that this is not a product that you would recommend to anybody.  If the average product rating drops to 3-Star, that is exactly how the site will treat it and potential customers will rarely, if ever, be directed to it based on their interests.  This can have a devastating effect on the income of the creator.

Second, it is bad form to judge a product based on what you wish it did rather than how well it does what it claimed.  If a book presents itself as a romance but is actually about corporate espionage, then there’s plenty of room for complaint.  If you felt that the calendar app you downloaded would have been better if it had the ability to import the Smurfs theme as an event reminder, that would generally be considered outside the realm of what you are meant to review unless sound file importing was specifically advertised.  5-Stars means that the purchase is a good example of exactly what it claimed to be.  4-Stars means that it generally met expectations, but probably could have been more successful.  Anything 3-Star and below means something was significantly wrong with it.

Please try not to penalize authors or developers who choose to make content for the Kindle and Kindle Fire due to things out of their control.  If Amazon takes longer than you would like to deliver your files, it isn’t their fault.  If you had hoped that despite being advertised for Honeycomb an App would work on your Android 2.1 device, the failure is not the developer’s fault.  Negative reviews on individual products that Amazon.com provides will generally not have any effect on the company as a whole, and often it is likely that they never see these complaints at all unless representatives are specifically directed to them.  Keep in mind who might be affected by your criticisms.

Kindle Fire Review Roundup

If you glance around the site here for any length of time, it becomes pretty obvious that we’ve had good experiences with our Kindle Fire testing.  Different people will probably assess the quality in different ways, though, especially given the variety of uses that it tries to make available.  As such, let’s take a look at what people are saying over at Amazon.com in terms of the pros and cons when it comes to their new $200 media tablet.  Many of the more helpful reviews are quite extensive, so feel free to click on the links for a more detailed view of what these reviewers had to say.  I’ll be avoiding outright pre-launch reviews and complaints about spec comparisons to the iPad, of course.

Video Viewing

Trevett:

As far as video, I have always disliked Amazon’s Video services. The prices are very reasonable and they now have a huge selection, but obtaining the videos [was] a huge pain due to Amazon’s terrible Unbox player. That changes with the Fire, as everything is native and streams/downloads beautifully.

Sid:

The video app is real snappy and I had no issues streaming video at home over wifi. I can honestly say that the Amazon video app is as good as the Netflix app on the Ipad.

Billy Radcliffe:

The biggest “unfinished” feature of the Fire is the Cloud integration; the Cloud doesn’t work hand-in-glove with the Fire in the way you think it might. In order to access features like the video or the docs, you basically have to go through a browser the way you would from any other device.

Reading

 J. Gower:

Kindle Fire’s weak spot, imo, and the reason I give it four stars. But to be fair, it was never going to compete with my Kindle 3. E-ink really is just that much more comfortable to read versus a (relatively low resolution) LCD screen

Raghee Horner:

I initially bought an iPad with the idea of using it as an eReader but after 15-20 minutes the 1.5lb iPad feels like it’s ten pounds and simply becomes too uncomfortable to hold like a nice light paperback. The Fire is much more realistic an eReader.

Apps

Michael P. Gallagher:

Speed of the apps as well as reading a book is VERY fast and responsive. I haven’t tried a a challenging spreadsheet or Word document with the Open Office app yet, but then again I can’t think of too many times where (based on my guesstimated usage) I will be doing those kind of tasks on my Fire: I like to keep my work separate from play.

Overall

Dubstep:

I put this at 5 stars because it MET MY EXPECTATIONS. I read all about this device before buying it, so I knew exactly what I was getting for $199 dollars. It has met all of my expectations of a small form factor tablet that is intuitive, media friendly, and has great processing capabilities. I did not expect an iPad, so there is no comparison in my mind.

Comdet:

None of the so-called limitations of the Fire detract from my using it. Yes it has limited onboard storage but with the way the Cloud is integrated, I’ve not had any difficulty using that as a way of storing content. Plus, when Amazon stores it, they deal with the issue of backup. I also don’t miss the 3G connectivity. Sure, I’d love to be able to connect anywhere, but I will not pay the prices charged for data connectivity.

Kindle Fire Wins Over The Family Technophobes

The appeal of the whole “Post-PC World” concept that accompanies is rise of the Tablet PC is the extreme simplicity of use.  The lack of power inherent in the portable design doesn’t come into play as much as one might expect, since you are obviously limited from the start to things that don’t require heavy use of full keyboards, mice, etc.  This basically means that devices like the Kindle Fire are ideal from conception as a means of leisurely computing and nothing more.

Now we all know somebody, no matter who that might be, who is either unwilling or incapable of using a computer in any meaningful way.  My family has a couple of them.  I figured that the ideal way to gauge the user-friendliness of the Kindle Fire‘s interface was to get them to take a test drive on it.  The results were impressive. To understand the nature of the reviewers here, it is worth noting that one of them initially refused to even consider it because of how confusing and overwhelming trying to use an iPad was.  I’m told that birthday gift didn’t last a week.

Reviewer One:

It’s fun.  I can get all my stuff by clicking on the word for what I want and then next time it’s waiting on the screen for me.  The buttons for the game look silly next to my books, but if you read a few things they go away.  The best part was the button shelf (Favorites Bar), so that I didn’t lose the important stuff.  The magazines don’t make sense though.  The screen is too small for that.  I think I’ll be keeping mine.

Reviewer Two:

I really only want something to read on.  I tried the old Kindle, but it was too dark for me.  This one is pretty good.  I figured out how to get books from the library and they’re easier to read at night.  I don’t think I’ll ever watch movies on it.  They look good, but the screen is way too small.  I’d rather use my TiVo.  I’m glad they made a Kindle like this that was small enough to read on still.  I’ll probably take it with me on planes.

Reviewer Three:

This one is a lot easier to hold than the iPad.  I know people like that one, but it just did a lot of things I don’t care about.  This lets me check my email, read books, and doesn’t make it seem like I should be doing more.  I’m going to give it a try and maybe even learn how to take it to the library.

Obviously I prompted a little bit there about likes and dislikes, but you get the picture.

In terms of the Kindle Fire‘s simplicity of use, not much else could have demonstrated things better for me.  It’s going to be a common gift this holiday season as a result.  Remember that Amazon has a 30 day return policy for Kindles, making it possible to audition even when you’re not 100% sure that it will go over well.  I don’t think that the family I talked to are getting every possible use out of their new tablets, but that doesn’t mean they failed to enjoy.

How to Productively Criticize High Kindle Book Prices

I’ve noticed no small number of negative reviews going around for Kindle books that publishers insist on pricing above their corresponding hardcover editions. I wholeheartedly approve!  What makes it worth commenting on at the moment, however, are the ones that come from verified customers.  Seriously, how does that make sense?

Let’s think about this for a moment.  When you buy an eBook, you are making a statement.  You are telling publishers that “yes, this eBook is worth at least as much to me as you are asking me to pay for it.”  If it were not, then you would have kept the money.  I can almost understand where somebody who buys an alternate edition of a given book, say a paperback, can justify popping into the reviews to talk about the fact that they would have rather had an affordably priced eBook, but once again it fails to mean anything to a publisher who is already going out of their way to encourage their customers to avoid eBooks and stick to the traditional paper medium.  The publishers simply will not care about your complaints while they can view them as confirmation of the view that readers are willing to cave to the pressures of the model they have forced on the industry.

But obviously you want to read a good book, right?  Otherwise there really wouldn’t be much of a point in having a Kindle to begin with.  If you don’t purchase something to read, you don’t get to do the reading.  Fortunately, the sheer volume of options available, especially now, should work in your favor.  This is a great chance to indulge in a collection of new authors.  I would say there’s an excellent chance that you’ll be able to find something to your taste among the increasingly prominent crowd of self-publishers, if nothing else. Personally, I also find a great deal of excellent expense-free reading material from sites like Manybooks and the Baen Free Library, although I can understand that some people might be hesitant due to their “limited” selections (Not much in the way of current Bestsellers).

Whether you like the idea of altering your reading habits or not is going to be a personal choice.  I tend to view a reason to go through the wider variety of publications as a positive rather than an inconvenience.  The alternative is to accept that when it comes down to it, the publishers have a point and you simply do value grabbing the newest books at the highest prices to the point where they can get away with continuing on the path they have been.  Complaining isn’t going to do much, as far as I can see, if it’s followed by caving in on the issue.

The Kindle offers a practically unlimited selection of eBooks to choose from.  More than any person could hope to read in a lifetime.  And that’s great, of course.  What brought many people around to the eReader alternative was the promise of less expensive reading material that reflects the lower cost of production.  The desire for, or even necessity of, that change is something that I feel should be made clear to the publishing houses, even if it means putting off grabbing a popular new book or heading to the library to read it there.

One (Bad) Way To Get Yourself Noticed As A Kindle Author

When writing a book that you intend to put out through something like the Kindle‘s self publishing platform, there are always going to be complications.  There’s a reason that publishing houses are in business, after all.  Doing it all yourself is difficult and many authors would rather just do the writing than spend their time on editing, proofing, distribution, accounting, and publicity, right?  Still, that’s the deal you get when you go it alone.

As a result, sometimes problems will often pop up if you’re not careful!  Maybe nothing important, maybe a lot.  In the case of one self publisher, Jacqueline Howett, it was a lot.  Now, I’ve heard many a time that one of the hardest things that authors have to come to terms with can be that as soon as the first copy hits shelves, and sometimes sooner, it is completely out of your hands.  For better or worse, it’s out there.  That’s even more true with Kindle books given that once something appears on the internet it is pretty much staying there.  It is therefore a bad idea to send out unrevised copies of your book, let alone head to a reviewer’s website and confront them on a bad review over it.  Let’s face it, the profanity didn’t add much either.

Basically what happened is that Howett sent out a poorly formatted initial release of her book, The Greek Seaman, out to be reviewed by a blog called “BigAl’s Books and Pals”.  As I mentioned before, it bombed and walked away with only 2 Stars on account of consistent spelling and grammar errors.  Howett herself was quick to jump into the comments on this review and point out that she had requested that the reviewer download an updated version released a day later and maintains that the review would have gone differently had this been the case.  When the reviewer piped up that he had gotten the new version, she got a bit irate.  Then she got a LOT irate.  After several moderately long rants against both the reviewer and her fellow commentators, most amusingly including the line “You are a big rat and a snake with poisenous venom. Lots of luck to authors who come here and slip in that!”(spelling preserved), she apparently lost the capacity for even an imitation of rational debate and fired off a few comments containing nothing but profanity before fading out of the “discussion”.

At this point, Howett is basically a cautionary tale for new Kindle writers.  While I doubt she’ll completely go away any time soon, her reputation is shot and it’s going to be difficult, even assuming it’s possible, to recover anything from this.

I suppose it gets the point across, though.  If you write a book, roll with the punches.  There will be bad reviews.  Take what advice you can from them, if applicable, and move on.  There’s really no point in confrontation over what, in the end, amounts to personal taste.  After all, I’m certain there are a number of people out there who wouldn’t care if the book was badly written so long as the story was enjoyable.  Making a fool of yourself in public won’t help, and what’s said in public can’t be taken back.

Amazon Rating System Flawed?

We all remember the controversy surrounding the removal of a somewhat disturbing manual for pedophiles in the Kindle Store a while back.  As much as I dislike censorship, you can’t really deny that that’s the sort of thing you don’t want getting associated with your brand name, so let’s call that a questionable but probably smart decision on the part of Amazon(NASDAQ:AMZN).  More recent controversy about removal of eBooks has come from a production from Thomas Hertog.

Hertog’s publication, The Day The Kindle Died, is a detailed account of the way he scammed the Kindle Top 100 list through manipulation of ratings and reviews.  According to his story, it took only about 45 days to get his earlier work, Wealth Hazards, to the top of the list of Personal Finance eBooks using scammed reviews and up-voting these reviews on a daily basis.  The point that the author seems to be trying to make is that since the “bestsellers” list is not entirely based on daily sales numbers, it is useless and therefore Kindle purchases are somehow wrong.  It’s an interestingly flawed position to be taking.

What brought this to our attention was not the fact that the author is the sort of person who would go out of his way to undermine the ratings system, but rather that Amazon temporarily removed both publications from their site while investigating what was going on.  It was a fairly unique situation, but this is still odd behavior even if both books have been restored to the marketplace(minus their fraudulent statistics, of course). Basically, the guy pointed out that the system could be manipulated, proved it, and then people were surprised when Amazon corrects the mistake after he makes his point.  I may be in the minority, but censorship as a concern doesn’t seem like it applies here.

Now, does he have a point about the value of the way the store ratings work?  Yes, and no.  Sales numbers are not the only way that eBooks, or even other items, seem to be able to make it to the Top 100 list.  When people are used to the idea of a bestseller’s list as an indication of the relative success, popularity, and reliability of a product, it can be a bit of a shock for some people to realize that there is another way to go with it.

This isn’t a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t indicate the downfall of the Kindle Store or Amazon in general, it’s just a little bit unintuitive.  Overall, if you’re going to be looking for the most interesting instances of a certain type of book, you’re probably going to want the one that the most people are finding worthy of comment, right?  It might all be subjective, but that’s better than just sales numbers when you’re trying to figure out if a book is worth a download.  This could force Amazon to change their algorithm, but much more likely things will continue on just like they have been and we can hope that they’ll find people trying to screw with Kindle book numbers using these techniques more easily having a record of how it was done once before.

Kindle at College

One of the advantages to being in a town with a large college presence, let alone spending large amounts of time on the campuses, is the opportunity to informally poll students and get a first-hand account of the happenings in whatever field you happen to be curious about in the field of your choice.  I figured this would be useful for all you college students stuck in the Kindle vs nook vs iPad debate.  Depending on who I manage to run into, I’ll update this list from as more students from more fields become available!

Today’s accounts are taken entirely from a university satellite campus in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  Everybody I talked to was an active user of at least one device in academic settings.

Kindle vs nook:

Kelli, an English Undergrad, said:

I was basically looking at what would save me money on everything I had to use.  I knew I was going to get whichever one I wanted from my parents to help me out, but for books and things I was stuck with student loans.  I narrowed it down to either the nook or the Kindle 3.  They both looked good, but I got the Kindle because they had a thing where you could get ebooks from other places sent to your Kindle by emailing them.  That made things really easy.  It’s a little annoying to have to have to carry around a notebook inside my Kindle case(It looked to me like she had this one), but I doubt any of the others make note taking any easier and I saved a load by getting mostly free kindle books in all my Lit classes.

Kindle DX PDF Reading:

Markus, a Biology Undergrad, said:

My girlfriend got me one of these because she knows I love to read, but I would rather just pick up a book.  It’s just more fun to feel the paper and smell the book.  Last semester, though, I picked it up off the shelf when my printer broke in the middle of printing off articles for class.  One of my profs had the bright idea that sending us lots of articles would save on our book costs.  Apparently cheap laser printers don’t like printing hundreds of pages per hour.  Anyway, I loaded everything I had left onto the DX and decided to make the best of it until they sent the printer back to me.  By the time it finally showed up, I didn’t really case anymore.  This thing is the perfect size for reading pretty much anything, it zooms in on charts and photos, and you never have to worry about where you set down the paper you were halfway through last night.  I still do all my pleasure reading on dead trees, but I tell everybody to try a large screen Kindle.

Kindle for PC and Mac:

John, a Professional Studies Undergrad, said:

I haven’t quite talked myself into getting the physical Kindle yet, though it looks really cool.  Right now I’m doing pretty well using the software Amazon put out for my Macbook.  It’s easy to use and I can save what I was doing and all the notes I took.  Hell, I even go home for the weekend and know where I stopped reading when I use my parents’ computer and can get some homework done.  I tried out the nookStudy software and it was really nice, but I felt like it was just too bulky and tried to do too much all at once.  Plus it kept trying to redownload my books every time I wanted to read them.  What if I want to save some battery life and turn off the wireless connection?!

Kindle DX vs iPad:

Taquisha, an Early Childhood Ed Undergrad, said:

People in the program tried to get me hooked on the Kindle DX for like an entire semester.  It’s cool, the page turning isn’t nearly as horrible as I thought it would be at first, but even when I got one of my own I ended up sending the thing back.  You can’t use something like that when you’re working with little kids.  It’s durable, but they just don’t care.  All it’s good for is hitting stuff with, as far as they’re concerned.  I finally saved up the extra money and upgraded to an iPad and it works much better.  I can play games with them, show little movies, make slide shows, and still be able to just load the Kindle iPad app when I want to read a book.  Everybody was telling me it’d be bad for my eyes, but I just turn it off for a little while when mine get sore and I’m fine.  I’d definitely say to only go for the Kindle if you want to read on it alone.  It doesn’t help at all when you’re working with kids or in groups.

Well, believe me, there’s plenty more.  Kindles, nooks, iPads, netbooks, and even the occasional less popular eReader are becoming staples of the modern college classroom and it’s not likely to change.  The convenience, especially for students with dozens of online articles to read or several huge textbooks to carry from class to class without a chance to set things down, cannot be beaten. I’ll try to come up with some fresh reviews from another campus some time soon.  It’ll be interesting to have some first hand accounts of how these devices stack up as midterms and such put the pressure on their owners.