Media and Packaging

Jason Kottke makes an interesting observation about recent reviews on Amazon: people are giving the minimum possible ratings to books and movies that they actually quite like. In the case of the Lord of the Rings films on Blu-ray, reviewers are complaining that only the theatrical versions are available, not the extended cut versions die-hard fans want to see. For the recently-released book The Big Short, Kindle owners are up in arms that only the hardcover has been released, not the e-book.

This is an important phenomenon, but I think Kottke misdiagnoses it:

I’ve noticed an increasing tendency by reviewers on Amazon (and Apple’s iTunes and App Stores) to review things based on the packaging or format of the media with little regard shown to the actual content/plot.

But of course the only two examples he cites don’t demonstrate this at all—these aren’t reviews of the packaging at all. They are attempts to use user-generated review systems as discussion forums to air grievances. Nobody is talking about the cover art for the Blu-ray discs or the typography in the hardcover book. If you insist that the ratings offered are really reviewers’ opinions of the products being reviewed, then if anything this is just an example of the Osborne effect: buyers know that a much more desirable version is just around the corner, so what’s available now looks terrible by comparison.

Worse, Kottke draws completely the wrong conclusion from the situation:

Packaging is important. We judge books by their covers and even by how much they weigh (heavy books make poor subway/bus reading).

[…]

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.

The Lord of the Rings reviews focus entirely on content—buyers want the extended versions of the films.

While demand for electronic versions of books does support the contention that people care about format, I take it as evidence that content is much more important than “packaging”. Kindle readers just want a book that’s convenient, even if that means sacrificing beautiful typography or the pleasing form of a hardcover.

“Traditional media reviewers”, which at Amazon usually get space under “editorial reviews”, are thus on completely the right track to focus on content. Reviews of differences between hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions of books are as irrelevant as reviews of the difference between VHS and Betamax versions of films were: customers already know what format fits them. The point of reviews is to help them choose between content.