The Rationality of One-Star Reviews

April 10, 2011 BY danariely

When publisher Hachette Book Group set its price for Michael Connelly’s latest suspense thriller, The Fifth Witness, it decided to charge $14.99 for the Kindle version and $14.28 for the hardback version, a difference of $0.71.

From a utility point of view, charging more for the Kindle version seems quite reasonable considering that Kindle books are delivered instantly and for free, that they take up no additional space or weight, that they can be read on any computer, and that they come with handy bookmarks and highlights of what other readers find interesting.

But how did customers respond to this pricing decision? They were outraged! As you can see on the product page, the book has been overwhelmed with one-star reviews based not on the quality of the book itself but instead on the perception of greed and unfairness on behalf of the publisher. “junk,” writes Amazon reviewer Juan M. “It’s ridiculous that the E-BOOK is as much as the physical copy. Greed indeed.”

Talia S. puts it this way: “I went and check the reviews and notice the many 1 star grading. I read some of them and changed my mind. I did not buy the book. We should not let the publishers hold us hostage because we prefer to read the electronic format.”

While standard rational economics tells us that consumers will be willing to pay more for items they derive more utility (pleasure and usefulness) from — in practice, other factors such as perceived fairness and perceived manufacturing costs play a very large role into our decisions of what to buy and how much we are willing to pay.

As someone who has published two books, and purchased a lot of them over the years, I find books to be one of the most puzzling categories in terms of how much attention people pay to their price.  Think about it this way — if you were going to spend 10 hours with a book, do you really care if it costs $3 more?  Shouldn’t you happily pay $0.30 more per hour of reading if the quality of the book was slightly higher or the experience was slightly better? Personally my more pressing problem is time, and if someone could assure me a better, even slightly better experience, I would pay a substantial amount more.  And for some books, those I really treasure and that have changed my view on life  —  if I were just thinking about the utility of my experience I would pay hundreds of dollars.

The problem is that it is really hard to think this way.  It is not easy to focus on what we really care about (the quality of the time we spend) rather than the salient attribute of price.  And on top of that the unfairness of the differences in price can make us mad ….

I don’t know how the book industry will deal with this problem, and I am looking forward to seeing how this story develops. But, I do know that as readers we should pay a little less attention to minor differences in price and more attention to the quality of the way we spend our time.

Irrationally yours