An American Editor

January 30, 2012

Is There Hope for Barnes & Noble?

As readers of my columns know, Amazon is not my favorite bookseller. It is not because Amazon doesn’t offer value or quality service; it is because I fear Amazon’s attempts to monopolize the book marketplace vertically, that is, everything from acquiring and publishing to selling exclusively. Right now consumers, especially ebookers, are happy with everything Amazon because the prices are lower, the selection is existentially broader, and the customer service is great (especially as Amazon is more interested in market share than profit from the book division). But will all that change should Barnes & Noble follow Borders into the “I remember when” category: I remember when there was competition and prices were low and customer service was great — before Barnes & Noble went out of business!

Maybe I’m alone in my thinking, and maybe I’m alone in my willingness to pay a little bit more in hopes of keeping B&N and competition alive, but the demise of B&N is something I do think about. I have been thinking about it even more often with the latest revelations that B&N is thinking of spinning off its Nook business. My thoughts are now traveling along the lines of “what would you do if you were CEO of B&N?”

It is pretty clear to me that the future lies in the world of ebooks. I think that for at least the next 100 years pbooks will retain a significant place in our culture, but over those 100 years, the market share of pbooks will decline while that of ebooks will increase. This is the hurdle that B&N faces because of its brick-and-mortar (b&m) stores and publishers face as they have not yet come to grips with the reality that their growth and future lies in the ebook world.

Yet I think there is a role for the b&m store in the ebook world, and I think B&N needs to exploit this role, something that Amazon is not well-positioned to do. Thus I play “if I were CEO….”

The real value to B&N of the physical bookstores is the brand Barnes & Noble. That was really the only valuable asset of Borders when it went under. Consequently, I would look to franchise the Barnes & Noble name. Get the company out of directly owning b&m stores, and convert all current stores into employee- and/or small business owner-owned franchise stores.

As part of the franchise, require the stores to sell Nook products and B&N ebooks. But make it profitable for the franchisee to sell those ebooks. If it is to be believed that except for the heavily discounted loss-leading bestsellers, all other pbooks and ebooks can provide a decent profit, then B&N needs to offer franchisees at least 50% of the profit on an ebook in exchange for selling the ebook.

B&N showed some inventiveness with the Nook line. I grant that most of the innovation was done by others – for example, let’s give Sony the credit for the touch screen method that all of the competitors have adopted – but B&N needs to step to the plate and lead in innovating a seamless method by which I can enter a local B&N store, decide I want to buy a particular book but as an ebook, and buy that ebook before leaving the store, giving me the book, B&N the sale, and the franchisee the sale credit. I can think of a couple of ways to accomplish this, so I’m sure the engineers that B&N hires can come up with ways to do this as well.

This idea also has benefits for publishers. If Amazon succeeds, it is the publishers who will suffer the most first. Consequently, publishers need to become creative in how they support the local indie bookstore, including any B&N franchisee. One thing they could do is offer a payment to a store in exchange for the stores displaying a pbook version on the store’s shelves. There are other possibilities as well, things that can be done for a physical bookstore that cannot be done for a virtual bookstore, and that are not directly tied to a book’s price, thereby avoiding having to give the same break to Amazon. Something to think about, at least.

Then there are the indie booksellers. B&N’s survival is as dependant on the indie booksellers as it is on the Barnes & Noble branded bookstores. Even if not franchisees, these booksellers should be given the opportunity to participate in the ebook selling aspects. Because, as sure as the weather changes in upstate New York, if B&N neglects the indie bookseller, Amazon will not. B&N needs to follow Amazon’s lead and jump into a market area quickly and first. More importantly, B&N needs to think of its market in much broader terms than it currently does.

B&N needs to focus its efforts on the Nook and ebooks; it does not need to be distracted by b&m stores. Yet it cannot abandon the b&m market altogether because it is that market, which if carefully supported and nurtured by B&N from the outside, can lead to B&N’s ultimate survival and its ability to compete against Amazon.

B&N needs to focus its efforts on its brand and making people think of B&N first when it comes to book buying. I think B&N can pull this off, but only with much more creative thinking by its management than has been shown to date. B&N has unwilling allies in the indie bookstores because Amazon is a threat to all booksellers and because Amazon is very nimble in addressing marketplace needs. B&N has to convert these unwilling allies into willing allies because all their futures are intertwined.

We will know within a few short years, if not sooner, whether B&N has the wits to survive.

January 27, 2012

Worth Noting: Tabs for Microsoft Office

One of the things I dislike about Microsoft Office is the difficulty in going between open documents. It would be nice if Word, for example, had tabs I could click to move between documents, similar to what Excel offers to navigate within a document (Excel needs tabs for navigating between documents).

Well, there is a partial solution. It is the free add-on called Office Tabs. I have tried it and it works well for as much as it works. I know I sound down on the product, but my complaint is specific to the way I work.

I have mentioned before that I use three 24-inch rotating monitors in my editing. In a project I am currently working on, the authors supplied an outline for each chapter, which tells me what the head levels are supposed to be (the outline also has to appear at the beginning of the chapter, so I need to make sure that the outline and the heads actually match). What I like to do is have the chapter open on one monitor and the outline on a different monitor. I also need to have the references file (I segregate the references into their own file while I am editing and then reintegrate them when I am done) open, but that file can stay on the same screen as the text file as I don’t need to access it frequently.

With Word sans the Office Tab add-in, I can drag the instance of the outline file to another monitor; with the add-in in place, I cannot. The add-in causes a single instance of Word to open and then each open document to be in its own tab. Supposedly, for $25 I can upgrade and it appears that with the upgrade version I can drag a tab to another monitor. But I don’t know that and there doesn’t seem to be a way to e-mail the maker and ask.

Anyway, I did try the free version and it does work well. It installs tabs in Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. The add-in requires Windows XP or newer operating system and Office 2003 or newer (32- or 64-bit version). There is also a separate free add-in for Outlook 2007 or newer, called Outlook Tabs.

The add-ins are worth trying to see if they fit your work style. They easily install and equally easily — and cleanly — uninstall. In the meantime, I’m debating whether to try the pro version in hopes that it will let me drag a tab to a different monitor.

If you try the add-ins, let us know what you think of them.

January 25, 2012

The Publisher’s Search for Savings

The current issue of The Atlantic has a very interesting article, “Making It in America,” which asks a very difficult question: The article explores manufacturing jobs and wonders what will be the future for the unskilled laborer. The article is well-worth reading and thinking about, even though the professional editor is skilled labor, because just as manufacturers seek cost savings, so do publishers, especially in the Internet Age.

One problem with publisher attempts to save costs is that much too often the effort is focused on editorial costs, the so-called hidden costs, which generally means reducing the compensation paid to freelance editors. I would be less concerned about taking a cut in my compensation if my compensation had risen over the course of years. However, it hasn’t; the rate being offered by many publishers today is the same rate publishers were offering in 1995. Another way of saying it is that publishers have been the beneficiaries of editorial cost savings since 1995 because they haven’t increased the rate of pay in the past 17 years commensurate with the increases in costs of living.

But advocating that is beating one’s head against a reinforced brick wall. Why? Because editorial costs are hidden costs in the sense that, unlike a book cover that buyers see immediately and that can either improve or lessen chances of a sale, editorial matters are not noted until after the book is already purchased, usually weeks after purchase, when the return period has already expired. We may curse the publisher of a book riddled with editorial errors, but whereas we might “blacklist” an author, we don’t “blacklist” a publisher. Consumers simply do not shop for books by publisher; publisher brands are weak brands. When was the last time you asked a bookseller for the latest book published by Harper & Row?

Regardless, recently, I received a communication from a major publisher with its latest idea for lowering costs. I applaud the publisher for thinking about ways to save costs and for experimenting; this is something that too few publishers do, yet need to do in the ebook age. But I’m not convinced that the approach being taken will result in any significant savings.

The underpinnings of the approach is that there is a difference between editing and reading: the former is time-consuming, the latter less so. I have been thinking about this division and have asked colleagues for their view of whether the reading effort while editing differs from the reading effort when looking only for errors such as misspelling and homonym misuse, but not “copyediting.”

The colleagues I spoke with regarding whether the “copyediting read” differed significantly (or at all) from the “error read,” were similarly minded — amongst themselves and with me. Their was universal agreement that the reading effort remained the same and was equally time- and effort-intensive. Asking an editor to read for errors but not copyedit is like asking a fish to swim in air — the editorial skills are not so easily shunted aside.

In my case, there could be no cost savings even if there was a difference because I charge by the page, not the hour. Fifty pages are still 50 pages, whether thoroughly read or not. Consequently, while I think the publisher has the right idea — look for cost savings — this attempt is unlikely to result in significant savings. The publisher would likely save more by simply switching from an hourly based fee for editing to a per-page rate. Such a move, although many editors cannot see it, also would greatly benefit editors. (For a discussion comparing hourly and per-page rates, see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand. You can also search past articles using the search term per-page rate.)

Let’s begin with human nature. If I am paid by the hour, I have no incentive to do a job either faster or more efficiently. (I assume that the quality of the editing would not differ regardless of how the editor is paid.) If I am happy earning $21/hour, I am as happy earning it for 40 hours as I am earning it for 50 hours; after all, what I am happy with is the $21/hour, which is constant, and having the work in an increasingly competitive environment.

But think about if I am paid by the page. If I am paid $3.50 a page, I can earn my comfortable $21/hour by editing at a rate of 6 pages an hour. Imagine how luxurious it would feel if I could edit at the same level of quality but at 10 pages an hour — I would then earn $35/hour. There is now an incentive for me to increase my efficiency and speed without sacrificing quality.

For the publisher, the per-page rate sets a maximum fee for a project. There is no more budget speculation about what a project will cost because hours are no longer part of the formula; instead, the focus is on saving time by getting the project completed sooner — a shorter turnaround. The costs are controlled because an editor can’t dally over the manuscript in the belief that the longer it takes to edit, the greater the editor’s income.

It also gives the publisher an opportunity to weed out from its stable of editors those who are inefficient and more costly because of their inefficiency. Remember that savings are not only gotten by reducing payout to an editor; even greater and more important savings can be had by shortening the time from manuscript to published book, especially in the eBook Age when faster-than-instant gratification is demanded.

Shifting to a per-page payment also frees a publisher to evaluate ways to increase accuracy, efficiency, and productivity. A colleague who was discussing EditTools with me (trying to find out what enhancements are coming in the near future :)), told me that as a result of using tools like EditTools, she has been able to increase the number of pages she can edit in an hour by as much as 50%, with an even higher level of quality than previously, both of which have resulted in increased work opportunities. Whereas many publishers and editors currently have little incentive to experiment with these types of tools, switching to a per-page rate from an hourly rate would provide that incentive. The ultimate results would be cost savings for the publisher and increased income for the editor.

Unfortunately, in the cost savings game, win-win situations are rare. Neither publishers nor editors are willing to break the traditional path. One of my clients told me that they are unwilling to insist that editors accept a per-page rate; in fact, the client expressed reluctance to use editors who want to work on a per-page rate, saying that they fear editors would make less money and thus exacerbate the problem of finding quality editors. The client went on to say that even after 15 years of my working for them on a per-page rate, they consider me an exception and the per-page rate experimental; additionally, few editors have asked for a per-page rather than an hourly rate. Similarly, no matter how many presentations I have made over the years demonstrating why the per-page rate is better for editors as a general rule (as with anything, whether it is better depends on what you do; there is no universal rule that applies in every circumstance), many editors refuse to try it and of those who do, a goodly number have told me that “they lost their shirt” on project X on a per-page rate and thus refuse to use it ever again.

I am at a loss how to convince publishers of the benefits of the per-page rate for their bottom line; corporate thinking runs in hourly segments, and, as one client noted, there are too many “approvals” required. But those publishers I have talked with who have moved many of their freelance editors to the per-page rate tell me that they can see overall cost savings.

As for the editors who “lost their shirt” on a project, the answer is this: First, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a client based on a single project. Similarly, you cannot evaluate the profitability of a payment method on a single project. You must evaluate both on the basis of at least three completed projects. There are lots of reasons why the shirt could have been lost on the single project, not least of which was the editor’s continuing to approach the project as if it was hourly paying. I can tell you from my own experience that it takes time to learn how to efficiently address a manuscript and that even today, I occasionally get a project on which I lose my shirt. But if I lose my shirt on one out of 100 projects, the other 99 more than makeup for the one’s loss.

Perhaps a discussion of the factors that can cause you to lose your shirt should be another day’s topic. Until then, do you stick with hourly only projects, do a mix, or per-page/project fee only? Why and what is your experience? Why are you reluctant to move from an hourly based fee to a per-page fee? Are you really satisfied with the hourly rate publishers pay?

January 23, 2012

On Words: The Conundrum of Half

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Words — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

I thought I’d veer off into esoterica today. I don’t know why it came to mind a couple of weeks ago, but since it came to mind, I have found myself pondering the matter. Now I’ll share it with you and get your input.

The matter at issue is the numeral designator for half. If we write 2 days, there is no question what is meant. Similarly, if we write 2.5 days, readers correctly translate that to two-and-a-half days. But is it really correct?

I suppose that it is because it has been accepted and understood as correct for decades, if not for centuries. But shouldn’t time be more accurately represented? If a day has 24 hours, then a half day has 12 hours, which means that 2.5 really means two days plus 5 hours. Yet if we were to write 2.12 days, no one would understand that means 2 days plus 12 hours or two-and-a-half days.

Time has always been treated differently from other yardsticks. Probably because time is so important in our daily lives. We have coalesced around certain conventions, correct or not, that are now the accepted methods for portraying time, especially decimally.

Consider the matter of years. we all know and accept that 6 months equals one-half year. Yet we do not write 1.6 years to represent one-and-one-half years; as with days, we write 1.5 years and we all know what is meant.

I work on nonfiction books, which has led me to occasionally wonder if an error will occur when measure shorthands aren’t correlated with the written out version; that is, how likely is it that some reader will mistake 1.5 days for 1 day 5 hours, so I should write one-and-one-half days rather than 1.5 days?

Of course, I only wonder and do not spell it out because I understand that we have accommodated our use of language so that there is no likelihood of misinterpretation. But that doesn’t move me away from wondering how this came about and why such imprecision is accepted by communities that require precision elsewhere.

Not only have we accommodated our use of language to .5 representing one-half, but this accommodation appears to be fairly universal among languages. Writing 1.5 days will not mislead a French, Italian, Slovakian, Chinese, or Malayan speaker any more than it misleads an English speaker. The convention has crossed linguistic borders (someone once said that math is a universal language, so perhaps the fault for this accommodation lies in math’s universality).

I’m not interested in trying to change the accommodation (some brick walls truly are meant to stand forever), but I am curious about how we came to universally accept and understand that 1.5 days means one-and-one-half days and not one day, five hours.

What is your theory?

January 18, 2012

The Professional Editor: Artificial or Arbitrary Schedules

As I’ve noted before, I am now in my 28th year as an editor and I like to think I am as professional an editor as any of my colleagues. Yet there is one thing that always sticks in my craw when it comes to dealing with clients: the artificial schedule.

I call it an artificial schedule, but it could as readily be called an arbitrary schedule; the problems arise when compliance with the artificial schedule is rigidly demanded by the client. Occasionally, I have such a client.

Generally, when I have been handed an artificial schedule by a client, I write back and thank them but advise them that my goal is to meet the project end date, not the interim dates, and that to meet the end date and keep a project flowing, I will return edited material on a weekly basis (with an invoice, of course :)). Whether as a result of such weekly returns the artificial interim dates are met will be a matter of luck and chance, not calculation.

I should note that the projects that I work on and which come with interim artificial schedules are large projects, thousands of manuscript pages (my projects generally run 2,500 to 12,000 — or more — manuscript pages, often requiring more than one editor). Small projects, that is projects of fewer than 1000 manuscript pages, usually come to me with just an end date.

The problem with the artificial schedule is that it fails to consider (a) the quality of the author’s writing and how much work needs to be done to the writing, (b) the complexity of the manuscript coding that needs to be applied, (c) whether all or just some of the authors are native or fluent English speakers, (d) whether all of the manuscript has been supplied or there are outstanding chapters, (e) the number and type of charts, graphs, and figures, (f) that the first chapters go much slower than subsequent chapters as I try to “get a feel” for the project and learn what “common” errors are made across chapters, (g) the number and condition of the references, and (h) the myriad other problems that do not surface until a chapter is being edited. (This is where I thank heaven for the Microsoft Word macros I use: Editor’s Toolkit Plus from the Editorium, EditTools from wordsnSync, and PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing.)

Consider just one of the named stumbling blocks, item g. I recently edited a chapter that had 504 references of which only a handful were even close to being correct. Most had to be looked up because the author submitted, for example, author names like this: “Young, GM, YV AS, Trimble T, Excuse, R, al et,” and journal names like this: “Joint Quality Comm -  Safety.” Not only did punctuation have to be fixed, but YV AS had to be deciphered and the journal name checked and corrected. Imagine my consternation when I discovered that not only were the author names mostly wrong, but the article title was incorrect, as was the journal name (thank goodness, however, for my Journal macro which corrected many of the journal names before I began editing the references; see The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros for more information). Fixing the reference list took a considerable amount of time, yet an artificial schedule doesn’t allow for this.

It is the nature of an artificial schedule that it is often difficult to meet. The schedule is often created mathematically – x number of chapters divided by y number of weeks = z, the number of chapters expected weekly (or, instead of number of chapters it may be number of pages [which generally excludes figures] or some other calculable item) — but without regard to the real content. And because the client is a corporation, it lives or dies by schedules; it can’t live with the uncertainty that is inherent in a schedule-less world.

Another problem with the artificial schedule is that if enforced, it may well require the editor to work long days and weekends to meet it. While the inhouse person who sent the schedule relaxes on the weekend, the editor is working away just to meet an artificial deadline. I did not become self-employed to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I value my leisure time.

As I noted earlier, I try to dissuade clients from establishing interim schedules. I do understand, however, that they are often required. In those instances, I accept them with grace, yet make certain that my client understands that I consider the interim dates as very broad guidelines and that the only dates on which I fixate are the end date and the weekly submission dates. Alas, that does not get through to all of my clients.

One client wanted the first batch of 15 chapters by x date. I was able to complete 14 of the 15 by the set date, but that was not good enough. The client wanted to know how soon the 15th chapter would be completed, was I going to be able to meet future dates, should the client find another editor to work on this project? I think I would have been more sympathetic to the client had this not been the first batch of chapters and were I behind by some significant number of chapters as the end date loomed closer.

We got past this kerfuffle as it became clear by the third or fourth weekly submission that I really did have a handle on the project and as the client began reviewing submitted chapters and noting the author-created problems and the high quality of the editing. But there are two points I wish to make:

  1. To the editor: Remember that you are a professional and you must take charge of the project and the schedule. You should not be intimidated into accepting a schedule whose only connection to reality is that it exists. You need to educate the client about problems encountered and why the schedule won’t work, yet ever mindful that you agreed to meet a certain end date. Be professional; take charge.
  2. To the client: Remember that the date that ultimately matters is the end date. It is not possible to tell, at least on a large project, from a first or second submission by an editor whether an end date is in jeopardy. Consider all of the things that may be imperfect about the material and make allowances for those imperfections and the time it realistically takes to correct them. Keep in mind that you and the editor are really a team with the same goal in mind. And remember that earlier chapters often take longer to edit as the editor becomes familiar with the author’s “style” and the kinds of problems that exist in the manuscript, some of which may lend themselves to, for example, the writing of a macro for use in subsequent chapters. (In such an instance, a macro can change a problem from a major headache to an inconvenience.)

When all is said and done, the professional editor will meet the client’s end date with a well-edited manuscript, which is the ultimate result wanted by everyone concerned with the project.

January 16, 2012

Why Won’t Amazon Compete in the ePub Market?

Since the beginning of the “modern” ebook era, when Amazon entered the marketplace with its Kindle, I’ve wondered why Amazon chose to follow its own path as regards format and DRM rather than adopting the ePub standard and a more benign or universal form of DRM. I’ve wondered because by choosing its own path, Amazon has decided that readers who are not Kindlers (by which I mean consumers who read on dedicated e-ink devices that are incompatible with Amazon and thus cannot buy ebooks at Amazon unless they are willing to strip the DRM and convert the file, which the majority are either unwilling or unable to do) is not a demographic to woo.

What is it about ebooks that makes them different from virtually every other market that Amazon is in? Amazon sells, either directly or indirectly, all kinds of universally usable electronic equipment and entertainment. It does not sell, for example, digital music or movie DVDs that are incompatible with the devices consumers already own or buy at Amazon or elsewhere. Only in ebooks has Amazon struck a different path.

In every other category of goods for sale at Amazon, Amazon tries to woo every consumer it can. Only in ebooks does it deliberately exclude millions of potential customers. Why? What is it about ebooks that warrants this divergence by Amazon from its very successful business plan? Granted that Amazon would prefer to sell you a Kindle and lock you into its eco system, but that, at least on the surface, makes no sense as a reason to exclude millions of other ebook consumers from being able to buy ebooks at Amazon. One would think that Amazon’s priority is to sell ebooks on which it makes a profit, not reading devices on which it is said to lose money.

Try as I might, I see no obvious reason for this discrepancy. Amazon could sell its Kindles and also sell ebooks in a Kindle-specific format alongside an ePub format. Or it could sell its Kindles and simply make Kindles ePub compatible. Yet it does neither. It prefers to exclude millions of ebookers who are using devices that require the ePub format.

So I ask again: What makes the ebook market different from the other entertainment markets in which Amazon competes?

It surely can’t be because Amazon doesn’t think it can have a winning hand. Amazon has competed and continues to compete in the hardcover and paperback market on equal terms with all competitors, yet it is the dominant bookseller in those markets. I would expect Amazon to dominate in the ePub ebook market as well, simply because of its marketing prowess, its reputation for value and low prices, and its willingness to operate at a loss fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

Although no one has accurate numbers, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble have sold millions of ereading devices, not one of which is compatible with the Amazon ebook store. Yet every B&N-branded device is compatible with the Sony and Kobo ebookstores (and every ePub ebookstore except Apple’s) — buy a book at Sony, download it to your computer, and sideload it onto your Nook. No questions asked. Similarly, Kobo and Sony devices work the same with any ePub ebookstore except B&N and Apple.

Why is Amazon willing to ignore the millions of readers in the ePub market? Strategically, Amazon has always tried to make people want to shop at Amazon because of price, selection, and ease of buying. Isn’t that the rationale behind the patenting of the 1-click system? And this is the strategy Amazon follows in everything it sells — except ebooks. Why?

I wonder about this but have no answer. I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I struggle to see how ebooks are different from movie DVDs, digital music, televisions, baby diapers, or any other commodity within Amazon’s sales world. The rationale for establishing an exclusionary system for ebooks when all else is inclusionary eludes me.

What else also eludes me is why Amazon thinks this is good policy for Amazon. Amazon has always worked on the principle that if a person buys their hardcover or paperback books from Amazon, they will also buy their TV from Amazon. So if a person won’t or can’t buy their ebooks from Amazon, are they likely to buy their TV from Amazon? Does this exclusionary policy on ebooks have a snowball effect on other items Amazon sells and on the other markets in which it competes?

Consider this difference as well: Amazon has gone to great effort to create the Kindle, its own dedicated reading device using a proprietary format and DRM scheme. But it hasn’t gone to that effort for other devices such as a DVD player. Why? What makes ebooks and the ebook market different from every other commodity that Amazon sells and every other market in which Amazon competes?

The only answer I have come up with, and I don’t find it a satisfactory answer, is that of all the industries represented by the goods that Amazon sells, the weakest in every sense of the word is the publishing industry, making it the one industry that is highly vulnerable to a direct attack by Amazon. Amazon can become a major publisher because of the industry’s weakness and thus be a vertically integrated enterprise — something that would be much more difficult and costly if attempted in the movie or TV production industries.

Of course, the same question can be asked about B&N’s choice of a DRM scheme, but at least B&N has made it freely available to all other device makers. That it hasn’t been adopted by Kobo or Sony, for example, does make me wonder if B&N hasn’t made a major error in not changing its DRM scheme to be compatible with Sony and Kobo. I think given a choice between the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, most ebookers would shop at B&N, even if they prefer the Sony or Kobo device over the Nook.

What do you think?

January 11, 2012

eBooks: Are eBooks Commodities? Redux

Followers of An American Editor read the previous post, eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?, and probably groaned at my sacrilegious point of view while frantically shaking their heads “no, neither ebooks nor books are commodities.” The argument regarding the commoditization of books is an “old” one for me. A few years ago, Jack Lyon and I made presentations at a Communication Central conference in Rochester, NY and drove to Poughkeepsie, NY together — a 4.5-hour drive. On that drive, this was one of the weighty matters we discussed. Jack was adamant that books are not commodities

I used to think the same, but books, particularly fiction books, have gone the way of athletes and soda pop and become commodities. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie Moneyball, starring Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, which is the story of a major league baseball team coming to the realization that with free agency, baseball players are now commodities, I highly recommend you see it. A true story that is well done as a movie.) What follows is Jack’s response to my commoditization view.

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Books as Dish Soap
by Jack Lyon

In a previous post, Rich Adin discussed ebooks as commodities [see eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?]. This ties into a discussion Rich and I had a couple of years ago about marketing. The conversation went like this:

Jack: I hate the whole corporate mindset that treats books as “product”—just a homogenous mass of words and pages. It’s like marketing dish soap.

Rich: That’s how books should be marketed.

Jack: What?!

Rich: Yep. Just like dish soap. How else would you do it?

I never did come up with a good answer to that question. Finally, I admitted that Rich was right—but I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t!

Let’s go back about 30 years to my first job as editor at a trade publishing house. I really admired the company president, who held not an MBA but a Ph.D. in English literature. Here was an executive who actually cared about books! In a speech to employees, I heard him say this:

“I love the opportunity we have to share what we do with others, to be able to face a customer and honestly say, ‘I love what I’m doing, and I can share something with you that can change your life forever. I can give you a friend that will never, ever leave you.’…It was at least ten years ago that I heard Charles Scribner say, ‘If books become obsolete, I will make candles.’ He didn’t explain his remark, but I think he had in mind that although the electric light has made candles obsolete, candlemaking today is a $100 million industry—not large, but it casts a lovely light, and, after all, books are candles.”

Shortly after that speech, the chairman of the board assigned the president a new position—as CEO of a department store. This man who loved books so much ended up selling kitchen appliances and underwear.

I see the commoditization of books as being analogous to the commoditization of everything else, including people. We no longer have personnel departments; instead, we have human resources. We no longer have leaders who understand a particular industry; instead, we have MBAs who are cranked out like sausages to manage corporations in any industry. With our narrow focus on the bottom line, we’ve ripped the heart out of our businesses—at least, those that used to have one.

So are books commodities, like dish soap? To some degree, yes. As Rich points out, if I can’t get my horror fix from Stephen King, I can easily turn to Dean Koontz. Their books are what economists call “substitute goods.”

If I can’t get Coca-Cola, I’m happy to drink Pepsi (although that’s not true of dedicated Coke drinkers like Rich). If I can’t use Dawn on my dishes, I’m happy to use Dove. Advertisers are aware of this, which is why they spend so much money promoting Coke over Pepsi (and vice versa). Other than the emotional appeal used in marketing, there’s not a lot of difference between one substitute good and another.

The same is true of many genre books, like romance, westerns, and science fiction. I’m usually just as happy to read Orson Scott Card as I am to read Gene Wolfe. But there are exceptions. To me, Wolfe’s There Are Doors is more than just your everyday science-fiction entertainment. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep speaks to me on a level that few other books attain.

And what do we do when a masterpiece like Moby Dick comes along—or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Little Prince, The Mouse and His Child? Don’t you have a handful of books that have changed your life? I know I do. Such books truly are candles, and their glow illuminates the world in ways nothing else can. In spite of marketers’ promises, I don’t think that’s something dish soap will ever do.

_________________

Jack’s argument is less that books aren’t commodities than it is that some books rise above the level of being a commodity. But in the case of fiction, especially bestseller fiction of today, I still think books are substitutable. If they weren’t, what would I read in my favorite genres as I wait for the next book by a favorite author to become available? And what happens when that favorite author stops writing? Do I suddenly stop reading?

What do you think?

January 9, 2012

eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?

For a long time, publishers and readers have argued that each book is unique and thus one cannot substitute, say, a book by Dean Koontz for one by Stephen King. For years I accepted that — until ebooks and agency pricing and Amazon exclusivity. Now, in the case of fiction at least, I think the tides have turned and ebooks demonstrate books and authors are substitutable, that is, (fiction) books are commodities.

Until inflated agency pricing of bestsellers and Amazon’s concerted effort to dominate the ebook market, I would not have considered substituting one author for another author — at least not consciously. Yet the more I think about book buying and reading habits, the more convinced I am that between the criteria genre and author, it is genre that dominates.

Before the advent of ebooks on a wide scale, most readers bought (or borrowed) physical books to read. Physical books, except in the secondary market, were (and are) highly priced. A popular hardcover today, averages $25 and climbing. As a consequence, a reader carefully chose the book to buy and placed the emphasis on author and genre. For $25, the reader wants Tom Clancy, not Jack Unknown.

Amazon began to whittle away at that reader preference with its heavy discounts. Selling bestsellers at $9.99 rather than $25 meant that a reader who had already read Clancy’s latest novel could look for something else within the genre and take a chance on Jack Unknown. The investment was not overwhelming.

Today, Amazon has gone further with ebooks. Tom Clancy’s newest release may cost $14.99 in ebook form (and less in hardcover), but readers are increasingly finding ebooks at $2.99 and less in the same genre by unknown authors worth a try as they wait for the Tom Clancy novel to come down in price — or simply move beyond Clancy altogether.

Amazon, by aggressively courting the indie author and by aggressively pricing indie titles, has expanded what readers will search to find a good book to read. And Amazon has gone the further step with its Prime Lending program and Kindle Direct Publishing programs. Amazon has given its stamp of approval to indie books and authors. Although I think Amazon is not a bookseller to patronize because of its desire to monopolize the integrated book market, it deserves a great deal of credit for changing books into commodities.

I know that many of you will clamor to say that I am wrong, but I ask you to consider this: Once you have bought and read the latest release from your favorite author, do you stop buying and reading books until that author’s next release in 2 or 3 years or do you continue to buy and read books within that genre? And if you do continue to buy and read books, do you continue to be entertained by them or are you only entertained by books written by your favorite author? Finally, do you rush out to buy your favorite author’s newest release or do you wait for a less expensive edition to appear?

If you answer yes to the latter parts of each question (at least the first two questions), then books are commodities and substitutable. And this is the revolution that Amazon has wrought aided by the Agency 6 — the change in how readers view books, especially ebooks. What the Agency 6 claimed they wanted to prevent by instituting agency pricing, they have instead brought about by encouraging, through their actions, Amazon to legitimize the indie marketplace.

Prior to this legitimization, indie books and vanity books were synonymous. That is no longer true. Amazon has made it possible for known and respected authors to go indie and not be negatively viewed by readers. What vanity presses sought for decades, the Agency 6 gave them in months.

The commoditization of books is both good and bad. It is good because a wider range of authors are discovered. The Shayne Parkinsons, Vicki Tyleys, L.J. Sellers, and Richard Tuttles of the indie world — authors who write very well and excellent stories but who were unable (or unwilling) to break into the traditional publishing world — now have a chance to be discovered and claim the large and broad readership their writings deserve. I admit that prior to the commoditization of books, I would not have tried any of these authors. But once indie books were legitimized and books commoditized, I began to explore the indie world and found numerous gems, with some authors and books being better than what I could find in the traditional book world.

Commoditization is, however, also bad — bad for publishing, for authors, and readers — because in coming years the writers who currently make grand incomes from writing — the Stephen Kings and Tom Clancys of publishing — may well find themselves unable to attract an audience for their higher priced efforts. Granted that this is just the marketplace at work, but the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. As the market settles on a low price ceiling, that ceiling will become crowded and with the ease of entry into ebook publishing, it will become increasingly difficult to find the King and Clancy of the 2020s.

A balance is needed, but I have no idea how to bring it about or what that balance should be. Amazon deserves praise and scorn for commoditizing books, but more praise than scorn. In this, Amazon has done well.

January 6, 2012

Worth Noting: What do Liberal & Conservative Really Mean?

I am always interested in words and their etymology. But, I admit, I’ve not given a lot of thought to the question “What does it mean to say someone is [liberal, conservative, revolutionary, reactionary, counterrevolutionary, etc.]?”

As if answering my unasked question, the current issue of The New York Review of Books tackles the matter as part of a book review. “Republicans for Revolution” by Mark Lilla tackles the problem as part of his review of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin, a book that Lilla pans. (Interestingly, the book under review gets little attention in this article. Instead, the focus is on the meanings of the various labels.)

I think you will find the article interesting and worth reading and thinking about. (And, no, it is not a liberal diatribe against Republicans.) Once you get a grasp of what the labels really mean, the labeling of politicians changes. I particularly found it interesting how fluid the labels are depending on your view of human nature:

Is the unit of political life society or the individual? Do you view “society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for” and for which “we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights”?

Or do you “give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds” and “assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action”?

Hard questions with no firm answer, but questions that need resolution when applying a political label.

As always, if you are not a subscriber to The New York Review of Books but are a book lover, I recommend subscribing. I think it is the finest magazine of its type, and significantly better than the New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of Books is what the New York Times Book Review once was, decades ago, and what it should be today.

January 4, 2012

The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online VIII — Macros Redux

In The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online VII –  Macros Again, I discussed how I make use of a decision tree to design macros. Jack Lyon, the master of macros and author of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word, approaches macros differently. In today’s guest article, Jack discusses his approach to macros.

__________________

Life in a Macro

by Jack Lyon

After mentioning my new Macro Cookbook over the course of several blog posts, Rich Adin has graciously asked me to write a guest editorial related to macros, something I’m delighted to do. In his most recent post, Rich described his technique for sketching out a flow chart on paper, which helps him outline what he wants a macro to achieve before he starts working on the macro itself. This time-honored technique for programming is clarifying and efficient, especially in the early stages of a macro:

As I read Rich’s post, however, I realized that it’s been many years since I created a flowchart before starting to make a macro. Why is that? I wondered. What’s changed? And what do I do differently now?

I think what’s changed is that I’m now a lot more focused on the outcome of a macro rather than its process. As my programming skills have improved, I’ve become more concerned with what rather than how, with ends rather than means because the ability to create those ends has become almost second nature. And I think most skills are like that.

I’m a moderately skilled jazz musician (Hammond organ with Leslie speaker — oh, yeah), but I still have lots to learn, and when I’m working on a new run, I have to play quite mechanically until finally my fingers learn where I want them to go. After that, I can use the run in a variety of songs. But a run isn’t a song. And it’s the song that’s important. The song is the run’s reason for being.

When I’m creating a macro, the first thing I do is decide precisely what I want the macro to do. Some examples:

  • Title case every paragraph styled as Heading 1.
  • Remove extra spaces between footnotes.
  • Convert an automatically numbered list into a manually numbered list.

After getting the purpose firmly in mind, I usually work on a simple macro to see if what I want to do is even possible (proof of concept). If I were trying to title case every paragraph styled as Heading 1, for example, my thinking might go something like this:

Okay, first I need to create a macro that finds a paragraph styled as Heading 1. Hmmm. Probably easiest just to record it.

So I record it. Here’s what I get:

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Style = ActiveDocument.Styles(“Heading 1″)
With Selection.Find
.Text = “”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute

Now, what’s that command to title case selected text? Can’t remember. Probably easiest (again) just to record it.

So I record it. Here’s what I get:

Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord

Well, that will take care of one instance. What about all the rest?

Then I realize that this is a classic case of a macro pattern I use all the time:

  1. Find something.
  2. Do something to what was found.
  3. Find the next something.

See my Macro Cookbookfor more on this. Basically, it just means adding the following construction at the end of the macro:

While Selection.Find.Found = True
[Do something here]
Selection.Find.Execute
Wend

In this case, I need to add the command to title-case the selected text, like this:

While Selection.Find.Found = True
Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord
Selection.Find.Execute
Wend

 So the completed macro looks like this:

Selection.Find.ClearFormatting
Selection.Find.Style = ActiveDocument.Styles(“Heading 1″)
With Selection.Find
.Text = “”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
Selection.Find.Execute
While Selection.Find.Found = True
Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord
Selection.Find.Execute
Wend

So gradually I’ll put together the various macro commands that work in sequence to do what I need.

Easy for me to say, right? Okay, okay. If you’re just getting started with macros, using Rich’s flowchart is a better way to go. Decide precisely, step by step, the things you want your macro to do, and list those steps:

  1. Find a paragraph styled as Heading 1.
  2. Title-case the paragraph.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until no more paragraphs are found.

Then get the commands for each step (by recording, borrowing, or whatever).

Then put the commands together to do what you need.

Finally, test your macro to see if it does what you planned. If it doesn’t, revise it until it does.

As this is the beginning of a new year, I’m feeling a little philosophical, so I’m wondering if we could apply a similar process to life. Can we figure out precisely what we want to have happen and then figure out the essential steps to make it so? Or is life more complex and unpredictable than that? Time to get out those flowcharts!

I hope this new year will be a happy one for you and yours.

__________________

It strikes me that Jack’s approach is to have a single focus and then to combine several single-focus macros into a single macro that runs serially. I may be wrong about his approach, but I do think it demonstrates how different the approaches to writing macros can be. Jack’s approach is also one that an experienced macro creator can use, but I think for those of us who are not at the mastery level, flow-charting is better because it helps us focus on the steps.

What do you think? Which approach will you adopt?

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