An American Editor

February 26, 2014

On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables

Over my career as an editor, I have observed that no matter how much I know about language and usage, I know very little. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for books to add to my collection that I can also use in my work as an editor.

Regular readers of An American Editor know that my primary rule when editing is that the message from the author must be unmistakably communicated to the reader. Should there be any possible doubt about the message, then the language used is questionable.

In that light, I have always assumed that certain words that are used in American prose have clear and precise meaning when used to convey an author’s thoughts. In most instances, I, like many editors and readers, failed to consider the broader concepts that certain words convey; I understood, or so I thought, the common, everyday meaning and assumed it was that meaning that the author was using.

Words, however, can be philosophical in the sense that a word can be both specific and can be used as a substitute for a broader, more conceptual perspective. In my early years, I learned, for example, that the Russian word pravda, which was used as the name of a Soviet Russia newspaper (Pravda), was translated as “truth” — read Pravda and learn the truth about what was happening in Russia and the world.

Unambiguous words — truth, vérité, Warheit — are used to translate the word pravda but, as the Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (Barbara Cassin, editor, Princeton University Press, 2014 [English translation]; originally published in France as Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionaire des intraduisibles, 2004) notes, pravda also means justice. And the scope of its meaning as truth is limited: according to the Dictionary, “Pravda is never used to designate scientific truth.”

What the Dictionary does is trace the origins, usage, and conceptual meanings of a selection of words that are important in the worlds of literature, philosophy, and politics, yet which are not easy to translate (and sometimes are wholly untranslatable) from one language to another. The Dictionary illustrates that those words that seem translatable, such as pravda, actually have meanings and nuances that are important to understanding the concept of the word, which concept leads to a different definition than the standard translation implies as being the correct definition.

In its exploration of words, the article authors delve into the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural complexities of the words and their meanings. The terms chosen for exploration have had a great influence on thinking over the ages. The Dictionary cites a word’s contextual history and usage to give additional meaning to the discussion.

Consider the entry for “matter of fact, fact of the matter.” The discussion is of the expression “matter of fact,” which is “found in English philosophy, notably Hume.” The discussion dissects the expression in an attempt to establish its origins and meanings. Following a several-page discussion, the article ends with a bibliography. The bibliographies that follow each entry are interesting in their own right.

The idea of the Dictionary is to elucidate the differences the concepts of the included words and expressions have based on the language in which a word or expression is used, both originally and in translation. The languages are Arabic, Basque, Catalan, Danish, English, French, German, Greek (classical and modern), Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, and Spanish.

The terms are often transferred from one language to another without change. For example, praxis and polis are used in a variety of languages without translation; they have become part of a second language’s lexicon as if they were original to that language. Other terms are often mistranslated, even if just in the sense that the translation doesn’t express the breadth of the word’s meaning in its original language (e.g., pravda).

The essays make for some interesting reading. Even if a particular word is not one that I would encounter in my daily editing, reading the essays makes me think about the words I do see daily. In other words, not only are the essays interesting in what they have to say about a particular word’s origins and meanings, but they help reshape my approach to words as an editor.

The Dictionary of Untranslatables is wonderful addition to my language library. I view the Dictionary in the same light I view Steven Pinker’s books on language: not as resource that I will daily open as I would my Webster’s Collegiate, but as a book to savor and think about and to learn in the broader sense of learning. For anyone interested in language, in words, and the scope of meaning that a word can encompass, I recommend the Dictionary of Untranslatables.

If you would like to see a sample entry, Princeton University Press offers a few samples. This link will take you to the page where you can view online, in PDF format, a few entries. You might find the kitsch entry particularly interesting.

November 25, 2013

Business of Editing: Does an Editor Matter?

It isn’t too often that the worth of a good editor is hinted at by a reviewer, but when it happens, it stands out.

In “The Surprising Empress” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013, pp. 18-20), Jonathan Mirsky reviewed Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. I have always been fascinated by Chinese history, so the article caught my attention (I subscribe to the print edition of the NYRB and read the articles in print, not online). This looked like a book I would add to my future list of books to buy in hardcover, until…

Yes, the until raises its “ugly head” in this quote from the article (p. 20):

I have one small and two serious criticisms of Chang’s usually impressive biography. She occasionally lapses into slang or uses the wrong word. A woman “sashays” into a room, British merchants “showcase” a railway, a “roller-coaster of events” is said to have disturbed the emperor, and a concubine is described as a former “high-class call-girl.” “Winsome” is only one of the words misused.

Mirsky goes on to write:

More serious is the matter of sources.…Chang has drawn on the “colossal documentary pool” of twelve million documents in the First Historical Archives of China, which have to do with the reign of Cixi.

It would be useful to say something about these documents and how they are organized,…[R]eaders would like to know why she has chosen this or that source. I liked this biography, but have been troubled as a reviewer because the sources are not easy to check.

What Mirsky complains about are editorial failings. The publisher, Knopf, may or may not have hired a professional editor. Based on the first complaint of wrong words and slang, I wonder if Knopf did hire a professional editor familiar with American language usage (the market/target audience, at least for the reviewed version, is Americans) to copyedit the book. The second complaint, about the sources, makes me wonder if the book had undergone any professional developmental editing.

Or did Knopf take the easy path and simply hire the least-expensive editor it could find and let the author do as she pleased?

Basically, the review, which was written by Jonathan Mirsky, a well-known historian of China who was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London, is complimentary because the book corrects 100 years of misinformation about Cixi’s reign. But for me, who is not a well-versed historian of China and who cannot read between the lines to determine that Chang’s book is a respectable addition to the repertoire, Mirsky damns the book by his quoted comments. I see, instead of a great addition to the history of China literature, a book that is questionable.

It is questionable not only because of the use of slang and wrong/inappropriate word choices, but because the sources are not verifiable or accessible. The message I receive is that neither the publisher Knopf nor the author Chang cared enough about either the book or the reader to ensure accuracy and provability. When I edit a book and see sources that cannot be accessed or identified as dominating the references, I tell the author that it reflects badly on the substance of the material. As a reader, how can I be certain that the same indifference was not given to the text?

In Chang’s case, the problem goes a bit deeper. When I am editing a book, I at least know it is being professionally edited. Granted, a consumer wouldn’t know, and if the author doesn’t follow my advice and correct the references or change incorrect word choices, the book would appear to the consumer as Chang’s book appears to me — unedited.

Editors do matter. The choice of editor does matter. The type of editing does matter. A good working relationship between author and editor does matter. And it is vitally important that an author not believe that each word he or she has written is sacrosanct and cannot be changed for the better. I’m sorry to say that in my career I have encountered several authors who wrongly believed that what they had written was already perfect and that my role as editor was simply to make sure there were no typographical errors.

There is a dual failure in Chang’s book. The first failure is that of the publisher. The publisher clearly should have had Chang’s book developmentally edited by a professional editor who has mastery over American language and usage. I would like to think that the sources problem would not have passed by such an editor. The publisher should have followed up the developmental editing with copyediting, again done by a professional editor with mastery of American language and usage. Many of the wrong word choice and slang problems might (would) have been avoided.

The second failure in Chang’s book is that, if the book was professionally developmental edited and copyedited, either the publisher did not insist on Chang following, or at least seriously considering, the suggestions of the editors (again, assuming there were editors involved) and offering justification for not following the suggestions, or Chang failed to seriously consider the suggestions on her own. It is not for the editors to be the experts on China history or the reign of Cixi, but it is for the editors to be the experts on word choice and source accessibility. (Again, all this rests on the assumption that whatever editing there was, was done by professional editors with mastery of American language usage.)

As I have written above, it is questionable whether the book was edited. But assuming it was edited, there is one other matter that could be problematic: What were the instructions to the editor?

Several factors actively impede a high-quality edit. These factors include schedule, author cooperativeness, publisher and author instructions that define the task for the editor to perform, and fee. We have discussed these many times, and the limitations each of these factors imposes do not change. It is difficult to obtain a high-quality edit when you pay a pauper wage and demand an unrealistic turnaround. (I recently was asked to edit a book on a schedule that would have required editing 116 manuscript pages each day. The material was very complex and a realistic schedule would have been 25 to 30 pages a day at most. I declined, but I do know that an editor who agreed to the schedule was hired — and was being paid less than I had been offered, which was not a celebratory amount.)

Which of these factors was present in Chang’s case, I do not know. I suspect, based on the reviewer’s comments, that several were present. Because I know that quality editing by a professional editor is important, perhaps more so in a book like Chang’s than in some other books, the reviewer’s comments are the red flags that tell me “do not buy this book” — and so I won’t.

Editors do matter and the right editor for the right job matters greatly.

November 20, 2013

The Holidays Gift List of Books II

Filed under: Books & eBooks,To Be Read — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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The holiday season is fast arriving. In another week, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Chanukah comes early this year, coinciding with Thanksgiving. And Christmas is a little more than a month away.

The real excitement in my household is spending the holidays with the grandchildren. One grandchild is still too young to really appreciate the season; the other is just getting to the age when she can at least appreciate gifts. But Thanksgiving should be great. Carolyn and I are hosting this year and expect about 20 people, maybe a few more. I’ve decided to be adventurous with the turkey so, I’ll be making it differently than in the past. The one thing I will be sure to do, however, is brine it in Coca-Cola (regular, not diet).

Which brings me to list making. I have to do the one thing I really hate doing at holiday time: make a list of possible gifts for me. I keep saying no gift is needed, just show up and let’s have fun, but that goes over as well as a lead balloon flies. So several years ago I started putting together a list of hardcover books I would like. Last year I published my list on An American Editor in “The Holidays Gift List of Books“; I thought I would do the same this year and see if you have any suggestions for hardcover books that I should add to my list. Here goes:

  • The War that Ended the Peace: The Road to 1914 by Margaret MacMillan
  • Making Freedom by R.J.M. Blackett
  • Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation by Estelle B. Freedman
  • Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lauer
  • Fear Itself: The New Deal & the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
  • The Tie that Bound Us by Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz
  • The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History 70-1492 by Maistella Botticin & Zvi Eckstein
  • Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
  • The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess by Ellen Noonan
  • Thomas Nast by Fiona Deans Halloran
  • FDR and the Jews by Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman
  • A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust by Mary Fulbrook
  • How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate by Wendy Moore
  • The Original Compromise by David Brian Robertson
  • Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 by James Oakes
  • The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
  • The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus
  • Remembering Survival by Christopher Browning
  • Angel of Vengeance by Ann Siljak

There are some others I am thinking about, but the truth is I already have a large number of books — both fiction and nonfiction — to read. I don’t really need more books to add to my to-be-read pile, especially as I am constantly adding books throughout the year.

If you are looking for a good book to give as a gift, I highly recommend The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer. This is the third book in Bauer’s survey of world history. Her first book, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, and her second book, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, are excellent.

Also excellent is the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the most remarkable woman, I think, of the twentieth century, by Blanche Wiesen Cooke. Only two volumes have been published so far: Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-1933: A Life: Mysteries of the Heart and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1933-1938. Both volumes are available in the used book marketplace.

Some other nonfiction books I can recommend are these:

  • The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome by E. M. Berens
  • Wilson by Scott A. Berg
  • Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership by Conrad Black
  • One Summer by Bill Bryson
  •  One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus
  • The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh
  • The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester
  • The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham

Now it’s time for your suggestions.

October 7, 2013

On Today’s Bookshelf (XIV)

Filed under: On Today's Bookshelf,To Be Read — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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I spend my working hours editing books and then spend my pleasure hours reading more books rather than watching TV. I can’t recall the last time I turned on the TV (except to watch a rented video). What follows is a list of some of the books that I am reading (or acquired since the last On Today’s Bookshelf post) either in hardcover or in ebook form:

Nonfiction –

  • Harry Truman and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Shogan
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman
  • The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer (I already own and have read the first 2 volumes in this outstanding history: The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome and The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, as noted in prior On Today’s Bookshelf posts)
  • The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd
  • Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition by Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and Benjamin Griffin (I already own and have read volume 1)
  • Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott
  • Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum
  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
  • Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
  • Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
  • The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership by Yehuda Avner
  • Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
  • The Last Tsar by Donald Crawford
  • Thomas Becket by John Guy
  • Hiding Edith by Kathy Kacer
  • The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh
  • A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky
  • The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell
  • Shooting Victoria by Paul Thomas Murphy
  • Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson
  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
  • Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
  • The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain by Paul Preston
  • Six Women of Salem by Marilynne Roach
  • The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer
  • Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel by Andrew Graham-Dixon

Fiction –

  • Blood Land by R.S. Guthrie
  • Shadowborn by Moira Katson
  • Ascendancy by Jennifer Vale
  • Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks
  • Two Fronts: The War that Came Early by Harry Turtledove
  • Treecat Wars by David Weber
  • Shadowborn, Shadowforged, & Shadow’s End by Moira Katson (trilogy)
  • The Song of Eloh Saga by Megg Jensen (7 books combined in a single omnibus)
  • The Dream Thief by Shana Abe
  • Something Blue by Emma Jameson
  • Venice by Peter Ackroyd
  • The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin
  • Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins
  • The Algebraist by Ian Banks
  • Bone Thief by Jefferson Bass
  • The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
  • Bridge of Dreams and Daughter of the Blood by Anne Bishop
  • Killing Rain by Barry Eisler
  • First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde
  • American Assassin by Vince Flynn
  • Seventy-Seven Clocks by Christopher Fowler
  • The Apostates Tale by Margaret Frazer
  • Haunted Ground by Erin Hart
  • Chosen, Exalted, Stained, and Stolen by Ella James (4 books)
  • The Iron Legends by Julie Kagawa
  • The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo
  • A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
  • Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin
  • The Chair by James Rubart
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

As you can see, I have no shortage of reading material. As I have noted before, my to-be-read pile keeps growing at a pace faster than I can read books. Perhaps if I ever retire I will have enough reading time to read faster than I acquire.

What is most interesting to me is not how many books I read but how many I start and never finish. Being an editor has its downsides. For example, I get frustrated by books that wander, or where the same character has 14 names (and counting), or the bad editing sticks out like a beacon, or the author has a lot to say but lacks even minimal storytelling techniques. (Note I have not mentioned those books that frustrate because of poor grammar and English, which is a category unto itself.)

The holiday season is soon upon us and I need to begin to put together a wish list of hardcover books I am interested in. Have you given thought to what books you will ask for this holiday season? How is your to-be-read pile growing/declining?

July 24, 2013

On Books: A World on Fire

It has been a long time since I last reviewed a book. It is not that I haven’t been reading; rather, it has been a long time since I read a book worthy of my expending the effort to write a review. Most of what I have been reading would fall into the 3- to 3.5-star category at best. The remainder generally would be 4 stars with a few pushing 4.5 stars. (For a refresher on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).)

At long last, however, I have hit the jackpot with a genuine 5-star book: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman (2011; ISBN: 9780375504945).

As long-time readers of this blog know, I like to read nonfiction as well as fiction. Each serves its own purpose for me. Fiction’s role is primarily to entertain me. A particularly well-written novel may stay with me (two good examples are the mystery novels by Vicki Tyley and the historical fiction by Shayne Parkinson, both of whose books I have reviewed; just do a search on their names. Other excellent writers whom I have reviewed can be found by searching for the On Books tag), but its most important function is to be entertaining.

Nonfiction’s purpose, on the other hand, is primarily to educate me. It is a bonus when a nonfiction book not only educates me but entertains me. Such is the case with A World on Fire.

America’s Civil War has been the topic of thousands of books. One would think that, as one would also think true with books about World War II, that by now there was nothing new to discover or learn about the Civil War. But Foreman shows that there is still more to learn about the Civil War.

Rather than repeat the stories of the various battles (was this one more important than that one?), Foreman tackles the diplomatic front, concentrating on England. At the time, England was sympathetic to the Union cause but economically bound to the South. The economic ties were such that it was accepted wisdom that once the Confederacy declared itself an independent nation, it would become one on the world stage because the world powers — primarily Britain, France, Russia – would extend recognition to the Confederacy.

This belief, which was held in both the North and the South and even privately by Lincoln, was based on Britain’s need for the South’s cotton and France’s Southern leanings. More than 4 million Englishmen were economically dependent on Southern cotton (which is what led to Southerners declaring that “cotton is king”. The declaration came about in response to the question of whether Britain would recognize the South as an independent nation or remain neutral). The failure to maintain steady access to cotton would cause a major economic disruption in Britain.

But Britain abhorred the South’s commitment to slavery. It also did not want to encourage rebellion for fear it would encourage rebellion in its own colonies. England was in a diplomatic predicament. It is this story that Foreman tells.

Interestingly, Britain and France had agreed that they would only recognize an independent South together; neither would act on its own. It was this agreement, coupled with Britain’s unwillingness to take sides that kept the South from gaining international standing as a separate country.

What the South wanted was for Britain to break the North’s blockade of Southern ports. Britain was the undisputed naval power and probably the only country that could do so. That could only occur if Britain was not neutral. Britain feared getting involved for many reasons, not least of which was a fear of losing Canada and possibly the Caribbean in a war with the North.

Foreman tells of England’s struggle to remain neutral, and why it was such a struggle. It was not just a struggle philosophically; it was a struggle also because of the ineptitude of William Seward, America’s secretary of state, and Charles Francis Adams, America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James — and because of the South’s refusal to state publicly that slavery would end. Of course, Lincoln hadn’t yet so declared, which posed a quandary for Britain.

Seward believed that if he could make Britain an enemy of the United States, the Southern states would give up their secession to return to the fold and make a unified fight against Britain. Seward also believed that Canada should be part of the United States, not a British colony. Consequently, Seward was always threatening Britain with war and conquest of its North American colonies. The British struggled to deal with him. Adams, who was part of the Adams presidential dynasty, also disliked Britain and let his dislike color his actions.

Seward was also arrogant in his belief of America’s superiority. Contrary to reality, which was that America was, at best, a fifth rate military power, Britain was, by world agreement (except for Seward and much of the anti-British American press), the first-rate military power. Seward’s egotism, arrogance, and belligerence strained British-American relations.

Britain was also crucial to the South. Not only was Britain a primary market for Southern cotton, but the South had neither weapons manufacturing plants (they were all in the North) nor warship-building capability or expertise. Britain had both, and the South wanted access to them; Britain could be a help or a hindrance to the South.

The South also was arrogant. It was the common belief in the South that Britain would do whatever the South wanted because “cotton is king.” The South did not reckon with Britain’s keen antislavery beliefs and how much they shaped British policy toward the Civil War. Even those of the working class who were losing their jobs because of the cotton shortage were disinclined to support the South because of slavery.

Foreman’s coverage of the history of British-American relations during the Civil War is thorough and eminently readable. She writes as if she were a novelist. The prose is fluid and fact-filled. She makes the frustrations of the British, the Union, and the Confederacy seem alive. A World on Fire provides a new-to-me perspective of the Civil War. I found the book hard to put down. I also found it fascinating how much effort Britain and its citizens put into getting Lincoln to view the war as a war of emancipation and how much they pushed the South to give up slavery as a pariah institution.

If you are looking for a different perspective on the American Civil War, this is the book to read. If you are looking for a well-written history, this is the book to read. If you are just looking for a well-written book to read, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War is highly recommended.

December 5, 2012

On Books: Gatekeeping eBooks

Filed under: On Books — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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In pre-ebook days, gatekeeping was done by the traditional publishers; today, with the rise of ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, it is the reader who is responsible for doing his or her own gatekeeping. The problem is how to do it. All of the traditional tools are still available with the exception of the traditional publisher’s staff. Some of the tools are less valid, today, such as “customer” reviews than they once were, but even the less-valid tools offer some guidance. For me, I’ve added one tool to my armory: dreams.

I know it sounds silly, but I realized that dreams are a result of some environmental stimulus — good or bad. They don’t just happen in a vacuum; something happened during waking hours that has stimulated my imagination. Consequently, I have realized that one of the ways I distinguish between an ebook worth mentioning to friends and an ebook I hope to never hear of again, is dreaming.

A quality read is one in which the characters are stimulating, are “real,” are “people” I want to know better, who have adventures I want to share. A second attribute of a quality read is that these characters are participants in a well-told story within which I, the reader, want to participate myself.

I am setting aside the usual problems of which I complain, such as poor grammar and rampant misspellings. I admit that I have read several ebooks recently where grammar and misspellings were annoying but the characters and story were such that I was willing to overlook the problems. Such books war with me: Do I recommend them to friends or not? For the most part, I decide to not recommend them because the problems are too overwhelming, too distracting.

It is these authors and ebooks for whom I feel most sorry. It is clear to me that they failed to invest in their book after they completed the manuscript, or if they did invest, they did not invest wisely. Yet, they clearly have a topnotch tale to tell. A good example of this paradox is Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny series, which I reviewed in On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny.

But I digress. Great characters and a great story are all-important when it comes to writing. A grammatically perfect manuscript is of little value if the story and characters aren’t compelling and grabbing. Thus my dreaming as gatekeeping.

I know I have hit the motherlode of characterization and storyline when I dream about a book I am reading. When in my dreams I try to anticipate the plotline, when I try to play matchmaker among the characters, when I take the characters on a new adventure that I think naturally evolves from the author’s storyline, I know that I have found an ebook that rises from the slush pile.

What I have come to realize is that dreaming is my gatekeeper when it comes to fiction ebooks. (I read nonfiction books for different purposes than I read fiction and thus do not find myself dreaming about the nonfiction books I read.) I realized in recent months that if I am not dreaming about an ebook’s characters or story, I am generally not satisfied with the ebook — whether it be because the characters are not well-formed, the story is plodding, or there are so many errors that I can’t focus on anything but the errors — and so delete the ebook without completing it.

The ebooks I read from beginning to end are those about which I dream favorably. Like most readers, I recognize that there are many more ebooks available for me to read than there are hours left in my life in which to read them, so why waste time on ebooks that cannot evoke a positive dream?

Interestingly, I also realized that there are levels of intensity to my dreams, by which I mean that some ebooks evoke a fleeting dream, a dream that is enough for me to finish the ebook I am reading but not intense enough to induce me to read more ebooks by the same author. My reading habits are such that if I find myself enthusing over an ebook, as soon as I am finished with it, I rush to buy and read the remaining ebooks available by the author. Good examples of such authors are Shayne Parkinson and Vicki Tyley, both of whose ebooks I have reviewed here multiple times.

The hard part for authors is figuring out how to capture that enthusiasm, how to encourage the dreaming. Alas, there is no easy formula for doing so. It is clear to me that there is something more needed than fundamental writing skills. This is obvious when I note how I treasure books by certain authors but not books by other authors. It is also clear to me that good characterization and storyline can only go so far; disinterested professional help is also needed. (Perhaps an editor should be viewed as being a psychologist for a book in the sense that a disinterested professional editorial perspective can help an author surmount problems that might otherwise not be surmounted or even identified.)

At least for the foreseeable future I have my own built-in ultimate gatekeeper. As long as I continue to find ebooks that encourage positive dreaming, I will be a happy reader.

August 13, 2012

On Books: Value in an eBook World

eBooks have changed the way we think of value in regards to books. For myriad reasons, ebookers think that the price of ebooks should be no more than the price of a mass market paperback, and often less. Price is a reflection of value.

Much of the thinking revolves around a central point: unlike pbooks, ebooks are intangible — just a collection of bits and bytes. Yes, there are other reasons, too, such as the lack of secondary market value, lower production costs, restrictions on usage, and the like, but the reality is that most of the conscious and unconscious reasoning revolves around the matter of intangibility.

When I buy a pbook for $15, I have something solid to hold in my hand. I can put it on a shelf and admire its cover beauty; I can open the book and feel the pages as I turn them. An ebook lacks all of the sensory qualities of a pbook – it is intangible. The sensory experience lies with the reading device itself, not with the ebook.

I am aware that many ebookers pooh-pooh the sensory argument, but it really is not so easily dismissed. Many of the things that ebookers complain are restrictive about ebooks are not restrictive about pbooks because of the sensory experience. More importantly, it is difficult to become enamored with bits and bytes, yet the beauty that a pbook can project addresses the needs of multiple senses.

I think it is this sensory deprivation that drives the value argument. eBooks are of less value because they provide less of a sensory experience. We pay $100 for an ebook reader without a great deal of thought because it appeals to multiple senses; we complain about a $14.99 ebook price because it appeals to a limited number of senses.

Think about a rose. Do we value the magazine photograph of a rose the same as we value the physical rose in our hand? The photograph will last longer than the physical rose, yet we value the physical rose more than the photograph rose because the physical rose provides a more complete (and better) sensory experience.

Or consider this. Many more ebookers are willing to pirate an ebook – regardless of the rationalization given for doing so — than are willing to steal a pbook from a bookstore. Why is that? If the value is the same, the willingness to pirate/steal should be the same, yet it isn’t. I think it is because ebooks are intangible and thus viewed as of little to no value — ebooks simply do not ignite the same sensory experiences as pbooks.

Of course all of this ignores the fact that real value of a book — p or e — lies in the writing, not in its physical structure or presence. Yet when we talk about the value of books, the value of the content is rarely addressed. There is good reason for this. If we were to address the content value, then ebooks and pbooks should be equivalently valued. After all, the word content is the same, only the physical wrapper is different.

Another problem with addressing the content value is that the content value is not altered one iota by production costs (excluding editorial). If we value the content, we should value the content identically whether it cost $1 or $100 to produce. The production (excluding editorial) costs are wrapper costs, not content value.

eBooks have upset the valuation process. Prior to ebooks, value was determined largely by content. With the rise of ebooks, the wrapper has come to dominate the valuation argument and there is little to no discussion of content value. And this has consequences for the pbook world. This is what lies, I think, at the heart of the fear of the publishing industry: the idea that content will have little to no value, only the wrapper will determine pricing.

This tension between content and wrapper valuations is further fueled by the rise of the indie author. Readers are unwilling to gamble large sums on indie-authored ebooks from authors with whom they have little to no familiarity. If an indie author publishes a pbook and prices it similarly to other pbooks in its genre, readers are willing to pay that price even if they do not know the author because the price is aligned with what they expect to pay.

Yet this does not translate to indie-authored ebooks, where there is resistance to paying the higher pricing found with traditionally published ebooks. Consequently, indie-authored ebooks tend to be drawn to the lower end of the pricing scale. With the large number of ebooks found at that lower price point, that lower price point becomes a standard for the ebook. Again, valuation is based on the wrapper, not the content.

The next few years will be interesting as regards ebook pricing. Will the valuation of ebooks change so that content is the decider or will the wrapper valuation continue to dominate and also make inroads in pbooks? Although it is often heard that content is king, ebooks appear to be the exception. For ebook valuation, the wrapper is king.

August 6, 2012

The Uneducated Reader

I’m not an admirer of anonymous reader reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other forums where “readers” can anonymously “critique” a book. Occasionally I will look at these so-called reviews, not for information purposes but for their amusement value.

What struck me during a recent perusal of reviews of a book that I think highly of, Shayne Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage (for my review, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) were two particular reviews. The first review gave the book a 1-star rating, anonymously, of course, with the statement that the reviewer hadn’t yet read the book. The book wasn’t discussed in the review and if the reviewer’s words are taken as true, he/she had yet to read the book but still rated it, giving a rating that was deliberately designed to lower the overall rating of the book. If you didn’t read the book, why rate it? And why give it a 1-star rating?

The second review that caught my eye was one that several other readers found “helpful.” This review raked the book over the coals. The review gave the book a 1-star rating and was titled “Disturbing, sick, just plain bad.” Rather than summarize the review, I reprint it here:

The main character is stupid, for lack of a better word, and her innocence and lack of instinct when it comes to “Jimmy” is unrealistic, she’s 15, not 8, just clearing that up. This is one of the most disturbing, sad books I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I only got about 600 pages in before I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions; It doesn’t get any better, in fact, it gets worse. I’m not referring to the writing, that was good enough, but the story in general is just depressing and it serves no real purpose that I could find. This is a Warning, this book was just sad, it helps you fall in love with the characters and then it screws them over in the worst possible way, it’s [sic] doesn’t even have the benefit of being a horror story. There’s no suspense, no action, just plan [sic] and clear depression, it kind of made me want to kill myself….and the characters….

The above review was immediately followed by what amounts to another 1-star anonymous review, this one titled “This author is a sadist.”

To me, these reviews illustrate the problem of what I call the uneducated reader. The reviewers are upset because there is no suspense, no action, no Batman coming to the rescue. The reviewers think that 15-year-old girls in 1890s New Zealand were as streetwise as 10-year-old girls in 2012 New York City. The reviewers apparently lack familiarity with either the genre of the book (not all historical fiction is Vikings on a rampage raping and murdering innocents) or the social mores of the time depicted in the setting of the story.

These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors – the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet. More amazing and sad is that other readers claim to find these “reviews” helpful!

A scan of other anonymous 1-star reviews of Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage convinces me that either these people never read the book or do not understand what they read or have no familiarity whatsoever with history. If they are writing about a book that they actually read, then they certainly read a book that was much different from the one I read. This is not to say that every reader of Sentence of Marriage has to agree that it is a 5-star book. But at least be honest and fair with any criticism.

Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn’t true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.

Although I have focused on the reviews given Parkinson’s book, the problem isn’t limited to her books. As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed. This is not to suggest that to review 19th century historical fiction one must have a doctorate in 19th century history; rather, it is to suggest that a reader should be familiar enough with the general subject matter and history so as to not make false comparisons and thereby draw incorrect conclusions — or, if you insist on making comparisons, state what the comparators are.

I have often wondered about the need some readers have to “review” a book. It is not that I think if you have nothing good to say you shouldn’t say anything. Some books deserve negative reviews, but when you give one, be constructive, not just negative, and be factual, don’t make up false reasons.

Personally, I think anonymous reviews and reviewers whose identity cannot be verified should not be permitted to post reviews. I also think that negative reviews that are negative simply because of price should not be permitted. I also think that reviews that state upfront that the reviewer hasn’t read the book should be deleted because they unfairly distort a book’s rating.

Reviews serve an important purpose and reviews that are clearly unfounded or that are based on superfluous items, such as pricing, undermine the credibility of the review process. Perhaps this is why I so admire and enjoy the reviews I read in The New York Review of Books. They have credibility in a world that doesn’t seem to care too much about credibility (this is the disease of the Internet — the demise of the value of credibility).

The online reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like should be challengeable by other readers and by authors. For example, one should be able to challenge a review that gives a rating and the comment that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book. If the challenge is upheld, the review should be removed, especially if the review is anonymous. It is unfair to prospective readers and to authors to let such reviews remain.

The review quoted above that some readers found “helpful” is so far off target that it is ludicrous, yet some, if not all, of the readers who found the review “helpful” won’t have bought the book and read it, thus missing out on what they well may have found, as so many others did, to be a compelling, well-written novel. Such reviewers should be challenged and made to defend their review. More importantly, reviews should be only accepted from verifiable sources, sources that can be flagged if they abuse the review process. These uneducated readers who write anonymous, scathing reviews that bear no relation to the book being reviewed make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to indie-authored books.

What do you think?

July 9, 2012

On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny

One thing I hate about article titles is that they are length limited and thus tend to sweep with broad strokes. Such is the case with this title.

This is the partial saga of my encounter with an 8-volume fantasy series called “Clarion of Destiny,” written by Franz S. McLaren. The series begins with Home Lost, which is available free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, as well as at other ebooksellers. I admit that I enjoyed Home Lost. I found the characters interesting and the story engrossing. Alas, I also found the repeated misuse of words distracting and annoying. But given that the book is free, it is still worthy of 4 stars.

The agony arises with the second volume, To Save Elderon. As soon as I finished Home Lost, I logged into my B&N account and looked for the next book. I found To Save Elderon, but was a bit taken aback by the price — $3.99. It is not that the price is high; rather, it is that it is high if this volume suffers from the same problems that the first volume did. The higher the price of the book, the less tolerant I am of fundamental spelling and grammar errors, errors that would have been caught and corrected by a professional editor.

Yet I had enjoyed the first book enough that I really did want to continue with the story, so, after hesitating over the price for a few seconds, I took the plunge and bought the book. After having read the second volume (which I rate at 2.5 to 3 stars), I was simultaneously sorry and pleased – the all-too-often agony and ecstasy of the indie book. Again, the story is intriguing, the characters interestingly developed, and I want to go on to the third book – yet I am not. I have decided that at $3.99 I should not be continuously insulted by language misuse.

How do I know I will be so abused? Smashwords offers sample previews of each of the volumes. Every volume suffers from the same illness: an author who seems not to know what either a dictionary or a grammar guide is for or how to use it. The only thing that could make this worse is if it turned out that McLaren was a public school English teacher.

How many times can I accept, for example, forth for fourth, there for their, were for where, then for than? McLaren writes disburse when he means disperse, to long ago when he means too long ago, that when he means who, cloths when he means clothes. And the list goes on, almost without end. I’m not convinced that he knows what purpose the apostrophe serves, because so many possessives lack one (e.g., the mornings work rather than the morning’s work) — perhaps a better way to say it is that too few (what should be) possessives include an apostrophe. And let’s not delve too deeply into the missing hyphenation in compounds or the missing commas, both of which ensure a struggle for readability and comprehension.

I need also mention that the author does a sloppy job of remembering his own characters’ names. The fairy Uwi becomes Renee before returning to Uwi; Niki becomes Nike and then Niki again. This problem of getting character names wrong happens several times with several characters throughout the series.

This is a case study of a good series that desperately needs attention from a professional editor. The story is intriguing and for a fantasy buff like me, even compelling, except for the necessary slogging through illiteracy. For free or 99¢, I can accept a lot of insult; for seven volumes at $3.99 each, my tolerance is very limited.

I grant that for a good story, $3.99 is not a lot to pay. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay it, but there has to be a convergence of good writing, good editing, and good story for me to shell out $3.99 seven times just to get a complete story. (It is not that each of the first two volumes cannot stand on their own; they can. Rather, it is that each tells only a part of the adventure and all eight volumes need to be read to get that complete adventure.) Those of you who have been reading An American Editor for a while know that I praise the writing of some indie authors, such as Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, and L.J. Sellers. I would not hesitate to buy one of their books at $4.99, let alone at the $2.99 that they charge, because their books are well-written, well-edited, and well-told stories. They use the correct words and understand the importance of punctuation.

It is the well-edited that is the missing leg in McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series, which, when combined with a “high” price, causes the discerning reader to agonize over whether or not to read indie books. Unfortunately, it is books like McLaren’s that give a bad reputation to all indie books – at least among readers who care about grammar, spelling, and word choice. The most common statement I see on various forums regarding indie books is that the commenter won’t buy them because the quality too often is poor. I buy them knowing that of 10 indie books, only one or two will be readable or worth reading. I don’t mind having to separate the wheat from the chaff, but that is also why I won’t spend more than 99¢ on an introduction to a new indie author and I prefer that the first book from an unknown author be free.

What I do mind, however, is to find an author who spins a good story — a story worth reading and recommending — but who is so careless with language, yet wants a higher price for his or her stories, that the story cannot overcome the barrage of insults the reader needs to absorb. The point is that the lower the price the author asks, the more tolerant the reader should be; conversely, the higher the price the author asks, the less tolerant the reader should be!

So, now I am in a quandary over McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” series. I am inclined to reward the author for writing a good story, one that holds my interest. Simultaneously, I am disinclined to reward the author for his apparent indifference to the fundamentals of good writing — correct language use and grammar. The asking price of $3.99 is probably the fulcrum point where the competing inclination and disinclination are at balance. I am certain in my mind that were the asking price $4.99, I would not have even considered buying the second book in the series; at $3.99 it was an OK gamble, albeit a gamble that I lost as the misuse got worse. It is also clear to me that because the story is as good as it is, were the price $1.99, I would hesitate but I would buy.

I am aware that $2 is not a lot of money in the scheme of things. For me, it is not so much about the $2 as it is about the message I send when I spend that $2. Buying the seven books at the $3.99 price tells the author that his misuse of grammar and language is OK. Is that really the message I want to send?

As I said, $3.99 is, for me, the point of balance between inclination and disinclination. I am undecided as to what I will do. For now, I will set aside McLaren’s “Clarion of Destiny” and move on to other books and series. In a month or two, if I still remember the series, I’ll revisit the issue. If I remember the series, it will be a sign that I should spend the money; if I forget about the series, my not spending the money was a wise decision for me.

Regardless of what I ultimately do, I think the time is rapidly coming when indie authors who do not want to simply give all their work away for free need to encourage readers to buy their books by ensuring that they are well-written, well-edited, and have a compelling narrative – the three legs that form the support for success.

May 25, 2012

On Books: Fairness and Freedom

This is really just a quick note to let you know about a new book I bought. The book is Fairness and Freedom – A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States by David Hackett Fischer.

I was in my local Barnes & Noble to buy an antiglare filter for my Nook Tablet and after purchasing it, I decided to browse the new history shelves. (I bought the antiglare filter because I want to use my Tablet outdoors this summer, but unlike eInk screens, the tablet LCD screens washout in sunlight, necessitating some auxiliary help. I could have ordered the filter, but if you buy it in the store, they will put it on for you, which means that practiced hands will do it rather than me.)

Fairness and Freedom caught my eye because of the subject matter: a comparison of the United States and New Zealand. I had just finished Shayne Parkinson’s Daisy’s War (see Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson for a review), which takes place in New Zealand, and I realized that what little I know about New Zealand comes largely from geography classes taken 50 years ago and from Parkinson’s novels. Consequently, this book looked like an excellent introduction to New Zealand. David Hackett Fischer is a well-known historian of American history, with Washington’s Crossing, which I read several years ago, probably being his best known work, having won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for History and being a 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction finalist.

The book is described as follows:

Fairness and Freedom compares the history of two open societies–New Zealand and the United States–with much in common. Both have democratic polities, mixed-enterprise economies, individuated societies, pluralist cultures, and a deep concern for human rights and the rule of law. But all of these elements take different forms, because constellations of value are far apart. The dream of living free is America’s Polaris; fairness and natural justice are New Zealand’s Southern Cross.

Fischer asks why these similar countries went different ways. Both were founded by English-speaking colonists, but at different times and with disparate purposes. They lived in the first and second British Empires, which operated in very different ways. Indians and Maori were important agents of change, but to different ends. On the American frontier and in New Zealand’s Bush, material possibilities and moral choices were not the same. Fischer takes the same comparative approach to parallel processes of nation-building and immigration, women’s rights and racial wrongs, reform causes and conservative responses, war-fighting and peace-making, and global engagement in our own time–with similar results.

I look forward to reading Fairness and Freedom and learning more about New Zealand and America.

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