An American Editor

June 10, 2013

On Today’s Bookshelf (XIII)

It has been months since I last shared what I am reading with you. (If you are interested in reading prior On Today’s Bookshelf articles, please click the link “On Today’s Bookshelf” above.) Alas, I wish I could say that my to-be-read pile is getting smaller, but it isn’t. It seems as if not a day passes when I am not adding yet another book or two or three to the TBR pile; although I am managing to make my way through the books, I am adding new books faster than I can read what books I already have in the TBR pile.

In a way, my situation has become more complicated. Recently, Barnes & Noble sent me a coupon for a great deal on the Nook HD or HD+. The HD is a 7-inch tablet with a 720p screen; the HD+ is a 9-inch tablet with a 1080p screen. I already own — and am very happy with — a 7-inch Nook Tablet (it’s just not high definition) but after looking at the device in my local B&N, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy the HD+ for slightly more than half price. So now I have a Sony 7-inch eInk reader that my wife uses, a 7-inch Nook Tablet, and a 9-inch Nook HD+ Tablet.

What I have done is divide my books. On the Nook Tablet, I read fiction; on the Nook HD+ I am reading nonfiction and occasionally watching a video. The Nook HD+ is perfect for nonfiction and for PDF documents. However, the more I use the HD+ tablet, the more I like it, so I expect it won’t be long before all my books are on the HD+.

Here 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 –

  • If Rome Hadn’t Fallen by Timothy Venning
  • The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman
  • Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
  • The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
  • Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British by Jeremy Paxman
  • Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions by Susan Tice & Cami Ostman
  • Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Ray Monk
  • Hitler’s Commanders by Samuel W. Mitchum, Jr.
  • Carthage Must be Destroyed by Richard Miles
  • Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
  • Perfect Victim by Christine McGuire & Carla Norton
  • A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester
  • Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Mahon
  • The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw
  • Belisarius: The Last Roman General by Ian Hughes
  • The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West by Tom Holland
  • All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings
  • The First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination by Matthew Guerrieri
  • The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York by Matthew Goodman
  • Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy
  • The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth
  • A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman
  • Cicero by Anthony Everitt
  • Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-1842 by William Dalrymple
  • The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars by Paul Collins
  • The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
  • The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley
  • The Second World War by Antony Beevor
  • The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford

Fiction –

  • House of Steel: The Honorverse Companion, Vol. 1 and In Fury Born (2 books) by David Weber
  • Antiagon Fire by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • Inda; The Fox; Treason’s Shore; and King’s Shield (4 books) by Sherwood Smith
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
  • The Purples by W.K. Berger
  • City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons (2 books) by Robin Hobb
  • The Serpent’s Tale; A Murderous Procession; Mistress of the Art of Death; and Grave Goods (4 books) by Ariana Franklin
  • I am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits
  • The Cadet of Tildor by Alex Lidell
  • Season of the Harvest and Forged in Flame (2 books) by Michael R. Hicks
  • The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett
  • A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison
  • The Blade Itself; Last Argument of Kings; and Before They are Hanged (3 books) by Joe Abercrombie
  • Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas (2 books) by Amish Tripathi
  • Game of Souls by Terry C. Simpson
  • Ruins of Legend; Nature Abhors a Vacuum; and In Defence of the Crown (3 books) by Stephen L. Nowland
  • The Traitor Queen by Judi Canavan
  • The Concubine’s Daughter by Pai Kit Fai
  • The Pledge by Kimberly Derting
  • Little, Big by John Crowley

That’s some of what I am currently reading. I’ve got about a dozen hardcovers on preorder and a growing list of hardcovers I want to purchase.

Please feel free to share your reading list with us. Doing so may well bring your favorite authors some new readers.

March 27, 2013

Marketing in an eBook World

I was asked some time ago whether I thought traditional marketing techniques are still relevant in our Internet world. The question was from an author and was directed at marketing ebooks, but the question really has broader implications, including for editors seeking work.

I recognize the limits of my view. Those who know me personally, know that I am not of the youth generation. In my youth, the addition and subtraction calculators were the computers of the day, and they had just barely advanced from the abacus. Pinball machines at the local store were the “advanced” game entertainment, and a trip to the library was a weekly event. Twitting was not on the horizon and email was a term in science fiction literature, if it even existed. Consequently, I look at marketing from a different perspective.

Many years ago, in my long-past early work years, I worked in marketing. I began with marketing of advertising trinkets. When I entered the world of publishing, one of my responsibilities was to devise marketing strategies for specific titles. Again, all this was in the dinosaur age, long before the open Internet of today.

In those days, there were certain principles, certain inviolate rules, that pertained to marketing — no matter the product or service. Those same basic rules, albeit perhaps considered old-fashioned, still apply. Today’s successfully marketed products and services are marketed following the same principles we used in the dinosaur era. The reason is that basic human reactions haven’t changed.

Consider, for example, email versus snail mail. Think about your own lives. How much quicker are you to discard without reading an email than a piece of snail mail? Most people will at least open the snail mail envelope and start to read the pitch; the same people will look at the subject line of an email and delete it without opening/reading the email. We’ve become so attuned to email scamming that we make very quick decisions about hitting delete.

Although marketing today is more complex, the rules haven’t changed. One can neither ignore snail mail and email nor embrace one to the exclusion of the other. Both have to be part of the campaign.

And that holds true for marketing of ebooks (or editorial services). It is not enough to market an ebook using modern-day Internet-based tools to the exclusion of the more traditional methods of marketing. Not everyone reacts to Internet-based marketing positively.

However, this argument is somewhat moot until you have identified who your market is and how best to reach that particular market. For example, if your market is fans of military science fiction, I suspect the balance has to tilt more toward the Internet-based marketing than toward traditional marketing. Science fiction aficionados are usually more receptive to “futuristic” methods of marketing. On the other hand, if your market is steampunk fantasy fans, then perhaps the balance tilts more toward traditional marketing methods as these readers are looking backward in time. (I’ve often wondered why, for example, promotional pieces for mysteries aren’t mysterious themselves; why aren’t they written in such a manner as to draw the reader into the mystery that can only be explored by buying the ebook being promoted?)

Regardless of what you write, knowing your audience is key — it is key to the story you write and to the marketing you do to sell the story you write. All that changes is the tilt of the balance, not that there has to be both Internet-based and traditional marketing.

Years ago I taught a marketing class for editors. It was an interesting experience. There were two camps then, just as there are two today. One camp avoided Internet-based marketing, the other embraced it. The transition was underway to online editing and so “logic” would dictate that online marketing should follow. But if an editor looked at the editor’s target audience, the editor would have realized that although editing was transitioning, the target audience was still primarily involved with the traditional pbook. Online editing was but a small piece of the whole process.

With ebooks the transition from paper to bytes has been made — but only for a small portion of the marketplace. Although ebooks are now approximately 25% of sales, 75% of sales are not ebooks. Of that 25% that is ebooks, more than 60% seem to be made to middle-aged and older readers. The challenge for indie authors is to determine where their readers fall in the age categories and how many get their information from online or traditional sources.

I’ll use myself as an example. Much of the information I get about books comes from print sources, not online sources. I already spend too much time at my computer and online, and do not want to spend even more trying to find something to read. I prefer to look at ads and reviews in my print magazines.

Of course, there is also the question of trust. The New York Review of Books, for example, has earned my trust over the years. I find their reviews reliable and accurate. But anonymous online reviewers are a different story. I find it hard to give credence to bubba345′s opinion. I know that the reviewer in the NYRB has read the book; has bubba345? Consequently, a more traditional marketing approach is more likely to grab my attention.

Having said that, I recognize that many readers prefer to do their searching online. To reach them, Internet-based marketing is the primary way to go.

Someday, online marketing will be the only viable method, but that day has not yet arrived. Authors need to do a mix of marketing — traditional and online — shifting only the tilt of the balance based on the audience they are trying to reach.

For those of you who are authors, do you agree or disagree? For editors, although we are discussing marketing ebooks, the same principles apply to marketing your editing services. The mediums have changed but not the fundamental principles of marketing. Are you relying solely on Internet-based marketing?

February 18, 2013

Are eBooks the Death Knell of Authorial Greatness?

I was sitting in my library and my eyes scanned the bookshelves filled with hardcovers. I occasionally would pause on a title and think about the book’s contents. It is not that I remember every book in my library sufficiently that I can recall the content of each as if I had just read the book yesterday; rather, it is that I can recall having read each book and for many of the books, I can recall the content at least generally.

I then thought about my ebooks. The number of ebooks I have read since buying my first ebook reader far exceeds the number of pbooks I have read in the same time frame, yet I can rarely recall an ebook like I can recall the hardcovers on my library shelves.

Part of the problem, I think, is that recalling my library books involves a visual scan of its shelves, something that is easy to do with shelves of hardcover books staring at me and difficult to do with ebooks because that casual eyescan is not as readily accomplished. This visual scanning acts as a stimulus to my memory because it thrusts the title to the front of my mind, which triggers the content recall. (This is also why good cover design is important. Covers — even ebook covers — act as memory triggers.)

This led me to wonder about authorial greatness and the problem of out of sight, out of mind. Authors like Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, and Hemingway carved their greatness in an era in which their books would appear on library shelves (personal and public) and each time a person scanned the library shelf looking for a book, one of their books would present itself. This has begun to change with ebooks, especially with those books that are published only as ebooks. (Books that are also available as print-on-demand books but not as mass distributed pbooks are, for all intents and purposes, available only as ebooks and should be viewed that way.)

I think most ebookers probably store read ebooks and never peruse them again. I wouldn’t be surprised if many ebookers simply delete read ebooks from their devices. The devices are designed to highlight new purchases, not to scan library shelves. When we are faced with new ebooks that we have yet to read, I suspect that most of us quickly choose the next available not-yet-read ebook and go no further. This is unlike the experience with a library of pbooks that are physically always in front of you and reminding you that a book is available for rerreading (or even for reading for the first time), even if we rarely reread a book. The point is that the library of pbooks constantly acts as a stimulus for recalling the content of the pbooks, and this phenomenon is lacking with ebooks.

Getting back to the great authors like Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, I think part of their lasting greatness is a result of their pbooks being always in front of us. I grant that the bulk of their greatness lies in their writing, but even great tomes can fall into obscurity when they are absent from the eyes of readers. Part of the reason I think this is truth is that I have tried, unsuccessfully, to identify any ebook-only author of the past decade who is viewed similarly to Hemingway or Steinbeck.

I am not talking about sales numbers; I am talking about backlist longevity and how readers talk about the author and the author’s ebooks. I understand that an ebook can sell hundreds of thousands of copies and earn an author millions of dollars (need we look any further than Shades of Grey?), but popular sales within a short time span are not reflective of longevity, quality, or any other characteristic that one might apply to a Dickens or a Steinbeck.

Which makes me wonder whether ebook-only publishing is the death knell of authorial greatness?

Whether Steinbeck is a great writer or a hack is a subject for debate. Similarly, whether J.A. Konrath is a great writer or a hack is a subject for debate. What is not a subject for debate is that if one were to ask knowledgable readers to name 10 authors who are recognized generally as being great authors, the likelihood is greater that Steinbeck will appear on the list than will Konrath. Readers over the decades have coalesced around certain writings that are considered timeless for one reason or another, with the result that the books by such authors are repeatedly recommended over decades and generations.

At least to date, each of those “great” authors’ books were published as pbooks and mass distributed — and continue to be available as pbooks and mass distributed, even if also available as ebooks. Perhaps this will change as ebooks become more commonplace, but I wonder if ebook-only authors will ever reach that pantheon of greatness populated by Dickens and Hemingway, and if the reason why they do not will be that they are ebook-only authors and thus lack the library eyescanning that reminds a reader of a book’s (and author’s) existence.

There are a lot of reasons why an ebook is viewed as superior to a pbook, but none of those reasons addresses the issue of future generations recognizing authorial greatness. Are there any of us who think 30 years from now any of J.A. Konrath’s ebooks will be required or recommended reading? Do any of us think they will even be remembered? Do we think, however, that A Tale of Two Cities may well be required, recommended, and remembered?

Again, I am not knocking ebook-only authors like Konrath who sell hundreds of thousands of ebooks. Rather, I am wondering if authorial greatness — something that very few authors attain —  that lasts decades and generations is obtainable in a world in which eyescanning of a pbook library’s shelves is absent. Will the transition to ebooks and ebook-only authors decrease the pool of authors available for authorial greatness? Will the transition distort authorial greatness so that it is very time limited and transitory, resting primarily on sales numbers?

I do not have the answers and it will be many years before the answers are available, but I do know that when I sit in my library and scan its shelves of hardcovers, I can recall having read the books and the pleasure they gave me, whereas with my ereader, I generally only see the newest books I bought that I haven’t yet read and never see the ebooks I bought and read 4 years ago.

January 16, 2013

On Today’s Bookshelf (XII)

I can’t keep away from books, which is probably why I retired from my life as a lawyer and became an editor. Once books and reading get hold of you, they never let go — somewhat like that alien being in the latest science fiction thriller. It has been quite a while since the last On Today’s Bookshelf (March 2012), so here are a few of the hundreds of books and ebooks I have acquired since then –

Hardcovers –

  • Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States by David Hackett Fischer
  • Princeps by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner
  • Heaven on Earth by Sadakat Kadri
  • Henry Ford’s War on Jews by Victoria Saker Woeste
  • On Politics: A History of Political Thought by Alan Ryan (2 vols)
  • When General Grant Expelled the Jews by Jonathan Sarna
  • The Atheist’s Bible by Georges Minois
  • Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran by Habib Levi
  • The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal
eBooks
  • The Witness Quartet: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, Expert Witness, Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
  • Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard
  • The Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham
  • The Devil’s Cradle by Sylvia Nobel
  • Night Swim by Jessica Keener
  • Leaving Before It’s Over by Jean Reynolds Page
  • El Gavilon by Craig McDonald
  • Cooking the Books by Bonnie S. Calhoun
  • The Savior of Turk by Ron D. Smith
  • To Serve the High King by Fran LaPlaca
  • The Death of Kings by Marcus Pailing
  • Paradise Burning by Blair Bancroft
  • Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson
  • Cephrael’s Hand by Melissa McPhail
  • Song of Dragons: The Complete Trilogy by Daniel Arenson
  • The Phoenix Conspiracy by Richard Sanders
  • Circles of Light (6 vols) by E.M. Sinclair
  • Whispers of a Legend by Carrie James Haynes
  • The Other Worlds by M.L. Greye
  • Anca’s Story by Saffina Desforges
  • Blaze of Glory by Sheryl Nantus
  • Blue Murder by Emma Jameson

Many of the books and ebooks in the above lists I have yet to read. The lists are not recommendations, just a compilation of books and ebooks I have bought (or received as gifts) in the past few months. It is not a complete list. I’m sorry to write that my appetite for books grows much faster than my ability to read the books.

I looked at my to-be-read pile of books and discovered that I have more than 2,500 books waiting for my attention. (At the time of On Today’s Bookshelf (XI), my TBR was approaching 500 books, of which about 70 were hardcovers. I wish I could say I made a serious dent in that TBR pile before going on a shopping spree, but I didn’t.) Fortunately, most of the books are ebooks, so they take up little physical space.

One part of my problem as regards hardcover books is that most of the hardcover books in my TBR pile (and in the list above) lead me to buy other books. I will read an interesting point in a book, look at the note to the point, and decide I need to buy a copy of the book cited by the author in support of the interesting point.

A second part of my hardcover problem is that I have a long-term subscription to The New York Review of Books, each issue of which I faithfully read — both articles/reviews and the advertisements — which leads me to buy even more hardcover books.

Then I run into the problem of favorite authors coming out with new books, some of whom are very prolific, publishing a couple of new hardcovers every year.

At least when I retire, which is likely to be years from now, I won’t wonder what I’ll be doing. I’ll be attacking my ever-increasing TBR.

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.

November 28, 2012

The Holiday Gift: To eBook or to Hardcover?

Filed under: Books & eBooks,Miscellaneous Opinion — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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Increasingly, the reader in the family is reading ebooks and many of us are thinking that an ideal gift for the ebook reader is either an ebook gift certificate or some desired ebooks themselves. In my case, I was thinking about asking for ebooks (as opposed to asking for hardcover books), but then I got to wondering: If I give an ebook as a holiday gift, what message am I sending to the gift recipient?

My off-the-cuff answer is “I love you” or “It’s great that you are my friend” or some similar positive message. But after mulling the matter over for a while, I wonder how positive the message really is. Yes, I know that many readers prefer to read ebooks and that increasingly readers only want to read ebooks. Yet the question arises because this is a message-bearing gift, even if the message is left unsaid.

When I give a reader a hardcover book, I give the reader something they can see constantly. As it sits on the bookshelf, it acts as a reminder that I cared enough to give them a gift. Depending on the book, it may also have a visual presence that is much more than a reminder that the book was a gift (think of a book about paintings, for example). Plus, if given to, for example, a grandchild, I can inscribe the hardcover with something pithy, like “Happy 9th birthday. Love, Grandpa.” The hardcover is a constant reminder that I care. A few years from now, when the grandchild loses all sentimentality and wants to raise some cash to buy the latest video game, the grandchild can sell the hardcover on the used book market and get a few more dollars toward the purchase price — the hardcover gives again.

The hardcover also is returnable and exchangeable. I bought the book that promotes being a carpenter but mommy and daddy want the child to have a book that encourages a career in quantum physics. I think dragons and fairies are great for 8-year-olds; mommy and daddy think a grounding in reality is better.

The ebook, on the other hand, doesn’t really have a presence. It becomes one of hundreds on the reading device; it doesn’t stand out and remind anyone that this was a gift given with love. And let’s face it, the ability to inscribe something pithy in an ebook just doesn’t have that “magic” ring to it. Of course, since I am buying the ebook for someone else, I also have to hope — with all fingers crossed — that the ebook is properly formatted and isn’t riddled with errors. Giving a poorly formatted, error-riddled ebook as a gift is like giving a TV without a remote control — it will work but the recipient will be a bit grumpy about how well it works.

Plus when I give an ebook, what am I really giving? A license that can be revoked on a capricious whim by the seller (consider the recent Fictionwise debacle); a book that can be here today and gone tomorrow because a cloud failed; a book that cannot be exchanged or returned should it turn out to be the wrong book or inappropriate because about midway through it has a steamy erotic scene even though the book has been rated great for 8-year-olds (or, in today’s vitriolic political environment, the book discusses evolution and the parents are creationists).

I suppose the answer is to give an ebook gift card but how impersonal can one get? That is OK for a business associate, but is that what I really want to give my child or grandchild? What thought (and effort) goes into giving a gift card? I think of gift cards as the gifts of last — last resort and last minute — the gift that says I ran out of ideas; I can’t think of anything for you (what message does that send!); I ran out of time to do shopping; I got lazy; and so on. Besides, how memorable (or exciting) is it to receive a gift card? I can’t ever remember dragging a friend to my bedroom to show him the gift I got from Granny when it was a gift card.

I guess I could avoid my dilemma by simply not considering buying books at all as holiday gifts, but as an editor, I’d like to support my industry in hopes that it will continue to provide me a livelihood for years to come, and, more importantly, books are the gateway to knowledge and there is nothing better than spreading knowledge. Additionally, when that remote control race car finally has seen its last days and joins the scrap heap of once-loved toys, the book I give should still be available.

If my child or grandchild is like me, he or she will treasure books they receive and think of holding them for future generations. Few of us do that with the busted light saber we received for last year’s holiday. That’s another positive to hardcover books — they can be passed on to subsequent generations and evoke the same positive emotion in that generation as was evoked when the gift was originally given. They are the gift that can keep on giving.

Yes, the same is true of ebooks. The text file can be given again and again, perhaps for hundreds or thousands of generations to come and each giving will be in pristine form — assuming that 100 years from now there will be devices available that are capable of reading the file. We assume that today’s text file will be forever readable, but that may not be so. Today’s popular or dominant formats may simply be echoes of the past in the future. A hardcover book, however, we know is likely to be readable 500 years from now because we are reading books from 500 years ago.

(Remember this video of a monk being introduced to the wonders of the new-fangled gizmo called the book?

Even if this is how it has to be done 500 years from now, it at least can be done, which is something that cannot be said with certainty about an ebook file.)

In balancing the pluses and minuses of to ebook or to hardcover, I come to the conclusion that for gifts I will give, I will give hardcover books, not ebooks. eBooks send the wrong message and not enough of the message I want to send. Even for gifts to me, I will designate hardcover desired. I want to be reminded regularly from whom I received “this” book and for what occasion. I do not want the gifted book to simply become another file among my many thousands of already-owned ebook files — a file that once read will most likely never be seen again. I want to know that someone cares and be reminded that they care.

What are your gifting plans?

November 19, 2012

Why is the Book Market Different from the Art Market?

The United States Supreme Court recently heard oral argument in Wiley vs. Kirtsaeng, a copyright case that deals with first resale principles. The gist of the case is this: Kirtsaeng bought textbooks in developing countries where the books sell for less than in the United States and brought them to the United States for resale. (Sounds like the pharmaceutical scene here in the United States: The same drug sells for multiple times more in the United States than in any other country in the world so U.S. citizens get the privilege of subsidizing pharmaceutical sales to other countries. The same is often true in the textbook industry.)

Wiley sued Kirtsaeng for copyright infringement and won; Kirtsaeng has appealed. Kirtsaeng’s defense was primarily the first-sale doctrine, which allows owners to resell, lend out, or give away copyrighted goods without interference. This doctrine is a prime reason why every ebook comes with terms of sale that state that what you are “buying” is a limited license, unlike with a pbook.

Here’s the problem as I see it: If Wiley wins in the Supreme Court, it will be the death knell of all markets for all goods except the primary market, which is the original transfer from manufacturer/copyright owner to licensee. In other words, we won’t own anything, we will simply be licensees subject to the whims of copyright owners. If we don’t own it, how will we dispose of it?

It has always been assumed that the secondary market for artwork is legitimate. No one has tried to put an end to Sotheby’s auctioning artwork that is still under copyright, which, thanks to Mickey Mouse, seems to be never-ending. It is this secondary market that is the value market. It is the market that lifts art prices (value) across the entire spectrum, in both the primary and secondary markets.

Yet this case could spell the end of such secondary markets except for goods that are outside copyright, which means not in our lifetime for currently produced artwork.

More importantly for artists, publishers, and authors alike, all art — regardless of form — that is still under copyright will plummet in value if capitalism works correctly. Why would anyone pay a handsome price for art that they cannot resell 10 years from now. Copyrighted works will have limited market value because there will be real market.

Isn’t this the fight we are experiencing with ebooks? Publishers cry about how piracy and discounting devalues ebooks, but it is really neither that devalues ebooks; instead it is the licensing scheme that intentionally prevents a secondary market that causes the devaluation.

Of course, the counter to that argument is that ebooks are the fastest growing segment of the book market; yet, it remains a small percentage of overall book sales. It may be the fastest growing but it is not yet the majority of sales.

And there is something deceptive about the “fastest growing” statement. What is not disclosed and what I would like to know is how do sales stack up once you eliminate all ebooks whose sales price is less than, say, $5.99, which is the price below which you rarely see the big publishers price their ebooks, and once you eliminate the ultra bestsellers that are trading on the current value of the author’s brand. In other words, I want to know how ebook sales of midlevel books being sold at $7.99 to $14.99 or higher compare to the sales of their pbook versions. I know I’ll never be given that information, but that is really the information we need to determine how “valuable” consumers consider licensed ebooks.

(It probably would also be worthwhile to eliminate from the equation DRM-free ebooks and ebooks that do not have a pbook version except via print on demand. Both skew the numbers. DRM-free ebooks, although technically licensed, are really viewed by consumers [and probably by many authors] as owned in the pbook sense of owned. eBooks that do not have a trade-style pbook version should be excluded because there is not a comparable option against which to test value.)

I suspect that the book industry’s rejoinder to the art market comparison is that unlike a Monet or Edlund painting, which is a unique creation not massed produced, books are not unique and so the secondary market plays no role in setting value. But that, I think, misconstrues what is the secondary market. The secondary market for books includes the paperback version, the remainder, and the used book markets. Each works, in conjunction with the number printed, to limit the primary market for books, which is the hardcover market. It is hard to charge $100 for the new Stephen King novel when a consumer knows that eventually the book will be available as a mass market paperback for a lot less, as a remainder for less than the paperback price, and in a used bookshop for the remainder price or less.

But if you eliminate some of the secondary market in an attempt to shore up value, I think you will fail with books because they lack uniqueness, the one thing that truly sets the art market apart from the book market. It is hard to claim a high value for a book that is available in the millions (it is similar to lithographs of a Renoir in the art market: the lithograph is significantly less valuable than the original painting because it is a replica, not an original, and because there are multiple copies). In the absence of a secondary market for books, consumers will see even less value in the books.

In the case before the Supreme Court, the market in question is the student market, which is a captive market for publishers. It is a market that traditionally has sustained high pricing but has done so because of a confluence of multiple unique factors, such as a requirement to use a particular book in a course. It isn’t a free market. But any decision the Supreme Court makes is likely to affect the whole book market, not just the student book market. Even though Wiley and its cohorts pooh-pooh the effects of a favorable decision on markets outside the student textbook market, I think it is being done with naiveté.

The end of the secondary market in all goods would mean a devaluing of all goods. Either the first sale doctrine is upheld or invalidated; it would be difficult, if not impossible, to fashion a rule just for the student textbook market. As one Justice wondered, how would we dispose of an automobile we wanted to replace because automobiles have numerous items that are copyrighted. We couldn’t sell that auto in the absence of permission from all copyright holders, a difficult task in the absence of the first sale doctrine.

Wiley and friends may regret this action should the first sale doctrine be abrogated.

September 12, 2012

Bye Bye $9.99 and Price Competition in eBooks

The mantra for many ebookers over the past year or so was “get rid of agency pricing and bring back lower ebook prices based on competition.” These ebookers are ecstatic over the approval of the settlement terms in the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against five of the Agency 6 publishers and Apple by Judge Denise Cote on September 6, 2012.

I think it is way too early to celebrate and I think ebook prices of bestsellers will rise, not become lower.

To set the mood to say goodbye to $9.99, here is a song from the past — Don McLean singing his Bye Bye Miss American Pie:

Now that you’ve been entertained, let’s discuss why I think we can say goodbye to the $9.99 bestseller and to real price competition among the big publishing houses which control the majority of popular publishing today.

The first problem lies within the settlement agreement itself. As Judge Cote wrote (p. 10 of the Opinion & Order filed September 6, 2012), the publishers, although they cannot use agency pricing, which presumably means a return to the wholesale pricing of the preagency days, can “enter into contracts that prevent the retailer from selling a Settling Defendant’s e-books at a cumulative loss over the course of one year.” This is a threefold problem for consumers.

First, it means that publishers will be able to require Amazon (and/or Barnes & Noble and/or Apple and/or all other ebooksellers) to disclose both sales numbers and pricing, something that Amazon has been loathe to disclose even to its shareholders. Under the current system of no such requirement, a publisher knows how many of a title have been sold by Amazon because Amazon has to pay for each title sold. But what has not been known, and what every analyst wants to know, is whether the sales are profitable, not just how many units are sold. Analysts want to know whether Amazon has sold 1 million ebooks and made or lost $5 million from the ebook sales alone. And knowing that information, analysts can determine whether or not Kindle hardware sales are profitable — all information that Amazon has steadfastly refused to isolate.

This is problematic because if Amazon has to verify that over the entire line of, say, Macmillan ebooks it is making a profit — and note that it is over the entire Macmillan line, not over the combined lines of Macmillan and Simon & Schuster — Amazon will have to be very cautious about pricing. One cannot easily take a loss on a million-selling ebook in hopes that over the course of the next months it will sell enough ebooks from that publisher to end the year in profit. How likely is it that Amazon will take that gamble and reinstitute $9.99 pricing?

The second reason this is problematic for consumers is because the order essentially orders a return to the wholesale pricing scheme but sets no boundaries on that scheme. There is nothing to prevent the publishers from altering the discount rate or even giving a different discount rate to different ebooksellers. As part of its order, the court did away with the most-favored-nation clause, which said whatever terms you give X you must give me.

I know the response to this is that the publishers need Amazon more than Amazon needs the publishers. I think, however, that Amazon’s caving in to Macmillan when Macmillan demanded agency pricing demonstrates that it is the publishers who are in the catbird’s seat, not Amazon. Amazon is the seller of product and thus needs product to survive. Each of the Big 6 publishers controls a significant portion of the necessary product that Amazon cannot afford to do without. Besides, I expect that each of the publishers will come, independently, to the position of squeezing Amazon similarly, so Amazon will have little recourse, just as it had little recourse in the Macmillan dispute.

The third problem for consumers is that the answer to the worries of the publishers that brought about agency pricing is simply raising the list price of newly published books. The way publishers do this is to take an expected blockbuster and raise its price to the new price point and watch sales. If expected sales (or close thereto) occur, then the next expected blockbuster is given the same price point, and this is repeated until there is confidence that consumers are now expecting to pay the price point.

And this is already beginning. J.K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, a Little, Brown, imprint, has a new price point for a novel: $35. If you check Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you will find that the ebook price at both is $17.99 — a far cry from the previous bestseller price point of $9.99 at Amazon. And the $17.99 is a 49% discount off the list price, which means that the ebook is likely to be generating a 1% gross profit for the retailers, just barely meeting the condition in the settlement order. I see this as an indication that the ebooksellers are concerned about profitability over the entire Little, Brown ebook line over the coming year.

Under the agency system, it would have been expected that Rowling’s new ebook would carry a price no higher than $14.99.

There is also the question of whether Amazon has gotten used to actually making money on ebooks and is using the profit to subsidize the Kindle hardware. Nate Hoffelder raised this question in Did the Agency Model Lead to Cheap eReaders? at his The Digital Reader blog. Having made money on ebooks over the past year, how likely is it that Amazon will want to subsidize both the hardware and the content, perhaps taking a loss on both? At some point, Amazon has to show a profit to prevent shareholder rebellion. And now it has the perfect excuse to do so: Judge Cote’s approval of the settlement agreement that allows publishers to require Amazon to earn a profit on ebooks.

It is the combination of forces that have been unleashed by the approved settlement agreement that will result in no agency pricing for at least 2 years but, instead, higher prices for consumers and the end of the $9.99 bestseller price. We may occasionally see a bestseller being offered at the $9.99 price, but it will be the occasional bestseller, not all bestsellers as in the past. And if we watch prices, I think we will see list prices climb; it will be the rare bestseller that will have a list price below $30. Rowling is leading the way and if her book is a bestseller at $35, it won’t take long for other top-tier writers to insist on equal list pricing. That is how it happened in the past and how it will happen this time.

I may be wrong, but I doubt it. History does tend to repeat itself and the DOJ and Judge Cote have let loose a rising tide. Do you agree?

September 10, 2012

Are Free eBooks Killing the Market?

Every day I find another traditional publisher is offering free ebooks. Amazon has made a business out of offering free ebooks. And let’s not forget the many indie authors who are offering their ebooks for free.

What is this doing to the market for ebooks?

I admit that I may be atypical in my buying and reading habits, but I do not think so. I have watched my to-be-read (TBR) pile grow dramatically in the past couple of months from fewer than 300 ebooks to more than 1,100 ebooks. If I obtained not another ebook until I read everything in my TBR pile, at my current average rate of reading two to three ebooks per week, I have enough reading material for between 367 and 550 weeks or 7 and 10.5 years.

How has this impacted my buying of ebooks? Greatly! In past years, I bought ebooks regularly. Granted, I was buying mainly indie and low-priced, on-sale traditionally published ebooks, rarely spending more than $6 for an ebook, but I was spending money.

That has all changed. Now I rarely spend any money on an ebook. In the past three months, the only ebook I paid for was Emma Jameson’s Blue Murder, which is her sequel to Ice Blue (which I reviewed in On Books: Ice Blue), at $4.99. Otherwise, all I have done is download free ebooks.

I understand the reason for giving ebooks away for free. How else are authors to attract new readers? This is particularly true when one considers how many ebooks are published each year in the United States alone — more than one million. Some how one has to stand out from the crowd. But with the ever-increasing number of free ebooks, giving away ebooks is less of a way to stand out.

The problem is that too often all of the ebooks in a series (or at least many of the ebooks in a series) or older, standalone titles by an author are given away. All an ebooker need do is wait. Giving away the first book in a series makes a lot of sense to me. If I like the first book, I’ll buy the subsequent books. But when I see that if I have patience I’ll be able to get the subsequent books free, too, then I don’t rush to buy.

The giving away of the free ebooks has brought about another problem: the decline of the must-read author list. I’ve noted before that my must-read author list has signficantly changed over the past few years. In past years, I had a list of more than 20 authors whose books I bought in hardcover as soon as published; today that list is effectively two authors. My must-read ebook author list has grown, but that is a list of indie authors, not traditionally published authors.

Again, the problem is free ebooks. As a consumer, I like free. However, free has so radically altered my book-buying habits — and I suspect the book-buying habits of many readers — that I find it difficult to see a rosy future for publishers, whether traditional or self-publishers. It is because of this that I wonder what lies behind the thinking of publishers who give their ebooks away, especially those who do so in one of Amazon’s programs.

Publishers who participate in Amazon giveaways double hex themselves. First, they undermine their own argument that ebooks are valuable. Second, they antagonize ebookers like me who do not own Kindles or are not Amazon Prime members and thus unable to get those ebooks for free. I have seen so many ebooks available for free on Amazon that are not available to me for free as a Nook or Sony or Kobo owner, that I have simply resolved, with some limited exceptions, not to buy ebooks. Either I’ll get them for free or not at all.

The Amazon giveaways also tempt me to join the “darkside,” that is, if there is a book in which I am interested, to search for it on pirate sites. The publishers, by their action of giving away the ebook on Amazon, are enticing people to pirate by not making their ebooks free at all ebookstores. When publishers degrade the value of ebooks, their message is received by all readers and is acted on by many readers.

This is a no-win situation for everyone. Ultimately, even readers lose because the incentive to write disappears when there is little to no hope of earning any money for the effort. And even if authors continue to write, the quality of the writing will suffer because no one will see the sense in investing their own money in a product they are going to give away.

It is still early in ebook revolution, so no one really knows what eBook World will look like in a decade or two. But it is pretty clear to me that freebie programs like Amazon’s are detrimental to the overall health of the book market. Authors and publishers should rethink the giving away of their ebooks, other than, perhaps, the first book in a series, before they establish in concrete the reader expectation that “if I just wait, I’ll get it for free, so why pay for it now.” If nothing else, the giving away of ebooks is helping to depress the pricing of ebooks and perhaps driving some ebookers to the pirate sites. My own experience as a buyer of ebooks demonstrates this.

I know that ebooksellers like Amazon are reporting rising ebook sales, but the data I want to see are sales numbers without the one-shot blockbusters and the price levels. The current problem with sales data is that we are seeing only the macro information and so do not know what the real effect free ebooks are having on the market. We are also still in the era of growth in the number of ebookers. When that growth stops, we may get a clearer picture. In the meantime, I know that my spending on ebooks has declined from the thousands of dollars to the tens of dollars and is getting close to zero. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this decline in spending.

August 22, 2012

Why Aren’t Publishers Pushing eBooks?

In a post discussing a twit from author Brent Weeks, Nat Hoffhelder of The Digital Reader wondered, in his blog post “Not All of Us Drink a $4 Coffee, Mr. Weeks,” why publishers aren’t “trying to convert paper book buyers to ebook buyers,” considering that publishers make more money on ebooks than on mass market paperbacks. Setting aside the question of whether publishers make more money on ebooks than on mass market paperbacks, the question is truly piercing: Why aren’t publishers trying to convert readers to ebooks?

We can begin with the proposition that ebooks are clearly the tsunami of the future for reading. It is not that the demand for pbooks will disappear entirely, just that ebooks will become greater than a majority share of the book market. One would think that publishers would want to grab the brass ring early while they can still steer the market.

Under the current scheme of things, ebooks are a much better investment than pbooks for publishers. If I buy a pbook, I can share it with an infinite number of friends, none of whom has to buy his or her own copy as long as they are willing to wait. In contrast, assuming I don’t pirate the ebook, every one of my friends who wants to read the ebook has to buy a copy.

OK, I realize that I cannot just shunt aside the pirating problem as if it didn’t exist, but there is a certain reality to pirating — the very vast majority of readers do not pirate ebooks. Instead, they buy a copy and if they share it, it is shared only among immediate family, often by letting the family member borrow the reading device. It is a small number of readers who post pirated copies of books and a small number who go to the trouble of finding them and downloading them.

Offsetting, I think, what believe the cost of pirating to be — or at least a goodly portion of that cost – are that with ebooks, publishers have no physical inventory to maintain, no cost of returns (unsold and overinventoried pbooks are returned by booksellers), errors can be inexpensively fixed (i.e., books do not need to be destroyed and entire print runs lost; with ebooks, the errors can be fixed and the ebook replaced very inexpensively), and sales are certain (under the pbook wholesale model, the publisher sells pbooks to a bookstore but doesn’t know how much it will ultimately be paid for the pbooks because they are subject to returns by both the consumer and the bookseller; contrast this with how the ebook market works). I’m sure there are other offsetting features of ebooks.

The publishers have been focusing, I think, on the wrong numbers when they discuss pirating. They seem to focus on the number of books available rather than on the number of downloads. Haven’t the Harry Potter ebooks demonstrated the problem with piracy numbers? Before the release of the ebooks, pirated versions were available. But their availability doesn’t seem to have affected very much sales of the official-release versions.

Publishers should be pushing ebooks, trying to convert pbook readers to becoming ebookers. In fact, if publishers wanted to twist Amazon’s nose a bit, they could subsidize Barnes & Nobles’ Nook: Buy a Nook for $99 and receive $99 worth of popular books of your choice (not the publisher’s choice) published by XYZ Publisher. Yes, the publishers would probably lose a bit of money to start, but once people get in the habit of reading electronically, few, I think, would stop.

Electronic reading done on an ereader is addictive, or at least I, my wife, and our ebooker friends have found it so. We are reading at least twice the number of books we previously read, and we read a lot. What we are not doing is reading more of the Big 6′s books — in fact, we are reading significantly fewer of those books. The reasons are simple: the big publishers, often called the Agency 6, are not pushing us toward their ebooks but away from their ebooks by their overpricing and their use restrictions.

Yes, pricing is an old argument that keeps coming back, but the bottom line is that it is an argument that cannot be avoided. Brent Weeks’ new novel — regardless of how much time and effort he put into its authorship — simply is not worth $14.99 to many of us. He is not a must-read author. Each reader has his or her own set of must-read authors, that handful of authors for whom we will pay $14.99. But the kicker is that for many of us, we’ll spend that $14.99 on the pbook version, not the ebook version, because that is the way publishers are pushing us.

This is a strategic mistake. It would be better to push us to the ebook version at a significantly lower price so that we become accustomed to buying the ebook version at a “reasonable” price. I have found that my list of must-read authors has dwindled considerably over the past several years. The more ebook reading I do, the less pbook reading I want or am willing to do. Consequently, when a must-read author’s new book arrives, I rethink how “must-read” the author really is.

The more time I spend with my ereader, the less willing I am to pickup a pbook. Yet that unwillingness does not convert to a willingness to substitute the ebook for the pbook when the ebook costs as much or more than the hardcover pbook. Increasingly, I find that I just pass on that “must-read” book and the author becomes a former must-read author. My list of must-read-traditional-publisher authors has dropped from more than 20 authors to 4 — David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, and L.E. Modesitt, Jr. – although I expect Hobb and Turtledove to be dropped from the list over the next few months. (I also have a list of ebook-only indie authors, like Emma Jameson, Michael Hicks, Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, Rebecca Forster, and L.J. Sellers, among others, who I consider must-read but whose ebooks are at bargain basement prices compared to what the Big 6 and Brent Weeks want.)

By not pushing ebooks, the Big 6 are shrinking their market rather than expanding it. They are losing a significant number of sales that they (and their authors) should be making. More importantly, from the publishers’ and the authors’ perspectives, they are causing must-read author lists to shrink. As I noted earlier, it is clear that growth in the book marketplace lies in ebooks. pBooks may have some small growth, but not enough to sustain the industry.

Interestingly, I think that if the Big 6 changed their focus and pushed ebooks, they could easily pickup some of the best indie authors and publish them in ebook-only versions. The biggest problem that the indie authors have that the Big 6 could solve for them is getting the word out that they have a new book available.

I think three changes need to be made. First, publishers need to wrap themselves around ebooks as their future and start pushing them and doing so by pushing readers toward ebooks.  Second, they need to come up with a way to make brick-and-mortar bookstores relevant as showrooms for ebooks. Failure to make these changes is likely to exacerbate the decline of the Big 6. Agency pricing at current levels is really only a stopgap measure, not a sustainable plan for the future. Third, the Big 6 have to change their attitude toward indie authors and start looking to become the publisher of the better indie authors by offering intensive, high-quality marketing (along, of course, with better royalties than the standard pbook royalty scheme).

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