An American Editor

September 17, 2014

On Mourning the Passing of Barnes & Noble

After this week’s news that Barnes & Noble has lost money yet again, I decided that perhaps I should begin thinking about writing B&N’s obituary. After all, I am a B&N member and I buy a lot of books from B&N and I will miss it when the last store and website is finally shuttered.

But I was told not to don my mourning clothes yet. B&N has a plan. Great, I thought, until I realized that the same people who have brought B&N to its knees are the ones with the plan to save it. Not very likely.

The problem with B&N is simple: management that cannot see even a baby step’s worth of distance in the future. There are any number of relatively simple steps that could bring B&N back from the precipice, but each would have to begin with a recognition that today’s management team needs to be gone yesterday.

Start with customer service. How poor can customer service be? I don’t know but B&N is surely leading the way. Consider what happens when you call customer service. If you are lucky, you get someone who speaks English like a native and without a thick brogue that makes them incomprehensible. You know you are in trouble when the representative calls you “Mr. Richard.” The reason this is a problem is that the reps do not understand the problem you are trying to convey and so insist on a solution that is no solution.

For example, I recently ordered a book from Amazon Canada. I had to order it there because neither B&N nor Amazon US was showing the book except in their marketplace and the marketplace pricing for a clean copy was double or more the price Amazon Canada was asking. (The book cost over $100 to begin with, even at Amazon Canada.) When I received the book from Amazon, it was the right book but not the advertised book. The advertised book was for the correct print year and did not state that it was a print-on-demand reprint; in other words, I thought I was buying an original copy.

I realized that because of the book’s age, all that would be available would be like this, so I wrote Amazon Canada and told them I intended to keep the book but that they should note on their website that the edition they were selling was a POD reprint. Within a few hours I received a reply thanking me, telling me that the information had been passed on to the appropriate people, and because I planned to keep the book, Amazon was refunding 25% of the price.

The book from Amazon was the first volume in a nonfiction trilogy. Volumes 2 and 3 were available from B&N, and so I ordered them from B&N. Volume 3 was just released, so it was not a problem. Volume 2 was released several years ago but not so long ago that I should expect a POD reprint — but that is what I got. So I called B&N customer service (sending an email is, I have found, an utter waste of time). I got one of the “Mr. Richard” representatives. I tried to explain the problem and explicitly said I planned to keep the book and that my only purpose in calling was so that they could adjust their website to indicate that it is a POD reprint. After all, this was another very expensive book and the website implies you are getting an original.

I might as well have been talking in a hurricane for all that the representative either understood or cared. The rep “resolved” the problem by ordering another copy be sent to me because he agreed that website did indicate it was not a POD reprint that was being offered. I tried to prevent this, but after a few minutes, I gave up. I received the second copy of the POD reprint and sent it back with a detailed note indicating what was wrong and what I thought they should do. And so the tale ends.

There was no follow-up from B&N and the rep didn’t understand the problem or the solution I was suggesting. (He did say that there was nothing he could do about the website. Apparently that includes notifying anyone of an error at the site.) Bottom line is that B&N customer service continues to be an example of what not to do and Amazon continues to be an example of what to do. This same complaint about customer service was made several years ago on AAE and elsewhere and the same management team continues to do nothing.

The second place for B&N to go is to improve the interaction between buyers and B&N. B&N needs to be innovative, especially when it comes to its members. How difficult, for example, would it be to let members create a list of authors in which they are interested and for B&N to send a monthly email saying that a new book by one of my listed authors has been announced; click this link to preorder.

Along with that, B&N should guarantee that the preorder price is the highest price I would have to pay (which it B&N already does do without saying so) but that should at anytime before shipment the price be less, B&N guarantees that the lower price will be the price I will pay. As it is now, because I preorder books months in advance, I need to constantly recheck and if a price is lower, I need to cancel my existing preorder and re-preorder. Can B&N make it any more inconvenient for the customer?

In addition, B&N should be sending me monthly emails telling me of upcoming or newly released (since the last email) books that are similar to books I have previously bought. I know they have the information because both online customer service and the local store management are able to peruse books I have bought. To entice me to buy from this list (or even to preorder), B&N should offer me an additional 10% discount on the listed titles, which discount is good until the release of the next email and the next list of books.

Members of B&N are the prize for B&N. Members are likely to be those who buy exclusively or primarily from B&N and not Amazon and are the people who are more than casual readers. If you buy 1 or 2 books a year, you wouldn’t pay for a membership; it is people who buy a large number of books who pay for membership (e.g., just before writing this essay, I preordered 1 hardcover and ordered 2 others). So why not reward members based on their buying? For example, buy 15 books and beginning with the book 16, you will get overnight shipping or an additional 5% discount or something. Buy 20 books and get a gift certificate. Think up rewards that encourage more buying and offer those rewards to members. Make membership valuable. It isn’t rocket science.

Much (but not all) of B&N’s problems are from a mismanaged ebook division. Even though ebooks aren’t the bulk of sales, B&N should not be conceding the market. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to improve sales or get more Nook loyalty. A simple way is to make it so that when a person buys the hardcover they can get the ebook for $2 more if they would like both options. Buy the first ebook in a trilogy and if you buy books 2 and 3 at the same time, you get book 2 for 50% off and book 3 for free. Maybe these won’t work but they are worth exploring and cutting special deals with publishers to make them happen.

The publishers have an interest in B&N remaining afloat. Should B&N shutter its brick-and-mortar stores, publishers will lose showrooms as well as major sales outlets. Publishers should create special editions available only at B&N. They should make shopping at B&N and at brick-and-mortar stores worthwhile. Make these deals available only through physical stores.

There are a lot of things that B&N — and publishers — can and should do to rejuvenate B&N. Unfortunately, these things require imagination, something B&N has in very short supply. Consequently, because I do not expect any miracles at B&N, I will continue to prepare its obituary. Maybe I’ll be fooled and my masterpiece will never see the light of the Internet; if so, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But until B&N calls me and asks me for my ideas and calls other members and asks for their ideas, I won’t get my hopes up.

What would you do if given the opportunity to turn B&N around?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 25, 2014

On Today’s Bookshelf (XVI)

It hasn’t been very long since my last On Today’s Bookshelf (XV) was published, just two months. But it seems that I have had the (mis)fortune (depending on one’s perspective) to discover a lot of books that interest me. And so I have been spending money acquiring yet more books for my ever-growing to-be-read pile. Fortunately, many of them are in ebook form, although if I read a nonfiction book in ebook form and find I really enjoy it, I tend to buy a hardcover version for my library. (It would be so much better for me if publishers bundled the ebook with hardcover version for just a few dollars more than the hardcover alone. I’d always buy the bundle.)

I admit that I get a great deal of pleasure from sitting in my library and looking at the hardcovers on the shelves, remembering the books as my eyes slide over the spines. As much as I like the convenience of ebooks, ebooks fail to evoke in me the sensory pleasure (or the memories) that print books bring forth. Scrolling through a list of ebooks just doesn’t provide the same degree of pleasure I get from sitting in my library surrounded by print books.

Books are the armchair way to experience the world in which we live. Few of us have the resources, whether it be financial or time or something else, to spend years traveling our world and participating in discovery. Consequently, we rely on others to do the legwork and to share their experiences and gained knowledge. Books are a guilt-free addiction. Editing fills part of my craving; the rest of my craving is fulfilled by the books I acquire and read. Alas, there isn’t enough time to sate that craving and so I keep on acquiring.

Here is a list of some of the books that I am reading (or have acquired and added to my to-be-read pile in the two months since On Today’s Bookshelf XV was published) either in hardcover or in ebook form. I have already started On Today’s Bookshelf XVII.

Nonfiction –

  • Eyewitness to Genocide: The Operation Reinhard Death Camp Trials, 1955-1966 by Michael S. Bryant
  • Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant
  • Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw
  • A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War by Isabel V. Hull
  • Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle
  • Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
  • What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa by David E. Murphy
  • Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre
  • God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy
  • 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See by Bruce Chadwick
  • Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire
  • Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Minister by Robert Hutchinson
  • House of Treason: The Rise & Fall of a Tudor Dynasty by Robert Hutchinson
  • The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor
  • Thomas Cromwell: Servant to Henry VIII by David Loades
  • Opus Dei: An Objective Look Behind the Myths and Reality of the Most Controversial Force by John L. Allen
  • Vienna 1814 by David King
  • The Destructive War by Charles Royster
  • The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault
  • The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940 by Frederick Brown
  • How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan
  • Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth and the Wars of Religion by Susan Ronald
  • Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics by Terry Golway
  • 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
  • The Last Alchemist, Iain McCalman

Fiction –

  • The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
  • Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson
  • The Dark Citadel Trilogy (3 books): The Dark Citadel, The Free Kingdoms, and The Golden Griffin by Michael Wallace
  • The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Laurel Corona
  • Paris by Edward Rutherford
  • The Legend of Oescienne: The Awakening (Book 3) by Jenna Elizabeth Johnson (I previously bought and read book 1: The Finding and book 2: The Beginning)
  • Last Rituals (Thóra Gudmundsdóttir Series #1) by Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Power Down by Ben Coes
  • The Soul Forge by Andrew Lashway
  • The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
  • Blood Money by David Ignatius
  • Stone Cold by Joel Goldman
  • Natchez Burning by Greg Iles
  • The Increment by David Ignatius
  • In the Hall of the Dragon King by Stephen Lawhead
  • Agency Rules by Khalid Muhammed
  • The Scavenger’s Daughters by Kay Bratt
  • Promise of Blood and The Crimson Campaign (Books 1 & 2 of the Powder Mage Trilogy) by Brian McClellan
  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman
  • Mirror Sight (Book 5 of the Green Rider series) by Kristen Britain
  • The Tattered Sword and The Huntsman’s Amulet (Books 1 & 2 of The Society of the Sword series) by Duncan Hamilton
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • The Night Birds by Thomas Maltman

As you can see from the lists, nonfiction and fiction are about equal. Interestingly, for the past 6 or so months, the majority of my reading has been fiction, which should have meant that fiction would greatly outnumber nonfiction. But I know that it won’t be long before I return to nonfiction to the near exclusion of fiction. More importantly, most of the nonfiction I acquire in hardcover, whereas the fiction is largely acquired in ebook format.

A goodly number of the nonfiction books I acquired I discovered from reviews or ads in the New York Review of Books. One of the things I like about the NYRB is that the book reviews almost always not only discuss the book being reviewed, but other books relevant to an understanding of the subject matter. Thus the reviews act as leads for me to acquire other, older books.

Am I the only editor whose TBR pile keeps growing and who cannot stop buying books? What are you reading/stockpiling? I know I ask that question with regularity, but it would be nice if more of you listed books you are buying/reading in the comments — it would expose the rest of us to books and authors we haven’t read.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 2, 2014

B&N in a Fantasy World

The Amazon versus Hachette stories in the newspapers and the blogosphere started me thinking about Barnes & Noble yet again. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Amazon–Hachette dispute, it boils down to this: In a few months, the prohibition against agency pricing that came about as part of the settlement agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the big publishers expires. Amazon is trying to get Hachette to agree to a new division of fees — Amazon gets more, Hachette gets less — as a sort of preemptive strike to stop the reimposition of agency pricing. For the first time in its history, Amazon is under pressure to produce large profits and it sees as one avenue to doing so receiving a larger discount from publishers. Although the fight is currently over print books, most commentators see it as a proxy for ebooks. The speculation is that if Hachette succumbs, the other publishers will follow; if Hachette prevails, agency pricing is likely to be reinstated by all of the publishers.)

As many of you know, I buy a lot of books through B&N. In May alone, I received eight hardcovers from B&N and preordered several more. In looking at my list of preorders, I find that I currently have 11 preordered hardcovers and 18 that I am thinking of preordering. (I do not preorder ebooks. I only preorder books that I want in hardcover.) Since January 1, I have purchased (and received) another 21 books from B&N.

In my fantasy world, B&N cares very much about me as a customer. In the real world, B&N cares for me as much as Amazon does, which isn’t a whole lot. Yet with the Amazon–Hachette dispute, B&N has a golden opportunity to strike a blow for its own special relationship with its customers. Alas, if history is any guide to the future, this will be another opportunity that B&N misses.

So let’s look longer term than what B&N could do tomorrow while the Amazon–Hachette dispute festers. What is it that I, as a regular customer of B&N, would like that would entice me to spend even more money at B&N (and also might be appealing enough to draw in new customers)?

A fundamental rule for all businesses is that to survive and grow you need not only new customers, but you need to retain existing customers. B&N doesn’t do a great job at either.

Both Amazon and B&N use some algorithm that, when you buy a book, says “customers who bought this book also bought”. Who cares? I don’t care what someone I don’t know bought, especially when the suggested books are so unlike what I did buy. To me, it is like the anonymous reviews or the reviews by IAteMyTongueYesterday.

Instead, I would like to be given opportunities to (a) have forthcoming books by the author automatically preordered for me with (b) a guarantee that I will pay only the lowest price at which the book is offered by B&N and (c) with the opportunity to cancel the preorder before the book is shipped. This would be particularly valuable because customers would no longer need to remember to keep checking to see whether an author has a new book coming out.

I would also like to be able to create a custom newsletter that would keep me abreast of new releases in particular areas. Now I can sign up for broad categories but I want to be able to narrowly focus. I want to be able to say, for example, “World War II history, European theater” of “Fantasy but no vampires or time travel.” I also want to be able to set the frequency. Personally, I would opt for once a month; weekly is far too often for me.

It happens that I am also a member of B&N. With the number of books that I order, it is worth the $25 annual fee to save on the shipping. But except for the shipping savings, being a member is a pretty useless thing at B&N if you shop online. (It isn’t that valuable if you shop in the stores, either.) There area no member discounts or specials online; just the saving of the shipping charges and the getting of “express” shipping, which isn’t all that express.

Now, while Amazon and Hachette (and subsequently the other big publishers) fight over terms and Amazon cuts access to Hachette books, B&N should enhance its membership — give inducements to become a member and to shop at B&N.

I recommended a long time ago that B&N cut deals with publishers to offer a very significant discount on the ebook version of a book if a customer buys the hardcover version. Or, twist it around and offer a significant discount on the hardcover version to the ebook buyer. That’s one inducement that would work with someone like me. But there are a lot of people who are uninterested in having a second copy of a book, even if in a different format.

Perhaps the way to do it is to give members reward points. One point for each dollar spent on books and ebooks, with the points redeemable for a B&N gift card or as a discount on a future purchase.

The point is that B&N needs to quickly figure out some way to immediately take advantage of the Amazon–Hachette spat. It also needs to come up with some ways of inducing book buyers who are currently buying from Amazon to buy, instead, from B&N. Although B&N will not move those who are in lock-step with Amazon, there are a lot of book buyers who are open to shopping elsewhere.

And B&N has to move because its big box competitors, like Walmart, are attempting to woo those same Amazon customers with steep discounts on Hachette books. The odds are long — very long — against B&N doing anything but blowing this opportunity, but one can hope.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

May 14, 2014

Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales?

I recently bought a half-dozen hardcover books published by university presses, such as The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault (University of North Carolina Press) and Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant (University Press of Colorado). I considered buying several more books published by university presses but didn’t, and it is the reason why I didn’t and the reason why I didn’t buy the books I did buy directly from the presses that is the topic of this article.

(On the off-chance someone from a university press is reading this essay, let me say that the way I found some of the books — both those bought and those I thought about buying — is from ads in the New York Review of Books or their being reviewed or mentioned in a review in the NYRB.)

What would have induced me to buy the additional books even though the cost was high?

As is typically the case with university press books, they are expensive and only slightly discounted (usually 5% to 10%) by booksellers. Consequently, I think carefully about whether to buy a book. The other problem is that although I want to buy the hardcover for my library, I would prefer, in many cases, to read the book as an ebook. Some of the books, like the two I identified above, are not available in ebook form; others that I did consider buying but didn’t buy are available in both print and ebook formats.

And that is where the university presses are failing in their sales pitch. Why not make their books more attractive by including a free ebook version to anyone who pays list price? I know that rather than save 5% on a book, I would rather have a free ebook version, and I am confident that there is a group of consumers who think the same.

I grant that many of the books published by university presses are of interest only to academics. I own several that I would be surprised even if fellow academics found comprehensible, but which I bought because I am interested in the topic. (Alas, these books are so dense that years later they are still unfinished, although they do look nice on my library shelves.)

I understand that an ebook is not cheap to produce. However, if properly planned for during the production stages of the print book, the cost is significantly less than if the job had to be tackled from the beginning. If done simultaneously with the print version, the cost is very minimal today.

The idea of buying the hardcover version and getting a free ebook version is not new but it is an idea that has yet to be implemented fully by university presses.

The logistics are not all that difficult. More difficult is getting people to part with $60 for a book, even with a free ebook. University presses charge such high prices because sales are expected to be very limited, in some instances at most a few hundred books. But I suspect that their books would have increased sales with the ebook sweetener. Perhaps not lifting a book into six-figure sales, but perhaps into five-figure sales.

Yet it is not enough to have such a program in place; it has to be advertised. If I were running the university press, I would start by advertising that for a limited time, if a reader buys the book directly from the press, the reader will also receive the free ebook. Eventually I would expand the program so that booksellers could also offer the free ebook.

Once I started advertising the buy-with-free-ebook scheme, I would be certain that I did at least two things: First, I would be sure to add purchaser names and addresses to my mailing list so I could notify them of new releases and deals. Second, I would track sales carefully to try to determine whether the bonus ebook increases nonacademic sales.

University presses serve a very important function in publishing. The question is for how much longer will they be able to survive and fulfill that function in the absence of increased sales. Because their function is to publish academically worthy books rather than “bestsellers,” profits and sales numbers — although important — are secondary considerations. But at some point, as some university presses have already discovered, they become primary considerations.

Few university presses are prepared for that moment when profits and sales numbers become primary considerations; it goes against the primary purpose of the press. But thinking about how to increase sales, making plans to do so, and implementing those plans is something every university press should do. For buyers of university press books like me, one answer to how to increase sales is to include a free ebook version of the hardcover book. I know that had at least several, if not all, of the books I considered buying but decided not to buy had included the free ebook, I would have bought the books.

Would a free ebook version induce you to buy a book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 23, 2014

On Today’s Bookshelf (XV)

Here is a list of some of the books that I am reading (or acquired and added to my to-be-read pile 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
  • The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492 by Maristella Posttiani & Zvi Eckstein
  • Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
  • The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zachary Karabell
  • The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision by Henry Kamen
  • Ghettostad: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City by Gordon J. Horwitz
  • Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945 by Doron Rabinovici
  • The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 by Piers Brendan
  • The History of the Renaissance World by Susan Wise Bauer
  • The Heavens are Empty: Discovering the Lost Town of Trochenbrod by Avrom Bendavid-Val
  • Understanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy
  • Would You Kill the Fat Man? The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us About Right and Wrong by David Edmonds
  • A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination From Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino
  • Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg
  • The Internal Enemy: Slavery and the War in Virginia 1772-1832 by Alan Taylor
  • Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America by Owen Matthews
  • An Idea Whose time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum
  • The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD by Simon Schama
  • The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America by Gerald Horne
  • 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
  • Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists by Jean H. Baker
  • The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today by Kevin Bales
  • Red Mutiny: Eleven Fateful Days on the Battleship Potemkin by Neal Bascomb
  • Wilson by Scott A. Berg
  • Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin
  • Lucrezia Borgia by Sarah Bradford
  • The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
  • To Kill Rasputin : The Life and Death of Gregori Rasputin by Andrew Cook
  • The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton
  • The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519 by Christopher Hibbert
  • Voting for Hitler and Stalin: Elections under 20th Century Dictatorships edited by Ralph Jessen & Hedwig Richter
  • Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy
  • Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King
  • The Tigress of Forli: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici by Elizabeth Lev
  • Russian Roulette: How British Spies Thwarted Lenin’s Plot for Global Revolution by Giles Milton
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Fiction –

  • Blood Land by R.S. Guthrie
  • Cauldron of Ghosts by David Weber & Eric Flint
  • Rex Regis by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • Like a Mighty Army by David Weber
  • The One-Eyed Man by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb
  • Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
  • One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus
  • The Complete Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (a 10-book omnibus)
  • The Bat by Jo Nesbo
  • The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin
  • Death Is Not the End by Ian Rankin
  • The Ludwig Conspiracy by Oliver Potzsch
  • The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch
  • The Dark Monk by Oliver Potzsch
  • Freeman by Leonard Pitts
  • The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett
  • The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter
  • Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks
  • Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini

I acquired most of the nonfiction books in hardcover and most of the fiction books in ebook.

Alas, I wish I could say that the above list represents all of the books I have added to my library since the last listing, but it doesn’t. I calculated that if I retired today and read four books every week, I would need more than 30 years to read all of the books I have acquired. Fortunately, most of the books are in ebook form (I have acquired more fiction than nonfiction) and I am trying to restrain my purchases.

I have found this to be the primary negative to my being an editor — I never seem to have enough books on hand, always want more, and spend much more than I should on books. On the other hand, editing provides me with a sufficient income to support my book addiction.

I admit that feeding my book addiction was less costly before ebooks. The ease of storage of ebooks encourages me to acquire books for future reading that I wouldn’t acquire if I had to acquire them in print form; in the latter case, I would wait until I had reduced my to-be-read pile significantly.

I also note that once I started acquiring ebooks, I also increased my hardcover acquisitions. My son claims (tongue in cheek) he will be able to have a comfortable retirement just from the sale of my library.

What books have you acquired in recent months that you would recommend being added to the TBR pile?

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.

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