An American Editor

October 7, 2013

On Today’s Bookshelf (XIV)

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

Nonfiction –

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

Fiction –

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

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

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

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

August 29, 2012

The Business of Editing: Evaluating a Manuscript

One of the most difficult tasks an editor has is the evaluation of a manuscript to determine how much time it will take to edit the manuscript, and thus how to charge for the work. There are multiple ways of doing this, some of which are dependent on who the client is (i.e., a publishing company or an individual author).

For most editors, it is the author-client whose manuscript is the most difficult to evaluate.

As I have noted in previous posts, most recently in The Business of Editing: Language Pet Peeves II, different rules apply to fiction and to nonfiction, particularly in regard to use of precise language. When I evaluate an author’s manuscript, I keep the differences in mind.

I know that an author who hires me to edit his or her manuscript wants the best possible job for the lowest possible price, with an emphasis on lowest. Yet this same author often makes my job more difficult than it has to be by not carefully preparing either the manuscript or the materials that should accompany it (see, e.g., The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor) and by not knowing precisely what type of edit the author wants me to perform (see, e.g., Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). This is compounded by the result of my evaluation of the manuscript itself.

The very first thing I do is determine the true number of manuscript pages. It is not unusual for an author to tell me the manuscript is 150 pages when in reality it is closer to 400. Authors should remember that manuscript pages are not the equivalent of printed pages.

The second thing I do is search the manuscript for the use of certain terms, including due to, since, about, and over. These terms are very often misused in nonfiction, less so in fiction, but getting a count tells me how “lazy” with language the author has been. The higher the count, the lazier the author has likely (this is not always true and it does depend on other factors) been grammatically, which means it will take more time to edit the manuscript.

The third thing I do, but only with nonfiction, is check the references. Are the citations consistent in style or does each reference have its own style? Are the references complete or incomplete? Inconsistent styling of the references by the author and incomplete references are another sign of a lazy author. That’s okay, professional editors have lots of experience fixing references, but doing so is very time-consuming and runs up the cost. It is less expensive to fix references that are consistent in style, even if the style is incorrect, than if there is little to no consistency.

The fourth thing I do is check for consistent spelling of names and terms. Again, what I am looking for is laziness (or sloppiness) because the less consistent spelling is, the more time-consuming the project will be.

Fifth, I search for common homophone errors (e.g., where/were; your/you’re; there/their; too/to/two; here/hear; bear/bare; forth/fourth; principal/principle). When I find a lot of this type of error, I know that time will be needed. It is also a clue that the author may have a great story to tell but needs a lot of help with fundamental grammar.

Finally, I skim the manuscript to see if I can get a clue as to how much effort the author put into the manuscript’s preparation. Some manuscripts demonstrate that the author has self-edited and revised several times, making for a more polished, even though imperfect, manuscript; with other manuscripts, it is clear that the author sat at the computer and pounded out a manuscript without going back through it more than once.

This skim is also a way to get a handle on the author’s language skills. I expect the manuscript from an author for whom English is a second language to have more issues than the manuscript from an author whose first language is English, but that is not always true. I am looking for what I call grammar patterns, which are author idiosyncracies that are grammatically incorrect but done consistently and repeatedly throughout the manuscript.

With the above information in hand, I have a pretty good idea about how difficult the edit will be. Some factors weigh more heavily than others when trying to figure out how much editing time will be needed, and thus how much to charge, but it is also true that some of the problems could have been fixed by the author before sending the manuscript for editing.

If an author has provided the correct information with the manuscript (again, see The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor), it will reduce the time needed for editing. If the information is not supplied by the author, it will take me time to assemble the information, time that has to be paid for by the author. Similarly, the type of edit that the author wants (again, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) influences the cost.

There is no way to determine precisely how long it will take to edit a manuscript. The best any editor can do is guesstimate based on prior experience, but experienced editors are fairly accurate with their guesstimates. The quandary for the editor is whether to accept a flat fee or an hourly fee.

Whether to accept a flat fee or an hourly fee requires one more evaluation: an evaluation of the author. That is, how much author contact and back-and-forth between the author and editor is likely to be required by the author? Personal contact tends to eat up a lot of time and interrupt the editing process. Some authors require more contact than do other authors.

Some contact and back-and-forth is necessary and expected. How much becomes excessive is hard to know in advance. But in a professional relationship, which is what the relationship between the author and the editor should be, some trust on the part of each party that the other is doing his or her job competently is important and necessary.

The bottom line is that both an author’s manuscript and the author need to be evaluated by the editor to determine an appropriate fee. Once the editor has determined what an appropriate fee would be, it is up to the author to decide whether he or she wants to hire the editor.

July 23, 2012

eBook vs. pBook: Imaginative Discovery

Before anyone jumps to an unwarranted conclusion, let me say upfront that I really like ebooks for reading fiction (but not for nonfiction) and that given my personal preference, I would read fiction almost solely in ebook form. However, …

I have been observing the reading habits of a young child of a friend, sometimes getting a closeup view while babysitting. What I have noticed is that he seems to interact more with pbooks than ebooks. I have been thinking about that for several months now and I think the reason is what I call imaginative discovery.

The ebooks give him animation, which he does find entertaining. But I think he finds the animation to be similar to how I find a movie: great entertainment but it is someone else’s imagination that shapes the scene, not mine. I especially noticed this with the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson did a great job imagining the story, and although I enjoyed the movies greatly, I also remember commenting to my son how this scene and that scene were not how I imagined them when I was reading the book. With the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson did all the imagining for me; I had to exercise no creativity at all.

When my friend’s toddler reads a pbook, he often flips back-and-forth, or even folds over pages so that he can see two illustrations simultaneously. Sometimes he takes crayons and colors black-and-white illustrations or adds another head to a character or changes the colors used. Occasionally, he adds to the illustration additional characters or images. He interacts freely with the pbook and lets his imagination be his guide. He either seems to find that difficult to do with an ebook or is not motivated to interact with the ebook in a similar way.

It is this interaction that I call  imaginative discovery. I think imaginative discovery is a very important component of reading, especially for those who are just beginning the lifetime adventure that reading can bring about. When adults watch a movie or play a video game, they tend to become absorbed into whatever action is occurring before them. They do not independently discover new things or use their imagination. They follow the creator’s storyline.

In contrast, when an adult reads a novel — whether ebook or pbook – the adult uses his or her imagination to fill in what is missing, whether it be dialogue or visualization of the scene or how a character looks. But adults do so from a lifetime of experience. As we grow from childhood to adulthood our sensory experiences grow and we are increasingly able to imagine that first kiss, or how a teenager feels when bullied, or how slimy a frog’s skin is. Because we have built these experiences, it really doesn’t matter whether the book we are reading is a pbook or an ebook – we bring these experiences to both. Thus our preference for an ebook over a pbook is really guided by other factors, such as cost, ease of reading, ability to carry hundreds of books simultaneously without back-breaking strain, and the like.

But the young child doesn’t have that lifetime of experience to bring to the reading experience. He (or she) is only beginning on the road to building the tools needed for imaginative discovery. Thus the tactile capabilities of a pbook may be more important than all of the enhancements that an ebook can bring.

Even for an adult, an ebook can be a failure. Consider these two books: Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (2002) edited by Houman Sarshar (ISBN 0827607512) and Five Hundred Years of Book Design (2001) by Alan Bartram (ISBN 0300090587). Each of these books relies heavily on visuals; that is, the illustrations — their detail and their color — are important to the tale being told. In neither case would reading the book on a Kindle or a Nook be what I would consider a quality experience. Not that they couldn’t be read on such a device; just that the experience would not be as fulfilling as when read in pbook form. The books are really designed for the pbook experience.

Just as those books are really designed for the pbook experience, I am increasingly convinced that the reading experience for beginning readers should be a pbook experience rather than an ebook experience. The reason is not because ebooks cannot be excellent children’s books, but because they are not able to give the emerging imagination the ability to imaginatively discover. The enhanced ebook’s experiences of such things as alternative endings or the ability to choose a different outfit for a character make for a wonderful tale, but limit the child’s creativity to a set of predetermined (by an adult) choices, when, instead, the child should be encouraged to design his or her own creations.

The pbook for children encourages a child to start with what is in front of him or her and to then rename, redo, recast, reshape the story as they see fit. Should they want to rename a character from Oscar to Annafrannabumpkin, the child can with a pbook; with an ebook, they are limited by whatever the programmer has opted to include. It is easy to add a second horn to a unicorn and call it a duocorn in a pbook; not so easy with an ebook that doesn’t have the option already built-in.

eBooks have a place in the scheme of reading, but I do not think they are yet ready to replace pbooks as the source of reading material for children, simply because of the limitations inherent in ebook creation that stifle the imaginative discovery that is essential to the mental growth of children. When it comes to reading, what to read and how to read it (i.e., ebook or pbook) should always be based on what is best for the reader, and in the case of children, on how well imaginative discovery is promoted.

June 18, 2012

The Value of eBooks: Is $2.99 The New Value

One excuse the big publishers used for going to the agency model of pricing was that Amazon’s $9.99 price for certain bestsellers was undervaluing the books and would establish expectations in ebookers regarding maximum pricing. So, if that is true, how do these very same publishers justify putting certain ebooks on sale for $2.99 or less?

This question popped to mind when Little, Brown, a subsidiary of Hachette, put City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris on sale for $2.99. This is the second mystery book by Ferraris featuring the same Saudi Arabian investigative team. (Although this is not a review of the book, it is worth mentioning that it is a 5-star book that offers both a fascinating insight into Saudi culture and a great mystery.) City of Veils is neither the first nor the last ebook by one of the Agency 6 to be put on sale for $2.99 or less; such a sale seems to be a regular happening. (The first book in the series, Finding Nouf, is listed as discounted to $11.16 from the list price of $13.95, with neither price being a price I would pay for a fiction ebook.)

Which makes me wonder about the “value of ebooks” and whether we are seeing the erosion of price to where, eventually, Agency 6 fiction ebooks will be regularly priced at $7.99 or less and frequently on sale for $2.99 or less.

There has to be something magical about this $2.99 price point. Why $2.99 and not $4.99? Or $3.99? Both prices would be substantial discounts off the list price and even off the standard 20% to 25% discount price. I suspect the answer lies in what experience is rapidly showing as the price point for maximizing volume of sales. I also suspect that publishers are finding that ebookers are unwilling to pay more than $2.99 for an introduction to a previously unknown author. Yet, I don’t see any evidence that after the introduction to a new author, ebookers are running to spend $11+ for other ebooks by the same author — I know I am not.

But regardless of the motivation, isn’t this $2.99 price point setting an expectation among ebookers as to what the correct price for an ebook should be? I find that it cements my belief that ebooks should be both DRM-free (which Tor, a Macmillan subsidiary, will be doing shortly) and list priced at no more than $5.99 and frequently discounted to $2.99 (or less). These Agency 6 discounts are also cementing my belief that I will only rarely pay more than $2.99 for any ebook.

The price point problem is exacerbated by other steps publishers are taking. I recently preordered Spycatcher with a bonus excerpt by Matthew Dunn, published by HarperCollins, one of the Agency 6, for 99¢. (The bonus excerpt is from Dunn’s forthcoming new novel Sentinel, which can be preordered for a whopping $12.99!) At the same time, Spycatcher without the bonus excerpt is available for $9.99. This type of discounting with bonus material included happens regularly. My question to publishers is this: Why would I ever consider buying Sentinel for $12.99 or Spycatcher for $9.99 — neither book nor the author being previously familiar to me — when I expect that at some future date I will be able to buy them for significantly less?  Doesn’t your offering one of the books for 99¢ create an expectation in me, the ebooker? And even if I can’t buy them in the future for $2.99 or less, why would I buy them at all — regardless of how good a read the introductory book is — at a price that has already demonstrated as far too high?

If there is any validity to the complaint of Amazon’s $9.99 price point setting consumer expectations at a price that is unsustainable by the publishing industry, how are publishers fighting that expectation by offering ebooks for $2.99 or less? Why is the publisher’s tactic sustainable but not Amazon’s?

Valuing of ebooks is difficult. Yes, there are costs that can be objectively measured but those per-unit costs diminish with volume sales. I grant that each ebook cannot be looked at in isolation as best-selling ebooks need to subsidize those that do not sell well so that overall there is an industry profit. Yet, where previously the argument was that no ebook should be sold below a price that sustained the industry, which price was somewhere north of $9.99, Agency 6 publishers belie that argument by demonstrating that at least some ebooks can be sold for significantly less without damaging the industry. That action reraises the issue of what is an ebook worth?

The industry has put itself into a straitjacket of its own making. Originally publishers planned to window ebooks. Windowing of ebooks allegedly would let publishers subsequently publish the ebook version of a pbook at much reduced price, more in line with ebooker expectations. But after much protesting from ebookers, publishers ultimately went to simultaneous release. Unfortunately, with simultaneous release, publishers decided they could not price the ebook much lower than the pbook for fear of cannibalizing pbook sales, losing money, and devaluing the book.

Then to shore up the value of ebooks, agency pricing was instituted. It was touted as necessary for the health of the publishing industry — from author to publisher. Now, within the past year, these same publishers are regularly pricing some ebooks at $2.99 or less, shattering the justification for the higher agency pricing.

In the end, I think publishers will find that $2.99 is the magic price point for ebooks. The combination of the self-publishing phenomenon that ebooks have produced, the use of the $2.99-or-less price point by self-publishers, and the apparent willingness of at least some of the Big 6 publishers to discount ebooks — even if for just a limited time — to that price point, will create an expectation in ebookers that publishers will be unable to combat. We may be a few years away from seeing that magic price point, but I suspect it is coming on fast.

June 6, 2012

The eBook Effect: Buying and Reading More

I have been reading ebooks for only a few years, yet there has been a steady shift in both how I read books (a shift away from pbooks toward ebooks) and the number of books I buy and read (I buy and read more books than when I was buying just pbooks) since I entered the world of ebooks.

Recently, I started a trilogy by indie author Joseph Lallo, The Book of Deacon. As was true for many of the ebooks I have bought and read, the first book in the trilogy, also called The Book of Deacon, was free. And like other books that I have enjoyed, I have purchased the subsequent books in the series, The Great Convergence and The Battle of Verril. I do not intend to review the books in this article, other than to say that this is a 4-star epic fantasy series, well worth trying.

I mention the trilogy, because it got me thinking about my reading habits and about numbers. The first book in the trilogy, I “bought” at Smashwords. I read it on my Nook Tablet, and when I came to the last page, immediately went online via the Tablet to the B&N ebookstore and purchased book 2. Book 3 was purchased the same way. What surprised me was that my Nook library, after purchasing The Battle of Verril, had 186 ebooks in it — and I have had my Nook Tablet for only two months! I wondered, how many ebooks have I purchased over the years?

From just three ebookstores – Smashwords, B&N, and Sony — I have purchased 722 ebooks (again, “purchase” includes ebooks gotten for free and ebooks that I have paid for). Add in the ebooks I purchased at Kobo, Baen, and several other ebookstores, the quantity rises above 900; add in ebooks obtained from places like Feedbooks and MobileRead, and the number climbs above 1,100.

I haven’t yet read all of the ebooks I purchased, but I am working away at the backlog, even as I increase the backlog by buying more ebooks. Since receiving my first Sony Reader as a holiday gift in December 2007 (the Sony 505), both my buying and reading habits have gradually, but dramatically, changed.

Before ebooks, I rarely bought indie-authored books. I also rarely bought novels. Nearly all my book purchases (at least 90%) were nonfiction, mainly biography, history, critical thinking, language, ethics, philosophy, and religion. I never cared much for the self-help books; I always felt that the only real self-help going on was the author helping him-/herself to my money. Books that I did buy either caught my eye on the bookshelf at a local bookstore, were reviewed in the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, The Economist, American Heritage, or other magazine to which I subscribed, or advertised in one of the magazines to which I subscribed. But the two primary sources for finding pbooks to buy were browsing the local bookstore and the New York Review of Books, including ads in the Review.

I didn’t buy indie-authored books because the authors were unknown and the books were expensive, especially as I only bought hardcover pbooks. Yet I did buy a lot of pbooks, rarely fewer than 125 pbooks a year (not including the pbooks my wife bought).

The advent of ebooks caused my reading and buying habits to shift. In the beginning of my personal ebook era, I continued to buy a large number of hardcover pbooks supplemented with a few ebooks. In the beginning, I was neither ready nor willing to simply move completely away from pbooks (which is still true). Nor was I ready nor willing to shift my focus from known authors and nonfiction to indie authors and fiction (which is no longer true). But as each month passed and I became more enamored with reading on my Sony Reader, I began to explore ebooks and with that exploration, came indie-authored fiction ebooks.

I am still unwilling to buy indie-authored nonfiction ebooks. I look at nonfiction books as both entertainment and sources of knowledge. Consequently, an author’s reputation and background remain important, and I still look to my magazines for guidance. However, where previously I rarely bought fiction and what fiction I did buy was not indie-authored, today I buy hundreds of indie-authored fiction ebooks. With the exception of perhaps a dozen nonfiction ebooks that I have purchased over the years (I bought the pbook first then decided to also buy the ebook version) and a handful of well-known fiction authors’ novels, every one of the more than 1,100 ebooks I have purchased are indie-authored fiction.

eBooks have had another impact on my reading in addition to the number and type of ebook purchases I make: I am reading more books than ever. Prior to ebooks, I would read 1 to 1.5 hardcover nonfiction pbooks each week (on average) over the course of a year. (I find that it takes me longer to read a nonfiction book than to read a fiction book; I tend to linger over facts and try to absorb them, whereas I consider fiction books to be generally a read-once-then-giveaway books.) Over my 4.5-year history with ebooks, the number of nonfiction pbooks that I purchase each year has steadily declined and it is taking me longer to read a nonfiction pbook, whereas the number of fiction ebooks I purchase has steadily increased and I read them faster than ever; I now read an average of two to three fiction ebooks a week — again, nearly all indie authored — in addition to my nonfiction reading.

Alas, not all is rosy in indie-authored ebookland. Sometimes I have to discard (delete) a goodly number of indie-authored ebooks before I find one that I think is worth reading from “cover-to-cover.” It is this experience that causes me to be unwilling to pay for the first ebook I read by an indie author. As those of you who are regular readers of An American Editor know, once I find an indie author who I think writes well, I am willing to pay for all of their ebooks that interest me. Indie authors that I have discovered and whose books I think are worth reading and buying include Rebecca Forster, Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley, Michael Hicks, and L.J. Sellers. But finding these worthwhile authors is the difficult part, and ebooks have made the finding more difficult than ever.

The problem of ebooks, as the number of ebooks I have purchased attests, is that there are so many of them, which makes it hard to weed among them. I’ve lamented before that there is no gatekeeper for fiction ebooks. As poor as the gatekeeper system might be, it at least has the virtue of doing some preliminary weeding. True, sometimes gatekeepers do not distinguish between the wheat and the chaff, but at least with gatekeeping there would be some reduction in the number of ebooks that a reader would have to wade through to find the worthwhile indie-authored book. Under the current system, readers need to apply their own filters and hope for the best.

The ebook effect has altered the reading world by making more indie-authored books available to consumers, making gatekeeping a relic of the past, and making price a more important part of the reading-purchasing equation. eBooks change how readers relate to books. Whether ultimately this is for the better or not, remains to be seen.

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

May 18, 2012

Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson

I, my wife, and most people who have read the Promises to Keep quartet of ebooks are big fans of indie author Shayne Parkinson. For those of you unfamiliar with the quartet, I reviewed the books 2 years ago in On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and again in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept, and have been waiting for the next book in the series to arrive. My wife and I are still recommending these books to anyone who asks for an excellent read.

In the past week or so, we were wondering if Shayne Parkinson had finally released the next volume in the series. We hadn’t heard anything and it hadn’t crossed my mind to check Smashwords, when, ‘lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Shayne advising me that Daisy’s War, the latest book in the series has been published and is now available at Smashwords.

I immediately went to Smashwords and downloaded the fifth book in the series. I began reading it within hours. I expected Daisy’s War to be of the same exceedingly high quality as the first four books in the series (all 5 or 5+ stars) and am not disappointed. I couldn’t put the book down and so finished it within a couple of days.

Daisy’s War picks up where the series left off, the early decades of the 20th century. Here is the description from Smashwords:

In 1914, Daisy lives in the quiet New Zealand valley where her family has farmed for generations. Her world seems a warm and safe one. But the Great War is casting its long shadow over New Zealand. Daisy watches in growing fear as more and more of the men leave to fight in Europe, and the War strikes ever closer to the heart of her family.

The brief description doesn’t do justice to the book. The book is a reflection on World War I and its impact on New Zealand, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, as seen through the eyes of a child who almost understands the whats and whys of war but can’t quite grasp them. Daisy’s dreams take a back seat to the impact of World War I on her extended family and how the need for soldiers ultimately leads to conscription, beginning with single young men but rapidly moving to include married men with children, including Daisy’s father.

The story seems incomplete. We tangentially are given glimpses into the war’s effect on the adults. Because of how the prior books were written, I think Daisy’s War should have run with both major and minor story lines, the major being the tale we are given and the minor a more in-depth look at the effect on the adults. For example, Daisy’s Uncle Alf returns from the battlefields a changed man. We are briefly given a glimpse into why and we know that the children want to avoid him, but we are not given more insight into the change in family dynamics. Perhaps this broader look at intra- and interfamily dynamics is a tale that will be picked up in the next book.

Regardless, this is the outstanding book that I had been waiting for. The only thing missing from the book is an explanation of the character relationships at the beginning, before the Prologue, that a reader can either review to refresh one’s memory or ignore. It has been 2 years since I last read this series and at first it was difficult to figure out who the characters are and their relationships to each other. The first book in the series begins with Amy’s story and the child she had out of wedlock that she had to give up for adoption. In Daisy’s War, we read, for example, of “Aunt Sarah” and “Granny,” and it took me some time to recall that these are the out-of-wedlock daughter and Amy, respectively. Other relationships also took some time but did come back. For example, who was Grandma (as opposed to Granny)?

This is a gripe I have with many authors who write continuing series. It is not so bad when in every book in a series the characters remain the same, just the circumstances change. But in a series like this where there is a constant generational change and an expansion of the families and a long time between books, it should not be assumed that readers will remember what happened in a book that was released more than 2 years ago or recall who married whom and begat whom who themselves went on to marry and beget. In that interim, I have read thousands of manuscript pages for work and hundreds of books for pleasure; some refreshing is necessary.

In this case, the lack of the information poses another problem: The book doesn’t work well as a standalone book. You need to have read the previous books in the series to understand the importance of what is happening. Although that is good from a series sense, it is bad from the reader sense. A reader who picks up this book first, not having read the previous entries in the series, will not walk away singing the high praises the books deserve. Instead, they will be disappointed because much of the impact of book relies on knowing the relationships.

Regardless, as with the first four books in the series, Daisy’s War is exceptionally well-written. If you have read and enjoyed the first books in the series, then this is a must read for you. The book is reasonably priced at $2.99 and is clearly a 5-star read.

If you haven’t read Shayne Parkinson’s books, begin with Sentence of Marriage, the first in the series, which is free at Smashwords. If you  like historical fiction and/or family sagas, you are likely to find this a captivating series.

April 2, 2012

On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor

Filed under: Book Review,Books & eBooks,Indies Worth Reading — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

It has been a long time since I last recommended an indie book. It is not that I haven’t been reading them these past 5 months, rather, it is that none have been particularly exceptional. All that I have read have been 3- to 4-star books — until today.

I recently completed reading Eden by Keary Taylor. Eden is a postapocalyptic America novel whose story centers around a young woman named Eve. I grant that the lead character and the book title are a bit trite, but setting that aside, the book is very well written (a few grammar errors) and interesting.

In this new world, which was created by mad scientists who thought they could create nano machines that would cure all disease but which, instead, turned humans into machines (the “Fallen”), the few humans who have survived are on the run. Eden is the story of a small group of humans trying to avoid contact with the Fallen because a simple touch by a Fallen can turn a human into a machine.

It may seem that I’m giving away the story in the previous paragraph, but I’m not. Although I have described the background, the story really centers around months in the life of a teenage Eve, a young woman who doesn’t understand who she is or many of the emotions she is beginning to experience. She is different from the others in her band, yet she is considered a leader and an integral part of the community.

I found that instead of working, I wanted to simply continue reading Eden until I finished. I wanted to know more about Eve; I wanted to see her conflicts resolved.

I know that many people avoid science fiction, especially postapocalyptic fiction, but you should not be dissuaded from reading this novel by either. This is more of a coming of age book that happens to be set in a postapocalyptic future than it is a postapocalyptic book. You are not inundated with battles between humans and machines; rather, the struggle between the two simply provides the mechanism for spurring Eve’s growth and the events that force her to make decisions and take growing-up actions.

Above all else, Eden is a love story. It is Eve’s discovery of love that propels the novel as she must decide between two men. But before she can decide, she has to learn what love is, what it means. Eve is a woman with tight control of her emotions, a woman who doesn’t feel, but whose emotions are starting to awaken. Eve simply doesn’t understand these awakening emotions and it is this personal struggle that captivates the reader.

This is an indie book worth buying, although the price is high for an unknown author ($4.83). However, a sample is available. Eden has been optioned by Black Forest Film Group (Mark Morgan ["Twilight Saga"], Kami Garcia ["Beautiful Creatures"], Brett Hudson ["Cloud 9"], and Eric T. Thompson ["Rites of Spring"]) for a major motion picture.  If well-cast, this could be an excellent movie.

I give Eden 5 stars based on my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation of my system).

March 28, 2012

eBooks: Is it the Editor in Me?

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who has looked at my On Today’s Bookshelf posts will see that I buy a lot of ebooks. And as I noted in the last On Today’s Bookshelf, my to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing, now numbering more than 500.

But that doesn’t mean I am not reading ebooks; rather, it means that even though I am reading ebooks as fast as I can, I am replenishing my stock faster than I can read. This would concern me if, in fact, I was reading every word of every ebook; but I’m not.

One of the “talents” I have developed over my 28+ years of professional editing is the ability to tell within a few sentences whether a manuscript is going to be particularly troublesome; whether the author has done a basically good job in writing and preparing the manuscript or is a terrible writer, prone to amateurish mistakes, and uncaring about how the manuscript is presented.

This “talent” doesn’t seem to be laid aside when I read an ebook for pleasure, which means that it doesn’t take many pages to decide whether to keep reading or hit the delete button, and much too often, I hit the delete button.

First, I need to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the idea that the more a book costs, the better it will be. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

From ebook purchases I have made, it is clear that price is not an indicator of quality, especially not of editorial quality, as we have discussed on An American Editor any number of times.

Yet I have also discovered in discussions with other ebookers that quality has no universal meaning. eBooks that I have deleted after a dozen pages because of runon sentences, homonym miscues, and other annoying editorial matters, ebookers without the editorial eye have praised. It is not that they didn’t notice many of the same errors; they did. Rather, it is that they were more tolerant of the errors; they were able to look beyond the editorial problems to the story itself.

So this makes me wonder if I am not missing out some real gems — not necessarily literary masterpieces, just good storytelling — because of the editor in me. It also makes me wonder whether we will eventually devolve into two reading publics: one that cares greatly about the editorial quality of a ebook and so is unwilling to spend much money to buy an ebook and a second that cares little about the mistaking of hear for here and is focused on the story itself and thus willing to pay a higher price for a book as long as the story is interesting.

I also wonder whether American English is changing so rapidly that what editors today would declare error will tomorrow be declared acceptable or correct.

In any event, the problem for me is how to control my editing tendencies so that I can relax and enjoy the underlying story. How do I put aside my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?

The problem was less acute before ebooks. Before ebooks, traditional publishers took some pride in the quality of what they released, although the pride seemed to be diminishing in recent years. But once ebooks made the reading market open to all, the scramble publish pushed aside the need to ensure editorial quality. Part of this is the economics of ebooks; it is hard to justify spending $2000 on an editor for a book that will be sold for 99¢ or less.

Even recognizing the financial considerations, I struggle to read a book that makes me pause every few sentences to say: “The author meant whom not who” or “The author meant your, not you’re.” My neighbor says I’m too fussy. Am I really? Is it too much to ask that at least the basics of grammar and spelling be applied by an author?

What should an ebooker expect from an author, regardless of whether the author gives the book away for free or charges $9.99? Do not most readers have certain basic expectations? Or has the Age of Twitter hardened readers to accept anything goes?

I suspect that I will never be able to set aside my editorial hat when reading a book and so my delete button will continue to get a workout. Are you able to set aside your editorial hat?

January 11, 2012

eBooks: Are eBooks Commodities? Redux

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

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

_________________

Books as Dish Soap
by Jack Lyon

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

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

Rich: That’s how books should be marketed.

Jack: What?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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

What do you think?

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