An American Editor

February 17, 2014

If There Were Only One

A while ago I was speaking with some local students and I was asked to name the one print periodical that I think every editor should subscribe to and read. This was a difficult question. I subscribe to a number of print and electronic periodicals and read books constantly because I like to broaden my general knowledge base. But I gave the question some serious thought.

In the end, I had to nominate two print periodicals — one just wouldn’t cover the bases for me. The two I named were The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

Let me say that the newspaper doesn’t need to be the Times; it does need to be a newspaper of similar scope. Reading the Times lets me keep abreast of what is happening in numerous fields, especially with its specialized weekly sections, like “Science,” and with its broad coverage of world and local news. In comparison, my local newspaper barely provides coverage of local news outside of sports. I think the necessity of keeping abreast of what is happening in the world around us as part of our education is self-evident. A more detailed discussion in this regard can be found in Ruth Thaler-Carter’s “On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process,” which previously appeared on An American Editor.

The choice that requires more explanation is The New York Review of Books (NYRB).

I subscribe to a wide variety of periodicals and I also read some more specialized material in electronic form. But of all the periodicals I read, none provides as broad an insight into my editing world as the NYRB. The NYRB is not just about books. It discusses films, politics, science, economics, poetry, art, music, photography, among other culture-oriented items. It is true that other periodicals also discuss some of these things, but none seem to approach the topics like the NYRB.

When the NYRB reviews a book, for example, I learn about similar books, about the author of the book, and about the book. If the book is nonfiction, for example, about a battle that occurred in World War II, the review invariably discusses other books that address the battle and distinguishes among the books, their approaches, the qualifications of the authors, and all the things that make for a great learning experience.

When an art exhibit is under discussion, the reader is educated about the artist, the period in which the artist lived and painted, and how the artist’s works are perceived. It is almost like being in an art appreciation class in college.

Importantly, the reviews are written in the analytical manner that a good developmental editor would mimic. The review builds. The reviews are also instructive for the copyeditor. I have found that many of the things that I look for today as a copyeditor are things that I learned to look for by reading the high-quality reviews of the NYRB.

There is only so much time I can spend outside work reading for educational purposes. My life cannot be solely about work. Consequently, it is important to gain as much exposure as I can to as many topics as I can so that I can be a better editor and ask more incisive questions of authors. Because of its wide range of topics, I have found the NYRB to be, especially in combination with a daily reading of The New York Times, to be an excellent platform for giving me sufficient background to ask questions of authors. Just one example —

I recently edited a book that had a discussion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Between what I had learned from the Times and the NYRB, I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the Act to query the authors about a couple of points. The one thing I — and I would suspect many of my colleagues — do not want to do is make a query that makes me look as if I have no understanding of the topic I am editing. For example, if an author wrote “Affordable Care Act,” I would feel foolish (and look foolish) if I were to ask: “Do you mean Obamacare?” And considering that the term “Obamacare” is laden with political meaning, I would want to be careful about suggesting that “Obamacare” be substituted for “Affordable Care Act” under the guise that readers would more quickly identify what is meant.

(I suspect most of you are saying you would never make such a query. Let me assure you that I know of a few “professional” editors who have asked such a question of an author.)

A good editor is very aware of, and knowledgeable about, more than a specialty subject area. I understand that I could be a great medical editor and also be very knowledgeable about quilting patterns, but it is not evident to me how I could put my quilting knowledge to use in my editing work. A publication like the NYRB, which provides a wide spectrum of information as part of its primary function of review, can provide me with foundational knowledge that is usable in multiple fields.

As I noted earlier, the NYRB also acts as a constant tutor for me on editing. I read the reviews carefully, looking at how they are structured, what kinds of questions I would ask if I were editing the review, and are those questions subsequently answered. I also consider word choices: Did the editor and author choose the best word to convey the particular meaning? “Intellectual” periodicals like the NYRB should be held to a higher editorial standard than, for example, the daily newspaper. By applying that higher standard, the periodical can be used as a learning device to improve my own editing.

Although I have focused on the NYRB, I am certain there are similar publications in other countries. For example, I know that the London Review of Books has a similar approach. The key is to find the one or two publications that can provide you with both a broad and current knowledge base that is transferable to your daily work. For me, it is the Times and the NYRB. What one (or two) periodical(s) fulfill these functions for you? How would you have answered the original question?

(Disclaimer: I have no interest in either the Times or the NYRB except for being a long-time subscriber and reader of both.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 9, 2013

The Miseducation of the Next Generation

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On Language — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, as part of the language learning experience we read the New York Times. I still remember the very first lesson, which was devoted to teaching us how to fold the Times so that it was both holdable and readable. Every school day time was devoted to reading something in the Times.

The teacher assigned one article that everyone had to read and then we were free to pick another article that interested us. The reading was followed by a discussion, not only of the content of the article we all had to read, but of the grammar. We also had to mark words that were unfamiliar, look them up in the dictionary, rewrite the dictionary definition in our own words, and then write five sentences that used the word. The teacher collected those words and found ways to incorporate them into our other classwork.

The Times was a teaching tool. It taught grammar and spelling; it made us aware of the world around us; it taught us to read something other than the dime novels that were surreptitiously passed around for their “eroticism” (which were, by today’s standards, not even worthy of the label “erotic” but were great treasures to us). The Times was admired by teachers for its “literary” quality.

Just as generations change, so did teaching change and so did the Times change. By the time my children were in elementary school, the practice of daily reading of a newspaper had disappeared. Teaching had changed as a profession, but more importantly, newspapers had changed. Copyediting of articles was in the decline; where once there were very few grammar and spelling errors in a newspaper, now they were plentiful, with some newspapers much worse than others.

In addition, the 1960s brought about a philosophical shift. If a newspaper was going to be used in the classroom, it was more likely to be the New York Post or the New York Daily News (or similar paper) than it was the New York Times or the Herald Tribune. Schools became more politically nuanced.

The decline in newspaper reading mirrored a decline in time and effort spent learning the fundamentals of good written and verbal communication. In my school days, we had two languages: the more formal, proper, “good” English that was to be used in the classroom, when talking with adults, and when writing, and the informal street language that was used to communicate with peers. Schools enforced the separation and focused on teaching us to master the former; the latter was strictly for use off school grounds and among peers. Even parents insisted on the more formal language usage at home. But this changed with the next generation.

When my children were in school the two heretofore separate languages became one. As my children rose in grades and the teachers became younger, I noted that even the teachers didn’t separate the languages. We had moved to the era of a single language. Trying to enforce the separation at home was impossible because the children had little exposure to the more formal language. And with this change, came the demise of what had been the method of teaching language in my school days.

Part of this change is a result of changes newspapers instituted in order to better meet shareholder and Wall Street demands. Editing has always been invisible and doesn’t become visible in its worst forms until after the product is bought. There are no recalls for poor spelling or grammar; there are no refunds. Consequently, editorial staff reductions could be made with impunity, unlike writing staff reductions.

Where once newspapers could be held up as the everyman’s grammar, spelling, and usage guide, they no longer can. Newspapers were once inexpensive, current, daily relevant language guides for young students; today they cannot be held up as examples of good language. Consider this quote from a recent op-ed piece in my local newspaper:

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if we think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system, we are fooling themselves.

In the issue that this quote ran, I found a dozen similar errors. If newspapers “speak” like this, is it any wonder that people speak and write like this? Websites are no better.

In the beginning, websites were written with care. Then came the need to get a website up quickly and worry about errors later. Websites were followed by short messages (think Twitter) that require compressing as much as possible into as little as possible.

In all of these instances, language skills changed and the messenger services lost the mantle being language teachers. And this is where the next generation is being miseducated: There no longer is an inexpensive, ubiquitous, broadly recognized teacher of language. In my elementary school days, every school district had access to, and most took advantage of, very inexpensive school subscriptions to the Times, which was accompanied by teaching guides. (I remember paying 25¢ a week for the Times and taking it home with me for my parents to read.) The Times was recognized for its language quality and thus was a teaching tool.

Today’s students and tomorrow’s students are not being similarly exposed to correct grammar and usage because there is no broadly recognized language teacher. I see the effects of this change in the manuscripts I edit, in the job applications I receive, in the tests job applicants submit and I review. Our profession’s future may be less than glorious as our ranks fill with editors who need remedial language education themselves. That there may not be anyone capable of providing that remedial education is also a concern.

What, you may be asking, has brought about this doom and gloom view. The answer, I am sorry to report, is an application I received from a veteran (9 years) English teacher who was looking to supplement her income by doing some freelance editing. She misused, as examples, “your” and “there.” When I pointed this out, her reply was, “You understood me, didn’t you? That should be the criteria.” (I didn’t point out that it is criterion, not criteria.)

Perhaps she has it right. What difference does it make if it is “there” or “their” as long as the message is understood? No, she is wrong, because knowing the difference between the two words is part of understanding the message. If I didn’t know what the correct word was, I might not recognize the message’s meaning.

I see the demise of proper language in newspapers as a reflection of the demise of understanding grammar and spelling in the halls of academia. Do you see it that way, too?

May 2, 2012

The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet After a Couple of Weeks

Filed under: eBook Reading Devices — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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A couple of weeks ago, my wife bought me a Nook Tablet. I related that experience, and my initial impressions, in The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet. Now that I have used the Tablet for a couple of weeks, I thought I would update my experience. (Note that I have not used or seen a Kindle Fire or Kobo Vox. Consequently, I cannot compare the Nook Tablet to either of those devices. My comments are not intended to imply that either the Fire or Vox cannot provide the same or similar experience. This is simply about my experience with the Nook Tablet.)

My primary ereading device has been my Sony 950, a 1.5-year-old eInk device that is no longer available except on the used market. My wife uses my Sony 505, which is now 4.5 years old, my original eInk device. Unlike the Sonys, the Tablet is an LCD screen, which means that it will be troublesome to read in sunlight and one does get some glare on the screen. There is no question in my mind that for straight reading of fiction, the eInk screen is more versatile at the moment.

But I have discovered something else — actually, several somethings else. First, contrary to my original thought that I would not like to read on a LCD screen after spending all day reading on LCD monitors, I actually do like reading on the Tablet. In many ways, I find it more enjoyable than reading on my Sony. This is possible because of the ease with which I can modify the screen brightness. Although I cannot literally mimic the eInk screen, I can make the contrast such that it is very comfortable to read for long periods.

Second, the Tablet weighs significantly more than the 950, although both are of the same 7-inch screen size. Add a cover, which I did, to the Tablet and the weight really climbs, or at least seems to when compared to the Sony 950. At first I thought I would find the weight annoying, but with use, I have found that I no longer notice it — unless I pick up my 950 between sessions with the Tablet.

Third, although both the 950 and the Tablet use touchscreen technology, the Tablet’s screen, when the device is off, really shows fingerprints (you don’t notice them when using the device). I find that I regularly am cleaning the Tablet’s screen. In contrast, the 950 doesn’t show the fingerprints and I clean the screen occasionally just because I know it needs it, not because I can see that it is needed. But the Tablet’s touchscreen technology is great. A very light, almost nonexistent tap on the screen changes the page; with the Sony, a swipe is needed.

Fourth is the excellent reading experience. I am slowly coming to prefer to read ebooks on the Tablet. Everything works to make my reading experience better. I can easily enlarge the font size, something I need to do as my eyes get older, and although I can also do the same on the 950, the Tablet gives me more choices.

The Tablet also gives me two other reading enhancements: the ability to select how the book should appear (e.g., narrow, wide, or very wide margins; and single, 1.5, and double line spacing; and whether the publisher’s default settings should be used or not) and the choice of typeface to display the material (e.g., Century School Book, Dutch, Georgia, Gill Sans). (There is also a “theme” option that lets me choose the background color.)

Overall, the control of the reading experience is much greater on the Tablet than on the 950 and the more I use the features of the Tablet, the more I am inclined for it to be my primary reading device.

Being an Android tablet, the Tablet also offers the kinds of features that would be found on more advanced tablets. I decided to try the apps feature. It comes with the Netflix app, so I entered my account information. I watched about 30 seconds of a movie just to try it. It works well and I can see possibly using it when I go on vacation. I bought a weather app (HD Weather, 99¢) so that I can get the local 5-day weather forecast.

That was pretty much it with the apps until about a week ago I decided to explore what apps are available. I found four that I grabbed immediately. The first is called The American Civil War Gazette (free). It provides daily newspaper articles from Northern and Southern newspapers regarding what was happening on the same date during the Civil War. It is a chance to relive the Civil War through the eyes of the newspapers of the time, day by day. A great app for anyone interested in the Civil War or just interested in trying to live history as if experiencing it personally.

The second app was Buddy Books (free). The app looks for ebooks available from B&N by category and/or price. I have played with it and it could be a better app, but it will certainly help me find ebooks when I’m ready to shop for them (which won’t be for a while; I have 200 ebooks in my Nook library already and hundreds more that I bought from Smashwords and Sony.)

The third app was the Smithsonian Channel (free). I am a long-time subscriber to Smithsonian magazine; I’ve been a subscriber since the 1980s and my current subscription runs through 2022. So I thought this would appeal to me. The app brings the Smithsonian Channel TV programs to the Tablet for free viewing at a time of my choosing. The problem is that I never watch TV and although I have the app, I still find I am disinclined to watch the TV programs. But you never know, and for free, I didn’t think I could go wrong.

The fourth app, is Audubon Birds (purchased for 99¢ on special sale; regularly $14.99). I bought this app for my wife who is a birder. It is the electronic version of the Audubon field guide and is absolutely wonderful. This app will get a lot of use. You can zoom in on the bird photos for more details; you can play their songs. It is packed with information that is easy to find and use.

As I wrote in the initial article on the Tablet, the Tablet was bought as a way for me to electronically read my daily New York Times. At first I thought that would likely be the limit of my use of the Tablet except when traveling. Even though I have had the Tablet for only a couple of weeks, I am finding that it is rapidly becoming my preferred ereading device, which is what I do 99% of the time I use the device. The Tablet has flaws, such as the need to clean the screen regularly, the glare/washout when used in the sun, and the inability to obtain Android apps from places other than B&N and install them, but I find these to ultimately be minor inconveniences the more I use the Tablet — especially when you consider the price I paid: $149 (for the 16GB Tablet) plus a 1-year subscription to the electronic edition of the New York Times.

If you are going to buy only one utilitarian device, I do not think you can go wrong buying the Nook Tablet.

April 18, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I

As most of you already know, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Apple and 5 of the Big 6 publishers alleging collusion in the establishment of agency pricy pricing (see “Justice Dept. Sues Apple and Publishers Over E-Book Pricing; 3 Publishers Settle”). In several of the forums I participate in, ebookers are celebrating the expected lower ebook prices.

Yet, there are several things worth thinking about and noting. First, Random House, one of the Big 6 publishers, and Smashwords, the leading indie author distributor, both of which have agency pricing, are not named defendants in the DOJ lawsuit. That signals to me that the problem is not with agency pricing, but with the collusion aspects.

Second, the 3 publishers that settled with the DOJ, which settlement, it is worth noting, is not effective until approved by a court, are restricted from instituting agency pricing for 2 years, after which they can reassert agency pricing as long as they don’t agree over dinner to do so. This, too, indicates to me that agency pricing is not contrary to the law or necessarily thought to be anticonsumer by the DOJ.

The third notable matter is that the publisher with the greatest moxie, the one that first stood up to Amazon, Macmillan, is not settling with the DOJ and intends to fight, as do Penguin and Apple. That means that the DOJ case is not so strong that it cannot fail once tested. And should it fail, so will the settlement agreements with the 3 settlers fail. It appears that in Macmillan’s case, CEO John Sargent is alleged to have attended only 1 meeting with his fellow CEOs, which means that the DOJ will have to demonstrate that it was at that meeting that the collusion occurred, not an easy task unless the settlers will testify that that is when the collusion came to fruition and that Sargent was present when the decision was made. Hachette, one of the settlers, claims there was no collusion, so it makes me wonder how the DOJ will sustain its burden of proof. Allegations are one thing, proof is another. Simply that there was an opportunity to collude doesn’t prove there was collusion.

There are other problems with the lawsuit. It has been too many years since I last practiced antitrust law (last time was nearly 30 years ago), so I’m not current on the state of the law and I admit that I’m not sure exactly what the DOJ must prove to prevail, but it is clear to me that the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t look favorably on these lawsuits. It was a Republican court that upheld resale price maintenance agreements, which has the same effect — setting a floor price below which goods cannot be sold — as the agency pricing system.

An interesting legal question, which may or may not be relevant to the DOJ lawsuit, is this: What constitutes the market? If all ebooks constitute the market, then ebooks are interchangeable commodities, an idea that is resisted by publishers and authors and even by many consumers. If the market is an individual title because you cannot substitute Dean Koontz for Stephen King, then wouldn’t the DOJ have to prove collusion among publishers to set the price for Stephen King, not collusion to set the mechanism for pricing of all ebooks? Of course, there are numerous variables to the market scenario, but they make for a fascinating legal chess game.

But all of this aside, the bottom line is that agency pricing is not illegal even in the eyes of the DOJ. Which leaves a lot of questions. For example, will Random House abandon agency pricing or continue with it? What about Smashwords? (Smashwords has already announced it will retain agency pricing and oppose the settlement agreement during the comment period.)

A more important question is this: Several of the Big 6 have — so far — refused to sign renewal contracts with Amazon because of demands made by Amazon. In the absence of agency pricing, will some or all of the Big 6 refuse to renew agreements with Amazon? Would such a refusal affect both pbooks and ebooks or just ebooks? If they do not renew the agreement, what can Amazon do about it?

The settlement agreement says that publishers cannot prevent a retailer from discounting the publishers ebooks except that it can require the retailer to make a profit across the publisher’s line. I find that an interesting proviso. Consider how secretive Amazon has been about how many ebooks it really has been selling. Amazon has only been forthcoming with broad numbers and in a few cases announcing that an author has joined the millions club. Will Amazon, who is not a party to the proceedings, voluntarily share sales information? I doubt it.

Yet the sharing of that information is necessary to make the exception meaningful. If the wholesale price, that is, the price the ebooksellers have to pay the publisher, of the new James Patterson ebook novel is $13 and Amazon sells it for $10 and sells 1 million ebook copies for a $3 million loss, somehow Amazon must sell enough other books in that publisher’s line to overcome the loss. How is that going to work?

Will Amazon offer the first 10,000 units of Patterson’s ebook for $10, the next 10,000 units for $16, the next 10,000 units for $13, and so on? Customers will be thrilled. Especially if they can buy the same ebook someplace else for $13 when Amazon wants $16.

Another problem with the settlement is that it does not — and cannot — establish a wholesale price for not-yet-published books. The DOJ could say that current agency-priced ebo0ks’ wholesale price is 70% of the current agency price, because that is what the publisher has been willing to accept. But what about future ebooks? The DOJ is not in a position to dictate individual pricing, so there is no reason why publishers cannot raise list prices to $30 and set wholesale prices at $15. The settlement speaks to discounting, not to setting of wholesale price.

There is more to say, but it needs to be said in another installment of this article, so this will be continued in my next post.

April 17, 2012

Worth Noting: One Small Publisher Says Enough!

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is worth noting: “Daring to Cut Off Amazon.” It seems that Amazon is squeezing where it can. At least this one small publisher, who only has pbooks, offering none of its titles as ebooks, is taking a stand. This article, combined with the recent expose in the Seattle Times about Amazon’s tactics, and the revelations regarding the squeeze on the Independent Publishers Group, make me think that the Justice Department has its head in the sand.

Also worth reading in the Times is David Carr’s article, “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis.” At least one other person, aside from me, thinks the Department of Justice is trying to slay the wrong dragon.

I know that the popular view is that consumers will have lower prices, but (a) that is not assured once Amazon gains monopolistic power and (b) it ignores the loss of jobs to fellow Americans, jobs that will be either eliminated or foreign-sourced, depriving local communities of revenues and increasing the costs to those who are employed.

I’ve noted that it is easy to be for low prices at all costs as long as one is still employed, but that low prices at all costs mantra rapidly fades when one’s job is lost to a third-world country because labor costs are so much less.

Anyway, I highly recommend both articles to you.

April 9, 2012

The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet

Filed under: Books & eBooks,eBook Reading Devices — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

For the past few months, Barnes & Noble has been offering deals on their Nooks if you purchased a 1-year digital subscription to the New York Times. I have been a long-time subscriber to the print version of the Times, but have been unhappy at the regular price increases for the print subscription. Alas, as unhappy as I proclaim myself to be over the price increases, my unhappiness was not enough to get me to cancel the subscription.

The Nook deal looked good to me. The digital version of the Times costs $20 per month; the regular print subscription was costing me close to $50 per month. I went and looked at the Nook Touch, which was free with the subscription, but didn’t buy it. I just couldn’t figure out what I would do with another ereader, as I am very happy with my Sony devices, both of which still work perfectly after years of use. Besides, I could get the same digital subscription at the same price on my Sony.

The reason I bought my Sony 950 was to digitally subscribe to the Times. I gave it a trial run, and although I was happy and would have continued, my wife didn’t like it; consequently, we went back to the print version. That was 18 months ago.

The Nook offer expired on April 5. My wife decided to give me an early birthday present and ordered the Nook Tablet (16GB version) with the Times subscription before the offer expired. I was pleasantly surprised. I had not considered the Nook Tablet, but her choice of device works perfectly for us. I’ll get to the reasons a bit later, but I want to first describe the problems we had when the Nook arrived.

The device worked fine on arrival. I had a problem getting my network to recognize it so it would have WiFi access, and I couldn’t get through to Nook support; they kept transferring me and hanging up. Ultimately, because we have Verizon FiOS Internet service, I called Verizon and within minutes I was connected to the WiFi. Apparently, Verizon gets a lot of calls from Nook owners with the problem, so they knew what to do immediately.

But this raises a question: Why is the Nook the only device to have to jump through hoops to get that initial connection? My Sony 950 connected without hesitation. Part of the problem is that the Nook asks for a network password when what it really wants is the network WEP key. Had I known what it wanted, I could have been up and running in seconds without a call to Verizon. My Sony asked for the WEP key, not a password.

Anyway, once connected to WiFi, I was able to complete registration of the device and link it to my Nook library. (Yes, I had a Nook library of books “bought” from B&N even though I didn’t own a Nook device. I downloaded the books to my computer and then used Calibre to load them onto my Sonys.) But what I couldn’t get was the New York Times, which was part of the purchase.

A call to B&N customer support, to which I was connected quickly, solved this mystery. Because my wife bought the device and used her credit card, the subscription was linked to her B&N account. Easy enough, I thought — just move it to my account. Turns out, B&N has no method for dealing with gift purchases and couldn’t transfer the subscription to my existing account.

I asked what was to me the obvious question: Doesn’t B&N hope that people will buy Nooks and subscriptions as gifts for others? Why make it impossible to do so? It reminds me of the early fiasco when B&N wouldn’t accept gift cards to pay for Nook books. Seems to be something missing in the thinking, which does not bode well for B&N’s ultimate success.

Because of the impossibility of transferring the subscription, we had to cancel the purchase, return the Tablet to the local B&N store, and buy another Tablet under the deal but on my credit card. How illogical is this? Here I had to return a perfectly good Tablet that B&N will now have to sell as a refurbished unit simply because they couldn’t transfer a subscription.

Even that, however, didn’t go as smoothly as it should have. To set up the Times subscription, I needed the e-mail address and password for my B&N account. The e-mail address was not a problem, but I had no idea what the password was (I use RoboForm, a password manager, to manage my passwords and to log me in). So I had to return home, get the password, and return to the local store to conclude the transaction. Once again, B&N isn’t thinking “customer first” service.

Truthfully, if this hadn’t been a birthday gift, I probably would have simply canceled the original transaction and gone no further.

In the end, the Tablet is up and running and I have my Times subscription. I canceled the print version and am saving myself $30 a month. Plus I can carry the Times with me and read it on the go.

As it turns out, the Nook tablet has solved another problem for us. We rarely use our cell phones. In fact, our cell phones are about 6 years old and don’t have any of the smartphone features so common today — no Internet access, no e-mail, etc.

Because our cell phones really do only one thing — albeit they do it very well — which is to make and receive phone calls, and because we are planning a vacation for this summer out to Utah and the national parks of the Utah-Arizona-Wyoming-Montana areas, we were thinking of upgrading our phones to smartphones. We think we need to have at least e-mail contact for business reasons. Alas, that would have meant a new 2-year commitment (currently, we have no commitment), something I was reluctant to do.

The Nook Tablet solves that problem for us. It gives us e-mail access and Internet access, assuming, of course, we can get a WiFi connection, which we should be able to do most of the time.

So far I am very pleased with the Nook Tablet. The screen is very good (although it is only 7 inches) and its functionality suits my needs. Although it doesn’t have the functionality of an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab, it provides the functionality we need at one-third to one-fourth the price of a more functional tablet. Even with my limited experience with the Nook Tablet, I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for basic tablet functionality.

February 23, 2012

Breaking News: Amazon vs. IPG

In today’s business section of the New York Times, I read “Amazon Pulls Thousands of E-Books in Dispute.” Then, at Nate Hoffelder’s The Digital Reader blog, I found a link in his “Morning Coffee” column to an article at PaidContent about the controversy, “Update: Amazon Yanks 5,000 Kindle Titles In Fight Over Terms.” Page 2 of the PaidContent article reprints a memo IPG sent to its publishers about the controversy. Both articles are worth reading and thinking about.

As you know, it is not my habit to run more than two articles (plus an occasional Worth Noting) each week, but this is an exception.

Recent news from and about Amazon has been disturbing. (Watch for tomorrow’s article, Worth Noting: Amazon is an Author’s Friend — Or Maybe Not, and for Priming the Pump: Amazon’s Prime Program, which is scheduled for March 5.) For quite sometime, I’ve been saying that the rosy picture painted of Amazon can’t last, and I think we are beginning to see that prediction come true.

I think the New York Times sums up the dilemma neatly: “Amazon is under pressure from Wall Street to improve its anemic margins. At the same time, it is committed to selling e-books as cheaply as possible as a way to preserve the dominance of its Kindle devices.” These are two conflicting goals and there are limited ways available to Amazon to meet them.

Exclusivity is one way. If consumers want certain books, make them available only on Amazon and ebookers will come. Most ebookers will buy a Kindle because they do not want to deal with stripping DRM (Digital Rights Management) and the conversion process, not matter how easy to do; most consumers want to buy and go.

The second available method is putting the squeeze on distributors and publishers, then authors, then consumers. The lost agency fight (remember how quickly Amazon capitulated?) demonstrated that as powerful as Amazon was, it wasn’t yet powerful enough to win a battle with the Big 6 publishers (Penguin, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins). Amazon has begun striking back at the Big 6 with the establishment of its own publishing arm and its exclusivity deals.

But Amazon is probably powerful enough to win the fight against the mid-tier and low-tier distributors and publishers. It is testing the waters with the battle with IPG. If Amazon wins, especially if you combine the win with how cavalier Amazon is in its dealings with exclusive authors (see tomorrow’s Worth Noting), Amazon will not only dominate the ebook marketplace but be in a position to squeeze lower-tier publishers and distributors, and, ultimately, perhaps the Big 6’s margins to the point that they will not be able to survive. When that squeezing is done, the next in line has to be the authors, followed by the ebookers.

A monopolist is not anyone’s friend. The ebooker mantra that “Amazon is my friend and will do me no harm” is as false today as it was yesterday and as it will be tomorrow. Amazon is not anyone’s friend — it is a business that has to ultimately satisfy its investors by giving an acceptable return. There is nothing wrong with Amazon being a business; what is wrong is that so many ebookers are lulled by the way things are today and fail to look at the long-term implications of Amazon’s success in moving toward becoming a monopoly.

I am aware that many ebookers would be happy to see every publisher and distributor disappear, thinking that when that happens authors will flourish by directly dealing with megacorporations like Amazon and that the consumer will benefit from even lower prices. Unfortunately, history proves that such expectations, in the absence of government price regulation, simply do not come to fruition. Monopolies ultimately result in price rises for consumers and the continual squeezing of suppliers.

Once authors have to fend for themselves, they will be even more susceptible to being squeezed because they will have to stand alone against the 800-lb behemoth. I hope IPG stands firm; I hope it can stand firm. Other small distributors, like Publisher’s Group West, should think about their own vulnerabilities. Will they be next if IPG fails? Should they support IPG?

My questions are these: Once Amazon has squeezed the publishers and distributors dry, and once many authors have decided that they are better off self-publishing and dealing directly with Amazon, how long will it be before Amazon starts squeezing authors dry? And once authors are squeezed dry, how long will it be before Amazon starts squeezing consumers?

Contrary to ebooker belief, neither a monopolist nor a wannabe-monopolist like Amazon is the consumer’s friend.

February 6, 2012

Is There Hope for Barnes & Noble Redux

Last week I offered the suggestion that Barnes & Noble (B&N) consider getting out of the brick-and-mortar end of the business and instead franchise its name and cut deals with indie bookstores to promote its Nooks and ebooks. The reception was varied, with some commenters thinking this was a great idea and others thinking it was a lousy idea, and yet a third group thinking it was — at least — an idea. Yet the overall tenor running through all the comments was that B&N will be steamrolled by the Amazon juggernaut no matter what it does.

That gave me pause and made me think some more about B&N and its relationship with its customers.

My relationship with B&N goes back a great many years. Even when I worked for Borders, I shopped at B&N. I have been a member of the B&N club for many years and I even have a B&N Mastercard. Until this past year, my wife and I generally visited the local B&N store at least twice a month and I spent thousands of dollars a year at the local B&N as well as at B&N online.

Yet as I sit at my desk and think about my long-term relationship with B&N, I realize that the flame has gone out. The more I think about it, the more I realize that B&N began spritzing the flame when it released the Nook; changed the spritzing to a more forceful watering when it firmly adopted its own DRM and refused to give members any member advantage over nonmembers when it came to either the Nook or ebooks; and has finally doused the flame with its newest changes to its membership plan. Try as I might, and although I will continue to buy from B&N rather than Amazon so as to do my part to keep competition alive, the reality is that B&N has consistently spurned me, and the changes in my book buying (and the amount I spend at B&N) reflect that spurning.

As you may recall, I was unhappy when B&N came out with the Nook (the original one I thought was poorly designed; the new Touch is very nice but not nice enough to make me replace either my working 1-year-old Sony 950 or my working 4-year-old Sony 505 with it) and wouldn’t give me my 10% member’s discount — even though I was prepared at the time to buy two Nooks at $249 each! B&N’s rationale was that at $249 it was already losing money on the device; my rationale was that as a relatively big book buyer ((I spent thousands of dollars a year at B&N on books, very few of which were the heavily discounted “bestsellers”), B&N should be willing to give me a small incentive to remain a B&N book buyer — especially when its primary competition was selling for less. It wasn’t the money so much — afterall, I spent more on my Sonys than I would have on the Nooks — as much as I wanted to feel that this was a partnership.

If B&N was losing money at $249 it must be shooting itself in the head with a machine gun every time it sells a Nook for $99. More importantly, because it chose to save $25 — a shortsightedness that Jeff Bezos would not tolerate at Amazon — it lost me as an ebook customer. True, if you look at my Nook library you’ll find I have purchased more than 125 ebooks from B&N, but if you look at the prices paid, with the exception of a very few, the purchase prices were “free.” And to add a nail to the coffin, nearly all those that I did pay for, I paid for with B&N’s own money — the gift cards I earned from using the B&N Mastercard.

More importantly for B&N is that in the last year my purchases at the local B&N have been few. We went from visiting the store (and buying at each visit) at least twice a month to visiting once every three or four months and sometimes not buying at all. (For the first time in six months I bought a book at the local B&N last week.) For the most part, my wife and I have become ebookers and most of the ebooks we read are purchased from Smashwords or Sony, not B&N.

I recently discussed with my wife making more visits to the local B&N. It would be easy to do as the B&N is in the same mall as our grocery store. But then came the news that the terms of the membership were changing. The discount remains unusable for ebooks but instead of a 20% discount in the store on all adult hardcovers and 40% on bestsellers, the discount is changing to 10% and 40%. As we rarely buy the “bestsellers,” B&N is simply cutting our discount. Not much of an incentive to buy at the local B&N. (Interestingly, as a general rule the books available at B&N online are much more steeply discounted than at the local store even with the membership card — and it has been quite a while since the membership did anything but give you free shipping online.)

The point of all this is to say that maybe B&N is on a suicide path and without hope for long-term survival. It is losing sight of the fact that 75%+ of the book market remains pbooks. eBooks are important, and the area of greatest growth, but ebooks are still in the childhood stage. Although they cannot be neglected, they cannot be focused on to the exclusion of the dominant portion of the market. To remain viable, B&N has to dually focus on both ebooks and pbooks. Sadly, it is becoming dangerously myopic when it comes to pbooks.

It has taken no steps to encourage those core readers, the ones who read several books a month and who are B&N members, to be active buyers of its ebooks or pbooks. Whatever it has done, it has done with the broad market in mind. Many months ago I argued that this was a mistake, that B&N really needed to cultivate that core group of book buyers who could be the proselytizers for its future. I said months ago when the Nook was introduced that B&N needed to reward its members for being members and not treat members like everyone else or B&N would ultimately be sorry.

I’m sorry to say, but perhaps there is no real hope for B&N. Whoever does their strategic thinking is spending too little time thinking and too much time doing harmful things to B&N’s future. I looked at a Nook Touch last week. The free-Touch-with-a-New-York-Times-subscription offer tempted me. But I can get the New York Times for the same price on my Sony 950 so that wasn’t much of an incentive. In the end, I was peeved over the change in membership terms and simply decided to pass on the offer. B&N really doesn’t want me; B&N has successfully extinguished the last of the embers.

The sad thing is that putting out my fire, and the fire of other B&N members, B&N may be also be putting closed on its door.

October 26, 2011

How Do You Do It? Amazon vs. Editors (II)

My previous post discussed the problem publishers are facing with Amazon’s stepping into the role of book publisher rather than just bookseller. On October 17, 2011, one New York Times front page headline read “Amazon Signing Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal.”

Read a bit further into the article and one discovers that Amazon isn’t talking about the number of editors it is employing (if any). One also discovers that Russell Grandinetti, a top Amazon executive, says, “The only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and reader. Everyone who stands between those two has both risk and opportunity.” Note no mention of editors.

So where does the professional editor stand? To paraphrase an editorial colleague, Amazon pays editors as if the editor lived in a third-world country. The truth of the matter is that the ground is shifting yet again for professional editors.

The standard practice for many editors has been to try to work either in-house or freelance for publishers. We have seen many of those jobs disappear as publishers have found it cheaper to outsource editorial tasks, and the globalization of our profession has caused a lowering of wages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is forecasting no growth in jobs for the editorial profession for the next decade but a significant increase in competition for what jobs exist.

I don’t have the magic bullet that will cure this problem, but I do have an observation. When I discuss book buying with editorial colleagues, the standard response is that they buy from Amazon. It is like feeding the mouth that bites you. Because we can save a dollar or two, we buy from Amazon. Perhaps that isn’t such a smart idea as it reinforces Amazon’s belief that it is right.

I recognize that many of the books professional editors need are not inexpensive. I also recognize that professional editors probably read more books for pleasure in the course of a year than does the average reader. And I recognize that each dollar saved counts. But perhaps when it comes to Amazon, this is wrong thinking. Amazon is not my friend.

It is important to note what the Amazon model is: a willingness to have very thin margins. Thin margins do not leave a lot of money to be spent on what is considered an intangible, such as editing. I do not expect to suddenly see a rash of jobs for freelance editors at decent pay spring forth from the bowels of Amazon.

We editors can follow the path of publishers; that is, we can shake our heads in worry, wring our hands, and do nothing for fear of what effect our doing something might have on our future. But our future is already insecure.

Everything we have traditionally seen and done as professional editors is changing. I expect that in a few years the only editors still able to get work from publishers will be those in groups, not solo editors. This will be a fundamental change in how editorial work has been done.

An even more fundamental shift that I expect to see is that increasingly less work will come from publishers and the burden of hiring an editor will fall on the author. Should that occur, it will be disastrous for the author, for the editor, and for the reader. Experience so far with authors is that few are willing to invest the necessary resources for professional editing in the absence of pressure from a third party, such as pressure from a peer-reviewed journal. The gamble is too great and the value of editorial services is too ephemeral, not readily seen.

As I wrote earlier, I have no panacea for the troubles the editorial world will shortly begin facing. We didn’t face the original offshoring of the early 2000s very well, so I expect we won’t face these changes well either.

Yet one thing is certain: Editors who continue to buy from Amazon are only helping to bury themselves. Perhaps supporting Amazon is not the smartest idea editors have ever had and one that should be rethought.

June 13, 2011

On Books: Wondering Why Stieg Larsson

Sometimes one has to go with the flow because there is some unknown force that pushes you along that path. I find that most frequently happens when I am “pushed” toward the local Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream — for our dog! Yes, our Lily, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel, loves ice cream and Dairy Queen’s in particular.

Unfortunately, that push also sometimes shoves me toward a particular book: Because millions are reading it, I sometimes get “pushed” toward the need to read this book of millions to discover why. Usually finding out why simply reinforces my belief that bestsellers too often fail the discerning reader test (i.e., no discerning reader would ever read this book!), which is why I rarely buy or read books on the bestseller lists.

Well this unknown force pushed me to read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thankfully, there will be no followup books to this trilogy.

I read the trilogy a couple of months ago and thought it deserved a rating of 2 stars maximum in my system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)) except that my system’s 2-star rating doesn’t seem to cover a book that has nearly no spelling errors, few grammar errors, is published by a traditional publisher, but is atrociously bad reading. That’s because my rating system was designed for indie books, not traditional books. So, we’ll just have to temporarily adapt.

The Millennium Trilogy is a 1.5- to 2-star series on almost any 1 to 5 rating scale. Whatever compelled people to buy the books is elusive — except that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is an interesting, albeit unbelievable, character who tends to rope you into wondering what next will happen in her world (in a way these books demonstrate the value of character-driven books; see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? and On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail). To me, these books are like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — superficial quick reads that help pass time without taxing any cognitive processes whatsoever. Perhaps the books are better in their original language (Swedish) than in the translation; one can only hope.

Okay, you have the picture — I don’t think the books are worth buying let alone reading (50 million buyers worldwide say contrariwise) so why am I writing a “review”? I wouldn’t have in the normal course of events. My general policy is not even to mention, except in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles, books that I think so little of. What made me write this article (anybody remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine and her line “The devil made me do it!”?) was a review of these books in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) a couple of weeks ago that I just got around to reading.

The Moralist by Tim Parks, is a NYRB review well worth reading by those who have bought the Trilogy but not yet read it; those who have bought the Trilogy and have read it; those who are thinking of plunking down hard-earned money to buy the Trilogy but haven’t yet done so; and those who have no intention of either buying or reading the Trilogy because the article is well worth reading in its own right. It is also a good article to read by anyone who is interested in getting a feel for the types of articles and reviews that NYRB publishes.

My commentary here is really less about Larsson’s Trilogy than about encouraging those who are interested in books and culture to read NYRB, and perhaps subscribe to it. Articles in NYRB are significantly different from reviews one reads in, for example, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR). There was a time when I read the NYTBR faithfully every week. When I first discovered NYRB years ago, I faithfully read both the NYRB and the NYTBR but soon discovered that the NYTBR was not of the same quality caliber as NYRB, with the result that my faithfulness to the NYTBR began to wane and today I barely look at the NYTBR. Instead, I eagerly await the next issue of NYRB.

One of the problems with book buying today is that there are so many books published and so few trustworthy reviews of them. No magazine, no online site can put a true dent into the numbers — the number of reviews will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the number of books published, which problem is exacerbated by the easiness of self-publishing ebooks. But I seek some guidance from somewhere that is reliable and I have no faith whatsoever in the anonymous reviews at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Although I have high praise for NYRB, it does have its faults. For example, it has yet to introduce to the print version a “column” devoted to ebooks. It needs to do so and it needs to begin reviewing books that are available only as ebooks, as well as books that are available in both p and e versions. NYRB also fails to identify the formats that the books it does review are available in and whether there are problems with the production. But for content review, NYRB can’t be beat.

I hope some of you will take the time to read  The Moralist by Tim Parks and take a look at NYRB with an eye toward making it a regular stop for interesting commentary and reviews, and perhaps even becoming a subscriber. (For those of you who wonder about the ideological slant of NYRB, it is a liberal/left-leaning publication, but I have only found that evident in its commentaries, not in its book reviews.)

Disclosure: I am not now and never have been associated with NYRB in any fashion, manner, way other than being a long-term subscriber to the print edition. I receive no compensation from NYRB, not even a calendar or a T-shirt. FWIW, my current subscription, for which I duly paid the full subscription price, expires in 2015 and I will extend it as soon as NYRB permits. (They are unwilling to take more than one 3-year extension at a time or I would have extended my subscription into the 2020s already.)

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