An American Editor

July 7, 2014

Worth Noting: A Great Book Deal at Smashwords

Do you like to give indie authors a chance? I do and I’m happy to say I have found and read a great many excellent books by indie authors, some of which I have reviewed here on An American Editor (see, e.g., “Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson,” “On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor,” “The Book of Adam: Stimulating Thought Via a Novel,” “On Books: Ice Blue,” and my favorite indie author, Vicki Tyley, “On Books: Murder Down Under“; other reviews of indie books can be found by searching An American Editor).

I usually wait until the summer and winter sales at Smashwords to buy indie books because of the significant discount that many authors give. Sometimes it is a coupon to get the first book in a series free, sometimes it is a coupon for 25%, 50%, or 75% off the usual retail price. Regardless, I usually find a few books to add to my to-be-read pile. In addition to the discount, all of the books let you read a significant portion for free, either by downloading the sample or online. You don’t have to buy and hope.

The Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale has begun and it runs through July 31. Use the filters or just start browsing all of the on-sale books. (NOTE: Books purchased at Smashwords can be downloaded in all popular formats and are DRM free.)

Additional books are generally added throughout the month so it is a good idea to make a couple of trips to the Smashwords sale to see what new books have been added (they appear at the beginning of the lists).

I suggest bookmarking Smashwords and visiting it regularly throughout the year. It is an excellent place to find indie authors. Also, titles that appear at Smashwords also often appear at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online ebook sellers.

If you buy some books at Smashwords, please be sure to let us know what they are. Other An American Editor readers may well be interested in the books.

Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale 2014

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Neither Richard Adin nor An American Editor receives any compensation of any type for promoting Smashwords or the July sale. I promote it because I think it is of great value to readers and to indie authors.)

March 18, 2013

Author Lamentations: eBook Week Sales

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

The week of March 3-10 was “Read an eBook Week,” which is a week that I particularly look forward to each year. It is the week when many authors put their ebooks on sale, with discounts ranging from 25% to 100% of the normal price. Smashwords is a major promoter of this event, and is usually where I go to buy more ebooks for my to-be-read pile.

In past years, I have spent several hundred dollars on indie ebooks during this week, and I have also “bought” a goodly number of 100%-discount ebooks. This year I bought 3 ebooks plus a dozen of the 100%-discount ebooks. I simply could not find more ebooks from indie authors that interested me; I did find several that I am interested in buying in the future, but I felt no rush to buy them now because they were not on sale. If I’m going to pay full price, I’ll pay it when I am ready to read the ebook, not before.

On some of the fora in which I participate, authors were lamenting that “Read an eBook Week” didn’t boost sales. One complaining author noted that before eBook Week his sales were at zero and during eBook Week his sales remained flat at zero. In his case, I think three things were at work: first, he didn’t discount his book at all during a week when readers expect to find a discount; second, the subject-matter/genre of his ebook was not one that draws readers like bees to honey; and third, whether his book had ever seen the helping hand of a professional editor was doubtful based on the sample.

Other complaining authors noted slight upticks in sales, but not anything to boast about.

This year, unlike past years, authors seemed to be quiet about “Read an eBook Week.” I saw very few pushes to get the word out by these indie authors, which made me wonder how they expected to get readers to notice their books. Many of them also opted for the smaller discounts. I admit that I didn’t even bother to look at books in the 25% discount category and only once spent a little time in the 50% discount category. Most of my browsing was on the 75% and 100% discount categories, and based on comments made in response to the complaining authors, it appears my browsing was typical.

It is clear to me that authors with low to middling sales during eBook Week made several fundamental errors. First, they did little to no self-promotion so potential readers were not made aware of their ebooks. Stores like Smashwords promote the week itself, not individual ebooks; it is up to the indie author to promote his or her ebook, which means the author needs to make sure that tags are appropriate and numerous, that descriptions are well-written and targeted, and that the correct genre(s) are associated with the ebook. For example, I do not like books about vampires or the Harlequin-type romances or “gothic” novels. Consequently, when I see tags that identify an ebook as fitting in one of those categories, I pass it by. Of course, other readers cannot get enough of those categories, so they would be attracted — if the ebook is properly tagged and described.

The second error was that they had a bad combination of too high a retail price and too low a discount for their book. Many ebookers are like me — reluctant to spend $5.99 on an ebook from an author with whom they are unfamiliar and a 25% discount is little inducement. Authors need to think about the promotion. Many of these same authors joined Amazon’s exclusive program and offered their ebook for free at Amazon for 5 days. So why not offer a steep discount for the 7 days of eBook Week?

The third error that a number of authors made was to offer the steep discount on the second or third book in a series, rather than on the first book. I cannot imagine what thinking lies behind that decision. Once I saw that the ebook was the second or third in a series and that the first book was not being discounted, I just moved on. I suspect many readers did the same.

The fourth error was in offering the same ebook this year as they offered last year and even the year before. I would think that by now most readers who are interested in the offered book have already obtained it. One of the purposes of eBook Week is to not only introduce your ebook to new readers but to reignite interest in you in readers who have some familiarity with you but who do not view your ebooks as “must” reads.

The fifth error was the failure to take the opportunity to rewrite the blurbs. Poorly written blurbs can kill a sale. If you haven’t been selling a steady stream of ebooks, perhaps it is time to rewrite the blurb — give the ebook a fresh coat of paint, but paint of a different color.

The sixth error is really not an error except in broad terms: It is the failure to recognize that it is possible that the subject matter of your ebook just doesn’t have broad appeal or that if it does fall into the broad appeal area, that perhaps other books are better written (and better promoted). In other words, this isn’t like A Field of Dreams where “if you write it, they will find it”

or “if you write it, they will buy it.”

Readers tend to be a bit fussier than that.

I’m sure that only a few authors not guilty of all six failures, but every author who had disappointing sales during eBook Week is guilty of one or more of these failures. As an indie author, it is the author’s responsibility to fix these failures, yet I am sure that many will take no corrective action and will find other excuses for why eBook Week was a failure for their ebook.

I have said this before, but it is worth repeating: There is a natural progression to getting someone to buy your ebook. It begins with the cover, runs through the story’s development to the editing of the manuscript, and ends with the promotional efforts made by the author. A weakness in one area can be devastating. The indie author needs to be sure that current weaknesses are identified and addressed so as to pave the path for success. Authors who were disappointed by this year’s eBook Week have a year until the next eBook Week and so can work toward making next year a success.

February 11, 2013

Why Some Indie Authors Fail

Notice

I recently finished reading a series of books by an indie author and I wanted to buy more of the author’s books. Apparently, there aren’t any more of the author’s books available, but the next volume in the series is due … sometime. My questions are: How will I know when the next book become available? Will I care when it is finally available?

There are certain authors who I occasionally check to see if they have published another book. I check at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords; I do not check at Amazon because I can’t use an Amazon-formatted or DRMed ebook on either my Sony or Nook. (Yes, I am aware of Calibre and know that I can format shift DRM-free ebooks using it, and even that there are plug-ins that will remove some DRM — but many, if not most, ebookers won’t go to the trouble or don’t know how to do it, and I do not support authors who go the Amazon-exclusive route.)

So how does the indie author who wrote a decent enough book that I am interested in the author’s next book (a) let me know the book is available and (b) keep my interest? What I have discovered is that many indie authors provide no way for a reader to say “please e-mail me when volume 2 is available.” Too many indie authors think that in 1 month, let alone in 6 months, I will still remember who they are or that I want to buy and read their next book.

The truth, of course, is otherwise. Yes, I will remember the exceptional authors — the ones who I rate 5 or 5+ out of 5 stars, but there are very few of them. I will not remember the author whose book was a good, not great, read — the 4 out of 5 stars (and possibly even the 3 out of 5 stars) ebook.

Every indie author should have a live link in their ebook that lets a reader signup to be notified when the next book by the author becomes available. Not a signup for a newsletter or for anything other than a single e-mail that says “you read my book XYZ and asked to be notified when my next ebook became available. It is now available at these stores/places: (here insert links).” Very few authors are memorable, so readers need an easy way to add their name to a remember-me list.

I should point out that this is a major failing of Smashwords and Barnes & Noble, too — perhaps even Amazon, Apple, Sony, and Kobo, but I am not familiar with their systems as I do not shop at their stores. Smashwords and B&N should allow me to go to my purchases and click a button to ask to be specifically notified when an author (of my choosing, not all authors whose books I have purchased) publishes a new book that is available at their bookstores.  In the case of Smashwords, this option should also be available even if I have not purchased the ebook from it, because Smashwords is both a bookstore and a distributor and I may well have bought the book at a different retailer.

Disrespect

As important as it is for an author to let me know that the author has a new book available, that failure to provide me with a means to learn of the new book is really a secondary reason of failure. The primary reason is a disrespect for words and language, which is really a lack of respect for the reader.

This disrespect takes many forms and ranges from not caring to ignorance. For example, I just read an ebook (no, I didn’t finish it and will not finish it) in which the author repeatedly refers to people/person(s) as that instead of who, uses wonder when wander is meant, and uses common when c’mon is meant. There are also numerous other poor word, punctuation, and grammar choices, which poor choices make me wonder if the author has ever read a book he didn’t write.

Words are an author’s weapon of choice. They must be carefully chosen and used correctly to ensure that the message is sent and understood as intended. I’ve said this before numerous times: writing must communicate the author’s message accurately and understandably.

Consequently, if nothing else, every author should have a good grasp of two fundamental legs of writing: grammar and spelling. If an author wasn’t a brilliant grammarian in school, perhaps the author should invest in a grammar book. Note that I said a grammar and not a style book. It does not matter whether the author writes one hundred or 100 — that is a matter of style but in neither instance will a reader misunderstand. But it does matter if an author uses due to when caused by is meant, or uses that when who is meant, or a sentence is confusing because the first clause is in the present tense and the second clause is in the past tense.

As you know, I think every author needs a good, professional copyeditor, and oftentimes also needs a good, professional developmental editor (for the difference between the two, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A good editor would prevent embarrassments like common for c’mon and give the author some credibility that perhaps the author doesn’t deserve. It is this disrespect for language, whether intentional or unintentional, by some indie authors that causes them to fail.

The Editor

Recently, I had a discussion with an indie author about some editing suggestions I had made. The author was livid, believing that my suggestions — and it is important to note that what an editor proposes are suggestions for the author to accept or reject — distorted her writing. To no avail, I tried to point out that you cannot have the heroine arrowshot in the left shoulder on page 10 and a healer fixing the arrow-made wound in the right shoulder on page 12, unless you indicate between pages 10 and 12 that the heroine was arrowshot a second time in the opposite shoulder.

There were many of these types of mistakes in the text but even more important, I think, the author kept writing sentences like “Justine, that was shot by….” I kept suggesting that “Justine, that” should be “Justine, who” but the author knew better.

Needless to say, we parted ways, but I found the discord instructive. An author should be hiring an editor to fill a gap in the author’s knowledge and skills, not for the sake of being able to claim that the book was edited — especially not if the author intends to discard all of the editor’s suggestions. Yet a number of indie authors are unable to recognize their limits and thus cannot make good use of the professional editor’s skills. Viewing your editor as your enemy rather than your friend is asking to fail.

Some indie authors fail because they do not provide a means to notify readers of future writing; some because they disrespect the language of writing; some because they view their editor as their enemy and not their friend. Each of these failing ways is correctable; it just takes effort and determination.

July 9, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

May 14, 2012

On Books: Rebecca Forster — Legal Thrillers

As I have mentioned in other posts, I began my serious adult work career as a lawyer (between college and law school, I tried a lot of different jobs, none satisfying). I was a trial attorney in the U.S. Midwest for a number of years before moving back to the East Coast and becoming an editor. My experience as a trial attorney, especially my experience defending persons accused of committing a crime, has always interfered with any enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten by reading lawyer-centric legal thrillers.

For example, it stretches my credulity beyond the limits to read about a first-year associate at a major law firm discovering a plot by the firm’s senior partners against America and then single-handedly saving the day, fighting off experienced, special forces-trained security personnel. Especially when dragging along another person who is even less-well prepared for the rigors of the fight than the associate. The point is, my experience prevents me from wrapping my head around the prose of the standard legal thriller, so I just don’t read them.

But as I have also noted numerous times, I like to explore indie-authored ebooks and am willing to give a free legal thriller a try, even though I have low expectations.

Imagine my surprise when I read Rebecca Forster’s Hostile Witness, which is free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. This book rates 5+ stars on my rating scale (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for information on how I rate ebooks). It is not that this book doesn’t have some of the flights of fancy that simply do not occur in legal practice; rather, it is that this book more closely tracks how a trial occurs, how a case unfolds, and what a good lawyer really does.

Our heroine is Josie Baxter-Bates, a lawyer with personal issues, but one who is quite good at her job. In Hostile Witness, she is hired to defend a teenager who is accused of murdering her stepgrandfather. The evidence is clear — or is it? The storyline is not that of a lawyer who suddenly becomes a superinvestigator and can perform miracles that the finest police officers and detectives — short, perhaps, of Sherlock Holmes — cannot do. Instead, it is the story of a highly competent lawyer and the courtroom scenes (at least most of them) reflect what really can occur, not just what is needed to occur to move the story along.

The characters are well-formed and believable. The lawyers are reflections of real lawyers. The sequence is much like a real legal case (there is some exaggeration and skipping over fine points, but then this is a novel and should be expected). The writing is crisp, with only a few errors scattered throughout the book.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying a legal thriller for the first time since I read John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, published in 1993 — a very long time ago when it comes to reading. (This was the only Grisham legal thriller that I thought reflected the real practice of law and the only one of his books I thought worth reading, although I did try a couple of others.) I found that I couldn’t put Hostile Witness down; I wanted to read it in one sitting.

I was so impressed with Hostile Witness, and so enamored with how well the characters were created, that as soon as I finished it, I went searching for more ebooks by Rebecca Forster. Turns out that Hostile Witness is the first book of a quartet of books starring Josie Baxter-Bates. I purchased, for $3.99 each, books 2, 3, and 4 in the series: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, and Expert Witness. Each is also available at Smashwords and at Barnes & Noble.

I have read Silent Witness, and although it is well-written, this book is a 5-star book rather than a 5+-star book. Again the courtroom scenes are spot on, but I always have trouble with stories about lawyers defending their lovers, which is what this one is about. The focus shifts from the less emotional to the more emotional because of the relationship, yet I must also admit that I had difficulty setting this book aside for such daily tasks as work, eating, and sleeping.

Immediately following Silent Witness, I read Privileged Witness. Like the preceding two books, this one is well-written, but is beginning to join the formulaic. In this story, the villains are a politician — and a former lover of our heroine — and the politician’s sister. There is a subplot involving a battered wife and her homicidal husband, which I think would have made a better story. Unfortunately, in Privileged Witness, Josie Baxter-Bates begins to look like a typical action hero rather than a competent lawyer. I found the story less compelling, but still a very good read. I’d give this book just under 5 stars because it is moving closer to the Scott Turow-John Grisham type of legal thriller that I do not like.

I am now in the midst of reading the last of the quartet, Expert Witness. This book starts out with our heroine having been kidnapped. I am about a third of the way through the story. Like its predecessors, it is well-written and a hard-to-put-down read, but the story, so far, centers on the efforts of Bates’ lover and ward (she is legal guardian of a teenager) to find her. Based on what I have read so far, this will also be a slightly less than 5-star rating, with the lowered rating solely because of the plot, not the execution. However, a final rating awaits my finishing the book.

If you like legal thrillers, or even just a well-constructed, well-written story with believable characters — characters that could have been taken from your neighborhood — then this quartet of books by Rebecca Forster is meant for you. These books belong in the pantheon of indie books worth reading.

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 23, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks II

As I noted in the first part of this article (see The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I), the settlement proposed by the DOJ raises a lot of issues but doesn’t attack the central premise that agency pricing is okay.

I mentioned in part I that publishers could raise the list/wholesale prices of not-yet-published ebooks. But there is another option that could prove to be even more effective: Publishers are not obligated to give ebooksellers a 50% or higher discount as the wholesale price. Publishers could limit the wholesale discount to 30%, which would reflect the current 70-30 split that comes from agency pricing.

And there is nothing preventing publishers from limiting the format that an ebook can be sold in.

The point is, publishers do not have to think of themselves as helpless. I expect publishers will look at the situation as if they are helpless. They aren’t, but they need to be creative, something they are not known for. As the current debacle demonstrates, publishers are being led, they are not leading.

Let us not forget that the settlement proposed by the DOJ effectively separates book sales into two distinct markets: pbooks and ebooks. This could be important because one of the reasons the publishers gave for agency pricing is that they want to keep the brick and mortar stores alive. (It is worth noting that recent data show that even with the growth of ebooks, pbooks sales still account for 80% of all book sales.)

Well, the b&m stores rely on pbook sales, not ebook sales. Even Barnes & Noble relies on pbook sales. The only major bookseller of pbooks that doesn’t have b&m storefronts is Amazon. If publishers want to help ensure that the b&m stores continue to be competitors to Amazon, the simple way to do so is to not only insist that every bookseller get the same wholesale discount (there is no law that requires volume discounting) but then to supplement the b&m stores with higher co-op payments for displays, which would enable them to have additional funds for discounting to compete pricewise with Amazon.

The law requires that similar parties be treated similarly. So if Amazon wanted co-op money, it would have to open b&m stores. In other words, publishers could help level the playing field without straying from the requirements of the DOJ settlement.

It has been stated on numerous blogs and forums that the key to fighting Amazon is to do away with DRM. Without DRM, people would navigate to the ebookseller with the best pricing and service. I do not think that is true in the absence of devices that can handle different formats. Most Kindle owners will continue to shop at Amazon because Kindles can’t handle ePub in the absence of conversion and side loading. Similarly, Nooks can’t handle Amazon’s proprietary format without conversion and side loading. The question isn’t whether converting and side loading are hard to do — they aren’t — but whether most ebookers would do so to save a dollar or two. I think not.

What Kindlers and Nookers always cite in defense of buying from Amazon or B&N, respectively, is the ease of buying and then seeing their purchase appear on their device effortlessly. Right now they could buy a lot of the indie books that they buy at Smashwords in the DRM-free format of their choice. But they don’t because then they would have to side load the ebooks; they aren’t automatically loaded onto their device. Why would habits change?

Ultimately, the real keys to ensuring competition remains are a single, uniform format that is device agnostic (and if DRM must be, then the DRM also be uniform) and agency pricing.

I can hear the uproar as I write about agency pricing, but consider that many of the electronic items we buy are either agency priced or have the same effect through resale price maintenance agreements. Every ad I see for an Apple iPad gives the same price. Every ad I see for a Kindle Touch lists the same price. Yet no one complains that there is no price competition for these items (where is the DOJ’s proconsumer department in these cases?); the complaints are all directed at ebooks.

Of course, the answer is that Kindles don’t compete with Kindles, they compete with Nooks and each vendor independently decided to set the prices. But it is the blind person who fails to see that there is really no difference in effect for the consumer and the purpose of the antitrust laws, ultimately, is to protect competition for the benefit of consumers. Whereas the DOJ recognizes that the Kindle and the Nook are not the same, it insists that the Stephen King and the Dean Koontz novels are the same, at least in book form.

And if the DOJ were really focusing on the effect on the consumer, it would take a look at the various formats and DRM schemes that lock most consumers into a particular eco system. How much more anticompetitive can one be than to capture an audience and make it difficult for them to stray elsewhere?

Here is another question: Where are the authors in this dogfight? The Author’s Guild has come out against the DOJ settlement, but where are the indie authors? Based on comments I read elsewhere, most indie authors are pleased by the settlement because it will make Amazon even stronger and the majority of their sales are at Amazon.

In the short-term view, the stronger Amazon is, the better it is for the indie author. But is that true for the long-term? I can only speculate, but based on Amazon’s attempting to squeeze publishers for more money, I think it is fair to expect that eventually it will turn to squeezing indie authors. The more dependant an indie author is on Amazon, the less the indie author can refuse whatever terms Amazon wishes to impose. And it must be remembered that Amazon owes its obligations to itself and its shareholders, not to its suppliers. Amazon is the Walmart of ebooks.

There is also one other potential negative effect to the settlement. If Amazon succeeds in establishing the $9.99 price point, indie authors who have not yet found a large audience for their books will be squeezed into even lower pricing than currently. More of their ebooks will be priced at 99¢ and free because the reading public will not see them as being worth more when one can by the well-established and well-known author for $9.99 or less.

How this will all turn out is of great interest to me. I am pleased that Macmillan and Penguin have the moxie to fight the DOJ settlement, as I do not think the settlement is in anyone’s best interest over the long-term. It may be of benefit over the short-term, but somewhere along the continuum, in the not-so-distant future, publishers, authors, and consumers will face a different reality.

What do you think?

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.

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