An American Editor

January 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price

Publishers are thinking about different ways to encourage consumers to equate ebooks with value and value with a higher (relatively speaking) price. The questions ideas like the Vook (a blend of a book with a video) raise are numerous, but in the end all boil down to this: Are consumers willing to pay a premium price for an ebook with “extras”?

Publishers look at DVDs as a model but fail to look further than the initial DVD release. (What are they thinking now that DVD sales are tumbling?) Perhaps the lesson to be taken from DVDs is not the value of “extras” but the constantly declining price. DVDs often start at a suggested price of $21 but a real-world selling price of $14, rise temporarily to $18, then begin a steady, dramatic decline to prices as low as $5, and sometimes lower.

The one thing not answered in the DVD example is the question: Do the “extras” influence consumers buying of the DVD at any point in the sales cycle? How many consumer sales are made because of the presence (or absence) of the extras? I wonder because I own several hundred DVDs and not once was my decision to buy influenced by the presence or absence of extras. In addition, I checked out the extras on fewer than 5 DVDs. What influenced my decision to buy was, first, my interest in the film, and second, the price: The lower the price, the more likely I was to buy; however, I admit to having stopped buying DVDs when the format wars started and haven’t resumed buying.

Am I willing to pay a premium for ebooks with “extras”? I have given that a lot of thought, and my honest answer is very rarely — never in the case of fiction and occasionally in the case of nonfiction ebooks. If I were buying a book that had complex directions on how to repair something, I might be glad for a companion video; however, I’d probably be a lot happier with better and more detailed instructions and illustrations. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to pay even a nickel more for an interview with the book’s author. If the book’s author can’t convey his or her message within the book’s text, then the author has failed and an interview to clarify the text means I shouldn’t have bought the book to begin with. Similarly, I wouldn’t be willing to pay a premium for a travelogue showing the locales of the novel, or for a movie trailer, or for someone’s literary analysis.

The fundamental problem with “extras” is that they are afterthoughts. They should not be necessary to the book, certainly in the case of fiction. If they are necessary to the novel, then the novel itself isn’t worth buying. When extras are needed to explain the book, it signals poor authorship. (Extras can, however, add value to select nonfiction.) I have tried to think of what extra that would accompany a novel that would be so compelling that I would pay a premium for it. I haven’t yet come up with one.

If a novelist knows how to tell a story and is good at it, then the novelist will paint with words everything I need to see to understand the book. A good novelist doesn’t need a video to convey the bright lights and dark alleys of Broadway at midnight; a good novelist describes a character’s appearance so well that the reader knows what the character looks like. Isn’t that what distinguishes the written word from the picture (moving or static) —  the ability to self-imagine. Of what value is a novel that thwarts the reader’s imagination?

Is there any reader of the Lord of the Rings who doesn’t “see” Gandalf based on Tolkien’s description? Do readers need to see Peter Jackson’s vision of Gandalf to know what Gandalf looks like? I suspect that every young reader knew what Rowling’s Harry Potter looked like long before the first movie came out. Are publishers really saying that the novels they publish are so badly authored and edited that the only way to justify a their price for the ebook is to provide extras?

I can see a travel book using extras to help the traveler find a restaurant or know precisely which bolt in the Eiffel Tower Emile Zola touched. I suppose that in a fiction book there could be added information about the time or the locale of the story, but how many readers either care or would make use of the extra? More importantly, how many readers would view the extras as sufficiently valuable that they would willingly pay a premium for them? Yes, there will be some readers, but I suspect the vast majority are unwilling to pay a nickel more for extras, which means publishers are adding to their production costs but still not surmounting price issue.

So, how do publishers add value to an ebook that might warrant charging the type of prices that consumers are currently rebelling against? I guess I’m back to my original suggestion: improve quality. A poorly edited ebook, an ebook rife with typographical errors, an ebook with unreadable illustrations — basically a poor quality ebook — cannot command the kind of pricing that publishers are trying to push, with or without extras.

Readers buy a book to read and enjoy for the written words. That’s probably why they are called readers.

January 14, 2010

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast

As a book editor, my passion is books: I read them for pleasure, I edit them for my livelihood. I spend more time every day reading books, newspapers, and magazines than most people. I always have at least 1 hardcover and 1 ebook actively being read, and sometimes I add a third or fourth book to the mix. I almost never watch TV, maybe a total of 2 to 3 hours over the course of a year. I much prefer reading.

Most of my reading is nonfiction (see On Today’s Bookshelf for some of the books on my current to-read list), but I do have a few favorite fiction authors whose books I buy as soon as they are available. All my nonfiction is bought in hardcover; most of the fiction I buy is in ebook, the exceptions being my favorite authors whose books I buy in hardcover. Probably 90% of my fiction purchases are in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. To give you an idea of numbers, in 2009 I bought more than 100 hardcover books and more than 125 ebooks. True, I buy more in a year than I can read, but I do keep chipping away at the backlog.

One of my favorite authors is L.E. Modesitt, Jr., particularly the Saga of Recluce series and the new Imager Portfolio Series. With the release of Arms-Commander last week, the Saga of Recluce series is now 16 volumes — and I own every volume in hardcover. I looked forward to reading Arms-Commander, with the hope that the writing and story would return to the glory days of earlier volumes in the Recluce series.

I knew my hope would be stressed when I found, after the first evening’s reading of about 50 pages, that I was thinking of putting the dustjacket back on and simply putting the book in my library, not bothering to finish the book. The previous volume in the series, Mage-Guard of Hamor, was an okay read but not near as interesting or well written as earlier volumes. I had hoped that in Arms-Commander Modesitt would re-find that spark that ran through the early volumes, but, as further days of reading demonstrated, Modesitt didn’t.

In contrast to Modesitt’s two volumes (so far) in the Imager Portfolio series, each of which I read in a few days because I found them interesting and engrossing, the story in Arms-Commander is leaden and confusing and the characters have virtually no depth.

I don’t recall what happened in the very early volumes of the Recluce series and I don’t know if that knowledge is necessary to enjoying and understanding Arms-Commander, but if it is, it is the author’s responsibility to refresh the reader’s memory of the pertinent history and to write in such a fashion that a new-to-the-series reader can follow the story. In this Modesitt has failed.

As noted above, the characters in Arms-Commander have little to no depth. I find I don’t really care about any of them. They are wooden characters with wooden personalities, much less than I expected from Modesitt and a significant contrast to the characters in the first two volumes of the Imager Portfolio Series. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to Recluce. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. Arms-Commander illustrates what happens when there is either poor editing or an author no longer connects with his or her creation.

In contrast to Arms-Commander, I heartily recommend Celina Summers’ ebook fantasy quartet, The Asphodel Cycle. The four books in the quartet are The Reckoning of Asphodel, The Gift of Redemption, The Temptation of Asphodel, and The Apostle of Asphodel. The story is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad with elves, humans, centaurs, immortals, and gods.

Unlike my struggle with Arms-Commander, I found that I didn’t want to stop reading Summers’ books. Whereas I usually spend a few hours each day with each of the books I am currently reading, I became so engrossed with Summers’ characters that I simply read The Asphodel Cycle from volume 1 page 1 until the last page of volume 4.

I enjoy a lot of books but there aren’t many that I read that I can say brought tears to my eyes, caused me to laugh, or caused me to feel choked with emotion. But Summers’ characterizations and dialogue in The Asphodel Cycle did bring all those emotions and more to me, enhancing the pleasure of these books. Don’t get me wrong: These books aren’t perfect. There are flaws, there are places that could have used some tightening, and some of the characters aren’t as well formed as others, but overall The Asphodel Cycle was one of the most enjoyable fiction reads I had in 2009.

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

January 12, 2010

Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators

America is facing a steep decline in literacy, a problem that is reflected in publishing companies and in educators. The decline in literacy is a result of the decline in publishing excellence and the lack of literacy skills in educators whose function it is to teach literacy skills.

Normalizing deviance, a phrase coined by Alejandro Sanchez in a different context, accurately — and unfortunately — connotes what I consider the paramount problem in the world of books, newspapers, and magazines. The paramount problem isn’t too many publishers, too many books, too much greed. The paramount problem is too much illiteracy and the acceptance of declining literacy as being the norm.

Think about the changes we have seen in education in the past 60 to 70 years. When I went to college, it was assumed, even required, that I have reading, writing, and comprehension skills. There was no such thing as a remedial writing or English course. Today nearly all colleges have remedial reading and writing classes for incoming students. This shouldn’t be!

What is the difference between then and now? It is hard to pinpoint with laser precision, but I believe the root cause is a growing illiteracy among all social classes, especially among educators whose responsibility it is to raise students from illiteracy to literacy.

When I was in elementary school, we were required to read our local newspaper every day and in class we would discuss the writing of the article, look for misspellings and misuse of homonyms, identify antonyms, rewrite paragraphs for clarity, and show that we could understand the article. This was built into the curriculum and forced us to become literate, whether we wanted to be literate or not. This didn’t change when I moved up grades. The newspaper changed from our local paper to The New York Times and the approach changed, but the fundamental purpose didn’t change: We were taught to be literate.

Today, education is less focused on literacy as a goal in and of itself than on getting past the next test. This is reflected in the literacy quality of teachers. Yes, there are some outstanding teachers just as there are some exceptionally poor teachers. But most teachers are neither outstanding nor poor — they are mediocre and their grasp of the fundamentals of literacy is also mediocre.

Publishers compound the problem by setting the written standard. Publishers accept less-than-stellar editing because it fits their bottom line. But by accepting something less than quality editorial work, they encourage the lowering of the literacy standard. Publishers want to fight illiteracy but only as a public relations tool, not recognizing that as literacy declines so do their fortunes. Publishers are looking for gimmicks to increase sales instead of working to improve teacher and, ultimately, student literacy, thereby creating an audience for their publications. A person whose literacy is third grade level is not a person who will read The New York Times or The Economist, and is unlikely to be a frequent book or magazine buyer. Publishers and educators need to set an example for higher literacy, not lead the charge to lower literacy.

Publishers aren’t fighting for their future audience; instead, they bemoan the decline in readership. Publishers encourage this decline, for example, when they hire editors by price rather than by skill, when they publish error-ridden books and shrug off any criticism, and when they do not require their books to meet anything more than a very minimal level of quality.

Educators encourage the trend by not requiring every teacher, as part of their certification process or graduation requirements, to demonstrate a high level of literacy. Every teacher should be required to demonstrate a literacy level at least at the 10th grade level, if not higher. Literacy equals understanding; the less literate one is, the less one can understand. We don’t have to look far to prove that proposition.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink where society is heading and reemphasize literacy as the ultimate goal of an education. Publishers need to set an example by requiring their end product to have high literacy quality; educators need to rethink their teaching to emphasize literacy skills in students and to redesign teacher-education programs to make teacher literacy the core of the teacher’s education. In the end, society as a whole will benefit. We should no longer accept mediocrity as the acceptable standard for future generations.

January 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty

Part of the problem for publishers in the attempt to justify pricing for books, regardless of the form — ebook or print — is their inability to convince consumers that there is any relationship between the end product and the cost other than barebones greed. Because I am an editor (disclosure time: I am a freelance editor and am owner of Freelance Editorial Services, an independent editorial company), my perspective on what it costs to produce a book and what a publisher does differs from that I would have if I were solely a consumer; however, I am also a consumer of both ebooks and print, and not always a happy one (see my earlier post about why a good editor is important).

What a publisher brings to the table, other than high advances for authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Sarah Palin, is well hidden from the consumer. What the consumer sees is only the end product. This is really no different than manufacturing an automobile or the latest pharmaceutical phenomenon or even a candidate for political office: all we consumers ever see is the finished product. And this is where publishers fail us and themselves: Publishers are doing nothing to instill consumer confidence in the publisher’s product!

Consumers are buying books that are riddled with errors and are frustrated; I really hate paying $40 for a hardcover that has missing footnotes, or $14 for an ebook that regularly confuses the characters names and whether a character is dead or alive. One consumer reported a mystery novel that had the University of Georgia located in North Carolina and Duke University in Georgia. I have bought books with sentences with mixed up homonyms like “It seams that the principal reason for there work was . . .” or with unclear phrases like “using the gene deleted mice” (does the author mean that the gene got rid of the mice or that the mice were missing a particular gene — but for the want of a hyphen there goes clarity), or, as noted earlier, with character names that change nearly as often as the pages are turned.

I’ll grant that there is no such thing as the “perfectly” produced book — human beings are imperfect and make errors — but there is such a thing as quality control and paying for quality. Too many publishers, to appease shareholder appetite for high quarterly profits, are forsaking quality in the editorial process believing that consumers don’t care, or if they do care, will only grumble and buy the next book in the series anyway. This lack of editorial quality is particularly evident in ebooks that created by scanning print editions that are thrust on the market without proofing first, riddled with errors that even a first grader would recognize.

So publishers are losing the public relations battle with consumers. The end product is not worthy of respect, and if the end product is not worthy of respect, neither is the publisher. Thus my second modest proposal: Publishers should warrant the quality of their books!

A consumer wouldn’t buy a warrantless car or TV or  computer or ebook device; consumers believe that a manufacturer’s warranty indicates quality or at least that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind its product. Perhaps it is time for publishers to join the 21st century and say: “We put a lot of care and effort into our books so as to produce a quality book. When you buy our book, we assure you that it is a quality product and if it isn’t, we’ll do something about it: We stand behind every book we sell!”

A book is a commodity, no different from any other commodity except that a book is a warrantless commodity. Consumers are conditioned as a result of years of it being this way, to accept declining book quality: How many books have you returned because of poor quality in the last year? If publishers warranted the quality of their books, there would be an obvious justification, albeit an incomplete one, for the price of books.

The biggest stumbling block is figuring out how to make a warranty work and what would be warranted. When a part fails on an automobile, it is easy to identify the problem and fix it. It isn’t so easy with a book. But there are possibilities. For example, a publisher could warrant that the book contains no more than 15 misused homonyms, no obviously missing text, no more than 15 misspellings, that characters are consistent throughout (e.g., Jane doesn’t suddenly become Jayne), that the book footnote 25 cites really does exist. I’m sure you and publishers could come up with other things worth warranting.

What happens then. Perhaps the way to deal with warranty problems is to have a warranty alert website for each book where readers could post found errors. The publisher would indicate whether the errors will be corrected (and if not, why not), and when a new version will be available (or if no new version, why no new version). The consumer would then have a choice: If the consumer bought an ebook, the consumer could redownload from the original retailer the updated version. Or the consumer could choose to do nothing. With printed books it would be harder, but a little creativity would come up with solutions (e.g., a discount coupon for another book from the publisher, or the return of the book for a refund based on the book’s condition, or something else).

Okay, I admit I haven’t worked out all the details, all the ins and outs. But I offer the idea of a quality warranty because publishers need to convince consumers that publishers aren’t just greedy corporations (see The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)) who have no concern for their customers; they have to convince consumers that they bring something worthwhile to the world of publishing, something that is not easily replaced, and offering a quality warranty could be one step in that process. What do you think?

January 9, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)

Publishers are losing the battle over ebook pricing for many reasons, but the core reason is poor product quality. Publishers are so focused on the quarterly return that they have forsaken what once made publishing giants and made publishing a glamorous profession: quality editing — publishers fail to equate price with quality.

I guess I should back up a bit and make this disclosure: I am a reader of both ebooks and print books; I buy a lot of books each year. In 2009 I bought more than 100 books in each format, but no duplicates. I also should say that I am a book editor. I work independently and for many publishers and authors, and have for 25 years. Early in my publishing career I worked for a couple of major publishers and at one time ran a small independent press. I say all this because (I hope) it adds some credence to my commentary.

Back in the olden days of publishing, 5 to 10 years ago, publishers hired editors for one purpose: to take a manuscript and improve it — improve its organization, its grammar, its readability, its consistency. Poor editors were not rehired, good editors were reasonably paid. There was a balance between price and quality: a consumer generally could feel confident that the book was well produced — editorially and physically — and that the price was justifiable.

Fast forwarding to today and everything has changed. Not a year goes by without consolidation in the industry. The industry has changed from small (relatively) local publishers to giant international media conglomerates. The guiding philosophy of publishing in the 1950s and 1960s — produce quality books and the readers shall come — has devolved to the quarterly returns of the 2000s — cut costs, quality be damned! Yes, there are still publishers who care, but they are a struggling minority in terms of market share.

Increasingly publishers are outsourcing what they used to do inhouse. The 1990s saw the beginning of the rise of the book packager, an independent company who promised publishers that it could more quickly, more efficiently, and, most importantly, more cheaply produce the books for the publisher. Often the packager was a printing company that expanded its services to editorial and design. These promises appealed to the accountants and to those who had to face shareholders, so the packagers got the work.

Well, the packagers also have to make money, and if they are cutting the publisher’s costs, they have to hire more cheaply and locate where costs are less. It’s not rocket science to understand this. As a consequence, something had to give. Because the packager’s roots were in the typesetting/printing end, what flexed was editorial. Packagers discovered that savings couldn’t be made in their physical plants and equipment but could be made by outsourcing to less expensive and less experienced editors. And so they did and do.

Just a few days ago I was solicited by a packager wanting to hire me to edit STM (science, technical, and medical) books. The price offer: 80 cents a page. And the solicitor stated that for that high sum, a careful detailed, quality edit would be required. Just ain’t gonna happen.

As I pointed out in my reply, quality STM editing requires a well-skilled, knowledgable, experienced editor who has an eye for detail (after all, do you want to have your doctor pickup a medical book that says the dose is 5 grams when what is really meant is 5 milligrams?). And experienced editors will tell you that a quality edit of such a book means a rate of 3 to 5 pages an hour, sometimes up to 8 or 9 if the book is well-prepared by the author. To make a living in America, the editor would have to edit 20 to 30 pages an hour at minimum at the offered price. So how high a quality edit should be expected for 80 cents a page? (And it also makes me wonder what the price would be for fiction editing? 40 cents a page?)

How does this relate to the pricing battle? Consumers aren’t blind and are generally literate (a topic for another day). When the publisher pays an editor what amounts to $4 an hour for editorial work, is the publisher likely to get a quality job? Is the editor likely to know the difference between effect and affect, between emotional ringer and emotional wringer, between roll and role, between boarder and border, between acceptable and exceptable? Will the editor really care? And when the consumer reads “John entered the house in hopes of becoming a border” or “Their laid the brief case with the money,” will the consumer be thankful they paid a price for the ebook that is higher than the paperback price? Or will there be resistance? With their lax approach to quality, publishers are shoring up the $9.99 threshold they so want to resist.

Consumers are complaining about the high price being charged for ebooks for lots of reasons, but whereas a publisher might have some response to most reasons (acceptable or not), there is no response to the poor quality complaint. Smart publishers will rethink their book strategies and begin to chip away at consumer complaints by tackling immediately those quality issues that underly much of the unhappiness of consumers. Once this the quality issue is laid to rest, the other issues  can be addressed in a more measured manner: It is much easier to compromise when there is only one problem than when there is a plethora of problems.

January 8, 2010

A Modest Proposal: A 21st Century Publishing Model

Publishers believe themselves threatened by ebooks, by the idea that ebooks are too easily shared, which will deprive publishers of revenue, and by the prospect of consumer expectations for very low ebook prices that will prevent publishers from recouping costs and making a profit. Many authors, too, are concerned, especially about ebook pricing and royalty share. Perhaps it is time to rethink the current publishing model and move toward a model for the 21st century. Thus, my modest proposal.

The current book model has three lives: hardcover, paperback, ebook. The weak link is the paperback because it is an unwitting benchmark and it should be excised. If we change the lives to hardcover and ebook, a publisher retains what it currently believes is its most lucrative (profit wise) format — the hardcover — and gains the ability to increase ebook profit and revenue (which will, in relatively short order, become the true profit center).

I propose that the hardcover precede the ebook by 3 months. When I worked for publishers, my experience was that the window for hardcover sales rarely exceeded 3 months; whoever was going to buy the hardcover as opposed to the paperback did so within that time frame, usually within the first month. I suspect that this remains true today.

Doing away with the paperback version and encouraging the ebook version means several things. First, the publisher doesn’t have to price compete against itself. Consumers expect an ebook to cost less than a hardcover, which in most cases it does, but also expect it to cost less than the paperback version, which often it does not. But if there were no paperback version, there would be no benchmark other than the price of the hardcover. Bingo!!

Second, the publisher would reduce its costs. Without a paperback version, there would be no secondary printing costs, no transportation or warehousing fees, and, more importantly, no returns. It would be difficult for a retailer to return the hardcover copies when there is nothing to replace it with. Even a retailer who sells both the print and electronic versions would need to keep some print inventory. Is this a bingo, too?

Third, with only two forms available — hardcover and ebook — it is likely that a publisher would see an increase in sales of hardcovers — after all, there would be no sense waiting for a cheaper paperback version that won’t be forthcoming — and would be able to charge a higher price for the ebook version because there would be no alternative but the higher priced hardcover version. Is this a win for publishers? Maybe. I’d give it at least half a bingo. But . . .

. . . the price point for the ebook would still be contentious. Convincing consumers to pay a publisher’s “reasonable” price for the ebook has its own problems. It probably wouldn’t be as difficult if it weren’t for DRM (Digital Rights Management) that essentially locks a book into a single device and prohibits sharing. Here’s one solution: Instead of one level of ebook, offer consumers two levels, with one level being several dollars less expensive than the other. Burden the less expensive ebook with permanent DRM and the more expensive ebook with temporary DRM, that is, DRM that will automatically expire 2 years from the date of purchase. A better suggestion: Forget levels and simply sell ebooks with DRM that expires in 2 years, freeing the book for the consumer to do with as the consumer pleases.

What this model requires is the giving up of the idea of a frontlist and a backlist and instead making each book a profit center within 3 years. That will mean other changes in the publishing production cycle, not least of which is the lowering of author advance expectations. This proposal requires both a cultural shift and a paradigm shift. Are publishers and authors ready for a change? It will come eventually. Better to embrace it than to waste resources fighting a war that cannot be won.

January 7, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf

I like to read and so I spend a lot of time finding books to read. The result is a backlog of books waiting to be read. What brought this to mind was yesterday’s trip to Barnes & Noble.

In nonfiction, I buy only hardcover and only first editions; I want these books to be permanent parts of my library. My fiction reading interests are not nearly as catholic as for nonfiction, I tend to read primarily fantasy and science fiction. When it comes to fiction, I am not a book publisher’s dream consumer. I prefer to buy fiction (with the exception of a few specific authors such as L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, and Harry Turtledove, to name just a few) in ebook form and then only if available in the ePub format and at the lower end of the price spectrum. That’s because I consider fiction to be “read once, then delete,” again, with some exceptions. I don’t buy Dan Brown or Stephen King novels; when I did I found them trite and boring. But because of my willingness (nay, eagerness) to buy fiction ebooks, I am exposing myslef to authors who I would never have otherwise found and who I enjoy, such as Celina Summers, Richard S. Tuttle, Hilary Bell, Fiona McIntosh, and Alastair J. Archibald.

In looking back over my book purchases in 2009, I was amazed at how many books I bought. From one ebook store alone, I bought more than 100 ebooks. As for hardcovers, 95% of those purchases were from B&N (I avoid Amazon because I don’t want to encourage its attempts to monopolize the book selling and publishing industries), and in 2009, I bought more than 90 hardcover books.

I find that reading fiction goes relatively quickly and that it takes more time for me to digest nonfiction. Consequently, my fiction to-read list gets whittled away much faster than my nonfiction list. I have at least 60 nonfiction books waiting to be read, probably more, but here are the ones that are at the front (or top) of my bookshelf waiting to be read:

  • Churchill by Paul Johnson (2009)
  • Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution by Kirkpatrick Sale (1995)
  • A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009)
  • The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition by Thomas P. Slaughter (2008)
  • The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor (2010)
  • Jewish Terrorism in Israel by Ami Pedhazur and Arie Perliger (2009)
  • The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch (2009)
  • Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning (2010)

I know that in the weeks to come that list will grow and some of the above will be downgraded as new books take their place. But this is the bane, I think, of good editors — the need to read and expand knowledge and the need to own books.

What am I currently reading? In hardcover it is The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War by Caroline Alexander (2009) and Arms-Commander by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (2010) and in ebook it is When the Gods Slept (Timura Trilogy Book 1) by George Allan Cole.

January 6, 2010

Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important

I recently finished reading two books about the Truman and MacArthur dispute. The first, The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War by John W. Spanier (1959; available in print only) is a well-written and well-edited book about the problems between a president and a general with an oversized ego.

The second book, Truman & MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown by Michael Pearlman (2008; available in both print and ebook), is a well-researched book that offers greater insight into the controversy between Truman and MacArthur, but is so poorly edited that it was a struggle to get through. Rather than being able to read the book within a matter of a couple of weeks, it took me many months of struggling.

Aside from author style and amount of detail, the two books illustrate the difference between good editing and not-so-good editing. A bad editor does not improve a book: at best, a bad editor leaves the book quality where it was, at worst makes the book a poor book. Conversely, a good editor always improves a book.

A good editor ensures that a book is readable. To my mind, that is the number 1 job of an editor: make sure that a reader can follow the story. After all, what good is a well-researched book or a well-plotted novel if the audience can’t follow the story? A good editor also ensures that the author’s language communicates well. All languages have rules of grammar and syntax and the reason for these rules (besides keeping the rule writers in work) is to create a common ground for understanding among all speakers and readers of the language; that is, to facilitate communication of ideas. That’s why it is important to know when to use since and when to use because, the difference between affect and effect, and to understand the implications of “the brief case is closed” and “the briefcase is closed.”

Sadly, publishers, as they seek to increase their quarterly returns are devaluing the work of editors. Whereas a decade ago the effort was made to hire experienced, qualified editors at a reasonable price so as to minimize the number of editorial errors in a book, today the effort is find the absolute lowest priced editor, regardless of skill level or qualification, and without regard to the number of errors that such an editor lets slip by. Sometimes I think that the only reason some publishers still hire editors at all is that they want to be able to at least claim they (the publisher) has provided added value to a book to justify their share of the revenue.

Unfortunately, Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur suffers from poor editing. The writing is confusing, repetitive, and not well-organized, all things a good editor would have addressed, although the book is a plethora of facts. For anyone particularly interested in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, which was a very important one in American history, this book is a must slog because of the detail provided. (For those who don’t know, the bottom-line issue was who was in charge of the military: the president or the general. Truman was widely unpopular at the time and MacArthur, through his manipulation of the press, was perceived by Americans as the war hero, the man who should have been president. MacArthur knowingly, flagrantly, and intentionally disobeyed his commander-in-chief, causing a showdown. Fortunately for America, Truman prevailed or the precedent of military over civilian control would have been established.)

January 5, 2010

On Books: Words, Language, and Understanding

I know that many of the world’s controversies can find their root in the original book, the Bible. But what makes the Bible the definitive source of God’s words?

I don’t ask this irreverently; rather, I wonder how we, thousands of years after the Bible was first written, know what is the true word of God and what isn’t. What brings this to mind was my recent reading of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler (available in print but not in ebook). Just reading the prologue to this book, which discusses the exchange between Cortes and Montezuma during Cortes’ conquest of Mexico, was sufficient to raise questions. Further reading of the text merely emphasizes the wonderment of languages.

Language is much more than strokes on a tablet. There are subtleties in phrasing, in meaning, in choice of gender (and what about those languages that do not have gender forms?), in tense, in numbers, and so on that translation from one language to another is rarely precise. In America, where we supposedly speak the same version of English, there are regionalisms that can alter meaning. China has hundreds of dialects.

So how do we get from the original Bible to today’s Bible with uniform meaning in all languages and dialects. The St. James version was created by committee, members of which argued over translation and meaning and choosing the correct word in English. And languages change over time; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of Hemingway or King, and certainly not the English (or its derivative) that was spoken at the time that Aramaic was dominant in the Middle East.

If the original Bible was truly God’s word, I must assume that it was dictated, letter by letter, word by word, comma by comma, but not taken in some form of shorthand. Otherwise it would not be God’s word but the scribe’s interpretation of God’s word. The concepts are captured but not the words. When God said 7 days, did God really say 7 days or was that the scribe’s interpretation?

This questioning doesn’t detract from the importance of the Bible as a guiding document in human lives and history. Rather, it illustrates the problems of language and words and grammar and understanding, and emphasizes the importance of a good editor who has a grasp of these problems.

Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a book that should be read by every lover of language for the insight it gives on the development of languages and why some succeed, such as English, and some do not, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, and for the insight it gives into how difficult it is for modern man to discern ancient truths.

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