An American Editor

February 26, 2010

On Books: The Nature of the Book

I recently purchased The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns as an addition to my to-read pile. But I found I was anxious to get started reading it, so I set aside what else I was reading and tackled this tome.

The Nature of the Book is not a new book; it was published in 1998 by the University of Chicago Press. And it isn’t short, coming in at 775 pages; it lists for $40. It also isn’t lively reading. Unlike a previously reviewed book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, the writing style is relatively dry. But this book is packed with information about books in the pre-19th century era.

Johns notes what makes a book unique and important, what makes it different from the scrolls and handwritten “books” that preceded the invention of moveable type. And he writes about printing-house, the precursors to today’s publishers, and their importance.

When we buy a book today (of course, Johns was talking about the print book, not the electronic book) we do so with certain expectations in mind: We expect that the copy we buy will be identical to the copy bought elsewhere, in another time and place. We expect that the author has some credibility and that the author’s words haven’t been changed by a scribe who was capturing the essence of the speech rather than the exact speech.

We also expect that the book was not written with just us in mind; that it was written to withstand the scrutiny of thousands, if not millions, of pairs of eyes. We expect that the author really does exist, that the listed publisher really did publish the book, and that, as noted earlier, its contents are universally the same.

By highlighting these expectations for the printed book, Johns inadvertently (and only by implication) notes the problems that exist with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks. With ebooks, we have expectations but no assurances that the author exists, the publisher exists, the content is universally the same and is trustworthy — unless the publisher is a recognized, known publisher, in which event we have some level of assurance. With the ebook, especially the self-published ebook, we have no assurance of impartial vetting. Most importantly, we have no assurance that the named author was really the book’s author — anyone can put their name to an electronic file; just look at your daily spam for proof of that!

Johns argues successfully that it is the book in its modern manifestation (modern being post-Gutenberg) that has rendered possible the exponential growth of knowledge. Because a printed book’s content is universally the same, everyone who reads it has the potential to gain and apply the same knowledge. When books were handcrafted, knowledge was confined. (Of course, since some of the greatest literature of all time were products of premodern processes, it is impossible to know what interpretations and omissions were made that might shed different light on their content.)

The Nature of the Book is well-worth reading to understand the profound impact books have and have had on our society. Johns discusses the role of the printed argument in the advancement of knowledge and how the advent of the book gave credence to scientific theory that was contrary to what was popularly believed. By expanding the audience and giving each audience member an opportunity to build on the content of the book, books transformed science and knowledge. Where only the elite and wealthy previously had access to science and literature, books gave access to (and encouraged literacy of) broader audiences.

Johns explores, among other themes, what it meant to write and make a book in the days of the printing-house in the early modern era. The Nature of the Book focuses on pre-19th century book making and publishing, and is a fascinating look at the birth of book publishing.

Education on a mass scale, which is the foundation of modern society, became possible with the modern print book. A country like the United States was able to forge a single identity, instead of 50+ identities, because books and modern publishing gave readers from all parts of the country access to identical information. The Nature of the Book introduces us to the revolution that brought us to today’s world.


February 25, 2010

Magazines in the Age of eBooks

I’m a big magazine reader. In addition to the many books I buy each year (I have more books in my to-read pile than I can read within the next few years), I subscribe to a lot of magazines. My subscriptions include Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The Week, The Economist, American Heritage, New York Review of Books, Business Week, PC World, U.S. News & World Report, The Scientist, Discover, and several more. I begin my day, every day, with a pot of tea and the day’s New York Times and my local newspaper. Between the books I buy and the magazines and newspapers to which I subscribe, I spend a lot of time reading!

I admit to being curious. I like to keep up with what is happening around me and I really dislike the 10-second news blurbs that TV and radio offer (although National Public Radio deserves kudos for All Things Considered). I think being broadly read helps me as an editor.

But times are changing. Magazines and newspapers are struggling. Several that I had subscribed to have folded print editions and are now available online only, such as PC Magazine and a book collecting magazine to which I once subscribed; once they became online-only magazines, I stopped reading them. Unlike the magazines that have made the transition to online-only status, I haven’t followed — I really hate sitting at my computer to read an online magazine: Isn’t spending my work life on my computer sufficient? Do I have to be chained to a computer — be it laptop or desktop — for my pleasures as well as my work? This feeling of being chained to work is one reason why multifunction devices don’t appeal to me for pleasure pursuits.

As illogical as it seems, I actually distinguish between reading on my computer and reading on my Sony Reader, a dedicated reading device. I enjoy reading on my Sony Reader, equally as much as I enjoy holding a print copy of a book. I had thought that I would switch my New York Times subscription from paper to electronic when the Times became available through the Sony store; this was to be the start of my evolution from print to electronic for my magazines and newspapers. But I was cautious and downloaded a single day’s issue to try.

The experience was okay, but not great. Setting aside the slight inconvenience of having to load the Times onto my Sony Reader (my PRS 505 model doesn’t have wireless), the screen size (6 inches) simply wasn’t conducive to enjoyable reading of something as “big” as the Times. Plus there is a tactile experience that accompanies and enhances the reading experience when holding the Times in your hands. Yet, I am determined to make the switch from print to electronic; the questions are when and on what device (and how cooperative the magazine publishers will be).

I’ve been contemplating “upgrading” to the Sony 900, which has wireless and a 7.1-inch screen. I had really thought about the iRex DR 800SG, particularly because of its 8-inch display, but there are just too many things I don’t like about the device, not least of which is that its touchscreen requires the use of a stylus and I think that will be much too easy to lose (and if my cat decides it’s a toy to play with,…). So I’m sitting on the fence and waiting.

I know the Apple tablet isn’t the answer for me for a lot of reasons, but the tablet idea intrigues me. PlasticLogic’s Que also intrigues me but the price seems exorbitant (if not extortionate) for my purposes — I am looking for a device for reading books, newspapers, and magazines, not for checking e-mail, visiting websites, watching videos, and all those other things that multifunction devices permit. I’m a dedicated-device type of person.

I’ve drifted a bit from where I had intended to go with this article, so let me shift my course. Who are the subscribers to newspapers and magazines? I ask because I know my demographics (and, yes, they are still desirable to advertisers even if I am gray-haired) and that surveys show that people in my demographic group tend to be the biggest spenders on and readers of books, newspapers, and magazines. Because those outside my demographic are significantly less focused on these ways of obtaining information, I wonder what the future holds for magazines and newspapers as information sources. What is the likelihood of print versions surviving many more years? And when they disappear, what will the electronic versions be like? Will they be as shallow as much of the TV/radio news reporting and “analysis” is these days? Will we lose access to in-depth reporting and analysis because all that will interest subscribers will be 10-word “wordbites” of the latest celebrity faux pas?

And what will readers like me do? Will The Economist still be The Economist in something more than name, or will it be more like People Magazine? Will Business Week become just a steady stream of feeds and wordbites? Does anyone but me care?

What brings my concerns to the fore have been my attempts over the past 2 years to extend my subscription to the New York Review of Books. My current subscription expires in 2012 (some of my magazine subscriptions run until the 2020s). Several times I tried to extend my subscription by 3 years, and each time NYRB has declined, saying it doesn’t know what will be so far in the future. I recognize that NYRB isn’t a magazine for everyone (although I think every book lover should be a subscriber; its reviews are significantly better than anything found elsewhere including online, in the New York Times Book Review, and in the London Review of Books), but I would think that it has a loyal base of subscribers and so it wouldn’t be so worried about its future. Like The Economist, the NYRB is not an inexpensive subscription so it attracts the serious and probably faithful subscriber. (Interestingly, The Economist, unlike most magazines, continues to show subscriber growth and without “special subscription deals.” So there must be a desire for this type of coverage.)

Clearly, I am wrong, and if the NYRB is worried about its future, perhaps I need to worry about the future of my subscriptions — and about the quality of reporting that one should expect to see — in the Age of eBooks. What will survive and in what form is worthy of consideration in this transitional period, before it is too late.

February 24, 2010

On Words: Believe and Know

Several events in the past few weeks suddenly converged in my mind, causing me to realize that in the discourse about ebooks, especiall about what constitutes fair ebook pricing, the unbridgeable divide is between believe and know.

The first events were discussions about ebooks and what constitutes fair pricing for an ebook. Three types of people participated in those discussions: those who admittedly had no direct knowledge of the costs involved in publishing an ebook, those who did have direct knowledge, and those who believed they knew. As is typical of such discussions, those who admitted not knowing were open to learning and the other two types were trying to teach. But between the teachers there was no room to compromise; those who believed they knew — the believers — simply would not consider or accept that believe and know are not synonymous, that there is a chasm between the two words.

Then came the New York Times Magazine article, “How Christian Were the Founders?”, which discussed the efforts by pressure groups in Texas to shape the secondary school curriculum by requiring textbooks to reflect their view of history. This pressure was previously applied to the science curriculum, the Kansas school board fight having made national headlines.

The article and the ebook fair-pricing discussions brought to mind this war between two words: belief and knowledge. The core problem in the discussions about both pricing and textbook content is the chasm between believe and know.

Believe, although having some slim foundation in evidence, signifies something unprovable (or perhaps less provable), and thus less firmly based in evidence, than know, whose foundation is firmly based on the provable and demonstrable. For example, we may believe there is minimal cost to creating an ebook of a pbook, but we do not know what that cost is — we can’t prove it or demonstrate it. The same concept holds true for any belief, whether economic, cultural, religious, scientific, or something else.

Unlike know, believe covers a wide range of credulity. Know is more constrained; its verity must be demonstrable. Believe needs no more than the statement “I believe” something to be true, leaving it to the listener to supply the factual base — no matter how slim or wobbly — for where to place the belief on the continuum that ranges from pure speculation to pure fact.

Believe denotes the acceptance of the truth or actuality of something, that it is real, even if it may not be real. For example, the belief that because an ebook is a digital file of the pbook, there is no cost to creating the ebook. Know, on the other hand, has its basis in experience rather than acceptance, such as the experience of smelling a rose. Having never smelled a rose, I could say that I believe the rose’s fragrance is similar to that of a skunk; but having smelled both a rose and a skunk, I could say I know that the rose’s fragrance is dissimilar to that of the skunk.

A belief statement might ultimately prove correct, but then believe would transform itself to know. The know statement, however, cannot be transformed from know to believe. Once I have smelled both the rose and the skunk, that I know doesn’t change. What I know might change, but not that I know.

Believe embraces the possibility of doubt: No matter how firmly one believes something, by describing that conviction as a belief, one ascribes some doubt, albeit infinitesimally small, as to the verity of that belief. In contrast, know doesn’t permit that possibility of doubt; it doesn’t permit any doubt: I believe the rose smells like a skunk, but I know it doesn’t.

It is the improper use of these two words that leads to the ongoing cultural wars that are reflected in the battles over what should and should not be taught in school and what is or is not a fair price for an ebook. Too many people equate believe with know. They are neither the same nor does each include the other. It is when believe transforms to know that fact is possible, but until that transformation occurs there is always some doubt.

Interestingly, know not only cannot transform to believe, but it cannot embrace believe as a component of itself. To do so would be to weaken know and impose that element of doubt that distinguishes it from believe. In this instance, know must stand aloof and by itself.

Would proper use and understanding of these words deflect any of the passionate discourse that surrounds “I believe” statements in the cultural and ebook pricing wars? I doubt it would matter. There are some things that we grasp and cannot let go, that are beyond believe and know in the sense of a willingness to transform from the former to the latter; after all, we invented these words as a method of describing those immutable beliefs and distinguishing between possibility and fact. But proper use and understanding might shine a different light on the divide and permit a coming closer together. Unlike conflicting knowledge, it is impossible to reconcile conflicting belief, which is why we can expect the question of what is fair ebook pricing to remain unresolvable.

February 23, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (II)

Since my last listing of recently bought books, I’ve added a few and read a few. For example, I bought in hardcover and read Robin Hobb’s Dragon Keeper, the first book in a new fantasy series, and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ A Young Man Without Magic, also the first in a new fantasy series, both of which I enjoyed. I also read several ebooks, including Randolph Lalonde’s First Light Chronicles: Omnibus, Patrick Welch’s Brendell: Apprentice Thief, Wendy Palmer’s The Frog Prince’s Daughters, and Frances Evlin’s The Eternal Trees of Prand, to name a few, which were also enjoyable although several suffered from poor editing (e.g., misuse of compliment and complement, misspellings such as court marshal for court-martial).

But fiction is not where I spend the bulk of my book money. For fiction, with exceptions for certain authors, of which Hobb and Watt-Evans are examples, I usually buy ebooks rather than hardcovers, and because of various publisher- and ebookseller-imposed restrictions, I tend to limit my fiction purchases to ebooks without DRM and that cost me less than $5. Primary, although not sole, reasons why I do not buy nonfiction in electronic form are the lack of universal DRM and good formatting (I’d like, for example, a table to look like a table, to be able to access footnotes, to view an illustration in its proper place). I want to know that what I buy today I can read next year or 5 years from now; not that I must rush to read a purchase for fear that it will be unreadable on my next reading device.

I know that I can strip out the DRM, but I don’t want to do so; I shouldn’t have to take those extra steps to enjoy a purchase. And because of the uncertainty that DRM gives about future access to ebooks, and because I buy so many more nonfiction books than I can read in the near term, I buy nonfiction in hardcover only. (Plus I get the aesthetic pleasure of being able to look at bookshelves filled with knowledge and get to recall what a “real” book feels like.)

So nonfiction is where I spend most of my book money. My thinking goes somewhat like this: If I want the book to be a permanent part of my library, then I’ll spend the money and buy it in hardcover.

In the past 2 weeks, I purchased these hardcover additions to my to-read pile:

  • The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns
  • The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer (I previously bought and read her excellent The History of the Ancient World)
  • For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown
  • Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade, edited by Oleg Grabbar and Benjamin Z. Kedar
  • The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

Okay, the last two aren’t really for my to-read list; they are for occasionally picking up and learning about words and phrases. I have a number of similar books in my reference library. One of the “oddest” — and I put oddest in quotes because I do not mean it negatively — is a 20-year-old book called Reader’s Digest Illustrated Reverse Dictionary. I remember buying it because I wondered what made a dictionary a “reverse” dictionary and also wondered how useful it would be to me.

With all that has been happening in the Age of eBooks, sometimes it is nice to pickup a printed book and glory in the tactile experience. As much as I like ebooks, I do find ebooks a “colder” reading (i.e., tactile) experience; I grew up experiencing a combined tactile, visual, and intellectual experience when reading a book. Which leads me to the this: I plan to put The Nature of the Book at the top of the to-read list.

Before closing for the day, I do want to comment on Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade (2010). I first read about this book in a New York Times article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem. The book is a collection of essays written by Jews, Muslims, and Christians about the importance of the Temple Mount in each religion and culture. The book is resplendent with photographs. The content gives is a fascinating view of the convergence of religions and cultures from three distinct perspectives.

But at a $75 list price, why did the University of Texas Press choose to wrap such impressive content in such a poor, cheaply constructed and cheap looking hardcover binding — the kind of binding one sees on some coursebooks and print-on-demand books? This book deserves a quality binding and a quality dust jacket; it is a book that belongs on many home library shelves. Sometimes I wonder what publisher thinking processes are like.

Having said that, I still recommend the book to anyone interested in the history, culture, and views of the peoples and three major religions that converge on a single spot on this planet, a spot that belongs to all and to none.

February 22, 2010

Can eBooks Save American Education?

On February 14, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “How Christian Were the Founders?”, the question of what control people with personal agendas have over what elementary and secondary school students are taught. The article reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (2004), which addressed the same issue.

What bothers me most about what is happening before the Texas State Board of Education, which is the focus of both the article and the book, is that whatever decisions the TSBE make will affect the education not only of Texas students, but of students in 46 other states. I don’t care if Texas wants to dumb-down its student population, but it bothers me that it wants to drag down the rest country along with it.

The problem, yet again, lies with book publishers. Because Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing procedure, it has clout in the textbook market, and publishers kowtow to its demands. Understandably from a financial perspective, publishers don’t want to be excluded from Texas’ $22 billion dollar expenditure on textbooks (some 48 million textbooks each year), but from an ethical/moral perspective, the publishers are contributing to America’s decline in exchange for the almighty dollar.

In past years the problem was nearly insolvable. But now things have changed — or they should be changing — and ebook textbooks can be the answer. With today’s technology, there is no reason why publishers can’t create a pick-and-choose menu for school districts. Instead of printing millions of textbooks and locking knowledge in shackles for the next 10 years (the lifespan of the Texas review decisions), publishers could both reduce textbook costs and allow each state and/or school district to create custom books for local courses.

If Texas and Kansas want to teach that the world is flat, while New York and California want to teach that the world is round, customized textbooks would let them do so. In the expansion of fact over fiction, ebooks can play a role in saving America from total educational collapse.

And think about how much money local school districts could save. It should be less expensive for schools to provide ebooks as course textbooks; in fact, it probably would be cost-effective for several school districts in a state to band together to build their own etextbooks than what is currently being spent on printed books that are not as focused on local needs.

The shame of the publishing industry is that it focuses intensely on profit, with lackadaisical attention paid to insuring that American students are truly well equipped to meet future challenges. Declines in academic scores illustrate the problems that publishers, by permitting themselves to be suborned by agenda-driven groups, are perpetuating and making worse. Publishers should exercise an ethical judgment and refuse to continue down that path.

eTextbooks will make it easy to break the stranglehold pressure groups exert over the textbook market. the questions are: Will textbook publishers go the etextbook route or stick with print? Will schools adopt etextbooks?

Actually, if I were younger I think I would consider entering the etextbook creation market. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to break the grip of the major coursebook publishers. And California seems intent on helping with its open source textbook plan. If more states followed California’s example and moved to open source etextbooks, we might see a smartening up rather than a dumbing down of students because there would be no reason why etextbooks couldn’t be customized not only for the local school district, but for the individual classroom or even the individual student.

Perhaps the future of education isn’t as bleak as it appears today. Perhaps the future will include enhanced, customized instruction that enables each student in a classroom to learn at his or her own pace and depth. But most important, perhaps the etextbook world of the future will prevent a whole nation from succumbing to the agenda of a few who would reverse the course of knowledge, taking us back to a medieval time. Certainly, as Macmillan is demonstrating with its DynamicBooks at the college level, the technology is available; now there only needs to be the will.

February 19, 2010

On Books: English Words: History and Structure

As an editor, I always want to better my understand of my native language. Consequently, I am constantly on the lookout for books to add to my reference library or from which I can learn something new about English.

I saw an ad in one of my literary magazines (I think it was the New York Review of Books) for Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova’s English Words: History and Structure, 2nd edition. I knew it would be expensive when I saw the publisher (Cambridge University Press) and I was not disappointed: it was listed as a textbook, presumably for a college course, which was reflected in the list price of $105.

I’m not averse to spending $100 on a book (one of the best books I ever bought was Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life, a 2-volume biography published by Johns Hopkins University Press listing at $125), but I like to be sure I’m getting value for my money, and so I hesitated. There was nothing in the brief description of the book to indicate why it warranted such a price.

I decided to look for a first edition of the book; I wondered how much could have changed in this subject in the few years between the first and second editions to make a first edition outdated. I found that the first edition was still available. I was unable to discover what had changed to make the second edition a must-have edition and so I bought the first edition of the book, also new and in hardcover, but for $33.75, a significant savings. I am glad I didn’t go for the $105 2nd edition version (a paperback version of the 2nd edition is also available for less than the hardcover’s $105 price, but I prefer to buy hardcover books for my library).

English Words: History and Structure is definitely a course book. It is clearly written for a captive audience. It is not a consumer-friendly book, it is dryly written, perhaps a reflection of the subject matter, and it is a step-by-step guide to a basic understanding of linguistics.

If you are interested in learning the basic vocabulary of linguistics so that you can converse knowledgeably about the phonology and morphology of word formation, this is a good book with which to start that exploration. The authors do a good job of breaking down linguistics into its component parts. Essentially, the book is a sophisticated outline of the subject matter in overview rather than an in-depth discourse.

It explains and defines linguistic terms and how they are used, somewhat like an expanded dictionary of linguistics. For example, Place of articulation is described as “This parameter in the description of consonants refers to the parts of the vocal tract involved in the production of a given sound.” This is followed by examples and then the next topic, Manner of articulation. It is short and sweet, no lengthy discourse into any single topic. And the authors deserve praise for making the topics accessible and understandable to a decently educated layperson.

Have you ever wondered how language sounds are written out so that everyone understands what sound is being discussed? The answer is found in the section “The Sounds of English, 2.1 Phonetic notation systems.” (There are several systems; the Oxford English Dictionary uses the International Phonetic Alphabet system.) The various systems are mentioned but not discussed in detail, as is appropriate for this overview book. It would have been nice, however, had there been direct pointers to sources of information on the systems not adhered to in this book.

This is not a book for everyday reading or for the person with a casual interest in language. It really is better used as a library reference. The book is short (including appendices and index the 1st edition is 208 pages), yet contains a great deal of information. I wouldn’t buy it for my library at $105, but at $33.75 it is a worthwhile addition to my collection and to the collection of anyone who wishes to grasp the fundamentals of linguistics. Without more details on what distinguishes the second edition from the first, I would suggest buying the first edition while it is available.

February 18, 2010

On Words: Alright and All Right

Dictionaries and usage guides are necessary tools for editors. Problems arise, however, when the guides and dictionaries disagree or when they say “yes, but.” Such is the case with alright and all right.

Authors, including such notables as Flannery O’Connor, Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce, have used alright, but the consensus seems to be that alright is not all right to use — it is nonstandard English.

That alright is considered substandard English is odd considering fusions of all ready to already and all together to altogether are accepted uncritically. But that is one of the mysteries and beauties of English — the lack of rhyme or reason for something to be okay or not. One theory, advanced by the The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, is that already and altogether became single words in the Middle Ages, thus before the arrival of the language critic, whereas alright has been around for little more than 100 years (since near the end of the 19th century-beginning of the 20th century), giving language critics an opportunity to cast aspersions on its use.

Even though the words are not always synonymous, some critics, such as Bryan Garner, ignore the differences. As the American Heritage Guide notes, “The sentence The figures are all right means that the figures are all accurate, that is, perfectly correct, while The figures are alright means that they are satisfactory.…”

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage asks “Is alright all right?” and answers with a qualified yes: First, all right is more commonly used in print. Second, the authors of most handbooks for writers think alright is wrong. And third, alright is more likely to be found in trade journals, magazines, and newspapers than in more literary sources. (Is word snobbery at play here?)

The earliest use of alright in modern usage is by Chaucer in 1385. But once we leave Chaucer, there are no examples of either alright or all right until the late 17th-early 18th centuries when there are examples of all right but with all used as a pronoun, as, for example, in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719): “desir’d him to…keep all right in the Ship.”

The first uses of all right as a fixed phrase appear in the early 19th century, as in Shelly’s (1822) Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (“That was all right, my friend.”) and in Dickens’ (1837) Pickwick Papers (“‘All right, sir,’ replied Mr. Weller.”). The first recorded use of alright in modern times was in 1893 in the Durham University Journal.

The controversy over the correctness of alright seems to have begun in the early 20th century. Frank Vizetelly denounced the use of alright in his 1906 book, A Desk Book of Errors in English. In 1924, the Society for Pure English published a symposium on alright by H.W. Fowler of Fowler’s Modern English Usage fame. Fowler considered the word bad spelling and in his 1926 Modern English Usage, he repeated his earlier denunciation of the word. In Fowler’s third edition (R.W. Burchfield, Ed., 1996), the discussion opens with “The use of all right, or inability to see that there is anything wrong with alright, reveals one’s background, upbringing, education, etc., perhaps as much as any word in the language.” The entry concludes, “The sociological divide commands attention.” Basically, Fowler, a word and social snob preferred all right because the hoi polloi prefer alright, an attitude continued by Burchfield. Clearly, a well-reasoned and justifiable position.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Theodore Dreiser repeatedly used alright in his manuscript but H.L. Mencken, his editor, had him change it to all right. It seems to be a battle between writers (alright) and self-proclaimed language experts (all right). Merriam Webster goes on to say that “undoubtedly [alright] would be even more frequent in print than it is if copy editors were less hostile.” (Editors do have some influence!)

According to Bryan Garner, today’s usage guru, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009). Garner labels alright as a stage 2 word, that is, “widely shunned” on his Language-Change Index. Garner also calls alright an “invariably inferior” word, but without saying why it is “invariably inferior.”

I know that my opinion regarding usage isn’t at the level of esteemed, but this seems to me to be much ado about nothing. Using Garner’s own statement that “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially all right” demonstrates the utility of distinguishing between all right and alright, with both being acceptable when appropriately used. If he had written instead, “the combined version [alright] cannot yet be considered good usage — or even colloquially alright,” it would be clear what “colloquially alright” means. By using all right, it isn’t clear whether alright is colloquially inaccurate or simply unsatisfactory, although we can guess the former from the tenor of his comments. However, if we accept Garner’s statements that the function of language is to communicate clearly, it seems to me that it is perfectly alright to distinguish between all right and alright solely by intended meaning and not by whether some critic thinks one is a better spelling or form than another. It also seems to me that it is all right to always use alright.

February 17, 2010

Will You Buy This Book? A Poll (II)

This past week readers of An American Editor were polled on obstacles to buying an ebook. Readers were asked which of the listed items was the single biggest obstacle to their buying ebooks.

I was surprised by the results. The two DRM questions gathered the most votes (together 57% of all votes). Interestingly, 30% responded “DRM of any type regardless of whether it affects device portability” and 27% chose “DRM that is not cross-device (lack of device portability),” indicating a near equal split among ebookers over DRM. Approximately half of DRM choosers are willing to accept some form of DRM as long as it is device portable and half say they won’t accept DRM under any circumstance.

The third most popular response was pricing higher than $9.99 (26%). At least 26% of responders are willing to accept DRM of any flavor if price does not exceed that magical $9.99 threshold. (As we know, this threshold was set by Amazon. It isn’t clear to me on what basis $9.99 was chosen as opposed to, say, $7.99. It also isn’t clear whether $9.99 is really that magical threshold or just a threshold currently popularized by Amazon.)

Other responses were as follows:

  • Price greater than $4.99 = 8% of responders
  • Poor formatting = 5%
  • Poor editing = 3%
  • Book is self-published = 2%

Clearly, ebookers are more willing to put up with poor formatting and editing than with a high price and DRM. Does this mean that as long as a book is sold for $9.99 or less formatting and editing do not matter to ebookers? We can’t draw that conclusion — or really any conclusion — from last week’s poll, but it does raise the issue of what compromises ebookers are willing to accept.

But what is interesting is the disparity in price levels. I would have thought that for ebookers to whom price was the biggest obstacle, $4.99 would have been the magic threshold. Apparently, ebookers are willing to pay more albeit not above $9.99.

However, there were a lot of complaints that geographical restrictions were not a choice, with many readers saying that is the biggest obstacle to their purchasing an ebook. I wonder how much of an obstacle it really is. Let’s go to this week’s poll, for which there are several questions, so please be sure to read through this article.

Let’s assume that the publisher of an ebook you have been eagerly waiting release of offers you the opportunity to buy that ebook and will make 1 change to purchasing “obstacles” as an inducement for you to buy it. Which change would you ask the publisher to make from among those listed? [This poll is not intended to cover every possible option. I recognize that for some people the only answer is all of the choices or none of the choices or some other unlisted choice. However, for this poll these are the items of interest.]

If an ebook were released today that you had been eagerly waiting for, and was released with all of the following “obstacles” to your purchasing it, but the publisher agreed to make 1 change of your choice if you agreed to buy the ebook,

If the only “obstacle” were DRM, that is, the ebook’s price was no higher than $9.99 and there were no geographical restrictions,

Although not explicitly stated in the discussions about ebooks, most of the discussion is focused on fiction ebooks, the books that people tend to read once and do not look to as reference books. That raises questions about whether an ebooker’s perspective changes depending on the type of book in question: fiction or nonfiction. So this question is addressed solely to nonfiction ebooks, such as a biography, a history, or a book about computer software.

This poll will run for 1 week. Please participate. If you have suggestions for questions or topics for future polls please mention them in the comments section.

February 16, 2010

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring: Returns in an eBook Age

Excessive returns can sink a publisher. Returns weren’t always a part of publishing. In the timeline of publishing (i.e., since the Gutenberg movable type press caused a seismic shift in production), it is a recent invention, but its ramifications are as seismic as movable type. Returns offer many lessons to publishers, but few that they will heed. For example, the lesson of returns setting an expectation that is hard to set aside is similar to giving away ebooks which may set the expectation of free.

The primary problem of returns is self-evident: Knowing that one can order 100 copies of a book that might sell 3 copies and pay no penalty for overordering wastes resources. Returns also have a highly detrimental secondary effect: Booksellers “return” all of the unsold ordered books and “reorder” them immediately, thus carrying an inventory that is never paid for by the bookseller, only by the publisher.

In the heady days of publishing, before the Internet and conglomerate publishers, returns were a problem that could be lived with. This is no longer true; returns threaten to derail publishing. eBooks can be either salvation or damnation for publishers and can be used to solve the problem of returns.

Returns are the bane of print books. If it costs a publisher $3 per book to print 1,000 copies of a hardcover book that sells for $25, the publisher is out $3,000 and has 1,000 books. Simple arithmetic. But if the book sells only 100 copies and 900 copies are returned, the printing cost per sold book is $30 and the publisher faces a loss of $500 based on the printing alone. The publisher now has to decide what to do with the returned 900 copies. If they are warehoused, the costs increase. It is uncertain whether any or all of them will eventually be sold, whether losses will increase or decrease. If they are remaindered, then they are generally sold for pennies on the dollar; it is not unusual for a book with a list price of $25 to be remaindered for 50 cents. Remaindering simply cuts the losses; it does not bring profit.

eBooks do away with this problem. There are no returns and no print costs. eBooks, with a single button push, eliminate a major publishing headache. This has ramifications for everyone in the book chain. For the first time, publisher’s are in the catbird’s seat regarding returns. If I were a publisher, I would tell booksellers that beginning with my next anticipated blockbuster, order only what you are willing to buy; no returns will be accepted. If booksellers rebel, then I would reply simply: A condition of receiving paperback versions of this blockbuster is that there be no returns of this title. Otherwise, only hardcover and ebook formats will be available. In addition, I would limit the initial hardcover print run to a quantity that I could reasonably expect to sell.

This would start the long-needed demise of returns yet it would not do away with any particular format of a book. Commenters objected to my earlier Modest Proposal‘s suggestion to eliminate paperbacks altogether, so here is a market response: Those booksellers willing to forego returns will be able to fulfill consumer desires for a paperback version. Should no bookseller be willing to forego returns, then either the consumer will have to protest against the bookseller or shift buying habits.

This is a winning strategy for publishers on several fronts. First, by reducing costs, the publisher will have more resources available to increase the value of ebooks. Second, if booksellers do not buy paperbacks, publishers will be able to concentrate on the two more profitable types of publishing: hardcovers and ebooks. Third, should booksellers not buy paperbacks, there will no longer be a paperback benchmark price against which to measure ebook pricing. Fourth, publishers could pass some of the savings on to consumers by lowering list prices or offering preorder discounts. Fifth, publishers will have less financial risk exposure.

Doing away with returns will bring some sense of proper practices to the book business. When booksellers have to buy their product, they will order more realistically and publishers will order print runs that better align with a book’s market. Making paperback availability conditioned on no returns is a smart way for publishers to move away from the current failing returns practice.

What does this do for consumers? In an ideal market, pricing would stabilize and ebook pricing would more realistically reflect publisher costs and publisher-imposed limitations on use of ebooks. But as with promises to lower ebook costs over time, there is no assurance that anyone but the publisher would benefit from this proposal.

February 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Agency & Winners

As the dust continues to rise from the dispute that originated with Macmillan’s demand to Amazon to switch to an agency relationship, and to which Amazon quickly caved, I began wondering who are the winners and whether there are any losers. Contrary to popular perceptions, I think ebookers are the winners.

There was, of course, an instigator to this mess. That award goes to Steve Jobs and Apple. Seeing an opportunity to give Amazon a black eye, returning the favor from the music days, Apple grabbed it, offering publishers the “agency” model. Although Macmillan and cohorts portray this as a battle for the soul of publishing, it really is a game of comeuppance between Apple and Amazon. But in doing so, I think Jobs, unwittingly, gave power to ebookers for the first time — a power that may ultimately haunt him and Apple, at least if they are serious about becoming a major player in the ebook-selling world.

I know that seems counterintuitive, but let’s look at the situation carefully. Before the agency model publishers were insulated from consumers by interveners, the wholesale distributors like Ingram and the retailers like Amazon. In one fell swoop, that protection, those insulating layers, were swept away, creating a direct link between publishers and ebookers. Now when ebookers squeeze, publishers will squeak.

When the intervening layers existed, consumer complaints about quality and price were directed at the bookseller, who could do nothing about the former and little about the latter. The idea of an ebook being unreturnable for any reason was tenable because the seller with whom the ebooker had a direct connection had no way to warrant anything to the ebooker. Retailers were insulated other than hearing low-key griping because there was nothing they could do; publishers were insulated because their “customers” were the retailers, not the ebookers.

This has now been turned topsy-turvy. Now it is the publisher who is directly warranting (even though impliedly rather than directly in so many words) to the ebooker that the product is reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended — not that the story is one that the ebooker will enjoy, but that there are minimal numbers of errors and that the ebook is readable and properly formatted. There are now implied warranties of merchantability and of fitness for use that go directly from the publisher to the ebooker, warranties that didn’t exist before because there was no direct connection between publisher and ebooker.

It won’t be long before a sharp lawyer sees the class action possibilities and starts circling. And even if this doesn’t become a matter of litigation between ebookers and publishers, raise enough noise on the viral Internet about how poorly edited or formatted a particular book is and you will see the author and the author/agent circling, because the publisher owes a duty to the author to produce a quality product.

Will this happen overnight? No. But it will happen because of the viral nature of the Internet. No publisher can afford to defend against the deadly combination of poor quality and unreasonably high price, when the combination spreads across a publisher’s line. Poor quality and high pricing seem to be more the rule than the exception in ebooks; it is easy to defend an exception but not rules — just ask Toyota.

Publishers defend high price by pointing out the extraordinary quality of the book; but when one is lacking the other has to give. Publisher margins are thin to begin with; imagine how much thinner they will be when the publisher has to start answering directly to ebookers about pricing and quality disequilibrium. Returns will become acceptable, although some mechanism will have to be worked out for it to occur. After all, the idea of a return is that the buyer gives up all possession of the returned item, something that is not so easily done with a digital file.

eBookers are probably less unified about pricing than they are about quality. I am more elastic about pricing than about quality. I am not opposed to paying a price higher than $14.99 for a high-quality ebook that I want, although I am unwilling to pay $5.99 for a poor quality ebook regardless of my interest in it. I believe that is true of most ebookers. There will always be a group who cannot be satisfied, but most ebookers are more middle-of-the-road — that is, more elastic about pricing than about quality.

Of course, as long as ebooks are greatly burdened with restrictions and as long as there is no assurance that the ebook purchased today will be readable on tomorrow’s ebook device, pricing is not as elastic as publishers would like (and it doesn’t help that publishers constantly ignore ebookers and refuse to address in open dialogue ebooker complaints).

eBookers are the winners under the agency model. They now have a direct connection with the publisher and can insist that price and quality be in equilibrium. Under the previous model, booksellers like Amazon didn’t care whether a particular ebook sold or didn’t sell — they had no investment in it. Under the agency model, the publisher who does have a direct investment in whether an ebook sells or not is the decision maker and is directly connected to ebookers and subject to ebooker pressure. Publishers need look no further than Toyota for a wakeup call.

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