An American Editor

March 10, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (III)

In Part I of this 3-part article, I discussed the role reviews play in my decision-making process as to whether or not to buy a particular book. As noted, reviews are rather limited, largely because there are so few credible reviews and so many books published each year. In Part II, published yesterday, I discussed the role cover design plays and how good cover design acts as an assurance for the book buyer. Today’s discussion addresses the final legs of my decision-making process: Content and Pricing.


A good writer grabs you with the first dozen or so words; a hack writer like me doesn’t have that knack. I am willing to plod through a nonfiction book but not through a novel. So I want to see that the story gets off to a good start. I also want to see how many errors there are in the first chapter.

Perhaps it is because of my work, perhaps it is because I was always bothered by language misuse, or perhaps it is because I wish to be — at least in my own mind — a literary elitist snob, but when I find glaring errors in the first few pages of a book, I know I will never read further.

When I think about it, my standards are higher for pbooks than for ebooks. I think that is a result of two factors: First, that nearly all my pbook purchases are nonfiction, primarily history, biography, philosophy, and English language. Consequently, I expect greater accuracy and better production values because these books are not read-once-throw-away books. Second, that the nonfiction books all command a much higher price than the fiction ebooks, or I am willing to pay more for nonfiction than for fiction and so expect more. I am more forgiving of fiction ebooks than of nonfiction pbooks. However, I would not be so forgiving if I purchased nonfiction ebooks or paid a price for the fiction ebooks that was comparable to the price I pay for the pbooks.

I don’t know if more people are writing and “publishing” as self-publishers their masterpieces of fiction as a result of ebooks, but it sure seems that way. And they are cutting corners. Recent fiction ebooks I read had fundamental editorial errors, for example:

  • beet instead of beat
  • compliment instead of complement
  • court marshal instead of court martial
  • affect instead of effect
  • principal instead of principle
  • seam instead of seem
  • roll instead of role
  • passed instead of past
  • there instead of their
  • your instead of you’re
  • die instead of dye
  • lead instead of led
  • one instead of won

Had the error occurred once, I would have chalked it up to a typographical error; but these errors occurred repeatedly. Interestingly, a couple of times the authors actually got it right, only to return to the incorrect word.

These errors are significantly more than a mistyping or misspelling — it demonstrates a lack of command of language because seam and seem, for example, are not even close in meaning. Thus a review of the first chapter is important and I have come to the point that I will not buy an ebook whose first chapter, or a significant portion thereof, I cannot sample. And even if the author seems to write well, that is, is a good storyteller, I won’t buy the ebook if the sample is loaded with editorial problems; I know it will annoy me until I just give up trying to read the ebook.

This is the advantage that a pbook has over an ebook — not that a pbook cannot have these errors, they can, but that I can return the pbook; most ebooks are not returnable.


Pricing is my last consideration as I am not hesitant to spend a lot of money on a book that I want. For example, I recently bought Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life, which sells for $125 and Oleg Grabar and Benjamin Z. Kedar’s Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade, which sells for $75. But I don’t casually spend such sums — I buy too many books to spend that kind of money casually.

I more quickly and easily spend higher sums on nonfiction pbooks than on fiction ebooks. A lot comes down to the quality of the work in relationship to the price.

Although I am willing to be more forgiving of an ebook, I am, correspondingly, expecting to pay a lower price. That is, the lower the quality the lower the price. Similarly, I will not pay a high price for a low-quality pbook. The difference between an ebook and a pbook is that I will consider buying a lesser-quality lower-priced ebook but will not consider buying a low-quality pbook regardless of price. I believe this is the dichotomy of value that I place on fiction (ebooks) and nonfiction (pbooks). 

Price is less a constraint for me with pbooks because I rarely get to the matter of price if value is lacking; I am simply less forgiving of pbooks than of ebooks. Pricing is a constraint only in the ebook buying decision-making process.

For lots of reasons, but primarily because of lower quality, I am very reluctant to spend more than $3 to $5 on an ebook. Consequently, when an ebook passes muster — that is, I get past the reviews, the cover design (or lack there of), and the sample content — I make my decision based on price. I need to believe that the price has some correlation to the quality. If there is a close correlation, I will buy the ebook; the farther apart price and quality are, the less likely I am to buy.

That is how I decide whether or not to buy a book.


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