An American Editor

March 17, 2010

Worth Noting: C-SPAN Video Library

I do not watch TV and rarely watch videos on my computer but when I saw C-SPAN’s advertisement in today’s New York Times, I thought I might start to occasionally watch a replay of history. C-SPAN is making hundreds of thousands of hours of its past broadcasts available for free in its video library, which can be found here.

This is quite timely for me. The last time I sat in front of the TV to watch anything for more than a minute or two was the Clinton impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate. I was fascinated by the historic proceedings, and still am. As it happens, I have started reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, which is a well-written, fascinating replay of the conflict between Clinton and Starr (which I will review when I have finished the book), so C-SPAN’s making available the videos of the proceedings will add to my enjoyment of the book.

Although a bit off topic, let me say this: If Crown, the publisher, had been smart (and there is still hope), this book begs for enhanced ebook and pbook versions. I would gladly have paid twice, maybe even thrice the price for the book if it had included a DVD of the proceedings, perhaps even commentary by some of the key players on the proceedings. This is an example of where enhancements would be well worthwhile.

On Books: Two Histories

The history of the world is diverse, long, and complex. Usually we take survey courses in school that focus on a particular aspect of world history, say western civilization from 1000 to 1500 AD. But Norton (the publisher), most famous for its Norton Anthologies of English/world literature that generations of students have used in survey literature courses, has embarked upon an anthology series for history to bring world history to the masses (and probably to students, too) through the writing of historian Susan Wise Bauer.

Generally I like more focused books rather than survey books. My library has many books on specific periods or events in world history, admittedly mostly western oriented, and includes multiple books tackling a particular historical event (e.g., I have a fair number of books focused on the Dreyfus Affair of the late 19th-early 20th centuries). But I bought Bauer’s first book, The History of the Ancient World from the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, when it was released in 2007, and became hooked. Bauer and Norton released the second book in the series, The History of the Medieval World from the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, in 2010.

Both books follow the same pattern. The chapters are short, focused, conclude with a timeline, and are self-contained — each stands on its own. Particularly well-crafted explanatory maps appear throughout the books along with appropriate illustrations. The writing style is brisk and vibrant. The books are very well edited. One nice feature of the books is that because chapters are short, generally less than 20 pages, and self-contained, it is easy to read a chapter, put the book aside, and come back to the book days later without missing a beat, which makes it an easy read, even for those with short attention spans.

Most important, at least to my way of thinking, is that the survey Bauer provides isn’t western-centric. She takes us on parallel tours of east and west, covering Greece, Italy, England, Spain, China, Russia, India, Persia, Egypt, and numerous other important places. We get to see history unfold as it did in life, parallel tracks, not in isolation.

Because of her approach, in-depth analysis of important events is lacking. This is the sacrifice that has to be made when doing a survey of such a broad subject for a mass audience. On the other hand, Bauer opens the reader’s eyes to the fact that civilizations grew in parallel, not in isolation, and that the growth of one effected the growth of others. As China extended its civilization westward, the Romans moved eastward, and at some point they touched and blended and flowed back toward their epicenters, bring new knowledge and change from opposing civilizations.

By introducing the reader to all of these events and giving a broad perspective to the growth of the world, Bauer makes it possible for readers to learn a little about a lot and then pursue further in-depth research on their own. After all, it would be difficult to seek knowledge about China’s Jin dynasty, which lasted a scant 50 years, if one didn’t know it existed and wasn’t given some introduction to it that piqued one’s interest.

These first two books in the series are stellar for what they are. They are not replacements for more in-depth scholarly works about specific events; they are great introductions to the history of the world in which we live. They are written in such a manner that even young teenagers could enjoy reading these books and learn a lot in the process.

If you read only 1 (well, 2) general history books in the next year, these are the books that you should read. If you want to build a library of books for your children and grandchildren, a library of books that will introduce them to the wonders of knowledge, these 2 books should be included. I look forward to buying and reading the ensuing volumes in this series.

March 16, 2010

Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe?

Before the printing press and moveable type, we relied on scribes (in the broader sense of being more than just a copyist) to record words and to copy manuscripts. This was a one-person operation, even if there were many scribes tackling the same document.

The advent of the printing press and moveable changed manuscript production. Now several people working together produce numerous copies of the same manuscript, each having a hand in the whole project.

But ebooks are changing our world again. eBooks in the age of the Internet puts us back to the one-person endeavor. One person can be author, editor, publisher, marketer — just what a scribe did 700 years ago. The question is: Is this progress?

The problem with the scribe system is that two scribes didn’t record the same event identically. And scribes were simply recorders, not investigators, so they did no verifying. Scribal work lacked assurances of credibility; if scribes recorded an event and then rerecorded it but did so differently, which version was the accurate record? And what about the third and fourth transcriptions? The printing press increased accuracy by creating a single record that was accurately replicated multiple times.

You can get a better sense of the problem by considering this: One scribe writes “Giving her the book or the candle is giving her a great gift.” A second scribe, at the same lecture writes: “Giving her the book and the candle is giving her a great gift.” Two scribes, two possibilities, two different meanings. Which is the correct transcription of the lecture? On which transcription should future readers act? What happens if more than one transcription is preserved and repeated in the future? What happens when a scribe 50 years later decides that since both can’t be right, the best thing to do is to combine them into a third possibility: “Giving her the book and/or the candle is giving her a great gift.” Perhaps this doesn’t matter much when talking about the gift, but it surely matters when discussing what the law is and what happened in history.

The problem in the Age of eBooks is the rise of the self-published author. This author is akin to a scribe. There is no assurance that the book I buy today will match the book you buy tomorrow and there is no book against which we can compare to determine the correct version. More importantly, once we stray from the world of fiction, there is nothing to assure the ebook buyer that the ebook author has done any fact checking. When a self-published ebook declares that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 6, 1941, how will the reader of the future know the truth or falsity of this assertion?

Granted the problem is less dire with “obvious” facts such as the Pearl Harbor bombing date, but what about with “less obvious” facts? How many of us know, for example, the years of the First Crusade without looking it up (1095-1099)? Or of the Children’s Crusade (1212)? Or the year Pompeii was destroyed (79 AD)? Or Rudolph Hess’ rank in Hitler’s Germany (Deputy Führer)? Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)? 

The scribe, like the self-publisher today, exercised great control over his or her individual endeavor. At-whim “improvements” could be made to the next rendition of the work and no one would know because there was nothing against which to compare the current work. It was a replay of the oral storytelling tradition, the handing down of stories from generation to generation with each adding its own embellishment, just done in written form.

But how good is this for consumers and scholars in today’s world? Revised editions, noted as such, are, of course, useful and acceptable. But the unnoted revised editions that can be expected with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, will create havoc in the marketplace. As reader’s catch an author’s errors and the author corrects his or her work (assuming the author does make corrections), what will be the effect of the errors on those who have read uncorrected versions? Suppose your child bases an essay on a college entrance exam on incorrect information gained from reading a self-published ebook about the Crusades?

Yes, it is clear that other scholars and authors can protest the inaccuracies and even correct them in their own work. But that assumes (a) that the number of sales of the incorrect work will rise to such a number as to attract attention, (b) that those who digested the mistaken information were made aware of the errors, and (c) that the correctors themselves are more than simply misinformers themselves.

eBooks are a great leveler of the playing field in the sense that the combination of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet lets anyone with the dream of being the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen Ambrose have the opportunity. This trio of opportunity can, however, cause chaos that is uncontrollable. Conversely, the trio can be the savior of education by combatting the flow of misinformation as is happening in Texas (see, e.g., Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change).

But no matter how the problem is cut, the question of whether a reversion to the scribal days that the trio of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet permits is good or bad remains to be seen. If self-publishers adhere to the more traditional publishing model of fact-checking, professional editors, and high (relatively speaking) quality production, the return to the scribal role will be positive. On the other hand, if the model of “push it out the door as fast as one can” prevails, ebookers and the public in general will suffer, albeit perhaps unknowingly.

Until ebook self-publishing settles into a more formal method of quality control, I think it will be effectively limited to fiction and nonscholarly work. The opportunity to expand into a recognized scholarly venue will be the catalyst that will change self-publishing in the wild to self-publishing on a more formal, certifiable basis. I predict that within the next 10 years we will see a certification process for self-published ebooks — perhaps even for all ebooks — designed to assure the ebook buyer of the quality and accuracy of the content and to assure that revisions and new editions are noted. I expect that future ebook self-publishing will more closely align to current pbook standards than is currently the case, all for the betterment of self-publishing.

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

March 12, 2010

On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?

One facet of a professional editor’s work is to help an author choose the correct word to convey the author’s meaning. I do not mean choosing between homonyms (e.g., seams vs. seems), but rather helping the author communicate with increased precision.

This is less problematic in fiction than in nonfiction, although it does have ramifications in fiction, too. I doubt that it matters much whether a character in a novel believes, thinks, or feels something; that is, use of any of the words is sufficient to convey the meaning intended. But in nonfiction, shades do matter and precision is more important.

Consider feel. Authors often use feel as if it were synonymous with think or believe. It is not unusual to see a construction such as: “The authors feel that a difference of 0.2 standard deviations is insignificant.” But the authors do not really feel this, they believe or think it. Yet many people accept feel as proper usage in this construction. Does it matter? Yes!

Feel is a less intense expression of think and believe, a weak substitute for the correct expression. Consequently, using feel as a substitute for think or believe is to weaken the argument. Feel‘s semantic lineages are touch and sensation; its Old English root is felan. In contrast, believe‘s root is the late Old English belyfan and think‘s root is the Old English thencan. Three different roots to express three different meanings.

Choosing the right word ensures the correct tone and emphasis; it adds credibility because the choice strengthens the argument being made. Conversely, choosing the wrong word or a lesser word to convey an idea weakens the argument. Consider the effect of using feel, believe, and think in propounding a theorem.

The reader who encounters “I feel this theorem is correct” cannot precisely determine how correct the theorem is in the author’s view. Feel is so weak that it is a straddling word — that is, a word that straddles the gap between is and is not, may and may not, fact and fiction, and the like — but without clarity as to whether it leans more to the is and less to the is not or vice versa. Feel is equidistant, giving the author the most wiggle room.

Believe is less weak in the construction “I believe this theorem is correct.” Yet, it too is a straddling word that provides wiggle room. What the author is really saying is that the theorem may or may not be correct but on the continuum between may and may not, the author is more on the may than the may not side.

To say, however, “I think the theorem is correct” is to firmly come down on the is, may, fact side of the continuum. The author is telling the reader that the author has a high degree of certainty of the correctness of the position — not an absolute certainty, but a high degree.

Is this distinction important? Yes, albeit less important in fiction and greatly more important in nonfiction writing. Think of a medical diagnosis: Would you prefer to have a less certain or more certain diagnosis? Would you prefer the doctor to be less certain or more certain about the efficacy of a treatment protocol?

Similarly, there is increasing misuse of that and which. That is used in a restrictive clause, whereas which reflects a nonrestrictive clause. And each reflects a different meaning and requires a different punctuation. The nonrestrictive clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by a preceding comma. The which clause, as a nonrestrictive clause, provides supplemental information, information that the sentence could omit without harm based on the context presented by the material that precedes and follows the sentence.

Bryan Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009, p. 806) provides the following example sentences:

  • “All the cars that were purchased before 2008 need to have their airbags replaced.”
  • “All the cars, which were purchased before 2008, need to have their airbags replaced.”

A careful read of the sentences indicates the distinction. Yet, making the choice between that and which, like making the choice between feel, believe, and think, can be the difference in communication or miscommunication.

Between used with numbers is another good example of the effect of word choice. When we write between 5 and 10, do we mean 6, 7, 8, and 9 or 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10? Correctly it is the former, but many authors intend the latter. If the latter is meant, it is more precise to write from 5 to 10 as that includes the beginning and ending numbers. Is the distinction important? Think about a book describing space travel and the number of years it would take to get from point A to point B. If I write between 5 and 10, the reader can deduce that it will take 6, 7, 8, or 9 years, whereas if I write from 5 to 10, the reader can deduce it will take as few as 5 years or as many as 10 years or some number of years between 5 and 10. The latter conveys the broader range, the former conveys the narrower range.

A professional editor helps the author make these correct word choices. Where the correct choice matters, it can be the difference between clear communication and miscommunication.

March 11, 2010

On Words: Filibuster

I’m in frustrated-angry mode. My local power utility (read monopoly) has raised its rates twice in 12 months, and has applied for a third rate increase. My Internet/TV/telephone package rate has gone up because they added cable channels that I’m not interested in ever watching (truth be told, I don’t ever watch TV and have the cable TV only because my wife insists).

But the final blow came in the mail from my health insurance company: our rates are going up 25%. The excuses given include higher New York State taxes (mine have gone up significantly, too), increased use of health care services by others, federal expansion of COBRA, a large number of H1N1 flu cases, and federal expansion of “large group” mental health and substance abuse coverage (we are a small group).

Then I read the latest on healthcare reform in Washington, DC — the movement that appears to be going nowhere fast — and how a filibuster is threatened should a bill come to the floor of the Senate. Setting aside my frustration with politicians who think first about lining their pockets and last about their constituents, I wondered about the origins of the word filibuster. There is a certain Kafkaesqueness, a certain Alice-in-Wonderland-ness about the word that intrigues me.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines filibuster as “1a. The use of obstructionist tactics…for the purpose of delaying legislation.…2. An adventurer who engages in a private military action in a foreign country” The first definition is what we commonly understand, but the second is closer to the word’s roots.

In early American English, the spellings were fillibustier and flibustier. Sometime in the 1850s the spelling changed to the current filibuster. An early English spelling (16th century and earlier) was flibutor, which was borrowed from the Dutch word for freebooter (vrijbuiter); an earlier version of flibutor was fribustier, confusing its origins.

Filibuster is French in origin, coming from flibustier, referring to pirates who pillaged the Spanish West Indies during the 1700s. In the 1800s, the word’s origins shifted from French to the Spanish usage and meaning. Filibustero, the Spanish version, which also meant freebooter or common rover (as opposed to a buccaneer; buccaneers were French settlers who were hired as hunters by the Spanish. When they were later driven out, the buccaneers turned to plundering, thus morphing buccaneer‘s meaning from hunter to pirate), was used to describe Americans, primarily Texans, who incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America.

Probably the best-known filibusteros were those who joined Narcisso Lopez’s Cuban insurrection in 1850-1851, and those who followed William Walker’s insurrection against Sonora, Mexico (1853-54) and against Nicaragua (1855-58). As reported by the Lawrence (KS) Republican, June 2, 1857, “Walker, the filibuster, has been forced to capitulate.”

This sense of filibuster (freebooter, revolutionist, insurrectionist) remained in use for decades and was used to describe other persons whose tactics were similar to those of the American filibusters. For example, an article in Knowledge (1887) said: “What were the Normans…but filibusters? What were the Pilgrim Fathers but filibusters?” Columbus and William the Conqueror also were called filibusters. But this sense has, for the most part, faded away as the political sense has gained use, although it isn’t clear to me that this original sense isn’t an apt description of today’s filibusters.

One of the earliest uses of filibuster in the sense we think of it today, that is, as a tactic by a member of the legislative minority to impede action by the majority, was by the Portland Oregonian (February 5, 1853): “Filibustero principles do not appear to meet with much consideration from the southern members of congress.” In 1889, the Boston Journal (January 14) noted that “The surrender of legislative functions by the majority of the House and the carrying on of business…only by a humiliating ‘trreaty’ with a single determined filibuster is something entirely anomalous in a country…governed by majority action.”

Of course, in the early days of legislative filibustering, filibusters were required to speak — Jimmy Stewart’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in real life — and garnered little sympathy when they could no longer command the floor. As the New York Times (January 31, 1915) wrote: “The Senate sits…and the overwhelmed filibusters simply cannot talk.” Two weeks later, the New York Times (February 16) reported: “The Republicans will filibuster…against the cloture rule.” How little has changed in 95 years!

This action, speaking for the sole purpose of consuming time, was the required method prior to the Senate becoming a gentlemen’s club at taxpayer and citizen expense. Now the excuse is that Senators have other important business to attend (e.g., fundraising, violating ethics, lobbying against the interests of their constituents); so why waste time listening to endless speech making? The Congressional Record of February 11, 1890, noted that “A filibuster was indulged in which lasted…for nine continuous calendar days.” Just think — 9 days of legislative peace!

But there was a spark of humor in the annals of senatorial filibustering. Consider this Chicago Times (July 22, 1947) report of a filibuster: “You’re filibustering against the wrong bill, Senator–the resolution before the Senate is for adjournment.” Now if only the American voter could filibuster, perhaps we could put an end to Washington gridlock.

One final note: I am intrigued that both the act and the actor are called filibuster. Why is the actor not called filibusterer?

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.

March 9, 2010

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

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.


The next thing that catches my attention is the book cover (cover is used to mean both the printed cover or cover art and the dust jacket). Either a book cover grabs your attention or it turns you away. The cover is what you see before you read the first word of the story. The cover actually conveys a lot of information about a book.

Presumably the book title has been carefully chosen to describe (or at least give a clue as to) the content. For example, I recently bought A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009). What first caught my eye was the title. This title tells me what to expect: I expect to read a book about guerilla warfare during the U.S. Civil War. The cover also tells me who the author is; in this case I recognized the name because he has written several other books about the Civil War. Also on the cover is the publisher’s name. This book was published by the University of North Carolina Press. And there is the dust jacket blurb that tells me something about the book. Finally, there is the cover art itself. In this case, it is a drawing of a raid scene. All of the elements of the cover give credibility to the book.

They don’t assure me that the book is well written, but they do give me some assurance that the content is content I’m interested in; that the author has experience in and knowledge of the area; that the book has been vetted, at least minimally, by a respected academic publisher; that the content fits the title; and that the content is trustworthy. All of these are important assurances, even if they are not consciously perceived by the book buyer.

That’s when I consider the story synopsis. Next to the cover art, the jacket blurb can be, for me, the make or break in the book-buying decision. A well-written blurb summarizes the book. In the case of fiction, as soon as I read “vampire” or “zombie” or “romance” or certain other key words, I know to move on. Those aren’t stories that I care to read. But the right key words drag me further into the book, and so I want to check out the first chapter.

Unfortunately, not all book covers are so reassuring, and the covers become increasingly less reassuring as one moves first to fiction and then to self-published books or books published by presses who devote minimal resources to capturing and/or reassuring buyers via the cover design. This is particularly problematic for me when buying an ebook, which is the form in which I buy nearly all my fiction books.

Many of the fiction ebook “covers” are no better than the crayon drawings my 2-year-old neighbor draws. And covers do matter; they are what first bring a book to one’s visual attention. They are the inducement to open the book and exploring the content. Some covers are so amateurish — childish might be a better description — that I immediately assume the content can’t be any better. Often I go no further in exploring the book, but when I do, I often find that my assumption was correct. Cover art does play a significant role in the book-buying decision.

Even if the cover drawing resembles the content, when it is childishly executed, it casts doubt on the quality of the writing. Poor cover design and art does not give a sense of assurance. The higher the price of the ebook, the greater the risk. On the other hand, because of how ebooks are prepared and sold, I try hard to not base my buying decision solely on the cover art. Sometimes I can’t get past the poor cover design, but most of the time I am able to go beyond the cover and into the content.

Authors and publishers need to keep in mind that a book is much more than just its content. Although content ultimately is the most important part of a book, it is also the last part of the book that is encountered by the book buyer. Consequently, as much care as is paid to the content needs to be paid to the other parts that make up the totality of the book. It does the author no good if the book buyer goes no further than the wrapper; the author and publisher need to make the wrapper as compelling as the content.

Part III, tomorrow’s article, discusses the final legs of the buying decision process: content and pricing.

Subsequent to the posting of this article I came across the following video on the making of a book cover. The 2-minute video compresses the longer process of designing a book’s cover and highlights some of the skill involved.

March 8, 2010

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

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.


Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

March 5, 2010

The eBook Wars: Reality vs. Fantasy in Expectations

One of my favorite op-ed columnists is Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald. I don’t always agree with him, but like certain other columnists (Froma Harrop, Paul Krugman, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, Linda Chavez, and George Will), I always read his opinion piece. Some people are worth reading and their opinions worth considering, whereas lining the litter box is the proper place for certain other columnists (Michelle Malkin comes readily to mind) — they simply lack any pretense to intelligent conversation. (If I want to be harangued, my wife and kids can do the job expertly.)

In a recent column, Pitts observed: “But objective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it’s a wall. And you shouldn’t have to hit it to find that out.” This made me think of the ebook war between ebookers and publishers.

Each side in this war has firm positions and beliefs from which they seemingly will not bend. eBookers expect low prices, no DRM, no geographical restrictions, near-perfect editing and formatting; publishers expect high prices, DRM, and good-but-not-perfect editing and formatting. Pricing and DRM are the hot button issues (along with geographical restrictions for those ebookers living outside the United States).

The reality for ebookers is that in the near term DRM is going to remain. Bang your head against that wall as often as you like, but until publishers find a way to minimize their financial gamble and until authors feel confident that ebookers will pay and not pirate, DRM will be part of ebooks. The financial stakes are simply too high for some publishers and many authors to give it up. Even the ebookers’ “friend” Amazon hasn’t been touting a non-DRM world for ebooks. (What would happen to the Kindle if one could buy any device and also buy books at Amazon?)

Yes, I know that DRM is really treating honest folk as pirates but let’s take another look at reality: Given the opportunity to get an ebook free or to pay for it, most people will take it for free. That’s just the way of humans. They might not go to the effort of stripping DRM and putting something up on the darknet for the world to access, or even visit the darknet themself, but there is a strong likelihood that they will e-mail the latest book to dozens of their friends if they can. It’s just being human.

So faced with the reality of DRM, what is the most productive thing for ebookers to do? I suggest urging publishers to adopt a single DRM scheme to which all publishers adhere and to which all publishers require all ebooksellers to adhere, and which they make available to all device makers. It doesn’t eliminate DRM but it reduces the “evils” of DRM for 97% of ebookers. Such a universal scheme would be a compromise win for both sides to the argument and we can move on to other pressing matters such as price. Yes, you’ve read this before; it has been part of my pitch for the central repository system, but it needn’t be part of such a system. What really matters is the universal DRM scheme, just like we see on CDs and DVDs — they can be purchased and played on any player from any hardware maker, which is the way it should be with ebooks.

Pricing is the second great evil of ebooks. To many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than $10; in fact, to many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than a few dollars when they come packaged with DRM and lackadaisical editing and formatting. Publishers, however, would like to see more ebooks sold at a price above $10 than a price below and with DRM. But neither side is living in the real world.

We already know why ebooks aren’t worth more than $10: they are leased, not owned because of the DRM; they aren’t really portable (e.g., for Kindlers, if Amazon goes out of business, so go ebook purchases); for many ebookers fiction ebooks are one-time reads; and the list goes on. Publishers, however, see great value in ebooks as mirrors of the print book. And authors want to collect a fair share of the proceeds.

This ground has been churned numerous times in past months and neither side has sole ownership of fantasy expectations. The question really is whether both sides are willing and able to give up some of their fantasies and meet in reality for the betterment of the vast majority of ebookers? This is an open question today.

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