An American Editor

March 4, 2010

On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!

Do word choices matter? Do word choices misspelled matter? Is there a difference between break and brake? Not if you read some of the ebook novels I have read recently!

Yes, I’m complaining about authors who don’t see the value in hiring a professional editor, authors who think they can both write a compelling story and either self-edit it or hire the next door neighbor to give it the editorial once over, and the publishers that encourage this type of thinking. Professional editors do serve a purpose and the more I read fiction ebooks, the more concerned I become about what will happen to readability, understanding, and literacy in the Age of eBooks.

I do not intend to rehash the difference between types of editing (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) or the difference between an amateur and a professional editor (see Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Nor do I intend to rehash the link between declining publishing standards and declining literacy (see Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators). You can revisit those posts if you want.

Instead I want to focus on the unfounded assumption by many ebookers that authors can do it all themselves — writing, designing, editing, marketing, selling, and whatever other “ing” is needed — in the ebook world, thereby doing away with publishers and other middlemen, yet increasing quality and decreasing cost and price.

Let me be clear: It is not that the author cannot do all these tasks; rather, it is that few authors can do each task well and few authors either have the financial resources to hire these services directly or, if they do have the resources, the willingness to gamble their own money on the success of their book. And it is the unwillingness to front these costs that is leading to the concurrent decline in ebook quality and refusal of ebookers to pay more than a few dollars (if even that much) for an ebook.

I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for an ebook because the likelihood is that the ebook is poorly edited, a phenomenon I see with increasing frequency and which I don’t discover until after I’ve made a nonrefundable purchase and am 30+ pages into the story. I am tired of reading sentences like these (the errors are in italics):

  • She seamed to be a woman with…
  • The sheers were used to cut the cloth.
  • I no what you are thinking.
  • I oppose you on principal.
  • The cloth was died purple, the royal color.
  • Johan’s piers were surprised at his dismissal.
  • Calista was badly beeten by the saber’s blunt edge.
  • In the passed, guardsmen were not…
  • Watch out for the sole catcher; he will try to steel your sole.
  • The roll Danvers played was that of a night.

The list goes on and on and on and on — Give me a brake (or is that break?)! One author had his lead character go through an “emotional ringer.” I wondered what melody the ringer was playing.

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that these mistakes don’t occur once; they occur repeatedly, which indicates that it wasn’t an isolated mistake. Rather, the ebook was either poorly edited or not edited at all. In either case, it means that the author or the publisher, although to be fair, I suspect that most of these books are self-published, didn’t think enough of their own work to spend the money to hire a professional editor.

Question: If the author thinks so little of his or her work, why should I, the ebook consumer, be willing to spend even $1 on the book? Shouldn’t I have the same disdain for the author and the ebook as the author has for me and the ebook?

Correct spelling is important. Incorrect spelling changes the message. For example, the end of the brief case and the end of the briefcase have distinctly different meanings and thus convey distinctly different messages. Similarly, Is that the boarder? asks a much different question than Is that the border? Failure to communicate means failure as a writer. When a character yells, “Brake!” but is riding a horse, what does the author mean?

Imagine visiting your doctor and being told to “take 5 every day.” Does it matter whether the doctor means 5 capsules, 5 grams, 5 liters, or 5 milligrams?

The best authors are those whose descriptions are clearly and readily understood. They communicate with their audience. The idea of a book — e or p, fiction or nonfiction — is that the message is understood readily and clearly by every reader. Thus it makes a difference whether the character asks “Is that the border?” or “Is that the boarder?”, especially if either is appropriate in the situation.

Readers should not have to guess what something means. Nor should a reader be distracted from the story by wondering whether brake or break is correct.

Based on what I see being made available for ereading, the loss of publishers and the reliance on self-publishing will be a tragedy. Although far from perfect, established publishers insulate readers from the worst of the abuses. Words do matter and incorrectly spelled words convey incorrect meaning. Dumbing down is not an award-winning strategy for the future.

Not all self-published books are as bad as the ones I recently have read. There are some good, careful authors who self-publish and do not cut corners. They are serious authors and the exception. But the general trend appears to be that if “I have a word processor and an Internet connection, I, too, can be an author and I need not invest any money to make money.” Unfortunately, this trend is exacerbated by the ease of ebooks and fueled by ebookers telling authors that they do not need publishers and other professionals — they can do it all themselves and keep all the money. Dream a little dream…

March 3, 2010

On Words: Dada

I’m not much of an artist — in fact, my art skills are less than those of the average kindergartener — but my wife is a fantastic painter. Whereas I am the consummate less-than-amateur painter, she is a professional of the highest caliber, her work and skill having been compared to that of John Constable.

My knowledge of art and art history begins and ends with the super-well-known artists like Da Vinci, Degas, Picasso, Monet, Remington, Homer, O’Keefe, and the like. I know their names, perhaps a piece or two, and whether I like their style or not, but don’t ask me to identify the period to which they belonged (Was she a classicist? Was he a dadaist?). My college art appreciation class was almost 50 years ago.

So when I read in a magazine a reference to dadaism, I had to run to my dictionary and find out what was meant. Unlike a lot of people, I admit to having a dictionary handy when I read, and to owning and using multiple dictionaries. (There is nothing more thrilling to an editor to discover that leading dictionaries don’t agree on a spelling. Imagine the hours of debate that can fill! :))

The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.), tells me that dada was a European artistic and literary movement of the early 20th century that produced work “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity.” I admit to being a bit perplexed — what does it mean to be “marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity” — but it’s a start. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) tells me that the movement was based on “deliberate irrationality and negation of traditional artistic values” — sounds like a James Joyce novel, doesn’t it? Interestingly, American Heritage tells me that both Dada and dada are correct, whereas Merriam-Webster only permits Dada. At least they both agree it is a noun.

Alright (another dispute in the making between my dictionaries and usage books, which was discussed in On Words: Alright and All Right), I still don’t really know what makes a work identifiable as part of the dada movement (which was short-lived, 1916-1923), but at least I now know what dada means.

Dada is the French word for hobbyhorse, a child’s toy. (As I recall from when my children were infants, dada is also “baby talk” for daddy. Perhaps children are smarter than we think — dada = daddy = child’s toy?) So how did its use come about for an art movement? I don’t have a clear answer but I did learn this much.

The term was borrowed from the title of a literary periodical, être sur son dada, founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1916 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian poet, and Hans Arp, a French poet and artist, who chose the name for its nonsensical sound and meaning. The movement was a reaction to the horrors of World War I, reflecting disillusionment with society. Dadaism attempted to undermine art itself by rejecting contemporary values. It was a nihilistic movement that sought to negate the accepted laws of beauty.

The movement’s founders were exiled poets, painters, and philosophers who were opposed to war, aggression, and the changing world culture.  Founders included Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara. By 1924, the Paris dada movement had morphed into surrealism.

As an anti movement, the choice of a nonsensical name seems appropriate. Today, when we call a contemporary a dadaist, we mean our contemporary is anti Western values and is nonsensical, unless, of course, we are referring to the dadaist movement of the early 20th century. Perhaps dada is an appropriate appellation for dysfunctional politicians and legislatures, too.

March 2, 2010

eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite

One of the blessings of ebooks is that they are digital files that are easily corrected (note I said easily, not inexpensively), unlike the printed book, which once published becomes a fiscal nightmare if it is error laden. This problem, and what to do about it, came to mind as the result of a recent New York Times article, “Doubts Raised on Book’s Tale of Atom Bomb.”

The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino was published in January 2010 by Henry Holt to acclaim. Alas, there may be a major problem: The technical details of the mission are based on in-person recollections of someone who was not there. So the question becomes: What is to be done? [Update: According to today’s New York Times, the publisher, Henry Holt, has decided to recall all 18,000 copies of the book. Apparently other issues have arisen, including whether the author truly has a doctorate degree and whether other sources actually exist. Here the publisher is acting as a gatekeeper and warranting the quality of the book; what would be the case if the book had been self-published?]

If this were an ebook the choice would not diminish in either importance or problems. To correct the ebook would lead to versioning and a never-ending attempt to always keep a book accurate and up-to-date — the never-ending rewrite. In one sense, this is good; in another, it is a scholarly nightmare: How will a scholar ever be able to cite or quote an ebook as a source? (Which is another interesting question: Can ebooks be reliably cited?) But failure to correct a major error, one that calls into question the validity and credibility of the book and author, as occurred in The Last Train from Hiroshima, is equally problematic. And what happens when three years from now another history-changing error is found?

Clearly this is not much of a problem in fiction. It doesn’t really matter that a street runs east-west rather than north-south in the real world, nor does it matter all that much that the author uses compliment when complement is meant. But these kinds of errors, as trivial as they are in fiction are volcanoes in nonfiction, especially in the scholarly disciplines. The fiction author will be remembered for having written an intriguing story that held you spellbound or bored you to death; the scholar will be remembered for a work being flawed or flawless in its facts, not in its storytelling.

So what does one do with a book like The Last Train from Hiroshima? The print version is an easy solution: Henry Holt can recall and refund or replace the printed book, destroying the incorrect print version, or it can just do nothing. Perhaps it can issue an errata sheet that buyers can paste into the book acknowledging the error.

But if the book is available as an ebook, the ebook is its own quandary. It is easy to replace the digital file and to even let purchasers redownload the incorrect copy. But at what point does Henry Holt and the author stop making changes? Or should we expect the book to be continuously correct and updated until such time as it is so perfect that no changes can be made? Or should we leave it as is and wait for a “second” edition to be released; that is, should the ebook be considered a mirror image of the released print version or a book in its own right?

Is this the real crux of the matter? To date, no consensus has formed on exactly what an ebook  is. When the only form of a book is the ebook form, then the ebook stands on its own. And in that instance, perhaps one revision of the digital file is warranted to correct an egregious error. But when there is a pbook version as well, the status of the ebook is uncertain and the jury remains out on whether it needs to be a mirror image of the pbook or can stand on its own. (The argument that it does or does not stand on its own is not affected by the presence or absence of “added value enhancements.” The question is whether the core text stands on its own or needs be a mirror image of the pbook.)

Publishing and history are lives riddled with errors. Books with errors have been published before and will be published again. History is knowledge of what occurred in the past and that knowledge is always undergoing change — new insights and facts are regularly being discovered. Consequently, I think there is a limit to the independent life of the ebook. I think scholars and readers of nonfiction need be able to point to a particular book and say that is it.

My solution would be to treat the ebook as the mirror image of the pbook and whatever steps are taken to correct the pbook be taken to correct the ebook. If no steps are taken to correct the pbook (a mistake, I think, that would irreparably harm both the publisher and the author), then no step should be taken to correct the ebook, except, perhaps, to add a 1 paragraph author’s note before the first paragraph of the chapter that is in question indicating that the author is aware that the following material is incorrect.

At minimum, for The Last Train from Hiroshima, the publisher should prepare an errata sheet, one that could be used for all versions of the book. I think this is necessary because the discovery of the error is virtually contemporaneous with the release of the book; had the discovery occurred 12 months from now, my thoughts would be different.

Regardless of how Henry Holt deals with its problem, I am of the opinion that, in the case of nonfiction, the core text of an ebook should mirror the corresponding text of its pbook version — an ebook does not have an independent existence. To ensure scholarly endeavors in the future can point to a specific book and cite it, there must be finality and mirroring will provide it.

March 1, 2010

The eBook Wars: Making Peace

I suspect that Macmillan’s upper management feel elated after getting Amazon to agree to an agency distribution and pricing model. But a few pin pricks to deflate that elation are probably warranted.

Macmillan showed some, but not much, gumption when it stood up to Amazon. Would Macmillan have taken the stand it did in the absence of Apple paving the way? I doubt it; Macmillan hasn’t shown any strategic or tactical brilliance in the ebook wars — this was its first bold stroke.

None of the publishers who are pushing the agency model have shown much initiative. All of the initiative has come from outside the publishing world, which is not a good sign. So I will again suggest a way for publishers to lead the way: an international repository.

Yes, I’m tooting that horn again. eBooker anger will not go away and ebookers will not suddenly be willing to live with restrictive DRM and high prices without knowing that they will be able to read the book they lease today on the device of today, tomorrow, and of 10 years from now. Publishers are rubbing salt into the wound by agitating for higher ebook prices yet not addressing the most pressing issues — that publishers want a high price for a leased book that has a relatively short useful life because of DRM. (I understand that for some people the most pressing issue is geographical restriction, followed by DRM. I am also aware that some ebookers can easily remove DRM, but the vast majority of ebookers cannot and do not remove DRM.)

When it took on Amazon, Macmillan was the public relations loser with its ultimate audience, the ebooker. If there was a winner in that debacle, it was Amazon, not that Amazon deserves any prize for caring about its customers. Contrary to public perception, I think Amazon caved to Macmillan’s demands so quickly because it gave Amazon an excuse to make a profit yet shift the blame for higher pricing. Had Amazon truly cared about its customers, it would have continued to deprive Macmillan of access to 20% of the book-buying marketplace (and up to 90% of the ebook-buying market). Macmillan could not have easily or quickly made up that loss elsewhere. 

But that sideshow just distracted ebookers and publishers from addressing the underlying problems with ebooks. Now Macmillan has an opportunity to regain stature among ebookers by taking the lead in establishing a single, uniform format and DRM scheme by leading the move to create an ebook repository (a scheme that I believe would ultimately lead to the end of geographical restrictions).

Consider the advantages to a single repository system. For publishers, it means creating a single electronic file that is properly formatted; no more introducing errors through the process of converting from one format to another. And a single DRM scheme means that they can take control of what scares them the most, setting ebooks free. (Yes, I know that any DRM will be cracked by pirates, but publishers aren’t ready or willing to set ebooks free or to accept that piracy cannot be defeated by DRM.) A single repository would also enable publishers to better track sales, get better demographic information, and even implement ebook-sharing schemes that they can live with. No ebooker I know believes that an ebook should be 100% unshareable and most understand publisher concerns about no DRM. I suspect that publishers don’t oppose sharing among family members, but that absent DRM they have no way to control the extent of sharing. A repository would enable publishers to make a leased book available to the ebooker for as long as the book is under copyright, regardless of what device the ebooker migrates from and to.

The importance to both publishers and ebookers of this ability to migrate to and from devices cannot be overemphasized. Right now Amazon controls a significant portion of the ebook market. As the market grows, Amazon will continue to exercise that control by locking ebookers into its Kindle machines. Similarly, if Apple’s iPad takes off as a reading device (of which I have my doubts), publishers will be ceding yet more control to another outsider because Apple will do what it can to lock ebookers into its sphere of influence. But if publishers created a single repository with a single format and DRM scheme, that Amazon-Apple control would be diminished if not eliminated.

For the ebooker, a single, properly setup repository that all ebook publishers used would insure access to leased ebooks today, tomorrow, and 50 years from now. It would also mean that if a publisher corrected a faulty ebook, regardless of the problem, the ebooker would have access to the corrected version and not be stuck with a faulty version. And it would permit ebookers to move from device to device without penalty. If publishers enacted a sharing scheme, which wouldn’t be that difficult to do, there would be additional value given to ebooks. eBookers would see ebooks as more like traditional pbooks and less like short-term leased, low-value products.

For publishers and ebookers alike, the repository adds value to an ebook.

To work, publishers would need to create an independent repository that would hold a copy of every ebook. Every ebook would have to conform to a single format standard and would have to be wrapped in exactly the same DRM scheme, which would have to be made available to all device makers. And accessibility would have to be guaranteed for the copyright life of the ebook. eBooks would be sold by traditional sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not by the repository, but the actual ebook would be gotten by the ebooker only from the repository, not from the ebook seller. With the repository scheme, the agency model for pricing would be less important to publishers and could even give way to the heads-on competition of days past.

If publishers really want to survive in the Age of eBooks, this is the kind of thinking that they need to embrace. The shotgun approach they now adhere to only embitters ebookers and only makes each side of the debate more intransigent. Plus publishers are inviting at minimum a public relations disaster, perhaps a more titanic disaster, as ebookers discover they have to release ebooks because they changed devices. Additionally, the repository could help publishers in the value controversy.

Although perhaps not a perfect solution, the repository is a workable solution that addresses and satisfies many of the concerns of ebookers and publishers in the Age of eBooks and at least starts the Age of eBooks off on the right track.

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