An American Editor

April 16, 2010

On Words: Bogeyman

I don’t recall what I was reading, I think it was a newspaper article, but suddenly I was faced with a word I hadn’t seen or heard in quite a number of years: bogeyman.

I’ve never given the word much thought; I’ve always subconsciously thought I understood what it meant — after all, how many times does a child need to be told to beware the bogeyman before the child understands that bogeyman (also spelled boogeyman) doesn’t mean a treat? But the recent reading of the word (and if I had to venture a guess, I’d say I read it in a political commentary) made me wonder about the word. So here goes a short exploration of bogeyman.

Starting with the dictionary definition, a bogeyman (n.) is a “terrifying specter; a hobgoblin” (American Heritage Dictionary 4e). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11e gives a more child-oriented definition: “1: a monstrous imaginary figure used in threatening children 2: a terrifying or dreaded person or thing.”

Bogey was the name for a mischevous spirit and was first recorded as a proper name for the devil, who is sometimes referred to as Colonel Bogey. The origin appears to be unknown but the word seems to be related to the 16th century’s bogle, which meant ghost or phantom.

It appeared in 1836 in Bogey the Devil and in a popular song of 189os entitled “The Bogey Man,” which was a reference to a golf game. In 1890, Dr. Thomas Browne was playing against Major Wellman, the match being against the “ground score,” which was the name given to the scratch value of each hole. The system of playing against the “ground score” was new to Major Wellman, and he exclaimed, thinking of the popular song of the moment, “The Bogey Man,” that his mysterious and well-nigh invincible opponent was a regular “bogey-man.”

Bogeyman is likely related to the Scottish bogill, although there is also some claim that it is derived from the English word boggart, a shapeshifting creature, often black and hairy, that hides under your bed or in your closet until after sundown.

Regardless of its origins, bogeyman has become a part of the everyday lexicon, likely as a result of its use to threaten children. If you have any more information to add to the etymology of bogeyman, please do so. Sources seem to be scarce.

April 15, 2010

It’s the Little Things: Hardware

In a previous article, I raised the topic of the little things in editing that can make editing quicker, more accurate, and more profitable, but I didn’t begin discussing the actual tools I use. With today’s article I begin that discussion.

Although most of the tools are software, we do need to begin with hardware. I don’t plan to discuss the innards of a computer or whether one should buy a laptop or a desktop, although my experience with both indicates that editing on a desktop is more efficient for me. But there are a couple of pieces of hardware that are worthy of note: monitors and XKeys.

Monitors

When I first began electronic editing, more than 20 years ago, color monitors were not available. The monitors were black and white (or green or amber), were small, and were heavy CRTs (cathode ray tubes). Using a single monitor at a “large” screen size of 12 inches meant investing a ton of money into a single piece of hardware. How times have changed.

The advent of LCD monitors with large screens has been a boon to editing. Instead of seeing a few lines of text, one can see a page, get a better feel for context. LCDs have two other bonuses: small size (compared to the equivalent CRT) and, today, a low price.

As I have noted in other articles, I read a lot of “stuff” and I read, years ago, the results of a productivity study that showed that using 2 monitors nearly doubled productivity and using 3 monitors increased productivity by another 20% or so (the third monitor stat is from memory and may be off, but the study did show an increase in productivity over 2 monitors), and there was yet still another increase with 4 monitors but it was a less dramatic increase than third monitor increase.

I can attest at least to the 3-monitor productivity increase (I wanted 4 monitors but just couldn’t find room for #4). I have used a 3-monitor setup in my work for years and would not consider returning to anything less. I need to mention, however, that I do not think just any monitor will do. I have found that the best monitors for my work are monitors that pivot between portrait and landscape modes.

My set up uses three 24-inch pivoting LCD monitors (I happen to like Samsung monitors and the 3 monitors are the Samsung SyncMaster 2443BWT model). The left monitor is almost always in portrait mode as is the center monitor; the right monitor is usually in landscape. But should I need all in portrait or a second in landscape, I just need to rotate them.

The 3-monitor setup lets me logically divide my work. Here is how I usually have my work setup. On the left monitor is the manuscript I am editing. Portrait mode lets me see a page (or close to it) at a time. The center monitor is where my Internet access is located. I use an online collaborative stylesheet system that operates through my website, so this gives me access to the stylesheet (always up) and to Internet resources if I need to check things. On the right monitor I put my local resources, such as an electronic specialty dictionary or word book, and the manuscript references or bibliography. Just by moving my head or my mouse, I have instant access to all the editing resources I need.

Compare this to editing on a single monitor. Think about how much time has to be spent going between screens, and if you use the landscape orientation so that you can “split” the screen and have, say, a manuscript and the stylesheet visible at all times, what you are seeing is less than what I can see and requires more scrolling time.

So that little thing of have at least 2 monitors boosts productivity and efficiency greatly.

XKeys

Xkeys is equally as valuable, perhaps even more so, as the 3-monitor setup. I use, and have used for at least 10 years, the 58-key professional PS2 model. When I originally bought my XKeys, only the PS2 model would retain its programming in a power failure. This appears to no longer be the case. (One other important note: XKeys sells its own macro software. I have never used it or bought it, so I have no opinion about it. I use with my XKeys macro software called Macro Express, which I will discuss when I discuss software.)

XKeys sits to the left of my keyboard in a place of honor. It has increased my productivity many times over (I’ll say by 1000% but I really have no idea of the percent). I have programmed the XKeys for “odd” key combinations, such as Ctrl+Alt+Shift+F1, as well as for familiar combinations such as F1.

XKeys increases the number of key combinations available for macros by 58 because you can add hard-to-press combinations to a single key. (Actually, if I wanted, my XKeys Pro can handle 114 key combinations. It really is a 2-layer device, but to access the second layer and return to the first layer requires additional key presses, so I have never bothered). When I discuss software, I will go into more detail about the advantage of XKeys, but suffice it to say that I can now, with the press of a single button, run a macro or apply a style. It is much quicker than using a keyboard combination or the mouse.

But here is the most important part of XKeys — I can create a custom “keyboard” for each client or project type or project without reprogramming the XKeys! I have certain macros that I use for every client and every project, such as my Toggle macro, which is part of my EditTools software. So I have permanently assigned a particular XKey button to that macro. I don’t even have to divert my eyes from the manuscript to press the key. Habit takes over. The point is that every “custom keyboard” I create has certain macros preassigned to it, and it is only the remaining buttons that need to be assigned.

And because XKeys is just running the programmed key combination, I can assign to that key combination either a macro from within a program such as Microsoft Word or via Macro Express. XKeys is also program-neutral; that is, I have custom keyboards not only for clients and projects, but also for programs, such as InDesign.

XKeys and a 3-monitor setup are important allies for me in my never-ending quest to improve my accuracy and efficiency, which will translate to an improved bottom line. In subsequent articles I will discuss some of the software I use and how I use them as part of my striving to be the best editor I can be and provide my clients with the best editing available.

April 14, 2010

Gift Cards in the Agency Age

As most ebookers know, the big 5 publishers, conspiring with the consumer’s “best friend” Apple, have instituted the agency pricing model — they now set the selling price to which all retailers must adhere. Why did they jump at this pricing scheme? Because they thought their ebooks were being devalued when they were sold at $9.99. I wonder what the big 5 think now.

So, how do you buy agencied books at a discount? U.S. Sony users have the answer this week: buy $25 Sony eBookstore Gift Cards at Target stores for $15 — a 40% discount. How does this thwart agency pricing? Well, if the agencied ebook price is $14.99 at every ebookstore, using the Sony Bookstore Gift Card reduces the effective price to $9.00 — even less than the dreaded $9.99.

I don’t know who is absorbing the loss on the gift card, whether it is Sony, Target, or a combination of the two, but I do know that the deal is great for anyone whose ebook reading device can handle ePub with the Adobe DRM, which is most devices. I bought 10 of the gift cards and am thinking of buying another 10 before the end of the sale.

If this works as well as I think it will, Sony should see a significant increase in sales. I know it will see a significant increase in purchases made by me. A 40% discount is mighty enticing, especially when it is on any ebook, not just New York Times bestsellers that I don’t read. But more importantly, this could turn into a wave of me-toos from other ebooksellers.

How can they get away with this? Well, I admit I’m just speculating, but here are my thoughts. First, the agency publishers cannot control the price that an independent retailer like Target can sell a gift card for; similarly, they can’t control the price that Amazon can discount gift cards.

Second, gift cards represent cash — unspent cash. So a $25 gift card, whether it cost $5 or $50 to buy, was bought with cash and represents $25 cash and can be used to purchase $25 worth of goods. State and federal regulations govern this.

Third, the ebooks are being sold at the agency price; they are not being discounted. When the ebooker buys that $14.99 agency priced ebook, $14.99 is deducted from the $25 credit that the gift card represents. The agency publishers have nothing to complain about and no agreements (to the extent I have knowledge of them, which is to the extent of what I read in the press) are violated.

So who wins with the discount gift cards? The gift card ebookstore who gets my money in advance and who now knows that I will buy at least $X worth of ebooks from it because the gift cards aren’t usable elsewhere. Plus I am now encouraged to look at, in this instance, the Sony Bookstore whereas before I only occasionally looked for a book there. In addition, because people who own ereading devices other than Sony but that are ePub-with-Adobe-DRM capable can also buy books at the Sony Bookstore, Sony gains access to more ebookers.

The gift card seller (i.e., in my case Target) who lured me into its store, a store I rarely go to, to buy the gift cards and hopefully something else.

eBook authors and publishers because I have now committed to buying ebooks that I would not otherwise have bought. The Sony gift cards I bought are not redeemable for anything but ebooks at the Sony Bookstore.

With only the Sony Bookstore gift cards currently available at such a discount, ePub and Adobe are winners, too, because devices that aren’t hampered by being unable to read (without stripping DRM, which most ebookers either cannot or will not do) ebooks in ePub with Adobe DRM can make use of these gift cards — that’s a lot of ebookers.

And me, the ebooker, who is able to buy ebooks at a discount. In this case, I am the big winner because a 40% discount is a bigger discount on an ebook than usually offered once you look past the New York Times bestsellers.

The only losers today are the international ebookers who live outside the United States who do not have access to the gift cards; they need to be bought in person at Target. But this might be the first breath of wind in a brewing storm where the ebookstores begin competing by discounting gift cards. Will Amazon and Barnes & Noble join the fray?

April 13, 2010

In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count

The “little things” has multiple meaning in editing. It means such things as consistency, correct spelling, correct grammar. It also means those numerous, repetitive tasks that take only a second or two but which add up to a significant amount of time. In today’s conversation, I want to address — or at least begin addressing — the latter meaning.

Every editor knows that time is truly money. The longer it takes to accomplish a task, the less money the editor earns. Because of this, many editors prefer to charge an hourly rate. The problems with an hourly rate are several: First, if your hourly rate is $25, whether you work 1 hour or 100 hours, the most you will earn is $25 an hour. Second, most clients have a budget, a maximum they are willing to pay for a project. If the client estimates that the editing should take 100 hours, the client’s budget is for that 100 hours and it is difficult to get a client to pay more than the budgeted amount. Thus your work is constrained by the need to not exceed the client’s budget.

Other editors prefer to work on either a per-page or project fee basis. Here the effective hourly rate (i.e., the total $ charged ÷ the total number of hours worked) fluctuates. If the project is a 1,000-manuscript page project and the per-page rate is $5, the client knows that the cost will be $5,000, regardless of whether the editor takes 200 or 75 hours to complete the editing. But there is an incentive on the part of the editor to be more efficient because the editor’s effective hourly rate can be high or low depending on the editor’s efficiency. If that project takes 200 hours, the effective hourly rate is $25; but if the editor finishes the project in 75 hours, the effective hourly rate is $66.67. The flip side, of course, is that if the project takes 300 hours to edit, the effective hourly rate is $16.67.

Consequently, the per-page and project fee systems encourage editor efficiency whereas the hourly system discourages it.

How do editors become more efficient? That is always a hot topic in editor discussion groups and has many answers. There are some things that cannot be made more efficient. For example, deciding whether a sentence makes sense cannot be automated. On the other hand, there are lots of tools available to an editor to increase efficiency, some free, some costly, and some between free and costly.

Before taking the plunge into tools and software (which I’ll save for another day), I know some convincing needs to take place. Consider this example: U.S. versus United States. There are times when one is appropriate and the other is not, just as there are times when it could be either way except that the author or client has set a preferred usage.

In the U.S., one U.S. senator can prevent ninety-nine colleagues from discussing legislation that benefits the U.S. as a whole.

Under usual circumstances, most of us would change U.S. to United States as follows:

In the United States, one U.S. senator can prevent ninety-nine colleagues from discussing legislation that benefits the United States as a whole.

How do you make this correction now? Most likely you use your mouse or keyboard to select U.S. and then type United States. How long does it take to do this twice? Time it for yourself, but be sure to start with your hands in your normal editing position when you are reading the manuscript and time from the moment of discovery.

Granted this takes but a few seconds, but how many of those seconds does it take to add up to a significant amount of time over the course of editing a manuscript. And remember that there are lots of these types of changes that have to be made. Can this correction, and similar corrections, be made more efficiently? Yes, with the right tools and knowhow.

Think about the efficiency of editing on paper as opposed to editing on a computer. I remember the “hard copy” days and how difficult it was to keep track of all the changes that needed to be made. And what a problem it was if you discovered 50 pages into a manuscript that “RJ Applewood” should have been “RJ Applewind”  and “PJ Applewood” should have been PJ Aplewood.” Good luck finding all the incorrect instances. How much easier online editing has made the process.

Not only has the computer made the process easier, especially for the little things, but it has enabled development of tools that are designed specifically for or can be adapted to editing that will speed up the routine things editors need to do and improve accuracy. They won’t make a poor editor a good editor, but they can help turn a good editor into a much better editor. I’ll discuss some of the tools I use in another article.

April 12, 2010

Editors in the Offshore World

Editing has come a long way, baby! All the way from being a local skill set to an anywhere-anytime-anyone skill set. How many times has a neighbor said to you: “I just finished reading XYZ and spotted 3 errors. I could have been an editor!”? That the neighbor missed 200 other glaring errors is beside the point — that everyone thinks he or she can be an editor is the point. And that publishers think that anyone anywhere can edit a book for a local audience is also the point.

No matter where you go in this world you will find the same two editorial classes: those who can edit and those who can’t. Pick a country — doesn’t matter which one — and you’ll find the two classes. So the problem isn’t that the local country has a monopoly on good editors; the problem is more intricate than that.

Editors are a reading class, or a class of readers. Editors tend to be book lovers — why else would one want to wade through some of the drivel editor’s see? As book lovers, editors (as a class) tend to spend a larger proportion of their earnings on reading material than noneditors (as a class). But as editors’ incomes decline, so does the amount of money that they can spend on reading material. And let’s face it — no matter how you slice and dice it, an editor in Ukraine is unlikely to be a large consumer of books for the American audience, just as the American editor is unlikely to be a big consumer of books for the Ukrainian market.

How, you ask, does this relate to offshoring? Think about the books we buy in the United States. When a book refers to “Appalachian-level poverty,” the U.S. reader understands the metaphor. Would the Indian or Australian reader understand its symbolism? (Yes, we can all point to the one or two U.S. folk who wouldn’t understand and to the one or two Indians or Australians who would — let’s not get quite so picky.) Would the Indian or Australian editor understand the connotations of equating living in, say, Los Angeles with living in the Mississippi Delta?

This isn’t a one-way street. There is much I wouldn’t know or understand about a metaphor relating to a French or German localism that the French or German reader and editor would understand immediately. And offshoring affects the German editor, the Australian editor, the British editor, as much as it affects the American editor. The Internet has made us all vulnerable to offshoring. Also remember this: Today’s offshore choice is likely to find itself scrambling within a decade as some other  place becomes the new cheap heaven.

When a publisher offshores editorial work, the publisher not only raises editorial problems because of localisms but also deprives a portion of its audience of the means to buy the book. It is a circle of quality plus buying power. It is true that publishers offshore to save immediate costs but at the penalty of lost future sales.

Of course, those of us who earn our livelihoods as editors know that when the publisher offshores, the publisher really is not offshoring a single part of the editorial and production cycle. What the publisher does is offshore the whole editorial-production package to a “packager.” The packager then re-offshores the editorial work by trying to hire local editors, that is editors local to the country where the book will be published.

The problem isn’t the offshoring to the packager who then re-offshores back to the local country; the problem is that the packager has cut a deal with the devil in order to get the original work. The publisher offshores to cut editorial-production costs; the packager promises reduced editorial-production costs; the packager cannot provide the editorial part in its own locale so it re-offshores the editorial work. But because of the promised savings, the packager has to short-change something and so it short-changes editorial.

Editors in the United States saw this in practice not too many months ago when a mass e-mail was sent by an offshore packager looking for experienced STM (science, technical, and medical) editors to edit book and journal manuscripts, saying: “We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front. [sic]” In addition to the “high standard of Quality” editing, the packager required “a Non-competent [sic] agreement between us.”

A high-quality edit of STM material is time-consuming, and experienced STM editors know that such a requirement means a churn rate of about 5 manuscript pages an hour. Add in the requirement of a noncompete agreement and an editor would think the fee would be a reasonable one. Alas, this packager offered “Copyediting – $0.80 per page,” which meant that the editor would earn $4.00 an hour, slightly more than half of U.S. minimum wage.

This packager’s pricing was a bit extreme but not by much. This was my — and every editor who received the e-mail’s — Appalachian-level poverty moment.

I don’t know how many U.S. editors this packager ultimately was able to hire at this rate, but if I were a publisher who cut the deal with this packager, I sure would wonder about the work quality and the skill set of the hired editors. Of course, it also makes me wonder what the rate would be for nonspecialty editing or for inexperienced editors.

Offshoring of editorial functions to packagers because of a combined low package price is problematic on multiple levels. If publishers indirectly cause the demise of the local editorial class, they are also causing the demise of a significant segment of their buyers. If the editorial quality remains consistently poor, something we are seeing in ebooks, and which is creeping up in pbooks, people will ultimately become so frustrated with the reading experience that they will rebel at paying for it. If I have to suffer through a poorly edited book, I may as well suffer through one that cost me nothing — something that is increasingly seen with ebooks. Publishers and authors can protest low pricing claiming their products are valuable, but the marketplace, as offshoring of editorial work continues, may well view the products as worth nearly nothing.

I am reminded of what happened after World War II with the rise of the Japanese economic empire. Made in Japan became synonymous with very cheap and mediocre to poor quality; made in America was equated with expensive and high quality. But books in American English don’t carry a label that says “edited in Somalia” so readers assume — often incorrectly — that the editing — good, bad, or indifferent — was done by local editors (assuming it was edited at all). Perhaps books should be required to carry origin labels just like other products.

Books aren’t like TVs. Book editing requires a more intangible skill set than does assembling a TV; it requires knowledge and decision-making prowess. It is not repeatedly putting the same part in the same place. Although some aspects of editing can be automated, there still needs to be a decision maker who can decide between “know” and “no.”

Offshoring affects editors everywhere because economies rise and fall and today’s cheap labor becomes tomorrow’s expensive labor, so today’s editors who receive the offshored jobs will tomorrow find their jobs offshored. It also affects publishers everywhere. It is their need to produce localized books to sell to the local market at a price the local market will bear for quality that the market expects that is being jeopardized.

There is no easy answer, but with book prices climbing, editorial quality needs to keep pace. Perhaps the answer is to standardize the world’s languages into a single language with no localisms permitted.

April 9, 2010

On Words: Jim Crow

Last week I came across Jim Crow in two different magazines: the first was in the current issue of American Heritage and then in the current week’s The Economist. Jim Crow is not an unknown or rarely used term. It is commonly found in American history books dealing with slavery and segregation and is found in magazine articles discussing segregation, the civil rights movement, and the history of racism. I understand what it means (systematic discrimination against and segregation of blacks, especially as practiced in the southern United States after the Civil War and until the mid to late 20th century) and that it is an epithet reserved for the racial group being discriminated against. But I never knew its origins.

Jim Crow was the stage name of a black minstrel character in a popular song and dance act performed by Thomas Rice about 1835. Rice was known as the “father of American minstrelsy.” Following Rice, other performers performed the Jim Crow character.

The song on which Rice’s act was based first appeared in an 1828 play called Jim Crow. The play’s song had the refrain “My name’s Jim Crow, Weel about, and turn about, And do jis so.” Rice’s version used the refrain “Wheel about and turn about and jump Jim Crow.” The song was so popular that newspapers and reviews in the 19th century often referred to it; for example, the Boston Transcript (March 25, 1840) wrote: “Tell ’em to play Jim Crow!” In 1926, the New York Times (December 26) wrote: “From ‘Old Jim Crow’ to ‘Black Bottom,’ the negro dances come from the Cotton Belt, the levee, the Mississippi River, and are African in inspiration.” The 1849 Howe Glee Book stated: “Toe and heel and away we go. Ah, what a delight it is to know De fancy Jim Crow Polka.”

Perhaps the musical origins were not innocent, but they did not carry the malice of subsequent uses, particularly as Jim Crow was used following Reconstruction after the Civil War.

The first recorded use of the word crow in its derogatory sense was by James Fenimore Cooper in his 1823 book The Pioneers, in which he used crow as a derogatory term for a black man.

One of the earliest uses of Jim Crow as a derogatory term not associated with the song or the minstrel act, was in 1838, when “Uncle Sam” in Bentley’s Miscellany wrote: “Don’t be standing there like the wooden Jim Crow at the blacking maker’s store.” And one of the earliest direct, no mistake about, uses of Jim Crow as a racist term was in the Playfair Papers (1841): “A portmanteau and carpet bag…were snatched up by one of the hundreds of nigger-porters, or Jim Crows, who swarm at the many landing-places to help passengers.” In 1842, Jim Crow car meant a railroad car designated for blacks. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), wrote: “I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line.”

But Jim Crow as a political term came into its own following Reconstruction. The Nation of March 17, 1904, reported that “Writing of the ‘Jim Crow’ bills now before the Maryland Legislature, the Cardinal expressed his strong opposition.” Two months later, the Richmond Times-Dispatch (May 25, 1904) reported: “The Norfolk and Southern Railroad was fined $300 to-day for violating the ‘Jim Crow’ law by allowing negroes to ride in the same car with whites.” The previous year, the New York Sun (November 29, 1903) reported that “The members of the committee have arranged with the parents of negro children to send them all to the Jim Crow school, thus entirely separating the white and negro pupils.”

The New World (1943) discussed Jim Crowism: “Negro soldiers had suffered all forms of Jim Crow, humiliation, discrimination, slander, and even violence at the hands of the white civilian population.” Time reported in 1948 (December 13) that “The Federal Council…went on record as opposing Jim Crow in any form.” And in what became a prescient statement, the Daily Ardmoreite of Ardmore, Oklahaoma, wrote on January 22, 1948: “What they call a ‘Jim Crow’ school cannot meet the federal court’s requirements for equality under the 14th amendment.” This was subsequently confirmed in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Many more examples are available of Jim Crow and its morphing from a popular song to a derogatory term. No history of the word can take away the harm and the hurt Jim Crowism inflicted on innocent people. Even today Jim Crow remains a blight on the reputation of the South. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that Jim Crow began its death spiral. As each year passes, Jim Crow increasingly becomes a relic of history — where Jim Crowism belongs.

April 8, 2010

Can eBooks Save University Presses?

University presses are very important in the world of scholarly nonfiction publishing. Like many other small businesses, they are suffering in today’s economy — and have been suffering even when economic times have been good. University presses (UPs) bring prestige to a university and publish work that the for-profit commercial publishers, like Hachette and Random House, often will not publish because expected sales are so low and the reading audience so narrow and/or small.

UPs are generally subsidized by their schools. Absent the subsidies, there would be few, if any, UPs (excluding the giants like Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). But when university budgets need reducing, UP budgets are often among the first to get sliced.

One problem that UPs face is that of book pricing. To make a book potentially profitable, the UPs have to list their books at high prices, much higher than the commercial presses. It is rare for a UP to have a runaway bestseller that is able to carry several other titles with it. And as we book buyers know, the higher the price, the less likely the book is to have mass appeal and sell in significant numbers. I suspect, but do not know for certain, that the largest number of UP sales are to libraries, the repositories of knowledge in a community, whose own budgets are being squeezed. As always, there is a ripple effect.

So that raises the question of the role of ebooks in the future of UPs. There are lots of hurdles that need to be overcome, not least of which is establishing an authoritative version (see Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe? and eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite for a discussion of the problems of constant revising). The printed book is a resource to which all readers can look and see exactly the same content; the ebook is a resource that has the potential to never be settled thus even readers who look at an ebook have no assurance that they are seeing the same content.

We know that distribution and production costs are reduced with ebooks. Other costs remain the same as compared to a print version. If only an ebook version is produced, composition costs can be significantly reduced because a single template can be created into which content can be flowed — or so one would think. The reality is different, unfortunately. There may well be a change in composition costs, but it might not be less than for a print book, at least not under the current standards. As standards improve and become more nonfiction centric (as opposed to the current fiction centric), composition costs may well be reduced.

But there are advantages to an ebook that do not exist with a pbook. The obvious one is ease of delivery. It costs virtually nothing to deliver an ebook over the Internet. Perhaps the most important advantage for UPs, however, is the ease with which new editions can be created as new information is discovered. Modifying an electronic file is significantly easier than recreating a print version. And this might be the way for UPs to capitalize on ebooks: encouraging authors to continue with their research and update their books.

In fact, UPs should consider selling books as subscriptions rather than as final sales. Today, when I buy a UP published book, I get today’s offering and nothing more. Perhaps the author is continuing to work on the project or perhaps other scholars are using the particular book as the basis for their own enhancements to it. If so, I do not get the benefit of that work for many years, until a new edition is published or another author publishes a followup work, if ever.

A subscription, on the other hand, could serve me, the UP, and the author well. The UP would get a constant stream of revenue; the author would receive a constant stream of royalty as an incentive to continue research in the subject matter; I would get a constantly updated book. Granted this wouldn’t work with all UP offerings, but it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate those offerings for which it would.

A scheme such as this would also allow the UP the option of not offering a pbook version. Or it could offer a pbook and ebook in tandem (see eBooks & pBooks in Tandem), with the ebook being a subscription. The pbook would serve as the base, authoritative, original version of the work and the ebook would serve as a planned update service to the original research, whether by the original author or by other scholars in the field. This in-tandem combination would allow an initial sales capture (with its revenue) and an ongoing subscription sale (with its revenue).

Once this concept took root, there would be nothing to prevent UPs from creating packages of related books and ebooks that could include backlist titles and even forthcoming titles. For example, if the UP created a series on the history of the Tennessee Army in the Civil War, it could offer a subscription ebook series that included the first title in the series and the next 5 titles. By buying a subscription, the reader would be assured of getting the information and the UP would know sales in advance and revenues in advance. The subscriptions would encourage authors to continue their research and to share it with others via this model. The UP could even follow the Baen model of offering forthcoming manuscript in various stages and inviting readers to give the author feedback on everything from content to composition.

Perhaps not a perfect model, and really more just a collection of thoughts, but the UPs need to be forward thinking if for no other reason than we rely on UPs to preserve knowledge as nonprofit presses. The subscription concept could be a win-win-win — for readers, authors, and UPs.

April 7, 2010

Agency in eBooks: Just the Start?

With all of the hullabaloo lately about the shift to the agency model of pricing brought about by Apple and 5 of the big 6 publishers, the question of what this means for the future of all publishing has been sidestepped. (For those unfamiliar with the model, essentially it means this: publishers set the retail price for an ebook and every ebookseller sells the ebook at that price. The ebooksellers aren’t really sellers in this scheme; they are simply conduits — a funnel for money to go from buyer to publisher and for delivery of an ebook to the consumer. For their efforts, the ebooksellers receive a commission.)

Let’s assume that the publishers (and Apple’s) motive for the agency model in ebook pricing is pure as the driven snow before the dog is let outside. Let’s also assume that the move was necessary to preserve “quality” publishing by ensuring that publishers and authors receive a fair return for their work effort. And let’s further assume that publishers play and will continue to play an important role in getting “quality” manuscripts from the oven to the table.

Yes, I know that for some of you these are mighty big assumptions and that it goes against the grain, like a fingernail scraping across a chalkboard, to give any credence whatsoever to these assumptions, but their credibility really doesn’t matter in the real world. What does matter is what the agency model for ebooks portends for publishing as a whole, and here is where publishing may well meet its Waterloo (further discussion of publishing meeting its Waterloo is found in Will Apple’s iBookstore be Publishing’s Waterloo?).

If the agency model works for ebooks, why won’t it work for pbooks? What separates the ebook and the pbook in terms of preserving the value of the work? Why should one be treated differently?

Logically, there is no difference between an ebook and a pbook. Yes, there is a form difference and yes, there is a slight production cost difference, but there is no difference in the content — and isn’t content what is really being sold? If the sale is really the format and not the content, then why pay authors? Why not just sell gibberish? Every reader, every author, and every publisher knows that content is king — it matters greatly whether that novel was written by me or by Stephen King and it matters greatly how the same words are strung together (presumably Stephen King strings them better than me).

If the agency model is designed to preserve the value of the content of an ebook, shouldn’t it be used to preserve the value of the identical (except for format) pbook? (Further discussion of value is found in Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?) Isn’t this where we are heading now that the floodgates have been opened?

The ramifications of the agency model haven’t really been thought out by any of the players. If it works for ebooks, it will work for pbooks. If it is imposed in pbookland, publishers will, in one fell swoop, eliminate their largest headache — returns (for a discussion of returns, see It’s Raining, It’s Pouring: Returns in an eBook Age). It will also stabilize pricing — no more battles based on price between Wal-Mart, Amazon, Target, and Barnes & Noble, for example.

If agency pricing works with consumers (still unknown), publishers will be able to raise pricing on paperback books — after all, if an ebook that the buyer leases sells well at $14.99, why sell a paperback that the buyer owns at $7.99?

And if agency pricing works, why not further consolidate and eliminate booksellers altogether? Oh, that can’t be easily done tomorrow because consumers like the one-stop shopping that bookstores and ebooksellers provide, but it is only a matter of putting some thought to the problem to figure out a solution, a way for the publisher to reap 100% of the money — no need to split with an agent who provides minimal service.

Apple is one culprit here. Blinded by its dislike for Amazon (among other companies that Jobs seems to have a fetish about), Apple offered publishers what seems to be the ideal solution to Amazon’s power grab. Amazon is the other culprit in this story. Blinded by its desire to dominate the nascent ebook market like Apple dominates the emusic market, Bezos made several strategic blunders, each inflaming the publishing industry and fanning a belief (a well-founded belief, I think) that the enemy is Amazon and it must be brought to its knees. Unfortunately, the ebook consumer became the first casualty in this war and, ultimately, all readers are likely to become book war casualties.

The ultimate question for publishers, however, is will the agency model actually work to the industry’s benefit? What benchmarks have the big 5 set to evaluate the effect of the agency model on ebooks? How dedicated to book buying is the reading public? Have ebookers become so enamored with pricing wars that they will forsake agencied ebooks? There are lots more questions that need asking and answering, but I suspect that the big 5 are unprepared to either ask or answer them — at least not objectively. In the end, I think the near-term winners will be Random House and those indie publishers who forsake the agency model.

Which leads to the final question to be answered: What will publishers who have agreed to the agency model do if the iBookstore turns out to be a small molehill at the foot of a mountain rather than the expected mountain? Someone who buys a Kindle or a Sony Reader buys one because they are a reader; who knows why an iPad was bought. It’s the difference between buying a dedicated device and a multifunction device. Hard to tell which of the multifunctions was the impetus for buying the device and which functions are secondary or tertiary considerations, if considerations at all.

April 6, 2010

Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?

Publishers claimed the high road in the pricing battle with Amazon over ebooks, constantly denigrating the $9.99 value point. Publishers feared, they claimed, that such a price point devalued ebooks.

That got me thinking. How do publishers decide the value of an ebook? Clearly they think a leased ebook has more value than an owned pbook because we haven’t heard this rallying cry before. Thus the move from the wholesale to the agency model of distributing. Why do publishers think a leased book is more valuable than an owned book? Or do they?

There is a certain lack of logic to publisher protestations. For decades the wholesale model has worked without claims of devaluing even though bookstores heavily discounted the books and forced publishers to print large quantities only to have a significant portion of the print run returned. If I were to point a single finger at a single cause of book devaluation, I would point that finger at print overruns that cause returns.

Think about it. Where do the remainder books come from? They are the remainder of the print run that didn’t sell. They are offered in bargain bins for 20% or less of the retail price, and who put them there? The publishers. Is this yet another case of the kettle calling the pot black?

Until the advent of ebooks, publishers seemed happy to sell books to retailers for the wholesale price and then let the retailers set the actual sales price. What difference did/does it make to publishers if retailers sell every book at a loss? The publisher’s revenue isn’t linked to that sales price — or is it?

The unanswered question is whether the discounted pricing moved more books for which the publisher was paid the wholesale price. Would 100,000 copies still be sold if the book wasn’t discounted to $9.99? Or would sales languish at a significantly lower number. My bet is they would languish.

The second unanswered question — and the one that publishers jump on but have no data to prove — is will the $9.99 ebook price will set a price point in the consumer’s mind above which no book — p or e — can be sold? Publishers point to the music industry, but why not look at their own history? The $7.99 paperback hasn’t done away with the $35 hardcover. Publishers are reacting from fear, not knowledge. 

But none of this addresses value. It does address market forces and the likely impact that a lack of competitive pricing may have on the book market, but not value. How do publishers ascertain a book’s value?

We know that there is the bean-counter method whereby someone adds up all the production costs, allows an accounting standard amount for intangibles, applies a percent for profit, and allows for returns, and then divides the total by the print run to establish a value. (There are variations to this bean-counter method.)

But the bean-counter method can’t really be the valuation method publishers are using because that method would work equally well with ebooks — in fact, it would be simpler with ebooks because there would be no print run intangibles or returns. So publishers must be using some other method, one that I can’t put a finger on. (Sure would be nice if they explained it!) The method must somehow be tied to an intrinsic value, a gut-feeling value.

The intrinsic value has to be unquantifiable and based on the content. But isn’t the content of the pbook version and the ebook version the same? Or are the contents different and we just aren’t being told? I expect the content is the same, so explain to me why there is no devaluation of a pbook sold at discount but there is of an ebook?

What makes a paperback worth $7.99, an ebook worth $12.99, and a hardcover worth $25.99 when all the content is identical? We know that production and distribution cost differences are not the answer; the answer must lie in the content or the format. If the content is identical, then content doesn’t account for the valuation difference. The answer must be the format. But that doesn’t make sense because the pricing schemes are reversed, since the value of the format is convenience and ebooks are certainly more convenient than pbooks, which means ebooks should cost more and hardcovers less than paperbacks. But then ebooks are leased and pbooks are owned and isn’t ownership more valuable than leasing? Shouldn’t then the value of ebooks be less than that of paperbacks?

Is this confusing? Yes, because there is no logic to applying the different pricing models — wholesale to pbooks and agency to ebooks — on the basis of value. There is no demonstrable difference in content value to any of the formats. Something is rotten in ebookland!

I don’t want to flat-out state that there isn’t an argument to be made by the publishers about preserving the financial value of books. What I do want to flat-out state is that

  1. publishers haven’t made any valid argument to date.
  2. publishers need to explain why ebook valuation is different from pbook valuation.
  3. publishers need to reassure the nascent ebook market that they truly aren’t trying to kill ebooks.

There clearly needs to be a dialogue between publishers and consumers, especially now that publishers have set the consumer, and not ebooksellers, as their market with the adoption of the agency model. But for this dialogue to occur, publishers need to define how they value books so that consumers can determine for themselves whether the agency model for ebooks is really justified by a need to save books from being devalued. The argument that ebook sales detract from hardcover sales and thus the need for the agency model is less than a weak-kneed argument. The counterargument is simple: Set the initial retail price under the wholesale model of the ebook at the same price as the hardcover and let the ebooksellers sell them for whatever price they wish, including at a loss, just as is done with the hardcovers.

Publishers need to be more forthcoming. They do not need to justify price in relation to costs; that is a business matter. What they do need to do is better explain their valuation excuse for going to the agency model. Consumers are entitled to understand why there will no longer be price competition in the ebook marketplace. Isn’t it the publishers’ own actions that are devaluing books?

April 5, 2010

Will Apple’s iBookstore be Publishing’s Waterloo?

Publishers have bet the store, so to speak, on Apple’s unproven iBookstore. Publishers knew what they had with Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble, but forsook the known to engage with the unknown. If the iBookstore fulfills publisher dreams and becomes a real competitor to Amazon, it is likely that the agency model will expand. But what if the iBookstore becomes a Newton?

The problem is that if the iBookstore doesn’t fulfill all of the big 5 publisher’s prayers, they may not be able to retreat, having burned their bridges behind them. And if they do retreat, they may do so in the face of much more powerful Amazon than the Amazon that originally sent them into Apple’s arms.

The iBookstore experiment has several problems, not least of which is that it will be impossible to know how the agency model fares against the wholesale model on a same-publisher basis because once a publisher chose agency it was crammed down all ebooksellers. This would have been an important experiment for publishers. It is important to know whether agency decreases, increases, or has no effect on profitability and revenues. For the agency publishers, this knowledge will be lost.

Another problem is the possibility of being Newtoned. It is pretty clear that the initial adopters of the iPad are the hardcore Apple fans. But there are only so many of them and no one knows how many of them are ebook readers. Long-term viability is significantly more important than short-term sales spikes. And for publishers, of even greater importance is how many ebookers will purchase an iPad and shop the iBookstore.

iPad’s shortcomings have been well discussed in the media. Chief among them for ebookers are the difficulty of reading in bright light (outdoors), lack of annotation, and the weight. eBookers are generally, as I use the term, avid readers, the people who buy more than 5 books a year. The casual reader, the person who buys 1 or 2 books a year won’t make the agency model and the iBookstore a success for publishers; ebookers are needed. How happy will ebookers be with the weight and limitations of the iPad?

What happens if the iPad and the iBookstore are Newtons (flops)? What is the backup plan? Have publishers cut their own throats by forcing ebooksellers to accept the agency model? If the agency model is a flop with consumers, will publishers simply have given Amazon the dominant position they were trying to undermine?

The iPad is a nice gimmick and for all the hype, I don’t find it a compelling buy — and I’m looking for a larger screen ebook device. When I sit down to read, that’s what I want to do — read, not just for 5 minutes but for hours. And I buy lots of books; last year I bought more than 200 books (so I’ve got a huge to-be-read pile to which I am constantly adding). But I can’t imagine reading on a 1.5-pound device for very long; it would be uncomfortable to hold and would constantly require both hands. And I like to read in the sunshine when the weather is nice, something I can do on my Sony Reader. Convenience and comfort are two reasons for buying an ereading device. So the iPad is not on my list and the iBookstore, with its proprietary DRM is also not on my list.

What will publishers do to keep me buying books? Higher pricing is certainly not an incentive to buy books; if anything, it is an incentive to buy significantly fewer books, especially as I just lease the ebooks rather than own them. Locking me into a proprietary DRM leasing scheme and a particular ebookstore — whether Amazon’s or Apple’s — doesn’t appeal to me.

If ebooksellers like Smashwords continue to price aggressively, I am more likely to buy books from their indie publishers than I am to buy from the big 5 at inflated prices. So I and others like me, who do not fall for the Apple hype, are a problem for the big 5 and the higher agency model pricing. Don’t get me wrong. I am not one of the ebookers who believes that $9.99 is the magical sweet spot; I’m willing to pay more or less than that price point, but I’ll only pay more if I perceive the value in doing so. That’s where publishers fall down: they fail to convince me of the value of their ebooks.

The big 5 have declared war on me (and like-minded ebookers) with agency model pricing and aligning themselves with the iBookstore. This may well be their Waterloo, yet it is a battle the publishers cannot afford to lose. If the iBookstore’s sales numbers do not at least meet the sales numbers of the wholesale model, publishers will have won the battle (imposition of the agency model) but lost the war (decline in sales and revenues).

What remains to be learned is how the agency model publishers will evaluate whether the agency model is a success or failure. If the goal is to kill ebooks, then a decline in ebook sales will equal success; that is a fool’s goal, however, because ebooks are clearly the growth area of the future. If such a decline is not accompanied by a parallel increase in pbook sales, all the big 5 will have accomplished is lowering their overall sales and revenues. How will they view success or failure if the ebook market continues to grow but their share stagnates or declines?

Will they have succeeded or failed if Amazon’s, Sony’s, and B&N’s ebook market share continues to grow and the iBookstore only captures a very small percentage of the ebook market? How will the big 5 view the experiment if Smashwords’ share of the iBookstore market is greater than their share? Most importantly, if the iBookstore is a failure, how will the big 5 extricate themselves from the debacle?

Needless to say, it is much too early to determine success or failure, but it is not too early to plan a retreat. Placing all one’s hopes on unproven entities (the agency model and the iBookstore) is begging to be Waterlooed.

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