An American Editor

June 29, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 2

Below are the second round Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. These are all the nominees I have received since posting Hall of Shame Nominees 1. If you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at] and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1. Star Trek (movie tie-in) by Alan Dean Foster

  • Format: print
  • Problem: poor editing
  • Samples of errors: Captain Kirk’s father, under attack, discovers he’s restricted to “manuel control.” This is right after the word “manual” has been spelled properly.
  • Solved: No, the current run of this best-seller still contains the error.

2. The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

  • Format: print (Princeton University Press)
  • Problems: poor copyediting and proofreading
  • Samples of errors: (1) inconsistent spelling: Sea of Azov/Asov, Damogoras/Damagoras [in the same paragraph!], Lucullus/Luculus [same paragraph], Heniochoi/Heniochi; (2) typos or misspellings: ensuring [ensuing] months, unable to chose [choose], tassled [tasseled], seige [siege], Bibliotheque National [Nationale, several times], artemesia [artemisia], ro [to] become invincible, vistory [victory], putrify [putrefy], Mithrdates [Mithradates], A.E. Houseman [Housman]; (3) faulty past tense: everyone … spit [spat] on the memory; (4) missing word: caused it [to] fill; (5) wrong word: staunched [stanched] the flow of blood, enormity [enormous size, vastness] of the land and sky; (6) faulty punctuation: Mithradates’ died
  • Frequency of errors: occasional
  • Overall quality: neutral

June 28, 2010

I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors

I received a telephone call the other day from a self-published author who was concerned about her book. She had already published her book and sold some copies, when numerous errors were found by her and by readers. She was concerned that the errors were causing readers to focus on them rather than on her message.

She was surprised to discover such a quantity of errors as she had followed the “recommended” process of having friends and colleagues read the manuscript several times before publication. However, having found numerous errors after publication, she conceded it may have been a mistake not to hire a professional editor before publication.

What she wanted to know was how inexpensively her book could be professionally edited in that she and her friends and colleagues have probably now identified most, if not all, of the remaining errors and this would be a quick job as kind of insurance.

Her question was good but her understanding of the editorial process was flawed. Think about it this way: I already have a bag of flour in my pantry so I probably don’t need another bag, but maybe I’ll buy another bag just to be sure. Surely this just-in-case bag of flour should cost significantly less because I don’t really need it; the bag I already have is enough. Try that line of reasoning on your grocer and tell me how you fare.

When an author hires a professional editor, they are hiring the editor’s expertise and experience, something that is valuable and needs to be paid for. More importantly, to edit a manuscript, the editor needs to read every word. Think about how unhappy you would be if you paid an editor for a “quick” and “light” edit as insurance against embarrassment only to discover that the quick and light edit didn’t catch that suddenly, out of the blue, on page 122 the hero is missing an arm but that arm miraculously reappears 3 pages later.

As I explained to this author, without carefully reading the manuscript how would an editor know whether, for example, brake or break, seam or seem, scene or seen is correct? (See, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) The author’s question then was, “but if the editor finds no errors or only a few very minor errors, haven’t I wasted my money?”

No, because you have received the reassurance that you sought; your manuscript is as good as it gets. On the other hand, suppose the editor finds several truly egregious errors. Does the editor then deserve a significant increase in the fee? A bonus?

I suppose one solution is to find an editor who will charge by the found error. I don’t know any professional editor who works that way, but anything is possible today. But how much would you be willing to pay per error found? And who would decide whether an error was to be paid for? Should a minor error cost as much as a major error? What is the difference between a minor and major error? Who will decide an error’s classification?

The per-error-found payment scheme strikes me as unworkable; I certainly wouldn’t be willing to work on such a basis, and I doubt any professional editor would either. In fact, I’d suspect an editor’s qualifications and skills should that be the basis of payment.

There really is no getting around the fact that an experienced professional editor brings a lot to the table and needs to be fairly compensated. Few of us would want to use a neighbor whose primary job was running a daycare center to completely rewire our house; instead, we would want to hire a qualified electrician. So why, after spending many hours writing a book that we want to sell to others, would we rely on that same neighbor to “edit” our manuscript? We do it because we have little respect for the editing profession; we believe that because we caught errors in a book we bought we are capable of doing the same in our own work or in a friend’s work. To me, it is similar to thinking that because I can replace a faulty light switch, I can wire my house. The required experience and skill levels aren’t the same.

The bottom line really is that it is hard to spend money on something that isn’t making money or is unlikely to make money. In other words, as an author, you don’t really believe in the quality or value of your own product (which makes me wonder why readers should; see Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers) or you would hesitate to accept the “good-enough” standard for your book.

Just because you published your book and are now discovering the errors is no reason to expect a professional editor to do any less work on your book than had you given the manuscript to the editor before publication. Isn’t it an advantage of ebooks that they can be updated and corrected? (See eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite.) It is never too late, with an ebook, to get it right. It certainly is better to get it right than to suffer the embarrassment of being noted for poor editing (see Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important).

If you think you have something worth saying, which is why you wrote your book originally, isn’t it important to make sure that readers actually get to what you have to say rather than focus on side issues such as poor grammar and spelling? Perhaps hiring a professional editor should be high on the to-do list. Remember that your book is your face to the world!

(For additional information about professional editors, what they do and what to expect, as well the difference between an amateur and a professional, see the following articles: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); and Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

June 24, 2010

Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers

Here’s the question of the day: Why should ebookers buy and read an author’s ebook if the author him-/herself doesn’t believe enough in his/her own work to invest in it?

I’m not talking about investing time to write the book, but about investing money to perfect the book, such as by hiring professional production services.

Yes, we know, that hiring professional services is not any guarantor that an ebook will be a quality read. At worst professional services might eliminate embarrassing mistakes (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed); at best the work would greatly improve.

And there is also the problem of how do we identify an author who hasn’t invested in professional services before we buy the ebook.

These problems have moved again to the forefront of my thinking because yet again I have found myself staring at a couple of badly done ebooks. Thankfully, my Sony Reader has a delete button! Also, thankfully, these ebooks were inexpensive.

One of the things that has always annoyed me about some of my editorial colleagues who are independents (i.e., freelancers) is their unwillingness to invest money in their business — if it isn’t free or dirt cheap, they aren’t interested no matter how much it will help their productivity or enhance the quality of their work. Would I knowingly hire such a person? No, because it seems to me that a business that has pride in its work must continually strive to improve that work, and one signal of that attitude is investment in the tools of one’s profession. It is also one of the differences, to my way of thinking, between the professional and the amateur.

Just as this is true for the production aspects of publishing, it is true for the authorship aspects. Today, anyone with a computer and Internet access can proclaim themselves an author and publish an ebook. Because of how scattered the Internet is, there is no single source where someone must “publish” their ebook. But even if we say that Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords is such a site, none of them acts as a gatekeeper of quality; anyone with a manuscript can follow the process and be “published.”

Sadly, that is what too many “authors” are doing and the people who suffer are the readers. These authors aren’t investing in their books. If they aren’t investing in their books, why should the reader invest in them? Increasingly, I am becoming hardened to the idea that no ebook is worth more than $2.99 and even then I am balking, often limiting my looking to books priced at 99¢ or less. And this is bad — bad for me and bad for authors who really do care and who do invest in their books. But very cheap pricing lets me gamble on an ebook and then when I hit the delete button, not think I wasted a lot of money on garbage.

The obverse side to cheap pricing is that very good authors who have invested in their ebook suffer too because the market forces them to price competitively.

We’ve had this discussion before — numerous times, in fact — about the gatekeeping role. The loudest voices are those who dislike traditional publishers for lots of reasons, many of which are justifiable. But their alternative — to let the readers sort it out via the Internet — really is no solution; it is, as we are currently seeing, an invitation to chaos.

One proposal that has been bandied about is to have several friends read the manuscript and mark it up, make corrections, and have a group of friends read it a second or third time, each time making corrections. Works great until the first major embarrassment.

One author was promoting his/her ebooks and gave a synopsis of the plot in his/her promotions. I was intrigued so I went to Smashwords to look at the first book in the series. I stopped reading after the first few pages, because there were numerous errors. I wrote the author about the errors. The author was appreciative but surprised because the book had been edited by committee multiple times, yet these errors remained. Why? Because there is a difference between a professional editor (who is not perfect) and an amateur editor. This author got back the value of what he/she paid.

So amongst this chaos, how do I find a good ebook? With a great deal of difficulty. I’m not sure there is really a satisfactory approach, one that will assure me that at least I do not have to worry about spelling and grammar, but I am certain that I am unwilling to invest in an ebook by an author who is unwilling to invest in it. Unfortunately, because of the chaos of ebook publishing, it means I am becoming increasingly hardened to the exceedingly low price, which creates its own problems by not providing an author with sufficient income to solve these problems. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

June 23, 2010

Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting?

I know the article title is a bit odd, especially having been written by a booklover, but the question has been bothering me the past several weeks.

In the past, I went to my local Barnes & Noble at least once a week, sometimes more often, and always walked out with 1 new book and often 2 or 3. But for the past couple of months I have had no desire to visit the store and the one time I did, I bought 2 books rather than the 5 I had originally picked up (i.e., I put 3 back on the shelf after first having decided to buy them). Even more telling, however, was that I had gone to the B&N only because my wife needed to pickup some B&N gift cards for neighborhood children; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone at all. And even more telling was that in the past I loved to browse the shelves looking for books; this trip I was impatient to leave.

I’m not buying fewer books; in fact, since I was given my Sony 505 Reader 2.5 years ago, I’m buying more books than ever. But what has changed in my buying habits is the number of fiction books I am buying — from a handful each year pre-Sony 505 to hundreds each year post-Sony 505 — and how I am obtaining them.

As those of you who have followed my On Today’s Bookshelf posts (On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III)) know, I still buy quite a few nonfiction hardcover pbooks. But whereas before I would largely find them by browsing the bookstore bookshelves, I am increasingly discovering them through ads and reviews in The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the book review sections of various magazines to which I subscribe, such as The Atlantic and Smithsonian. If I read a review of a book that intrigues me or see an ad for one, I simply go online and order the book.

Fiction books, however, follow a different trajectory. For those few authors whose new books I buy in hardcover (e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, Terry Brooks), I go to an online site, check the coming soon category for these authors, and preorder the books. For those fiction authors whose books I do not buy in hardcover, the process excludes the brick-and-mortar bookstore because these aren’t authors I am likely to find on the shelves — they are independent authors. And the largest growth area in published books is books by independent authors whose books are only available online.

I discover independent authors via online forums like MobileRead and by looking through the multiformat section at Fictionwise and Smashwords. At Fictionwise, I wait for the big sales because I am unwilling to spend too much money on an unknown author; I usually get to Smashwords via a recommendation at MobileRead and often with a discount coupon.

But even then independent authors are losing out — at least as far as my buying goes — because I simply do not have the patience to sift through lists of books. Neither Fictionwise nor Smashwords makes it very easy to scroll through their offerings. There is no way to stop for the day, return tomorrow, and pickup where I left off — I am forced to start from the beginning of the list yet again, which rapidly becomes tiresome. And it doesn’t help when what I see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller frustrations.)

The brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstore suffers from an inability to compete either in price or selection. Independent authors are increasingly (or so it seems) pricing their ebooks at $2.99 or less. Knowing this makes me reluctant to try a new author I find at the B&M bookstore; it is one thing to gamble $2.99 on an unknown author and quite another to spend $12.99 or more.

So what is there to attract me to the B&M bookstore? As each week passes, I find it a greater struggle to want to go to the B&M bookstore. I’m not interested in the pastries and coffee; I rarely ever peruse the magazines; I can buy the same books online for less (in Barnes & Noble’s case, its online bookstore undercuts its physical stores on pricing so why buy at the B&M version?).

Are ebooks quickly making B&M bookstores uninteresting destinations? In my case, yes, because there is little incentive to shop at the B&M store, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, the online ebooksellers aren’t making their sites must-go-to destinations either. I think there can be a great future for B&M bookstores, just not in their current guise. I’m not sure what guise they need to undertake, but it is certain that they do need to make the experience an interesting one and they must become must-go-to destinations.

June 22, 2010

Some Worthwhile Ideas for eBook Devices

I came across this video by Kevin Rose, a founder of Digg, with some suggestions for future enhancements for ebook reading devices. I think his suggestions are excellent.

The question now is whether they can be implemented at what seems to be the new price levels for e-ink readers. Barnes & Noble has introduced a new $149 wi-fi version of its nook and has lowered the price on its 3G nook to $199. Amazon has lowered its price for the K2 Kindle to $189 and Sony has lowered the pricing on its line of readers: Pocket Edition (PRS-300) $169.99, Touch Edition (PRS-600) $199.99, and the Daily Edition (PRS-900) $349.99 (I am certain I have seen this priced at $299.99). Also available is the Kobo Reader at $149.

The pricing is excellent for these devices, especially compared to what my Sony PRS-505 cost 2.5 years ago ($299). If you are thinking about buying a reader, now may be the time to do so. I suspect that the new models that will appear beginning late August will all be higher priced.

I am waiting for the new models because what I want is an 8- or 9-inch (possibly a 9.7-inch) screen so I can convert my newspaper and magazine subscriptions to electronic versions and yet read them comfortably. If all I was interested in was reading books on my reader, then I would stick with my Sony 505, which has been and continues to be excellent.

As you may recall, I highly recommended the Promises to Keep Quartet by Shayne Parkinson in an earlier article. My wife wanted to read the quartet but wouldn’t use my Sony 505, saying that she didn’t want to take it away from me because she knows I enjoy reading on it so much. Needless to say, I countered that it wouldn’t be a problem, especially as I have such a huge to-be-read pile of hardcover books (and more on order), but she wouldn’t budge.

So I borrowed my son’s Sony 505 and loaded the books onto that device for her. Now I have two things to report: (1) Like me, she loves the Promises to Keep books. She is spending more time in the evenings reading these books than she usually spends reading. So for those of you who haven’t yet tried the books, here is another vote for them.

(2) My wife loves reading on the Sony 505. She was hesitant at first, but now has decided that this is an excellent way to read and actually prefers it, like I do, to reading the print versions. She has noted how much lighter the device is than many of the pbooks she reads; how she doesn’t lose her place should she fall asleep while reading (after about an hour of no activity the 505 automatically shuts off; when you turn it back on, it opens to where you were when it shut down);, how she was able to adjust the font size for easier reading; how she can easily carry multiple books (on my reader, for example, I have 134 books) with her wherever she goes, especially when she has to wait such as when getting the car serviced; and how she can easily sit outside in the sunshine and still read. Consequently, she has laid claim to my Sony 505 when I buy a new reader and if I don’t buy a new reader for me, I’ll need to buy one for her!

June 21, 2010

On Books: A Savage Conflict

I am slowly whittling away at the books on my bookshelf. I have now finished reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland.

If you have any interest in the U.S. Civil War, this is a must read book. Although we learned a little bit about some of the more infamous guerilla raiders in our history classes, A Savage Conflict is a comprehensive look at not only the raiders but how they came to be and their true role in the Civil War. There is little glossing over of what these raiders — both Confederate and Union — did, especially in Kansas and Missouri.

Although guerilla warfare was first authorized by the Confederacy virtually simultaneously with the attack on Fort Sumter, the original concept was for them to be attached to more traditionally formed armies and under the control of the regular armed forces. This “control” did not last long on either side. In too many cases, the guerillas were simply bands of outlaws, not believers in a cause.

Confederate and Union leaders worried that reliance on guerilla warfare would do more harm than good and would serve to undermine military discipline. This ultimately became a major problem for the Confederacy. As the guerilla war progressed, two types of guerilla bands developed: the official and the independent. Towards the end of the conflict, little governmental control over either type existed.

Sutherland takes us on a journey through the wasteland of guerilla warfare. He describes how Southern sympathizers formed guerilla bands originally with the idea of protecting their homes, especially in areas were the Confederate army was missing or lacked control, which led to Unionists, that is Union sympathizers, creating their own bands to protect themselves from the Southern bands, all of which led to what seemed to be a never-ending cycle of escalation.

These problems existed in virtually all of the border and deep south states, but was most evident in Missouri and Kansas. Sutherland makes clear that the guerilla movement existed as much in Mississippi as it did in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri. He tells us about the leaders, their motivations, and their activities, and he clearly distinguishes between those with a sense of duty and honor and those who were simply gangsters.

With so many guerilla bands to cover, this book could have been a book of rote entries — dry but encyclopedic; instead, it is well written and easy to read. This book does suffer from the endnote problem, but in this case, I was able to ignore all the endnotes. For the most part, they were simply citations, not explanations. However, the book would have been enhanced if it had not had the endnote callouts or at least had a prefatory author’s note saying that they could be ignored by the average reader. (For my view of endnotes and footnotes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.)

Because guerilla bands came and went, especially as leaders were captured or killed by various forces, Sutherland’s approach is to address the guerilla war by years. Although I was skeptical at first about approaching this topic in this fashion, it turned out to be a sound approach, enabling me to better follow the story.

Anyone with an interest in the Civil War and the effect it had on the average citizen should include A Savage Conflict in their readings. The guerillas made a particularly bad war even worse, especially for the Confederacy, and an understanding of the guerilla war and its backlashes enhances one’s understanding of the U.S. Civil War and the reasons underlying some of the decisions made during the postwar reconstruction era.

June 17, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers

I have “bought” more than 400 ebooks since I received my Sony Reader as a gift 2.5 years ago. I put “bought” in quotes because about half of the ebooks I “bought” were free ebooks; the other half I paid for. But I’ve noticed a significant downward trend in my buying of ebooks in the past few months, and I have finally realized why that is occurring: frustration with the ebookseller experience.

Before someone jumps up and says how wonderful and easy the buying is at Amazon with the wireless downloading to the Kindle and the 1-click payment system, let me be clear: having to download to my computer and transfer to my Sony and having to go through a couple of steps to complete the buying transaction are not the source of my frustration. I don’t find either troublesome or taxing.

The source of my frustration is finding the good book to read and buy at these ebooksellers — the finding of the needle in the haystack of needles.

Let me illustrate the problem. Fictionwise lists 2751 titles in the Fantasy/Dark Fantasy category; Smashwords lists 1223 titles in SciFi/Fantasy; and Sony Reader Store lists 6810 titles in SciFi/Fantasy. How much time would it take to go through 1223 titles looking for a few books? Even at 30 seconds a title, it would take more than 10 hours to go through the Smashwords list, which is by far the shortest list. Perhaps you are willing to sit at your computer for 10 hours and do nothing else, but I’m not.

Granted each of the ebookstores has some filters in place, but those filters don’t really address the problem. The reason why is that none of the stores offer you the option to filter out books you have already “reviewed” the last time you went looking for an ebook to read.

Buying at a brick-and-mortar bookstore reduces the problem significantly because of the store’s limited inventory. But online ebooksellers have virtually unlimited inventory that grows weekly. Consequently, the very first improvement I think ebooksellers need to institute is the ability to create a custom inventory for each buyer. Just as one can choose, for example, to filter out ebooks already purchased at Fictionwise (a filter that all the other ebooksellers should offer), there should also be a filter for books that I have already reviewed and am not interested in.

It should be relatively easy to implement, although I admit I am not a programmer. Next to each title should be 3 checkboxes: Add to Cart, Add to Wishlist, and Remove from Personal Inventory. If I check Remove from Personal Inventory, the next time I search for something to read, the ebook would not be included in the choices. However, there should be a list kept that I have access to so that I can reverse my decision 3 months from now by unchecking the title.

Another problem with all of these ebooksellers is that when I look for an ebook and spend an hour going through the first 10 “pages” or so of inventory and then leave the site, on my return, I need to start over, as if I had never looked at any of the ebooks previously. Admittedly, this is a tougher problem to solve because new titles are constantly being added and ratings change. I’d like to see two separate lists: a list of new titles since my last visit (new titles list) and the list that I had been perusing on my last visit (the last visit list).

The last visit list should let me pick up from where I left off; if I was on “page” 9, I should be able to go to page 9 and continue reviewing ebooks, knowing that all of the ebooks I reviewed on my prior visit are found in “pages” 1 to 8.

I also would like to see more filters. Smashwords’ filtering is so limited, it almost might as well not exist. Fictionwise’s and Sony’s are not any better, although Fictionwise at least lets me filter out books I have already purchased (but not the titles if they are in a different format; e.g., if I purchased the ebook but not the audio version, the audio version still shows up in the list).

I don’t read, for example, vampire books. Why can’t I filter out vampires? Or fantasy that doesn’t include dragons and elves? With the descriptions and the metadata available, shopping can be made a lot easier, and the easier it is, the more likely books will sell.

It is not enough that an ebookstore has hundreds of thousands of titles; the titles must be accessible and to make them accessible, better methods of finding that needle in the haystack of needles is needed. The ebookseller who conquers this problem will be the ebookseller who leads the burgeoning ebook market.

June 16, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books — the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review  to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, “2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better  chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

June 15, 2010

From One eBook Market to Multiple eBook Markets: Who Wins?

Amazon has announced its new AmazonEncore and AmazonCrossing publishing ventures and has signed J.A. Konrath for Kindle distribution. Now Barnes & Noble has followed suit with PubIt! as a self-publishing platform with B&N distribution. eBooks are fragmenting the book market and the loser is the reader.

Amazon and B&N are only the beginnings of the upcoming slugfest. Each will try to entice both new and established authors to abandon their relationships with traditional publishers and publish their ebooks exclusively on one of these new platforms. At first glance, this looks great, especially for authors like Konrath who are midlist authors with allegedly declining sales. The problem is that these new ebook platforms are fragmenting the book market for the consumer.

Will Amazon make Konrath’s ebooks available for everyone or just for Kindle owners? OK, it doesn’t take much imagination to answer that question based on Bezos’ past practices — most of the reading world will not have access to the ebook for reading on their dedicated device. How long will it be before Amazon decides that although the future is ebooks, the present requires both e and p, and so wants exclusive rights to both versions? Or is that already part of the deal?

Traditional publishers, including the big 6 (5 of whom, in cahoots with Apple, are already screwing readers with the agency pricing model) have lots of faults but the bottom line is that they are better for readers than Amazon, B&N, or Apple ever will be — because they distribute their product to everyone. Granted I may not like their pricing policies, their insistence on DRM, and the ebook windowing, but I sure like those unfriendly policies a lot better than Amazon’s insisting that I buy from it and if I want a dedicated reading device that I buy the Kindle.

I can hear the uproar now: Amazon makes it easy to read on nearly any device through its different device-specific applications — as long as I don’t want to read on a competing dedicated ebook reading device. But if I wanted to read on my PC or my laptop or my cell phone, why would I have bought a dedicated ereading device? Why should I be forced to kowtow to Amazon?

But the issue isn’t can I read it on my laptop computer or my tiny cell phone; the issue is can I read it on the dedicated reading device of my choice. Ultimately, I think financial survival of authors — other than the big blockbuster authors like Stephen King and James Patterson — lies in the hands of those readers who buy more than 1-3 books each year; that is, the dedicated, avid reader, the reader who buys and reads lots of books and who will buy a dedicated reading device.

Authors who sign exclusive deals with Amazon, Apple, B&N, and other similar ebook publishers/sellers should be boycotted because of the harm they are doing to their fan base and to readers in general. How many of these reading devices will I need in order to read new works from favorite authors? Why should I be forced to use an inconvenient method to read just because a favorite author has signed an exclusive deal? Why should I reward the author for the hurt caused me by the author’s greed?

I don’t disagree that authors should be compensated — and compensated fairly — for their efforts. I’ve never hesitated (well, not too often) to purchase a hardcover book that interested me simply because of price. But I am much more cautious about what I spend on ebooks because of all the restrictions and because I do not want to reward flat-out greedy authors who sign exclusive deals that prohibit interested readers from purchasing their books. Konrath, for example, has lost my business.

A fractured ebook market is not good for either readers or authors, yet authors, when offered these exclusive deals with Amazon, seem to have a great deal of difficulty looking beyond today. Perhaps an author will see a short-term boost in sales, but I suspect that over the long run these exclusive platform deals will hurt authors. They certainly will hurt readers.

The rejoinder, of course, is that the books will be available for a lot less money than traditional publishers would charge and the author will make more money. I expect that both are true, certainly in the formative years. But I always have niggling in the back of my mind this: What will happen when 60% or more of the ebook market — both publishing and selling — is controlled by a single company? History tells us that when that occurs, consumer prices tend to rise and wholesale prices tend to decline. Didn’t we see that, for example, with Microsoft’s pricing of Windows and Office?

Too many consumers think that Bezos and Jobs are really their best friends, business leaders who are really only on the lookout for what is best for the consumer. Today that may be true, but will it be true tomorrow if Amazon forces B&N out of business, or if Amazon gains the type of dominance in publishing and selling of ebooks that Microsoft has in consumer operating systems?

Exclusive deals between authors and hardware+publisher+seller companies are not in the reading publics’ best interest. I believe that consumers are best served when publishers are separated from the sellers.

June 14, 2010

On Books: The Rain Wilds Series by Robin Hobb

Hobb has been one of my favorite fantasy authors for many years; I have read every book written under the Hobb name and I buy each as it is released in hardcover. Consequently, I was excited when she released Dragon Keeper, the first volume in her new Rain Wild series, in January 2010.

I eagerly set aside other books I was reading to take it up. Sadly, the book was a disappointment; it was merely an OK read, nothing to write home about. If the book is exciting and grabs me, I usually read a novel like this within a couple of days; but Dragon Keeper dragged on for a couple of weeks. The characters had little depth, the story little to hold interest. I struggled through the book, hoping that when the second book in the series was released in May 2010, everything would be better. And I particularly liked that I wouldn’t have to wait a year for the second book in the series.

Dragon Haven, the second book, was released on time. Admittedly, this book is a little better than the first book, but not by much — perhaps a fingernail’s worth. The characters have become slightly more memorable, the story perhaps a tad better, but overall I could care less if a third volume in the series is ever published.

The story follows the dragon keepers, a group of social misfits (misfits in the sense that because of their deformities they would normally have been abandoned at birth and not allowed to live and those who do live are forbidden to procreate) who are given the task of accompanying some newly hatched dragons on their quest for a place to live. As dragon keepers, they are responsible for grooming and hunting for the dragons. The first book establishes this relationship and we read how keeper and dragon begin to bond.

The second book picks up the story and we follow the keepers and the dragons until they find the mythical dragon home. Along the way, many of the dragons decide to turn their keepers into Elderlings, that is keepers with long lives who are physically shaped by their dragons, and one particularly uncaring dragon even decides to give her keeper wings because it fits the dragon’s sense of beauty.

OK, bottom line is who cares. The plot is dull, the characters have no depth, and there is much too much emphasis on the fact that a couple of the “humans” on this trip are homosexual. It actually seems more like an attempt to be politically correct — that is to have both hetero- and homosexuals in the story — than having the homosexuality add anything to the story. Perhaps that comes in the next volume, or perhaps never at all.

First it was L.E. Modesitt’s 16th volume in the Recluse series that disappointed (see L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast), now it is Robin Hobb. I begin to wonder if these authors are putting any effort into their work or are simply trying to live off past glory.

In any event, I do not recommend Hobb’s Rain Wilds series. I think even die hard Hobb fans will be greatly disappointed. Perhaps the next volume will be the salvation volume, but if the first two volumes are any indication, it will just be more dull reading.

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