An American 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.

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