An American Editor

July 29, 2010

November’s Around the Corner, Yet Here We Go Again

The campaign season has gotten into gear. Here in New York State, we are still in budget crisis yet our politicians want us to reelect them. The irony is that most of them will be reelected even though most voters think the politicians should be kicked out.

What really gripes me is that yesterday the state legislators were called into special session, costing us taxpayers $100,000, and what did they do? They pledged their allegiance to the U.S. flag, had the call into special session read to them, and then adjourned. Nothing was discussed, nothing debated, but we taxpayers owe them another $100,000.

To top that off, I was annoyed last evening with a “research” telephone call regarding the state senate race in my district. The caller identified themselves as a pollster and asked if I would participate. So far, so good. Then the questions came. Only an idiot wouldn’t have seen through the smokescreen. It wasn’t really a poll; it was a fake poll designed to boost the incumbent and deflate his challenger. The questions were so biased toward the incumbent, I finally asked for the pollster’s complete contact information, at which point the polling stopped and the pollster hung up.

Politics has always been a dirty game. When I read about the election contests at the birth of our nation, it is clear they were as riddled with fabrications as today’s campaigns, and equally as dirty. Subsequent campaigns were no better.

The fault is that of the voter, so I stand up and accept my share of the blame. First, we allowed politics to become a permanent occupation. Why should any officeholder be allowed to be elected to an office more than a couple of times? We talk about the Kennedy seat, the Rangel seat, the XYZ seat, but never about the people’s seat. Was Ted Kennedy entitled to the seat? Or how about Robert Byrd? Charlie Rangel’s ethical problems are a result of his character and his district’s constantly reelecting him without question.

Second, we always believe that the politicians are doing us dirty as citizens — not necessarily a wrong belief — but then reelect our politicians. It is always someone else’s politician who is doing us dirty. It’s pretty hard to thrown stones when you live in a glass house yourself. It was recently reported that 70% of Americans think Congress is doing a horrendous job and all those up for reelection this November should be voted out of office. Then they were asked whether they intended to vote for their current incumbent, and slightly more than half said yes. What it means is that 434 Representatives and 98 Senators are ruining America but our 3 aren’t. Mr. Smith went to Washington in fantasyland, not in real America!

Third, we have created a culture in which our politicians believe they are entitled to everything they can get. How many of us have health insurance plans that equal or surpass that of our Congressperson, both in coverage and in cost? How about our retirements? And no need to go that far — what about our incomes. If it is true that fewer than 5% of American households have incomes greater than $250,000, why is it that so many congressional households are in that plateau? Perhaps if Mitch McConnell had to stand in an unemployment line he would understand the need to extend unemployment benefits. Perhaps if congresspersons had no health insurance coverage at taxpayer expense, they would better understand the need to do something about the problem; maybe they would recognize that it is a problem.

Which brings me to my last frustration with politicians (well, the last for this article; I’ve got a whole list more): Why is it we can afford billions upon billions of dollars for foreign wars, unusable/unwanted weapons systems, aid to foreign countries, pork-barrel projects, and tax cuts and special tax legislation that do not demonstrably bring jobs to Americans, but we cannot afford better healthcare, better education, and to feed, clothe, and shelter every American reasonably? I’m not suggesting, for example, that our military doesn’t deserve a lot of its budget or that a congressperson’s pork for a local children’s museum isn’t a good thing; rather, I want to understand the underlying thinking that rarely ever addresses budgetary deficit resolution with these things in mind. Yet, we voters tolerate that thinking, if not outright endorse it.

Which brings me to my voter frustration. We voters tend to focus on a specific, narrow issue when deciding for whom to cast our vote. A neighbor who is significantly underemployed and has had to put his house up for sale is solely focused on the candidates’ Second Amendment positions. He will vote for the candidate who he thinks will best promote his right to own and use guns without restrictions. I don’t dispute that to him it is an important issue, but THE issue? He doesn’t care about any other issue, just that one issue. It is more important to him than issues about funding schools for his children to attend, supporting the food pantry where he occasionally goes to supplement his larder, healthcare in light of his loss of coverage because of his sporadic work in this economy, and matters of his retirement, which isn’t many years away, and future employment prospects.

I guess politicians are simply a reflection of the voters — neither seem to be able to look at the big picture and act on it for the benefit of all. I get so tired of hearing a politician say it is good for her constituents even if it is a disaster for all the rest of the country so she is supporting it. I’m not sure America isn’t more divided today than it was in 1861; I am sure that politicians and voters haven’t evolved any since then.


July 28, 2010

Worth Noting: EditTools Update

Filed under: Editing Tools,Worth Noting — Rich Adin @ 5:25 am
Tags: , ,

I am pleased to announce that EditTools version 3.5.22 has been released and is available at wordsnSync. This release is a free upgrade for current licensees.

EditTools will be discussed as part of a 3-part article next week on the 3 stages of copyediting and tools to use in each stage, but I wanted to let current users know of the free upgrade’s availability. For those of you who are editors but who haven’t tried EditTools, a 15-day trial is available.

If you have tried EditTools in the past and decided it was not for you, you might want to take another look. Several major changes have been introduced in this release, including the ability to customize the tabs in the Never Spell Word macro, the ability to have the Journals macro make italic or not italic entries in its dataset, and an expanded and improved Insert Queries macro.

The prior release brought significant changes as well, the most notable of which is the Custom Dictionaries macro.

For more information about EditTools or to download a trial version, visit wordsnSync.

(Disclosure: I am the creator of EditTools and the primary owner of wordsnSync Ltd.)

July 27, 2010

Editors and the Amazon Paradox

In a recent tête-à-tête with a couple of publishing colleagues, the discussion turned (unsurprisingly) toward the business of editing and whether good-paying editing jobs are harder to come by in the Internet age. I asked a question that sort of chilled the conversation: “Don’t you think that by buying books from Amazon you are depressing your editing market?” This is the paradox of Amazon for editors.

As a consumer, Amazon has one great virtue: low(est) pricing on books (actually, it has a second great virtue — unsurpassed customer service — but this virtue isn’t germane to the discussion). But as good as that virtue is from the buying side, it has many negative ramifications. And before you tear into me about how there are no collateral negatives, think Wal-Mart, because that is what Amazon is — the Wal-Mart of books. And unlike Wal-Mart, which doesn’t do its own manufacturing, Amazon is crossing the line and adding publishing (i.e., manufacturing) to its stable of businesses.

Wal-Mart raises hackles because its low pricing pushes local businesses out of business and because suppliers, in an effort to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing and quality requirements, put downward pressure on pay and work conditions. And so we Americans get on our high horse and try to keep Wal-Mart out of our backyard and picket Wal-Mart to improve supplier conditions. We also complain about other high-profile companies who use low-pay, poor-factory-work- conditions suppliers in developing and third world countries. But we don’t complain about Amazon and its wal-martian attempts to influence the supply chain.

Yet for editors and others in publishing, this push by Amazon is leading us to our own Donnybrook. As I have noted in other articles (see, e.g., Viewing the Future of Publishing, eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors, and Editors in the Offshore World), the pressure on publishers has ripple effects and has been a significant force in depressing the wages of editors (and other publishing professionals). When I first entered publishing 26 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I would be offered editing work at an hourly rate of 50% of the minimum wage, yet that was an offer made to highly skilled, experienced, specialist editors just a few months ago.

So isn’t it paradoxical that the people whose livelihood is based on earnings made in publishing buy their books from the company that is leading the charge to depress pricing? I think so. Reminds me of the autoworker who picketed carrying a sign “Buy American” but then got into his foreign-made car.

The one truism about us Americans is that we are equal opportunity suiciders. We want someone else to make the sacrifice as we turn a blind eye to our own acts that lead to our own economic hara-kiri. I realize that boycotting Amazon/Wal-Mart and shopping at Barnes & Noble/Target doesn’t address the problem. This is really, fundamentally, a philosophical/ethical conundrum. I also realize that there is no truly satisfactory resolution available. So I focus what little boycott energy I have on those who are most visible and leaders in their retail sectors and simply choose not to buy from them.

I grant that my single voice is not worth much in this fight, but it is a matter of principle. I don’t buy from Amazon because I see Amazon as the behemoth who will ultimately, if successful, destroy my livelihood. I think there needs to be a balance, a fair price that is midway between low pricing and pricing sufficient to enable producers to earn a fair wage.

Interestingly, Amazon’s pressures aren’t good for authors either. As the book market’s tipping point pricewise continues downward (Does anyone really think that $9.99 for a New York Times bestseller is as low as it will go?), so does the pressure on authors to lower their prices to be competitive. Look at how many authors are pricing their books between free and $2.99 today. At a 70-30 split, $2.99 seems to be a great price point for an author, but is it really? The net proceeds the authors receive may be better than what they have been receiving from traditional publishers, but that doesn’t equate to a fair return for their labors. A fair return is an animal of a different stripe.

To break free from the competition requires a lot of work on an author’s part. To make a book that gets rave reviews from up and down the reading spectrum takes a significant investment. The work needed to publicize and distribute the book takes a lot of time and effort. The lower the price, the lower the return and the harder it is to devote the time, energy, and money necessary to turn a labor of love into the next Harry Potter.

And we’ve had these discussions before about the editorial quality of many self-published ebooks. No matter how the chase is cut, it always boils down to the author being unable or unwilling to spend several thousand dollars on professional help because the author really can’t see that he/she will sell enough copies to earn back the investment plus a decent profit. Isn’t that what underlies the problem discussed in I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors?

So, I ask again, albeit a bit differently: Although Amazon’s pressure to move pricing downward is great for consumers who love a bargain, isn’t it a mistake for those of us who work in publishing to support Amazon by buying our books from it? I expect most of you will say “no” and tell me how wrong I am, but as an editor whose livelihood depends on publishers and authors continuing to need my services, I see Amazon as wanting to be the Wal-Mart of the publishing world.

July 26, 2010

The Screw You eBook Deal

Every week it seems something new is happening in eBookland to set the ebook cause back a decade or two. Always at the forefront of the reversal of fortune is greed.

This week’s menace to eBookland is literary agent Andrew Wylie and his new publishing venture Odyssey. Wylie could have summed up his actions in simple terms: to disserve both his clients and the ebook-buying public. What, you ask, did he do? He agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights for 2 years to his authors’ backlist titles; Wylie will publish the books and exclusively sell them through Amazon. The backlist includes authors like Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, and John Updike.

This is tragic on many levels. First, unless he has been given exclusive information by Amazon, he really doesn’t know how much of the ebook market Amazon “dominates.” All Amazon says is “we’re #1” but has yet to actually prove it. Everyone assumes it is true, but without hard data, it is just an assumption (and you know what assuming does — it makes an ass of u and me!).

Second, even if Amazon has the largest single-vendor market share, it isn’t certain that how dominant a market share it has when all players are considered. Everyone assumes it does, but no one really knows — Amazon hasn’t put any real numbers on the table, just the hype, which makes me suspect that that’s all it is –hype.

Third, contrary to what Wylie thinks about his backlist authors, there is nothing out in the open that demonstrates that they are worth the $9.99 that is planned to be charged. What data does Wylie have to demonstrate that $9.99 is the ideal market price point for decades old books? I might reread Ellison at $1.99, but not at $9.99 — he (and Roth and Updike) just aren’t that good. Wylie complains about the Agency 5 pricing and then proceeds to draw a number out of the air himself.

Fourth, 2 years is a long time to exclude all other ebooksellers from having the ability to sell these books. It ignores the thousands, if not millions, of readers who do not buy from Amazon and who do not own a Kindle (and who do not want to read on their PCs or cell phones). If Wylie were my agent, I’d be looking for another one. As a writer I wouldn’t want thousands (millions) of potential readers excluded. As icing on the cake, no one knows whether at the end of the 2 years Amazon has an option to extend that exclusivity. It would fit Amazon’s usual tactics.

Fifth, if Wylie’s goal is to sell as many of his client’s books as is possible, why would he give exclusivity to a company who uses a format that is incompatible with every other ebook-reading device? I hear the pundits now: Because Amazon has an application that lets you read on nearly every device imaginable, just not other dedicated ebook reading devices.

This argument intrigues me. I understand James Patterson or Stephen King taking this position because they are currently writing bestsellers. The likelihood that someone will agree to read the latest James Patterson novel on their mobile phone or their PC is decent — not great but decent. But will these same people want to read a long ago Roth or Ellison or Updike novel that way? I have my doubts. I don’t personally know anyone who reads a book sitting at their desk on their PC or on their cell phones for pleasure (although I am assured that there are people who do), because that is what we are talking about — pleasure/leisure reading.

The argument also discounts all the people who buy ebooks at, for example, Barnes & Noble, which also has applications for various devices and keeps adding them. Are we to be an ebook world of Amazon only, perhaps a little B&N, but no one else?

Sixth, is the arrogance factor. Wylie doesn’t like the Agency 5’s pricing. Fine. Most ebookers don’t either. But you tell me how giving Amazon 2-year exclusivity at $9.99 sends any message of dislike about Agency 5 pricing to the Agency 5 — or even to the consumer. The only message I get is the one to the consumer, which is “screw you! If Amazon is willing to pay enough for exclusivity, I could care less whether you can read my author’s books.” Reminds me of an old radio ad: “Money talks and nobody walks!”

I admit that John Sargent’s (Macmillan) response was laughable in light of his own actions as a founder of the Agency 5. But even so, his response was on target. This exclusivity deal is not good for anyone. Is the goal to discourage reading and drive sales down? If so, these long-term exclusivity deals are a good step in that direction. People are interested in buying books only if they are available when they want them, in the form they want them, and at a price they are willing to pay. Wylie’s exclusivity deal is a 3-strike out: the books aren’t available to many readers in a form they want at a price they want to pay for ghosts from the past — $9.99 is the price point for new bestsellers, not old books from has-been authors.

And did Wylie give any thought to what state of affairs he is helping to create in the long-term? If giving a 2-year exclusive deal to Amazon is his idea of long-term strategic thinking on behalf of clients, he needs to get off his meds. Giving Amazon these kinds of deals plays into Amazon’s long-term goals of dominating ebook publishing and being able to dictate all terms. Every exclusive deal adds a nail to the coffin of marketplace competition because once Amazon sews up a significant portion of the market in these kinds of deals, Amazon will be able to dictate terms — all other competition will have been buried because they can’t get product to sell and they won’t be able to sell for less than Amazon. (That is also one of the problems with the Agency 5 thinking but at least they make their books available to everyone.)

Now that I have castigated Wylie, a punch needs to be thrown at the Agency 5 who brought this about. What did the Agency 5 think Amazon would do in reaction to their concerted efforts to control pricing? Amazon has done the smart thing for Amazon (although not, ultimately, for the consumer) in pursuing these exclusivity agreements. If anything will undermine the Agency 5, it is these deals. Unfortunately, consumers will be collateral damage. The Agency 5 thought Apple would be their savior; they were willing to overlook the fact that Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are identical twins. And so they pushed Amazon and now Amazon has pushed back.

Wylie has made what I consider to be a fool’s deal, but the deal is of the Agency 5’s making. “You shall reap what you sow” should become the motto of the Agency 5; Andrew Wylie should resurrect as his motto “Money talks, nobody walks.”

July 22, 2010

Who’s on First: eBooks, Hardcovers, Paperbacks?

The big news this week in eBookland was Amazon’s announcement that ebooks outsold hardcovers 1.8:1 in the last quarter. That set tongues awaggin’ and has prompted hundreds of articles, blog posts, and comments, now including this one. So that raises the question: Who’s on first?

One of the best comedy routines of all-time was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine and Amazon’s announcement brought the routine to mind after many years of having been forgotten. For those of you unfamiliar with the routine, here it is:

Isn’t this really the story — and value — of Amazon’s announcement?

As many other commentators have noted, there is a lot of information missing from the announcement. Perhaps the most important missing tidbits are these:

  • Were fewer hardcovers sold or just more ebooks?
  • Why compare to hardcovers when the natural competitor to ebooks is paperbacks?
  • How did paperback sales compare?
  • Do the numbers represent unit sales or dollar volume?
  • What was the average hardcover price? Average ebook price?

And the list goes on of unanswered questions, a typical Amazon ploy.

Ultimately, the most important unanswered question is this: Are pbooks being forsaken for ebooks or are ebook sales complementary to pbook sales — that is, who’s on first?

This question is particularly important in light of other recent data disclosures by others in publishing that indicate that pbook sales increased in the last quarter. It is also important in trying to determine whether ebooks are bring new readers to the table or simply shifting existing readers from one format to another. And it is also important for discovering whether the actual pool of readers hasn’t changed but that members of the pool are buying more. All of this brings us back to where we were months ago: publishers need to understand who their customers are and know more about them (see A Modest Proposal IV: A Radical Notion — Learn About Your Readers).

Amazon’s announcement doesn’t surprise me because it reflects (somewhat) my own buying habits. In my personal book world, I buy more ebooks than hardcovers by a significant margin, but to compare my ebook purchases with my hardcover purchases is to compare apples with oranges. An unscientific survey of a few friends and colleagues who buy both pbooks and ebooks illustrates that their habits mirror my habits.

In my case, I buy 4 times as many ebooks as I do hardcovers and I probably read 2 to 3 times as many ebooks as hardcovers. But none of that is meaningful. The ebooks I buy are rarely more expensive than $2.99 and are always throwaway fiction — read it once and delete, sometimes read it never and delete, often read a few pages and delete in disgust. In contrast, the average cost of a hardcover is $25 and it is almost always nonfiction (there are a few fiction authors whose books I only buy in hardcover) that I intend to keep and add to my library for future rereading or research. It takes 9 ebooks to match what I spend on 1 hardcover.

The economic implications are significant for publishers and for authors, yet they are not well understood by anyone in the publishing industry, pundits aside. Just as publishers and authors are learning that there is a downside to the new 70-30 split given by Apple and Amazon, so there is a downside to pricing stratagems — largely because no one really understands the bookbuying consumer. For too long the emphasis has been on the middleperson rather than the end consumer, and ebooks are now forcing a change.

Until a rigorous analysis is performed on the book market and on bookbuying habits, the question — Who’s on first? — will remain unanswered. This question needs to be answered because the true answer will have significant ramifications for everyone involved in books, from the author through the publisher and bookseller all the way to the bookbuying consumer.

Although Abbott and Costello parodied baseball, it doesn’t take much turn that parody into one about publishing.

July 21, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (IV)

After my recent post about too many books in my to-be-read (TBR) pile, one would think that I would wise up and simply stop adding to the TBR pile. Alas, books are an addiction for me. I truly believe that every book I obtain I will read in the not-too-distant future, but the rational part of my me knows better.

So, I’ve decided to base my acquisitions on a new rationale: I will be going into semiretirement when I’m 70, which isn’t that far away, and my income will decrease while my time available for pleasure reading will increase. A decreased income will mean less money available to purchase books, so I best build up my collection of reading materials now. Increased time for reading means I will get through more books more rapidly. Seems like a good rationale to me :).

No matter how I cut it, however, I love to read. I read all day for work (after all, it would be tough to edit a manuscript without reading it), and when the workday is done, I like to read for pleasure. I don’t watch TV, the kids have moved out, and there is only so much time I am able to spend puttering around the house. So my escapism is books.

Since my last On Today’s Bookshelf (III), I have added these hardcover books to my TBR pile:

  • Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne Heidler
  • Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove
  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
  • Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla R. Miller
  • Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris
  • A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad by Robert S. Wistrich
  • American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People by T. H. Breen
  • Imager’s Intrigue: The Third Book of the Imager Portfolio by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

In addition, I have added the following ebooks to my TBR pile on my Sony Reader:

  • Brechalon by Wesley Allison
  • A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
  • Amsterdam 2012 by Ruth Francisco
  • Last Legend of Earth by A.A. Attanasio
  • The Quest for Nobility by Debra L. Martin
  • Amber Magic by B.V. Larson
  • Fall of Thanes and Bloodheir by Brian Ruckley
  • Call of the Herald by Brian Rathbone
  • Merlin’s Daughters by Meredith Rae Morgan
  • Miss Anna’s Frigate by Jens Kuhn
  • The Orffyreus Wheel by David Niall Wilson
  • Truitt’s Fix by Rex Evans Wood

I believe I have said this before, but perhaps not. One advantage to my ebook reading device (i.e., my Sony Reader) is that I tend to read both more books and more quickly on it. I have yet to understand why this phenomenon is true, but other ebookers have told me that they, too, experience the same phenomenon. Many ebookers have also said that where they bought 1 or 2 books a month when they were reading print books, that number has tripled and quadrupled with ebooks — and the ebooks are getting read, not just piling up! Consequently, I expect I’ll be able to get through many more of the ebooks — that is, once my wife returns my Sony Reader to me (assuming she does; she has fallen in love with it) — than I will of the hardcovers.

Of the hardcovers in the above list, the only one I have managed to get through is Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius. It is an interesting history of antisemitism and well worth reading if you have any interest in the subject matter. I will warn you, however, that I found it to be a bit dry of a read. It was quite detailed and focused, although long (approximately 850 pages) but in comparison to A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad by Robert S. Wistrich, which is sitting on my bookshelf, a short read (A Lethal Obsession comes in at approximately 1200 pages). Julius’ book was reviewed in the New York Times earlier this year by Harold Bloom. Subsequently, Edward Rothstein did a comparative review of the Julius and Wistrich books in the New York Times.

Currently, I’ve turned my attention to American history and am reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne Heidler. I find this to be a well-written book about a fascinating American. One tidbit that I learned: The reason why the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is so powerful is that Henry Clay, upon ascendancy to the position, found himself frustrated by how powerless he was as speaker and decided to change things. His innovations changed the speaker’s position from essentially a parliamentarian’s role to the powerhouse it is today. If you like biography, I’d recommend this book, even though I am only about a third of the way through it at the time of this writing.

As I have noted before, free time may be more precious in the summer months when the outdoors beckon, but there is nothing like a good book to stimulate the mind — and a good ebook reader on which to read.

July 20, 2010

The Labor Market Keeps on Revolting

Recently I wrote about the labor problems at Foxconn’s China factories and my thoughts about the possible future consequences for editors (see Striking Workers and American Editors). But the news doesn’t seem to end as regards labor problems in China (see Bangladesh, With Low Pay, Moves In on China).

Although none of this is directly related to editors, as workers become more literate and able to compete for better-paying jobs, all wages will rise. I think this is the singular lesson of the industrial revolution, because the educational revolution was (and is) the mate of the industrial revolution.

Yes, it will be many more years before the “revolution” meets editors head-on, but then again, perhaps not. American editors suffer from the effects of offshoring to developing countries. It is a tidal effect in that it is the publishing jobs that require less education and lesser skillsets that enable offshore companies to package services for American publishers at a lower price than publishers can get onshore. (Take a look around: The higher the literacy the higher the wage structure throughout the society, and this is true historically.) But as wage pressure mounts from the bottom up in these offshore companies, something will have to give. I believe what will give is the significant price advantage that currently favors offshoring editorial work.

We must remember that editorial work, to be done competently, needs to be performed by literate people with higher-level skillsets. And as those on economic rungs below this level of literacy and skillset gain both literateness and skills and demand higher compensation, the pressure to maintain the distinction between the levels will increase, causing a rise in the compensation of the editorial level workers. I believe this is the singular truism of the marriage of industrialization and education, a marriage that is required to move from developing to developed.

Obviously, in the publishing world, my reference is to packagers who can underbid a panoply of services because the starting base for the most expensive portion of the package of services in the United States is so low. But just as America faced competition from China because China was able to underbid its services, China is now facing competition from less developed countries that are able to underbid China. And the reason, as noted in the New York Times article, is literacy — that marriage between education and industry.

It is the illiterate who form the low-wage backbone of the industrialization of developing nations. Yet to grow and compete, industry needs increasing literacy in its workers. Workers need to be able to comprehend computer instructions, for example. But as literacy rises, so does the demand for better wages and work conditions — and so the groundswell begins. Bangladesh, the competitor to China discussed in the New York Times article, has a 55% literacy rate, a rate that is comparable to China’s rates of the 1960s and 1970s when manufacturing began to move from made in the USA to made in China status. Now China’s literacy rate is 92%, which is giving rise to demands for socioeconomic parity with similarly literate countries, which means the developed countries of Europe and the United States.

Soon these trends, I predict, will hit India, which is currently the offshoring capital for American publishers. As Indians increase their literacy rate, the demand for better working conditions and higher pay will be felt. And as was (and is true) in western industrialized nations, the current literati will want to maintain their economic supremacy and so will also demand higher wages. At some point in the not-too-distant future there will be no financial benefit to offshoring. (As it is, I am seeing a trend away from offshoring editorial services among the companies that first thought it would be the answer.)

One other matter worth noting: With an increase in literacy comes an increased demand for reading material; books and magazines are the purveyors of knowledge, which is needed to keep moving forward. When that pent-up demand surfaces in a developing country like India, the local packagers will face the same problems American packagers face — competition for the local market.

Within the next decade, I predict the tide will turn and offshoring by American publishers will become onshoring because there will be no cost advantage to the offshoring. (We must not forget that even under the best of circumstances, offshoring is not problem-free.) I also predict that we may well see India and countries like India who currently are benefitting from the offshoring by American companies, offshoring themselves — to the United States.

July 19, 2010

Repurposing Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores in the eBook Age

The consensus among the ebook seers is that in not too many years brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstores will cease to exist — all book sales will be online or wireless.

If B&M bookstores continue to look and act as they currently do, I think the seers may eventually be proved right. To save B&M bookstores, and possibly even traditional publishers, the bookstores need to be repurposed in the eBook Age. They not only need to be repurposed, but they need to change how they generate revenue.

I think it is safe to say that we are several decades away from an ebook-only world, assuming we ever reach that point. I believe we will never see a truly ebook-only world; pbooks will always be around, even if just as antiquarian throwbacks for social trendsetters. As I’ve noted before (see The Death of “Personality” in the eBook Age), I think pbooks will retain significant value to a significant segment of the book-buying and -reading public, especially among scholars (see, e.g., eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite and Can eBooks Save University Presses?).

There is also another consideration. When the next Stephen King novel is about to be published, everyone knows about it — the B&M store is simply a conduit for getting the book to the reader. But the same isn’t true when the next Shayne Parkinson novel becomes available (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept for a review of her excellent series) nor is there an easy way to keep up with new releases of university press books, and these books — university press and independent authors — deserve the same exposure as the James Patterson books and need that exposure more than James Patterson books.

Repurposing of the B&M bookstore may be the way to aid independent authors, university presses, and small traditional publishers in the eBook Age.

Today’s B&M bookstores are blockbuster oriented and oriented toward the major traditional publishers. Except for local independent authors, indie authors and presses are not heavily stocked, and for good economic reason: they simply do not sell well enough to support the expenses of the B&M store. Perhaps instead of being corporate America bookstores, a cooperative of indie authors, indie presses, university presses, and smaller traditional publishers who currently struggle for bookstore shelving should be created to run B&M bookstores.

But if the Barnes & Nobles and the Borders chains are struggling, how can such a cooperative succeed? One way would be to act as fronts for print-on-demand (POD) pbooks and as a gateway to ebooks.

Yet this doesn’t address the new thinking that is required for indie bookstores to remain alive in the Internet age. Perhaps the answer lies in the creativity being shown by BookPeople, an independent bookstore in Austin, TX (see “At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off Page”) and imitated by indie bookstores in Decatur, GA, and Brooklyn, NY. Although the idea focuses on a camping experience that involves using imagination and role-playing based on popular children’s books, there is no reason the options can’t be expanded. BookPeople’s Camp Half-Blood (based on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) had 450 available slots — and all slots were sold out within 90 minutes. Brownstone Books’ (Brooklyn, NY) Camp Half-Blood charges $375 per week for its Camp Half-Blood.

Using imagination is only a start. Perhaps indie bookstores could also become afterschool care centers for children or run tutorial programs. Let books become a partner in the enterprise rather than the dominant purpose of the enterprise. Doing so would give indie bookstores a new life and make them relevant again in the eBook Age.

If the indie bookstores banded together under a single associative umbrella, they could easily tap the creative talent of hundreds of bookstore owners and employees across the country and develop these competitive models that would repurpose the B&M bookstore and extend their lives significantly. But closer cooperation, which is the key, I think, to survival is tough to come by: people own their own businesses because they want to be wholly independent and it is difficult to think about giving up some control. I do not think another trade association is the answer; I think what is needed is a mix between the rigid top-down governance enforced by say a B&N corporate-structure chain and a franchisee relationship. Indie bookstores need to maintain individual character yet they also need to band more closely together if they intend to survive the eBook Age.

The true test will be whether indie bookstores, indie authors, and indie/university presses are willing to band together and whether they will cede some control in exchange for a future. If they are so willing, it will be beneficial to all book lovers as well as to the indies themselves. Although the creative ideas of indie bookstores like BookPeople can provide a small shot in the arm, I think there is a need to broaden the creativity pool. One idea — no matter how good it is — will not save the indies.

July 16, 2010

Ethics in a World of Cheap

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — Rich Adin @ 8:04 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In response to my article earlier this week, Striking Workers and American Editors, one commenter raised the question of the ethics of buying iPads and iPods when we know that the devices are manufactured in far from ideal working conditions — essentially under slave labor conditions — and specifically asked for my views.

Although the article noted the labor problems in Foxconn’s Chinese factories, the factories where Apple’s iPads, among other devices, are manufactured, the problem is much more widespread. And there is no easy finger of shame to point. But to address the commenter’s request, it is necessary to backtrack a bit and ask the fundamental questions: What is moral? What is ethical?

These are questions with no easy answers. Is it more moral/ethical to give a donation to your local church’s building fund or to the local foodbank’s food-buying program? Is it more moral/ethical to cut school aid or defense spending? Is it more moral/ethical to impose a higher sales tax that disproportionately affects the poor or to raise taxes on estate transfers valued at more than $5 million? Is it more moral/ethical to abort a fetus or to bring into the world a child who it is expected will be abused? Any one of these and myriad other such dilemmas can keep us occupied debating morals and ethics for centuries to come.

The Foxconn-type situation is being played out daily here in the United States and elsewhere. We deplore the conditions under which people have to work yet simultaneously want lower prices for the commodities we want to purchase. The question as posed by the commenter really is nearly impossible to answer because even if we were to agree on what is moral/ethical, that agreement would soon fall apart as we tried to apply it to an actual commodity — because we all value commodities differently. I see no value in an iPhone, but clearly millions of users do.

It is easy for me to say that the ethical consumer would shun every Apple product because Apple is an immoral, unethical company. Why is it so easy for me to say and do? Because I happen to think Apple is an unethical company and so I don’t buy any Apple products. But the kicker to that is position is that I have no need for any Apple product. But suppose tomorrow a major client came to me and told me that I had to either buy an Apple computer or lose all their business and that I had no way to readily make up that lost income, which would lead to a cascade of misfortune for my family. Perhaps ethics is a rich person’s luxury and not a poor man’s possibility.

The situation is similar with books. As a matter of principle, I do not buy books from Amazon. I consider Amazon to be the Apple of the publishing world. Amazon is constantly putting pressure on book prices, which is good for the book buyer but is bad for those of us in the book publishing food chain. If a publisher charges less for a book because of Amazon’s pressure, the publisher will strive to make up that “loss” by squeezing the supply chain — the Wal-Mart approach — which means less money for editors and other publishing suppliers. Editors have been seeing this trend in the United States for years with the offshoring of skilled, professional editorial work. Yet, although I and many of my colleagues recognize this problem, if you ask a book-buying editor where they buy their books, the answer is likely to be Amazon; after all, they would say, “How smart is it to pay $25 to your local indie bookstore when you can buy the same book for $10 at Amazon?” No thought is given to the entics or the morality of the purchase because ethics and morality are for someone else’s purchase, not theirs.

This is the problem with the question asked: Essentially, it is impossible to answer because the angle of approach is so skewed. I think people shouldn’t buy Apple products for lots of reasons and the Foxconn situation is simply one among many reasons. But I no sooner say that than I realize that for a product I do want or need, I price shop and so I create a Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical dilemma, just in another place.

In the ideal world, every product would be fairly valued, every service would be fairly valued, every person would be highly valued — but that’s in the ideal world. All I can do is strike a small blow for what I think is right based on my needs and values; I cannot honestly condemn the iPad buyer for encouraging the Foxconn labor situation without condemning myself for the BP oil spill as a gasoline buyer and for the poor working conditions on farms for migrant laborers? (Shouldn’t I bicycle only? But what about the low-wage factory worker who built the low-priced bicycle, which is all I can afford to buy because of the low pay I receive from publishers to edit books that Amazon insists not have a retail price higher than $10 because consumers now expect that as the top price?  Shouldn’t I be willing to buy strawberries at 3 times the current price to assure farmers a good return in hopes the farmer would better the laborer’s working conditions and pay?)

I have yet to meet a moral/ethical question that is either laser focused or capable of being addressed in a laser-like fashion. Simplifying either the complex moral/ethical dilemma or the complex response/solution to a 5-second media byte does a disservice to everyone and does nothing to address the underlying causes and dilemmas. Until consumers are willing to give up cheap, until corporations are willing to accept smaller profit margins, until politicians are willing to forsake graft, until churches and their members are willing to practice what they preach, I’m not certain that I — or anyone — can adequately respond to the commenter’s concerns about the ethics of buying an iPad or an iPod or any Apple product based on the Foxconn cesspool alone. What we really need and should be addressing is a wholesale makeover of our approach to material things and how we prioritize our values. Only then, perhaps, can we truly apply a laser-like focus on the Foxconn-Apple-type moral/ethical conflicts and arrive at a universally supportable and implementable resolution.

In the mean time, I will continue to avoid buying Apple products, Foxconn simply being one more good reason to do so.

July 15, 2010

Aquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Problem of eBooks

Avid readers are easily identified by the size of their TBR — to-be-read — pile: The bigger the list, the more likely the avid reader has crossed that fine line from avid read to avid hoarder. And ebooks are a special problem in this mix. But let’s begin at the beginning.

As my latest hardcover acquisitions were delivered by the post office, I decided it might be time to take a long, serious look at my TBR pile. The problem was that there were no spots available on my primary TBR bookshelf for these new books (only 2 this time, but I have several more due this month). My system isn’t scientific, but what it is, is this: When new books arrive, I put them on a top shelf because these are (supposedly) the books that are of most immediate interest to me and the ones that I think I will get to shortly. (Many, but not all, are added to my On Today’s Bookshelf articles, On Today’s BookshelfOn Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III).) But to add them to that shelf means that a book or two have to be moved from the shelf. Room is limited.

So now I have moved a couple of books off the primary TBR shelf and into the vast stacks of TBR. Perhaps I’ll get to the books moved, perhaps not — at least that is what I am finding. I currently have more than 200 hardcover books in my TBR pile and on my TBR shelf. And as I note, that is just my hardcover books.

Which brings us to the special problem of ebooks. Yes, ebooks are a special problem because they take up virtually no space — just a bunch of bits and bytes, digits if you will, on a disk that can store gigabytes of digits. And so that TBR pool steadily grows. I looked this morning and I have more than 300 TBR ebooks, and that pile keeps growing.

What happens is that I read an ebook from the TBR pile and discover that I really like the particular author’s style. So rather than picking up another book from the TBR pile, I go buy other books from this liked author and read them. Not only hasn’t my ebook TBR pile declined by more than the one book, it has likely grown as I’ve added more to it while reading the like author’s books. Of course, if I discover that the author is terrible (sadly, a not uncommon finding with ebooks), then I not only stop reading the current ebook, but I tend to remove the author’s other books from the TBR pile. But they don’t disappear; they are still in some ebook zip file on my hard drive, just no longer in my TBR pile.

But unlike the hardcover TBR pile in which each hardcover book was purchased for money — definitely, one would think, an incentive to actually open the book and at least try reading it — I discovered that a good 80% (and probably closer to 85%) of the ebooks in my ebook TBR pile cost me nothing — they were freebies. This represents another problem or two.

First, it means that I am relentlessly adding to my TBR because it doesn’t cost me anything to do so. But that also means that the author hasn’t received any benefit. The author can’t receive any benefit until I actually read the ebook and discover how truly great the author is (we can only pray and hope). But, second, it also means that what was at the top of last week’s ebook TBR list because it was the most recently acquired, is now lost somewhere down the list, and unless it has a catchy title, there isn’t anything about the ebook to move it up the list.

That is a distinct difference between an ebook and a hardcover in my two TBR piles. Even a hardcover that I haven’t yet read although I bought it 8 months ago has a good chance of being the next book I read from that pile. The cover can attract me as I glance over the stack or the title can catch my eye as I rapidly skim the pile. With ebooks, that is much harder. Covers are often so amateurish that they are a turn off rather than a turn on. And it isn’t easy to skim covers or even titles. Finally, let’s face it, few books — e or p — really have great, catchy titles. Titles are the last bastion of the great marketer and few of us are great marketers.

So when does the TBR pool become so overwhelming that one says “Stop!” It’s easy with my print books because they cost me money and require space to store and I can rationally (although I have yet to do it) give those books the old Clint Eastwood make-my-day squint and say, “Enough! No more buying of books until I read 50 of these books!” But that moment never comes with ebooks, especially with free ebooks. There is no cost and no storage problem.

Consequently, ebook authors are disserved by readers like me. They get rewarded if I actually read and like their book because I will then immediately buy and read nearly everything else they have written. But that is the problem — they need to get read in the first place, and the only way to do that is to be at the top of the list, which is itself nearly impossible. An ebook TBR is like the drowning pool.

I have to admit that part of the problem is the poor quality of so many ebook offerings. I want to hedge my bets and make sure I have plenty of choices because of every 10 ebooks I acquire, I am certain that 8 or 9 will be trashcanned within the first 30 pages of reading. (In case you wonder why, take a look at some past articles that can be found under the tag Professional Editor, such as On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

eBooks are a special TBR problem. I’m not sure how authors can solve it. It is truly a Catch-22: If you don’t offer a book for free, who will sample your work but if you do offer it for free, how can you know it will ever be read as opposed to hoarded? I suppose if you develop a reputation for quality that would help, but getting the word out that your writing is quality is tough. At least in my case, my ebook TBR pool is begging for a reliable solution.

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