An American Editor

July 14, 2010

Striking Workers and American Editors

In the news in recent days have been articles about worker problems at Foxconn’s China factories (where Apple and Dell products are made) and about Chinese workers striking for better work conditions and pay — something one would never have expected to read about following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. More recently, there was an article about the inability of Chinese factories to hire younger Chinese workers who prefer not to work than to work for “slave” wages and under “slave” conditions.

Although not directly related to editing or to American editors, I do think these are a precursor of what we will see in coming years in other rapidly developing countries, such as India — the places to which publishers are currently flocking to get editorial and production services at significantly lower costs. I think that the financial class divide that exists in these countries, which is what enables the significantly lower prices, is rapidly being threatened by the interconnectedness that the Internet Age has brought to the world.

Although today is not a great time, compensation wise, to be an American freelance editor, the tides may be turning. I’ve noticed an increase in complaints about editing quality and an increase in requests from offshore book packagers to hire American editor services for American book projects. Counterbalancing this trend, however, is the increase in people who are claiming to be professional freelance editors and who are willing to work for the 80¢ a page that is being offered, for what amounts to a developmental edit rather than a copyedit (for a discussion of types of editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor).

Recently, this was brought home to me as I was hired to reedit a project that supposedly had been edited by a “professional” editor. The client ended up paying twice for the same work, and although the client got a bargain with the first editor — at least fiscally for editorial services — it turned out to be not much of a bargain when my fees were added to the pile.

But, as I began this post, the awakening of other editors around the world to what constitutes a fair wage can only harbor good things for American editors. Although we have lost our price competitiveness in recent years, the cycle is changing.

I was reviewing my company’s financial history a few weeks back in preparation for a discussion I will be participating in, and was struck by how price conscious publishers have become as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry. In the early years of my 26-year career, I could bank on a yearly fee increase; perhaps not a large increase, but an increase nonetheless. That seems to have ended in the mid-1990s.

I think the culprit is consolidation into megapublishers whose tentacles reach worldwide. The accounting departments, which justifiably look to the bottom line, see that they can pay an editor in country Y $1.50 a page and thus think that editors in country Z who want $3 a page are overpriced. There is little recognition of the differences between Y and Z and no consideration of the experience and knowledge of the individual editor.

The other trend, besides no fee increases since the mid-1990s, is the pressure to lower prices. Publishers seem to need (or want) to increase profit margins at the expense of editorial, probably because they think — and perhaps correctly — that most readers won’t notice if editing is lacking, but it is harder to do away with the typesetting and printing.

Of course, as with everything else there are countermeasures to each of these trends. The question becomes, however, how willing are freelance editors to take those countermeasures. From what I have seen so far, few are willing to do so, preferring to complain and struggle than to find a workable solution.

July 9, 2010

On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept

Over the past few months, you have read my praise for the Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson several times, beginning with the original review (On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) and then as an example of quality ebooks in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Once again, I am compelled to discuss these books.

But first, because I do not want you to think I am shilling these books, let me issue my denials upfront: I do not know the author; I have never met the author. I have exchanged a couple of e-mails with her through MobileRead, an ebook discussion forum, which she initiated to ask me to perhaps edit a comment slightly I had made about her books on the forum because she thought perhaps I was giving away a surprise to those who had not yet read the quartet (in the end, it was agreed to leave the comments as they were because the books aren’t mysteries). I receive no remuneration of any kind in exchange for these mentions. Have I covered all the bases?

Okay, now to why I feel it important to reiterate praise for these books.

My wife and I are avid readers. Every time we go to a bookstore, she walks out with as many books, if not more, than I do. I suspect her to-be-read pile challenges mine if we ignore ebooks. Why ignore ebooks? Because my wife doesn’t own an ebook reader and doesn’t buy ebooks. She has consistently refused to share my reader, saying that she bought it for me and can see how much I enjoy it (all of which is true).

Our taste in reading material differs greatly. Although we discuss books we have read and recommend some of them to each other, we both recognize that it is the rare book that we would both enjoy and with our to-be-read piles growing weekly, the likelihood of one of us picking up, reading, and enjoying a book recommended by the other is slim. She likes what I call do-good nonfiction, e.g., the story of a school built in a poor remote area, and Maeve Binchey-type fiction. I prefer nonfiction books about hard subjects, e.g., wars, both ancient and modern, and my fiction rarely ventures from the scifi/fantasy genres. Even so, we do discuss books and what we have read.

Nevertheless, after I finished reading the Promises to Keep quartet, I insisted that Carolyn borrow my Sony Reader and try these books. After a bit of coaxing, she did and now things are different at our table — all because of the Promises to Keep quartet. First change is that I haven’t had access to my Sony Reader for nearly a month. Second change is that where we tend to read our magazines at the lunch table, she now reads one of the quartet books.

The third change is probably the most telling change: Carolyn is an excellent painter (visit her website to see what I mean) whose paintings are in collections worldwide. So she often spends her evenings (along with her days) in her studio working on the newest painting. Her habit has been — and this has been true for the many years we have been together — to watch an hour or so of TV at the end of the day as her method of unwinding before bed. But not long after she started the Promises to Keep quartet, her habit changed: now the TV is silent and she unwinds by continuing her reading of Parkinson’s quartet.

The fourth change, and perhaps equally significant, is that we now have regular discussions about the books in the quartet and about the characters. Neither of us had previously felt a desire to discuss more than once or twice a particular book, and certainly not to engage in speculation about fictional characters.

The final change is that Carolyn is actively recommending these books to friends. In the past she would mention a good book to a friend, but that would be the extent of it. With the Promises to Keep quartet, she is repeatedly recommending the books and providing links for her friends.

All right, you’ve got the picture about how much both of us like these ebooks, how outstanding we think they are. Well, just to reinforce the notion, let me repeat some words Carolyn has used to describe the books: “outstanding characterization,” “fascinating and compelling story,” “can’t stop reading” (how true this is — she struggles to stop reading when the clock chimes 1:30 a.m.), “can’t wait to find out what happens,” “mesmerizing,” “compelling.”

Why is this important, this exuberance for these ebooks? Because it proves that self-published, independent authors can produce high-quality literature, that not all self-published authors are simply trainwrecks in disguise. But it takes care and effort, both of which are evident in this quartet. (I asked Carolyn how many errors she has noticed in the books she has read so far. She answered 2 or 3 in total over the first 3 books, none of which were major or distracting.)

My questions are these: If Shayne Parkinson can maintain such quality over 4 books, why can’t most authors maintain it over 1 book? What is Parkinson’s secret? Isn’t the lack of quality evidenced in many self-published ebooks what causes self-publishing to have such a poor reputation? Why are the problems outlined in articles such as I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors, Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers, On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! unresolved?

In Promises to Keep, the promises are kept! Here are exceptional books that are well edited, well written, and well produced. So, again, I encourage you to give the Promises to Keep quartet a try. By reading and buying books of this quality, and by mentioning them repeatedly when we like them, we encourage other authors to reach for the stars, too. (And for those of you who love fantasy, I recommend Celina Summers’ The Asphodel Cycle, also a quartet, reviewed in L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast and mentioned in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Summers’ quartet is of similar quality as Parkinson’s quartet and also an excellent read.)

July 8, 2010

Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem?

This topic has been broached before (see, e.g., Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?, On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (III), and The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (IV) — Value) and is likely to be broached many times in the future. It is a worthy topic that just won’t (can’t?) go away.

What brought it to mind again was the confluence of several events: I had to replenish my tea supply, a Smashwords July sale was being promoted, I read an article about the price of coffee, I went to see a terrible movie (and also a good movie), and a few other similar events.

Like many coffee drinkers who believe Starbucks is the barista and who are willing to pay $4 for a cup of joe, I like my tea with breakfast and the newspapers, and I don’t hesitate to spend a premium price for a premium cup of tea. Yet the pleasure that the coffee/tea brings is fleeting. A few moments after imbibing and the thrill is gone (as B.B. King would say).

Similarly, I saw 2 movies over the holiday weekend, one very good and the other exceedingly poor, yet these, too, were fleeting entertainments.

Yet, books are different. The thrill of a good read doesn’t disappear after an hour; a good story can captivate us for many hours — not only as we read the story but as we think about it long after we have finished reading it and as we discuss it with friends or recommend it to others. Nonfiction books may be books that we regularly return to for some factoid. Books do have a fading quality, but that fade occurs over a long period of time, unlike that luscious cup of tea with breakfast that fades quickly.

We all recognize this, even if only subconsciously. We often think about a book we read as a child or in high school, and we can still recall some of the characters and much of the plot — even if we haven’t reread the book in 50 years.

But in the pricing scheme of things, books, particularly ebooks, are significantly more price sensitive than our coffee. We who are willing to spend $10 a day on a couple of cups of coffee, hesitate to buy an ebook for $10.

There are lots of excuses — who knows if the ebook is really any good, the ebook has DRM (Digital Rights Management) that limits our use of it, publishers are greedy, and on and on. Aren’t the same excuses, however, applicable to that cup of coffee? How do we know in advance that the coffee isn’t too strong (or weak or burnt)? Isn’t our drinking the coffee like DRM — once drunk you can’t share it with a friend? Isn’t $4 for a cup of joe a greedy price when once can buy other coffees for half that price? And, besides, we know it doesn’t cost $4 to make that cup of coffee.

Doesn’t the same hold true for movies? Even the price of a movie rental is often more than the price that many ebooks. And we rarely go to see a movie alone, so the cost really adds up. And we willing pay the movie price — whether box office or rental — even though we know we can’t duplicate the movie, we can’t share it with friends over the Internet, and we can’t watch again in 3 weeks without paying again, and paying the same price as we did originally.

What makes ebooks different? That’s what I don’t understand. If anything, I would think the values should be reversed. The transience, for example, of the cup of tea versus the long-life of the ebook should indicate a reversal. But it doesn’t.

There was a time when books were so valuable that only the very wealthy could afford them. The books were gilded in gold and silver, painstakingly hand crafted, and highly sought objects of art. Although this esteem diminished with the advent of the mass-produced hardcover followed by the even more mass-produced paperback, the aurora of esteem didn’t wholly disappear — until the Age of eBooks and the inability to of a reader to see a finely crafted book and to hold it in his or her hands.

Perhaps that is the problem — ebooks lack a sensory touch. The cup of coffee exudes smell, a smell that pleases (hopefully), along with a taste that pleases (again, hopefully). Plus there is the sense of touch, of holding the cup in our hands and knowing that we are holding a cup of coffee that is desirable. Similarly, movies appeal to our visual and aural senses. But to what sense does an ebook appeal?

Really none. The traditional sensory reactions that we have toward a print book — the smell, the feel, the sound, the look — all disappear in the current incarnation of ebooks. Most readers agree that cover design and interior design of a pbook are important parts of the experience of reading, yet both are missing from the ebook experience.

I’ll grant that it shouldn’t matter — after all, aren’t we reading for the pleasure of reading and stimulating our mind — but the lack of the traditional sensory experience, the sensory experience that we grew up with, is, I think, the cause of our discontent with ebook pricing. All else, I suspect, is just our way of expressing that discontent because we don’t really recognize the root cause.

Of course, this will change over the next decade or two as ebooks become the standard reading method and readers lose their connection to the print book, but for those of us trying to make that transition, I expect we will continue to undervalue ebooks (and concomitantly overvalue other transient experiences) because we miss the sensory experiences we have become accustomed to associating with reading. I think readers need to become more accustomed to the ephemeral experience of ebooks. Once readers do and once readers recognize that ebooks are valuable simply for the mind stimulation they provide, then ebooks will be valued in the marketplace as they should be, with a lessening of the pressure on very low pricing.

July 7, 2010

Worth Noting: Words by Tony Judt

As I have mentioned several times over the life of this blog, I am a subscriber to The New York Review of Books. In a recent issue of the NYRB, Tony Judt, an historian, wrote a column titled “Words.” This is a column well-worth reading.

Judt discusses inarticulacy and how the education of the 1950s and early 1960s taught students to speak and write with precision, to be articulate so that others could comprehend what was being communicated. He goes on to lament the “revolution” of the 1970s and subsequent years that lessened the emphasis on articulation and heightened the emphasis on the idea being more important than its expression, and thus a rise in inarticulacy. As Judt, put it:

All the same, inarticulacy surely suggests a shortcoming of thought. This idea will sound odd to a generation praised for what they are trying to say rather than the thing said. Articulacy itself became an object of suspicion in the 1970s: the retreat from “form” favored uncritical approbation of mere “self-expression,” above all in the classroom.

Perhaps more alarming is Judt’s analysis of academic writing:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism.

The obscurantism of which Judt complains, I see daily in my work as an editor. How much trouble are we in when our best-educated people are unable to express themselves with clarity — or are unwilling to do so? Leadership is usually top-down, not bottom-up. More importantly, if the best educated are unable to recognize their own obscurantism, how can we expect them to correct (or even identify) obscurantism in others? Or if they can identify it, correct it?

As Judt notes, when words become Humpty Dumptyish (i.e., they have multiple meanings but mean only what I say they mean), the ideas the words express also become Humpty Dumptyish, that is, meaningless, because there is no foundation by which they can be understood globally. When the ideas become Humpty Dumptyish, they become anarchic and chaotic. Perhaps this is the problem in today’s partisan politics — political ideas have no meaning because they have so many meanings. The pomp becomes more important than the circumstance (perhaps a diplomatic-world failing) and the standard becomes that of text fragments.

I recall how unhappy I was when I discovered that my daughter’s high school English teacher (and this was in the early 1990s) had no idea that a sentence was composed of words that undertook important parts of speech, such as noun, verb, adverb, each designed to contribute to a universal understanding of the message. Yet this teacher was responsible for grading my daughter’s grasp of English, as well as teaching my daughter how to grasp English. Sadly, it appears that the situation continues to deteriorate, if some of the books I edit are an indication of the articulateness of the current generation of academic authors.

I have often thought about what it is that can be done to reverse course. I sure would hate to discover that but for inarticulacy war could have been avoided. I also wonder how many mishaps that we are now paying for occurred as a result of President George W. Bush’s inarticulacy. Alas, I do not see an easy road to resolution; rather, I see the problem getting worse. I see it getting worse because of the difficulty in focusing.

I think the problem of inarticulacy is exacerbated by the “need” to multifunction. Few of us use a laser-like focus in our daily lives; we need to handle multiple things simultaneously and so we take a shotgun approach, hoping the “effective” zone of the spread is sufficient. We also reward the ability to multifunction, regardless of how effective the multifunctioning is. The old saying was to handle one problem at a time; today’s saying might better be handle all problems simultaneously and hope for the best.

Reversing the inarticulacy trend is probably impossible because too few people are knowledgable about how to be articulate — and because too many people would resist the necessary steps as being an infringement of their freedoms. Imagine if suddenly every parent was told that for their child to graduate from elementary school to middle school the child had to show proficiency in debating skills. (Of course, the first objection, and rightfully so, would be the teachers can’t show that proficiency so why should my Susan show it?) Part of the problem is the texting mindset. How do you overcome the fragmentary expression culture that it creates?

As articulation decreases and inarticulacy increases, I wonder what will become of our society 50 years from now. Would those of us educated in the 1950s and 1960s be able to communicate effectively in that future? Will the United States become a third-rate country because of dysfunctional communication skills? Will editors have a role in such an anything-goes-writing-milieu?

July 6, 2010

Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance?

I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.

One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.

Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?

Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.

Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?

Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.

To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.

What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.

eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.

One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

How many hours do you spend sitting at your computer for work and pleasure? How many hours are you willing to spend reading an ebook on your work computer? How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

I find these latter two questions to be the ones that haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my computer.

Beginning with the first question, I spend 6 to 8 hours every day (often including weekends) working at my computer. I’m an editor and these days, most editing is done on the computer, not using paper and pen. Included in that time is some time spent on “pleasure” activities, such as bill paying online or finding information on why my cat is retching on the carpet. Important stuff that is not work related and thus must be pleasure related.

So now I’ve spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the 4 walls of my office, staring at my 3 monitors, and reading, for the most part, manuscript that is in need of my editorial skills. Now I want to relax, leave my office behind — especially my computer — and read an ebook for pleasure rather than work. I do not want to continue sitting in my office and reading on a computer screen. Yes, I do own a laptop, so I could move to a more comfortable spot and read on it, but using my laptop is just an invitation to do more work; my laptop is essentially a duplicate of my desktop system except that it is a single-monitor system and portable. I stared at an LCD screen all day; do I really want to do it some more?

Besides, the laptop isn’t exactly lightweight. It is difficult to hold like a book so that I could lie in the hammock and read. Well, truth be told, I can’t really take the laptop outside because I can’t read the screen in the sun. So now my Sony Reader comes into play. Using it is like reading from a paperback. I can hold it easily in 1 or 2 hands and at the easy-to-read angle depending on how I am relaxing. For me, at least, using my Sony rather than my laptop for pleasure reading is a no-brainer. And the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes, just like a printed book.

OK, the first 2 questions are answered: I spend too much time working on my computer screens and, no, I do not want to spend any more time reading for pleasure on those same screens. The idea of pleasure reading is that it be enjoyable, pleasurable, and somewhere other than in my office. That takes us to the third question: How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

If I want something from the latest bestseller list, finding the ebook is easy. For me, I can just go to the Sony eBookstore. The problem is that I rarely read books from the bestseller lists; I want to find new authors whose books are worth reading and reasonably priced. I do not want to pay $12 to $14 for an ebook that I am essentially borrowing.

Consequently, I tend to migrate to places like Fictionwise (which appears to be on its death bed as a result of recent moves by its owner, Barnes & Noble), Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other similar places. But there are so many and there are way too many choices to sort through. I recently timed how much time I spent at Smashwords trying to find a few ebooks for July 4th weekend reading. Truth is that after an 30 minutes, I simply abandoned the quest. Why? Turns out Smashwords is having a great sale this month on some books. But “some” is a big misnomer — there are approximately 800 books being offered just in the category Newest & Longs — that’s 80 “pages” of books to sort through in just this filtered category; if I don’t filter by using Longs, there are 1446 pages, each with 10 ebooks on it!

And I have to read the descriptions of many of the books to make the determination of whether I might be interested. Sometimes I can tell simply by the title or the price (e.g., I’m not interested in 450 Home Business Ideas nor in paying $9.99), but most times I at least have to read the description. So, after a relatively short time I say enough — I no longer am willing to stare at my computer screen.

When I suggested that better filtering was needed (Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers) by ebooksellers, several commenters wrote to praise Amazon’s filtering methods. Alas, however, I do not have a Kindle (and so cannot use an ebook bought from Amazon), so the response was I could get the free Kindle applications that work on my cell phone or PC. Yup, just what I want to do — read an ebook on my cell phone; and I’ve already — I think — dismissed the idea of reading on my computer.

The real answer is for places like Smashwords to become more in tune with customer needs, and, concomitantly, author needs, by offering better filtering. Think about those authors whose books appeared on pages 20 to 80 of the 80 pages I was looking at before the holiday — I never got to their books, so they never had a chance to sell me a copy, because I lost interest long before I ran out of options.

eBookstores have the technology available to offer customers and authors better filtering options. If they want to succeed down the road, they need to implement those options. If anything is going to hurt the indie author, it is the frustration in trying to find his or her book — to find that needle in the haystack of needles.

July 1, 2010

eReader Economics: Buying a Reading Device Is Economical

Several times in recent months people have sidled up to me as I have sat reading on my Sony PRS-505 e-reading device to inquire about the device and the reading experience. After going through a demonstration and letting them “play” with it a little, the final question comes: “How expensive is it?” It used to be that once they heard the price, they couldn’t wait to move on. But with recent price lowerings, people are becoming more interested.

I understand the sticker shock. My Sony cost $300 two Christmases ago, to which I added another $70 for a 3-year extended warranty that covered all contingencies (a warranty that, I should add, has given me peace of mind but which has never been used) — roughly $400 for a device to read books, which I could do already without the device. Although my particular model is no longer available, you can buy a similar Sony (the PRS 300) for about $150 (the primary difference is that my Sony has a 6-inch screen and the 300 has a 5-inch screen) or the Sony 600 for $199 (it has a 6-inch touchscreen). (Also worth noting is that Barnes & Noble lowered the price of its nook, Amazon lowered the price of its Kindle, and the Kobo is also available at a relatively low price.)

But the economics of these devices actually argues, depending, of course, on what you like to read, for the “reasonableness” of the cost — whether that cost is what I originally paid or today’s prices (and tomorrow’s likely prices). If your reading consists only of books that appear on the bestseller lists, then the reader is convenient but probably not very economical. If your reading habits tend to be closer to mine, then the economic arguments in favor of owning one far outweigh those against.

I have always been an avid reader. As a kid, I used to take out 6-10 books every week or two from my local library. As an adult, my reading habits continued except that I now buy more books than I will ever get read. In addition to quantity, I have a relatively broad reading interest when it comes to nonfiction, and a narrower interest when it comes to fiction.

What I have discovered since I received my Sony Reader is that the quantity of books I read has increased and my range of fiction topics has widened. The Reader makes it easy to enjoy reading.

But little of that has to do with the economics of the reading devices. The question is how does the cost of the reader balance against the cost of buying books? For me that balance definitely tips into the positive side of the scale. First, thousands of very good books, including many, if not all, of the classics, are available for free. If I spent an average of $8 for a paperback that I read once and I spent $200 on a reader, just 25 free books would negate the cost of the reader; the 26th book would start the scale tipping to the positive side.

Finding 25 free ebooks to read is easy. There are many sources. Granted, none are the current New York Times bestsellers, but does that really matter? My Sony Reader has also opened me to the world of the independent author and the small (need I say micro) press. Before my wading into the ocean of ebooks, the only way I would find a book to buy and read was by going to my local bookstores. How many of us can go to such a bookstore and find independent authors and small press books easily?

eBooks have changed that equation. And the advantage is that many thousands of ebooks are available for less than $3. If I only bought ebooks at $3, I would have to buy 67 of them over the life of my Reader to balance out the initial $200 purchase price. Not a difficult task for most of us; for many of us that amounts to no more than 2 years’ worth of reading, and often less than 1 years’ worth. And if I mix free with ebooks costing $3 or less, it simply won’t take long to recoup that investment.

It should also be noted that many of the available free ebooks are contemporary and well-known author ebooks; that is, not just self-published or indie authors. For example, these ebooks are available for free: John Gilstrap’s No Mercy, John Stross’ Overtime, Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind, John Miller’s Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith, and Warren Adler’s American Quartet. Some inexpensive contemporary fiction examples are Heather Graham’s Ghost Memories ($2.84), Fern Michaels’ Fool Me Once ($4.75), Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet ($4.19), J.D. Robb’s Midnight in Death ($1.99), and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dragonswan.

The point is this: Buying a dedicated device to read books can be very cost-effective if you are an avid reader and not wedded to reading only what the bestseller lists proclaim are the reads du jour. If you haven’t looked into such a device, now may well be a good time to do so.

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