An American Editor

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

Worth Noting: Today’s the Last Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Rich Adin @ 5:27 am
Tags: , ,

Just a reminder for those who are interested in attending “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons” conference (to be held October 1 and 2, 2010, in Rochester, NY; see A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals) that today is the last day you can preregister and receive a discount.

Lots of knowledgable people will be attending — both speakers and conference goers — so it will be a great opportunity to learn what you can do to enhance your freelance career. It will also be an opportunity to speak — one-on-one — to some of the people from whom you have sought advice in other forums. This conference will give you an opportunity to discuss some of your concerns about the future, especially about competing and working more efficiently, with some of the most successful freelancers around and people who are experts in using the tools of editorial freelancing to get the most bang for the buck.

Registration information for the conference, which includes a complete schedule, is available here.

(Note: Although I am a speaker at the conference, I have no financial interest in the conference or in the sponsor of the conference, Communication Central, other than that I will be reimbursed for my expenses.)

August 30, 2010

Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?

The title asks the question; the answer is no one. What brought this to mind is a commentary in this week’s BusinessWeek, “Misrepresenting Small Business,” which asks the question more broadly.

When I began my editorial career 26 years ago, I searched for an organization that could help me launch my career, look out for my interests on a national level, and could help me find work. Remember that this was in the early days of the Internet, so socialization online was still in its infancy and online searching was like today. At that time I had little success.

Subsequently, I discovered the EFA — Editorial Freelancers Association — a New York City-based group that had the right name and was, semi-conveniently, near my backyard (I live in upstate New York, a mere train ride away from the Big Apple). So I joined the EFA with high hopes and expectations, only to discover that it failed on many counts, with its big strength being a place to schmooze over the water-cooler. I was a member for many years until I realized that the return wasn’t worth the investment.

From conversations with several colleagues who are members today, what I considered faults in the EFA years ago remain what I consider faults today, yet the organization continues to draw new members to replenish the ranks of those who leave it.

So, I ask the question again: Who represents the interests of American freelance editors? It seems that although the need for a viable, national group that addresses the shortcomings of being self-employed is even of greater importance today than ever, there is a vacuum. I suspect the vacuum has many causes, not least of which is either the unwillingness or inability of many freelance editors to fund such an organization with high annual dues. Yet I remain convinced that not only is such an organization viable and needed, but that once it is established and demonstrates its prowess at representing freelance editors, membership would bloom.

What should such a group do? There are numerous things, not least of which is to create a national certification program and tie that program in with jobs. Finding work is one of the hardest things the self-employed do. Some of us are good at it; others could be good if they could overcome their shyness; whereas others will never be good at self-promotion even though they may well be the best editors available.

Here are some things that a quality national organization should provide for freelance editors:

  • Full-time staff whose jobs revolved around making connections for trained editors and for training editors to high standards.
  • Negotiate group discounts with software companies like Microsoft. Most editors use Microsoft Word. Why couldn’t, for example, the organization negotiate a volume license?
  • Provide a software help desk — not on how to install the product but on how to use the product most efficiently.
  • Provide continuing education courses around the country in various editing specialties.
  • Lobby for state and national legislation that addresses our needs, including appropriate tax legislation.
  • Provide legal advice, especially about contracts.
  • Combat the movement of work based solely on labor costs.
  • Educate the publishing industry so that the value of members is both understood and appreciated as reflected in a pay scale that isn’t retrogressing to the early 1990s rather than moving forward to the 2020s.
  • Provide a social outlet for members.
  • Anticipate changes in the publishing industry and help prepare members for those changes.
  • Provide a class magazine filled with how to articles along with more general articles.
  • Teach members new skills so that members can expand their services.
  • Provide business advice.
  • Negotiate discounts with service providers such as FedEx.

There are lots more “things” that a quality national editorial association could do for editors. All one needs to do is look at what other successful organizations provide members. But the big thing is to have an association that is focused on our needs as a group and not on the needs of the few who run it.

Now all we need to do is find someone to start it. Any volunteers?

August 26, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (V)

As always, I find it difficult to to keep away from books, and my to-be-read (TBR) pile keeps growing. I wonder if I’ll ever really get to read all of these books that I’m buying. I regularly think I should swear off buying any more books until I make a dent in my TBR pile, but every time I mention that idea to my wife, she simply smiles and shakes her head knowingly.

Below are the newest additions to my TBR pile. Past additions can be found in these articles: On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), On Today’s Bookshelf (III), and On Today’s Bookshelf (IV).

Hardcover — Nonfiction

  • Ancient Americas: The Great Civilisations by Nicholas J. Saunders
  • Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933–1946 by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt 
  • Shostakovitch: His Life and Music by Brian Morton
  • Eleanor Roosevelt 1884-1933, Volume One by Blanche Wiesen Cook
  • Eleanor Roosevelt 1933-1938, Volume Two by Blanche Wiesen Cook
  • Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh
  • The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War by Donald Stoker

 — Fiction

  • The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman
  • Bearers of the Black Staff (Legends of Shannara Series #1) by Terry Brooks

eBooks (all fiction):

  • The Book of Deacon by Joseph Lallo
  • Slaves to the Empowered by Jeremiah Cain
  • The Gateway: Harbinger of Doom by Glenn Thater
  • An Old-fashioned Folk Tale by Valmore Daniels
  • Eye of the Beholder by Ruth Ann Nordin
  • Miss Anna’s Frigate by Jens Kuhn
  • The Book of Adam: The Autobiography of the First Human Clone by Robert Hopper
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May

On Order (all hardcover):

— Fiction

  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • Out of the Dark by David Weber
  • Antiphon by Ken Scholes

— Nonfiction

  • Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 by Mark Twain, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Benjamin Griffin
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush

As I expected, my reading of nonfiction has slowed considerably this summer. It is a combination of much too much work and too little free time. It also doesn’t help that when the weather is nice, I like to lie in the hammock and read, something my Sony 505 is perfect for. But that will change. I find that as the weather gets cooler and then colder, I tend to read more and I am determined to get through at least a portion of my TBR pile before the change back to warmer weather in the spring.

It also doesn’t help that time now that I would spend reading I’m spending preparing for my presentation at the upcoming “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons” conference (see A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals for some details). If you haven’t already preregistered, you can save some money by doing so before September 1. The conference will be a great place to meet colleagues and to learn new tips and tricks to make your professional life easier and more fruitful.

August 25, 2010

Time Goes By and is Lost

A common discussion topic among self-employed editors is “What can I do to increase my income?” As with everything in life, one has to begin by examining one’s current situation in detail. Only by understanding where I am can I determine how and where to go. Freelance editors often neglect the most fundamental aspects of running a successful business, of which time management is the most fundamental fundamental. Learning how you spend your time during the workday can be revelatory.

How much time do you spend each day on various activities? Do you really know how much time you spend working? Surfing the Internet? Answering questions at LinkedIn? On the telephone? Twittering? Perusing and updating Facebook? Actually editing? Few of us really do know and fewer still apply time management techniques to our workday.

Yet time management is fundamental to maintaining or improving our income or gaining more free time for the pleasurable things in life that aren’t work related. There are lots of time-tracking software programs available, ranging in price from free to very expensive. I personally use, and have used for 10+ years, Timeless Time & Expense from MAG Softwrx (TT&E). It’s expensive these days ($79), but I haven’t found a less-expensive program that tracks time as this program does. TT&E has a lot of features that I don’t use, such as billing, but I like the way it keeps track of how I spend my day.

Whatever program you use, it should be easy to start and stop timing activities; it should be capable of tracking multiple activities simultaneously; it should cumulate the time; and it should be very easy to switch between activities. For me, TT&E fits the bill, but I am interested in learning of other programs that work similarly but cost less.

Anyway, to move back to the topic at hand, knowing how you spend your workday is important. You should track your time over a minimum of 2 weeks before drawing any conclusions so that you can see a pattern. If every day but 1 day you spent 3 hours surfing the Internet and on that 1 day you spent only 1 hour, your pattern is to spend 3 hours, not 1 hour. If the amount of time varies each day, figure out the average and use that number in your evaluation.

You also need to track how many new projects or clients — or even inquiries — were generated by the time you spent on various activities. If you average 3 hours a day surfing and socializing on the Internet but got no work or inquiries, perhaps 3 hours a day is too much time to devote to the Internet. Yes, I know that sometimes one doesn’t see results from one’s efforts for months, which is why I wouldn’t suggest stopping surfing altogether. But the fact that I might win the lottery some day doesn’t justify continuing to spend large sums of money on lottery tickets; perhaps a nominal sum, but not a large sum, and the same rationale applies to time spent on activities that are tenuously related to work.

The key is to associate activities during your workday with work and productivity. It doesn’t mean no water-cooler time; it means managing water-cooler time. Managing time means allocating a limited resource to the most productive endeavors; not abandoning those endeavors that we like as distractions, just limiting them. It’s the same concept as that which lies behind the use of macros when editing. I use EditTools — and spent the money and time to develop EditTools — because cold, hard analysis demonstrated the clear financial benefit to me of using these macros in my daily editing work. Similar analysis commanded the purchase and use of Editorium macros and PerfectIt (see the earlier articles on The 3 Stages of Copyediting for a discussion of Editorium, EditTools, and PerfectIt macros). Every second of my workday is precious because I can’t ever retrieve past time and reuse it.

To repeat: The first step for a freelance editor in figuring out how to improve her income is to discover how she spends time during the workday. Once the editor has that information, the editor can begin to figure out what changes need to be made and work on how to make her work time more efficient and productive. Every editor can reach their income goals by applying sound business practices to their business.

August 24, 2010

Medical Humor

Filed under: A Musical Interlude — Rich Adin @ 7:03 am
Tags: ,

Most of my editing work is in the medical field, a dry, generally humorless field when it comes to medical texts. But, lo and behold, medicine is not humor-less as the following musical videos demionstrate (with thanks to my wife for discovering them on YouTube). All are performed by the Laryngospasms.

First up, is Waking Up is Hard to Do:

Next up is Breathe:

Third, is the Laryngospasms at the AANA Conference singing about getting their cases out on time (and in case you don’t recognize the underlying tune of the first song, think Rowdy Yates and the theme from Rawhide; the second song is based on Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels’ Devil with the Blue Dress On):

Last, is Mr. Gasman:

Just goes to prove that there can be humor in medicine :).

August 23, 2010

Literacy in the Graphic Novel Age

Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.

The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.

The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.

Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?

Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”

Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.

Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?

Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.

The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.

EditTools — A Corrective Note

Filed under: Worth Noting — Rich Adin @ 5:32 am
Tags: , ,

In a recent article, I discussed EditTools, a collection of editing macros (see The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage). Many of you went to the wordsnSync website to download the trial version of EditTools. It was discovered yesterday that the download link misdirected visitors to the prior version of EditTools, rather than to the newest version. This has been fixed and you are invited to visit the wordsnSync downloads page and download the current version of EditTools.

If you have purchased of any earlier version of EditTools, please go to the downloads page and download the current version; it is a free upgrade.

To learn what is new in the current version, visit the various explanatory pages at wordsnSync.

August 19, 2010

Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment

I once had a client who would take my copyedited manuscript and re-copyedit it, send it back to me with marginal notes about “mistakes and errors,” and a demand that I re-re-copyedit the manuscript. Back then — which was a very, very long time ago, when I was in my editing infancy and didn’t know better — I did as I was asked (which was expected by the client to be at no charge) only to have the client send me another missive, complaining about my “corrections” to the client’s “errors and misses.”

I learned very quickly that this was a client meant for someone else, not for me, perhaps for an editor with a masochistic streak. The problem was that the client had great expectations, a tiny budget, and an inability to clone — a clear recipe for disappointment. In addition, the client assumed, and incorrectly in this instance, a superior knowledge of the rules of grammar and spelling. It also didn’t help that many of the “errors” about which the client complained were either judgment calls or problems of development that a developmental editor should resolve, not a copyeditor. (For a discussion of the differences between development editing and copyediting, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

The issue comes to the fore again because of a recent discussion I had with a colleague about editing quality. My colleague’s view is that regardless of how little one is paid and regardless of the parameters of the job one is hired to do, it is the editor’s responsibility to provide as near to perfection an edit as possible — doesn’t matter if you are hired to copyedit; if the manuscript requires a developmental edit, then that is what you are supposed to give it. My colleague’s clients have come to expect this extraordinary level of work from him, and thus when he submitted an edited manuscript that hadn’t reached that level, he received a negative missive from his client. Yet, if you looked at his work in light of the pay he received and the parameters of the job for which he was hired, he actually gave them better than should have received.

There is a disconnect between clients and editors that seems to be growing. Client staff are often less experienced and less-well trained as editors than the editors they hire. Their roles, too, are often significantly different, with the in-house person being primarily responsible for project management, not for actual editorial work. But expectations of in-house staff are often unrelated to the editor’s business realities. (I should note that the client could just as easily be an author rather than a publisher and my comments should be viewed as applying equally to both.)

Everyone involved needs to sit back and rethink their expectations. Everyone needs to recognize that there is no such thing as “perfection” in the editing world. Each person who reads a manuscript will read it differently and find different errors. Every hand that touches a manuscript will fix some errors and risks introducing new errors. It’s all because we are human and come to these tasks from different perspectives. It is also because of phenomena like the WYSIWYG conundrum (see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud) and differences in how completely an editor adheres to rigid rules of style (see Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance).

To say that the rate of pay isn’t an influence is to view the world through blinders. The editorial product is really no different from any other commodity in the sense that the more you pay the better quality you get. How can one realistically expect “perfection” at a less-than-minimum-wage rate? (See Publishers vs. Editors & the Bottom Line: Readers are the Losers and I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors.)

Pay is a real problem in the editing world. Because no one ever remarks (except an editor) after reading a well-written, well-edited book, “the editor must have been fantastic” (instead, the comment usually is “what a great author”), but does remark after reading a poorly written/edited book, “didn’t they hire an editor” or “what a lousy editing job,” clients tend to pay little respect to the editing process, which lack of respect is reflected in the race to the pay bottom. Consequently, problems such as those discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! occur.

Editors are in business to make a living (read “profit”) and so must balance client expectations against real-world realities. Clients, on the other hand, are focused on their own profits, which can be affected by poor craftsmanship, and thus want the most bang they can get for their buck. And that is where the disconnect is: the editor’s balance versus the client’s bang for the buck — they are not in equilibrium.

This disequilibrium is now beginning to hit the publishing world in great force. eBooks have become a great leveler. eBooks make author work more quickly and readily accessible to a larger audience, which makes editorial errors more glaring and noticed by an ever-increasing number of readers. Books that might have sold 100 copies in print can easily sell thousands as low-cost ebooks. Where the audience of 100 may have been forgiving of error, if not oblivious to it, within the audience of thousands there will be some who are less forgiving and more vocal about errors.

Somehow the disequilibrium between the editor’s balance and the client’s expectations must come into balance and it needs to be done sooner rather than later. Clients need to recognize that to get better editing, they need to hire better editors and that better editors, as is true in all professions, command higher prices. Clients need to rethink the idea that one price fits all, and learn to balance their expectations against what they are willing to pay. Otherwise, their great expectations will continue to be a sure recipe for disaster.

August 18, 2010

Getting to Paradise in eBookville: Overcoming Barriers

In other articles we have discussed the effects of professional editing, cover design, and the problems of self-publishing. We’ve discussed what makes great literature. And we’ve discussed the more obvious impediments — or barriers — to paradise in eBookville such as DRM (digital rights management), incompatible formats, geographic restrictions, lease vs. ownership, and pricing.

But what we haven’t really talked about are the  less obvious barriers to eBookville paradise such as the psychological price-point barrier. Oh, we’ve talked about it indirectly, but not head on. What brought it to mind was my looking to pluck the next pbook from my to-be-read pile. It struck me that it was much easier for me to buy hardcover books without debating the price point than it was to buy most of my ebooks, where price was/is always a major factor.

There are several factors in play that formed a foundation for the psychological price-point barrier. First, of course, was Amazon’s setting of $9.99 as the ideal price point for New York Times bestsellers. Here the interesting phenomenon to me was not that Amazon set a price point but that it became the adopted price point — the psychological barrier against which all other prices would be/are compared — of ebookers, virtually without challenge. Why didn’t ebookers say, for example, “No, not $9.99. It must be $7.99!” or some other number? Amazon announced it and it became the magic number. Perhaps we ebookers are really part of the herd and not part of the herders. Something to think about for another day.

Second, is the difficulty ebookers have in accepting/believing any claim that ebooks can legitimately be priced higher than the paperback version and certainly, under no circumstance, as high or higher than the hardcover version of the book. eBookers believe with all their heart and soul that ebooks should be priced no higher than the paperback version and preferably lower. No amount of argument will budge most ebookers from that price point or from the belief that the savings reaped by publishers by going digital are “huge,” not “nominal.”

A third factor is the new version of the direct from author-to-reader model of publishing — self-publishing — which is a modification/modernization of the original self-publishing model of just 5 or so years ago.

All of these, and other factors, too, contribute to the psychological price-point barrier that currently barricades eBookville, preventing it from becoming a paradise. Yet, there is another factor that is less prominent in our thinking about the price-point barrier, but is, I think, quite potent: the ephemeral nature of ebooks.

Consider this: I recently purchased two hardcover books without thinking twice about the cost. I saw them on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble. They stood out not only because of their subject matter but because of their size. The two books are A Lethal Obsession by Robert S. Wistrich (which comes in at 1200 pages and a list price of $40) and Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (which comes in at 1161 pages and a list price of $45). 

Think of the heft of books that size; the spine widths must be 2 inches and the weights more than 2 pounds. The pricing with discounts at B&N were $28.80 and $32.40, respectively (with Amazon being a couple of dollars cheaper) for the hardcover versions. I bought them without blinking an eye over the price.

But I would have blinked, blinked again, and ultimately not bought either of them as ebooks because of the price (B&N: $32 and $29.99, respectively; Amazon: $23.19 and $29.99, respectively), which is higher than the established psychological price-point barrier. The difference is that with the hardcovers I can subconsciously correlate mass with value, even though I know that with books there really is no such correlation, but with ebooks it is hard to imagine the value of bits and bytes — they are ephemeral. Even DVDs and CDs give you some mass in exchange for the price, so the price-point barrier is less powerful, but ebooks give you nothing — nothing to hold, nothing to see, nothing to weigh, nothing to correlate with value.

And this nothingness is a significant barrier to price acceptance by ebookers, even if only subconsciously.

When I talk to fellow ebookers, we all seem to agree that there is a sliding price comfort scale for ebooks that we do not notice with physical product purchases, even when the physical product is something as little as a DVD or CD in substance terms. We note that we have no hesitation whatsoever with ebooks priced up to $1.99; we give half a blink’s hesitation to books at the $2.99 level; a full blink at $3.99; and things start going downhill rapidly at the $4.99 mark. By the time we get to the $12.99 mark, we are not only doing multiple rapid blinks but we are struggling to find any reason whatsoever to justify making the purchase and almost never do. For several of us, we no longer even consider any ebook priced above $7.99 and will only consider ebooks priced $4.99 to $7.99 on rare occasions.

It appears that Amazon did its job too well when it set the psychological price point at $9.99 and the publishers did their job too poorly combatting it (and ebookers didn’t do their job at all when they acquiesced to Amazon’s price point with hardly a whisper in opposition).

It is hard to overcome that psychological price-point barrier when all I receive is air (bits and bytes) in exchange for money. I understand the advantages to just having air, but that is the rational part of the buyer in me. Unfortunately for the ebook industry, it is the irrational part of me, the part that wants to see some physicality, some sense of ownership, some something in exchange for the price — just air just won’t do.

The questions are this: Will this psychological price-point barrier fade to history as ebooks continue to grow market share or will it become a more signifcant barrier in the future? Will the low-price expectation negatively impact authors and publishers in such a way that quality is sacrificed by the authors and publishers because of the imbalance between cost of production and sales price? Both questions are worth pondering.

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