An American Editor

October 29, 2010

The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills

Over the past several weeks, I have had opportunities to speak with the heads of production at several of my clients. After our direct business discussion, we sort of wandered off topic to discuss the current state of copyediting and copyeditors.

What I found interesting was that each of the persons I spoke with had the same lament: There is a dearth of copyeditors with good grammar skills. What they have noticed is the wide gap in skill level between those who are nearing retirement (high on the skill scale) and those now entering the field or who have been in the field for only a few years (low on the skill scale).

Grammar and spelling skills appear to be declining among editors, or so I was told. These clients believe that editors increasingly are relying on software programs to tell them when there is a grammar or spelling error, and taking the software’s suggested correction without exercising the independent judgement that is required to determine whether or not the software is correct.

What brought this up was my mentioning that I occasionally speak at gatherings of freelancers about the business of freelance editing. In each instance, the client suggested that it would be significantly more beneficial — for both the client and the copyeditors seeking business — if grammar was addressed. One client said that of 100 editing tests administered, they were lucky if 1 got a passing grade and that it was rare for testees to get very high passing grades.

Another problem they all cited was the obvious reliance on spell-checker. One client wondered if the editors even owned printed dictionaries and usage guides, or if they did, if the editor knew how to use them. Two examples were cited: The first was there and their. The client remarked that it was not unusual, anymore, to receive a copyedited manuscript with the incorrect term left as presented by the author. The second was that and who. Apparently people have become objects and many copyeditors do not correct a sentence such as “The students and teachers that became…” or “The patients that were tested….” Other examples given were that and which and since and because.

I don’t know if the full cause of the problem can be laid at the feet of the education system, but certainly a significant portion of it can. I know that when my children were in school, grammar was barely touched on as a subject. I also know that when I look at the writing of many educators, there is a clear lack of facility with grammar. This is not to say that the best of us don’t make grammar mistakes; rather the problem is that what was once occasional error has become commonplace.

Yet, the question is this: How many copyeditors recognize that their grammar skills are less than stellar and would be willing to pay to attend a conference devoted to improving grammar skills? I suspect, based on conversations that I have had with colleagues, that most think the problem is not their problem but is that of someone else. It is the state of humanness that lets us readily perceive the faults of others but not our own.

I expect the problem to get worse long before it gets better. Unless how teachers are taught/educated undergoes significant reform and a new emphasis is placed on communication skills that include grammar, spelling, and writing, I do not think improvement will occur. As the transmitters of knowledge, teachers have to be the first to gain it.

It also may symptomatic of today’s culture. In my youth, one way grammar skills were picked up was by osmosis — reading well-edited books, magazines, and newspapers could only lead to absorption of some of the “rules.” But today, reading overall is in decline. Interestingly, what is on the incline are those tasks that reward brevity and substitution — all that matters is that the general message be sent and understood, the twittering of grammar.

It doesn’t help that we are in an age of anyone who wants can publish. It means that a lot of grammatically and spelling-poor material is available for reading, which only acts to reinforce poor habits. Is there an easy solution? No. But based on the discussions I had with clients, there is a definite need for copyeditors to recognize their limitations and voluntarily undertake the effort to improve their skills.

What do you think? Would you pay for grammar-focused class or do you think you already have a high skill level?

October 27, 2010

An eBook Primer: Part II

Yesterday’s article, An eBook Primer: Part I, explored ebooks and ereaders in general. Today’s addresses the issue of ebook formats. Today’s article first appeared on Teleread‘s website and was written by a Teleread staffer. The article is reprinted with permission from Teleread and is copyright 2010 by North American Publishing Company, the parent of Teleread. To reprint the article, please contact Teleread.

Future instalments of the “primer” will also be reprinted. I hope you find them valuable and informative.


TeleRead E-book Primer Part Two: Formats

By Chris Meadows

Ebooks_stack_lg You may be old enough to remember a time when there were two different formats of video tape–VHS or Betamax. If not, you’re almost certainly old enough to remember that there were two different competing high-definition DVD formats a couple of years ago–HD-DVD and Blu-Ray.

And you’ll know that in both cases, you had to have the right player to play each format: Beta tapes would only play in Beta players, VHS tapes would only work in VHS.

It’s much the same way with e-books, except that instead of only two competing formats, there are at least a dozen. Fortunately, only three of those really qualify as important enough to worry about right now, or else this article would be a whole lot longer!

 File Format vs. DRM Format

E-books actually have two different types of format: file format and DRM format.

File format is like what we’ve talked about above—the different ways to put e-book files together developed by different companies, kind of like the difference between VHS and Beta. The main e-book file formats I will be talking about today are PDF, MobiPocket/Kindle, and EPUB. Some e-book readers will read only one kind of file format, while others will read several.

DRM format has to do with Digital Rights Management, which is a kind of lock that some companies put on their e-books to prevent buyers from copying them and passing them on for free—or reading them in a competitor’s e-book device.

Not all e-books will have DRM, but most of the ones you buy from big e-book stores such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble do. Some e-book formats can have different forms of DRM applied to them, depending on which store you buy from. (For more information on DRM, see the TeleRead DRM Primer.)

If you want to read an e-book, your e-book reader device or application must be compatible with both the file format and the DRM format of the e-book.

The only e-book readers that can read files in multiple competing file and DRM formats are the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, simply because they can run reader apps from all the different companies.

The interaction of these two different kinds of format, and the restrictions on what kind of readers can read both of them, is what has made the e-book market so complicated for first-time buyers. (It is also why the Kindle is such a popular reader—when Kindle owners buy e-books from Amazon, they just work without all that confusion.) The reason I’m writing these primers is to try to simplify some of that.

There are far, far more e-book reading devices available than just the Kindle, Nook, and Sony. There are readers from brands you’ve never heard of, far far more than I will be able to cover in these primers. If you want to know whether you can read an e-book with your device, you need to find out what formats the e-book is in, and what formats your device can read.

A great place to find out more about e-book formats is the MobileRead wiki’s e-book formats page.

PDF Format

Adobe’s PDF (Portable Document Format) files have been in use for a long, long time. They allow book and document producers to standardize the appearance of printable files, so they can be sure the files will look exactly the same no matter where or how they’re printed out. This is especially useful for paperwork, such as forms that must be filled out.

They are also used for e-books, especially in the role-playing game industry, for the way they can exactly represent the printed page on a computer screen. This is useful for books that have a lot of specific formatting (such as the charts and tables from role-playing games) or otherwise just need to look nice.

While the 8.5″ x 11″ form factor of most PDFs means they’re not ideal for reading on most computer screens, they’re still better than nothing. The form factor also means they often look cramped on smaller e-book reader screens. This is why most e-books are sold in other formats, and if another format is available you would probably be better advised to get it than to get PDF.

Popular e-book readers with some PDF compatibility include the Kindle, the Sony Reader, and the Kobo Reader. Computer programs that read PDFs include Adobe Reader and Adobe Digital Editions (for DRM-protected PDFs). There are also PDF readers for the iPhone and iPad’s iOS, such as GoodReader and Dicebook. Their larger screen size means that PDFs often look best on the iPad or the Kindle DX.


Some PDF files have Adobe’s Adept DRM on them, which means they have to be read on Adobe Digital Editions. Most PDFs are not DRM-protected, however.

MobiPocket/Kindle Format

It might surprise you to know that the super-modern up-to-date Kindle actually uses one of the oldest e-book formats still in continuous use. This format started out as a modification of the PalmDOC format for Palm Reader, to allow HTML-like text emphasis and other tagging. It was used in MobiPocket Reader for the Palm PDA, later expanding to other PDA platforms, until Amazon purchased the company several years ago.

Subsequently, Amazon made some changes to the format and now uses it in the Kindle. The biggest change is that the Kindle uses an entirely new, incompatible DRM scheme from the original MobiPocket DRM (see below).

MobiPocket format is often referred to as PRC or MOBI format based on its file extensions—especially in the tech specs of compatible e-book readers. (It’s actually erroneous to call it PRC, because PRC was a container file format that could have contained any of a number of different Palm database files. However, since almost nobody else uses the original Palm formats anymore, most .PRC files encountered these days will be MobiPocket.) Kindle format is sometimes called AZW.

There are official MobiPocket reader apps for the PC, Palm, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile. DRM-free MobiPocket files can be read by a number of other apps for PC, Apple, or iOS, including Calibre, Stanza, and FBReader. However, there is no app for iOS that can read MobiPocket-encrypted e-books.

The Kindle can read DRM-free MobiPocket books (such as the ones Baen has available on its Free Library and Webscriptions), but not e-books with the original MobiPocket DRM on them. Likewise, DRM-protected Kindle e-books cannot be read on any of the MobiPocket readers, though there are Kindle Reader applications that read Kindle books for a number of different platforms including PC, Android, and iOS.

MobiPocket/Kindle and DRM

The original MobiPocket DRM format was one of the most widely-used formats for selling e-books in the days before the Kindle, on stores such as Fictionwise, eReader, BooksOnBoard,, and others. However, none of these books can be read on the Kindle without first cracking the DRM (which is illegal under current US copyright law).

The Kindle DRM format is used for the Kindle and its related readers. As mentioned above, it can be read by the Kindle and Kindle Reader software, but not by anything else.

EPUB Format

EPUB has come to be considered more or less the “standard” e-book format of the publishing industry. It is the main e-book format currently used by Sony Reader, Adobe’s Nook, Borders’s Kobo Reader, Apple’s iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions, and a number of other reader devices and applications. Most e-books you can buy now (from anyone except Amazon) will come in EPUB format of some kind. About the only e-book device that won’t read EPUB is the Amazon Kindle.

However, even this “standard” has problems; it is saddled with no fewer than three competing DRM formats, meaning that if you bought the e-book from a store that uses DRM, odds are you’ll only be able to read it on devices or programs that work with that particular store.


There are three different DRM formats for use with EPUB:

Adobe Adept is the first DRM format, and the one used by Adobe Digital Editions, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, the Sony Reader, and the Kobo Reader, as well as a number of lesser-known e-book devices.

Barnes & Noble’s Nook/eReader DRM uses the DRM that was originally developed by the eReader e-book store for use on its own special e-book file format (later bought by Barnes & Noble just as MobiPocket was bought by Amazon). As noted above, it can also read titles in Adobe’s Adept DRM.

The iBookstore uses the same Fairplay DRM that Apple used on music and currently uses on movies and iOS applications.

Except that the Nook can also read Adept, e-books sold in each of these DRM formats are entirely incompatible with readers that use the other two formats (though DRM-free EPUB books, such as those sold by Baen, can be read by all three). If you buy a DRM-locked EPUB book from the iBookstore, you can’t read it on the Nook or the Kobo, for example.

Other Formats

The above formats are the main formats currently used by the “top five” e-book devices or applications, and hence the ones you’re most likely to encounter if you buy any well-known e-book device or app: Kindle, Nook, Sony, Kobo, or iPad/iPhone. There are a number of other formats that are still in some limited use, such as eReader or Microsoft Reader (LIT), but it is rare for anyone using one of the major e-book reading devices or apps to encounter them anymore (and this primer is complicated enough already!). At present, PDF, MobiPocket/Amazon, and EPUB are the main ones to worry about.


October 26, 2010

An eBook Primer: Part I

Now that the holiday season is upon us (or shortly will be), some of us will be thinking about buying an ereader as a gift. Consequently, I am reprinting a couple of articles that first appeared on Teleread‘s website and were written by a Teleread staffer. The articles are reprinted with permission from Teleread and are copyright 2010 by North American Publishing Company, the parent of Teleread. To reprint the articles, please contact Teleread.

The second part of the “primer” will appear tomorrow.


TeleRead E-Book Primer Part One: What is an e-book?

By Chris Meadows

kindle_new_old[1] Welcome to the first installment of my e-book guide for beginners. The purpose of this guide is to give someone who knows absolutely nothing about e-books the tools he needs to make an informed decision about what kind of e-book device, if any, to buy.

This guide is going to assume you are at least able to use a computer well enough for day-to-day uses such as browsing the World Wide Web or writing in a word processor. The guide will also be prone to revision, at least until I’m sure I have it right—so if anything confuses you, let me know

This first section of the guide will start by explaining what e-books are, and will then cover their advantages and disadvantages over printed books so you have a better idea of why you might or might not want to buy them.

Let’s begin.

What is an e-book?

In the simplest sense, an e-book (short for “electronic book”) is a computer file that contains words (and sometimes pictures) that can be read on a computer or other electronic device. If you’ve ever written a letter or a report on a word processor, then congratulations: you’ve created a very short e-book, at least by that definition.

However, when most people talk about e-books, they’re talking about a specific kind of computer file, one that is specially designed to be opened by a specific computer or other electronic device. You’ve probably heard of some of them, or seen the advertisements on TV. The Kindle, web bookseller’s device, is arguably the most popular e-book reading device (“e-reader” for short), but people talk a lot about reading on Apple’s iPad tablet device, too. And of course there are plenty of others.

But you don’t necessarily need a hand-held device to read e-books: many of them can be read right on your desktop or laptop computer, as well. Some people don’t find reading on a computer screen to be very comfortable, but on the other hand you’re probably reading this from a computer screen right now. The only difference between this and an e-book is that an e-book is a lot longer.

Effectively, an e-book is a computer file containing the same words you would otherwise find in a printed, paper book, meant to be read by a specific e-book reading device or an e-book application (program) on a computer or tablet.

However, this simple definition becomes more complicated because there are many different companies selling e-books, and most of the bigger ones want to be the only ones you buy e-books from. They try to do this by locking you in, making sure that the e-books you buy from them can’t be read on anybody else’s device or application. I will go into more detail about how they do this in the section on formats.

For now, bear in mind that there are many different kinds of e-books, but most of them are similar enough to each other that I can talk about “e-books” in general and most of what I say will be true for all of them.

Why (or Why Not) E-Books?

Since many people who talk about e-books don’t stop and explain what they’re talking about, you may not have gotten a clear idea of what e-books can do for you, and why you might or might not want them.  In order to give you a better idea, here are some of the main advantages and disadvantages of e-books. (This list is not by any means complete; I have little doubt other people will be able to think of ones I miss.)


  • Device Portability – Most modern e-book devices can hold literally hundreds or even thousands of e-books in their on-board memory—more e-books than you could read in a year, and certainly more than enough to keep you from getting bored on a long airplane ride or even a two-week vacation. And many of these devices are small enough to slip into a pants or jacket pocket so you can have them with you wherever you go.
  • File Portability – Most current e-book sellers will let you read your books on more than one device at the same time. For example, if you buy a Kindle e-book, you can read it on a Kindle e-reader device, or on Kindle Reader apps for your computer, iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Android phone, or a number of other devices—and you can have the same e-book file open on more than one of these at the same time. (The Kindle will even keep track of where you left off on one device if you should then start reading the same book on another, though not all will do this.)
  • Instant Gratification – Have you ever heard about a book and wanted to read it right away, without having to leave your house to go to the bookstore or library? Do you live out in the country where it’s inconvenient to get to a bookstore? Or have you wanted a book in the middle of the night when the libraries and bookstores would all be closed?
  • A nice thing about E-books is that you can buy and download them immediately from the comfort of your own home, at any time of the day or night. If you’re using a reader (such as the Kindle) that has an always-on Internet connection and built-in store, you can buy them at any place, too. One of Amazon’s slogans about the Kindle is that you can be reading any Amazon e-book within a minute of wanting it, though it’s just as true for a number of other e-book stores as well.
  • Book Price – When a hardcover paper book and an e-book of it come out at the same time, the e-book version is usually priced lower. If you want an e-book of a paper book currently in $26 hardcover, you may be able to find it priced as low as $9.99. Furthermore, many e-books (such as the electronic versions of books that are now in the public domain) are available (legally) for free.
  • Easy Reformatting – Just as you can make the text size bigger or smaller in a word processor document you’re writing, you can make it bigger or smaller in an e-book you’re reading as well. A considerable number of Kindle users are middle-aged or older people who like being able to turn any e-book into a “large print edition” that they can read more easily.
  • Search Capability – If you want to find out where, or how many times, someone used a specific word in a book, or are wondering where a certain character first appeared, or want to find out any other fact, an e-book reader will let you find it much more quickly than riffling through the pages of a print book.
  • Bookmarking/Annotation – You never need to worry about misplacing your bookmark, and don’t ever need to damage a book by folding the corner of its page to keep your place. Most e-book readers will let you bookmark pages just like you might bookmark a website in your web browser, and some will also let you add short text notes to yourself tagged to particular sections.
  • Space-Saving – E-books take up no space on your shelf or in your house. They don’t contribute to clutter, and you can’t accidentally knock them off the shelf and trip over or step on them either.
  • Backup Capability – Many e-book stores will keep a record of all the e-books you buy and let you download them again in the future, so if your e-reader is lost in a housefire you can still get all your e-books back. Not all e-book stores will let you do this, of course—Apple’s iBookstore is one major holdout—but even if you can’t re-download the e-books from the store, you can usually copy them to a CD or DVD-ROM or a backup hard drive you can keep somewhere safe just as easily as you can back up any other computer file. Compare this to a shelf full of print books, which you’ve lost forever if your house burns down.


  • Requires Special Equipment – While you just need a paper book and available light to read a book, to read an e-book you need the book, the light (depending on whether the e-book reader has a backlit screen), and a device on which to read it. While e-ink readers are very efficient at conserving battery power, they do still need to recharge sooner or later; paper books never require batteries.
  • Eye Strain – This is largely subjective: some people find they have problems reading from a small screen, or a backlit screen. Others find it suits them just fine. If you’ve never tried reading an e-book, you should try several of them out in a store, or borrowed from a friend, and see what you think before buying one.
  • Format Lock-In – If you buy an e-book from one of the big e-book companies, it will come in a format that you can only read in that e-book company’s devices and applications. If you buy a Kindle e-book, you can read it on a Kindle device, or Kindle Reader applications for your computer or tablet, but you can’t read it on a Barnes & Noble Nook. I’ll explain this in more detail in the section on formats—it’s one of the biggest problems e-books have, and one of the greatest sources of confusion to new e-book users.
  • Device Expense – E-reader prices have been steadily declining over the last few years, but they still cost a pretty penny. The least expensive Kindle is about $139, though it will probably fall to $99 or below sooner or later. That’s still a lot to spend on a device you might accidentally leave on the bus or drop in the tub.
  • Book Expense – How much an e-book should cost compared to a hardcover or paperback has been a subject of considerable debate over the last few years. Amazon shocked the publishing world by pricing the e-book versions of many first-printing hardcovers at a flat $9.99, less than half what the hardcovers cost and below what Amazon itself was paying “wholesale” for each e-book it sold. Earlier this year, publishers forced Amazon to raise prices on many of these books (though a lot of them seem to have been allowed to fall back to $9.99 since). Of course, for many people even $9.99 is too much to pay for an e-book, especially since…
  • E-Books Can’t Be Resold – With traditional books, the used book store provided a way to recoup some of your investment in books you no longer need. You can buy them, read them, then pass them on when you’re done with them. You can’t resell e-books, however, because there’s no physical artifact associated with them: if you pass them on to someone else, it still leaves a copy of them with you.
  • Region Restrictions – One of the fundamental differences between printed books and e-books is that their sales are treated differently. While you can order a printed book from overseas because the point of sale is legally considered to be the country of origin (you bought it there, they’re just shipping it to you), when you buy an e-book the point of sale is considered to be your own computer. Effectively this means an American who could order a British paper book from can’t buy a British e-book of the exact same title.
  • E-Book Formats May Change – While e-book files can easily be backed up, there is no way to be completely sure that the e-book store you buy heavily into today will necessarily be around tomorrow. If a given e-book store should go bankrupt, or be bought out by someone who closes it down, people who bought that store’s e-books could find themselves in the same position as a heavy adopter of Betamax after VHS won the videotape format wars back in the early 1980s: his device and the media for that device still work just fine, but there won’t be any more media coming out for that device and after the device breaks he can’t get another. (I’ll talk more about this when I cover formats in the next section.) While this isn’t likely to happen to any of the major players at this point, it’s always possible.
  • Doesn’t Smell Like a Book – Some book-lovers simply prefer the look, feel, weight, and yes, smell—of a paper book, to the point where the lack of these aesthetic factors is one of their main objections to the format. E-book lovers often accuse them of losing sight of the fact that the main purpose of a book is not to look, feel, and smell a particular way, but to have words in it that you read. 


In this section, I’ve explained that e-books are computer files containing the words that would otherwise be printed on paper to make up a printed book, and have gone over some of their major advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include such things as the ability to carry hundreds of books in your pocket, or to buy books at any time and place. Disadvantages include the requirement of an expensive hardware device to read them and the inability to resell them.

In the next section, I will list some of the major e-book reading devices and applications, and talk about the different e-book formats that are available.


October 25, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My book buying has been a bit slow since the last On Today’s Bookshelf. I’ve been trying to get through my to-be-read (TBR) pile, especially my ebook TBR pile, which is much too large, nearly 250 ebooks. But that hasn’t wholly stopped me from buying new books to read — someday (it’s an addiction).

New hardcovers, including those on order, include:

  • Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • Above His Proper Station by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • EPUB: Straight to the Point by Elizabeth Castro
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

New ebooks include:

  • The 7th Victim by Alan Jacobson
  • The Novice and The High Lord (2 books) by Trudi Canavan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan
  • Tales from the Green Book One: The Magic Flute and Book Two: The Wizard’s Tome by S.D. Best
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
  • Sleight Malice by Vicki Tyley
  • The Sword and the Dragon by M.R. Mathias
  • Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore (trilogy) by Brian Rathbone
  • The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Last week I finished Brian Rathbones’s trilogy, Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore. With the first book being free and the second and third being 99¢ each (available at Smashwords), it is hard to complain about the books. In fact, there isn’t much to complain about as regards these books. The biggest problem is that the characters are single dimension. Unlike what I believe to be the gold standard for self-published novels, the Promises to Keep quartet (see, e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept), where the characters are such that they drew me into their lives, Rathbone’s characters have some interesting characteristics, but don’t rise to the level of my much caring about them one way or another.

On the other hand, the characterizations are not so terrible that I wouldn’t recommend the books, especially at the price (truthfully, however, if the books were $2.99 each, I wouldn’t recommend them at all). Out of 5 stars, I would give the trilogy 3.5 stars; but I have to reiterate that a significant factor in that rating is the pricing of the books — should the pricing go up, the rating would go down.

The story is interesting, albeit not compelling, and devoid of many of the spelling and grammar mistakes that are much too often seen in self-published novels. It is not to say there are no errors, just that the errors are few and are not distracting; they didn’t make me pause to decipher what the author intended. For a quick read at a very reasonable price, you can’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

In a previous On Today’s Bookshelf (IV), I listed Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris as a recent hardcover acquisition. I finally started reading it, and even though I am not yet finished with the book — I’m about two-thirds done — I can recommend it to anyone interested in the Dreyfus Affair or its surrounding events.

Dreyfus is well written and a fascinating read. Unlike many of the books I have read on the topic, Dreyfus delves into the emotional and cultural aspects of the affair. For example, Harris notes that many of the key characters were all Alsatians, and thus bonded by the same “tragedy,” which was Germany’s taking over of Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Each of these Alsatians, including Dreyfus, left their homeland and chose to become French citizens and joined the French military in hopes of someday regaining Alsace for France.

Harris explores what is really a fascinating question about the Dreyfus Affair: Why did so many of the foremost writers and philosophers and current and future French leaders become so involved in what appeared on the surface to be a proper carriage of justice applied to a junior military officer? The Dreyfus Affair occupied these people and the news for nearly a decade, yet Dreyfus was an insignificant person in the military scheme of things and an officer who was not all that well liked by his colleagues.

Harris also explores why so many of the anti-Dreyfusards continued to persist in their efforts to have the Dreyfus decision upheld even after it was exposed that the evidence was faked.

The Dreyfus Affair caused families to split — some members becoming Dreyfusards and some becoming anti-Dreyfusards — in bitterness, brought what had been a declining overt antisemitism back in full force, and nearly triggered a coup d’etat in the young French Republic. It was a story that was followed by the European and American press.

I think that if were to recommend just one book about the Dreyfus Affair, this would be that book. Harris does explore the Affair itself, as well as all the machinations that went on the periphery. What at first seemed to be an internal military affair, soon became the cause of the era. I find that it still captivates today and still has lessons to be learned by the world today.

October 20, 2010

The Strangeness of Politics

In a recent New York Times article, “Stand Against Earmarks Grows Lonely as Home State Sees a Need,” it was noted that South Carolinians are upset with their conservative senator, Jim DeMint, because he isn’t supporting a request for $400,000 of federal taxpayer money to conduct a feasibility study on the dredging of the Port of Charleston, which if feasible, would lead to a further request for federal taxpayer funds of up to $250 million to actually do the work. It seems that South Carolinians are willing to accept federal money when they are willing to accept federal money. Seems to me that South Carolinians want it both ways, which, of course, the rest of us would like as well, but which seems to me to negate the idea of the United States being a single nation.

Although I am what DeMint would characterize as a liberal, which is anyone a smidgen or more to the left of Jim DeMint, I have to applaud him for taking a principled stand — he is against earmarks, period! — something many of his coconservatives are not when it comes to getting handouts. Usually they want the handouts but without any strings attached. (And this is not to say that liberals are any less desirous of either handouts or restriction-free handouts — they aren’t! You can take the politics out of the money, but you can’t take the money out of the politics.)

South Carolina is opposed — adamantly — to federal bailouts and handouts, especially to items like mandatory health insurance that could benefit all U.S. citizens — except when they are not, which is hard to predict when that will be. I think South Carolinians should lead the way and simply refuse any and all federal money. This would tell the rest of us that they truly do mean what they say.

But with the recent revelations about the problems with the mortgage foreclosure documents, I wonder how quickly conservative and Tea Party tunes will change should there be a sudden raft of major bank failures that affect their pocketbooks? Bank of America, for example, has dealings with nearly half of Americans. Should it collapse, a lot of currently wealthy people would find themselves wealth-less. And retirees, who are a large portion of the Tea Party movement, would be in trouble as the ripple of such a colossal failure spread. Relying on having an FDIC insured account is problematic because the FDIC doesn’t have enough capital to cover that size failure without further government borrowing, which, of course, we just know Jim DeMint and the Tea Partyers would vehemently oppose, preferring to have all of their wealth disappear in the collapse.

Some economists, including conservative ones, say that the latest banking fiasco could result in a bigger financial crisis for the banks than the subprime bubble burst. Which makes me wonder —

Should we see a bank like Bank of America start to topple as a result of this latest crisis, will the conservatives and the Tea Partyers stick to their principles and filibuster any proposed bailout of the banks? I admit I’m not an economist or much of a financial expert, but even I can see that if banks like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America are allowed to fail, there are going to be a lot of formerly rich Republicans and Tea Partyers wondering what happened.

Of course, it would be an appropriate payback to all those corporations who are donating nondisclosed millions to the rollback-the-regulation candidates should their supporters let them fail. Isn’t it strange that the big Wall Street firms who were shored up by Democrat officeholders are now spending millions to kick the Democrats out. Grateful the bankers aren’t!

If the Congress swings to the right as expected, here are a few bits of legislation that the new right-wing majority should introduce: legislation to

  1. eliminate all Congressional pay raises until the budget has been balanced for at least 5 consecutive years and the national debt has been fully retired;
  2. do away with all taxpayer-funded medical and retirement benefits for all members of Congress and their spouses and families;
  3. return America to the days of the founding fathers by eliminating the filibuster — it isn’t in the Constitution — and bringing back majority rule.

There is nothing more impressive than seeing our leaders truly lead. And the cry to follow the intent of our founding fathers should be honored in the practice by recreating their work conditions. After all, they couldn’t have foreseen air conditioning, so certainly wouldn’t have considered spending taxpayer money on it to be constitutional — I see no air conditioning clause in the Constitution or even in the Federalist Papers. Perhaps if Congress had to work in the swelter of Washington without air conditioning, there would be less pompousness and more getting the people’s work done.

I grant that this seems silly, but it seems no sillier to me than the idea that we should revert to what the founders thought, especially when the founders weren’t of one voice on any topic, but were of hundreds of voices on every topic. The only single voice the founders had was that of compromise — they realized, which the “party of no” doesn’t seem to grasp, that the art of nation building is really the art of compromise. To their chagrin, the founders learned that confederation (remember the Articles of Confederation?) really doesn’t work and so compromised a different approach, the Constitution, which has worked — so far.

Compromise is the one lesson that Congress and the Supreme Court are in desperate need of learning, as are the South Carolinians who put out their hand to take but not to give. This disease — the lack of compromise — breeds the strangeness of modern American politics, which would even have been strange to the founding fathers as much as it is to the average citizen today. We all compromise everyday as part of our daily lives — unless we are politicians who can reap taxpayer largess while not accomplishing anything.

And if compromise really galls the Tea Partyers and the Jim DeMints of the American political scene, then I offer this bromide: Lead us to salvation by voluntarily giving up your Medicare, your Social Security, your exorbitant congressional pay and benefits. Be austere in your own lives first; go without medical insurance and demonstrate how the free market will take care of all your needs without government intervention. I, for one, am willing to be convinced that you are right; I just want to see you lead by example rather than by decree and platitude.

October 19, 2010

Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem

On one of the ebook lists of which I am a member, the question was asked: How does one find a professional editor? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like too big a problem, but dig deeper and one realizes that this can be a gargantuan task, like finding a needle in a haystack. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of people calling themselves professional editors, but there is no governing body that issues editorial licenses after proof of minimal competency.

The issue really comes down to how one defines professional when speaking of editors.

In past articles [see, e.g., The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], I suggested some of the things that separate the professional from the amateur editor. The problem is at least twofold: (a) you can’t easily verify that the editor really owns and knowledgeably uses these resources, and (b) owning the right tools doesn’t turn a person into a professional.

The definition of professional also turns on what the editor is expected to do (for an explanation of what editors do, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A professional copyeditor is not necessarily a professional developmental editor nor vice versa. Different skills and resources are needed.

As you can see, the problem of defining professional and then finding a professional editor is just that — a problem! I am not sure there is an easy or sure way.

One suggestion that many editors make is to ask about books (or articles or journals or whatever is appropriate) that the person has worked on in the past. The idea is that someone who has already edited 200 fantasy novels would be a professional editor of fantasy novels. I’m not sure that is sufficient. My own experience — I’ve been editing medical books for 26 years — tells me that all that it proves is that I have edited books, not how well I have edited them, and how well I have edited them is the true crux of the matter. I think past work is one criterion, but what do you do with the brilliant, young editor who is just starting out? We all had to start at zero at some point in our career.

There is something else to note about the past projects list. If a person copyedits only short journal articles, it is possible that their list would be thousands of titles long and thus impressive by sheer weight of numbers, especially compared to the person who edits primarily long tomes and thus can do fewer projects over the same timeframe. I know this because most of my work is on books that are 5,000 manuscript pages or longer, and it isn’t possible to complete such long projects in the same length of time as a 150-manuscript-page project.

Another suggestion was years of experience doing the particular type of work. I admit that I like this criterion better than the past project criterion for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that it would be difficult to sustain a livelihood as an editor over the course of many years if you didn’t have at least minimal competency. This is even more impressive if the person has a couple of long-term clients. But, alas, this, too, is insufficient to separate the professional from the professional-wannabe.

A third suggestion that is often heard is to ask for references. But how telling are they? You have to trust the person giving the reference and have to assume that the person knows the difference between quality and nonquality work. A glowing reference may be because the work went smoothly and was finished on time and on budget, rather than because the work was of exceptional quality — even if the person giving the reference believes it was for superior quality work. There can be a chasm between belief and fact.

A fourth suggestion has been to ask for samples. This raises a host of problems and also doesn’t really answer the question. Among the problems it raises are whether the editor has the right to share the work with you. I treat all of my clients’ work as confidential and would not share it with anyone without written permission; after all, isn’t that how you would want me to treat your work? But a more important problem is determining whose work you are really seeing. If you are being shown or referred to the final version, you do not know what improvements to the manuscript were made by whom, not even if you can compare the originally submitted manuscript with the final version. And viewing a copy of the manuscript that shows tracked changes doesn’t really indicate a lot either. If it is the first go-round, the editing will be rougher than the final go-round; if it is the final go-round, you will have missed the important intermediate steps that brought the manuscript to this point and not know whether it reached this plateau through the editor’s efforts or despite the editor’s efforts.

Of course, there is one final problem with this last suggestion: you really can’t evaluate an editor’s work without knowing what limitations were placed on the editor by the client or the client’s approach to having someone edit their work. I can’t tell you how many times in my 26 years I have had authors tell me my job is only to code the manuscript for typesetting, not to make corrections or suggestions.

I could go on for many more paragraphs and I would still be no closer to solving the original puzzle: How does one find a professional editor, that needle in the haystack? Perhaps together we can find a viable answer by addressing these questions:

  1. How would you find a professional editor?
  2. How would you define professional?
  3. How would you evaluate an editor’s work?

October 18, 2010

On Words: Myriad

Filed under: On Words — Rich Adin @ 6:01 am

Myriad, which means innumerable, is one of those live-and-learn words for me. The impetus for writing about it was my recent reading it in several books in its noun form, that is, “a myriad of,” rather than its adjectival form. I was all set to go through a lengthy explanation of how myriad was being abused by those nouners only to discover that it really does belong on my live-and-learn list.

I was always taught that myriad is an adjective and should be used thusly, “Jones had myriad questions about the new water heater” and never “Jones had a myriad of questions about the new water heater.” I even remember in the early days of my editing career having this pointed out to me by both a client and fellow editors who I had queried on the subject. Turns out they were all wrong!

Myriad began life in the mid-15th century as myriade (Middle French) meaning 10,000, or perhaps has roots in the Greek murias or muriad-, from muriot or 10,000, passing on to the Middle French via the Late Latin myrias. According to Bryan Garner (Garner’s Modern American Usage [2009]), the noun form has been with us since circa 1555 (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology [1988] notes that the figurative sense of countless numbers was first recorded in 1555), whereas the adjectival form didn’t come on the scene until circa 1791. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (2005) attributes the birth of the adjectival form to its use in poetry in the early 18th century. Coleridge’s poem Hymn to Earth is a noteworthy example of its adjectival use in 18th century poetry:

Mightier far was the joy of thy sudden resilience; and forthwith
Myriad myriads of lives teem’d forth from the mighty embracement.

So I’ve learned that myriad can be both noun and adjective. Clearly, its usage now is a matter of style rather than correctness vs. incorrectness.

October 13, 2010

Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility

I recently complained about production problems in two new novels I purchased in ebook form — Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and David Weber’s Out of the Dark — both from TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is that review-before-release rights either didn’t exist in the authors’ contracts or if the rights did exist, they weren’t exercised.

With all the problems consumers are seeing in ebooks, regardless of whether the problem lies in the conversion process or in the file preparation, authors who sign contracts with traditional publishers fail their audience if they do not negotiate review-before-release rights. Too many ebooks are being released that are poorly formatted and rife with errors that could easily be corrected just by proofreading the converted version before releasing the ebook on the unsuspecting public. And this should be of primary importance to authors, perhaps even more so than royalty issues (after all, if consumers get fed up with poor quality production, there won’t be any royalty to collect!).

The clear wave of the future is the ebook. The tsunami is about to hit and authors need to be prepared for it. Just as authors have been attuned to the problems that exist in “normal” pbook production, they need to become attuned to the problems that seem to occur with regularity in production of ebooks. It is one thing to pay $1.99 for an ebook that is riddled with errors, but quite another to pay $12.99 or higher. More important than price, at least to me, although not to many ebookers, is that if important information to the story is to be reproduced in illustrations/tables/figures, the illustrations/tables/figures need to be readable on common-size ereading devices, which means on 6-inch screens. Similarly important is that dropped words not be dropped, that uppercase letters that should be lowercase be lowercase (it is annoying to read “…they came across A cave…”), that suddenly left justified text becomes centered text, and so on.

Is it asking too much to be able to enjoy a read without being confronted with obvious, distracting errors? If you (i.e., authors and publishers) are going to permit (or simply accept) errors, can you at least make them subtle, such as using “a” when it should be “an” and “which” when it should be “that” — the types of errors that most readers won’t give a second thought to.

With the boom in ebook sales, authors owe a duty to their customers — their readers — to make the reading experience as undistracting as possible; readers should be permitted to focus on the story and not need to comment on or note formatting, spelling, and grammar errors. Authors go to great pains to ensure the quality of the pbook version; now they need to go to those same lengths to ensure the quality of each ebook format. Failure to do so jeopardizes their relationship with their readers and thus jeopardizes their future income and popularity. It is much too easy in the Internet Age to become a yesterday has-been through self-destruction.

Authors already are responsible for their choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is important). This is the result of too much author reliance on spell checkers and too little education and emphasis on correct word choice.

So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

With all the restrictions imposed on ebooks that are enforced by DRM, authors in the first instance, and publishers in the second, should at least actively strive to produce a first-class ebook and when they don’t, stand before the bar of public criticism, admit failure, make corrections, and provide free replacement copies to those who already have purchased the book.

This goes back to the publisher’s warranty of quality that I proposed nearly a year ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty), a warranty that continues to be ignored by publishers and by authors. Authors need to insist as part of their contract that a warranty be given the consumer and that the author get review-before-release rights and undertake to review the ebook form of their work before it is made available to the buying public. Doing so would be good for the author and for the consumer, and, ultimately, for ebooks. Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.

This is certainly something to think about, if not to act upon. But in any case, we readers need to expand our net or responsibility to include the author, not just the publisher, when we receive a poorly constructed ebook, especially at the prices some authors and the Agency 5 are demanding.

October 12, 2010

From Sense to Sensibility: Transitioning from Word 2003 to Word 2010

As you are aware from previous articles (see, e.g., Transitioning in a Microsoft World: Toolbar Toggle, Why, Microsoft, Do You Insist On Torturing Me?, and Different Approaches for Different Folks: The Mechanics of Editing), I am trying to transition from Office 2003 (primarily Word and Excel) to Office 2010 for my business. (I am also transitioning from Windows 7 32-bit to Windows 7 64-bit, which is much easier than than the Office transition :).) I am pleased to announce that the transition is going better than I feared, even though it hasn’t been as problem- and fustration-free as I would have liked. I guess I have been spoiled by past Office transitions that have gone very smoothly.

As previous articles noted, helping me to make the transition was Toolbar Toggle, a very inexpensive add-in for Office/Word 2007 and 2010 that allowed me to continue to use Office 2003-style menus in Office 2010. But also helping were Microsoft articles created to help smooth the transition.

Three important links to Microsoft help make the transition from Office/Word 2003, which is menu driven, to Office/Word 2010, which is ribbon driven are these:

I stumbled upon the Learn Where document and from it found the other sources. As a menu-centric person, these have become invaluable. (For those of you using or transitioning to Office 2007 rather than Office 2010, see Guides to the Ribbon: Use Office 2003 Menus to Learn the Office 2007 User Interface.)

The combined help of Toolbar Toggle and the Microsoft documents has made my transition much smoother and easier, to the point that I am now using Office 2010 without Toolbar Toggle, and am doing so without angst. Yet, I have discovered some other anomalies that frustrate me with Office 2010, primarily Word 2010, which is my workhorse program.

My goal is to automate as much of the editorial process as I can. It makes no sense, for example, to have to replace about with approximately or which with that by selecting the word to be replaced and typing the replacement each time. Yet, I cannot do a Find & Replace because F&R is dumb and will either require me to evaluate each instance and manually choose replace or it will willy-nilly make all replacements, whether appropriate or not. Consequently, I prefer the Toggle macro in EditTools (see The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage), which allows me to have my cursor in the word and press a single key to make the change as I encounter the problem during the editing process.

Along these lines, I also use a supplementary macro program called MacroExpress (I use the Pro version). This lets me easily combine various independent keyboard commands into a single macro to accomplish certain tasks. For example, when I reach a figure callout in the main body of a chapter, I want to go to the figure legend to edit it and make sure it exists (you’d be surprised at how many figure callouts I come across that do not have corresponding figure legends). So my process is to insert a bookmark where I am in the text and then go to where the bookmark for the figure legends is located. I do this (and the reverse of adding a new figure legend bookmark in the next figure legend and returning to where I was in the main text) using a MacroExpress macro, which requires a single keypress to run, that runs a series of keyboard key commands in Word to accomplish these tasks. Worked simply and easily in Word 2003; failed to work in Word 2010.

The failure of this simple macro in Word 2010 led me to yet another discovery and source of frustration in Word 2010: Contrary to Microsoft’s assertions and my expectations, many of the keyboard commands of Word 2003 do not work in Word 2010 — they simply do not exist in Word 2010. In Word 2003 Alt+k brought up the Bookmark dialog; in Word 2010, the Bookmark dialog doesn’t have a keyboard key command and it doesn’t seem like I can assign one to it either.

Yet there is a workaround. By assigning the Bookmark dialog to the Quick Access Toolbar (QAT), it suddenly does have a keyboard command. But here is the gotcha!: The QAT items are assigned numbers for use with the Alt key (you find them by pressing and releasing the Alt key to display the letters and numbers assigned to the particular ribbon entries). In my case the Bookmark dialog is assigned the number 9 because it is the ninth item, counting from left to right, on my QAT. So Alt+9 will raise the Bookmark dialog. However, should I rearrange my QAT and shift the Bookmark dialog to position 6, the key combination will change to Alt+6. Gotcha! If I want to use the key combination as part of a MacroExpress macro, I can’t move the Bookmark dialog’s position on the QAT without modifying all of the MacroExpress macros that use it. Of course, there are other ways to solve the problem, including writing a VBA macro that calls the dialog box and simply assigning that macro to a keyboard key combination, which is something I will probably do, but what about all of the users who are unable to write VBA macros? The users who at best can record a keystroke macro?

As if that were not enough, in Word 2003, when the Bookmark dialog was open, I could type a bookmark name and press Alt+a to add it to the document or Alt+g to go to it if it already existed. In Word 2010, that doesn’t work and there is nothing to indicate what will work. Ultimately, I discovered via trial and error that in Word 2010 you need to press Alt+Shift+a (or g) to accomplish the same task.

Office 2010 has other “peculiarities,”  not least of which is “Compatibility Mode” and its constantly telling me when I want to save a document that the document has track changes and comments in it. Although I already own a couple of books on Word 2010, it is clear that I need to find yet another one — one that is more complete in explaining all of the changes instituted. The problem, I fear, is that the explanations I seek may appear in books on Word 2007 rather than 2010 because authors view 2010 as an upgrade to 2007 rather than as an upgrade to 2003.

I’m finding that overall the upgrade from 2003 to 2010 is worthwhile. I found that using Toolbar Toggle in the first weeks of my transition allowed me to acclimate to 2010 yet get work accomplished while doing so. Now it is time to walk without holding a hand for support.

One final note: It is being reported that Office 2011 for the Mac will give users the option of using a menu-driven system and deleting/suppressing the ribbons completely or of using the ribbon system. If true, which we should know for certain in a few weeks as Office 2011 is due for release this month, why didn’t Microsoft give the vast majority of its market — the PC side of the equation — the same option? Or will this be the excuse for Office 2012 for Windows? Stay tuned for further updates and speculation.

October 11, 2010

A Musical Interlude: Beautiful & Interesting

Occasionally, a particular song haunts me — I mean that in a very positive way. A song that I can’t seem to let go of, one that I hear constantly in my mind because it is gracious and beautiful. There aren’t a lot of songs like that, just a few, but I thought I would share a few with you from the world of opera.

Opera, when well done, can transport a listener to another world. It doesn’t matter whether we can understand the words (usually I can’t); rather, it is how the music, the lyrics, and the singers all come together in a bit of perfection. Thus it is with the “Flower Duet (Viens, Mallika)” from Leo Delibes’ Lakmé. I consider this the most beautiful duet in all of music.

Sometimes it is fun that is the draw. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is a popular opera with children, as well as adults. I recall being in my local Barnes & Noble looking for an opera when I overheard a father with his very young daughter (she was 6 or 7) struggling to find a particular piece of music. The daughter had heard a song she remembered as “Papagena” and now wanted to buy it. I immediately knew it was The Magic Flute, and directed them to the correct opera. This is the song that had attracted the daughter’s ear:

Sometimes, of course, it is not the singing alone that captivates but the combination of the choral work and the music. One of the most famous combination choral and musical pieces from an opera is “Polovtsian Dances” from Borodin’s Prince Igor.

Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” was so popular that it was transformed into a popular song, “Stranger in Paradise,” sung over the years by many artists, including this version by Sarah Brightman.

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