An American Editor

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

June 27, 2011

On Books: In Her Name

I recently came across an ebook fantasy/scifi series by Michael R. Hicks titled In Her Name. The story is that of humans versus Kreelans, a blue-colored cat- and human-like race whose members are connected to each other through “blood song” and who do everything in the name of their empress.

Currently, there are five ebooks in the series, with a sixth book due in fall 2011. The books, in the author’s recommended reading order, are:

  • In Her Name: Empire
  • In Her Name: Confederation
  • In Her Name: Final Battle
  • In Her Name: First Contact
  • In Her Name: Legend of the Sword
  • In Her Name: Dead Soul (coming in fall 2011)

The first book in the series, Empire, is available free at Smashwords.

I admit I was perplexed by the author’s recommended reading order as the fourth book, First Contact, really is the beginning of the story. The explanation I received when I inquired was that the author had written the first three books — Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — and was then asked by fans for more, which led to the Star Wars imitation ordering. Regardless, the books are certainly readable and enjoyable in the recommended sequence, and I am anxiously awaiting Dead Soul.

As readers of An American Editor know, book reviews are intermittent and then only of those books I consider to be the better indie books I have come across (although occasionally I do review some of the worst), that is, indie books that are 5-star or 5+-star rated. (For star definitions, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).) Overall, the In Her Name series is a 5-star series.

The books are well written and the characters are interesting. (One error that did stand out as a sore thumb, however, was the use of Forward for Foreword. The homonym gremlin strikes yet again!) I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in the emotional and physical transformation of the lead character, Reza Gard (i.e., lead character of books 1, 2, and 3 of the recommended reading sequence), from human to Kreelan, which occurs in the trilogy.

Also of interest is the ever-evolving view of humans by Tesh-Dar, the high priestess of the Kreelans, and the Kreelans in general. First viewed as soulless animals because their blood doesn’t sing, humans earn the respect of teh Kreelans and rise, especially when Reza Gard’s blood begins to sing and the Kreelans can “hear” it. This evolution does carry on throughout all of the books.

The story revolves around a 100,000-year-old Kreelan prophecy that condemned male Kreelans to procreation followed immediately by an agonizing death, which had the effect of creating a female-dominant warrior society in which males have no role (because of the curse) outside propagation of the Kreelans. At the beginning of the First Empire, which is the empire in which the In Her Name series takes place, a series of events lead to the first empress cursing her people but offering a way to remove that curse. The story chronicles broadly the centuries-old search for the prophesied male whose actions will lift that curse, but focuses on “current” events in the search for that male.

To lift the curse, a male who is not born a Kreelan but whose blood “sings” like a Kreelan’s blood must be found. To find that person, the Kreelan Empire goes to war with sentient races that it comes in contact with, looking for both worthy opponents and the singing blood. The war is to the death and prior to the current century-old war with humans (i.e., by the time of In Her Name: Empire the war with humans is 100 years old), multiple sentient races have been annihilated because their blood didn’t sing. Now it is humans who face extinction unless they are found to have a “soul,” that is, their blood “sings.”

Interestingly, although the Kreelans are significantly more techologically advanced than humans and could wipe out humans with ease, the Kreelans prefer to fight one-on-one and with a level playing field. Consequently, they determine where in the technological continuum humans are and “degrade” their own capabilities so that the humans have at best a slight advantage and at worst equality with the Kreelans. The fighting is for the honor of the empress, not merely to exterminate a sentient race.

Enough of the story. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy fantasy/scifi and well-constructed alien civilizations, then Michael Hicks’ In Her Name series is an excellent read. Even if you don’t normally read fantasy/scifi, you may find this series enjoyable. The author does delve, although perhaps not as deeply as he could have or should have, into what honor means and how it can play a role in the clash of civilizations. The first book, Empire, is free, and the other books in the series are reasonably priced at $2.99. Even before I finished reading Empire, I bought the other four available ebooks — I found that I wanted to continue reading the story without interruption. (My biggest disappointment is that I need to wait for the sixth book’s release! Hopefully I will remember to buy it when it is released. This is one of the problems with series that are published independently; one can’t preorder and if the wait is too long between books, there is a tendency to forget both the author and the series because the reader has moved on.)

Hicks has an excellent grasp of drama, along with excellent story-telling skills. His books are generally grammar and spelling error-free so the reader is not distracted while reading the story (the notable exception being the Forward/Foreword error noted earlier). Hicks has imbued the characters with believable traits; it is easy to believe that a sentient race like the Kreelans exist, just as it is easy to believe that the lead human characters are people we all know. His characterizations involve the reader, but don’t quite cross that emotional barrier that absorbs the reader in a character-driven work. These books are more predominantly plot-driven, which is why remembering to buy the forthcoming book may be problematic. (For a discussion of approaches, see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? For a discussion of approaches and the difficulty of being remembered, see On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail.)

If you are looking for a well-written, engaging, “short” series to read, give In Her Name a try. You certainly have nothing to lose with the first book being free, and the first three books — the trilogy of Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — stand on their own; the other three books, the prequels, do not need to be read to understand or appreciate the trilogy.

June 24, 2011

Worth Noting: How Do the Nook and Kobo Touches Stack Up?

The Nook Touch, the newest reading device from Barnes & Noble, is a touchscreen device and sells for $139. The newest device from Kobo is the $129 Kobo eReader Touch, which also sports touchscreen technology. The big question is: How do the Nook Touch and Kobo Touch stack up against the Sonys and the Kindle 3?

As is always the case with technology, each has its pluses and minuses, and which plus or minus weighs more heavily depends on the individual user. The video reviews have already begun.

First up is a comparison of the Nook Touch to the Sony 350 (and essentially the Sony 650 and 950, too):

Second, is the Nook Touch vs. Kindle 3:

The Kobo Touch is the chief competitor to the Nook Touch. Here is a video review of the Kobo Touch.

As impressive as I find the Nook Touch and the Kobo Touch, I am still pleased that I bought a Sony 950, although to get the Sony features and larger size (the 950 is a 7-inch screen whereas the two Touches are 6-inch screens) I paid twice the price. For how I use my ereader device, however, neither the Nook Touch nor the Kobo Touch is up to par, and the Kindle 3 is simply far behind design-wise if you prefer, as I do, touchscreen technology to a physical keyboard that is omnipresent. (The screens of all the devices — Sony, Kobo, Nook, and Kindle — are similar as they all use the same eInk Pearl screen.)

However, if the factors bearing the greatest weight were price and “good enough,” there is no doubt I would buy either the Nook Touch or the new Kobo Touch. As between the two (and because I live in the United States), I am not sure. I certainly prefer the B&N eco system to the Kobo system, but Kobo has perhaps a better implementation. Because I am not interested in the “social” environment, I don’t consider that a plus or minus for the devices — just something for me to ignore.

For those of you who read this blog and who are deciding to buy one of the touchscreen devices — or are deciding not to buy one and go the Kindle route — what influenced your decision?

A couple of other things to note and consider: First, the touchscreen technology that the Sony, Kobo, and Nook are using is the same on all devices. Second, Amazon is usually a quick responder. I wonder what its response will be. And, finally, Sony has in the past announced new products in late August and made them available in October. Will Sony come up with something to shake things up again as it did last year with the combination of the Pearl screen and the infrared touchscreen?

June 22, 2011

The eBook Revolution’s Effects on My Book Buying & Reading

For many years my reading habits ran in cycles. For x period of time, I read only fantasy and science fiction. When that cycle came to an end, it was replaced with mysteries. As that cycle ended, I moved to nonfiction biography. And the pattern kept going — I would come to the book-buying and -reading trough and gorge on books that fell within a particular genre, satiate my appetite for that genre, and then move on to feast on another genre. For 50+ years, that has been my habit. Until 3.5 years ago…

…when I received my first ereader device, a Sony PRS 505, as a holiday gift. Suddenly my reading world was threatened with upheaval. At the time, I had been in my third year or so of reading largely nonfiction and the occasional novel. All of my book purchases were hardcover and I was spending upwards of $5,000 a year on hardcovers (I am not going to discuss my magazine reading as those habits haven’t yet been affected by the ebook revolution).

When I got my Sony I learned pretty quickly that I had limited options as to where I could buy ebooks. At the time, Sony used its own proprietary format; it hadn’t yet transitioned to the significantly more open ePub format, although that came about 8 months later. I also discovered, after purchasing my first nonfiction ebook for the Sony that nonfiction on the Reader was not going to be a practical option for me. Much of the nonfiction I read is heavily noted and accessing notes was awkward at best, impossible at worst.

I also purchased a couple of novels that I had wanted to read but which were no longer available in print, yet they were available as “reasonably” priced ebooks. And thus began a change in my reading habits, compliments of the ebook revolution. I found that reading fiction on the Sony was extraordinarily pleasurable. The screen was excellent; the ease of bookmarking was great; the ability to switch among books wonderful; and the ease with which I could carry multiple books everywhere with me was breathtaking. The Sony was meant for me and for any avid reader — as long as it was fiction.

That was the kicker — it had to be fiction. The Reader could handle nonfiction, but not all that well (and from what I could see of friends’ Kindles, the Kindle was in the same boat). So what to do?

In a way, solving my problem was easy. I have always viewed fiction and nonfiction differently. I consider 98% of all fiction as read-once-throwaway material; little of it was worth saving for any reason. I also consider fiction to be a “cheap” read. What I mean is that with only a few exceptions, the most I am willing to pay for fiction is the price of the mass market paperback discounted. In contrast, I consider 100% of the nonfiction I buy to be books I want to keep in my permanent library for future reference by me or someone else (note that I said that I buy; there is a lot of nonfiction that belongs in the fiction category of read-once-then-throwaway). I consider these books to be readable multiple times (although I do not do that with a great deal of frequency) and some of them to be collectible. Consequently, I will buy the hardcover and pay the price.

The ebook revolution affected my reading habits by “making” me buy and read fiction in addition to the nonfiction I buy and read. My habits have changed; my reading broadened. The ebook revolution also introduced me to a category of books that I would not have considered at all before the advent of ebooks — the self-published book. I still have not ventured into self-published nonfiction because I still give credence to traditional publishing and its vetting process, although that credence has been under attack in recent months as a result of traditional publisher carelessness that has been publicized.

Previous to the ebook revolution that began for me with the gift of the Sony, I would never have knowingly bought a self-published/vanity press book. No exception. But within weeks of receiving the Sony, I discovered Smashwords and free and 99¢ ebooks. I grant that there is a lot of poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced drivel at Smashwords, but I was willing to do my own vetting for that price. I also discovered Fictionwise, which had some very inexpensive fantasy books, especially with the sales.

I purchased a lot of ebooks from Smashwords and Fictionwise and soon found that I was devoting much of my reading time to fiction. I’d pickup a hardcover nonfiction book only to put it back down after a few minutes because I really wanted to read on my Sony. I was hooked. (I’m waiting for the American Psychological Association to create a new mental disease category for my ereader addiction.) I will admit that given my druthers, I’d druther read on my Sony (which is now the newer Sony 950) than read a print book.

It is a constant, daily struggle for me, and I am losing the battle with myself. As each day passes, I become ever so slightly more addicted to reading on my Sony 950 and less willing to pick up the pbook. This is causing me angst on another front: the financial front.

Because of how poorly many ebooks are produced, their high pricing, and the restrictions imposed by DRM, not least of which is the idea that I am “renting” the ebook rather than owning it, I am reluctant to abandon hardcover for my nonfiction. I think making that transition is at least 5 years, maybe 10 years, away for me. As well as my Sony 950 handles footnotes and endnotes, there are still things that dedicated ereaders do not handle well that are important to nonfiction, such as images. This conflicts me because the reading experience of the Sony 950 is so great.

As this internal battle rages, I find that in some cases I buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions of a particular nonfiction book. Granted this doesn’t happen often, but even I can see it happening with increasing frequency. Whereas when I was using the Sony 505, which I did for 3 years, I only purchased 3 titles in both formats, an average of 1 per year, since buying my Sony 950 at its release 8 months ago, I have purchased 2 books in both formats and have contemplated purchasing several more (but have not yet given in).

The one battle that the ereader has won, and it wasn’t much of a battle, is in regards to fiction: I will only buy fiction in ebook form, with the exception of a couple of authors whose books I am collecting, in which event I will buy both formats.

The other battles that the ereader has won are that of broadening my reading habits and skewing the number of fiction versus nonfiction books I buy. As for the former, I now read concurrently fiction and nonfiction rather than cycling and I read multiple genres of fiction rather than cycling. As for the latter, whereas I used to buy 20 nonfiction for every 1 fiction pbook, I now buy many more than 20 fiction for every 1 nonfiction I buy, although I read only 3 fiction for every 1 nonfiction (I have large to-be-read piles of both to get through). However, I rarely spend more than 99¢ on the fiction books.

My reading and buying habits have been significantly influenced by the ebook revolution. Has it affected your habits, too?

June 20, 2011

The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern

We see a lot of new ebooks being released that are riddled with editorial and formatting problems. From the publisher’s side, the problem is that to proofread ebooks after conversion, especially after OCR (scanning) conversion, is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be-all and end-all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known with certainty how many ebook sales will be made.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink how and what gets published. I don’t mean which books but which formats. Perhaps the time has come to publish only hardcover and ebook formats, dropping the mass market paperback from the mix and keeping the trade paperback for those pbooks that do not justify a hardcover print run (although considering that the cost differential is slight between paperback and hardcover, I see no particular need to retain even the trade paperback).

Before the coming of the paperback, books were available in hardcover only. That limitation was the impetus for several innovations, including the public library. But the limitation served a good market purpose. It kept the price high relative to incomes; created an educated class to which people aspired; allowed nearly all print runs to be profitable; created the first commercial publishing class (as opposed to scholarly class) of books; created the respected profession of editor; and limited the number of books available for purchase. As a side effect, it created secondary and tertiary markets for books: secondary being the used-book market and tertiary being the collector’s market.

Today, the publishing world runs wild with no discipline imposed either directly or indirectly on the publishing world and process. Consider the growth of books published in the United States alone in the past decade: In 2002, 215,000 books were published traditionally (which largely means through the old-style process of vetting, editing, and so on by an established publisher) and 33,000 nontraditionally (which largely means self-published). Jump ahead a mere seven years to 2009 and the numbers are 302,000 and 1.33 million, respectively. One year later, 2010, the respective numbers are 316,000 traditionally published and 2.8 million — more than double — nontraditionally published! I’m not sure I want to know the numbers for 2011.

The jump in nontraditional publishing numbers is simply a testament to the rise of the ebook. The numbers do not imply or correlate with sales, quality, price, or anything other than raw numbers of suddenly available books. If I read one book a day, every day, or 365 books a year (vacationing from reading only on the extra day in leap years) for 60 years, I could read 21,900 books, which represents a mere 0.0078% of the 2.8 million nontraditional books published in 2010. The likelihood of my being able to read a significant percentage of all books available to me is nonexistent.

How does this tie into the idea of dropping paperbacks? It runs a convoluted course like this: As I cannot possibly read all of the books published in 2010 alone, I would prefer to march publishing backward and be less egalitarian and open access and more unequal and closed. I want to make what reading I do count with minimal search-and-find effort on my part. I want to see more profitability for authors and publishers in exchange for better vetting of books and significantly better production quality control. One way to do this is to control market access.

eBooks are already eroding pbook sales, so let’s help that erosive process by guiding it. If a person must read or buy a pbook, make the only pbook version available the hardcover version. Book buyers are already accustomed, from centuries of ingrained experience, to paying a premium price for a hardcover book. Book buyers perceive value — whether that value is real or not makes no difference; buyers believe it exists, which is sufficient for it to, in fact, exist — in hardcover versions. One side effect of that perception is that buyers of hardcovers tend to treat the books more carefully than they treat paperbacks, thus creating a secondary market with some value. Thus, let’s satisfy the pbook market need by providing a better-quality hardcover.

By limiting the pbook to hardcover only, we are also changing the secondary market. A used hardcover will now have more value because there is no pbook alternative. And it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to figure out a way for authors and publishers to receive a small royalty from secondary market sales. Eliminate the paperback and there will be more incentive for that solution to be found.

The other benefit of eliminating paperbacks is that the ebook can easily replace it. More effort and money can be put into production of the ebook version and a more realistic price can be charged. Right now, much of the price grumbling about ebooks is a result of comparing the ebook to the paperback. Why should an ebook cost more than the paperback version? (The question is rhetorical here.) Eliminating the paperback removes the yardstick against which the ebook price is currently measured. The market will settle, just as it did for paperback pricing, around a few price points for ebooks, which will be less than the hardcover price. Within a relatively short period of time, that price stabilization will be accepted by most book buyers and what we will see is the return of the market we had before ebooks, but with ebooks in the role of paperbacks.

One other consideration is that by eliminating the paperback, traditional publishers are eliminating a major debit to their balance sheets. To offer a paperback version means you actually have to do a print run — the product has to be available in that form — which also means that the direct and ancillary costs (e.g., returns, warehousing) have to be incurred. And if the paperback is a decent seller, it means that the costs have to be incurred multiple times. In contrast, with an ebook production costs only have to be incurred once; any cost of duplication of the electronic file, once perfected, is minimal.

Will elimination of the paperback cause pain in the market? Sure it will, just as any established market change and upheaval does. But this is an opportune moment to make that change. Publishers need to move paperback readers to ebooks. They also need to enhance the value of both ebooks and hardcovers in the consumer’s thoughts. The easiest and most effective way to do this is for publishers to take their lumps now and eliminate the paperback from the equation (think of the shift from videotape to DVD and vinyl record/audiotape to CD). The period of rapid growth of ebooks is the time to reshape the market, not when the idea of coavailability of the three formats is entrenched.

June 15, 2011

On Politics: The Question Not Being Answered (or Even Asked)

At my age, I carefully follow any news that might impact my decision-making process regarding retirement. I also, regardless of age, watch for political news that might affect the taxes I pay. Being a New Yorker, I already am one of the highest taxed citizens of the United States.

Needless to say, the biggest potential impacts in current news are the Republican onslaught against universal healthcare, which Republicans have euphemistically labeled “Obamacare,” and the Republican plan to privatize (or voucherize) Medicare (and even Social Security). Neither really impacts me because I am in the “safe” age group (older than 55 years), at least insofar as the Republicans vocalize today (tomorrow the Republicans may change their mind); they do affect me, however, because I have children who will be impacted and because I do care what happens to my fellow citizens. Medicare and Social Security are the safety nets for the elderly. (Interestingly, many of the Republicans legislators who support the changes are well-to-do, have taxpayer-funded retirement and healthcare, and will not need either Medicare or Social Security to survive in their retirement years. Once they retire from Congress, they can get part-time lobbying jobs that will provide sustenance that Americans like me can only dream about!)

Yet I see one lingering question that I can’t seem to get a Republican congressperson to answer directly and clearly. Obfuscation seems to be the vocabulary word of the year and to make sure they remember the word, the Republicans practice it. The question is this:

If Obamacare’s individual mandate is unconstitutional, how can the Republican plan to require citizens to contribute to Medicare and receive in exchange a voucher for use in the private marketplace be constitutional? That is, what makes the individual mandate of required Medicare contribution and participation constitutional but not the mandate in Obamacare?

This really is an important question because it goes to the heart of Medicare even in its present form. (Worth noting, too, is that a citizen is required to apply for Medicare during a 6-month window at age 65 years, or be penalized.) Call it what you like, the reality is that citizens are being mandated to purchase Medicare (and Social Security) whether needed, wanted, or not, and semantics aside, I see no difference between those individual mandates and the Obamacare individual mandate. The end result is that the citizen is forced to buy healthcare coverage, whether wanted or not.

Note I’m not even talking about why Romneycare was great for Massachusetts’ citizens but the near-identical twin Obamacare isn’t great for Americans. (I did ask that question earlier, however, in The Forked Tongue Dialogues: Romneycare vs. Obamacare, and I still haven’t gotten an answer that makes sense. Worth noting is that many of the same Republicans who now oppose Obamacare praised Romneycare, although under Tea Party pressure they have “rethought” their earlier praise and now condemn Romneycare. All it took was a couple of clowns threatening primary fights against any Republican who didn’t recant for the great Republican flip-flop to occur. If only they would flip-flop on their “no taxes” pledge so we could logically and fairly solve the debt problem. I’m sure big oil would survive on profits of $30 billion rather than of $33 billion for the quarter.) All I want to know is this: Why is the individual mandate under Obamacare unconstitutional but the individual mandate the Republicans will impose under their Medicare privatization plan is constitutional?

I have asked this question in recent weeks of several Republicans — politicians and nonpoliticians. Either I have received no answer or I have received pablum statements talking about how great the Ryan budget proposal is for business (not for me as an individual, but for corporate America) and how the Republican privatization plan will bring back individual responsibility. No one will address the matter of how, under the Republican plan, limited-income seniors may have to eventually absorb as much as 65% of the cost of Medicare, the vouchers eventually covering only 35%. It is so difficult to pin a politician down. Do they run a special school for weaseling that is required for all new congresspersons and politicians?

While I wait for a cogent answer, which I suspect I will never get, I’m hoping some of the Republican attorneys-general who believe it is imperative to protect me from Obamacare will equally be prepared to protect me from Republicancare (or Ryancare if we want to keep the naming conventions consistent). Alas, I suspect that they view a Republican idea as god-given and god-driven and thus biblically mandated, unlike a Democrat idea, which obviously must be the work of some nefarious evil being.

Okay, perhaps I do exaggerate a minuscule amount, but not by much. From the moment Obama was sworn in as president, Republicans have called his presidency a failed presidency — and worked hard to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet many, if not most, of the policies that are Obama failures were initiated by Bush and called Bush successes — right up to the minute before Obama was sworn in and took the reins of government, so my exaggeration can’t be more than minuscule. Impressive, isn’t it, how, in less than a minute, industry bailouts can go from success to failure. All that is required is an oath-of-office ceremony.

Don’t get the idea that I think Obama has been a spectacular president. A Harry Truman, he is not. The buck clearly doesn’t stop at his desk. I think Obama has been a major disappointment as a leader on multiple levels. He has been a follower, not a leader, which, to me, has been and continues to be his greatest failure; his second greatest failure has been his focus on reelection. It sure would be nice to elect a president whose attitude was “America’s citizens first even if it means I don’t get reelected.”

I’m off track now, so let’s return to the subject at hand. If anyone can get an answer to my question — one that is really an answer and not some more pablum and one that is not semantical — I hope you’ll post it here. If the only answer we can get is a semantic one, then perhaps a few thousand whispers in Democrat ears to change the semantics of Obamacare would be appropriate to take the wind out of the Republican sails.

By the way — is anyone buying the Republican cry of Democrat distortion on the issue of Republican plans for Medicare? I find it amusing that Republicans consider Democrat characterizations of the Republican Plan as false and misleading but with the same forked tongue don’t consider Republican characterizations of Obamacare (remember, e.g., “death panels”) as false and misleading. Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

June 13, 2011

On Books: Wondering Why Stieg Larsson

Sometimes one has to go with the flow because there is some unknown force that pushes you along that path. I find that most frequently happens when I am “pushed” toward the local Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream — for our dog! Yes, our Lily, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel, loves ice cream and Dairy Queen’s in particular.

Unfortunately, that push also sometimes shoves me toward a particular book: Because millions are reading it, I sometimes get “pushed” toward the need to read this book of millions to discover why. Usually finding out why simply reinforces my belief that bestsellers too often fail the discerning reader test (i.e., no discerning reader would ever read this book!), which is why I rarely buy or read books on the bestseller lists.

Well this unknown force pushed me to read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thankfully, there will be no followup books to this trilogy.

I read the trilogy a couple of months ago and thought it deserved a rating of 2 stars maximum in my system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)) except that my system’s 2-star rating doesn’t seem to cover a book that has nearly no spelling errors, few grammar errors, is published by a traditional publisher, but is atrociously bad reading. That’s because my rating system was designed for indie books, not traditional books. So, we’ll just have to temporarily adapt.

The Millennium Trilogy is a 1.5- to 2-star series on almost any 1 to 5 rating scale. Whatever compelled people to buy the books is elusive — except that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is an interesting, albeit unbelievable, character who tends to rope you into wondering what next will happen in her world (in a way these books demonstrate the value of character-driven books; see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? and On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail). To me, these books are like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — superficial quick reads that help pass time without taxing any cognitive processes whatsoever. Perhaps the books are better in their original language (Swedish) than in the translation; one can only hope.

Okay, you have the picture — I don’t think the books are worth buying let alone reading (50 million buyers worldwide say contrariwise) so why am I writing a “review”? I wouldn’t have in the normal course of events. My general policy is not even to mention, except in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles, books that I think so little of. What made me write this article (anybody remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine and her line “The devil made me do it!”?) was a review of these books in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) a couple of weeks ago that I just got around to reading.

The Moralist by Tim Parks, is a NYRB review well worth reading by those who have bought the Trilogy but not yet read it; those who have bought the Trilogy and have read it; those who are thinking of plunking down hard-earned money to buy the Trilogy but haven’t yet done so; and those who have no intention of either buying or reading the Trilogy because the article is well worth reading in its own right. It is also a good article to read by anyone who is interested in getting a feel for the types of articles and reviews that NYRB publishes.

My commentary here is really less about Larsson’s Trilogy than about encouraging those who are interested in books and culture to read NYRB, and perhaps subscribe to it. Articles in NYRB are significantly different from reviews one reads in, for example, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR). There was a time when I read the NYTBR faithfully every week. When I first discovered NYRB years ago, I faithfully read both the NYRB and the NYTBR but soon discovered that the NYTBR was not of the same quality caliber as NYRB, with the result that my faithfulness to the NYTBR began to wane and today I barely look at the NYTBR. Instead, I eagerly await the next issue of NYRB.

One of the problems with book buying today is that there are so many books published and so few trustworthy reviews of them. No magazine, no online site can put a true dent into the numbers — the number of reviews will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the number of books published, which problem is exacerbated by the easiness of self-publishing ebooks. But I seek some guidance from somewhere that is reliable and I have no faith whatsoever in the anonymous reviews at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Although I have high praise for NYRB, it does have its faults. For example, it has yet to introduce to the print version a “column” devoted to ebooks. It needs to do so and it needs to begin reviewing books that are available only as ebooks, as well as books that are available in both p and e versions. NYRB also fails to identify the formats that the books it does review are available in and whether there are problems with the production. But for content review, NYRB can’t be beat.

I hope some of you will take the time to read  The Moralist by Tim Parks and take a look at NYRB with an eye toward making it a regular stop for interesting commentary and reviews, and perhaps even becoming a subscriber. (For those of you who wonder about the ideological slant of NYRB, it is a liberal/left-leaning publication, but I have only found that evident in its commentaries, not in its book reviews.)

Disclosure: I am not now and never have been associated with NYRB in any fashion, manner, way other than being a long-term subscriber to the print edition. I receive no compensation from NYRB, not even a calendar or a T-shirt. FWIW, my current subscription, for which I duly paid the full subscription price, expires in 2015 and I will extend it as soon as NYRB permits. (They are unwilling to take more than one 3-year extension at a time or I would have extended my subscription into the 2020s already.)

June 8, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII)

It seems as if it was only yesterday when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh
  • Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer
  • Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt by William David Myers
  • Eichmann’s Jews by Doron Rabinovici (preorder)

Hardcover (Preorder) —

  • Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (fiction)
  • A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber (fiction)

eBooks (Nonfiction)

  • Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister

eBooks (Fiction)

  • Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove (short story)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel by David Mitchell
  • Bad Faith by Mike O’Connor
  • Jack’s School of Shines by Jack Sorenson
  • Secrets of the Tudor Court by D.L. Bogdan
  • The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
  • Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
  • The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood by Scott Semegran
  • Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan
  • Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry
  • Clever is as Clever Does,  The West Wind Blows, Careful What You Wish For, and The Clever Detective by Linsey Lanier (4 individual books)
  • Fair Price by Laura Lond
  • The Taking of FLOTUS by Clayton Spann
  • The Blood-stained Belt by Brian H. Jones
  • The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald
  • Soldier of God by David Hagberg
  • The Lost Fleet Series: Victorious, Relentless, Valiant, Courageous, Dauntless, and Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (7 individual books)
  • Work of Art, Bethel Merriday, World So Wide, The Prodigal Parents, Kingsblood Royal, Gideon Planish, Dodsworth, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (8 individual books)
  • A Vote of Confidence by Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Too Close to Home by Lynette Eason
  • Torch, Driftnet, and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson (3 individual books)

As you can see, the TBR (To Be Read) pile keeps growing. Worth noting, however, is that at least 20 of the listed ebooks were gotten free, either via discount coupon or because the author set the price at free. Needless to say, all of the hardcover books required payment. Finally, the list of ebooks is incomplete. It is just a sampling of the ebooks I have “purchased” in recent months, with 90% of them being free.

I admit that owning an ereader has seriously affected my reading habits. I am reading more than ever before (and I always was a voracious reader) and in a greater variety of genres. Before my ereader days, I generally read nonfiction and then the genre of the year (i.e., serially — I would read mysteries for a couple of years then switch to fantasy for a while, and then move to another genre, but each genre was exclusive). Since acquiring my first ereader 3.5 years ago, I now read multiple genres concurrently. I like to read several books simultaneously, so now I may read a mystery, a fantasy, and something in nonfiction concurrently. But whereas previously the genres I read were few, I now am reading in many more genres, including historical fiction, historical romance, science fiction, “chick lit,” classics, and so on.

Every time I look at my TBR pile, I think that I need to take a vacation from acquiring new ebooks, but I have found that impossible — too many are being produced that have enticing descriptions. Hopefully, when I retire, I will be able to get through the TBR pile more quickly.

June 6, 2011

On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail

Last week I divided books into three categories: plot-driven, character-drive, and hybrid (see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?). What I didn’t do is order rank them from a long-tail perspective, which can mean financial reward to authors. (For those unfamiliar with the term, long tail refers to the books sales over the long-term, after the book’s initial rush of publicity and sales push.)

For this analysis, we need to discard authorial megastars — the James Pattersons, Stephen Kings, J.K. Rowlings, the authors whose books are virtually guaranteed to sell nearly innumerable copies just by the author’s name alone — and concentrate on the other end of the scale, the authors whose books sell a few hundred to a few thousand copies over their shelf-life, the authors who are unknown to most readers, the ebook self-publishing authors who hope to someday gain status as excellent midlist sellers. The reason for dividing authors this way for the long-tail analysis is that the megastars work and play by a different rule book. They didn’t when the started, but they do now, and what they touch now is touched by Midas.

From shortest long tail to longest long tail, I think the order is this: plot, character, hybrid. The primary reason for this order is memorableness, which is my word for being worthy of remembering and is an important part of the ebook world. How does a new author sell ebooks? The author does promotion, various pricing schemes, and well-crafted descriptions, and hopes that when I read the ebook I like it enough to tell all my friends who will rush out and buy the book, love it also, and tell all their friends, and the scene keeps repeating ad infinitum.

With more than 1 million new books published last year, there has to be a way to stand above the crowd, a way to be so memorable that the author’s books are worth mentioning again to someone a year, 2 years, 5 years after you have read it. The book has to be at least a 5-star book and more like a 5+-star book, using my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)). Consider this: What book or set of books have I repeatedly mentioned in the past year? Answer: Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, which fall into the hybrid category! (In the past year, I have mentioned these books in 15 different articles [this article is number 16] and have devoted a couple of articles to the quartet. See, for example, On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept.) These books are memorable. My wife and I are still, 1 year later, recommending the quartet to everyone with whom we talk books. Memorableness is the root reason why.

I have no idea how sales of Parkinson’s books are doing. But I do know that if others react to her books as my wife and I have and keep mentioning her books to readers, she will have a network of publicists for years to come who will keep the Promises to Keep quartet viable and selling. The long tail in action.

Contrast this with plot-driven books. Plot-driven books are really rehashes of the same basic plot that has been used for scores of years. The book is a good, satisfying read. It earns 5 stars because it is well-written. But a year from now will you remember this particular version of the plot or will it have blended in with the next 50 books you have read with the same basic plot? Where is its memorableness?

If a book lacks memorableness, then the author is plopping all of the author’s eggs in a single, very small basket — the one where the author hopes to sell a lot of copies upfront. But down the road, in the long tail, sales will be none to little without yet another major publicity push to remind readers that the book exists. The book has no staying power of its own. If the author releases a new book, the occasion can be used to sell prior published books, too, but still there is no memorableness — the books are read once, then forgotten. The author hasn’t conquered the basic business of sales: long-tail sales are more important than initial sales; the long tail is what provides a sustainable income because the book keeps selling itself. Plot-driven books are the most susceptible of the three — plot, character, hybrid — to disappearing in the long tail because most plot-driven books are rehashes of prior plot-driven books — new characters, new scenarios, new twists, but basically the same plots repeated and reworked. They can be good, exciting reads, but they lack memorableness.

Next in line are the character-driven books. These fare better than plot-driven books because a character or two may be memorable. A reader may not be able to recall plot details, but can recall a character or two. Although this works well with standalone books, it works especially well with series. A good example is David Weber’s Honor Harrington series of books. The plots are basically the same — shoot ’em up, bang, bang with military space hardware — but the characters involve you. Another good series that fits this description is Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, where the core characters remain the same from book to book, the basic plot remains the same from book to book, with the victims, the perpetrators, and the crimes changing with the tides.

But even these memorable books suffer from a lack of true memorableness. We remember the broad facets but not the particulars. Even so, these books carry a longer tail than plot-driven books, largely because we get involved with the characters. (For a discussion on the importance of characterization, see Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?) Yet we rarely run around telling everyone that they need to read these books. We remember them in response to a specific query: “Do you have any recommendations for science fiction reads? How about some good mystery reads?”

In contrast, the hybrids — assuming they are well done — grab us at our reading core and we voluntarily become part of the author’s publicity team. We seek out ways to promote these books on our own. We are not content to sit idly by. I have read all of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, and all of the plot-driven mysteries by Vicki Tyley (see On Books: Murder Down Under), as well as many of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and if I am asked for a recommendation in science fiction or mystery, I’d probably think of them and mention them. But in contrast, I actively seek opportunities to tell readers about Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet. Her long tail for the quartet must be growing because I do know that some people to whom my wife and I have recommended the books have themselves become active recommenders of the books to their friends.

I’m not distinguishing any of these books by their literary immortality or lack thereof; I’m undecided, for example, whether or not Parkinson’s books are literary immortals. But I am distinguishing these books based on their future long tail and whether they have one that will survive in the absence of constant author push. Self-creating volunteer cadres of boosters is an important reason for an author to consider the hybrid model. The balance doesn’t need to be 50-50 or 60-40 or any particular combination; rather, it must be found for the individual book, the individual author — but it must exist as an inspiration to readers to remember the book 1 year and 5 years after having read the books, giving memorableness the opportunity to keep the book’s long-tail life alive.

The best salesperson of any book is the enthused reader. The key to the enthused reader is memorableness, and the key to memorableness is the hybrid. A book that has a self-sustaining long-tail life that is independent of constant author push frees the author to pursue the author’s primary craft — writing.

June 2, 2011

On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid?

Generally, novels seem to fall primarily within two types of characterizations: plot-driven and character-driven. A plot-driven novel has a recallable plot and not-so-recallable characters; a character-driven novel has recallable characters, and a not-so-recallable plot. There are defenders of both, but I find both lacking. I think the difference between literature fiction and nonliterature fiction is the hybrid novel that finds a careful balance between being character driven and plot driven.

I broached this topic in an earlier article, Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? Perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the topic.

I’ve said many times that I consider fiction read-once-then-throw-away books, which is my justification for buying nonfiction in pbook form, select fiction in pbook form, and the vast majority of fiction in ebook form. It is also my justification for not rereading a novel, again, with a few exceptions, such as Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

Yet there really is a more important difference and that is the difference between classifying something as simply fiction, or a novel, on the one hand, and on the other hand classifying it as literature, something to be read now and in years to come.

On one of the fora of which I am a member, the question arose about starting a literary book club as opposed to just a monthly book club. The idea being that the books chosen would be literary classics, not just today’s bestseller. But there was no agreement on what constitutes “literature” — How do you define it? How do you recognize it? How does a group recognize it? And so on.

I had no answer until it dawned on me that every book I would consider literature (as opposed to simply a good fiction read) is simultaneously character driven and plot driven, that is, it is a hybrid whose characters and plot are both memorable years after first reading.

A well-plotted novel keeps a reader’s attention while reading the book. But it is the rare plot that can be said to be so unique as to stand apart from all other plots. Generally, one plot is reminiscent of another plot, with the difference being in the details and how well the author crafts the storyline.

A well-characterized novel absorbs the reader in the characters. Perhaps little is remembered about the plot, but the character(s) is(are) memorable. Here there is greater uniqueness, but even so, one can recall other books with similar characters. Again, the author’s craft is in how well constructed (and deconstructed) the character(s) is(are).

Literary fiction (or literature), on the other hand, is a finely crafted balance — not necessarily an equal balance — between plot and character so that remembering one causes you to remember the other. We celebrate the authors who find that balance by buying and reading their books year after year. For these authors and books, publishing’s long tail has significance, especially as new generations of readers discover them.

I can hear folk saying but J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which is considered a literary classic, really is a terrible book. I admit, it is far from my favorite. Yet that notion of like and dislike is really not a criterion for classifying the book. Consider this: Many of us read Catcher in the Rye in the 1960s yet we still recall Holden Caulfield and his story. How many books, of all the many hundreds, if not thousands, of books you have read since, can you say that about? In my case, it is a handful, probably less than 1%, yet isn’t that “literary immortality” what many authors want?

Does this mean that the difference between a good author and a not-so-good author, between a good book and a not-so-good book is whether the author has achieved that fine balance? No, because there is nothing inherently wrong with a book that is either plot driven or character driven. Rather, what is at stake is whether a decade from now — perhaps even a year from now — the author and his or her writing are remembered by anyone, whether the books and the author are being discovered by new generations. For some authors literary immortality is not on their horizon; for others, they strive for it, sometimes making it, more often not making it.

But I think the key to that literary immortality is finding that balance for a particular book. The balance doesn’t have to be 50-50 or 60-40, but it clearly cannot be 90-10.

There is yet another reason why it is the hybrid model that leads to literary immortality but plot and character driven do not: human nature! By that I mean we humans seek to identify with others, seek to escape from daily life for a few minutes, seek something that we do not have through literary escapism. A well-written plot-driven novel about unlocking a secret has starred in hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of novels like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The books sell millions of copies on release, then are rarely heard from again. In a decade, the question will be Dan Brown who?

Similarly, if Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, written in 1927, had been solely character driven, it would have died on the literary vine, just as The Da Vinci Code has done. Ask yourself this: Do you know anyone who is discussing the characters or the plot of The Da Vinci Code today? Yet Elmer Gantry is still on reading lists and still banned by some evangelical churches — more than 8 decades after publication, Elmer Gantry is still causing a furor. Yet Elmer Gantry, although a hybrid, is heavier on the character-driven side of the balance.

Heavier on the plot-driven side are the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. People remember not only the plots but the characterizations. Watson draws sympathy from readers for his dealings with Holmes and movies are still being made based on the stories — because the characters give a sense of realism and the books are hybrids, just heavier on the plot than on the characterizations.

To my way of thinking, only a well-written hybrid can be a 5+-star book. Plot-driven and character-driven books can be 5-star books, but they cannot be that little bit more that is needed to put them in the literary immortality category. Something to think about, but not necessarily something that requires anything be done. Quality craftsmanship is still quality craftsmanship and is the first requirement; worrying about literary immortality is something that should occur after mastering the art of writing.

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