An American Editor

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

May 28, 2012

The Business of Editing: Consistency

One of the directives I regularly get from clients is that they want consistency. For example, they do not want a word spelled out sometimes and an acronym used in place of the word at other times. In books, they want consistency across chapters whenever possible.

Years ago, when I edited journal articles, each journal had a style to be applied consistently across articles, regardless of whether I edited one article or 100 articles.

This drive for consistency is likely to have been the mother of the editor’s stylesheet. The stylesheet serves multiple purposes, two being to let the editor check treatment of a term in hopes that treatment is consistent across a manuscript and for a proofreader to see what decisions the editor made (e.g., is it non-negotiable or nonnegotiable; distention or distension?) and apply those decisions where the editor may have been inconsistent.

We know as readers that consistency is important, even in fiction. I find it distracting and annoying when the heroine is “nearly six-foot tall with strawberry-blond hair and jade-colored eyes” in chapter 1 but has become “five-and-a-half feet tall with dirty-blond hair and hazel eyes that change color” in chapter 3. Going from Amazonian to ordinary in three chapters can alter a plotline significantly.

Knowing that consistency is important, what steps do editors take to ensure it? In my olden days of editing, I relied on the stylesheet; I had no other tool in my arsenal that was as facile for the purpose, especially not with the size of projects on which I generally work. The stylesheet worked well when it was small (relatively speaking), but as it grew in length, it became a cumbersome tool for ensuring consistency. It became cumbersome because of the need to check it so often, and because, in the early days, the stylesheet was handwritten, which meant not alphabetized, making finding things difficult.

So I began experimenting and found ways to automate the stylesheet using programs like Macro Express, a program I still use (but not for my stylesheet). Ultimately, I designed an online stylesheet (see Working Effectively Online V — Stylesheets for a discussion of my stylesheet), which remains open in my web browser and gives me quick and easy access. Yet, I discovered that, as much of an improvement as the online stylesheet is, it was not enough. Consequently, I created two of the macros that appear in EditTools: Never Spell Word and Toggle. Using these two macros means there are fewer inconsistencies across long manuscripts.

When I get a project from client Y, I usually know that the client wants certain things to appear in its publications, or, if not across its publications, within the particular project I am working on. For example, the client may tell me that every time I see the head REFER, it should be changed to REFERRAL, or that a common acronym such as WHO never needs to be spelled out. (Usually the directive is that “common acronyms need not be spelled out at first use” without providing a list of those common acronyms; it is part of my job as an experienced editor to recognize which acronyms will be readily understood by readers of the book.)

Never Spell Word (NSW) lets me add words and phrases to a project-specific list and apply a specific color highlight to those words and phrases so I can be consistent across chapters. For example, if I enter WHO and assign it the highlight color magenta, and run NSW on the manuscript, I know each time that I see WHO in magenta that it does not need to be spelled out. If I come across “World Health Organization (WHO)” in the text, I’ll see WHO in magenta and I’ll know to delete “World Health Organization” and the parens around WHO.

Similarly, I can enter into the list to change World Health Organization to WHO. When I run the NSW macro, not only will the change be made (with tracking on), but WHO will be highlighted to indicate to me visually that this is correct.

The advantages of NSW over similar macros are basically twofold: (a) the highlighting, which gives a visual clue; and (b) the ease with which new items can be added to the list while editing. This second point is important; it means that the list is not static and it can grow as I find things to add to it.

NSW is only a part of the consistency equation, however. Toggle is another important tool. NSW is run on a file after basic file cleanup but before editing. It is run only once on a file, although I may add to its list as I edit a file. Toggle, in contrast, is not run on a file. Instead, it is used to change a word or phrase while editing. My current Toggle list has more than 1,500 entries in it. These are the things that I do not want to change universally (i.e., correct using the NSW macro); instead, I want to decide whether to make a change as I come to the item.

Using the WHO example, again, if I need to spell out WHO the first time it is used in a chapter but not on subsequent uses, then I want the information in my Toggle macro, not in my NSW macro because NSW will change it every time and I’ll have to undo some instances, whereas Toggle will make the change only when I tell it to do so. Like NSW, Toggle can have and access multiple lists. There is a primary (or universal) main list and then there are supplemental project-specific lists that can be accessed simultaneously with the primary list.

In a Toggle list, I would enter “WHO” and ask that it be changed to “World Health Organization (WHO)”; it would appear in the Toggle list like this:

WHO | World Health Organization (WHO)

Now, when I come to WHO in the manuscript, if I want to spell it out, I place my cursor in WHO and run Toggle; it deletes WHO and enters World Health Organization (WHO). This is done with Track Changes on.

I’ve used a simple example, but Toggle can be used for both complex and simple changes. For example, an entry in my primary Toggle list is as follows:

1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine | methylphenyltetrahydropyridine (MPTP)

Toggle promotes consistency in two ways: (a) it reduces spelling errors that occur when typing a replacement and (b) it is easy to use and fast.

If you know that a client wants to avoid “due to,” it is difficult to create a universally applicable substitute. Toggle gives you as many options as you create. If a client always wants World Health Organization referred to as WHO, NSW can make that happen. It is easy to remember what a client wants when there are only a few things, but the more things a client wants and the more inconsistent an author is, the less valuable the stylesheet is to an editor and the more valuable macros like NSW and Toggle are — they increase consistency and reduce the time required to be consistent.

Postscript (added after article was published): Last night I finished a novel published by a major publisher in which, within three lines, a character’s name appeared three times and each appearance was a different spelling. If the editor had used used Never Spell Word, this would not have occurred. The editor would have entered the character’s name at its first appearance into the NSW list (or, better yet in the case of fiction, the author should have supplied a list of characters with correct name spellings and ll the names would be entered into the list before any editing began) and then as the editor ran NSW on each chapter, if the character’s name was not highlighted in green, the editor would know immediately that the name’s spelling needed to be checked. Granted that the errors occurring in such close proximity should have been caught regardless of the use of NSW, but it does point out how such things can slip by and how the proper tools can help improve consistency.

May 25, 2012

On Books: Fairness and Freedom

This is really just a quick note to let you know about a new book I bought. The book is Fairness and Freedom — A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States by David Hackett Fischer.

I was in my local Barnes & Noble to buy an antiglare filter for my Nook Tablet and after purchasing it, I decided to browse the new history shelves. (I bought the antiglare filter because I want to use my Tablet outdoors this summer, but unlike eInk screens, the tablet LCD screens washout in sunlight, necessitating some auxiliary help. I could have ordered the filter, but if you buy it in the store, they will put it on for you, which means that practiced hands will do it rather than me.)

Fairness and Freedom caught my eye because of the subject matter: a comparison of the United States and New Zealand. I had just finished Shayne Parkinson’s Daisy’s War (see Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson for a review), which takes place in New Zealand, and I realized that what little I know about New Zealand comes largely from geography classes taken 50 years ago and from Parkinson’s novels. Consequently, this book looked like an excellent introduction to New Zealand. David Hackett Fischer is a well-known historian of American history, with Washington’s Crossing, which I read several years ago, probably being his best known work, having won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for History and being a 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction finalist.

The book is described as follows:

Fairness and Freedom compares the history of two open societies–New Zealand and the United States–with much in common. Both have democratic polities, mixed-enterprise economies, individuated societies, pluralist cultures, and a deep concern for human rights and the rule of law. But all of these elements take different forms, because constellations of value are far apart. The dream of living free is America’s Polaris; fairness and natural justice are New Zealand’s Southern Cross.

Fischer asks why these similar countries went different ways. Both were founded by English-speaking colonists, but at different times and with disparate purposes. They lived in the first and second British Empires, which operated in very different ways. Indians and Maori were important agents of change, but to different ends. On the American frontier and in New Zealand’s Bush, material possibilities and moral choices were not the same. Fischer takes the same comparative approach to parallel processes of nation-building and immigration, women’s rights and racial wrongs, reform causes and conservative responses, war-fighting and peace-making, and global engagement in our own time–with similar results.

I look forward to reading Fairness and Freedom and learning more about New Zealand and America.

May 23, 2012

On Books: Are Indie Authors Doing the Best They Can?

I know the question seems odd. Of course, indie authors are writing the best books they can. This seems an obvious answer, so why ask the question? Perhaps because the answer defines the problem: writing the best book they can is not enough in this age of self-publishing.

In the 1990s, I ran a small publishing company. I had to find the authors to publish, arrange for editing, hire the designer, and take care of all the production details — including arranging for a print run and warehousing of the printed books. This was before the age of ebooks. My biggest challenge was distribution: If the book didn’t appear on bookstore bookshelves, it was more than a guaranteed money loser — it was a sure disaster.

In the days before ebooks, it was a delicate balancing act to determine the correct print run and the retail price of a book. Too small of a print run and too low of a price guaranteed a loss even if every book was sold at 100% retail. Too large of a print run and/or too high a retail price also was problematic.

The age of ebooks has changed the dynamics. I wish I were running that small publishing company today because ebooks and the Internet have solved or reduced many of the problems of print publishing, especially those of finding books worthy of being published and distribution. But the eBook Age has changed an even more important dynamic because it has made self-publishing by indie authors viable.

Yet I wonder if these indie authors are really doing the best that they can.

All of the jobs that the traditional publisher performed in the 1970s and 1980s now need to be done by the indie author. Some do the jobs very well; others seem to miss the boat.

One of the first lessons that every indie author needs to learn is that they must always be selling their writing. You can’t just write and hope someone else will pick up the sales ball. I know that seems obvious, but it is the scope of what constitutes selling that I think gets missed. Even such simple things as how the ebook is designed is selling. Choosing the right typeface and font size is selling. Providing metadata for running heads for those devices that will display a running head is selling. Participation in forums of readers and constantly mentioning your writing is selling. A well-done cover design is selling.

For many people, selling themselves is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is why in law firms the “rainmakers” are considered more valuable than any other attorney in the firm; it is the rainmakers who bring in the business by selling themselves and the firm. The indie author has to be his or her own rainmaker.

The point I am trying to make, and probably not well, is that it is not enough to write a fabulous story; the indie author must constantly sell it to get people to read it and talk about it, and the selling can’t be just at their own website. In addition, indie authors need to learn the lesson that everything they do should be geared toward selling their writing.

The other day I complained about authors who write series but provide no synopsis of what happened in previous books in the series. This is a failure of not thinking through who one’s beta readers are. If you use as beta readers only people already familiar with your work, you lose the perspective of new readers who stumble on your books and choose the newest release rather than the oldest release to read. Authors should not assume that even devoted fans will remember plot details that are essential to understanding the current book in a series but which occurred in prior books. A good publisher (even a good editor) would/should identify this weakness; consequently, the indie author needs to be able to step back and identify it as well.

Here’s something else: I am a fan of several indie authors and I look forward to reading the next book they write. But my failing is that I do not keep a list of these authors and do a search at B&N or Smashwords to see if they have released a new book. Their failing as an indie author is not finding a way to get my e-mail address and not only telling me that they have released a new ebook and here are the B&N/Smashwords link(s), but not sending me an e-mail every three to four months to tell me that they are still working on their next book and hope to have it available by x date.

If I had to recommend one particularly good source that every indie author should emulate, it is Baen Publishing. Not its website, but its monthly mailing. Every month I receive an e-mail telling me the progress its authors are making on forthcoming books. I am told when a book is quarter done, half done, in review copy, and published, among other steps. By the time a book is published, I have received at least a half-dozen e-mails that mention the book, thus keeping the author and the book in front of me — that is, selling the author and the book to me.

I have read a good number of indie-authored ebooks that should be selling significantly more copies than are being sold. Certainly, I think that every indie author whose ebooks I have reviewed and rated 5 or 5+ stars should be selling thousands more copies than they are. That they are not indicates to me that they are exceptional writers who feel uncomfortable creating a business plan for selling their ebooks. Thus, the answer to my question is, “No, indie authors are not doing the best they can!”

May 21, 2012

And Then There was One: Redux

Last week I wrote about my experience with Barnes & Noble’s customer service and how frustrating I found B&N’s attitude. Ted Weinstein twitted about the article and received back a suggestion that “Dan” at B&N be contacted, with an e-mail address. Ted was kind enough to post that reply as a comment to the article.

So I did write Dan and I commented, in reply to Ted’s comment about the response I got. However, the story does not end with that reply.

I’m a firm believer that when an effort is made to rectify a situation, that effort is deserving of attention, just as the original complaint was. I think the failure of much of the media and many of our fellow citizens to acknowledge that their complaint was heard and addressed or of acknowledging it in such a way that it is never really heard speaks volumes about how ill-mannered a world society we are.

As to Barnes & Noble, the e-mailed response I received, which was not a very helpful response, was followed a day later by a telephone call from “Stephanie”, who is a high-level executive in customer service. Stephanie assured me that steps are being taken to retrain customer service representatives based on the lack of service I received. She said that the records of my calls were being pulled and the responses given by service representatives to me were being used to illustrate exactly what not to do.

And unlike earlier representatives, Stephanie told me that regardless of whether the problem with delivery was B&N’s fault or that of the New York Times, it is B&n’s responsibility to address and fix the problem. Stephanie assured me that I can expect to see significant improvement in this regard now that the problem has been brought to her attention.

Stephanie also gave me a separate telephone number to call should I continue to have a problem with either Times delivery or with a customer service representative. This number will connect me with the people who report directly to her and should I wish to speak with her, rather than one of her colleagues, all I need do is ask.

In addition to apologizing and telling me that there will be service improvements and that B&N, indeed, does want to put the customer first, Stephanie offered me a $50 B&N gift card for my troubles, which I declined. I am not interested in making money off B&N and nothing occurred that warrants giving me a $50 gift card. I do not make my complaints lightly and when I do make a complaint, it is not in hopes or expectation of being financially rewarded. What I do want is good customer service and my Times delivered timely, and if you are not going to deliver the Times timely, then a credit for the value of that issue of the Times as I have already paid for it in advance.

While on the telephone with Stephanie, I told her about my “adventure” in getting the Nook Tablet and the Times subscription originally. I noted that in that case customer service was fine, it just couldn’t solve the problem, which should have been an easy problem to solve. (See The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet.)

Will there be an improvement in B&N’s customer service? I hope so because I would like to see B&N survive. I consider this response a good start and I feel better about continuing to deal with B&N. I also think that B&N deserves a few kudos for making the followup effort.

The flip side is that B&N shouldn’t have had to make the effort to reach out to me and an Internet complaint shouldn’t have been necessary to instigate that reaching out. Yet if B&N makes the transition from a B&N-centric to a customer-centric organization, it could become a formidable competitor to Amazon. Unfortunately, it will take more than Stephanie to make the transition, but every great movement has to start with a first step.

May 18, 2012

We’re Celebrating!

Filed under: Breaking News — Rich Adin @ 8:35 am
Tags:

Carolyn and I are now grandparents. Our first grandchild — Azra Grace, 6.7 lbs, 18 inches — was born yesterday, May 17, to our daughter and son-in-law. We will shortly be leaving to make our first visit. In the future, if you can’t reach me right away, you can be assured it is because I am enjoying life, playing games with my granddaughter. :)

Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson

I, my wife, and most people who have read the Promises to Keep quartet of ebooks are big fans of indie author Shayne Parkinson. For those of you unfamiliar with the quartet, I reviewed the books 2 years ago in On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and again in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept, and have been waiting for the next book in the series to arrive. My wife and I are still recommending these books to anyone who asks for an excellent read.

In the past week or so, we were wondering if Shayne Parkinson had finally released the next volume in the series. We hadn’t heard anything and it hadn’t crossed my mind to check Smashwords, when, ‘lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Shayne advising me that Daisy’s War, the latest book in the series has been published and is now available at Smashwords.

I immediately went to Smashwords and downloaded the fifth book in the series. I began reading it within hours. I expected Daisy’s War to be of the same exceedingly high quality as the first four books in the series (all 5 or 5+ stars) and am not disappointed. I couldn’t put the book down and so finished it within a couple of days.

Daisy’s War picks up where the series left off, the early decades of the 20th century. Here is the description from Smashwords:

In 1914, Daisy lives in the quiet New Zealand valley where her family has farmed for generations. Her world seems a warm and safe one. But the Great War is casting its long shadow over New Zealand. Daisy watches in growing fear as more and more of the men leave to fight in Europe, and the War strikes ever closer to the heart of her family.

The brief description doesn’t do justice to the book. The book is a reflection on World War I and its impact on New Zealand, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, as seen through the eyes of a child who almost understands the whats and whys of war but can’t quite grasp them. Daisy’s dreams take a back seat to the impact of World War I on her extended family and how the need for soldiers ultimately leads to conscription, beginning with single young men but rapidly moving to include married men with children, including Daisy’s father.

The story seems incomplete. We tangentially are given glimpses into the war’s effect on the adults. Because of how the prior books were written, I think Daisy’s War should have run with both major and minor story lines, the major being the tale we are given and the minor a more in-depth look at the effect on the adults. For example, Daisy’s Uncle Alf returns from the battlefields a changed man. We are briefly given a glimpse into why and we know that the children want to avoid him, but we are not given more insight into the change in family dynamics. Perhaps this broader look at intra- and interfamily dynamics is a tale that will be picked up in the next book.

Regardless, this is the outstanding book that I had been waiting for. The only thing missing from the book is an explanation of the character relationships at the beginning, before the Prologue, that a reader can either review to refresh one’s memory or ignore. It has been 2 years since I last read this series and at first it was difficult to figure out who the characters are and their relationships to each other. The first book in the series begins with Amy’s story and the child she had out of wedlock that she had to give up for adoption. In Daisy’s War, we read, for example, of “Aunt Sarah” and “Granny,” and it took me some time to recall that these are the out-of-wedlock daughter and Amy, respectively. Other relationships also took some time but did come back. For example, who was Grandma (as opposed to Granny)?

This is a gripe I have with many authors who write continuing series. It is not so bad when in every book in a series the characters remain the same, just the circumstances change. But in a series like this where there is a constant generational change and an expansion of the families and a long time between books, it should not be assumed that readers will remember what happened in a book that was released more than 2 years ago or recall who married whom and begat whom who themselves went on to marry and beget. In that interim, I have read thousands of manuscript pages for work and hundreds of books for pleasure; some refreshing is necessary.

In this case, the lack of the information poses another problem: The book doesn’t work well as a standalone book. You need to have read the previous books in the series to understand the importance of what is happening. Although that is good from a series sense, it is bad from the reader sense. A reader who picks up this book first, not having read the previous entries in the series, will not walk away singing the high praises the books deserve. Instead, they will be disappointed because much of the impact of book relies on knowing the relationships.

Regardless, as with the first four books in the series, Daisy’s War is exceptionally well-written. If you have read and enjoyed the first books in the series, then this is a must read for you. The book is reasonably priced at $2.99 and is clearly a 5-star read.

If you haven’t read Shayne Parkinson’s books, begin with Sentence of Marriage, the first in the series, which is free at Smashwords. If you  like historical fiction and/or family sagas, you are likely to find this a captivating series.

May 16, 2012

And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service

For a long time I have advocated buying ebooks from Barnes & Noble. Not because B&N was the cheapest or had the very largest selection (although I admit that I consider the argument that Amazon has more titles than B&N to be a specious one; after all, does it truly matter that one has 1.3 million titles and the other has 1.1 million titles, as long as the store where I shop has the title I want to buy? How likely is it that I will read even 10% of the available titles — or, more importantly, even have an interest in 90% of the titles that make up those numbers?), but because I do not want to see a retail ebook world that is essentially Amazon only.

Alas, B&N seems to be doing its darndest to give the ebook world to Amazon on a silver platter.

In recent weeks, I was given a Nook Tablet as a gift. It is an excellent device and works smoothly with the B&N ebookstore. I think B&N’s hardware is excellent and even many of the critics rate the B&N devices as the better devices.

Between the Amazon and B&N ebookstores, I prefer the layout of the B&N store. Whenever I visit the Amazon store, I feel like I am being assaulted by an infomercial for some unneeded and undesired product that shows at 2 a.m. on local TV. I know that Amazoners praise the one-click buying system at Amazon, but I don’t find the two-click system at B&N overtaxing.

The bottom line is that I think B&N has a lot going for it, yet it is handing over to Amazon a little bit more of the ebook world daily. B&N has a significant flaw, one that it appears unwilling to address, or perhaps it is simply unable to address. That flaw is customer service.

As I reported in an earlier post (see The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet), the impetus for giving me the Nook Tablet was the deal combining a New York Times subscription with a discounted Tablet. Those of us who read the Times know that it is a morning newspaper — it is meant to be read at the start of the day, not at the end. When I had the print subscription, the paper was usually delivered by 4 a.m. and no later than 5:30 a.m., allowing me to read the Times at breakfast (I am an early riser). This delivery schedule was met day after day, year after year, the exceptions generally being when Mother Nature intervened and prevented timely delivery. If the Times was not delivered on time, a quick telephone call resulted in a credit to my account. No-hassle customer service.

What I get now from B&N is the electronic version — bits and bytes sent over the Internet — that is, when I get it. Some days it arrives by 5:30 a.m., but never earlier; some days it arrives by noon or later; some days, it doesn’t arrive in a timely way at all. So when it doesn’t arrive by 5:30 a.m., which is already late as far as I am concerned, what can I do? Turns out: nothing.

You can’t contact B&N customer service because it isn’t open; it has banker’s hours. When it does open and you do get someone, as helpful as the initial reps may want to be, they are hamstrung by B&N policies, at least as communicated by the customer service representatives.

On one occasion, when the Times hadn’t arrived by noon, I called and asked for a credit. The customer service rep tried to give me one but couldn’t, and so very politely passed me to a supervisor. At first, the supervisor told me I’d have to take the matter up with the Times. I replied that it was B&N that sold me the Times, it is B&N that I pay every month for the subscription, and it is B&N that delivers the Times to me, so why would I contact the Times?

The supervisor then told me that it was my problem, not B&N’s; that B&N doesn’t give refunds even when it doesn’t deliver the purchased item; that there would be no credit of any kind; and I “had to eat it.” I suggested that not only was this theft, but more importantly to B&N, it was giving paying customers another reason to abandon B&N for its arch-rival Amazon.

I understand that we are not talking a lot of money — about 40¢ — but it is the idea that B&N simply doesn’t care that matters (and I’d be less concerned if this happened once rather than several times over the course of a few weeks). After the incident, B&N sent me a satisfaction survey. I wrote of my dissatisfaction and even gave my telephone number so B&N could followup. I’m still waiting for that followup. In my business, if I get a hint of dissatisfaction, I’m on the telephone trying to do damage control. It doesn’t always work, but I try. B&N seems impervious to the idea of customer satisfaction.

(This disinterest in customer satisfaction goes back to the beginning of B&N’s latest foray into ebooks. You may remember my complaints about how B&N treated its club members when it introduced the original Nook. B&N refused to give members the 10% discount on the Nook, claiming that, even at $250 per Nook, it was losing money. Not long thereafter, the price dropped to $150 before going even lower. I had wanted to buy two Nooks and ended up buying none.)

Is Amazon better? I only know what I read and what I read is that had I had the same problem with Amazon, something would have been done. I also suspect that Amazon would deliver the newspaper on time. But it really begs the question to ask if Amazon’s customer service is better — it can’t be worse! And this is what B&N doesn’t seem to understand. Customers will put up with a lot if they think they are being fairly treated; if they think they are not being fairly treated, they will put up with little to nothing — and will let others know of their dissatisfaction.

The point is that it is these little slights to customers that build into major frustrations, and it is these little things that should be taken care of immediately. You are better off putting out the fire while it is still in the BBQ than waiting for it to ignite the forest — a lesson that B&N sorely needs to learn.

I am happy with my Nook Tablet; I really cannot say enough good things about the device to express my pleasure with it (I like it so much that it has been a month since I last used my Sony 950). I enjoy shopping at B&N’s ebookstore (although I dread what customer service I will get should I buy the wrong ebook or an ebook that is missing material). I especially like that I can automatically download ebook purchases to my Nook Tablet, as well as download those purchases to my desktop computer for storage (and that it is easy to strip the DRM from B&N ebooks so they can also be read on my Sony 505 or 950). All of this is to the positive.

Yet the problems with customer service, the limited hours of operation, and the attitude that the customer is to blame is irritating. I’m gradually getting closer to leaving B&N in the dust; each time I call customer service and am told I need to “deal with it,” and am displayed B&N’s indifference to customer satisfaction, I get closer to saying “Enough already!” What holds me back is my unwillingness to give the ebook market over to a single gorilla ebookstore. But what I want may be of no matter as B&N seems to be working diligently to turn another customer into an ex-customer.

Ultimately, whether B&N survives the ebook wars will rest on its customer service. So far, it is losing.

May 14, 2012

On Books: Rebecca Forster — Legal Thrillers

As I have mentioned in other posts, I began my serious adult work career as a lawyer (between college and law school, I tried a lot of different jobs, none satisfying). I was a trial attorney in the U.S. Midwest for a number of years before moving back to the East Coast and becoming an editor. My experience as a trial attorney, especially my experience defending persons accused of committing a crime, has always interfered with any enjoyment I might otherwise have gotten by reading lawyer-centric legal thrillers.

For example, it stretches my credulity beyond the limits to read about a first-year associate at a major law firm discovering a plot by the firm’s senior partners against America and then single-handedly saving the day, fighting off experienced, special forces-trained security personnel. Especially when dragging along another person who is even less-well prepared for the rigors of the fight than the associate. The point is, my experience prevents me from wrapping my head around the prose of the standard legal thriller, so I just don’t read them.

But as I have also noted numerous times, I like to explore indie-authored ebooks and am willing to give a free legal thriller a try, even though I have low expectations.

Imagine my surprise when I read Rebecca Forster’s Hostile Witness, which is free at Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. This book rates 5+ stars on my rating scale (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for information on how I rate ebooks). It is not that this book doesn’t have some of the flights of fancy that simply do not occur in legal practice; rather, it is that this book more closely tracks how a trial occurs, how a case unfolds, and what a good lawyer really does.

Our heroine is Josie Baxter-Bates, a lawyer with personal issues, but one who is quite good at her job. In Hostile Witness, she is hired to defend a teenager who is accused of murdering her stepgrandfather. The evidence is clear — or is it? The storyline is not that of a lawyer who suddenly becomes a superinvestigator and can perform miracles that the finest police officers and detectives — short, perhaps, of Sherlock Holmes — cannot do. Instead, it is the story of a highly competent lawyer and the courtroom scenes (at least most of them) reflect what really can occur, not just what is needed to occur to move the story along.

The characters are well-formed and believable. The lawyers are reflections of real lawyers. The sequence is much like a real legal case (there is some exaggeration and skipping over fine points, but then this is a novel and should be expected). The writing is crisp, with only a few errors scattered throughout the book.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying a legal thriller for the first time since I read John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, published in 1993 — a very long time ago when it comes to reading. (This was the only Grisham legal thriller that I thought reflected the real practice of law and the only one of his books I thought worth reading, although I did try a couple of others.) I found that I couldn’t put Hostile Witness down; I wanted to read it in one sitting.

I was so impressed with Hostile Witness, and so enamored with how well the characters were created, that as soon as I finished it, I went searching for more ebooks by Rebecca Forster. Turns out that Hostile Witness is the first book of a quartet of books starring Josie Baxter-Bates. I purchased, for $3.99 each, books 2, 3, and 4 in the series: Silent Witness, Privileged Witness, and Expert Witness. Each is also available at Smashwords and at Barnes & Noble.

I have read Silent Witness, and although it is well-written, this book is a 5-star book rather than a 5+-star book. Again the courtroom scenes are spot on, but I always have trouble with stories about lawyers defending their lovers, which is what this one is about. The focus shifts from the less emotional to the more emotional because of the relationship, yet I must also admit that I had difficulty setting this book aside for such daily tasks as work, eating, and sleeping.

Immediately following Silent Witness, I read Privileged Witness. Like the preceding two books, this one is well-written, but is beginning to join the formulaic. In this story, the villains are a politician — and a former lover of our heroine — and the politician’s sister. There is a subplot involving a battered wife and her homicidal husband, which I think would have made a better story. Unfortunately, in Privileged Witness, Josie Baxter-Bates begins to look like a typical action hero rather than a competent lawyer. I found the story less compelling, but still a very good read. I’d give this book just under 5 stars because it is moving closer to the Scott Turow-John Grisham type of legal thriller that I do not like.

I am now in the midst of reading the last of the quartet, Expert Witness. This book starts out with our heroine having been kidnapped. I am about a third of the way through the story. Like its predecessors, it is well-written and a hard-to-put-down read, but the story, so far, centers on the efforts of Bates’ lover and ward (she is legal guardian of a teenager) to find her. Based on what I have read so far, this will also be a slightly less than 5-star rating, with the lowered rating solely because of the plot, not the execution. However, a final rating awaits my finishing the book.

If you like legal thrillers, or even just a well-constructed, well-written story with believable characters — characters that could have been taken from your neighborhood — then this quartet of books by Rebecca Forster is meant for you. These books belong in the pantheon of indie books worth reading.

May 9, 2012

Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book — e or p — that I have bought or read that doesn’t have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no “penalty” for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor’s suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I’ve discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity — at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I’ve suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can’t individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author’s responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn’t issue a “seal of good editing” to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you’re for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, “How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?” The answer is another question: What does the editor “pay” to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

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