An American Editor

June 29, 2012

Worth Noting: Author Guild’s Filing to the DOJ

The Author’s Guild has submitted a letter outlining its opposition to the DOJ’s proposed settlement with three major publishers. The letter is worth reading for an understanding of just how predatory Amazon is. The letter is reprinted in full below from the Author Guild’s blog.

________________

The Guild does not support the DOJ’s proposed e-book settlement. We believe it will allow Amazon to resume its predatory pricing practices, discouraging competition in the e-book marketplace.  Here is the signed document.

June 25, 2012

John R. Read, Esq. Chief, Litigation III Antitrust Division, United States Department of Justice Washington, D.C. 20530

Re: United States v. Apple, Inc., et al., 12-cv-2826 (DLC) (SDNY).

Dear Mr. Read,

I’m writing to express the Authors Guild’s firm belief that the proposed settlement of the Justice Department’s lawsuit alleging that five publishers and Apple colluded to introduce agency pricing to the e-book market is not in the public interest.  The settlement is flawed by an astonishing provision, specifically requiring three large publishers to allow e-book vendors to routinely sell e-books at below cost, so long as the vendors don’t lose money over the publisher’s entire list of e-books over the course of a year.

The proposal, by allowing targeted predatory pricing of e-books, would give governmental sanction to a practice long considered destructive to a free and fair market. It was precisely this practice – selling frontlist e-books at below cost to discourage and destroy competition – that helped Amazon capture a commanding 90% of the U.S. e-book market. Agency pricing, which the Justice Department believes was introduced through collusion, has allowed Amazon’s competitors to gain a foothold, driving Amazon’s market share down to 60% in two years.

The Justice Department has made clear that it intends to irreversibly reshape the literary market.  Allowing Amazon to resume its predatory ways with e-books will likely accomplish that, but not in the way the Justice Department intends.  The proposed settlement will almost certainly backfire and harm readers in the long run.

The Justice Department needs to rethink and revise its proposal: it can stop the alleged collusion without requiring publishers to allow Amazon to resume predatory pricing.

The Competitive Landscape: Amazon’s in Control

The Justice Department’s assessment of the literary market offers but a pinhole glimpse of the genuine competitive landscape.  Its competitive impact statement fails to discuss the relationship between the print book market and the e-book market, for example, or the critical distinctions between the online book market and the brick-and-mortar market. Most importantly, it fails to mention Amazon’s monopolistic reach and reflexive anticompetitive habits, the dominant features of the current competitive landscape.

Nowhere does the Justice Department’s competitive impact statement discuss the components of Amazon’s monopolistic reach:

  • that Amazon held 90% of the market for trade e-books prior to the introduction of the agency model in 2010, and that its e-book market share still stands at roughly 60%;
  • that Amazon has long controlled about 75% of the online market for trade books in print form;
  • that Amazon’s dominance of the online market for print books gives it control of the market for an estimated 90% of in-print titles, since only a sliver of in-print books (frontlist books and certain backlist titles) have substantial sales in brick-and-mortar stores;
  • that Amazon, through its purchase of Audible.com, has control of the fast-growing downloadable audio book market; and
  • that Amazon, through a series of acquisitions, has gained control of the online market for used books.

There simply is no growing segment of the book market that Amazon doesn’t dominate.

Even more troubling is the competitive impact statement’s failure to discuss how Amazon uses its command of the online book market and its deep pool of capital to undermine competition.  The statement doesn’t point out:

  • that Amazon achieved its $9.99 price for e-books from November 2007 through April 2010 (and through today, for many publishers) by selling frontlist titles at a loss, a classic anti-competitive tactic;
  • that Amazon managed to undermine its brick-and-mortar competitors while maintaining profitability by selling only a select set of e-books at its below-cost $9.99 price point, focusing its predation on digital editions of the frontlist hardcover books that attract customers to its brick-and-mortar competitors;
  • that Amazon removed buy buttons from thousands of “long-tail” books in 2008, in a successful effort to force author focused on-demand publishers to use Amazon’s costly printing service, a maneuver that continues to reduce royalties for thousands of authors, while preventing rivals from effectively competing with Amazon’s author-focused CreateSpace;
  • that during Amazon’s showdown with Macmillan over e-book terms in 2010, it retaliated by removing buy buttons not just from Macmillan’s e-books (which would have been fair play in such a business dispute), but from the publisher’s print books as well, tying access to Amazon’s vital print book market to acceptance of Amazon’s preferred e-book terms (the complaint does blandly mention this, without noting the market-tying strategy);
  • that Amazon has continuously used its market leverage, in the U.S. and abroad, to dictate terms to its suppliers by removing buy buttons, in at least one instance punishing a recalcitrant British publisher for more than a year;
  • that when Amazon entered the e-lending market for public libraries in 2011, it struck an unprecedented deal with OverDrive, the leading e-lending service provider, requiring it to redirect borrowers from their local public library websites to Amazon’s own commercial website and servers, turning thousands of public library websites into virtual storefronts for Amazon, while compromising library patrons’ reading privacy;
  • that Amazon, in November 2011, brought its predatory campaign to a new level with its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, offering free e-books to gain a loss-leading competitive advantage for its new tablet, the Kindle Fire; and
  • that Amazon has aggressively moved in the past seven months to protect its horizontal control of the online book market through a series of vertical acquisitions, buying exclusive rights to thousands of titles, including Ian Fleming’s James Bond books, Avalon Publishing, and Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books, leading to an unprecedented and dangerous balkanization of the literary marketplace.

Each of these acts represents behavior that should set off alarm bells in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.  Assessing the effects of the proposed settlement without taking these into account is impossible.

Several of these points merit further description, to illustrate the myriad, creative ways in which Amazon leverages its market power to destroy competition.

Amazon, On-Demand Publishing: Making Room for CreateSpace

For years, the Authors Guild staff had heard whispers of Amazon’s buy-button removal tactic as a means of getting publishers to agree to new terms.  In January 2008, during the Association of Writers and Writing Program’s annual conference, Amazon’s market-denying maneuver hit hundreds of Guild members, as it removed the buy buttons from more one thousand books in the Guild’s Backinprint.com program.

The Guild had launched Backinprint.com in the summer of 1999, allowing authors for the first time to republish their out-of-print books without incurring any set-up costs. (The Guild had negotiated an agreement with on-demand publisher iUniverse to prepare the books for on-demand printing.)  The service was an immediate hit with members; within two years, more than 1,000 titles were available to readers again, including books by Mary McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Victor Navasky.  The books, all of which had fallen out of print after being published by traditional U.S. publishers, are among the more than one million in-print books that make up bookselling’s “long-tail,” low sales-volume works that rarely appear on bookstore shelves. Long-tail books, more than any other, depend on virtual bookstores: Amazon largely defines their market.

Sales of all on-demand books grew steadily in the early 2000s. By 2005, sales of on-demand books had reached a new high.  Backinprint titles sold 41,000 units that year.  Amazon, the storefront for most on-demand sales, took notice.  It purchased BookSurge, an on-demand printer, to compete with Lightning Source, the industry-leading on-demand printing service run by Ingram.

Three years later, however, few on-demand publishers had moved their printing to BookSurge.  Small wonder, since it charged more for its printing services than Lightning Source and had a reputation of offering lower quality service.  So Amazon turned to aggressive tactics to win market share, reportedly removing the buy buttons from all iUniverse titles during the 2008 AWP conference.  Author Solutions, which had acquired iUniverse, saw its sales plummet.  It quickly agreed to use BookSurge for its Amazon sales, and Amazon restored access to its millions of customers.

While a traumatic event for iUniverse, the episode went unnoticed in the book world, which was focused on Amazon’s November 2007 introduction of the Kindle, with its predatory pricing scheme for select frontlist books. Even our members with books in the program took no notice, because when Amazon removes a buy button from a book’s sales page, the sales page looks almost identical to a page for an out-of-print or out-of-stock book.  Reports of Amazon’s strong-arming of on-demand publishers didn’t surface for more than a month, in March 2008, with reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

Amazon got away with this gambit, suffering barely a scrape.  On-demand publisher Booklocker did file a class action lawsuit in Maine against Amazon over the episode.  After Amazon’s motion to dismiss failed, Amazon quietly settled the suit for a reported $300,000 in attorneys’ fees.  Amazon has doubtless earned back those fees many times over.  Thousands of authors continue to see their on-demand royalties reduced by ten to fifteen percent as a result of Amazon’s squeeze.  (This wasn’t a maneuver justified by efficiencies that ultimately benefit consumers, incidentally.  Amazon appears to sell the books at precisely the same price as other online retailers.  Amazon just makes more money at it than they do.)

More importantly and profitably to Amazon, by forcing iUniverse and other author centered on-demand service providers to use BookSurge, Amazon severely constrained effective competition for its own author centered on-demand service provider, which became known as CreateSpace in 2009.  Amazon’s vertical integration of on-demand printing eliminated the ability of iUniverse, PublishAmerica, XLibris and others to offer authors better royalties when selling through Amazon.  CreateSpace appears to have thrived ever since.

Amazon’s Exercise of Its Buy Button “Nuclear Option”

In June 2008, Doreen Carvajal of the New York Times called buy-button removal “the literary equivalent of a nuclear option for rebellious publishers who balk at [Amazon’s] demands.”  Ms. Carvajal was discussing Amazon’s removal of buy buttons in the United Kingdom from hundreds of Bloomsbury titles while in negotiations with the publisher.

The Authors Guild began preparing for the next incident, which everyone in the industry knew would come.  Since stealth appeared to be a significant weapon for Amazon (authors may not notice, if the incident is over quickly enough, and publishers are fearful of blowing the whistle), the Guild hired developers to build a tool to e-mail authors when Amazon removed one of their buy buttons.  When Amazon removed the buy buttons from Macmillan’s print and digital books in January 2010, the Guild launched the tool through a dedicated website, WhoMovedMyBuyButton.com.

Amazon’s buy button removal campaign persists unabated.  Independent Publishers Group markets and distributes titles from independent publishing houses to the book trade at large.  When IPG’s Amazon contract came up for renewal in 2012, Amazon pressured IPG for more favorable terms.  When IPG resisted, Amazon took down all IPG e-books from its site.  After X months, IPG came to terms, etc.

Amazon and E-Lending by Public Libraries

In September 2011, Amazon entered an arrangement with OverDrive, the largest supplier of e-books and audio books to public libraries, making possible e-book library lending through the Kindle device.  OverDrive’s implementation of the Kindle lending program, pursuant to its agreement with Amazon, required it to redirect patrons to Amazon’s servers. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times compared it to “walking into your public library then finding yourself at the Target checkout counter.”  No other e-book vendor has such an arrangement.

Amazon Pursues Its Own “Monopoly Over Its Titles:” the Balkanization of the Literary Marketplace

Since its e-terms battle with Macmillan in January 2010, during which Amazon protested that it had to “capitulate” due to Macmillan’s “monopoly over its titles,” Amazon has turned toward pursuing its own monopoly.  With the launch of the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s drive to acquire exclusive rights to books, by acquiring publishers with substantial backlists and other arrangements, has taken on a new urgency.

In September 2011, Amazon’s acquired the exclusive digital rights to one hundred popular DC Comics graphic novels.  If a customer wanted to read any of these on an e-device, it had to be on a Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble, trying to break into the e-device market with its Nook, retaliated by pulling all print copies of DC Comics titles from its shelves. Books-a-Million, the third largest bookseller, followed suit.  “As Amazon seeks over the next few years to expand its tablet line,” predicted the New York Times, “these collisions over content are likely to become routine.”

Amazon is moving quickly. In December, Amazon entered the children’s book market, acquiring more than 450 titles of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books.  In April, Amazon announced it had acquired the exclusive North American rights to publish Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels — in both digital and print formats. Earlier this month, Amazon expanded its holdings of genre fiction, purchasing the publisher Avalon Books and the exclusive rights to its 3,000-title backlist of romance, mystery and Western fiction.

Balkanization of the literary market is something new and deeply troubling.  “Bookstores used to pride themselves on never removing any book from their shelves,” reported the Times, “but that tradition—born in battles over censorship—is fading as competitive struggles increase.”  Awful as it is for our literary culture, the balkanization of the book market is but a logical extension of Amazon’s no-prisoners approach to competition.

The Kindle Owners’ Lending Library

Amazon lagged Barnes & Noble by a full year in developing an e-reading tablet.  While Barnes & Noble prepared to roll out its second-generation tablet, Amazon prepared to introduce its first, the Kindle Fire.  To gain an advantage, Amazon proposed to do something Barnes & Noble couldn’t afford to do: give away e-books, including front list e-books, for free.

So in November 2011, shortly before Amazon began shipping its Kindle Fire, Amazon also introduced its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which allowed Amazon Prime members to download onto their Kindles any of more than 5,000 titles, at the time of it was announced.  Customers are limited to one book per month and one book at a time — when a new book is downloaded, the old one disappears from the Kindle.

Amazon approached the six largest U.S. trade book publishers to seek their participation in the program.  By all accounts, each refused.  Publishers weren’t eager to allow Amazon to undermine the economics of the e-book market, representing the lone bright spot for the industry.  So books from the six largest trade publishers were not in the Lending Library program.

Amazon’s attempts to enlist the next tier of U.S. trade book publishers, major publishers that are slightly smaller than the Big Six, fared no better.  Many, perhaps all, also refused.  No matter. Amazon simply disregarded these publishers’ wishes, and enrolled many of their titles in the program anyway.  Some of these publishers learned of Amazon’s unilateral decision as the first news stories about the program appeared.

The use of publishers’ books without permission was due to a tortured reading of its boilerplate contracts with publishers.  Amazon decided that it didn’t need the publishers’ permission, because, as Amazon saw it, its contracts with these publishers merely required it to pay publishers the wholesale price of the books that Amazon Prime customers download.  By reasoning this way, Amazon claimed it could sell e-books at any price, even giving them away, so long as publishers are paid.

From our understanding of Amazon’s standard contractual terms, this is nonsense — publishers did not surrender this level of control to the retailer.  Amazon’s boilerplate terms specifically contemplate the sale of e-books—not giveaways, subscriptions, or lending.  Amazon can make other uses of e-books only with the publishers consent.  In other words, Amazon was boldly breaching its contracts with these publishers.  This was an exercise of brute economic power: Amazon knew it could largely dictate terms to non-agency publishers, and it badly wanted to launch the Lending Library program with some notable titles.

So Amazon did just that, conscripting publishers into a predatory pricing business model that substituted cash for genuine innovation, further undermining the economics of brick-and-mortar bookstores along the way.

The Justice Department, through this settlement, would deliver the lists of three large publishers into Amazon’s predatory scheme.  Unless competitors are willing to forego nearly all profits from these publishers, the Kindle will likely have an unmatchable competitive advantage.

Conclusion

Of all the possible remedies to the collusion the Justice Department alleges, requiring three large publishers to allow Amazon to sell e-books at a loss is among the most destructive of competition that one could imagine.

Amazon’s tactic of selective predatory pricing of frontlist e-books was far more anti-competitive than the Justice Department has acknowledged.  It effectively cut brick-and-mortar retailers – logical participants in a bricks-and-clicks, showroom approach to marketing e-books – out of the game.  The retailers would need a partner willing to invest substantial amounts to develop and market an e-reader, e-commerce site, and accompanying software.  What partner would dare invest, with Amazon plainly willing to earn little or nothing from e-books?  (Google’s commitment to independent bookstores always seemed half-hearted, and now it’s backing out.) From Amazon’s perspective, the best competitor is one that never dares enter the field.

Amazon has engaged in baldly anticompetitive practices for years.  Its approach to destroying competition is sophisticated, data-driven, and endlessly creative.  What other company would have thought to arm smart-phone users with a price-checking app then reward them for turning on their phones’ geo-location function and report pricing data to Amazon in the height of the holiday season?  (Up to five dollars from Amazon, every time you deny your local retailer a sale.  One Saturday only; limit three per Amazon customer.)  It’s utterly brilliant, and a game only the richest of corporations can play.

Amazon really doesn’t need the Justice Department’s help.  For the sake of free and fair competition, for the sake of readers who would like many companies to invest in better e-reading devices, software, and even in bookstores that one can visit on a weekend, please find another way to address the collusion you believe you’ve uncovered.

Respectfully,

Paul Aiken Executive Director

cc:  Scott Turow

Attached: Selected References

Authors Guild Tunney Act Letter Selected References June 25, 2012

Buy Button Removal and Author On-Demand Service Providers

Wall Street Journal on Amazon’s strong-arming of on-demand publishers: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120667525724970997.html

O’Reilly Radar’s roundup: http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2008/03/amazon-gets-demanding-with-print-on-demand-publishers.html

To see the differences between an Amazon page with and without buy buttons: http://whomovedmybuybutton.com/buttonology.php

MediaBistro’s GalleyCat on Booklocker antitrust lawsuit against Amazon: http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/judge-denies-amazons-motion-to-dismiss-booklocker-lawsuit_b10167

Buy Button Removal: IPG, Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Hachette U.K.

Chicago Tribune story on Amazon’s removal of 5,000 Independent Publishers Group titles from its Kindle Store: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-02-23/business/ct-biz-0223-amazon-2-20120223_1_amazon-s-kindle-amazon-officials-lorraine-shanley

New York Times’ report on the buy button showdown between Amazon and Macmillan: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/technology/companies/01amazonweb.html

PaidContent – Amazon: “we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles” http://paidcontent.org/2010/02/01/419-amazon-to-customers-we-will-have-to-capitulate-to-macmillan/

New York Times’ report on Amazon’s U.K. buy button removal: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/16/business/media/16amazon.html

The Bookseller on the end of the Amazon Hachette UK dispute: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/agents-welcome-end-amazonhachette-dispute.html

Amazon, OverDrive and E-Lending

Los Angeles Times blog post on Amazon, OverDrive, and e-lending: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2012/02/why-cant-you-borrow-penguin-e-books-from-the-librariy.html

Balkanization of the Book Market

Amazon’s purchase of exclusive digital rights to DC Comics titles causes bookstores to pull DC titles from their shelves: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/technology/bookstores-drop-comics-after-amazon-deal-with-dc.html?pagewanted=all

New York Times on Amazon’s purchase of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/business/amazon-publishing-push-grows-to-childrens-books.html

Wall Street Journal on Amazon’s acquisition of North American rights to James Bond books in electronic and print format: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304299304577350170241190522.html

Kindle Owners’ Lending Library

Los Angeles Times reports on Amazon offering titles in its Kindle Owners’ Lending Library without publishers’ consent: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2011/11/amazons-new-kindle-lending-program-causes-publishing-stir.html

Amazon’s Price Check App Holiday Offer

Bloomberg/Businessweek: Amazon price-check app is an attack on small stores, says Senator Olympia Snowe http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-12-13/amazon-price-check-app-is-attack-on-small-stores-snowe-says.html

Christian Science Monitor: Amazon app will pay you $15 bucks to walk out on retailers http://www.csmonitor.com/Innovation/Horizons/2011/1206/Amazon-app-will-pay-you-15-bucks-to-walk-out-on-retailers

eCommerceBytes.com: Amazon wants in-store shoppers to help update pricing data http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/cab/abn/y11/m12/i07/s02

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

June 25, 2012

Why Aren’t Kindles Free-Marketed?

In all the hullaballoo over agency ebook pricing and how terrible it is to not allow ebooksellers like Amazon to discount ebooks and sell them at whatever price they want, even if it is at a loss, ebookers haven’t questioned the lack of dynamic pricing of ereaders themselves, especially that of Amazon’s Kindles.

Consider this: Every store that sells an Amazon Kindle sells it for exactly the same price as Amazon and every other retailer. And when one retailer has it on sale for $20 off, so does every other retailer. (This is also true of the Sony, Kobo, and Nook devices.)

Why aren’t ebookers complaining about this price-fixing? No, I’m not suggesting there is collusion between the companies to prohibit discounting of the devices. Rather, I find it disingenuous that agency pricing, which is a form of price-fixing, is so disliked among some ebookers that they complain about it and want it banned, yet no one has complained about the lack of price competition when it comes to the device to read the ebooks. Why is it OK for Amazon to price fix but not Macmillan?

I’m sure the immediate response will be that there is no complaint because the prices on these devices have dropped to where they are now half or less of the original cost. If that is the key to salvation, then all Macmillan needs to do is drop the price of an ebook from $12.99 to $10.99 and ebookers should be satisfied — after all a drop in price is a drop in price — but I know that would not satisfy. Why? Because the argument would be made that the ebook price would be even lower if true free-market competition were allowed.

So why isn’t that the ebooker argument when it comes to the devices? I could see, for example, Staples offering a free Kindle with the purchase of a $150 paper shredder, or Target offering a 50% discount on a Kindle with the purchase of Stephen King’s newest novel. But we don’t see those sales because Amazon is not ready to sell at those prices itself and no one is allowed to undersell Amazon.

If the argument against agency pricing is legitimately one against price-fixing, why doesn’t the argument carry over to the devices? What makes it OK in one category of product but not in a related category of product? When agency pricing is attacked, it is usually on the basis that it has caused ebook prices to rise.

There has been no comprehensive pricing study done, that I am aware of, to determine whether the cost of ebooks has risen, fallen, or stayed the same since the introduction of agency pricing across the entire spectrum of ebooks published by agency-pricing publishers. I know, for example, that many of the ebooks I buy cost less under agency pricing and I also know that the prices of bestsellers that Amazon sold at $9.99 have risen under agency pricing. What I don’t know is whether across the spectrum of agency-pricing publishers’ ebooks, as opposed to niches, prices have risen, fallen, or stayed the same. I think this is important information to have so that we can intelligently determine whether agency pricing is consequential or inconsequential.

It seems fairly clear to me that opponents to agency pricing fall into a few groups. There is a small group of ebookers who are free-marketers and believe everything should be priced elastically, based on demand — the libertarians of the marketplace who oppose agency pricing because it is controlled pricing. A second group of opponents are those whose reading now costs more because they only read/buy books that fall into the niches where agency pricing has caused prices to rise, such as the Amazon bestseller niche. It isn’t so much that they are opposed to agency pricing as they are opposed to the increase in pricing and assume that Amazon would, if it could, charge a lot less for the books they want to read and buy in the absence of agency pricing. The third group assumes that because prices in one niche increased under agency pricing that all prices increased and thus are opposed to agency pricing because it caused a rising tide of prices.

These same arguments can be made when it comes to the devices: In the absence of Amazon price-fixing its Kindles, WalMart would sell the Kindles for less; there would be a Kindle price war between WalMart and Target; Staples would offer package deals; and so on. On this, I would think all of the anti-agency-pricing ebookers would unite to lambast the device price-fixing. But here silence reigns.

I’m sure someone will point out to me how different these products are; how one doesn’t have to buy a Kindle to read an ebook bought from Amazon; how, instead, one could download a free app and read the ebook on one’s computer or tablet. I’m sure the point will be made that you don’t need the Kindle but you need the ebook in order to read it. It’s all true, but doesn’t change the fundamental points:

  1. There are no objective data to demonstrate whether agency pricing overall has raised, lowered, or done nothing to ebook prices except in niches.
  2. There are no objective data to demonstrate that in the absence of Amazon’s device price-fixing that the Kindle would not be available for less, even free.
  3. Whether price-fixing is OK or not OK should not be dependant on who is doing the fixing; that is, OK if Amazon is doing it, not OK if the big publishers are doing it.

Never discussed are what obligations the price fixers have, if any, to the consumer. Do publishers have an obligation to sell ebooks at price points that consumers want? Does Amazon have an obligation to free-market its Kindles?

Isn’t it interesting that without meeting ebooker demands as regards agency pricing the sales of agency-priced ebooks steadily grow? Isn’t it interesting that the freedom Amazon wants to price ebooks as it wishes Amazon isn’t willing to give to retailers of its Kindles? Isn’t it interesting that ebookers see no conflict in their demand for the end of agency pricing and their willingness to accept Amazon’s control of Kindle pricing?

We live in fascinating times!

June 22, 2012

Worth Noting: Paper Trail — Did Publishers and Apple Collude Against Amazon?

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes about the Department of Justice’s collusion lawsuit against Apple and the Agency 5 publishers. The article makes for interesting reading and is highly recommended:

“Paper Trail: Did Publishers and Apple Collude Against Amazon?”

June 20, 2012

Should Internet-Only Retailers Pay a “Showroom Tax”?

Not so long ago, Amazon encouraged consumers to go showroom shopping at local stores and then use a smartphone app to connect to Amazon to see if the item the consumer was interested in was available at Amazon for less. Essentially, Amazon was using brick-and-mortar (b&m) retailers as auxiliary showrooms. Needless to say, this didn’t go over well with the b&m retailers, especially the small, independent bookstores, and for good reason.

Of course, there is no practical way to prevent such comparison shopping by consumers. A b&m retailer can fight back by no longer carrying any Amazon-branded merchandise, which is the approach Target took, but that will, for the most part, be an exercise in futility — how many Amazon-branded products are there and how many are sold by the b&m retailer? Perhaps a smarter approach would be to assess a “showroom tax” on products sold by Amazon (used here as a euphemism for Internet-only retailers) and passing the tax receipts on to the b&m retailers either directly or indirectly. Such a “tax” (I am using the term tax very loosely; a term such as surcharge or fee or service adjustment or other similar-concept euphemism works just as well) would have Amazon contributing to paying the costs of maintaining a b&m store without chasing customers away because they openly are comparison shopping (which, it has been reported, some independent bookstores have done).

There are a couple of ways that a showroom tax could work. (Although I use Amazon as the example, the idea is for any Internet-only retailer to be charged the tax, not just Amazon.) I think the easiest way it could work would be if the wholesalers/manufacturers of goods that are sold to both Internet-only and b&m retailers charged and collected the tax and either used the proceeds of the tax to lower the wholesale price of the same goods sold to b&m retailers or provided b&m retailers with a rebate equivalent to the amount of tax collected.

Essentially, it could work like this: If Amazon buys/sells 100 Sony TVs, Sony would collect the tax (say $1 per unit) from Amazon in addition to the wholesale price. Then when Target buys/sells 100 Sony TVs, it would either have $1 deducted from the wholesale price of each unit or it would pay the same wholesale price but receive a rebate of $1 per unit.

The alternative would be to really make it a national (federal) tax that is collected by the government and then distributed to b&m retailers by way of a tax break that is available only to b&m retailers.

I realize it is not as simple to do as I make it appear, that we are talking about a fixed pool of money that would have to be divided equitably, and the per-unit tax would need to be of a sufficient amount so as to be meaningful, but it could be done. I don’t want to nitpick details; it is the broader concept that is of interest at the moment.

The argument will certainly be made that b&m retailers are not worth saving if they cannot compete effectively; after all, there is a cadre of ebookers who currently take that position as regards b&m bookstores. Many of those who make that argument see nothing wrong with Internet-only retailers making use of the b&m stores as free showrooms; a few ebookers have boasted that that is exactly what they do: visit a local b&m bookstore to check out an item and then order it online because the price is less or they save sales tax.

The problems with the ineffective competition argument are that it (1) compares apples with oranges, that is, the playing field for b&m and Internet-only businesses is not — and cannot be, as currently contrived — level, and (2) it assumes that if all retail went Internet-only the consumer would be better served, a proposition that has neither been field-tested nor proven and on its face strikes me as inherently incorrect. It is easier to accept with certain products, like books and music, than with others, such as TVs. (If you couldn’t showroom shop TVs, how would you determine whether you like the picture and features better on the Panasonic than on the Samsung or Sony LCD TV?) Even companies like Apple and Leica have found that showrooms are important sales tools.

Companies like Amazon are able to reduce their costs, and thus offer a lower price to the consumer, because they do not have to support b&m storefronts in order to sell their goods — someone else already has a b&m storefront where those goods are displayed, and that someone else absorbs all the costs of the b&m store. I’m not suggesting that this advantage of the Internet-only retailer is illegal or immoral; instead I’m suggesting that even Internet-only retailers recognize the importance of showrooming, as witnessed by their encouraging consumers to showroom shop locally but buy online to save money.

Such consumer behavior cannot (and should not) be forbidden, In fact, it probably should be encouraged, but only if the playing field is leveled. It is impractical to devise methods to force currently Internet-only retailers to become also b&m retailers. Besides how many more b&m retailers selling the same merchandise do consumers need? The issue isn’t purchasing options, which now exist in abundance; the issue is spreading out the costs of showrooming among all those who rely on it.

Local b&m retailers would be able to compete better with Internet-only stores if their overhead costs weren’t burdened with the extra costs that are part and parcel of having a physical presence that is open to the public. Because the Internet-only retailers rely on the ability of the consumer to see the merchandise at a local b&m, the showrooming effect, it seems appropriate that the Internet-only stores should share the cost burden of maintaining the b&m showrooms.

In a way, Amazon demonstrates the correctness of this approach of cost-shifting/sharing. When a consumer buys an ebook from Amazon, Amazon charges a delivery fee to the author. Unlike some other ebook sellers, Amazon doesn’t absorb the costs of delivery as a cost of doing business; instead, it takes ancillary costs like delivery off the top and then does its split with the author/publisher. The consumer doesn’t directly see this, but it is a factor that goes into (or should go into) the author’s calculation of the ebook’s price. Whether fair or not, by not absorbing all of the delivery costs, Amazon is able to charge less for ebooks than competitors who do absorb some or all of the delivery costs.

Similarly, by not needing to have b&m showrooms, Amazon is able to sell products for less because its costs are less, yet it is able to also take advantage of the showroom effect because it can encourage consumers to check out a product hands on locally and then buy for less online.

It seems to me that under the circumstances, Internet-only stores should pay a showroom tax to help support the b&m showrooms they rely on and to help level the playing field from a cost/price perspective.

June 18, 2012

The Value of eBooks: Is $2.99 The New Value

One excuse the big publishers used for going to the agency model of pricing was that Amazon’s $9.99 price for certain bestsellers was undervaluing the books and would establish expectations in ebookers regarding maximum pricing. So, if that is true, how do these very same publishers justify putting certain ebooks on sale for $2.99 or less?

This question popped to mind when Little, Brown, a subsidiary of Hachette, put City of Veils by Zoe Ferraris on sale for $2.99. This is the second mystery book by Ferraris featuring the same Saudi Arabian investigative team. (Although this is not a review of the book, it is worth mentioning that it is a 5-star book that offers both a fascinating insight into Saudi culture and a great mystery.) City of Veils is neither the first nor the last ebook by one of the Agency 6 to be put on sale for $2.99 or less; such a sale seems to be a regular happening. (The first book in the series, Finding Nouf, is listed as discounted to $11.16 from the list price of $13.95, with neither price being a price I would pay for a fiction ebook.)

Which makes me wonder about the “value of ebooks” and whether we are seeing the erosion of price to where, eventually, Agency 6 fiction ebooks will be regularly priced at $7.99 or less and frequently on sale for $2.99 or less.

There has to be something magical about this $2.99 price point. Why $2.99 and not $4.99? Or $3.99? Both prices would be substantial discounts off the list price and even off the standard 20% to 25% discount price. I suspect the answer lies in what experience is rapidly showing as the price point for maximizing volume of sales. I also suspect that publishers are finding that ebookers are unwilling to pay more than $2.99 for an introduction to a previously unknown author. Yet, I don’t see any evidence that after the introduction to a new author, ebookers are running to spend $11+ for other ebooks by the same author — I know I am not.

But regardless of the motivation, isn’t this $2.99 price point setting an expectation among ebookers as to what the correct price for an ebook should be? I find that it cements my belief that ebooks should be both DRM-free (which Tor, a Macmillan subsidiary, will be doing shortly) and list priced at no more than $5.99 and frequently discounted to $2.99 (or less). These Agency 6 discounts are also cementing my belief that I will only rarely pay more than $2.99 for any ebook.

The price point problem is exacerbated by other steps publishers are taking. I recently preordered Spycatcher with a bonus excerpt by Matthew Dunn, published by HarperCollins, one of the Agency 6, for 99¢. (The bonus excerpt is from Dunn’s forthcoming new novel Sentinel, which can be preordered for a whopping $12.99!) At the same time, Spycatcher without the bonus excerpt is available for $9.99. This type of discounting with bonus material included happens regularly. My question to publishers is this: Why would I ever consider buying Sentinel for $12.99 or Spycatcher for $9.99 — neither book nor the author being previously familiar to me — when I expect that at some future date I will be able to buy them for significantly less?  Doesn’t your offering one of the books for 99¢ create an expectation in me, the ebooker? And even if I can’t buy them in the future for $2.99 or less, why would I buy them at all — regardless of how good a read the introductory book is — at a price that has already demonstrated as far too high?

If there is any validity to the complaint of Amazon’s $9.99 price point setting consumer expectations at a price that is unsustainable by the publishing industry, how are publishers fighting that expectation by offering ebooks for $2.99 or less? Why is the publisher’s tactic sustainable but not Amazon’s?

Valuing of ebooks is difficult. Yes, there are costs that can be objectively measured but those per-unit costs diminish with volume sales. I grant that each ebook cannot be looked at in isolation as best-selling ebooks need to subsidize those that do not sell well so that overall there is an industry profit. Yet, where previously the argument was that no ebook should be sold below a price that sustained the industry, which price was somewhere north of $9.99, Agency 6 publishers belie that argument by demonstrating that at least some ebooks can be sold for significantly less without damaging the industry. That action reraises the issue of what is an ebook worth?

The industry has put itself into a straitjacket of its own making. Originally publishers planned to window ebooks. Windowing of ebooks allegedly would let publishers subsequently publish the ebook version of a pbook at much reduced price, more in line with ebooker expectations. But after much protesting from ebookers, publishers ultimately went to simultaneous release. Unfortunately, with simultaneous release, publishers decided they could not price the ebook much lower than the pbook for fear of cannibalizing pbook sales, losing money, and devaluing the book.

Then to shore up the value of ebooks, agency pricing was instituted. It was touted as necessary for the health of the publishing industry — from author to publisher. Now, within the past year, these same publishers are regularly pricing some ebooks at $2.99 or less, shattering the justification for the higher agency pricing.

In the end, I think publishers will find that $2.99 is the magic price point for ebooks. The combination of the self-publishing phenomenon that ebooks have produced, the use of the $2.99-or-less price point by self-publishers, and the apparent willingness of at least some of the Big 6 publishers to discount ebooks — even if for just a limited time — to that price point, will create an expectation in ebookers that publishers will be unable to combat. We may be a few years away from seeing that magic price point, but I suspect it is coming on fast.

June 13, 2012

The Business of Editing: Do You Want to Be Acknowledged?

On an editing forum, colleague Carolyn Haley asked a thought-provoking question about being acknowledged as a book’s editor by the book’s author if the editor is not satisfied with the quality of the to-be-published product. She wondered, “[H]ow big is the risk involved in allowing my name to be associated with low-quality books?”

Among the questions that are implicit in her question are these: (a) How much control over the final product does an editor really have? (b) Can an author credit an editor without the editor’s approval? (c) What can an editor do to prevent or get acknowledgment by the author? (d) What harm or good can an acknowledgment do? (e) Who determines whether the final book is of low quality or high quality? (f) Does an acknowledgment really matter?

Alas, none of the questions — explicit or implicit — have easy, infallible answers. Although I gave Carolyn a short reply, I thought her question and dilemma was worth exploring among authors, publishers, and editors, not just the editors that frequent the original forum.

I think analysis has to begin with the baseline question: Does an acknowledgment, or lack of one, really matter? I tackled this question by informally surveying some colleagues, friends, and neighbors about their reading habits. Do they read the acknowledgments page in a book? If yes, do they read it in both fiction and nonfiction, or just fiction, or just nonfiction books? As I suspected, 5% of the sample read the acknowledgments, and of that 5%, 75% read it just in nonfiction.

I grant that my informal survey is far from scientific, but I’d guess it isn’t far off the mark for the general reading public. Few of readers care that an author thanks her children for their patience and the many hamburger helper meals they tolerated during the authoring process, or the author’s spouse or parents or first grade teacher. We know none of these people and whether they were inspiring or not doesn’t make much difference to our reading of fiction.

I was more surprised at the lack of interest in reading the acknowledgments in nonfiction. (Let me confess that I have the “habit” of reading every page — including copyright, dedication, acknowledgments, table of contents, preface, and foreword — in both fiction and nonfiction, a habit I frequently regret, especially in fiction.) Acknowledgments in nonfiction can be very revealing about the effort an author has put into his or her research and even can provide a clue as to the quality of that research.

Regardless, I think the informal survey justifies the conclusion that an acknowledgment probably doesn’t matter. Even if it does matter, how does one judge whether a book is good or bad quality? I have been amazed over my 60+ reading years how many books received awards for quality that I wouldn’t consider quality at all. Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. This book is considered an important piece of English literature; I wouldn’t give it a 2-dumpster rating, let alone a 2-star rating. I would never recommend anyone buy it or read it unless they wanted to commit mental suicide by reading. Yet, I can imagine that an acknowledged editor would be beaming. Book quality is in the eyes of the individual reader and I know few readers who would automatically say the editor must have been bad because the book is poor quality; readers are much more likely to blame the author, unless the book is riddled with basic spelling and grammar errors that even the least-competent editor should have picked up.

One also needs to consider what the average reader would make of an acknowledgement of the book’s editor. How many readers really have a clue as to what an editor does? How many really care? The growth of self-published editor-less ebooks demonstrates to me that readers are not equating good or bad quality with editor-no editor. I would be willing to venture that 99.9% of the positive or negative reaction to book “quality” by readers is aimed at the author and not to any editor. In fact, if the reader considers a book to be of poor quality, the reader is more likely to exclaim that the author should have hired an editor, and do so without having read the acknowledgments to see if an editor is listed.

In checking some of the ebooks I have in my to-be-read pile, I note that often the editor who is acknowledged is listed as “my wife,” “my neighbor,” “my beta reader”; in only one book was the listing such as to imply a professional editor. Consequently, I am not convinced that an author who is looking for an editor will suddenly start scanning acknowledgment pages to find an editor, not even of books that the author has read and liked. Nor is that author likely to recall who was named as editor of a book they liked but can no longer locate. Additionally, I suspect most authors are sophisticated enough to know that the final published form of a book does not necessarily reflect an editor’s work because the author has the final say and can accept or reject an editor’s work/suggestions.

So in the end, I come down on the side that says it doesn’t matter. With more than 1.5 million books published each year in the United States alone, it doesn’t even matter statistically. Unless the book garners a wide audience, in which case it would be a bestseller and the editor’s belief that it is of low quality matters not at all, it is unlikely that more than a few people will read the book, some of whom will believe it is a 5-star contribution to literature and some of whom will view it as a 1-star insult.

This leads, then, to the question of whether an editor can prevent an author from acknowledging the editor. Absent a contractual term that gives the editor that right, I’d say no. The editor can ask and the author should be willing to do as asked, but there is little else that an editor can do. Yet, if it really doesn’t matter, why make a mountain out of a molehill? An editor should always remember that one reader’s great literature is another reader’s trash.

The one caveat to all this is that I would be adamant about not being named if I had corrected misspellings and misuses of homonyms and language only to discover that the author rejected those corrections. Unlike the situation of the narrative — is it good, bad, or indifferent — the mechanics of spelling and word choice can reflect badly on an editor, except that I fall back to my original proposition, to-wit, few people read acknowledgments or remember whether a book was edited and by whom it was edited. Ultimately, even in this scenario, I’m not sure it matters.

I’m curious as to what editors, authors, agents, and publishers who read An American Editor think of this “problem.” What do you think?

June 12, 2012

Art Interlude: You’re Invited

Filed under: An Art Interlude — Rich Adin @ 2:05 pm
Tags: , ,

For those of you in the area (or who wish to make the trip), the Tappan Z Gallery (51 Main St., Tarrytown, NY 10591) will host “Meet the Artist” with Carolyn Edlund on Friday, June 15th, from 5 to 9 pm.

Click below to view a PDF of the invitation, which includes some of Carolyn’s paintings and information about her.

Meet the Artist at Tappan Z Gallery: Carolyn Edlund

If you do attend, please introduce yourself to Carolyn and tell her you saw the invitation on An American Editor.

June 11, 2012

The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A recent story on Ars Technica, which was picked up by many blogs, demonstrates that cutting corners isn’t always the smartest move. The story, “Nook version of War and Peace turns the word ‘kindled’ into ‘Nookd’,” is an editorial classic.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of indiscriminate Find & Replace, under the assumption that professional editors, authors, and publishers innately understood that indiscriminate use of Find & Replace can lead to all kinds of disasters. The Nookd article indicates that perhaps I was wrong.

Our reliance on computers and macros makes us vulnerable to silly mistakes. Computers and macros have greatly reduced the number of errors, and the costs associated with them, that occur in printed materials — when properly applied by professional editors. Unfortunately, the bean-counter quest to squeeze as much savings as possible out of the editorial budget because what editors do is largely invisible to both the bean counter and the reader, can easily lead to the kind of disaster the befell War and Peace.

Unfortunately, the Nooking of War and Peace is representative of what happens when self-publishing authors forego hiring professional editors. Perhaps it isn’t the obvious disaster of changing of Kindle to Nook, but it is the using of you’re for your, which indicates a lack of quality and professionalism. I suppose one could argue that there is a difference in that “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern” is nonsensical and the vast majority of readers would stumble on Nookd, wondering what is meant, whereas substituting your for you’re is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it’s? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?

It is one thing to compose Jabberwocky, another to assume that jabberwockian grammar and language is the standard against which all writing is to be judged. And this is the result of the demise in our education system of the teaching of such fundamental things as spelling and grammar. Because spelling is no longer part of the testing that determines a school’s and a teacher’s passing or failing, it is bypassed to emphasize those things that are tested. The result is that we graduate students who lack these skills and who become teachers of the next generation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one neither knows nor understands.

Yet this is a free-market problem as well, if not primarily. In the rush to increase quarterly profits, rather than think long-term strategy, publishers are deemphasizing the skills that separate a poorly prepared book from a professionally prepared book. Professional editors are skilled in spelling and grammar and know the limitations of automation. It is not yet possible to automate detection of the misuse of your and you’re; human intervention is required and human decision making is required.

The pressure to reduce costs and pricing of a book exacts a penalty. If there is not enough margin, services have to be skipped. The services that are skipped tend to be those that are invisible, and editing is invisible until it glares, as in the Nooking of War and Peace. As this demonstrates, being cheap isn’t always the wisest course to follow.

Unfortunately, this error will become a hall of shame error that readers, editors, publishers, and authors will all point to, but which will not result in the alteration of current practices. Each publisher and author will take the stance that it can’t/won’t happen to their books, only to someone else’s books. The ultimate losers are readers and society. Readers because they are taught by example that what is wrong is acceptable so that no effort needs be made to do things correctly, and society because imprecision becomes acceptable and skills are downplayed and lost.

Additionally, as professional editors are financially squeezed, they, too, will make choices about what services they can provide for the reduced fee they are offered. Conversations with colleagues indicate that reduced fees have resulted in a reduction in what they can and will do as part of the editing process. Combined with tighter schedules, it appears that the high standards of editing of previous decades may not be standard in coming decades. The consequences of making cost the determining factor are only now beginning to be seen in the marketplace, but I think we will all rue the day costs became king. We are likely to see more Nookd books than fewer.

June 6, 2012

The eBook Effect: Buying and Reading More

I have been reading ebooks for only a few years, yet there has been a steady shift in both how I read books (a shift away from pbooks toward ebooks) and the number of books I buy and read (I buy and read more books than when I was buying just pbooks) since I entered the world of ebooks.

Recently, I started a trilogy by indie author Joseph Lallo, The Book of Deacon. As was true for many of the ebooks I have bought and read, the first book in the trilogy, also called The Book of Deacon, was free. And like other books that I have enjoyed, I have purchased the subsequent books in the series, The Great Convergence and The Battle of Verril. I do not intend to review the books in this article, other than to say that this is a 4-star epic fantasy series, well worth trying.

I mention the trilogy, because it got me thinking about my reading habits and about numbers. The first book in the trilogy, I “bought” at Smashwords. I read it on my Nook Tablet, and when I came to the last page, immediately went online via the Tablet to the B&N ebookstore and purchased book 2. Book 3 was purchased the same way. What surprised me was that my Nook library, after purchasing The Battle of Verril, had 186 ebooks in it — and I have had my Nook Tablet for only two months! I wondered, how many ebooks have I purchased over the years?

From just three ebookstores — Smashwords, B&N, and Sony — I have purchased 722 ebooks (again, “purchase” includes ebooks gotten for free and ebooks that I have paid for). Add in the ebooks I purchased at Kobo, Baen, and several other ebookstores, the quantity rises above 900; add in ebooks obtained from places like Feedbooks and MobileRead, and the number climbs above 1,100.

I haven’t yet read all of the ebooks I purchased, but I am working away at the backlog, even as I increase the backlog by buying more ebooks. Since receiving my first Sony Reader as a holiday gift in December 2007 (the Sony 505), both my buying and reading habits have gradually, but dramatically, changed.

Before ebooks, I rarely bought indie-authored books. I also rarely bought novels. Nearly all my book purchases (at least 90%) were nonfiction, mainly biography, history, critical thinking, language, ethics, philosophy, and religion. I never cared much for the self-help books; I always felt that the only real self-help going on was the author helping him-/herself to my money. Books that I did buy either caught my eye on the bookshelf at a local bookstore, were reviewed in the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Smithsonian, The Economist, American Heritage, or other magazine to which I subscribed, or advertised in one of the magazines to which I subscribed. But the two primary sources for finding pbooks to buy were browsing the local bookstore and the New York Review of Books, including ads in the Review.

I didn’t buy indie-authored books because the authors were unknown and the books were expensive, especially as I only bought hardcover pbooks. Yet I did buy a lot of pbooks, rarely fewer than 125 pbooks a year (not including the pbooks my wife bought).

The advent of ebooks caused my reading and buying habits to shift. In the beginning of my personal ebook era, I continued to buy a large number of hardcover pbooks supplemented with a few ebooks. In the beginning, I was neither ready nor willing to simply move completely away from pbooks (which is still true). Nor was I ready nor willing to shift my focus from known authors and nonfiction to indie authors and fiction (which is no longer true). But as each month passed and I became more enamored with reading on my Sony Reader, I began to explore ebooks and with that exploration, came indie-authored fiction ebooks.

I am still unwilling to buy indie-authored nonfiction ebooks. I look at nonfiction books as both entertainment and sources of knowledge. Consequently, an author’s reputation and background remain important, and I still look to my magazines for guidance. However, where previously I rarely bought fiction and what fiction I did buy was not indie-authored, today I buy hundreds of indie-authored fiction ebooks. With the exception of perhaps a dozen nonfiction ebooks that I have purchased over the years (I bought the pbook first then decided to also buy the ebook version) and a handful of well-known fiction authors’ novels, every one of the more than 1,100 ebooks I have purchased are indie-authored fiction.

eBooks have had another impact on my reading in addition to the number and type of ebook purchases I make: I am reading more books than ever. Prior to ebooks, I would read 1 to 1.5 hardcover nonfiction pbooks each week (on average) over the course of a year. (I find that it takes me longer to read a nonfiction book than to read a fiction book; I tend to linger over facts and try to absorb them, whereas I consider fiction books to be generally a read-once-then-giveaway books.) Over my 4.5-year history with ebooks, the number of nonfiction pbooks that I purchase each year has steadily declined and it is taking me longer to read a nonfiction pbook, whereas the number of fiction ebooks I purchase has steadily increased and I read them faster than ever; I now read an average of two to three fiction ebooks a week — again, nearly all indie authored — in addition to my nonfiction reading.

Alas, not all is rosy in indie-authored ebookland. Sometimes I have to discard (delete) a goodly number of indie-authored ebooks before I find one that I think is worth reading from “cover-to-cover.” It is this experience that causes me to be unwilling to pay for the first ebook I read by an indie author. As those of you who are regular readers of An American Editor know, once I find an indie author who I think writes well, I am willing to pay for all of their ebooks that interest me. Indie authors that I have discovered and whose books I think are worth reading and buying include Rebecca Forster, Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley, Michael Hicks, and L.J. Sellers. But finding these worthwhile authors is the difficult part, and ebooks have made the finding more difficult than ever.

The problem of ebooks, as the number of ebooks I have purchased attests, is that there are so many of them, which makes it hard to weed among them. I’ve lamented before that there is no gatekeeper for fiction ebooks. As poor as the gatekeeper system might be, it at least has the virtue of doing some preliminary weeding. True, sometimes gatekeepers do not distinguish between the wheat and the chaff, but at least with gatekeeping there would be some reduction in the number of ebooks that a reader would have to wade through to find the worthwhile indie-authored book. Under the current system, readers need to apply their own filters and hope for the best.

The ebook effect has altered the reading world by making more indie-authored books available to consumers, making gatekeeping a relic of the past, and making price a more important part of the reading-purchasing equation. eBooks change how readers relate to books. Whether ultimately this is for the better or not, remains to be seen.

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