An American Editor

July 30, 2014

Books, Buying, & Editing

The trouble with books is that there are too many of them that interest me. If I see a book advertised that interests me, I tend to buy it. I don’t wait to see if it will be reviewed in one of my magazines because I know the odds of that happening are very long and even should the book be reviewed, who knows when the review will appear. Even though my to-be-read pile is enormous and I could wait before buying another book, I can’t bring myself to do so.

I mention this because in recent weeks six of the books I have bought have been reviewed in at least one of the magazines I trust for reviews. Had I read the reviews first, I probably would not have bought the books. In the case of a seventh book, I haven’t yet bought it and am debating whether to do so.

In the case of the book I have yet to buy and of one that I did buy, The Economist reviewed the books. The books are “World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II” by Hugh Thomas (the book I have not yet bought) (The Economist, July 12, 2014, p. 75) and “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert O’Connell (which I had already bought) (The Economist, July 26, 2014, p. 69).

In both cases, The Economist‘s reviewer praised the book then damned it. In the case of “World Without End,” the reviewer wrote:

“World Without End” would have benefited from better editing. Two of the chapters on the Yucatán are reprised from an earlier volume of the trilogy and refer to events that took place well before Philip became king in 1556. Several of the epigraphs that introduce chapters are irrelevant or misplaced. A dizzying cast of minor officials confuses rather than enlightens. (p. 76)

As to “Fierce Patriot,” the reviewer wrote:

The book would also have benefited from better editing. It is oddly organized, with later parts doubling back chronologically on already-trodden ground. (p. 69)

Several of the other books that I bought received negative reviews in the New York Review of Books, but the editing was not specifically noted.

The better editing comments are directed at better developmental editing, not at better copyediting, but if the developmental editing is bad or nonexistent, I wonder about the copyediting.

There is an interesting factoid about these two books: they are both published by the same megapublisher, Penguin Random House, although by different imprints, Allen Lane (“World Without End”) and Random House (“Fierce Patriot”). This worries me.

As an editor, I know that many publishers, especially the megapublishers, have spent years cutting back. If they haven’t eliminated an author service, they have sought to minimize the service’s financial impact by limiting budgets for items that produce “hidden” value, such as editing. It is rare that a review takes a book to task for poor editing, but it is even rarer for reviews doing so to be so close together in time and to be of books from the same publishing house.

That these two books are from the same megapublisher but from different imprints bodes ill for imprint independence. It also makes me wonder what impact, if any, reviews noting the editorial flaws will have on future behavior of the megapublisher. Because the complaints are about developmental editing issues, my suspicion is that there was no developmental editing and poorly paid copyediting. I also suspect that the reviews will dent sales but that the wrong lesson will be taken from the dented sales.

That sales are low or lower than expected will be taken as justification for editorial cost cutting rather than seen as a result of ill-advised cost cutting.

I wondered what university presses were thinking when they set such high pricing for print-on-demand hardcover books (see What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction). Now I wonder what the megapublishers are thinking as they limit editorial budgets. Clearly, the university presses see the audience as being so limited that the audience will either pay the high price or buy the paperback, doing either without complaint. The megapublisher also sees the audience for these books as limited and doubts a negative review will have much of an effect on sales when the review’s negativity is editorial quality not content-quality based.

In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed. Few readers (and I am beginning to think reviewers) have either the skills or the interest or the knowledge to notice poor editing — whether developmental editing or copyediting — and thus fail to note it as a flaw.

Is it not interesting that The Economist reviewers spoke of “better editing” without distinguishing between developmental editing (which is what they meant) and copyediting? Or does that distinction not matter?

To me it matters greatly. Had the reviewers said that the books were badly copyedited — misspellings, wrong word choices, bad grammar, etc. — there is no doubt that I would not have bought the books and I would have returned those that I had bought (assuming I could do so; if I couldn’t, they would be relegated forever to the very bottom of my TBR pile and read only in desperation); but that is not true of poor developmental editing. Books that are poorly developmental edited are in somewhat of a limbo land with me.

“World Without End” will not be bought (and had I already ordered it, I would have tried to return it). What ails that book, according to the reviewer, is significant enough to prevent me from buying; what is wrong goes to the heart of the book. The problems with “Fierce Patriot” do not seem so terrible in comparison, especially as I already own the book. They will be annoying and will reflect poorly on the publisher and the author, but they are developmental editing problems that I can suffer with; they are not of such caliber that I feel compelled to try to return the book. Had I known of the problems beforehand, I would not have bought the book.

What is your reaction to these reviews?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 6, 2012

The Uneducated Reader

I’m not an admirer of anonymous reader reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and other forums where “readers” can anonymously “critique” a book. Occasionally I will look at these so-called reviews, not for information purposes but for their amusement value.

What struck me during a recent perusal of reviews of a book that I think highly of, Shayne Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage (for my review, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) were two particular reviews. The first review gave the book a 1-star rating, anonymously, of course, with the statement that the reviewer hadn’t yet read the book. The book wasn’t discussed in the review and if the reviewer’s words are taken as true, he/she had yet to read the book but still rated it, giving a rating that was deliberately designed to lower the overall rating of the book. If you didn’t read the book, why rate it? And why give it a 1-star rating?

The second review that caught my eye was one that several other readers found “helpful.” This review raked the book over the coals. The review gave the book a 1-star rating and was titled “Disturbing, sick, just plain bad.” Rather than summarize the review, I reprint it here:

The main character is stupid, for lack of a better word, and her innocence and lack of instinct when it comes to “Jimmy” is unrealistic, she’s 15, not 8, just clearing that up. This is one of the most disturbing, sad books I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. I only got about 600 pages in before I skipped to the ending to confirm my suspicions; It doesn’t get any better, in fact, it gets worse. I’m not referring to the writing, that was good enough, but the story in general is just depressing and it serves no real purpose that I could find. This is a Warning, this book was just sad, it helps you fall in love with the characters and then it screws them over in the worst possible way, it’s [sic] doesn’t even have the benefit of being a horror story. There’s no suspense, no action, just plan [sic] and clear depression, it kind of made me want to kill myself….and the characters….

The above review was immediately followed by what amounts to another 1-star anonymous review, this one titled “This author is a sadist.”

To me, these reviews illustrate the problem of what I call the uneducated reader. The reviewers are upset because there is no suspense, no action, no Batman coming to the rescue. The reviewers think that 15-year-old girls in 1890s New Zealand were as streetwise as 10-year-old girls in 2012 New York City. The reviewers apparently lack familiarity with either the genre of the book (not all historical fiction is Vikings on a rampage raping and murdering innocents) or the social mores of the time depicted in the setting of the story.

These reviewers are the type of reader that is the bane of authors — the reader who is clueless and draws baseless and unwarranted conclusions and loudly trumpets his or her uninformed opinion on the Internet. More amazing and sad is that other readers claim to find these “reviews” helpful!

A scan of other anonymous 1-star reviews of Parkinson’s Sentence of Marriage convinces me that either these people never read the book or do not understand what they read or have no familiarity whatsoever with history. If they are writing about a book that they actually read, then they certainly read a book that was much different from the one I read. This is not to say that every reader of Sentence of Marriage has to agree that it is a 5-star book. But at least be honest and fair with any criticism.

Complaints about poor editing, for example, which was the subject of several 1-star anonymous reviews, simply isn’t true. You may find the characters standoffish, the story not compelling, or myriad other things wrong that are important to you as a reader, but in this instance, it is not legitimate to complain about the editing, which is excellent.

Although I have focused on the reviews given Parkinson’s book, the problem isn’t limited to her books. As I said before, the problem is giving free rein to anonymous reviewers who are unknowledgeable about the book being reviewed. This is not to suggest that to review 19th century historical fiction one must have a doctorate in 19th century history; rather, it is to suggest that a reader should be familiar enough with the general subject matter and history so as to not make false comparisons and thereby draw incorrect conclusions — or, if you insist on making comparisons, state what the comparators are.

I have often wondered about the need some readers have to “review” a book. It is not that I think if you have nothing good to say you shouldn’t say anything. Some books deserve negative reviews, but when you give one, be constructive, not just negative, and be factual, don’t make up false reasons.

Personally, I think anonymous reviews and reviewers whose identity cannot be verified should not be permitted to post reviews. I also think that negative reviews that are negative simply because of price should not be permitted. I also think that reviews that state upfront that the reviewer hasn’t read the book should be deleted because they unfairly distort a book’s rating.

Reviews serve an important purpose and reviews that are clearly unfounded or that are based on superfluous items, such as pricing, undermine the credibility of the review process. Perhaps this is why I so admire and enjoy the reviews I read in The New York Review of Books. They have credibility in a world that doesn’t seem to care too much about credibility (this is the disease of the Internet — the demise of the value of credibility).

The online reviews at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the like should be challengeable by other readers and by authors. For example, one should be able to challenge a review that gives a rating and the comment that the reviewer hadn’t even read the book. If the challenge is upheld, the review should be removed, especially if the review is anonymous. It is unfair to prospective readers and to authors to let such reviews remain.

The review quoted above that some readers found “helpful” is so far off target that it is ludicrous, yet some, if not all, of the readers who found the review “helpful” won’t have bought the book and read it, thus missing out on what they well may have found, as so many others did, to be a compelling, well-written novel. Such reviewers should be challenged and made to defend their review. More importantly, reviews should be only accepted from verifiable sources, sources that can be flagged if they abuse the review process. These uneducated readers who write anonymous, scathing reviews that bear no relation to the book being reviewed make it difficult, if not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to indie-authored books.

What do you think?

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

July 6, 2010

Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance?

I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.

One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.

Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?

Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.

Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?

Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.

To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.

What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.

eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.

One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.

June 16, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books — the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review  to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, “2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better  chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

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