An American Editor

October 8, 2010

On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down

If you recall, a few weeks ago I wrote The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks! in which I swore I would not again buy a TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan book in both hardcover and ebook formats. Well, I did, and I was shown, yet again, that TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan only cares about something other than quality. Maybe I learned my lesson this time.

I am a big David Weber fan, ever since I was introduced to the Honor Harrington series. Because Weber is a favorite, I buy all of his new releases in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library, something I can’t do (i.e., add them to my permanent library for eternity) with a DRMed ebook. But Weber’s newest book, Out of the Dark, was released just as I was leaving for the Finding Your Niche conference. I wrestled with not buying the ebook version (the hardcover was already on its way as I had preordered it) but I lost the match and bought it in ebook form so that I could read it while at the conference.

Exactly what was wrong with Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings ebook is wrong with Weber’s Out of the Dark ebook: no one read it for errors after converting it to ePub (and probably not after converting it to any other format, although I don’t know that for certain). I can hear the call of TOR: Suckerrrrr! Suckerrrr! How difficult is it to fix problems like “A” rather than “a” in the middle of a sentence?

Enough — let’s move on to a review.

Brandon Sanderson’s book is an interesting read. The Way of Kings is disjointed in that you go back and forth between characters and scenes without something connecting them. What is the relationship between the various characters? Where will their paths intersect? The answers lie in volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t stick with the book — it is long, 1008 pages — because of the disjointedness, but instead, I found myself compelled to keep reading. The Way of Kings demonstrates why Sanderson is the new force to be reckoned with in fantasy fiction; it’s just too bad he is hooked up with such a sloppy publisher. Sanderson’s narrative is compelling and interesting. Each segment almost stands on its own and someday I will discover the connection between the characters who appear to be the primary characters of the story. In the interim, however, I’d give The Way of Kings 4 stars (out of 5). The writing is taut but leaves too much up in the air to warrant 5/5, plus Sanderson needs to take some responsibility for the poor ebook formatting. He and/or his agent should have insisted on review-before-release rights.

David Weber’s new book, Out of the Darkness, however, is a major disappointment. Here is hoping that subsequent volumes live up to the PR claims.

Weber’s new series was touted as another Honor Harrington series, implying that it had the punch and quality of the Harrington books. Sadly, it has the punch and quality of a wet noodle in a paper bag. I expected the book to at least match the Harrington books but hoped that after years of honing his writing craft, it would be even better. It is much worse than even the first Harrington book.

In Harrington, Weber created a character about who we could care; one who was interesting in her own right and who had interesting and compelling associates. Out of the Dark, in contrast, has no character about whom I care. The plot is somewhat trite and too much of the text is an exposition of military hardware, as if the hardware was to be the star of the series. I didn’t read the short story that was the original basis for this series (I’m not a lover of the short story form), but perhaps this worked better as a short story and should have been left there. Or perhaps Weber has too much to do in writing additional volumes for his other series, such as the Safehold books and the Disciples of Harrington, whose books are of infinitely better quality.

Combining the poor quality of the ebook with the less-than-stellar story, I would give this book — by stretching a bit — 2 stars (out of 5). I think if Weber wants to salvage his reputation as a master of military science fiction, he needs to work hard to improve this new series in future volumes. For those of you unfamiliar with Weber, this is not the book to buy. Better to read nearly any other of his novels. For those of us who are Weber fans, the only reason to buy Out of the Dark is to have a complete collection of Weber’s novels; otherwise, best to pass on this book.

Like Sanderson, Weber, too, needs to insist on review-before-release rights for his ebooks or find a more caring publisher. The combination of a lackadaisical novel and poor ebook quality could start a decline in interest in Weber’s work, especially when a novelist like Sanderson is available.

September 15, 2010

The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that 100% of publishers don’t read their own ebooks — heck, I can’t even swear with certainty that publishers even know how to read — but I am certain Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan’s publisher didn’t read the ebook version of Brandon Sanderson’s new release The Way of Kings before releasing it on the unsuspecting public.

Let’s set aside the little errors that are in the ebook. Those can be excused because they are little (e.g., a dropped “a” and “the”), they are few (at least in the first third of the book that I’ve gotten through), and no book is perfect. I’m even willing to ignore the confusion engendered by the way the story is put together. (Interestingly, rather than off-putting, I find the confusion to be a compelling reason to continue reading the book. The confusion is a result of various substories that are not yet woven together so it isn’t clear what the connection or the purpose of the characters and their stories are in the whole-cloth tapestry. But the book is well written and interesting, which acts, at least for now, as a counterbalance. However, the book is more than 1,000 pages long and I’m only through the first third, so my perspective might well change or, more likely, I may lose patience with this random flow.)

What gives me a clue that the publisher probably didn’t read the ebook version before release — and probably neither did the book’s editor nor Sanderson — are the illustrations. At the opening of the book, in the front matter that few readers read, but which I do (yes, I’m peculiar in this regard; I tend to read every page of a book — including the copyright page and the dedications and acknowledgments, as well as every footnote/endnote, which is why footnotes and endnotes are such a sore point with me [see, e.g., Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses]), Sanderson makes a big deal about the illustrations. As it turns out, he is right to do so — or at least I think he is; I can’t tell — I can’t read them, and if I can’t read them, neither can the publisher, the editor, nor Sanderson, which leads me to believe none of them read the book in its ebook form before releasing it for me to buy.

One example: In one of the stories/chapters, the characters discuss “the Code” that governs military men — or at least the righteous military men. The code that a dead king lived by and his brother lives by and wants his son to live by. But where is “the Code” outlined for the reader? In an illustration that cannot be read!

This is the problem with ebooks. Publishers, editors, and authors treat them as Cinderella stepchildren — as a way to do the work of increasing revenues without being given an opportunity to shine on their own — you know, scrub my floors, make them shine, but don’t walk on them. The consequence is that what should be an excellent reading experience becomes an annoying one. The neglect becomes evident, and the $14.99 the publisher demands for the ebook version becomes a sore point. In my case, it becomes a double sore point because I bought both the hardcover version (where the illustrations are readable) and the ebook version, as I noted in The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!. I might have done this again with another TOR/Macmillan book, albeit reluctantly, but now you can bet I won’t. Rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me!

Alright (before complaining and saying it’s “all right”, see On Words: Alright and All Right), we know that Macmillan really hopes ebooks don’t succeed but it’s time to recognize that that battle is lost — ebooks are here to stay and represent a growth opportunity for traditional publishers if done right. It’s getting to the done right part that appears to be difficult.

To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I understand if an illustration can’t be made readable on every cell phone screen — there certainly does come a point when a screen is simply too small — but there is no excuse for not making illustrations readable on the “standard” 6-inch eInk screen. The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one. Haven’t the Agency 5 already done enough to alienate the consumer with its pricing model? Must it shove the blade in deeper with a twist by also ensuring that important elements of a book cannot be read?

The cynic in me says that TOR/Macmillan did this deliberately with Sanderson’s book — an attempt to get consumers to buy both the ebook and pbook versions. But I really do know better. It wasn’t deliberate in that sense; rather it was deliberate in the sense that Macmillan is still trying to fight the battle it has lost and cannot ever reverse the tide of — the rise of ebooks at the expense of pbooks — and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

I will think at least twice, probably many more times than twice, in the future before I buy another TOR/Macmillan ebook, especially one at any price higher than $5.99, because as I said before: rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me — and leaving important illustrations unreadable is a rip off at $14.99!

September 10, 2010

The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!

eBooks are like a good spy: seen but not truly noticed until the last minute when it is too late — at least that was the case for me.

As each day passes, I find that I am more inclined to read an ebook and less inclined to read a pbook. This was finally hammered home to me with the release of two new fantasy novels, Terry Brooks’ Bearers of the Black Staff and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

I wanted both of these books for my library, so I bought them in hardcover when they were released (just in the past few weeks). I finished an excellent mystery in ebook form (Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood, a great buy at $2.99 and an excellent read) and decided to next pickup the Brooks book. My habit is to be reading 1 or 2 nonfiction books and 1 fiction book (usually an ebook) concurrently. So I put down my Sony Reader and picked up the Brooks hardcover and got as far as the copyright page, when I realized that I didn’t want to read the book in pbook form; I wanted to read it as an ebook. I also realized that I felt the same about the Sanderson book. So I bought both books in ebook form and put the hardcovers on my library shelves. For once, the publishers got me twice.

Combine this with my struggling to get through any nonfiction book in recent weeks because I really want to pick up my Sony Reader rather than the hardcover, and a dawning occurred — I finally realized that given a choice between an ebook and a pbook, I really do prefer to read an ebook on my Sony Reader.

The preference for ebooks stealthily snuck up on me. Unfortunately, I also recognize that my preferred books to read are nonfiction and ebooks aren’t quite there yet if the nonfiction book is loaded with illustrations and notes (perhaps the new readers will be better; I plan to try a nonfiction book on the Sony 950 when I get it). So I’m in a quandary: on what do I compromise? Do I forego the footnotes (99.9% of which are useless anyway and are present only to impress readers with the extent of the author’s “research”) and illustrations (many of which help explain the text) and read nonfiction in ebook form, or do I forego the pleasure of reading on my Sony Reader and continue to read nonfiction in pbook form? I suspect that the latter is what will happen for the most part, although I will start buying nonfiction ebooks when possible.

Of greater concern is whether I am seeing a new phase in my buying habits, a phase where I buy the hardcover for my library and the ebook to actually read — format double-dipping. Double-dipping could become a mighty expensive proposition, and as much as I love books, double-dipping makes no sense, especially as I do not truly “own” the ebook versions of the books that I would double-dip.

Here is where willpower comes into play. I am resolute (at least for the moment) that the Brooks/Sanderson double-dip will not be repeated. How resolute I am is yet to be tested, especially if the new device meets my hopes as regards the reading experience. (Wouldn’t it be nice if publishers said buy the hardcover and we’ll give you the ebook for a token price?)

The problem is ebooks and the very positive reading experience, at least on my Sony Reader (I don’t feel this same lure when reading books on my desktop or laptop; then I can’t wait to go to the pbook). eBooks are seductive. First, they are convenient — I love the ease of carrying my Sony Reader everywhere, such as while my wife shops. Second, 95% of the ebooks I buy are significantly less expensive than a pbook, in fact they are usually less than $3 and rarely more than $5. Additionally, ebooks can be better reads than many pbooks, as Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood, mentioned earlier, and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, which I reviewed here and here, deftly prove. Each of these books cost less than $3 yet are exceedingly well-written and captivating.

But as seductive as they are, ebooks, for me, lack the permanence of hardcovers and the ability to pass down to children and grandchildren (which means that I value books, just as publishers want me to do; so why do publishers make it so hard to value ebooks? and, yes, I know I can strip DRM but I prefer not to), just as they lack the price of hardcovers (the great tradeoff). I have yet to surmount the peak where I am willing to forego adding hardcovers to my permanent library and only buy ebooks; I find that I look forward to giving my grandchildren my library. I expect the day is coming, however, when I buy only ebooks, but I do not see it in the immediate future and thus my need for great willpower. At least that willpower only needs to be exercised with fiction (for the moment) and I do not buy many hardcover fiction books. (I much prefer my fiction to be in ebook form so I don’t feel bad about starting a novel and deciding that it was a waste of money and time; ebook fiction is easy to delete and doesn’t take up precious space. I also generally prefer to buy from the independent authors I find at places like Smashwords, which is where I found Tyley and Parkinson.)

eBooks have captured me. Everything is right about fiction ebook reading, assuming, of course, that the book itself isn’t one of those that falls into the Give Me a Brake! or Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important category, which, sadly, an increasing number of pbooks are doing these days. Additionally, what is right about ebooks and ebook reading seems to get “righter” with each passing year, especially as devices get better and authors and publishers more careful and concerned.

I guess this needs to be viewed as a warning to all those yet to be initiated into the addictive pleasure world of ebooks. Once you stick your toe into the ebook waters, you will be captured because the reading experience is excellent and keeps getting better as publishers take ebooks more seriously. This is one of those experiences that compel you to go forward, that does not permit backward movement. Just remember to keep control of your pocketbook so you don’t end up like me: buying the same book twice; instead buy more ebooks, which is something else I do because I find I read significantly more books than ever before since I was captured by ebooks.

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