An American Editor

July 9, 2010

On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept

Over the past few months, you have read my praise for the Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson several times, beginning with the original review (On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) and then as an example of quality ebooks in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Once again, I am compelled to discuss these books.

But first, because I do not want you to think I am shilling these books, let me issue my denials upfront: I do not know the author; I have never met the author. I have exchanged a couple of e-mails with her through MobileRead, an ebook discussion forum, which she initiated to ask me to perhaps edit a comment slightly I had made about her books on the forum because she thought perhaps I was giving away a surprise to those who had not yet read the quartet (in the end, it was agreed to leave the comments as they were because the books aren’t mysteries). I receive no remuneration of any kind in exchange for these mentions. Have I covered all the bases?

Okay, now to why I feel it important to reiterate praise for these books.

My wife and I are avid readers. Every time we go to a bookstore, she walks out with as many books, if not more, than I do. I suspect her to-be-read pile challenges mine if we ignore ebooks. Why ignore ebooks? Because my wife doesn’t own an ebook reader and doesn’t buy ebooks. She has consistently refused to share my reader, saying that she bought it for me and can see how much I enjoy it (all of which is true).

Our taste in reading material differs greatly. Although we discuss books we have read and recommend some of them to each other, we both recognize that it is the rare book that we would both enjoy and with our to-be-read piles growing weekly, the likelihood of one of us picking up, reading, and enjoying a book recommended by the other is slim. She likes what I call do-good nonfiction, e.g., the story of a school built in a poor remote area, and Maeve Binchey-type fiction. I prefer nonfiction books about hard subjects, e.g., wars, both ancient and modern, and my fiction rarely ventures from the scifi/fantasy genres. Even so, we do discuss books and what we have read.

Nevertheless, after I finished reading the Promises to Keep quartet, I insisted that Carolyn borrow my Sony Reader and try these books. After a bit of coaxing, she did and now things are different at our table — all because of the Promises to Keep quartet. First change is that I haven’t had access to my Sony Reader for nearly a month. Second change is that where we tend to read our magazines at the lunch table, she now reads one of the quartet books.

The third change is probably the most telling change: Carolyn is an excellent painter (visit her website to see what I mean) whose paintings are in collections worldwide. So she often spends her evenings (along with her days) in her studio working on the newest painting. Her habit has been — and this has been true for the many years we have been together — to watch an hour or so of TV at the end of the day as her method of unwinding before bed. But not long after she started the Promises to Keep quartet, her habit changed: now the TV is silent and she unwinds by continuing her reading of Parkinson’s quartet.

The fourth change, and perhaps equally significant, is that we now have regular discussions about the books in the quartet and about the characters. Neither of us had previously felt a desire to discuss more than once or twice a particular book, and certainly not to engage in speculation about fictional characters.

The final change is that Carolyn is actively recommending these books to friends. In the past she would mention a good book to a friend, but that would be the extent of it. With the Promises to Keep quartet, she is repeatedly recommending the books and providing links for her friends.

All right, you’ve got the picture about how much both of us like these ebooks, how outstanding we think they are. Well, just to reinforce the notion, let me repeat some words Carolyn has used to describe the books: “outstanding characterization,” “fascinating and compelling story,” “can’t stop reading” (how true this is — she struggles to stop reading when the clock chimes 1:30 a.m.), “can’t wait to find out what happens,” “mesmerizing,” “compelling.”

Why is this important, this exuberance for these ebooks? Because it proves that self-published, independent authors can produce high-quality literature, that not all self-published authors are simply trainwrecks in disguise. But it takes care and effort, both of which are evident in this quartet. (I asked Carolyn how many errors she has noticed in the books she has read so far. She answered 2 or 3 in total over the first 3 books, none of which were major or distracting.)

My questions are these: If Shayne Parkinson can maintain such quality over 4 books, why can’t most authors maintain it over 1 book? What is Parkinson’s secret? Isn’t the lack of quality evidenced in many self-published ebooks what causes self-publishing to have such a poor reputation? Why are the problems outlined in articles such as I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors, Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers, On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! unresolved?

In Promises to Keep, the promises are kept! Here are exceptional books that are well edited, well written, and well produced. So, again, I encourage you to give the Promises to Keep quartet a try. By reading and buying books of this quality, and by mentioning them repeatedly when we like them, we encourage other authors to reach for the stars, too. (And for those of you who love fantasy, I recommend Celina Summers’ The Asphodel Cycle, also a quartet, reviewed in L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast and mentioned in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Summers’ quartet is of similar quality as Parkinson’s quartet and also an excellent read.)

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.

January 14, 2010

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast

As a book editor, my passion is books: I read them for pleasure, I edit them for my livelihood. I spend more time every day reading books, newspapers, and magazines than most people. I always have at least 1 hardcover and 1 ebook actively being read, and sometimes I add a third or fourth book to the mix. I almost never watch TV, maybe a total of 2 to 3 hours over the course of a year. I much prefer reading.

Most of my reading is nonfiction (see On Today’s Bookshelf for some of the books on my current to-read list), but I do have a few favorite fiction authors whose books I buy as soon as they are available. All my nonfiction is bought in hardcover; most of the fiction I buy is in ebook, the exceptions being my favorite authors whose books I buy in hardcover. Probably 90% of my fiction purchases are in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. To give you an idea of numbers, in 2009 I bought more than 100 hardcover books and more than 125 ebooks. True, I buy more in a year than I can read, but I do keep chipping away at the backlog.

One of my favorite authors is L.E. Modesitt, Jr., particularly the Saga of Recluce series and the new Imager Portfolio Series. With the release of Arms-Commander last week, the Saga of Recluce series is now 16 volumes — and I own every volume in hardcover. I looked forward to reading Arms-Commander, with the hope that the writing and story would return to the glory days of earlier volumes in the Recluce series.

I knew my hope would be stressed when I found, after the first evening’s reading of about 50 pages, that I was thinking of putting the dustjacket back on and simply putting the book in my library, not bothering to finish the book. The previous volume in the series, Mage-Guard of Hamor, was an okay read but not near as interesting or well written as earlier volumes. I had hoped that in Arms-Commander Modesitt would re-find that spark that ran through the early volumes, but, as further days of reading demonstrated, Modesitt didn’t.

In contrast to Modesitt’s two volumes (so far) in the Imager Portfolio series, each of which I read in a few days because I found them interesting and engrossing, the story in Arms-Commander is leaden and confusing and the characters have virtually no depth.

I don’t recall what happened in the very early volumes of the Recluce series and I don’t know if that knowledge is necessary to enjoying and understanding Arms-Commander, but if it is, it is the author’s responsibility to refresh the reader’s memory of the pertinent history and to write in such a fashion that a new-to-the-series reader can follow the story. In this Modesitt has failed.

As noted above, the characters in Arms-Commander have little to no depth. I find I don’t really care about any of them. They are wooden characters with wooden personalities, much less than I expected from Modesitt and a significant contrast to the characters in the first two volumes of the Imager Portfolio Series. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to Recluce. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. Arms-Commander illustrates what happens when there is either poor editing or an author no longer connects with his or her creation.

In contrast to Arms-Commander, I heartily recommend Celina Summers’ ebook fantasy quartet, The Asphodel Cycle. The four books in the quartet are The Reckoning of Asphodel, The Gift of Redemption, The Temptation of Asphodel, and The Apostle of Asphodel. The story is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad with elves, humans, centaurs, immortals, and gods.

Unlike my struggle with Arms-Commander, I found that I didn’t want to stop reading Summers’ books. Whereas I usually spend a few hours each day with each of the books I am currently reading, I became so engrossed with Summers’ characters that I simply read The Asphodel Cycle from volume 1 page 1 until the last page of volume 4.

I enjoy a lot of books but there aren’t many that I read that I can say brought tears to my eyes, caused me to laugh, or caused me to feel choked with emotion. But Summers’ characterizations and dialogue in The Asphodel Cycle did bring all those emotions and more to me, enhancing the pleasure of these books. Don’t get me wrong: These books aren’t perfect. There are flaws, there are places that could have used some tightening, and some of the characters aren’t as well formed as others, but overall The Asphodel Cycle was one of the most enjoyable fiction reads I had in 2009.

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