An American Editor

September 16, 2010

In the Face: eBook Errors

I’ve been thinking about the errors I find in ebooks. Sometimes they are small errors, the kind I would find even in a well-edited pbook, the occasional dropped article, the switch in tense, and the like. Nothing too serious, but noticeable. Annoying but forgivable, at least on some low level. After all, perfection is something we strive for but rarely attain.

As I thought about these errors, I also wondered whether I was more sensitive to them in ebooks. I’m not talking about the repeated big errors such as those I discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! or in Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important; again, I’m talking about the small errors, the errors that I, and most readers, would pass over without much thought — well, maybe a grimace or two — in pbooks; errors we wouldn’t dwell on and write 1000-word discourses lambasting the book, the author, the publisher, or the editor.

Yet, these low-level errors seem to annoy me more when I come across them in an ebook. That led me to wonder why these errors are so much more noticeable and annoying in ebooks than in pbooks. I think I have found the answer: The small screen of most ebook reading devices (generally 6 inches or less) limits the amount of text we see at one time (both directly and peripherally), especially when we enlarge the text to make it easier to read, thus emphasizing the text before us.

When we read a pbook we see directly and peripherally the text on two pages and we cannot increase the text size. This tends to deemphasize the text visually. Further support for my theory comes from my 26 years of editing. I’ve noticed that some editors enlarge the visible text to 150% or even 200% of “normal” so as to catch errors more easily. I generally enlarge the text to 120% to 125% and have noted how much easier that makes it to catch the little annoyances. (Even doing this, however, doesn’t result in a 100% catch rate; less-than-perfection is the price we pay for being human.) With less text to distract the eye and brain, the visible text is emphasized more than “normal.”

What does this mean? It means that errors are more noticeable by and more annoying to readers in ebooks. What might be overlooked in pbooks is not overlooked in ebooks. It means that the editor’s role in preparing an ebook for publication is even more important than it is in preparing the same book but for pbook distribution. It also means that a final proofread should be performed on an ebook reading device — it should mimic the reader’s reading experience.

It is this last step that is missing. Yesterday I complained about it as regards important illustrations (see The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!) but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the switch to digital reading requires the addition of another step in the publishing process — the step of ensuring that the converted digital file is readable.

As one of the comments to yesterday’s post noted, the current process seems to be that that a digital file (hopefully the same digital file that was used to print the pbook and not a scan file, especially an unproofed scan file) is simply sent to a producer like Amazon who then undertakes the conversion process. This takes the file out of the publisher’s hands and into a third-party’s hands, a third party whose name doesn’t appear in the credits of the book and who is not the target of consumer anger if the ebook file is riddled with errors. Perhaps this is the wrong approach to the conversion process.

As publishers begin to realize that their future is intimately tied to ebooks, they should also review their procedures for getting an ebook out to the consumer. If a vendor like Amazon insists on doing the conversion process under the guise of protecting its proprietary formats and DRM scheme, then maybe a bold statement needs to be included in the digital file:

Converter’s Statement of Responsibility

This ebook was created by Amazon, which is solely responsible for any errors related to readability found in this ebook that are not also found in the original print edition. Complaints about formatting, dropped, missing, or incorrect characters, and other readability issues should be addressed to Amazon at __________.

Seems to me that would put the blame where it belongs. It also would identify where the problem source is and allow consumers to pressure the right party.

Of course, this shifting of the blame to the converter doesn’t absolve the publisher of the ebook from its responsibility to ensure that the digital file it gives to the converter is optimized for the ebook reading platform. And this is a golden opportunity for publishers to both add value to ebooks, helping to justify some of the outlandish pricing currently seen for some ebooks, and to garner goodwill. The publishers who actually had a book proofread — and corrected — before release could include a statement such as this in the ebook:

Certification of Optimization

This book has been optimized for reading on a 6-inch-screen reading device by having a prerelease proofread performed by a certified digital proofreader on a 6-inch-screen reading device. The proofread was conducted on such a device as part of the process. Errors that have been introduced during the conversion process are the responsibility of ______, the conversion processor, and should be addressed to _______.

This is almost a warranty of quality, something I suggested quite some time ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty). But think of what this would do, the effects it would have. First, it would establish a minimum level of quality, something that readers could grasp and depend on. Second, it would eliminate a good deal of consumer dissatisfaction. Third, it would put the burden on the company doing the converting to improve the conversion process in an attempt to make it error-free. Fourth, it would add value to ebooks.

If the publisher itself does the converting, that is, creates the final digital file that will be sold to the consumer, the following statement could be included with the Certificate of Optimization.

Although we strive for perfection, should you find an error, please advise us of it by e-mailing us at __________. We will endeavor to include appropriate corrections in future releases of the digital files for this book.

Imagine the goodwill this would engender as increasingly error-free ebook versions are made available. And if a publisher has to do this often enough, the publisher is likely to invest more upfront to get it right the first time, perhaps eventually leading ebooks into the error-free zone.

Perhaps the time has come to identify who is responsible for the errors we find when we read an ebook and to pressure that entity to work toward an enhanced reading experience.

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!

July 26, 2010

The Screw You eBook Deal

Every week it seems something new is happening in eBookland to set the ebook cause back a decade or two. Always at the forefront of the reversal of fortune is greed.

This week’s menace to eBookland is literary agent Andrew Wylie and his new publishing venture Odyssey. Wylie could have summed up his actions in simple terms: to disserve both his clients and the ebook-buying public. What, you ask, did he do? He agreed to give Amazon exclusive rights for 2 years to his authors’ backlist titles; Wylie will publish the books and exclusively sell them through Amazon. The backlist includes authors like Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, and John Updike.

This is tragic on many levels. First, unless he has been given exclusive information by Amazon, he really doesn’t know how much of the ebook market Amazon “dominates.” All Amazon says is “we’re #1” but has yet to actually prove it. Everyone assumes it is true, but without hard data, it is just an assumption (and you know what assuming does — it makes an ass of u and me!).

Second, even if Amazon has the largest single-vendor market share, it isn’t certain that how dominant a market share it has when all players are considered. Everyone assumes it does, but no one really knows — Amazon hasn’t put any real numbers on the table, just the hype, which makes me suspect that that’s all it is –hype.

Third, contrary to what Wylie thinks about his backlist authors, there is nothing out in the open that demonstrates that they are worth the $9.99 that is planned to be charged. What data does Wylie have to demonstrate that $9.99 is the ideal market price point for decades old books? I might reread Ellison at $1.99, but not at $9.99 — he (and Roth and Updike) just aren’t that good. Wylie complains about the Agency 5 pricing and then proceeds to draw a number out of the air himself.

Fourth, 2 years is a long time to exclude all other ebooksellers from having the ability to sell these books. It ignores the thousands, if not millions, of readers who do not buy from Amazon and who do not own a Kindle (and who do not want to read on their PCs or cell phones). If Wylie were my agent, I’d be looking for another one. As a writer I wouldn’t want thousands (millions) of potential readers excluded. As icing on the cake, no one knows whether at the end of the 2 years Amazon has an option to extend that exclusivity. It would fit Amazon’s usual tactics.

Fifth, if Wylie’s goal is to sell as many of his client’s books as is possible, why would he give exclusivity to a company who uses a format that is incompatible with every other ebook-reading device? I hear the pundits now: Because Amazon has an application that lets you read on nearly every device imaginable, just not other dedicated ebook reading devices.

This argument intrigues me. I understand James Patterson or Stephen King taking this position because they are currently writing bestsellers. The likelihood that someone will agree to read the latest James Patterson novel on their mobile phone or their PC is decent — not great but decent. But will these same people want to read a long ago Roth or Ellison or Updike novel that way? I have my doubts. I don’t personally know anyone who reads a book sitting at their desk on their PC or on their cell phones for pleasure (although I am assured that there are people who do), because that is what we are talking about — pleasure/leisure reading.

The argument also discounts all the people who buy ebooks at, for example, Barnes & Noble, which also has applications for various devices and keeps adding them. Are we to be an ebook world of Amazon only, perhaps a little B&N, but no one else?

Sixth, is the arrogance factor. Wylie doesn’t like the Agency 5’s pricing. Fine. Most ebookers don’t either. But you tell me how giving Amazon 2-year exclusivity at $9.99 sends any message of dislike about Agency 5 pricing to the Agency 5 — or even to the consumer. The only message I get is the one to the consumer, which is “screw you! If Amazon is willing to pay enough for exclusivity, I could care less whether you can read my author’s books.” Reminds me of an old radio ad: “Money talks and nobody walks!”

I admit that John Sargent’s (Macmillan) response was laughable in light of his own actions as a founder of the Agency 5. But even so, his response was on target. This exclusivity deal is not good for anyone. Is the goal to discourage reading and drive sales down? If so, these long-term exclusivity deals are a good step in that direction. People are interested in buying books only if they are available when they want them, in the form they want them, and at a price they are willing to pay. Wylie’s exclusivity deal is a 3-strike out: the books aren’t available to many readers in a form they want at a price they want to pay for ghosts from the past — $9.99 is the price point for new bestsellers, not old books from has-been authors.

And did Wylie give any thought to what state of affairs he is helping to create in the long-term? If giving a 2-year exclusive deal to Amazon is his idea of long-term strategic thinking on behalf of clients, he needs to get off his meds. Giving Amazon these kinds of deals plays into Amazon’s long-term goals of dominating ebook publishing and being able to dictate all terms. Every exclusive deal adds a nail to the coffin of marketplace competition because once Amazon sews up a significant portion of the market in these kinds of deals, Amazon will be able to dictate terms — all other competition will have been buried because they can’t get product to sell and they won’t be able to sell for less than Amazon. (That is also one of the problems with the Agency 5 thinking but at least they make their books available to everyone.)

Now that I have castigated Wylie, a punch needs to be thrown at the Agency 5 who brought this about. What did the Agency 5 think Amazon would do in reaction to their concerted efforts to control pricing? Amazon has done the smart thing for Amazon (although not, ultimately, for the consumer) in pursuing these exclusivity agreements. If anything will undermine the Agency 5, it is these deals. Unfortunately, consumers will be collateral damage. The Agency 5 thought Apple would be their savior; they were willing to overlook the fact that Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are identical twins. And so they pushed Amazon and now Amazon has pushed back.

Wylie has made what I consider to be a fool’s deal, but the deal is of the Agency 5’s making. “You shall reap what you sow” should become the motto of the Agency 5; Andrew Wylie should resurrect as his motto “Money talks, nobody walks.”

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

How many hours do you spend sitting at your computer for work and pleasure? How many hours are you willing to spend reading an ebook on your work computer? How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

I find these latter two questions to be the ones that haunt me as I try to find an ebook to buy and read. I broached this topic in an earlier article, Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers, but didn’t really delve into the problem of reading on my computer.

Beginning with the first question, I spend 6 to 8 hours every day (often including weekends) working at my computer. I’m an editor and these days, most editing is done on the computer, not using paper and pen. Included in that time is some time spent on “pleasure” activities, such as bill paying online or finding information on why my cat is retching on the carpet. Important stuff that is not work related and thus must be pleasure related.

So now I’ve spent a considerable amount of time surrounded by the 4 walls of my office, staring at my 3 monitors, and reading, for the most part, manuscript that is in need of my editorial skills. Now I want to relax, leave my office behind — especially my computer — and read an ebook for pleasure rather than work. I do not want to continue sitting in my office and reading on a computer screen. Yes, I do own a laptop, so I could move to a more comfortable spot and read on it, but using my laptop is just an invitation to do more work; my laptop is essentially a duplicate of my desktop system except that it is a single-monitor system and portable. I stared at an LCD screen all day; do I really want to do it some more?

Besides, the laptop isn’t exactly lightweight. It is difficult to hold like a book so that I could lie in the hammock and read. Well, truth be told, I can’t really take the laptop outside because I can’t read the screen in the sun. So now my Sony Reader comes into play. Using it is like reading from a paperback. I can hold it easily in 1 or 2 hands and at the easy-to-read angle depending on how I am relaxing. For me, at least, using my Sony rather than my laptop for pleasure reading is a no-brainer. And the e-ink screen is easy on the eyes, just like a printed book.

OK, the first 2 questions are answered: I spend too much time working on my computer screens and, no, I do not want to spend any more time reading for pleasure on those same screens. The idea of pleasure reading is that it be enjoyable, pleasurable, and somewhere other than in my office. That takes us to the third question: How many additional hours are you willing to spend to search through ebook websites to find an ebook to read?

If I want something from the latest bestseller list, finding the ebook is easy. For me, I can just go to the Sony eBookstore. The problem is that I rarely read books from the bestseller lists; I want to find new authors whose books are worth reading and reasonably priced. I do not want to pay $12 to $14 for an ebook that I am essentially borrowing.

Consequently, I tend to migrate to places like Fictionwise (which appears to be on its death bed as a result of recent moves by its owner, Barnes & Noble), Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other similar places. But there are so many and there are way too many choices to sort through. I recently timed how much time I spent at Smashwords trying to find a few ebooks for July 4th weekend reading. Truth is that after an 30 minutes, I simply abandoned the quest. Why? Turns out Smashwords is having a great sale this month on some books. But “some” is a big misnomer — there are approximately 800 books being offered just in the category Newest & Longs — that’s 80 “pages” of books to sort through in just this filtered category; if I don’t filter by using Longs, there are 1446 pages, each with 10 ebooks on it!

And I have to read the descriptions of many of the books to make the determination of whether I might be interested. Sometimes I can tell simply by the title or the price (e.g., I’m not interested in 450 Home Business Ideas nor in paying $9.99), but most times I at least have to read the description. So, after a relatively short time I say enough — I no longer am willing to stare at my computer screen.

When I suggested that better filtering was needed (Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers) by ebooksellers, several commenters wrote to praise Amazon’s filtering methods. Alas, however, I do not have a Kindle (and so cannot use an ebook bought from Amazon), so the response was I could get the free Kindle applications that work on my cell phone or PC. Yup, just what I want to do — read an ebook on my cell phone; and I’ve already — I think — dismissed the idea of reading on my computer.

The real answer is for places like Smashwords to become more in tune with customer needs, and, concomitantly, author needs, by offering better filtering. Think about those authors whose books appeared on pages 20 to 80 of the 80 pages I was looking at before the holiday — I never got to their books, so they never had a chance to sell me a copy, because I lost interest long before I ran out of options.

eBookstores have the technology available to offer customers and authors better filtering options. If they want to succeed down the road, they need to implement those options. If anything is going to hurt the indie author, it is the frustration in trying to find his or her book — to find that needle in the haystack of needles.

June 29, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 2

Below are the second round Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. These are all the nominees I have received since posting Hall of Shame Nominees 1. If you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1. Star Trek (movie tie-in) by Alan Dean Foster

  • Format: print
  • Problem: poor editing
  • Samples of errors: Captain Kirk’s father, under attack, discovers he’s restricted to “manuel control.” This is right after the word “manual” has been spelled properly.
  • Solved: No, the current run of this best-seller still contains the error.

2. The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

  • Format: print (Princeton University Press)
  • Problems: poor copyediting and proofreading
  • Samples of errors: (1) inconsistent spelling: Sea of Azov/Asov, Damogoras/Damagoras [in the same paragraph!], Lucullus/Luculus [same paragraph], Heniochoi/Heniochi; (2) typos or misspellings: ensuring [ensuing] months, unable to chose [choose], tassled [tasseled], seige [siege], Bibliotheque National [Nationale, several times], artemesia [artemisia], ro [to] become invincible, vistory [victory], putrify [putrefy], Mithrdates [Mithradates], A.E. Houseman [Housman]; (3) faulty past tense: everyone … spit [spat] on the memory; (4) missing word: caused it [to] fill; (5) wrong word: staunched [stanched] the flow of blood, enormity [enormous size, vastness] of the land and sky; (6) faulty punctuation: Mithradates’ died
  • Frequency of errors: occasional
  • Overall quality: neutral

April 12, 2010

Editors in the Offshore World

Editing has come a long way, baby! All the way from being a local skill set to an anywhere-anytime-anyone skill set. How many times has a neighbor said to you: “I just finished reading XYZ and spotted 3 errors. I could have been an editor!”? That the neighbor missed 200 other glaring errors is beside the point — that everyone thinks he or she can be an editor is the point. And that publishers think that anyone anywhere can edit a book for a local audience is also the point.

No matter where you go in this world you will find the same two editorial classes: those who can edit and those who can’t. Pick a country — doesn’t matter which one — and you’ll find the two classes. So the problem isn’t that the local country has a monopoly on good editors; the problem is more intricate than that.

Editors are a reading class, or a class of readers. Editors tend to be book lovers — why else would one want to wade through some of the drivel editor’s see? As book lovers, editors (as a class) tend to spend a larger proportion of their earnings on reading material than noneditors (as a class). But as editors’ incomes decline, so does the amount of money that they can spend on reading material. And let’s face it — no matter how you slice and dice it, an editor in Ukraine is unlikely to be a large consumer of books for the American audience, just as the American editor is unlikely to be a big consumer of books for the Ukrainian market.

How, you ask, does this relate to offshoring? Think about the books we buy in the United States. When a book refers to “Appalachian-level poverty,” the U.S. reader understands the metaphor. Would the Indian or Australian reader understand its symbolism? (Yes, we can all point to the one or two U.S. folk who wouldn’t understand and to the one or two Indians or Australians who would — let’s not get quite so picky.) Would the Indian or Australian editor understand the connotations of equating living in, say, Los Angeles with living in the Mississippi Delta?

This isn’t a one-way street. There is much I wouldn’t know or understand about a metaphor relating to a French or German localism that the French or German reader and editor would understand immediately. And offshoring affects the German editor, the Australian editor, the British editor, as much as it affects the American editor. The Internet has made us all vulnerable to offshoring. Also remember this: Today’s offshore choice is likely to find itself scrambling within a decade as some other  place becomes the new cheap heaven.

When a publisher offshores editorial work, the publisher not only raises editorial problems because of localisms but also deprives a portion of its audience of the means to buy the book. It is a circle of quality plus buying power. It is true that publishers offshore to save immediate costs but at the penalty of lost future sales.

Of course, those of us who earn our livelihoods as editors know that when the publisher offshores, the publisher really is not offshoring a single part of the editorial and production cycle. What the publisher does is offshore the whole editorial-production package to a “packager.” The packager then re-offshores the editorial work by trying to hire local editors, that is editors local to the country where the book will be published.

The problem isn’t the offshoring to the packager who then re-offshores back to the local country; the problem is that the packager has cut a deal with the devil in order to get the original work. The publisher offshores to cut editorial-production costs; the packager promises reduced editorial-production costs; the packager cannot provide the editorial part in its own locale so it re-offshores the editorial work. But because of the promised savings, the packager has to short-change something and so it short-changes editorial.

Editors in the United States saw this in practice not too many months ago when a mass e-mail was sent by an offshore packager looking for experienced STM (science, technical, and medical) editors to edit book and journal manuscripts, saying: “We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front. [sic]” In addition to the “high standard of Quality” editing, the packager required “a Non-competent [sic] agreement between us.”

A high-quality edit of STM material is time-consuming, and experienced STM editors know that such a requirement means a churn rate of about 5 manuscript pages an hour. Add in the requirement of a noncompete agreement and an editor would think the fee would be a reasonable one. Alas, this packager offered “Copyediting – $0.80 per page,” which meant that the editor would earn $4.00 an hour, slightly more than half of U.S. minimum wage.

This packager’s pricing was a bit extreme but not by much. This was my — and every editor who received the e-mail’s — Appalachian-level poverty moment.

I don’t know how many U.S. editors this packager ultimately was able to hire at this rate, but if I were a publisher who cut the deal with this packager, I sure would wonder about the work quality and the skill set of the hired editors. Of course, it also makes me wonder what the rate would be for nonspecialty editing or for inexperienced editors.

Offshoring of editorial functions to packagers because of a combined low package price is problematic on multiple levels. If publishers indirectly cause the demise of the local editorial class, they are also causing the demise of a significant segment of their buyers. If the editorial quality remains consistently poor, something we are seeing in ebooks, and which is creeping up in pbooks, people will ultimately become so frustrated with the reading experience that they will rebel at paying for it. If I have to suffer through a poorly edited book, I may as well suffer through one that cost me nothing — something that is increasingly seen with ebooks. Publishers and authors can protest low pricing claiming their products are valuable, but the marketplace, as offshoring of editorial work continues, may well view the products as worth nearly nothing.

I am reminded of what happened after World War II with the rise of the Japanese economic empire. Made in Japan became synonymous with very cheap and mediocre to poor quality; made in America was equated with expensive and high quality. But books in American English don’t carry a label that says “edited in Somalia” so readers assume — often incorrectly — that the editing — good, bad, or indifferent — was done by local editors (assuming it was edited at all). Perhaps books should be required to carry origin labels just like other products.

Books aren’t like TVs. Book editing requires a more intangible skill set than does assembling a TV; it requires knowledge and decision-making prowess. It is not repeatedly putting the same part in the same place. Although some aspects of editing can be automated, there still needs to be a decision maker who can decide between “know” and “no.”

Offshoring affects editors everywhere because economies rise and fall and today’s cheap labor becomes tomorrow’s expensive labor, so today’s editors who receive the offshored jobs will tomorrow find their jobs offshored. It also affects publishers everywhere. It is their need to produce localized books to sell to the local market at a price the local market will bear for quality that the market expects that is being jeopardized.

There is no easy answer, but with book prices climbing, editorial quality needs to keep pace. Perhaps the answer is to standardize the world’s languages into a single language with no localisms permitted.

April 6, 2010

Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?

Publishers claimed the high road in the pricing battle with Amazon over ebooks, constantly denigrating the $9.99 value point. Publishers feared, they claimed, that such a price point devalued ebooks.

That got me thinking. How do publishers decide the value of an ebook? Clearly they think a leased ebook has more value than an owned pbook because we haven’t heard this rallying cry before. Thus the move from the wholesale to the agency model of distributing. Why do publishers think a leased book is more valuable than an owned book? Or do they?

There is a certain lack of logic to publisher protestations. For decades the wholesale model has worked without claims of devaluing even though bookstores heavily discounted the books and forced publishers to print large quantities only to have a significant portion of the print run returned. If I were to point a single finger at a single cause of book devaluation, I would point that finger at print overruns that cause returns.

Think about it. Where do the remainder books come from? They are the remainder of the print run that didn’t sell. They are offered in bargain bins for 20% or less of the retail price, and who put them there? The publishers. Is this yet another case of the kettle calling the pot black?

Until the advent of ebooks, publishers seemed happy to sell books to retailers for the wholesale price and then let the retailers set the actual sales price. What difference did/does it make to publishers if retailers sell every book at a loss? The publisher’s revenue isn’t linked to that sales price — or is it?

The unanswered question is whether the discounted pricing moved more books for which the publisher was paid the wholesale price. Would 100,000 copies still be sold if the book wasn’t discounted to $9.99? Or would sales languish at a significantly lower number. My bet is they would languish.

The second unanswered question — and the one that publishers jump on but have no data to prove — is will the $9.99 ebook price will set a price point in the consumer’s mind above which no book — p or e — can be sold? Publishers point to the music industry, but why not look at their own history? The $7.99 paperback hasn’t done away with the $35 hardcover. Publishers are reacting from fear, not knowledge. 

But none of this addresses value. It does address market forces and the likely impact that a lack of competitive pricing may have on the book market, but not value. How do publishers ascertain a book’s value?

We know that there is the bean-counter method whereby someone adds up all the production costs, allows an accounting standard amount for intangibles, applies a percent for profit, and allows for returns, and then divides the total by the print run to establish a value. (There are variations to this bean-counter method.)

But the bean-counter method can’t really be the valuation method publishers are using because that method would work equally well with ebooks — in fact, it would be simpler with ebooks because there would be no print run intangibles or returns. So publishers must be using some other method, one that I can’t put a finger on. (Sure would be nice if they explained it!) The method must somehow be tied to an intrinsic value, a gut-feeling value.

The intrinsic value has to be unquantifiable and based on the content. But isn’t the content of the pbook version and the ebook version the same? Or are the contents different and we just aren’t being told? I expect the content is the same, so explain to me why there is no devaluation of a pbook sold at discount but there is of an ebook?

What makes a paperback worth $7.99, an ebook worth $12.99, and a hardcover worth $25.99 when all the content is identical? We know that production and distribution cost differences are not the answer; the answer must lie in the content or the format. If the content is identical, then content doesn’t account for the valuation difference. The answer must be the format. But that doesn’t make sense because the pricing schemes are reversed, since the value of the format is convenience and ebooks are certainly more convenient than pbooks, which means ebooks should cost more and hardcovers less than paperbacks. But then ebooks are leased and pbooks are owned and isn’t ownership more valuable than leasing? Shouldn’t then the value of ebooks be less than that of paperbacks?

Is this confusing? Yes, because there is no logic to applying the different pricing models — wholesale to pbooks and agency to ebooks — on the basis of value. There is no demonstrable difference in content value to any of the formats. Something is rotten in ebookland!

I don’t want to flat-out state that there isn’t an argument to be made by the publishers about preserving the financial value of books. What I do want to flat-out state is that

  1. publishers haven’t made any valid argument to date.
  2. publishers need to explain why ebook valuation is different from pbook valuation.
  3. publishers need to reassure the nascent ebook market that they truly aren’t trying to kill ebooks.

There clearly needs to be a dialogue between publishers and consumers, especially now that publishers have set the consumer, and not ebooksellers, as their market with the adoption of the agency model. But for this dialogue to occur, publishers need to define how they value books so that consumers can determine for themselves whether the agency model for ebooks is really justified by a need to save books from being devalued. The argument that ebook sales detract from hardcover sales and thus the need for the agency model is less than a weak-kneed argument. The counterargument is simple: Set the initial retail price under the wholesale model of the ebook at the same price as the hardcover and let the ebooksellers sell them for whatever price they wish, including at a loss, just as is done with the hardcovers.

Publishers need to be more forthcoming. They do not need to justify price in relation to costs; that is a business matter. What they do need to do is better explain their valuation excuse for going to the agency model. Consumers are entitled to understand why there will no longer be price competition in the ebook marketplace. Isn’t it the publishers’ own actions that are devaluing books?

March 30, 2010

Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free

Repeatedly commentators write that information wants to be free in the Internet Age. In my own contrarian way, I’ve concluded that information doesn’t want to be free; rather, it wants to be universally accessible.

Okay, I know this isn’t the popular perspective but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, information doesn’t have its own life. Someone created that informational bit that you seek — it wasn’t just there waiting to be grabbed.

A story is information. The information is contained in words. I’ll grant that the words may be just there for the grabbing — but not in the sequence of the story. You can grab “car,” “she,” “thus,” “red,” “motor,” “bought,” “the” — all the individual words, perhaps for free — but what you can’t grab is the construction that takes those words and puts them in the sequence “Thus she bought the red motor car.” The words themselves, absent their sequencing, are meaningless information; it is the sequencing of words that provides meaning, which is the information we seek.

Someone needs to take those words and sequence them. If the person who does it is a writer and the sequence is part of their Great American Novel, they may well want to be paid for their effort. The words are indifferent to whether they are free or costly; the writer/sequencer of the words is not indifferent.

The consumer, given the choice between paying $10 or $0 for the sequenced words will generally choose $0. That’s the way of life. Given the choice to pay $10 or not have access to the sequenced information,  the consumer will balance the value of the sequenced information to him or her against the price. The closer the two are to being in equilibrium, the more likely the information will be paid for; the more in disequilibrium, the less likely the information will be bought or the lower price that the information seeker is willing to pay. But nowhere in this formulation is the sequence screaming “set me free!”

The original statement that information wants to be free is attributed to Stewart Brand, at a 1984 hacker’s conference, where he said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

When read in complete context, the free was referring to the ability to adapt and use the information, not the price of the information or whether or not it should be paid for.

What happened is that a pithy slogan was created by taking words out of context. The slogan became a rallying cry with consequences that were unintended by the originator of the idea. The information wants to be free rally took on its own force through repetition without any consideration of what the underlying concept really was (reminds me of the more recent political slogans Death Tax and Death Panels — two misleading slogans that rally people to oppose a cause while preventing discussion of the important underlying issues).

Some ebookers have adopted information wants to be free as their slogan, with the meaning that ebooks should be very-low-cost (to no cost) and DRM-free. But it ignores the value of sequencing and the right of the sequencer to be paid for his or her work and protected from theft of his or her efforts. In this regard, sequencer includes both the author and the publisher, not just the author. It might be better to say information wants to be available — today and tomorrow, which would better reflect what the vast majority of ebookers really want.

Most ebookers I communicate with are uninterested in the problems of DRM except as it may limit their future ability to read an ebook on the device of their choosing. Their primary concerns are price and availability, and it is not until the discussion turns to the idea of future reading devices that DRM joins the discussion. These ebookers do not think information wants to be free, they think it wants to be available.

Rather than sloganeering that information wants to be free, ebooker efforts might be better spent in rallying support for a universal DRM scheme similar to DVDs. A universal DRM would reduce DRM costs and would ensure that purchases were device agnostic. It is certainly a more winnable cause than that of setting information free.

We know that the publishing industry is a little slow in focusing on the real problems of ebooks and ebookers, but this is one lesson that the panjandrums of publishing can readily learn simply by looking in their own living rooms. How happy would the CEO of any publisher be if he or she had to own and have connected 5 different DVD players in order to play movies they purchased or rented because each movie studio used its own DRM scheme? How happy would they be if they upgraded their DVD player next year only to discover that the 200 DVDs they currently own all had to be replaced because the new players couldn’t play them?

If movie studios can recognize that a single, universal DRM scheme is necessary, and if publishers can look in their own living rooms to see the value of a single video DRM scheme, how big a leap is it to conclude that ebooks, too, would benefit greatly from a single, universal DRM scheme? Seems to me that it’s really a baby step, not a giant leap — what we used to call a no-brainer — but with current publishing industry thinking patterns, a mountain is being made out of a molehill as an excuse not to act in both the publishers’ and the consumers’ best interest.

Rallying around a universal DRM scheme that lets us buy ebooks and transparently use ebooks today and tomorrow strikes me as the single most beneficial thing ebookers can do to enhance the their ebook reading experience.

March 22, 2010

Misthinking DRM

A client asked me about DRM for his company’s publications. The discussion was about what I call lockdown DRM, which is difficult-to-remove DRM, and social DRM, which is relatively easy to remove. But the more I thought about the conversation and past conversations about DRM, the more I realized that the conversation was misthinking: The type of DRM doesn’t really matter, except to a few (relatively speaking) ebookers; what matters is the universality of the DRM.

Piracy also isn’t a foundational issue. The movie industry proves that no matter how successful your DRM scheme, digital media will be pirated. What really matters is the balance between universality of DRM and price. The more in equilibrium they are, the less piracy there will be; conversely, the more in disequilibrium they are, the more piracy will occur.

It’s a fact of life: There will always be thieves, pirates, crooks, just like there will always be wackos who want to set off a nuclear bomb. One can spend millions of dollars trying to keep ahead of the thieves or can recognize that wiping out thievery can only be done by wiping out humanity. Seems to me that the smart publishers will recognize the futility of their antitheft spending in an attempt to wholly eliminate piracy and instead work to make their product more attractive and universally accessible so that piracy will be minimized and marginalized.

And that’s where universal DRM comes into play. DRM is really a punishment meted out to the honest. It’s just like the local jail. Yes, we lock up the bad folk, but we don’t eliminate bad folk when we do so. What else happens? The honest folk pay and pay. The bad folk are confined, living off the largesse of the honest folk and the honest folk pay more of their honestly earned money to keep the bad folk confined, yet still live in fear of both the still free-roaming bad folk and the up-and-coming bad folk.

DRM is the ebook equivalent of the local jail. I recognize that I have to pay taxes to keep bad folk in jail. I may grumble about it, but I pay. And it does do some good in the sense that instead of there being 1,000 evildoers walking the streets of my community, there is some number fewer — but there is still a large number walking around. And when I buy an ebook I grumble about paying for the DRM but I recognize that the fault lies with the evildoers who force me to pay this tax.

Yet there is another layer of evildoer in the DRM world that doesn’t exist in the jail analogy: publishers who support multiple DRM schemes. May they be recognized by their satanic horns and by their begging of Amazon and Apple to sell their books!! Each DRM scheme publishers support costs money. The costs are passed on to me, the ebooker.

Although this DRM cost seems to be only pennies, it really is much more because I’m one of those honest folk and I’m paying for publishers’ DRM folly in multiple ways. When I buy an ebook at the Sony store, I can read the ebook on many different devices as is. I don’t need to know how to strip DRM nor do I have to break the law (and law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be forced to break the law by publishers). If I buy that same book at Barnes & Noble, I better own a nook, although it has been promised that sometime in the not-too-distant future I will be able to read the B&N ebook on as many devices as I can currently read a book bought at Sony. But that isn’t true of ebooks bought from Amazon or soon-to-be-bought from Apple — and apparently won’t be true any time in the foreseeable future.

Whose fault is this? It’s the publishers’ fault. They are mesmerized by Amazon’s current control of the ebook marketplace and by Apple’s control of the music marketplace. So they give in by doing nothing. What they should be doing is saying to Amazon and Apple and B&N and Sony and all ebooksellers that their ebooks can be sold only in X format with the Y DRM scheme — if you want to use some other format or DRM scheme, you can’t sell our ebooks! This is proconsumer and propublisher.

Does it matter whether Amazon, Apple, B&N, Sony, Smashwords, or some other ebookseller sells more ebooks than any other ebookseller? Should it matter to publishers? Not really. What should matter is that ebooks are being sold and the profits are going to the publishers and authors and the benefits to the consumer. As a consumer, I don’t care if Amazon and Apple collapse like a house of cards tomorrow — both companies are anticonsumer. And the way things are going with ebooks, I don’t care very much if Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any other publisher collapses with them; publishers are also anticonsumer.

The misthinking about DRM is that it protects the publisher and therefore is beneficial to the consumer. The correct thinking is that DRM is a jail for the honest consumer and is anticonsumer in the absence of a single, universal DRM scheme that enables the consumer to buy from any ebookseller and read that book on any ebook reading device today, tomorrow, and 25 years from now.

Right now Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and publishers are able to ignore the consumer in the nascent ebook market. But the backlash is coming. If Amazon can’t sell ebooks for less than Apple or Sony or B&N, its dominance will not last. Once Kindlers realize that there is no financial benefit to being locked into a Kindle, they may look elsewhere — until they realize that they won’t be able to take their paid-for library with them. That will be the start of the tsunami that will engulf publishing, and when it comes, it will be a catastrophe for all players, not just for Amazon.

The time is ripe for publishers to realize that they can be and should be in the catbird seat on the issue of format and DRM. The switch to the anticonsumer agency model for pricing and the rumbling of consumer anger that it brings because of higher prices and no ebookseller competition should not be enhanced by a refusal to address the one issue that could put publishers in a favorable light: universal DRM. This issue should be addressed by publishers before the nascent ebook market becomes the dominant market for book sales. The backlash now will be like nothing compared to the backlash when the ebook market is even 10% of book sales. Ultimately, consumers will not sit idly by and accept that they cannot freely transfer books they purchased among devices they own. (And consumers will not swallow the lease vs. buy distinction with ebooks any more than they bought the distinction with DVDs — it is a distinction that has merit only in a court of law, not in a court of consumers.) The time to set the universal standards is now!

March 18, 2010

eBooks & pBooks in Tandem

It appears that Barnes & Noble and some publishers plan to experiment with giving pbook buyers a discount coupon to purchase the ebook version of the purchased pbook. I’ve been wrestling with this idea for quite some time and I’m still undecided about how valuable such a system will be to me.

There are several considerations. Will I need to buy the hardcover or can I buy the paperback pbook? Buying the hardcover pbook isn’t much of a problem for me as I only buy hardcover pbooks. But where it does have some effect is on which books will come with the discount coupon and how recent will those books be: Will they be brand new releases still on the bestseller lists or will they be part of the long tail only? The answer also affects the price I would be willing to pay (or maybe it doesn’t; let’s see how the discussion unfolds) for both the p and e books.

Considering the state of pricing today, I also wonder if pbooks that come with the discount coupon will be priced differently than pbooks sans the coupon? This hasn’t been raised yet, but considering the shenanigans that currently occur with pricing, I could see publishers choosing to sell what would normally be a $30 pbook for $35 as a way of covering the discount. Unfortunately, we would never know. I could also see Barnes & Noble, whose reputation has taken some pretty heavy hits since it entered the ebook business, telling B&N members that hardcover pbooks without a discount coupon get a 20% member discount; those with the coupon get a 10% discount. The one thing that can be said for B&N is that it cares very little about how it treats its book buyers, especially its members.

Also of concern is whether the tandem books will be just fiction or both fiction and nonfiction. This matters greatly to me because I rarely buy fiction in pbook form. There are a few fiction authors — e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove — whose new releases I buy in hardcover, but these authors are still read-once-then-shelve authors, so I would be disinclined to pay twice for one of their books. Conversely, my nonfiction reading runs largely to history, biography, English language, and philosophy, and these books not only grace my library shelves but they are referred to regularly and sometimes reread in whole. These books I would be interested in both p and e versions if the price and quality of the ebook was right.

My fourth concern relates to the quality of the ebook. If the ebook has the typical quality problems we see today, I am disinclined to spend twice for the same book — especially when those quality problems come wrapped in DRM. We know that ePub works pretty well for straight text, which is typical of fiction, but what about the more delicate needs of nonfiction, such as foot-/endnotes, intricate illustrations, and detailed tables and graphs? Will publishers enhance quality control or remain haphazard in the quality assurance department?

When I buy a nonfiction pbook, the typical price ranges from $30 to $40; occasionally a book costs less and sometimes more than that range indicates. On average, most of the books I purchase cost about $35. So the important question is how much more am I willing to pay to have the convenience of reading an ebook of the purchased pbook?

I admit that if I could, I would gladly read any book I purchase on my Sony Reader. I generally have a hate relationship with electronic devices, especially my computers, but I love my Sony Reader. But it isn’t well suited for reading complex nonfiction. So I’m looking to upgrade my device and the tandem idea might be an incentive — if the price of the ebook part of the tandem is right.

And that’s the kicker — What is the right price? Currently, when I buy fiction ebooks I am unwilling to spend more than a very few dollars — never more than $5 and rarely more than $3 — because quality is so low. Because I buy nearly all my fiction in ebook form, it means there are a lot of fiction authors published by major, traditional publishers whose work I never sample. I will not pay Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any publisher $9.99 for an ebook whose quality may be poor and which is, for me, a read-once-throw-away product, especially not when I can buy the same book in paperback for less than $7 at a bookstore or in hardcover for less than $7 either as a remainder or in a used bookstore. If I’m going to read it once and then toss it, I want toi go the least expensive route possible, unless I am collecting the author, in which event I don’t want anything but hardcover.

So what is the bright line, that magic number that would encourage me to use the discount coupon and buy both the hardcover and the ebook version of a fiction book? I guess that if the pbook cost no more than $30, I would be willing to pay a maximum of an additional 15% for the ebook version. Anything more than that and I would either just buy the hardcover or not buy the book at all

My bright line for nonfiction, however, is different. I buy and use nonfiction books differently, consequently I would be willing to pay more for the tandem ebook version. For me, buying the hardcover is a given; if I don’t buy the nonfiction book in hardcover, I simply am not interested in the book and will not buy it in any form. Well, if the ebook was less than $5 by itself, i.e., no need to also buy the pbook, I might think about buying some nonfiction in ebook only, but that level of pricing isn’t going to happen. But for a nonfiction book that I am buying in hardcover, I would go as high as 25% of the hardcover price for a well-done ebook version in the tandem deal. Anything more than 25% I would pass on.

But let me add this caveat as far as B&N goes: Given the choice between a 20% minimum member discount on a nonfiction hardcover or a 10% plus ebook discount coupon member discount, I will always opt for the 20% discount and forsake the ebook. But I’ll bet B&N won’t survey active members about their buying habits and opinions on this subject any more than it surveyed members before introducing the nook or its ebook product line. If ever there was a company working hard to dig its own grave, B&N is it.

Update

Since I wrote the above, two things have happened: First, I began reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, and second, C-SPAN has made available hundreds of thousands of hours of past broadcasts, which hours include the Clinton impeachment proceedings and trial in the House and Senate. Because of my interest in the impeachment process and proceedings from a historian’s perspective rather than a partisan’s perspective, I would have gladly bought a high-quality ebook that included videos of the proceedings and perhaps interviews of the main players — but only if I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. I would have gladly bought an enhanced pbook that included a DVD with videos of the proceedings and trial. And I would have readily bought both the pbook and a discounted ebook of Gormley’s book if the ebook was enhanced — and I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now — even if the ebook’s discounted price was 75% of the pbooks price.

My point is this: Certain books lend themselves to tandeming and can command a high price for the tandem. I don’t think fiction can command that high tandem price, but a book like The Loss of American Virtue could if the ebook were enhanced because the enhancements would flesh out and put in historical context the content of the primary text. Something to further think about.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: