An American Editor

March 16, 2010

Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe?

Before the printing press and moveable type, we relied on scribes (in the broader sense of being more than just a copyist) to record words and to copy manuscripts. This was a one-person operation, even if there were many scribes tackling the same document.

The advent of the printing press and moveable changed manuscript production. Now several people working together produce numerous copies of the same manuscript, each having a hand in the whole project.

But ebooks are changing our world again. eBooks in the age of the Internet puts us back to the one-person endeavor. One person can be author, editor, publisher, marketer — just what a scribe did 700 years ago. The question is: Is this progress?

The problem with the scribe system is that two scribes didn’t record the same event identically. And scribes were simply recorders, not investigators, so they did no verifying. Scribal work lacked assurances of credibility; if scribes recorded an event and then rerecorded it but did so differently, which version was the accurate record? And what about the third and fourth transcriptions? The printing press increased accuracy by creating a single record that was accurately replicated multiple times.

You can get a better sense of the problem by considering this: One scribe writes “Giving her the book or the candle is giving her a great gift.” A second scribe, at the same lecture writes: “Giving her the book and the candle is giving her a great gift.” Two scribes, two possibilities, two different meanings. Which is the correct transcription of the lecture? On which transcription should future readers act? What happens if more than one transcription is preserved and repeated in the future? What happens when a scribe 50 years later decides that since both can’t be right, the best thing to do is to combine them into a third possibility: “Giving her the book and/or the candle is giving her a great gift.” Perhaps this doesn’t matter much when talking about the gift, but it surely matters when discussing what the law is and what happened in history.

The problem in the Age of eBooks is the rise of the self-published author. This author is akin to a scribe. There is no assurance that the book I buy today will match the book you buy tomorrow and there is no book against which we can compare to determine the correct version. More importantly, once we stray from the world of fiction, there is nothing to assure the ebook buyer that the ebook author has done any fact checking. When a self-published ebook declares that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 6, 1941, how will the reader of the future know the truth or falsity of this assertion?

Granted the problem is less dire with “obvious” facts such as the Pearl Harbor bombing date, but what about with “less obvious” facts? How many of us know, for example, the years of the First Crusade without looking it up (1095-1099)? Or of the Children’s Crusade (1212)? Or the year Pompeii was destroyed (79 AD)? Or Rudolph Hess’ rank in Hitler’s Germany (Deputy Führer)? Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)? 

The scribe, like the self-publisher today, exercised great control over his or her individual endeavor. At-whim “improvements” could be made to the next rendition of the work and no one would know because there was nothing against which to compare the current work. It was a replay of the oral storytelling tradition, the handing down of stories from generation to generation with each adding its own embellishment, just done in written form.

But how good is this for consumers and scholars in today’s world? Revised editions, noted as such, are, of course, useful and acceptable. But the unnoted revised editions that can be expected with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, will create havoc in the marketplace. As reader’s catch an author’s errors and the author corrects his or her work (assuming the author does make corrections), what will be the effect of the errors on those who have read uncorrected versions? Suppose your child bases an essay on a college entrance exam on incorrect information gained from reading a self-published ebook about the Crusades?

Yes, it is clear that other scholars and authors can protest the inaccuracies and even correct them in their own work. But that assumes (a) that the number of sales of the incorrect work will rise to such a number as to attract attention, (b) that those who digested the mistaken information were made aware of the errors, and (c) that the correctors themselves are more than simply misinformers themselves.

eBooks are a great leveler of the playing field in the sense that the combination of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet lets anyone with the dream of being the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen Ambrose have the opportunity. This trio of opportunity can, however, cause chaos that is uncontrollable. Conversely, the trio can be the savior of education by combatting the flow of misinformation as is happening in Texas (see, e.g., Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change).

But no matter how the problem is cut, the question of whether a reversion to the scribal days that the trio of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet permits is good or bad remains to be seen. If self-publishers adhere to the more traditional publishing model of fact-checking, professional editors, and high (relatively speaking) quality production, the return to the scribal role will be positive. On the other hand, if the model of “push it out the door as fast as one can” prevails, ebookers and the public in general will suffer, albeit perhaps unknowingly.

Until ebook self-publishing settles into a more formal method of quality control, I think it will be effectively limited to fiction and nonscholarly work. The opportunity to expand into a recognized scholarly venue will be the catalyst that will change self-publishing in the wild to self-publishing on a more formal, certifiable basis. I predict that within the next 10 years we will see a certification process for self-published ebooks — perhaps even for all ebooks — designed to assure the ebook buyer of the quality and accuracy of the content and to assure that revisions and new editions are noted. I expect that future ebook self-publishing will more closely align to current pbook standards than is currently the case, all for the betterment of self-publishing.

March 9, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (II)

In part I of this 3-part article, I discussed the role reviews play in my decision-making process as to whether or not to buy a particular book. As noted, reviews are rather limited, largely because there are so few credible reviews and so many books published each year.

Covers

The next thing that catches my attention is the book cover (cover is used to mean both the printed cover or cover art and the dust jacket). Either a book cover grabs your attention or it turns you away. The cover is what you see before you read the first word of the story. The cover actually conveys a lot of information about a book.

Presumably the book title has been carefully chosen to describe (or at least give a clue as to) the content. For example, I recently bought A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009). What first caught my eye was the title. This title tells me what to expect: I expect to read a book about guerilla warfare during the U.S. Civil War. The cover also tells me who the author is; in this case I recognized the name because he has written several other books about the Civil War. Also on the cover is the publisher’s name. This book was published by the University of North Carolina Press. And there is the dust jacket blurb that tells me something about the book. Finally, there is the cover art itself. In this case, it is a drawing of a raid scene. All of the elements of the cover give credibility to the book.

They don’t assure me that the book is well written, but they do give me some assurance that the content is content I’m interested in; that the author has experience in and knowledge of the area; that the book has been vetted, at least minimally, by a respected academic publisher; that the content fits the title; and that the content is trustworthy. All of these are important assurances, even if they are not consciously perceived by the book buyer.

That’s when I consider the story synopsis. Next to the cover art, the jacket blurb can be, for me, the make or break in the book-buying decision. A well-written blurb summarizes the book. In the case of fiction, as soon as I read “vampire” or “zombie” or “romance” or certain other key words, I know to move on. Those aren’t stories that I care to read. But the right key words drag me further into the book, and so I want to check out the first chapter.

Unfortunately, not all book covers are so reassuring, and the covers become increasingly less reassuring as one moves first to fiction and then to self-published books or books published by presses who devote minimal resources to capturing and/or reassuring buyers via the cover design. This is particularly problematic for me when buying an ebook, which is the form in which I buy nearly all my fiction books.

Many of the fiction ebook “covers” are no better than the crayon drawings my 2-year-old neighbor draws. And covers do matter; they are what first bring a book to one’s visual attention. They are the inducement to open the book and exploring the content. Some covers are so amateurish — childish might be a better description — that I immediately assume the content can’t be any better. Often I go no further in exploring the book, but when I do, I often find that my assumption was correct. Cover art does play a significant role in the book-buying decision.

Even if the cover drawing resembles the content, when it is childishly executed, it casts doubt on the quality of the writing. Poor cover design and art does not give a sense of assurance. The higher the price of the ebook, the greater the risk. On the other hand, because of how ebooks are prepared and sold, I try hard to not base my buying decision solely on the cover art. Sometimes I can’t get past the poor cover design, but most of the time I am able to go beyond the cover and into the content.

Authors and publishers need to keep in mind that a book is much more than just its content. Although content ultimately is the most important part of a book, it is also the last part of the book that is encountered by the book buyer. Consequently, as much care as is paid to the content needs to be paid to the other parts that make up the totality of the book. It does the author no good if the book buyer goes no further than the wrapper; the author and publisher need to make the wrapper as compelling as the content.

Part III, tomorrow’s article, discusses the final legs of the buying decision process: content and pricing.

Subsequent to the posting of this article I came across the following video on the making of a book cover. The 2-minute video compresses the longer process of designing a book’s cover and highlights some of the skill involved.

March 5, 2010

The eBook Wars: Reality vs. Fantasy in Expectations

One of my favorite op-ed columnists is Leonard Pitts, Jr. of the Miami Herald. I don’t always agree with him, but like certain other columnists (Froma Harrop, Paul Krugman, Kathleen Parker, David Brooks, Linda Chavez, and George Will), I always read his opinion piece. Some people are worth reading and their opinions worth considering, whereas lining the litter box is the proper place for certain other columnists (Michelle Malkin comes readily to mind) — they simply lack any pretense to intelligent conversation. (If I want to be harangued, my wife and kids can do the job expertly.)

In a recent column, Pitts observed: “But objective reality does not change because you refuse to accept it. The fact that you refuse to acknowledge a wall does not change the fact that it’s a wall. And you shouldn’t have to hit it to find that out.” This made me think of the ebook war between ebookers and publishers.

Each side in this war has firm positions and beliefs from which they seemingly will not bend. eBookers expect low prices, no DRM, no geographical restrictions, near-perfect editing and formatting; publishers expect high prices, DRM, and good-but-not-perfect editing and formatting. Pricing and DRM are the hot button issues (along with geographical restrictions for those ebookers living outside the United States).

The reality for ebookers is that in the near term DRM is going to remain. Bang your head against that wall as often as you like, but until publishers find a way to minimize their financial gamble and until authors feel confident that ebookers will pay and not pirate, DRM will be part of ebooks. The financial stakes are simply too high for some publishers and many authors to give it up. Even the ebookers’ “friend” Amazon hasn’t been touting a non-DRM world for ebooks. (What would happen to the Kindle if one could buy any device and also buy books at Amazon?)

Yes, I know that DRM is really treating honest folk as pirates but let’s take another look at reality: Given the opportunity to get an ebook free or to pay for it, most people will take it for free. That’s just the way of humans. They might not go to the effort of stripping DRM and putting something up on the darknet for the world to access, or even visit the darknet themself, but there is a strong likelihood that they will e-mail the latest book to dozens of their friends if they can. It’s just being human.

So faced with the reality of DRM, what is the most productive thing for ebookers to do? I suggest urging publishers to adopt a single DRM scheme to which all publishers adhere and to which all publishers require all ebooksellers to adhere, and which they make available to all device makers. It doesn’t eliminate DRM but it reduces the “evils” of DRM for 97% of ebookers. Such a universal scheme would be a compromise win for both sides to the argument and we can move on to other pressing matters such as price. Yes, you’ve read this before; it has been part of my pitch for the central repository system, but it needn’t be part of such a system. What really matters is the universal DRM scheme, just like we see on CDs and DVDs — they can be purchased and played on any player from any hardware maker, which is the way it should be with ebooks.

Pricing is the second great evil of ebooks. To many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than $10; in fact, to many ebookers, few fiction ebooks are worth more than a few dollars when they come packaged with DRM and lackadaisical editing and formatting. Publishers, however, would like to see more ebooks sold at a price above $10 than a price below and with DRM. But neither side is living in the real world.

We already know why ebooks aren’t worth more than $10: they are leased, not owned because of the DRM; they aren’t really portable (e.g., for Kindlers, if Amazon goes out of business, so go ebook purchases); for many ebookers fiction ebooks are one-time reads; and the list goes on. Publishers, however, see great value in ebooks as mirrors of the print book. And authors want to collect a fair share of the proceeds.

This ground has been churned numerous times in past months and neither side has sole ownership of fantasy expectations. The question really is whether both sides are willing and able to give up some of their fantasies and meet in reality for the betterment of the vast majority of ebookers? This is an open question today.

March 2, 2010

eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite

One of the blessings of ebooks is that they are digital files that are easily corrected (note I said easily, not inexpensively), unlike the printed book, which once published becomes a fiscal nightmare if it is error laden. This problem, and what to do about it, came to mind as the result of a recent New York Times article, “Doubts Raised on Book’s Tale of Atom Bomb.”

The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino was published in January 2010 by Henry Holt to acclaim. Alas, there may be a major problem: The technical details of the mission are based on in-person recollections of someone who was not there. So the question becomes: What is to be done? [Update: According to today’s New York Times, the publisher, Henry Holt, has decided to recall all 18,000 copies of the book. Apparently other issues have arisen, including whether the author truly has a doctorate degree and whether other sources actually exist. Here the publisher is acting as a gatekeeper and warranting the quality of the book; what would be the case if the book had been self-published?]

If this were an ebook the choice would not diminish in either importance or problems. To correct the ebook would lead to versioning and a never-ending attempt to always keep a book accurate and up-to-date — the never-ending rewrite. In one sense, this is good; in another, it is a scholarly nightmare: How will a scholar ever be able to cite or quote an ebook as a source? (Which is another interesting question: Can ebooks be reliably cited?) But failure to correct a major error, one that calls into question the validity and credibility of the book and author, as occurred in The Last Train from Hiroshima, is equally problematic. And what happens when three years from now another history-changing error is found?

Clearly this is not much of a problem in fiction. It doesn’t really matter that a street runs east-west rather than north-south in the real world, nor does it matter all that much that the author uses compliment when complement is meant. But these kinds of errors, as trivial as they are in fiction are volcanoes in nonfiction, especially in the scholarly disciplines. The fiction author will be remembered for having written an intriguing story that held you spellbound or bored you to death; the scholar will be remembered for a work being flawed or flawless in its facts, not in its storytelling.

So what does one do with a book like The Last Train from Hiroshima? The print version is an easy solution: Henry Holt can recall and refund or replace the printed book, destroying the incorrect print version, or it can just do nothing. Perhaps it can issue an errata sheet that buyers can paste into the book acknowledging the error.

But if the book is available as an ebook, the ebook is its own quandary. It is easy to replace the digital file and to even let purchasers redownload the incorrect copy. But at what point does Henry Holt and the author stop making changes? Or should we expect the book to be continuously correct and updated until such time as it is so perfect that no changes can be made? Or should we leave it as is and wait for a “second” edition to be released; that is, should the ebook be considered a mirror image of the released print version or a book in its own right?

Is this the real crux of the matter? To date, no consensus has formed on exactly what an ebook  is. When the only form of a book is the ebook form, then the ebook stands on its own. And in that instance, perhaps one revision of the digital file is warranted to correct an egregious error. But when there is a pbook version as well, the status of the ebook is uncertain and the jury remains out on whether it needs to be a mirror image of the pbook or can stand on its own. (The argument that it does or does not stand on its own is not affected by the presence or absence of “added value enhancements.” The question is whether the core text stands on its own or needs be a mirror image of the pbook.)

Publishing and history are lives riddled with errors. Books with errors have been published before and will be published again. History is knowledge of what occurred in the past and that knowledge is always undergoing change — new insights and facts are regularly being discovered. Consequently, I think there is a limit to the independent life of the ebook. I think scholars and readers of nonfiction need be able to point to a particular book and say that is it.

My solution would be to treat the ebook as the mirror image of the pbook and whatever steps are taken to correct the pbook be taken to correct the ebook. If no steps are taken to correct the pbook (a mistake, I think, that would irreparably harm both the publisher and the author), then no step should be taken to correct the ebook, except, perhaps, to add a 1 paragraph author’s note before the first paragraph of the chapter that is in question indicating that the author is aware that the following material is incorrect.

At minimum, for The Last Train from Hiroshima, the publisher should prepare an errata sheet, one that could be used for all versions of the book. I think this is necessary because the discovery of the error is virtually contemporaneous with the release of the book; had the discovery occurred 12 months from now, my thoughts would be different.

Regardless of how Henry Holt deals with its problem, I am of the opinion that, in the case of nonfiction, the core text of an ebook should mirror the corresponding text of its pbook version — an ebook does not have an independent existence. To ensure scholarly endeavors in the future can point to a specific book and cite it, there must be finality and mirroring will provide it.

March 1, 2010

The eBook Wars: Making Peace

I suspect that Macmillan’s upper management feel elated after getting Amazon to agree to an agency distribution and pricing model. But a few pin pricks to deflate that elation are probably warranted.

Macmillan showed some, but not much, gumption when it stood up to Amazon. Would Macmillan have taken the stand it did in the absence of Apple paving the way? I doubt it; Macmillan hasn’t shown any strategic or tactical brilliance in the ebook wars — this was its first bold stroke.

None of the publishers who are pushing the agency model have shown much initiative. All of the initiative has come from outside the publishing world, which is not a good sign. So I will again suggest a way for publishers to lead the way: an international repository.

Yes, I’m tooting that horn again. eBooker anger will not go away and ebookers will not suddenly be willing to live with restrictive DRM and high prices without knowing that they will be able to read the book they lease today on the device of today, tomorrow, and of 10 years from now. Publishers are rubbing salt into the wound by agitating for higher ebook prices yet not addressing the most pressing issues — that publishers want a high price for a leased book that has a relatively short useful life because of DRM. (I understand that for some people the most pressing issue is geographical restriction, followed by DRM. I am also aware that some ebookers can easily remove DRM, but the vast majority of ebookers cannot and do not remove DRM.)

When it took on Amazon, Macmillan was the public relations loser with its ultimate audience, the ebooker. If there was a winner in that debacle, it was Amazon, not that Amazon deserves any prize for caring about its customers. Contrary to public perception, I think Amazon caved to Macmillan’s demands so quickly because it gave Amazon an excuse to make a profit yet shift the blame for higher pricing. Had Amazon truly cared about its customers, it would have continued to deprive Macmillan of access to 20% of the book-buying marketplace (and up to 90% of the ebook-buying market). Macmillan could not have easily or quickly made up that loss elsewhere. 

But that sideshow just distracted ebookers and publishers from addressing the underlying problems with ebooks. Now Macmillan has an opportunity to regain stature among ebookers by taking the lead in establishing a single, uniform format and DRM scheme by leading the move to create an ebook repository (a scheme that I believe would ultimately lead to the end of geographical restrictions).

Consider the advantages to a single repository system. For publishers, it means creating a single electronic file that is properly formatted; no more introducing errors through the process of converting from one format to another. And a single DRM scheme means that they can take control of what scares them the most, setting ebooks free. (Yes, I know that any DRM will be cracked by pirates, but publishers aren’t ready or willing to set ebooks free or to accept that piracy cannot be defeated by DRM.) A single repository would also enable publishers to better track sales, get better demographic information, and even implement ebook-sharing schemes that they can live with. No ebooker I know believes that an ebook should be 100% unshareable and most understand publisher concerns about no DRM. I suspect that publishers don’t oppose sharing among family members, but that absent DRM they have no way to control the extent of sharing. A repository would enable publishers to make a leased book available to the ebooker for as long as the book is under copyright, regardless of what device the ebooker migrates from and to.

The importance to both publishers and ebookers of this ability to migrate to and from devices cannot be overemphasized. Right now Amazon controls a significant portion of the ebook market. As the market grows, Amazon will continue to exercise that control by locking ebookers into its Kindle machines. Similarly, if Apple’s iPad takes off as a reading device (of which I have my doubts), publishers will be ceding yet more control to another outsider because Apple will do what it can to lock ebookers into its sphere of influence. But if publishers created a single repository with a single format and DRM scheme, that Amazon-Apple control would be diminished if not eliminated.

For the ebooker, a single, properly setup repository that all ebook publishers used would insure access to leased ebooks today, tomorrow, and 50 years from now. It would also mean that if a publisher corrected a faulty ebook, regardless of the problem, the ebooker would have access to the corrected version and not be stuck with a faulty version. And it would permit ebookers to move from device to device without penalty. If publishers enacted a sharing scheme, which wouldn’t be that difficult to do, there would be additional value given to ebooks. eBookers would see ebooks as more like traditional pbooks and less like short-term leased, low-value products.

For publishers and ebookers alike, the repository adds value to an ebook.

To work, publishers would need to create an independent repository that would hold a copy of every ebook. Every ebook would have to conform to a single format standard and would have to be wrapped in exactly the same DRM scheme, which would have to be made available to all device makers. And accessibility would have to be guaranteed for the copyright life of the ebook. eBooks would be sold by traditional sellers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, not by the repository, but the actual ebook would be gotten by the ebooker only from the repository, not from the ebook seller. With the repository scheme, the agency model for pricing would be less important to publishers and could even give way to the heads-on competition of days past.

If publishers really want to survive in the Age of eBooks, this is the kind of thinking that they need to embrace. The shotgun approach they now adhere to only embitters ebookers and only makes each side of the debate more intransigent. Plus publishers are inviting at minimum a public relations disaster, perhaps a more titanic disaster, as ebookers discover they have to release ebooks because they changed devices. Additionally, the repository could help publishers in the value controversy.

Although perhaps not a perfect solution, the repository is a workable solution that addresses and satisfies many of the concerns of ebookers and publishers in the Age of eBooks and at least starts the Age of eBooks off on the right track.

February 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Agency & Winners

As the dust continues to rise from the dispute that originated with Macmillan’s demand to Amazon to switch to an agency relationship, and to which Amazon quickly caved, I began wondering who are the winners and whether there are any losers. Contrary to popular perceptions, I think ebookers are the winners.

There was, of course, an instigator to this mess. That award goes to Steve Jobs and Apple. Seeing an opportunity to give Amazon a black eye, returning the favor from the music days, Apple grabbed it, offering publishers the “agency” model. Although Macmillan and cohorts portray this as a battle for the soul of publishing, it really is a game of comeuppance between Apple and Amazon. But in doing so, I think Jobs, unwittingly, gave power to ebookers for the first time — a power that may ultimately haunt him and Apple, at least if they are serious about becoming a major player in the ebook-selling world.

I know that seems counterintuitive, but let’s look at the situation carefully. Before the agency model publishers were insulated from consumers by interveners, the wholesale distributors like Ingram and the retailers like Amazon. In one fell swoop, that protection, those insulating layers, were swept away, creating a direct link between publishers and ebookers. Now when ebookers squeeze, publishers will squeak.

When the intervening layers existed, consumer complaints about quality and price were directed at the bookseller, who could do nothing about the former and little about the latter. The idea of an ebook being unreturnable for any reason was tenable because the seller with whom the ebooker had a direct connection had no way to warrant anything to the ebooker. Retailers were insulated other than hearing low-key griping because there was nothing they could do; publishers were insulated because their “customers” were the retailers, not the ebookers.

This has now been turned topsy-turvy. Now it is the publisher who is directly warranting (even though impliedly rather than directly in so many words) to the ebooker that the product is reasonably fit for the purpose for which it is intended — not that the story is one that the ebooker will enjoy, but that there are minimal numbers of errors and that the ebook is readable and properly formatted. There are now implied warranties of merchantability and of fitness for use that go directly from the publisher to the ebooker, warranties that didn’t exist before because there was no direct connection between publisher and ebooker.

It won’t be long before a sharp lawyer sees the class action possibilities and starts circling. And even if this doesn’t become a matter of litigation between ebookers and publishers, raise enough noise on the viral Internet about how poorly edited or formatted a particular book is and you will see the author and the author/agent circling, because the publisher owes a duty to the author to produce a quality product.

Will this happen overnight? No. But it will happen because of the viral nature of the Internet. No publisher can afford to defend against the deadly combination of poor quality and unreasonably high price, when the combination spreads across a publisher’s line. Poor quality and high pricing seem to be more the rule than the exception in ebooks; it is easy to defend an exception but not rules — just ask Toyota.

Publishers defend high price by pointing out the extraordinary quality of the book; but when one is lacking the other has to give. Publisher margins are thin to begin with; imagine how much thinner they will be when the publisher has to start answering directly to ebookers about pricing and quality disequilibrium. Returns will become acceptable, although some mechanism will have to be worked out for it to occur. After all, the idea of a return is that the buyer gives up all possession of the returned item, something that is not so easily done with a digital file.

eBookers are probably less unified about pricing than they are about quality. I am more elastic about pricing than about quality. I am not opposed to paying a price higher than $14.99 for a high-quality ebook that I want, although I am unwilling to pay $5.99 for a poor quality ebook regardless of my interest in it. I believe that is true of most ebookers. There will always be a group who cannot be satisfied, but most ebookers are more middle-of-the-road — that is, more elastic about pricing than about quality.

Of course, as long as ebooks are greatly burdened with restrictions and as long as there is no assurance that the ebook purchased today will be readable on tomorrow’s ebook device, pricing is not as elastic as publishers would like (and it doesn’t help that publishers constantly ignore ebookers and refuse to address in open dialogue ebooker complaints).

eBookers are the winners under the agency model. They now have a direct connection with the publisher and can insist that price and quality be in equilibrium. Under the previous model, booksellers like Amazon didn’t care whether a particular ebook sold or didn’t sell — they had no investment in it. Under the agency model, the publisher who does have a direct investment in whether an ebook sells or not is the decision maker and is directly connected to ebookers and subject to ebooker pressure. Publishers need look no further than Toyota for a wakeup call.

February 13, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 1

Below are the first Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. Remember that 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.  Permed to Death (Bad Hair Day Mystery 1) by Nancy J. Cohen. 

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: E-Reads. 
  • Problem: Poor editing
  • Samples of error(s): Character named Marla written as Maria or Mar1a, incorrect punctuation (e.g. question marks instead of quote marks), incorrect words given context
  • Frequency of error(s): Often
  • Overall Quality: Poor

2. Flatlander: The Collected Tales of Gil “The Arm” Hamilton by Larry Niven

  • Format: eReader ebook
  • Publisher: Del Rey
  • Problem: Poor OCR/Formatting
  • Samples of error(s): “of Ms skull” instead of “of his skull”; No Table of Contents; Misplaced and repeated chapters.
  • Frequency of error(s): Often
  • Reported: To Fictionwise in March and November 2009; To Del Rey in November 2009
  • Solved: Yes. Fixed sometime between November 2009 and February 2010.

3. Who Does What & Why in Book Publishing/Writers, Editors, and Money Men, by Clarkson Potter.

  • Format: Printed book
  • Publisher: Birch Lane Press, 1990. ISBN 1-55972-056-5
  • Problems: Very bad manuscript editing and layout production
  • Samples of error(s): Design and production: The title page is page 1 (i.e., there are no l.c. roman FM page numbers). Many loose lines. Paragraphs ending with the last word hyphenated on two lines (i.e., the last line contained only part of a word). A paragraph that ends with the verbal phrase “take up” broken onto two lines, i.e., the last line contains only two letters and a period. A page that begins with an ellipsis that ends a quotation from the preceding page.
  • Poor editing: “To try and thank the many people …” “To try”? Should be “To thank the many people…”; “The first was a large group of mostly seniors… together with a few graduate students … who were both attending Brown University.” Both is more readily construed to mean individuals, not groups. Cf. this mistake:”This book…centers on the authors, the editors and the publishers themselves. Together, these three people make…” Three “people”? Three groups. Many many errors of punctuation, such as putting a comma between two parts of a compound predicate; not closing a non-restrictive appositive or putting the comma in the wrong place; ending a sentence with a quote that ends with an ellipsis with only three periods (should be four). Repeating unusual words in close proximity, such as “ostensibly” and “ostensible” within three paragraphs. “…Thirty years ago, the ratio…was about fifty-fifty, whereas now it’s likely to be two or three to one.” Use one form of comparison or the other. Writing large numbers in words, not numerals, e.g., “…in excess of forty-five thousand new book titles…” (And then later he writes “… is approaching the multiple 100,000 mark”).
  • Frequency: Often on every page
  • Overall Quality: Very low

February 10, 2010

Ebook Buying Obstacles: A Poll (I)

With all that has happened in the ebook world recently, I thought it was time to see what readers think is the single most important obstacle to buying ebooks. I’m sure there are more obstacles than listed in the poll, but I want to focus for now on nonhardware issues.

Although several of the listed items may be an obstacle for you, you can choose only 1 and you can vote only 1 time. The poll will last for 1 week. Thanks for participating.

NOTE: After reading comments here and elsewhere, it is clear that for some ebookers the single most important obstacle to buying ebooks is geographical restrictions, not price, DRM, or any other item. I appreciate that and will address it in a future poll. But for now, I ask that you choose among the listed options and simply note in a comment that your choice would have been geographical restrictions had that been an option. Thank you.

February 9, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (IV) — Value

It seems like every post is about value. Low-quality books have low price values. We all agree on that. The question unanswered, however, is what value does a book have regardless of its form? That is one tough question!

What brought this to mind was an article in The Economist titled “The Lowdown on Teardowns” (January 23, 2010, pp. 62-63), which was subtitled “Ripping apart smart-phones reveals their true cost.” I tried to rip apart a book to find its true cost but didn’t have any success. Unlike the smartphone, a book is primarily intangibles.

But the article is intriguing. Not because I haven’t read similar items before, but because it hadn’t dawned on me before how differently consumers value smartphones and books and clamor for pricing closer to cost in books but not in smartphones.

The Economist gave this figure for the Apple iPhone 3GS 16GB smartphone: $170.07 for parts and $6.50 for assembly costs, a total of $176.57. But you can’t buy the phone for that price, not even for anything close to that price. The article goes on to say that there are other less tangible costs such as research, design, marketing, and patent fees, along with Apple’s profit. But to get the iPhone, you either have to pay a very high price or sign on for telco service at an inflated price.

Where is the hue and cry for a $250 unlocked iPhone that will work on any network? Where is the hue and cry for lower telco costs (after all, the network has already been built and paid for)? Isn’t Apple overcharging by hundreds of dollars for a device that will be outdated within a few years, that breaks easily, and can’t flush a toilet? What is it about Apple that legitimizes the huge spread between actual cost and sales price?

Compare this to the hue and cry over a $12.99 or $24.99 ebook. Supposedly the ebook will last forever, after all it is simply bits and bytes. The iPhone will be outdated in a few years. eBooks have DRM that restrict their use; the iPhone is locked into a specific network. The ebook has design, research, and marketing costs, just as the iPhone. Similarly, the ebook has manufacturing costs just as the iPhone does.

Yet, consumers willingly pay more than $2000 to own and use an iPhone but grumble about paying more than $9.99 for an ebook. The difference must be that authors have little value but Steve Jobs has great value, otherwise the market valuation is irrational.

The argument is that the iPhone can do so much more so it is worth more. Accepting that as true doesn’t validate the irrationality of being willing to pay the iPhone price but being unwilling to pay the ebook price. The disparity in price between an ebook and iPhone already recognizes the single-function utility of the ebook versus the multifunction utility of the iPhone. There is much more at work here.

There is more at work here than meets the eye. I think that ebooks are suffering from two problems. First, although ebookers tend to disparage print books, what they are really doing is comparing the ebook to the pbook in a more wistful way. The iPhone’s comparable was a less functional smartphone/cell phone; the pbook is as functional as the ebook — or is it? On a book-by-book basis it is, but an avid reader usually has multiple books at hand and ebooks are certainly more portable than pbooks. What ebookers are really saying is that there is no cachet in ebooks and thus no value. (Interestingly, consumers continue to spend the asked for price for the ebook reading device, taking their price rage out on the ebook itself, not on the device.) 

Second, publishers have assumed that readers will see value in whatever the publisher thrusts on the market. Apple, on the other hand, recognizes that consumers need to be led by the nose and so creates a sense of value that the consumer can grasp. Publishers continue to fail to either demonstrate an ebook’s value or convince consumers that the ebook is at least as valuable as the pbook.

The conundrum is this: Publishers undercut their value argument when they print a paperback version that sells for one-third the price of the hardcover. How can publishers win the value argument when they undercut themselves? Publishers need to address this value perception problem.

February 8, 2010

Hall of Shame: An Introduction

A major complaint readers have is the declining quality of books. As publishers of all stripes hope to maintain or increase pricing, especially with ebooks, there is the constant friction between pricing and quality — they are in disequilibrium.

To help both readers and publishers, I have decided to start the Hall of Shame, a place where readers and publishers can both come to see what books have quality problems and readers are complaining about. Let me say upfront that this is not a place to

  • review a book,
  • say that the author is a great or poor storyteller,
  • complain about availability, or
  • argue the merits of pricing by dissing a book because you do not like the price.

Rather, it is a place to point out where editorial and production quality has fallen down, creating a disequilibrium between price and quality.

The format will be as follows:

Book title, book author, edition (that is, print or ebook), publisher of the edition.
          Problem: e.g., poor editing, poor formatting, or both
          Samples of error(s): (if appropriate)
          Frequency of error(s): e.g., occasional, often, very often
         Overall Quality: e.g., very poor, poor, neutral, good, very
                                              good

Here is the first nominee for the Hall of Shame to illustrate the process.

Look to the Sky, Margaret D. Van Tine, ebook, Live Oak House
          Problem: poor editing
          Sample of error(s): (1) wrong word use, e.g.: “You don’t call Paw ‘Reverend,’…”; (2) improper and inconsistent use of double and single quote marks; (3) failure to capitalize sentence beginning, e.g.: “I was shouted down! on a vital issue.”; (4) misuse of punctuation marks, including random punctuation marks in the midst of sentences.
           Frequency of error(s): often
            Overall Quality: poor

By spreading the word about poor editing and formatting, readers will become knowledgable consumers and speak with their wallets, declining to purchase inferior quality books, thereby shaming publishers into fixing them. Should a publisher undertake to fix a book’s problems, that, too, will be noted, assuming the publisher lets us know.

To participate in the Hall of Shame, please send the requested information via e-mail to: hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com.

If you have suggestions regarding information that should be included (or excluded) let me know. Remember that this is a part-time blog so Hall of Shame entries won’t necessarily go up immediately.

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