An American Editor

May 16, 2012

And Then There Was One: Barnes & Noble’s Lack of Customer Service

For a long time I have advocated buying ebooks from Barnes & Noble. Not because B&N was the cheapest or had the very largest selection (although I admit that I consider the argument that Amazon has more titles than B&N to be a specious one; after all, does it truly matter that one has 1.3 million titles and the other has 1.1 million titles, as long as the store where I shop has the title I want to buy? How likely is it that I will read even 10% of the available titles — or, more importantly, even have an interest in 90% of the titles that make up those numbers?), but because I do not want to see a retail ebook world that is essentially Amazon only.

Alas, B&N seems to be doing its darndest to give the ebook world to Amazon on a silver platter.

In recent weeks, I was given a Nook Tablet as a gift. It is an excellent device and works smoothly with the B&N ebookstore. I think B&N’s hardware is excellent and even many of the critics rate the B&N devices as the better devices.

Between the Amazon and B&N ebookstores, I prefer the layout of the B&N store. Whenever I visit the Amazon store, I feel like I am being assaulted by an infomercial for some unneeded and undesired product that shows at 2 a.m. on local TV. I know that Amazoners praise the one-click buying system at Amazon, but I don’t find the two-click system at B&N overtaxing.

The bottom line is that I think B&N has a lot going for it, yet it is handing over to Amazon a little bit more of the ebook world daily. B&N has a significant flaw, one that it appears unwilling to address, or perhaps it is simply unable to address. That flaw is customer service.

As I reported in an earlier post (see The Tablet and Me: The Nook Tablet), the impetus for giving me the Nook Tablet was the deal combining a New York Times subscription with a discounted Tablet. Those of us who read the Times know that it is a morning newspaper — it is meant to be read at the start of the day, not at the end. When I had the print subscription, the paper was usually delivered by 4 a.m. and no later than 5:30 a.m., allowing me to read the Times at breakfast (I am an early riser). This delivery schedule was met day after day, year after year, the exceptions generally being when Mother Nature intervened and prevented timely delivery. If the Times was not delivered on time, a quick telephone call resulted in a credit to my account. No-hassle customer service.

What I get now from B&N is the electronic version — bits and bytes sent over the Internet — that is, when I get it. Some days it arrives by 5:30 a.m., but never earlier; some days it arrives by noon or later; some days, it doesn’t arrive in a timely way at all. So when it doesn’t arrive by 5:30 a.m., which is already late as far as I am concerned, what can I do? Turns out: nothing.

You can’t contact B&N customer service because it isn’t open; it has banker’s hours. When it does open and you do get someone, as helpful as the initial reps may want to be, they are hamstrung by B&N policies, at least as communicated by the customer service representatives.

On one occasion, when the Times hadn’t arrived by noon, I called and asked for a credit. The customer service rep tried to give me one but couldn’t, and so very politely passed me to a supervisor. At first, the supervisor told me I’d have to take the matter up with the Times. I replied that it was B&N that sold me the Times, it is B&N that I pay every month for the subscription, and it is B&N that delivers the Times to me, so why would I contact the Times?

The supervisor then told me that it was my problem, not B&N’s; that B&N doesn’t give refunds even when it doesn’t deliver the purchased item; that there would be no credit of any kind; and I “had to eat it.” I suggested that not only was this theft, but more importantly to B&N, it was giving paying customers another reason to abandon B&N for its arch-rival Amazon.

I understand that we are not talking a lot of money — about 40¢ — but it is the idea that B&N simply doesn’t care that matters (and I’d be less concerned if this happened once rather than several times over the course of a few weeks). After the incident, B&N sent me a satisfaction survey. I wrote of my dissatisfaction and even gave my telephone number so B&N could followup. I’m still waiting for that followup. In my business, if I get a hint of dissatisfaction, I’m on the telephone trying to do damage control. It doesn’t always work, but I try. B&N seems impervious to the idea of customer satisfaction.

(This disinterest in customer satisfaction goes back to the beginning of B&N’s latest foray into ebooks. You may remember my complaints about how B&N treated its club members when it introduced the original Nook. B&N refused to give members the 10% discount on the Nook, claiming that, even at $250 per Nook, it was losing money. Not long thereafter, the price dropped to $150 before going even lower. I had wanted to buy two Nooks and ended up buying none.)

Is Amazon better? I only know what I read and what I read is that had I had the same problem with Amazon, something would have been done. I also suspect that Amazon would deliver the newspaper on time. But it really begs the question to ask if Amazon’s customer service is better — it can’t be worse! And this is what B&N doesn’t seem to understand. Customers will put up with a lot if they think they are being fairly treated; if they think they are not being fairly treated, they will put up with little to nothing — and will let others know of their dissatisfaction.

The point is that it is these little slights to customers that build into major frustrations, and it is these little things that should be taken care of immediately. You are better off putting out the fire while it is still in the BBQ than waiting for it to ignite the forest — a lesson that B&N sorely needs to learn.

I am happy with my Nook Tablet; I really cannot say enough good things about the device to express my pleasure with it (I like it so much that it has been a month since I last used my Sony 950). I enjoy shopping at B&N’s ebookstore (although I dread what customer service I will get should I buy the wrong ebook or an ebook that is missing material). I especially like that I can automatically download ebook purchases to my Nook Tablet, as well as download those purchases to my desktop computer for storage (and that it is easy to strip the DRM from B&N ebooks so they can also be read on my Sony 505 or 950). All of this is to the positive.

Yet the problems with customer service, the limited hours of operation, and the attitude that the customer is to blame is irritating. I’m gradually getting closer to leaving B&N in the dust; each time I call customer service and am told I need to “deal with it,” and am displayed B&N’s indifference to customer satisfaction, I get closer to saying “Enough already!” What holds me back is my unwillingness to give the ebook market over to a single gorilla ebookstore. But what I want may be of no matter as B&N seems to be working diligently to turn another customer into an ex-customer.

Ultimately, whether B&N survives the ebook wars will rest on its customer service. So far, it is losing.

May 9, 2012

Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book — e or p — that I have bought or read that doesn’t have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no “penalty” for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor’s suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I’ve discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity — at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I’ve suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can’t individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author’s responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn’t issue a “seal of good editing” to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you’re for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, “How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?” The answer is another question: What does the editor “pay” to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

April 25, 2012

Are eBook Authors Unwittingly Losing Sales?

In a recent article at his blog eBookAnoid, another blog that I regularly read, Tony Cole asked this question: “Do you remember the name of the ebook you have just finished reading?” Although I have not written about this topic before, I have often thought about how I rarely remember either the author or the book title of the ebook I am currently reading or have just finished.

My experience is that I can tell you the storyline of the ebook I am reading, and if it is particularly well-written, I can name and describe many of the characters. Some good examples are The Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson and many of Vicki Tyley’s mysteries (see, e.g., On Books: Murder Down Under). Long-time readers of my blog know that I cannot say enough good things about the books written by Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley, and L.J. Sellers (see, e.g., On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows). These are three authors whose names and books I can still recall, even though, for example, it has been probably 2 years since I last read anything by Parkinson.

Yet since reading their ebooks, I have read hundreds of other ebooks. Out of those hundreds, I can recall the names of a handful of additional authors, but all the others, no matter that I enjoyed their work, I cannot recall. I could look them up and have my memory triggered, but that is not nearly as valuable as recall. The ability to recall means the ability to talk about.

I asked my wife if she remembers, and her answer mimicked mine. I then asked some other ebookers I know the same question, and got the same answer from them. It is not that they never remember; it is that 95% of the time, they do not remember.

When I read a pbook, I have to physically pick it up. It is usually in closed form with a bookmark indicating where I left off the day before. When I pick it up to continue reading, I can easily see the book’s title and author, which acts as a reminder of what I am reading. In addition, pbook authors and publishers learned decades ago — if not centuries ago — about the value of constantly reminding the reader of the author’s name and the book title, and so invented the running head (or foot), the place on every page of the pbook that information about what I am currently reading can be found.

In contrast, ebook authors and publishers tend to view the ebook as a continuous flow document and so disdain the use of running heads. True, there are some ebookers who also complain when an ebook has wide margins, blank lines between paragraphs, running heads, nonjustified text, indented paragraphs, and anything else that might make it easier for the reader to read the story. Because someone else (Tony Cole) openly asked the question, I realized that I am not alone in not remembering book titles and author names. That made me realize that ebook authors have missed an important lesson to be learned from pbooks (and marketing in general): You must remind the reader of what is being read and who wrote it constantly. That reminder, especially if the reader likes the ebook, will induce the reader to speak about the ebook and look for other ebooks by the same author.

I am aware that ebooks are not intended to mimic pbooks; if we wanted a duplicate of the pbook, the solution would be PDF. But that doesn’t mean that when creating the ebook, things that enhance the readability of the ebook and that act as good marketing should be ignored just because they are in pbooks. Rather, authors and publishers should be looking at pbooks, which have a long history of success and still constitute 80% of all book sales, to discover what important design elements should be adopted for the ebook. To my way of thinking, the most important element is the running head, which will constantly remind the reader what is being read and who wrote it.

It strikes me that the one thing any author wants is not to be anonymous. An author wants readers to remember their name and look for their books. After all, is not getting one’s work read the purpose of writing and distributing? Yet ebook authors fail to do the one simple thing that would reinforce their “brand” (i.e., their name) to their audience — they fail to include (or insist that they be included) running heads in their ebooks.

Okay, as I noted before, some ebookers will complain (although I suspect that the vast majority would not). But so what. To complain about your book means they remember it and they are speaking about it. Few people would refuse to buy an ebook because it has running heads; fewer people would likely give much weight to a complaint that had nothing to do with the story or the writing as opposed to because it has a running head.

Authors need to sell themselves constantly. They need to do those things that make people remember them. Most authors are not going to write that ebook that everyone praises for clarity, style, craftsmanship, and the like; rather, they are more likely to write what is a good read that numerous readers can enjoy — think of it as the difference between To Kill a Mockingbird and The DaVinci Code. In the case of the former, the author and book are remembered because of the craftsmanship; in the case of the latter, the book and author are remembered because the book was a popular read even if not particularly memorable.

Adding a running head that repeats the book title and author name is an easy and proven method for getting readers to remember what they are reading and who wrote it. It is good marketing. I suspect that authors are losing sales because readers do not remember their name or the ebook title. This one little step could make remembering happen.

April 23, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks II

As I noted in the first part of this article (see The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I), the settlement proposed by the DOJ raises a lot of issues but doesn’t attack the central premise that agency pricing is okay.

I mentioned in part I that publishers could raise the list/wholesale prices of not-yet-published ebooks. But there is another option that could prove to be even more effective: Publishers are not obligated to give ebooksellers a 50% or higher discount as the wholesale price. Publishers could limit the wholesale discount to 30%, which would reflect the current 70-30 split that comes from agency pricing.

And there is nothing preventing publishers from limiting the format that an ebook can be sold in.

The point is, publishers do not have to think of themselves as helpless. I expect publishers will look at the situation as if they are helpless. They aren’t, but they need to be creative, something they are not known for. As the current debacle demonstrates, publishers are being led, they are not leading.

Let us not forget that the settlement proposed by the DOJ effectively separates book sales into two distinct markets: pbooks and ebooks. This could be important because one of the reasons the publishers gave for agency pricing is that they want to keep the brick and mortar stores alive. (It is worth noting that recent data show that even with the growth of ebooks, pbooks sales still account for 80% of all book sales.)

Well, the b&m stores rely on pbook sales, not ebook sales. Even Barnes & Noble relies on pbook sales. The only major bookseller of pbooks that doesn’t have b&m storefronts is Amazon. If publishers want to help ensure that the b&m stores continue to be competitors to Amazon, the simple way to do so is to not only insist that every bookseller get the same wholesale discount (there is no law that requires volume discounting) but then to supplement the b&m stores with higher co-op payments for displays, which would enable them to have additional funds for discounting to compete pricewise with Amazon.

The law requires that similar parties be treated similarly. So if Amazon wanted co-op money, it would have to open b&m stores. In other words, publishers could help level the playing field without straying from the requirements of the DOJ settlement.

It has been stated on numerous blogs and forums that the key to fighting Amazon is to do away with DRM. Without DRM, people would navigate to the ebookseller with the best pricing and service. I do not think that is true in the absence of devices that can handle different formats. Most Kindle owners will continue to shop at Amazon because Kindles can’t handle ePub in the absence of conversion and side loading. Similarly, Nooks can’t handle Amazon’s proprietary format without conversion and side loading. The question isn’t whether converting and side loading are hard to do — they aren’t — but whether most ebookers would do so to save a dollar or two. I think not.

What Kindlers and Nookers always cite in defense of buying from Amazon or B&N, respectively, is the ease of buying and then seeing their purchase appear on their device effortlessly. Right now they could buy a lot of the indie books that they buy at Smashwords in the DRM-free format of their choice. But they don’t because then they would have to side load the ebooks; they aren’t automatically loaded onto their device. Why would habits change?

Ultimately, the real keys to ensuring competition remains are a single, uniform format that is device agnostic (and if DRM must be, then the DRM also be uniform) and agency pricing.

I can hear the uproar as I write about agency pricing, but consider that many of the electronic items we buy are either agency priced or have the same effect through resale price maintenance agreements. Every ad I see for an Apple iPad gives the same price. Every ad I see for a Kindle Touch lists the same price. Yet no one complains that there is no price competition for these items (where is the DOJ’s proconsumer department in these cases?); the complaints are all directed at ebooks.

Of course, the answer is that Kindles don’t compete with Kindles, they compete with Nooks and each vendor independently decided to set the prices. But it is the blind person who fails to see that there is really no difference in effect for the consumer and the purpose of the antitrust laws, ultimately, is to protect competition for the benefit of consumers. Whereas the DOJ recognizes that the Kindle and the Nook are not the same, it insists that the Stephen King and the Dean Koontz novels are the same, at least in book form.

And if the DOJ were really focusing on the effect on the consumer, it would take a look at the various formats and DRM schemes that lock most consumers into a particular eco system. How much more anticompetitive can one be than to capture an audience and make it difficult for them to stray elsewhere?

Here is another question: Where are the authors in this dogfight? The Author’s Guild has come out against the DOJ settlement, but where are the indie authors? Based on comments I read elsewhere, most indie authors are pleased by the settlement because it will make Amazon even stronger and the majority of their sales are at Amazon.

In the short-term view, the stronger Amazon is, the better it is for the indie author. But is that true for the long-term? I can only speculate, but based on Amazon’s attempting to squeeze publishers for more money, I think it is fair to expect that eventually it will turn to squeezing indie authors. The more dependant an indie author is on Amazon, the less the indie author can refuse whatever terms Amazon wishes to impose. And it must be remembered that Amazon owes its obligations to itself and its shareholders, not to its suppliers. Amazon is the Walmart of ebooks.

There is also one other potential negative effect to the settlement. If Amazon succeeds in establishing the $9.99 price point, indie authors who have not yet found a large audience for their books will be squeezed into even lower pricing than currently. More of their ebooks will be priced at 99¢ and free because the reading public will not see them as being worth more when one can by the well-established and well-known author for $9.99 or less.

How this will all turn out is of great interest to me. I am pleased that Macmillan and Penguin have the moxie to fight the DOJ settlement, as I do not think the settlement is in anyone’s best interest over the long-term. It may be of benefit over the short-term, but somewhere along the continuum, in the not-so-distant future, publishers, authors, and consumers will face a different reality.

What do you think?

April 20, 2012

Worth Noting: One Bookseller’s View of Amazon as a Soul Sucker

Thanks to Nate Hoffelder’s blog The Digital Reader (one of my favorite blogs), I came across Matt Blind’s article at The Rocket Bomber blog, “Amazon is a soul sucking leech on the book business.” This is one bookseller’s perspective on the value of the physical bookstore and the problems of competing against Amazon. It is worth reading.

April 18, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I

As most of you already know, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Apple and 5 of the Big 6 publishers alleging collusion in the establishment of agency pricy pricing (see “Justice Dept. Sues Apple and Publishers Over E-Book Pricing; 3 Publishers Settle”). In several of the forums I participate in, ebookers are celebrating the expected lower ebook prices.

Yet, there are several things worth thinking about and noting. First, Random House, one of the Big 6 publishers, and Smashwords, the leading indie author distributor, both of which have agency pricing, are not named defendants in the DOJ lawsuit. That signals to me that the problem is not with agency pricing, but with the collusion aspects.

Second, the 3 publishers that settled with the DOJ, which settlement, it is worth noting, is not effective until approved by a court, are restricted from instituting agency pricing for 2 years, after which they can reassert agency pricing as long as they don’t agree over dinner to do so. This, too, indicates to me that agency pricing is not contrary to the law or necessarily thought to be anticonsumer by the DOJ.

The third notable matter is that the publisher with the greatest moxie, the one that first stood up to Amazon, Macmillan, is not settling with the DOJ and intends to fight, as do Penguin and Apple. That means that the DOJ case is not so strong that it cannot fail once tested. And should it fail, so will the settlement agreements with the 3 settlers fail. It appears that in Macmillan’s case, CEO John Sargent is alleged to have attended only 1 meeting with his fellow CEOs, which means that the DOJ will have to demonstrate that it was at that meeting that the collusion occurred, not an easy task unless the settlers will testify that that is when the collusion came to fruition and that Sargent was present when the decision was made. Hachette, one of the settlers, claims there was no collusion, so it makes me wonder how the DOJ will sustain its burden of proof. Allegations are one thing, proof is another. Simply that there was an opportunity to collude doesn’t prove there was collusion.

There are other problems with the lawsuit. It has been too many years since I last practiced antitrust law (last time was nearly 30 years ago), so I’m not current on the state of the law and I admit that I’m not sure exactly what the DOJ must prove to prevail, but it is clear to me that the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t look favorably on these lawsuits. It was a Republican court that upheld resale price maintenance agreements, which has the same effect — setting a floor price below which goods cannot be sold — as the agency pricing system.

An interesting legal question, which may or may not be relevant to the DOJ lawsuit, is this: What constitutes the market? If all ebooks constitute the market, then ebooks are interchangeable commodities, an idea that is resisted by publishers and authors and even by many consumers. If the market is an individual title because you cannot substitute Dean Koontz for Stephen King, then wouldn’t the DOJ have to prove collusion among publishers to set the price for Stephen King, not collusion to set the mechanism for pricing of all ebooks? Of course, there are numerous variables to the market scenario, but they make for a fascinating legal chess game.

But all of this aside, the bottom line is that agency pricing is not illegal even in the eyes of the DOJ. Which leaves a lot of questions. For example, will Random House abandon agency pricing or continue with it? What about Smashwords? (Smashwords has already announced it will retain agency pricing and oppose the settlement agreement during the comment period.)

A more important question is this: Several of the Big 6 have — so far — refused to sign renewal contracts with Amazon because of demands made by Amazon. In the absence of agency pricing, will some or all of the Big 6 refuse to renew agreements with Amazon? Would such a refusal affect both pbooks and ebooks or just ebooks? If they do not renew the agreement, what can Amazon do about it?

The settlement agreement says that publishers cannot prevent a retailer from discounting the publishers ebooks except that it can require the retailer to make a profit across the publisher’s line. I find that an interesting proviso. Consider how secretive Amazon has been about how many ebooks it really has been selling. Amazon has only been forthcoming with broad numbers and in a few cases announcing that an author has joined the millions club. Will Amazon, who is not a party to the proceedings, voluntarily share sales information? I doubt it.

Yet the sharing of that information is necessary to make the exception meaningful. If the wholesale price, that is, the price the ebooksellers have to pay the publisher, of the new James Patterson ebook novel is $13 and Amazon sells it for $10 and sells 1 million ebook copies for a $3 million loss, somehow Amazon must sell enough other books in that publisher’s line to overcome the loss. How is that going to work?

Will Amazon offer the first 10,000 units of Patterson’s ebook for $10, the next 10,000 units for $16, the next 10,000 units for $13, and so on? Customers will be thrilled. Especially if they can buy the same ebook someplace else for $13 when Amazon wants $16.

Another problem with the settlement is that it does not — and cannot — establish a wholesale price for not-yet-published books. The DOJ could say that current agency-priced ebo0ks’ wholesale price is 70% of the current agency price, because that is what the publisher has been willing to accept. But what about future ebooks? The DOJ is not in a position to dictate individual pricing, so there is no reason why publishers cannot raise list prices to $30 and set wholesale prices at $15. The settlement speaks to discounting, not to setting of wholesale price.

There is more to say, but it needs to be said in another installment of this article, so this will be continued in my next post.

April 17, 2012

Worth Noting: One Small Publisher Says Enough!

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is worth noting: “Daring to Cut Off Amazon.” It seems that Amazon is squeezing where it can. At least this one small publisher, who only has pbooks, offering none of its titles as ebooks, is taking a stand. This article, combined with the recent expose in the Seattle Times about Amazon’s tactics, and the revelations regarding the squeeze on the Independent Publishers Group, make me think that the Justice Department has its head in the sand.

Also worth reading in the Times is David Carr’s article, “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis.” At least one other person, aside from me, thinks the Department of Justice is trying to slay the wrong dragon.

I know that the popular view is that consumers will have lower prices, but (a) that is not assured once Amazon gains monopolistic power and (b) it ignores the loss of jobs to fellow Americans, jobs that will be either eliminated or foreign-sourced, depriving local communities of revenues and increasing the costs to those who are employed.

I’ve noted that it is easy to be for low prices at all costs as long as one is still employed, but that low prices at all costs mantra rapidly fades when one’s job is lost to a third-world country because labor costs are so much less.

Anyway, I highly recommend both articles to you.

April 16, 2012

eBooks vs. pBooks: A Lesson in Value

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

This past weekend, my son and I traveled to New York City for the annual Antiquarian Book Fair sponsored (at least in part) by The New York Review of Books, which is the one magazine about books that I highly recommend. As a subscriber to the Review, I was given a complimentary pass and because my wife advertises her art (see her website for beautiful paintings of the Hudson River Valley and portraiture) in the Review, she was able to get a second complimentary pass.

I mention the complimentary passes because the cost of admission to the Fair should have given me a clue as to what to expect. A daily pass cost $20 per person, so I should have known this wasn’t like going to the local used bookstore. In addition, I am familiar with several of the vendors and know that they sell truly rare manuscripts. But none of the clues clicked and we went to the Fair.

The Fair demonstrated to me why pbooks are so much more valuable than ebooks. I’m not talking about convenience or that pbooks lack the interactive capabilities of some ebooks. I’m talking strictly money value.

eBookers know — or should know — that when they buy an ebook, they are buying a license; they are not buying the book in the sense that they buy a pbook. The ebook is intangible, a collection of bytes that are infinitely duplicable, which means there is no such thing as ebook scarcity. In contrast, there are limits to the number of pbooks produced. Even if, as in the case of the Harry Potter books, hundreds of millions of pbooks are produced, there is still a finite number that bear the first edition-first printing seal of scarcity.

I am a collector of first edition pbooks. As much as I prefer to read a book on my ereader — the book is easier to hold; when I finish I can easily move on the next; I can adjust the type size for easier reading; etc. — I still get enormous satisfaction out of being able to let my eyes scan across my library shelves and pause on a book that reminds me of the pleasure I had reading the book. There is an aesthetic beauty to the physical book that ebooks cannot duplicate. Scanning across my ebook library is a very sterile process.

As a collector, I am always looking for a “bargain.” I initially thought that although there would be some expensive items for sale at the Fair, there would books that interest me and that would fit in my collection that I could afford. One of my favorite authors to collect is Sinclair Lewis, an American author from the early to mid 20th century, best known for his books Elmer Gantry, Main Street, and Babbitt. I have for years desired to add a fine copy of Main Street to my collection and have expected to pay several thousand dollars for such a prize.

This was my first shock at the Fair. Staring back at me from a display case was a wonderful copy of Main Street with a wonderfully preserved dust jacket, something that is not often seen. So I asked the price: $165,000. I assure you, $165,000 is not a typographical error. Needless to say, I didn’t buy. Nor did I buy several of the outstandingly gorgeous “art” books that depicted drawings of birds and plants and that cost between $225,000 and $300,000. Alas, my budget was significantly more modest.

But that made me take a closer look at price expectations for other more recent books that were for sale. Before going down that path, however, let me say that if you ever want to see — and touch — books that have price tags in the $200,000 and $300,000 price range, this is the Fair to attend. Dealers came from Europe and the United States and had a vast array of beautiful manuscripts — the books that make editors so pleased to be editors — for sale in prices that easily climbed from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But back to the more recent popular books that were for sale. Familiar with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy? The books are only a few years old in hardcover, with the first book originally published in 2008. They were for sale — first edition, first printing — for $3,000. John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 book A Confederacy of Dunces was available for $8,000. And the list can go on.

The point is that we often talk about the used book market being available for pbooks but not for ebooks, but the used book market is simply a way to recoup some of the purchase price; it isn’t the same as the collector’s market. I never thought that a good argument for a lower ebook price was that unlike pbooks, I can’t resell ebooks on the used ebook market. But after visiting the Antiquarian Book Fair, I realized that the collector’s market is a market that should not be ignored in the argument about value.

The bottom line is that an ebook is less valuable than a pbook. It is less valuable because it cannot be collected; it cannot provide the visual gratification that a physical library, like a piece of art, can; it is licensed rather than owned; and, most importantly, it has no ability to increase in value over time if properly cared for and curated because it has no rarity. The ebook versions of the Hunger Games Trilogy will never have an intrinsic collectible value of $50, let alone of $3,000. There will never be a scarcity of the ebooks.

I suppose one counter to this argument would be that a limited electronic edition could be created. I’m not sure what could be included that would make such an edition more valuable than a standard ebook or make it collectible, but one thing is for certain: even a limited edition could not become scarce because of the ease of duplicating bytes. It is so much more difficult, if not near impossible, to duplicate a first edition-first printing of a pbook. Ink and paper, for example can be analyzed and dated; pretty hard to do with bytes.

For the book lover, the person who not only has an insatiable appetite for reading but also wants to collect beauty and rarity, the pbook garners all of the value. The ebook is a loser in this battle. I expect that the collectible market will sustain pbooks for decades to come, especially as the number of book collectors is growing, not decreasing.

Do you agree?

March 28, 2012

eBooks: Is it the Editor in Me?

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who has looked at my On Today’s Bookshelf posts will see that I buy a lot of ebooks. And as I noted in the last On Today’s Bookshelf, my to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing, now numbering more than 500.

But that doesn’t mean I am not reading ebooks; rather, it means that even though I am reading ebooks as fast as I can, I am replenishing my stock faster than I can read. This would concern me if, in fact, I was reading every word of every ebook; but I’m not.

One of the “talents” I have developed over my 28+ years of professional editing is the ability to tell within a few sentences whether a manuscript is going to be particularly troublesome; whether the author has done a basically good job in writing and preparing the manuscript or is a terrible writer, prone to amateurish mistakes, and uncaring about how the manuscript is presented.

This “talent” doesn’t seem to be laid aside when I read an ebook for pleasure, which means that it doesn’t take many pages to decide whether to keep reading or hit the delete button, and much too often, I hit the delete button.

First, I need to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the idea that the more a book costs, the better it will be. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

From ebook purchases I have made, it is clear that price is not an indicator of quality, especially not of editorial quality, as we have discussed on An American Editor any number of times.

Yet I have also discovered in discussions with other ebookers that quality has no universal meaning. eBooks that I have deleted after a dozen pages because of runon sentences, homonym miscues, and other annoying editorial matters, ebookers without the editorial eye have praised. It is not that they didn’t notice many of the same errors; they did. Rather, it is that they were more tolerant of the errors; they were able to look beyond the editorial problems to the story itself.

So this makes me wonder if I am not missing out some real gems — not necessarily literary masterpieces, just good storytelling — because of the editor in me. It also makes me wonder whether we will eventually devolve into two reading publics: one that cares greatly about the editorial quality of a ebook and so is unwilling to spend much money to buy an ebook and a second that cares little about the mistaking of hear for here and is focused on the story itself and thus willing to pay a higher price for a book as long as the story is interesting.

I also wonder whether American English is changing so rapidly that what editors today would declare error will tomorrow be declared acceptable or correct.

In any event, the problem for me is how to control my editing tendencies so that I can relax and enjoy the underlying story. How do I put aside my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?

The problem was less acute before ebooks. Before ebooks, traditional publishers took some pride in the quality of what they released, although the pride seemed to be diminishing in recent years. But once ebooks made the reading market open to all, the scramble publish pushed aside the need to ensure editorial quality. Part of this is the economics of ebooks; it is hard to justify spending $2000 on an editor for a book that will be sold for 99¢ or less.

Even recognizing the financial considerations, I struggle to read a book that makes me pause every few sentences to say: “The author meant whom not who” or “The author meant your, not you’re.” My neighbor says I’m too fussy. Am I really? Is it too much to ask that at least the basics of grammar and spelling be applied by an author?

What should an ebooker expect from an author, regardless of whether the author gives the book away for free or charges $9.99? Do not most readers have certain basic expectations? Or has the Age of Twitter hardened readers to accept anything goes?

I suspect that I will never be able to set aside my editorial hat when reading a book and so my delete button will continue to get a workout. Are you able to set aside your editorial hat?

March 5, 2012

Priming the Pump: Amazon’s Prime Program

A small brief in a recent Bloomberg’s Businessweek, titled “Amazon Is Said to Have Fewer Prime Subscribers Than Estimated,” caught my eye. The brief in the print magazine was expanded in the online version (which is linked above).

The reason it interests me is, of course, Amazon’s exclusivity program that has enticed 100,000+ books to its program, as well as for the question of how long can Amazon continue to ignore its obligations to shareholders and continue to deliberately lose money on parts of its business. According to the article, “Even with less adoption than expected, the Price promotion has weighed on Amazon’s shipping costs. Those expenses jumped 55 percent to $4 billion last year, dwarfing the $1.55 billion Amazon gets in shipping fees from customers.” In a company Amazon’s size, if the figures were millions of dollars, I think everyone would sit back and yawn. But billions of dollars raises eyebrows. A $2.45 billion loss on shipping alone is not insignificant.

The number of Prime members raises another issue. What did authors believe when signing up for the exclusive program? There is a huge difference between 3 to 5 million actual Prime members and the expected (by analysts) 10 million members.

For me, the real problem with Amazon, aside from its ongoing attempts to monopolize the publishing industry, is the secrecy of its numbers and how shareholders and consumers alike are willing to give Amazon a pass on disclosure of true, accurate numbers, a pass that they are unwilling to extend to other public corporations.

I also wonder what will happen when Amazon decides that it is time to stop losing money and that each area of its business must at least break even. What will happen to the authors who bought into its program? What will happen to the consumers who are part of the ecosystem?

Can we can the “but you can strip the DRM from Amazon’s ebooks and convert them to other formats” response. Yes, you can do that, but most people who bought into the Amazon eco system cannot or will not. It really isn’t a viable response. You can also probably write an app for the iPad; I can’t, have no interest in learning to do so, and won’t. Just because a small percentage of users won’t be and aren’t affected by the closed eco system, doesn’t make it less of a closed eco system.

Although authors are looking at Amazon through a different set of eyeglasses than the consumer, doesn’t mean they don’t have something to worry about with the closed eco system, especially if Amazon follows up, as it may well have to in order to balance its books, by saying to indie authors either give us long-term exclusivity at a price we set or your books can no longer be sold on Amazon. Right now Amazon can’t say that to the big traditional publishers, but it is sure working toward being able to do so.

This is why numbers, real numbers, are so important. How can an author decide what is best for the author long-term in the absence of hard numbers. This problem also exists with Barnes & Noble. In the absence of knowing hard numbers, we are left with puffery. Amazon says it has sold millions upon millions of Kindles, and we all simply swallow it. It smacks of the Ponzi scheme where investors are asked to believe that investing will bring 100% returns (the Bernie Madoff dream).

It may well be true that Amazon has sold 20 million Kindles and that every Kindle owner buys (not freebies) at least 5 ebooks every year; however, it may also be true that Amazon has sold only 10 million Kindles and that 9 of 10 Kindle owners only download free ebooks, never actually buying a single ebook.

But it is important for authors to know how Amazon stacks up against B&N, Kobo, and Sony, for example, in sales of hardware and ebooks. Maybe Amazon outsells its competitors 7:1 on both fronts; maybe combined the competitors outsell Amazon 3:1 on both fronts. If the former, then Amazon exclusivity looks like a smarter business decision; if the latter, it doesn’t.

Amazon has been coy about real numbers. Why? The answer usually given is that it doesn’t want to alert its competitors to its real sales numbers. I fail to see the logic in this. If I knew that Amazon was outselling its competitors by 10:1, as a consumer, I would be more inclined to buy the Kindle because it is more likely to be around 10 years from now. Disclosing the real numbers cannot give competitors any competitive advantage but instead might serve to induce more sales.

No, there is some other reason why real numbers are not on the table, and I think the Businessweek brief is an indication why: Amazon isn’t doing as well as it says or leads investors and consumers to believe. I think if the real numbers were known, Amazon’s stock would drop and authors would be less willing to be Amazon exclusive.

What amazes me most is that people are willing to make decisions based on speculation when it comes to Amazon, but in other instances demand to know the real numbers. As I said earlier, it reminds me of a Ponzi scheme — the desire to believe what we want to believe and hear. No one seems to worry that the ebook/Kindle portion of Amazon may be a house of cards.

The one thing that is certain, is that investors are starting to grumble and eventually Amazon will have to divulge the information, if for no other reason than to satisfy investor grumbling. When it does, those of us who have swallowed Amazon’s pronouncements wholeheartedly had best be prepared to absorb the news. It may well turn out that Amazon’s performance is much better than what is speculated, but it may also be that it is much worse. In the meantime, I wonder how long Amazon will continue to absorb all of the losses being reported before making demands on consumers. Time will tell.

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