An American Editor

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

June 11, 2012

The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A recent story on Ars Technica, which was picked up by many blogs, demonstrates that cutting corners isn’t always the smartest move. The story, “Nook version of War and Peace turns the word ‘kindled’ into ‘Nookd’,” is an editorial classic.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of indiscriminate Find & Replace, under the assumption that professional editors, authors, and publishers innately understood that indiscriminate use of Find & Replace can lead to all kinds of disasters. The Nookd article indicates that perhaps I was wrong.

Our reliance on computers and macros makes us vulnerable to silly mistakes. Computers and macros have greatly reduced the number of errors, and the costs associated with them, that occur in printed materials — when properly applied by professional editors. Unfortunately, the bean-counter quest to squeeze as much savings as possible out of the editorial budget because what editors do is largely invisible to both the bean counter and the reader, can easily lead to the kind of disaster the befell War and Peace.

Unfortunately, the Nooking of War and Peace is representative of what happens when self-publishing authors forego hiring professional editors. Perhaps it isn’t the obvious disaster of changing of Kindle to Nook, but it is the using of you’re for your, which indicates a lack of quality and professionalism. I suppose one could argue that there is a difference in that “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern” is nonsensical and the vast majority of readers would stumble on Nookd, wondering what is meant, whereas substituting your for you’re is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it’s? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?

It is one thing to compose Jabberwocky, another to assume that jabberwockian grammar and language is the standard against which all writing is to be judged. And this is the result of the demise in our education system of the teaching of such fundamental things as spelling and grammar. Because spelling is no longer part of the testing that determines a school’s and a teacher’s passing or failing, it is bypassed to emphasize those things that are tested. The result is that we graduate students who lack these skills and who become teachers of the next generation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one neither knows nor understands.

Yet this is a free-market problem as well, if not primarily. In the rush to increase quarterly profits, rather than think long-term strategy, publishers are deemphasizing the skills that separate a poorly prepared book from a professionally prepared book. Professional editors are skilled in spelling and grammar and know the limitations of automation. It is not yet possible to automate detection of the misuse of your and you’re; human intervention is required and human decision making is required.

The pressure to reduce costs and pricing of a book exacts a penalty. If there is not enough margin, services have to be skipped. The services that are skipped tend to be those that are invisible, and editing is invisible until it glares, as in the Nooking of War and Peace. As this demonstrates, being cheap isn’t always the wisest course to follow.

Unfortunately, this error will become a hall of shame error that readers, editors, publishers, and authors will all point to, but which will not result in the alteration of current practices. Each publisher and author will take the stance that it can’t/won’t happen to their books, only to someone else’s books. The ultimate losers are readers and society. Readers because they are taught by example that what is wrong is acceptable so that no effort needs be made to do things correctly, and society because imprecision becomes acceptable and skills are downplayed and lost.

Additionally, as professional editors are financially squeezed, they, too, will make choices about what services they can provide for the reduced fee they are offered. Conversations with colleagues indicate that reduced fees have resulted in a reduction in what they can and will do as part of the editing process. Combined with tighter schedules, it appears that the high standards of editing of previous decades may not be standard in coming decades. The consequences of making cost the determining factor are only now beginning to be seen in the marketplace, but I think we will all rue the day costs became king. We are likely to see more Nookd books than fewer.

February 22, 2012

The Failure of the Gatekeepers

One of the arguments that many of us have made in support of traditional publishing has been the role that traditional publishers have played as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping means more than just making sure that a manuscript is literate; it includes making sure that it is original.

Increasingly, traditional publishers are failing at this aspect of gatekeeping. They are failing to detect the plagiarized book. A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Plagiarist’s Tale” by Lizzie Widdicombe, explores this problem. If you haven’t read the article, it is well worth reading.

In this case, the publisher failed to recognize that the entire book was made up of takings from numerous books. But not only did the publisher fail, so did numerous others in the chain, including the author’s agent. And in reading the author’s writing history, over the years many persons missed his plagiarizing, including the editors at the Paris Review.

If gatekeepers are failing at this fundamental task, what purpose are they serving that warrants anyone caring about their future survival? I understand missing a plagiarized paragraph here and there, but in the book that is the subject of the article, it appears as if hardly a single paragraph was original to the author.

For me, traditional publishers as gatekeepers served three primary purposes. First, they weeded out those works that really belonged in the slush pile and were not worthy of going further, even though they occasionally missed some gems. Second, they nourished writers who deserved being nourished thus enriching our culture. Third, they weeded out plagiarism. I don’t mean the one-paragraph-in-500-pages-of-manuscript kind; I mean the one-paragraph-on-each-page kind — the blatant plagiarism.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, the first role has pretty much disappeared. There are so many publishing house labels that it is nearly impossible to know whether the publisher is a giant or a mouse. Smart self-publishers are creating their own “publishing houses” to publish their books. The result is that there is no weeding of books in the marketplace because books rejected by an established traditional publisher are now published by a new “publishing house” — and few readers know that they are buying from the slush pile until they buy the book and start reading it, only to discover that the book should never have found its way out of the slush pile and into the retail book market.

The second function, that of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling (at least so they claim; it is hard to give too much credence to such cries when I read that a publisher had nearly a billion dollars in profit in 2011) — the competition has turned fierce. Reading is down as are traditional book sales. Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish nonblockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

That leaves the third function, the weeding out of plagiarists. Alas, publishers are failing in this role as well. I think there are many causes for this failure. The editors that traditional publishers hire are under the gun to publish books that make a profit and increase the publishing conglomerate’s bottom line. The accountants have taken over from the craftsman and the editor’s ability to keep a job and a steady paycheck is dependant on satisfying the accountants.

In the olden days of publishing, a book was rarely published before it was ready to be published. Publication dates were flexible; if an extra round of editing by a professional editor was needed, it was done. The consolidation of the publishing industry into the conglomerates changed that. Now publication dates are fixed in stone, regardless of whether a book is ready or not. The result is increasing numbers of errors that slip by and the inability to gatekeep for plagiarism.

Also in the olden days, editors were trained to recognize possible plagiarism. Perhaps more importantly, editors were widely read themselves and thus suspicious based on their own broad reading. A book editor, in the olden days, was not an entry-level position. One rose to it; it was a position of prestige. It attracted people like former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master writer Bennett Cerf. Today, the editor is closer to, if not, an entry-level position. The glamour of being an editor at a prestigious traditional publisher is gone — gone with the consolidation of the industry into a few international conglomerates whose first interest is the quarterly bottom line.

Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Many ebookers today would say traditional publishers serve no role at all and should follow their dinosaur ancestors into oblivion. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the time has come for the breakup of the conglomerate publisher and the return of the smaller, independent publishers, the ones who made publishing a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.

August 12, 2011

Worth Noting: A Report on Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services

In February 2011, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) published a report on overseas outsourcing of editorial work. The report is well worth reading and keeping handy. Unfortunately, the response to the Society’s questionnaire was small. From the report:

In 2010, the SfEP asked members to report their experiences of this type of editorial outsourcing. More than 40 replied, giving us perspectives from freelance project managers, proofreaders and in-house desk editors, as well as freelance copy-editors who have seen their supply of work dry up and their income dwindle. The relevant parts of their replies are quoted and commented on in this report.

The complete report can be found here: What Price Quality? Overseas Outsourcing of Editorial Services.

August 1, 2011

The Changing Face of Editing

At one time in my career as an editor my function was crystal clear: everyone understood and agreed on the role a copyeditor played in the publishing business. But as the years have passed and the traditional publishing industry has consolidated into six megacorporations whose decisions are made based on bean counting, what was once clearcut has become fogged.

(For an overview of the various editorial roles, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

This was brought to mind the other day when I was contacted by a client to copyedit a new medical book. The client’s inquiry included these points:

<Name> has recommended you for a new title, which requires copyediting, and we need someone who is a subject matter expert in physiology with a strong science background to copy edit this book, as some sections may need to be rewritten.

Language edit required: Yes (Many of contributors are not English speaker so will need copy edited pretty closely for language, especially for the chapters written by a non English speaker)

(Emphasis supplied.) The project was approximately 600 pages and needed to be completed within three weeks. The client estimated that the editing could be completed in 92 hours. The fee? The standard copyediting fee.

I declined the project for several reasons. Here is my written response:

I appreciate you and <name> thinking of us for this project, but I don’t think we fit your needs for three reasons. First, none of us are subject-matter experts in physiology. We are very experienced medical copyeditors, but that is not the same as having expertise in a particular subject area.

Second, you mention rewriting sections. That is the job of a developmental editor, not a copyeditor. Although we can do developmental editing, our fee is significantly higher for doing so, especially if English is not the native language of the original authors. Copyeditors work under the guise that the project has already been developmental edited and although they may change a sentence or two for tense or ease of reading, copyeditors do not rewrite paragraphs and sections.

Finally, if a project needs developmental work (again, especially if English is not the original authors’ native language), I think the schedule you propose is too tight for normal working hours. I’m not clear on how you came up with your estimate of 92 hours being needed to do the job, but that equates to approximately 6 pages an hour (using your stated number of pages as 549; we always reserve the right to verify the page count based on our agreement with <client>), which, in my experience over 27 years of medical editing, is much too high if rewriting is required (again, especially if English is not the original authors’ native language). Rewriting work under such circumstances more often than not works out to an editing rate of 2 to 3 pages an hour.

I didn’t bother emphasizing that the fee was inadequate for a developmental edit, which clearly was the level of editing expected. And it also needs to be remembered that in addition to doing the editorial work — grammar, spelling, syntax, etc. — the copyeditor also needs to code every element of the manuscript for typesetting, often by applying a template and tags.

This request is typical of the inquiries I am receiving (and have been receiving for quite some time). It is not enough for editors to be proficient in the tools of editing; editors are expected to rewrite and to have subject-matter expertise.

I have edited thousands of books over the course of my 27 years as an editor, but I don’t believe that turns me into a subject-matter expert. True I have greater familiarity on a broad level with the subject matter, but expertise is gotten by a combination of specialized training and practical experience, not just reading: Simply because I have edited hundreds of medical books does not qualify me to be a doctor.

The demand for greater expertise and for higher-level service is a result of bean counting. When I began my career, publishers had a budget line for developmental editing and a separate budget line for copyediting. It was expected by everyone in the publishing loop that a project would go to copyediting only after it had been developmentally edited. But in the press to reduce costs and increase profits, the segregation of the tasks has slowly disappeared and now everything that can be called editing is bunched together under the name copyediting. (Worth noting is that copyediting is a less costly budget line than developmental editing, thus the merger of developmental editing into copyediting rather than vice versa.)

This merger by publishers is also reflected in dissatisfaction expressed by authors over the editing that is done. Authors see the edited manuscript either as proof pages or as marked up copy (usually using Word’s track changes). The real problem is when authors first see the edited version in proof pages, without the benefit of seeing all the work that the editor did clearly defined. Authors tend to see every error that remains as a major error and vocally complain. They forget that the purpose of proof is to catch the errors that slipped past during copyediting or that may have been introduced during the copyediting and typesetting processes.

The balance is off-kilter. The expectations of authors and publishers soar as the various editorial roles are blended, yet the output of the editors cannot keep up with those expectations for numerous reasons, not least of which are insufficient time allocated by the client to do the tasks and inadequate compensation.

It isn’t clear to me what an editor can do in the face of these changes. Today, editors are caught between the increased demands of clients and the increased competition among editors for work. The one thing there is no shortage of is the number of people who call themselves editors; the number of “editors” rises daily, and as that number increases, there is a downward pressure applied to compensation and an upward pressure applied to the number of tasks expected to be performed by the editor — too many editors are competing for that shrinking pot of available work.

Little by little the face of editing is changing. Whether it is really for the better for anyone — author, publisher, or editor — is questionable. Editing is a hands-on task that requires sufficient time and expertise to do competently, let alone well, yet all parties are losing sight of this, as the growing requirements with reduced time allocations attest.

July 27, 2011

Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks

My to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing. Unfortunately for publishers, however, it keeps growing with free offerings from both publishers and self-publishers. I admit that a lot of the free self-published books should never have seen fingers on a keyboard, but I also have to admit that I am finding a lot of good reads among the free self-published books. Some are very high quality, many are just good reads.

But “just good reads” is more than enough. These are books that aren’t of the caliber that one would choose for a book club discussion, but they are decently written and they do hold my interest. And this is the problem for traditional publishers as well as for self-publishers who want to charge a price that is reminiscent of a traditional publisher’s pricing: the world of free ebooks is becoming very competitive with the rest of publishing in terms of quality.

I used to spend thousands of dollars a year on pbooks. These days it is the rare book that I pay anything for. Looking at my hardcover purchases, I find that this year I have spent about 30% of what I had spent last year during the same time frame — and if I project it out to the end of the year based on books I have preordered, I will end the year spending about 22% of what I spent last year. That is a huge drop, and it is all because of the free ebooks.

Some readers focus on the extent of garbage that is found among the free ebook offerings — and there is a lot of it to focus on. But think about how you buy books and how that has changed with buying primarily online. Then think about how that applies to “buying” free ebooks.

Before the days of ebooks, I would spend hours in my local Barnes & Noble searching for books that were well written on topics that I wanted to read. I’d find a few hardcovers that I would purchase. When I got the books home, I’d start reading. It often happened that what I thought was a well-written book based on the sample I had read while in the store was not so well written after all. I might “force” myself to read the book anyway because I had paid hard-earned money for it, but equally as often, I would simply put the book aside to try again another day — a day that didn’t come very often.

But free ebooks have relieved me of that pressure to read a not-well-written book because I invested in it. Yet with that relief, I still find many more decently written and interesting free ebooks to read than I can read in the time I have, thus my to-be-read pile keeps growing. Free ebooks have made it very easy for me to discard a book without feeling guilty about doing so. Free ebooks have created the guilt-free age of reading.

Because there are so many free ebooks and because a large enough number of them are decently written, I see no need to return to the bookstore to look for books and I see no reason why I should pay agency pricing for ebooks from traditional publishers. This is not to say that I do not buy nonfree ebooks — I do. When I come across an author whose free ebook captures me, I’ll buy the author’s other ebooks — but free comes first.

What does this mean for the traditional publishing model that expects to be able to charge a relatively high price for an ebook? Ultimately, it means disaster. Right now traditional publishers aren’t directly competing with self-publishers; the quality gap remains Grand Canyonesque. But that gap is closing with greater speed than traditional publishers realize. Eventually, traditional publishers will need to more directly compete with self-publishers. This is not so difficult to do when the traditional publisher prices an ebook at $8 and the self-publisher prices an ebook at $7. But it becomes increasingly difficult when there is a yawning gap between the price the traditional publisher charges and the price the similar-quality self-publisher charges, especially if the self-publisher’s price is free. As Smashwords’ twice-yearly sales demonstrate, free and discounts of 100% and 75% are increasingly becoming the price of ebooks.

The salvation for the traditional publisher has to be quality when it can’t compete on price. Consequently, more attention needs to be paid to initial quality and to gaining a reputation for that quality. Unfortunately for traditional publishers, an increasing number of self-publishers are realizing that the quality problem also applies to their ebooks and they are improving their quality faster than are the traditional publishers.

It will be interesting to see how things stand 5 years from now. I wonder how many traditional publishers of today will still be profitable then.

June 20, 2011

The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern

We see a lot of new ebooks being released that are riddled with editorial and formatting problems. From the publisher’s side, the problem is that to proofread ebooks after conversion, especially after OCR (scanning) conversion, is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be-all and end-all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known with certainty how many ebook sales will be made.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink how and what gets published. I don’t mean which books but which formats. Perhaps the time has come to publish only hardcover and ebook formats, dropping the mass market paperback from the mix and keeping the trade paperback for those pbooks that do not justify a hardcover print run (although considering that the cost differential is slight between paperback and hardcover, I see no particular need to retain even the trade paperback).

Before the coming of the paperback, books were available in hardcover only. That limitation was the impetus for several innovations, including the public library. But the limitation served a good market purpose. It kept the price high relative to incomes; created an educated class to which people aspired; allowed nearly all print runs to be profitable; created the first commercial publishing class (as opposed to scholarly class) of books; created the respected profession of editor; and limited the number of books available for purchase. As a side effect, it created secondary and tertiary markets for books: secondary being the used-book market and tertiary being the collector’s market.

Today, the publishing world runs wild with no discipline imposed either directly or indirectly on the publishing world and process. Consider the growth of books published in the United States alone in the past decade: In 2002, 215,000 books were published traditionally (which largely means through the old-style process of vetting, editing, and so on by an established publisher) and 33,000 nontraditionally (which largely means self-published). Jump ahead a mere seven years to 2009 and the numbers are 302,000 and 1.33 million, respectively. One year later, 2010, the respective numbers are 316,000 traditionally published and 2.8 million — more than double — nontraditionally published! I’m not sure I want to know the numbers for 2011.

The jump in nontraditional publishing numbers is simply a testament to the rise of the ebook. The numbers do not imply or correlate with sales, quality, price, or anything other than raw numbers of suddenly available books. If I read one book a day, every day, or 365 books a year (vacationing from reading only on the extra day in leap years) for 60 years, I could read 21,900 books, which represents a mere 0.0078% of the 2.8 million nontraditional books published in 2010. The likelihood of my being able to read a significant percentage of all books available to me is nonexistent.

How does this tie into the idea of dropping paperbacks? It runs a convoluted course like this: As I cannot possibly read all of the books published in 2010 alone, I would prefer to march publishing backward and be less egalitarian and open access and more unequal and closed. I want to make what reading I do count with minimal search-and-find effort on my part. I want to see more profitability for authors and publishers in exchange for better vetting of books and significantly better production quality control. One way to do this is to control market access.

eBooks are already eroding pbook sales, so let’s help that erosive process by guiding it. If a person must read or buy a pbook, make the only pbook version available the hardcover version. Book buyers are already accustomed, from centuries of ingrained experience, to paying a premium price for a hardcover book. Book buyers perceive value — whether that value is real or not makes no difference; buyers believe it exists, which is sufficient for it to, in fact, exist — in hardcover versions. One side effect of that perception is that buyers of hardcovers tend to treat the books more carefully than they treat paperbacks, thus creating a secondary market with some value. Thus, let’s satisfy the pbook market need by providing a better-quality hardcover.

By limiting the pbook to hardcover only, we are also changing the secondary market. A used hardcover will now have more value because there is no pbook alternative. And it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to figure out a way for authors and publishers to receive a small royalty from secondary market sales. Eliminate the paperback and there will be more incentive for that solution to be found.

The other benefit of eliminating paperbacks is that the ebook can easily replace it. More effort and money can be put into production of the ebook version and a more realistic price can be charged. Right now, much of the price grumbling about ebooks is a result of comparing the ebook to the paperback. Why should an ebook cost more than the paperback version? (The question is rhetorical here.) Eliminating the paperback removes the yardstick against which the ebook price is currently measured. The market will settle, just as it did for paperback pricing, around a few price points for ebooks, which will be less than the hardcover price. Within a relatively short period of time, that price stabilization will be accepted by most book buyers and what we will see is the return of the market we had before ebooks, but with ebooks in the role of paperbacks.

One other consideration is that by eliminating the paperback, traditional publishers are eliminating a major debit to their balance sheets. To offer a paperback version means you actually have to do a print run — the product has to be available in that form — which also means that the direct and ancillary costs (e.g., returns, warehousing) have to be incurred. And if the paperback is a decent seller, it means that the costs have to be incurred multiple times. In contrast, with an ebook production costs only have to be incurred once; any cost of duplication of the electronic file, once perfected, is minimal.

Will elimination of the paperback cause pain in the market? Sure it will, just as any established market change and upheaval does. But this is an opportune moment to make that change. Publishers need to move paperback readers to ebooks. They also need to enhance the value of both ebooks and hardcovers in the consumer’s thoughts. The easiest and most effective way to do this is for publishers to take their lumps now and eliminate the paperback from the equation (think of the shift from videotape to DVD and vinyl record/audiotape to CD). The period of rapid growth of ebooks is the time to reshape the market, not when the idea of coavailability of the three formats is entrenched.

May 31, 2011

On Books: Changing Buying Habits

As readers of this blog know, every so often I do a piece titled On Today’s Bookshelf in which I list a sampling of my recent hardcover and ebook acquisitions and preorders. In working on a yet-to-be-published On Today’s Bookshelf, I realized that I am stockpiling ebooks, growing my TBR (To Be Read) pile, and doing so largely by “purchasing” free ebooks — that is, ebooks that either the author has set the price at free or the author has issued a limited-time coupon that reduces the price to free. If I had to guess at a percentage, I would say that between 80% and 85% of all my ebooks fall into the free category.

I think this does not bode well for the financial future of either authors or publishers. I don’t imagine I am unique in acquiring free ebooks.

As of this writing, I have 86 unread ebooks waiting to be loaded onto my Sony 950 and 220 unread ebooks already loaded on the 950 (I delete ebooks from the 950 once I have read them). Since I received my first ereader 3.5 years ago, the Sony 505 that my wife now uses, I have “purchased” 934 ebooks, of which I have either read or tried to read 628.

I realize that many of the free ebooks are poor imitations of literature, but a significant portion are at least good (a rating of 3 or 4 stars) and a significant number — that is, significant within the schemata of the ebooks — are excellent (a rating of 5 or 5+ stars). If I had to apply a percentage to the number of ebooks I have “purchased” that are 3 stars or better (using, of course, my rating system which I outlined in On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)), I would guesstimate that 40% to 50% meet that standard.

So why does this not bode well for authors and publishers? Because as the number of ebooks I “purchase” at the free price grows, the less I need to consider actually spending money on an ebook. This is not to say that I won’t spend any money on ebooks; rather that I will spend money on many fewer ebooks than I otherwise would. At Smashwords, which is a prime source of ebooks for me, my wishlist has 38 ebooks on it, some of which have been there for many months. I do add to that list, but I have made no move to spend money on any of the listed books because I have yet to deplete my trove of free ebooks.

I have “purchased” more than 125 ebooks at Smashwords, but most of them had a final price of free. During ebook week in March alone, I “purchased” 105 ebooks at Smashwords, all of them having a final price of free.

Smashwords is not the only place these free ebooks can be found. There are numerous sources, including at the better-known ebooksellers GoogleBooks, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, and lesser-known ebooksellers and sources like Baen, ManyBooks, MobileRead, and Feedbooks.

It strikes me that free is rapidly becoming the new price point. One cannot even argue that the free books aren’t written by known, bestseller authors, because a goodly number of them are written by such authors, particularly in the romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres (and their subgenres like historical romance, military science fiction).

With 306 waiting-to-be-read ebooks, I have at least a year’s worth of reading currently available to me. Yet that is somewhat misleading because that year never seems to get shorter — I am constantly adding to and subtracting from that TBR pile as new ebooks are made available to “purchase” for free. True, I won’t get the newest Martha Grimes or David Weber novel for free, but that’s the tradeoff.

The economics of ebooks become baffling if one doesn’t spend money on ebook purchases. The amortization of the reading device across the free ebooks makes sense; after all, it is pretty hard to go wrong spending $150-$200, even $300, on the device when you can read thousands of ebooks for free on it. Where the economics falter is in authors and publishers earning money.

I suspect that a significant part of my focusing on “purchasing” free ebooks is that publishers and many indie authors are setting unrealistically high prices for their ebooks. Whether the prices are justifiable in true economic sense doesn’t really matter; they aren’t justifiable to the reader. A reader who gets burned once spending $14.99 on a poorly written, poorly formatted, or nonproofread ebook, especially when they are nonreturnable, is unlikely to be willing to spend $14.99 again in hopes that the next purchase won’t be a repeat sucker purchase. Instead, such a reader is likely to move down the price chain.

As increasing numbers of ebookers move down the price chain, the average selling price of ebooks also moves down the price chain, and will eventually reach the free marker. The closer that average gets to free, the more difficult it will be for authors and publishers to earn a living. (Yes, there will always be a few authors and publishers who are able to earn excellent incomes at lower rates, but we need to look at the macro picture, not the micro picture.)

As other ebookers have pointed out in articles they have written, buying habits are changing. They are changing for a lot of reasons and ebookers are not universally focused on “purchasing” free ebooks, but regardless of the reason why their buying habits are changing, the trend is clear that the changes are not for the economic betterment of authors and publishers.

In my specific case, where I used to spend $5,000 or more a year on purchasing books, I am now spending less than $2,000 — even though I am “purchasing” more books than ever before. The poor quality of ebooks has made me more cautious about purchasing pbooks. Previously, I would simply purchase a pbook that interested me because how well written and edited it was was already cast in stone — it just wasn’t going to get better than it already was. However, ebooks have changed that. I now scrutinize pbooks before buying because ebooks have made me more aware of poor writing and editing and less willing to spend money on such books — whether p or e. However, the closer the purchase price gets to zero, the more tolerant I am.

The freedom to publish anything and the failure of authors and many publishers to invest in quality for ebooks has resulted in making purchasers wary across the board. I “purchase” more books than ever, but spend less money doing so. What is needed by authors and publishers is for that to change so that the more I purchase, the more money I spend. If I were a gambler, I’d bet against that change occurring any time soon. If self-publishing authors and traditional publishers don’t soon start offering the correct balance of quality and pricing, they may well lose readers to free permanently.

April 18, 2011

Gatekeeping: Necessary or Not in the eBook Era?

I think there is a marketplace confusion regarding the value of gatekeeping vs. nongatekeeping.

Problem 1 is that nongatekept authors whose ebooks sell well fail to distinguish between books sold and books read. This is an important distinction. Using myself as an example, I am willing to read an author’s description of their ebook and spend a maximum of 2 minutes reading the sample online, and then, if the blurb seems interesting and the 2-minute sampling doesn’t reveal horrendous errors, I am willing to buy the ebook for 99 cents. It just isn’t much of a financial risk.

So the sale looks good for the author, but should I start reading the ebook and discover that it isn’t worth the bytes it occupies and thus I cease reading it — no one knows. Even if I post a negative review, many other readers are willing to gamble the 99 cents.

Unfortunately, there is no way to measure whether a book has been bought and read or simply just bought and left in a To-Be-Read pile forever, or started and stopped because of discovered inadequacies. Yet knowing whether a bought book has been read is important, just as it is important to know whether someone thinks a book is worth reading.

Although not a true solution to this problem, perhaps a step in the direction of a solution would be to post the actual number of sales of a title. It could be very revealing if a book sells 1,000 copies but only has one 5-star review and a handful of mediocre down to 1-star reviews. If there are only 3 or 4 reviews, even if all are 5-star reviews, it might be an indication that (a) there have been a lot of sales but few reads or (b) a lot reads but few readers who think the book is worth mentioning to anyone. Although a less-than-perfect solution to gauging how good a book is, it is an iota better than the current system in which readers have no idea how well a title is selling.

Sales figures even without companion reviews can be valuable to readers. If a book is ranked number 1 on a bestseller list but has only sold 300 copies, there may be less of rush to buy a book because it is listed as a bestseller. Conversely, if the book has sold 5,000 copies, it may well cause readers to rush to buy it.

The second problem is pricing. Books that have gone through the traditional gatekeeping role tend to support higher pricing than those that have not. I am willing to spend 99 cents for a nongatekept ebook because it is not much of an outlay — it’s like buying a lottery ticket; I am willing to gamble $1 on odds of 6 million to 1 but I am not willing to pay $5.99 for such an ebook because the risk of getting dreck is much too high. On the other hand, I am willing to spend $7.99 for a gatekept ebook because the risk is generally that I will not enjoy the writer’s style or I won’t be in the mood for the particular genre, not that I will be stuck with dreck (although that, too, does happen and is happening with increasing frequency as the gatekeepers fumble around ebooks).

Yet to read the blogs and comments, one would think gatekeeping is passe, something no longer either needed or desired. To many commenters, the freedom to publish drivel is superior to the gatekeeper system that existed before the ebook revolution because it offers more choice.

The problem with unfettered choice is that it is impossible for readers to wade through the 1 million new titles that are published each year to find the 50 or 100 or even 250 ebooks that a reader can physically read in a year. I suspect that even if a reader made it his or her full-time occupation to peruse published ebooks to find the 250 ebooks to buy and read that they couldn’t do much more than toss a pebble into the ebook flood. What ebooks have done is inverted the pyramid. Rather than having a system to narrow choices to a manageable number, it has widened the choices to infinity, an unmanageable number.

These gatekeeping-is-dead articles would be much more impressive and valuable if they gave pricing information and surveyed purchasers to determine whether the ebook was actually read or not. Making broad-based claims of no need on as little data as is currently done has virtually no value.

Let’s see where we stand. Take this unscientific poll:

I probably should be asking more questions and/or giving more or different choices as answers, but this will get us started.

April 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

In past articles, I have spoken of the need for indie authors to use professional editors (see, e.g., On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or nonprofessionally edited book. This topic has been repeatedly discussed in numerous blogs and on numerous forums — almost discussed to death.

Yet, here we go again.

A few days ago, I was looking at what new-release ebooks were available at Smashwords. I found a couple of doozies. Try this one, first: So Your Afraid of Dieing by LaVall McIvor, for which the author wants $4.99, and which the author describes as follows:

Everyone dies, what happens after we die. Is that the end of who and what we are? I have had two NDE’s and I can tell you there is more to ‘us’ than just the physical life we live on this world. I only lay out my experiences, what you believe to be true concerning an afterlife is up to you to decide.

Setting aside the “your” problem, does “dieing” mean dying as in death or dyeing as in coloring? OK, I get the gist and realize death is meant, but why should I have to guess or assume?

So I checked the sample to see if the title was an anomaly. Here is the first paragraph of the book:

Probably the single most commonality of all of us, is knowing that someday in the future this physical life will end. But what happens when we die, are we just consumed by the elements, is that the end of it? If you are a religious person, you have been ‘taught’ that if you live a good life doing no evil, you (your soul) will be rewarded with eternal life in ‘Heaven’. If you are an atheist, you may believe there is no ‘afterlife’, that when your body dies, that is the end of who and what you are. I was of the latter persuasion until I had two NDE’s (Near Death Experiences).

Then, as I was reeling from the title, the author’s description of the book, and the first paragraph, I came across A Crown of Thorns by Andrew Cook, for which the author wants $2. Cook describes his book as follows:

When the Spencer’s arrive at Millbridge, Virginia meets Rector Byrnes, beginning an emotionally charged and passionate relationship. Rev Byrnes is in a vulnerable position struggling with his wife’s inner demons, and his own loss of faith, and with no one to confide. Virginia is consumed with hatred towards God but they find comfort in each other’s weakness with dramatic consequences.

Tell me: Is the location Millbridge, Virginia or is it Virginia who arrives at Millbridge? No matter because within the first few paragraphs of the book, we find this:

The reason I am writing this is because I want to remember all my thoughts this morning, for it is remarkable to me that it should be this morning that I was again allowing myself the shameful thoughts of death, my own death in fact, while appreciating at the same time the pleasure and beauty of life. The green rolling hills that overlooked the cemetery and continued for miles, the bright blue sky as though painted that morning by an artist, devoid of cloud, the flowers dancing in the breeze celebrating the arrival of spring. It was a day to celebrate life, not to contemplate death. But perhaps I was not considering death in the physical sense. There are many types of death. This morning I once again felt as though my soul had died and I had paled once again into insignificance. If one died emotionally, what would be left? Without love people wither like flowers starved of water.

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published? Would you willingly pay $4.99 or $2 for either ebook?

What these two ebooks vividly demonstrate is that the combination of the Internet Age and easy self-publishing — without any gatekeeping (i.e., vetting of the manuscript, which is the role agents and traditional publishers have played) — has turned everyone who wants to be an author into a published author. Yet too many of these wanna-be-published authors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that accompany publishing, particularly the hiring of a professional editor.

Sadly, I expect both of these authors to sell copies of their ebooks. Even more sadly, I expect that those who buy their ebooks won’t (and don’t) recognize the grammar and spelling problems that are in the ebooks, nor that the ebooks have not been edited — professionally or otherwise — by someone with at least minimal competency.

Companies like Smashwords have done a great favor to both readers and wanna-be authors. They make distribution to the normal book-buying channels possible. Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

I realize that we are early in the evolution of ebooks, but the time to address basic issues is now, not later when the problems become so entrenched that they are insurmountable. Although the distributors need to share in the blame for permitting this drivel to see daylight, those of us who are professional editors also have a responsibility to reach out and educate authors. In this endeavor, we are failing as evidenced by these two ebooks and by the overall decrease in grammar and spelling skills in younger generations (see The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills).

Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process).

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