An American Editor

April 29, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round III

OK, I know you aren’t convinced that ebooks and print on demand (POD) will be the downfall of literature, and perhaps there is no convincing you or perhaps I’m wrong. One commenter suggested that the great will rise, like cream, to the top. I hope they do, but I don’t think they will.

As ebooks and POD continue to supplant traditional publishing, the traditional ways of separating literature from nonliterature will also be supplanted. The question is: Supplanted by what? That is the big unknown.

Many commenters point to customer reviews at ebookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. So here is my first question: Excluding anger and protest reviews (such as the 1-star reviews because of price), for how many ebooks that you have bought and read have you written a review? How many of those reviews were in-depth reviews? In my case, the answer is zero. I counted up my ebook purchases over the past 2.5 years, and discovered I have purchased more than 500 ebooks and of that number have read 283. Yet I haven’t written one review (except for a couple here on An American Editor and on MobileRead). And of the pbooks I purchased and read in that same time frame, the only ones I have reviewed are the ones I reviewed on An American Editor.

Yet if you look at the reviewers on, for example, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, some have written more reviews than books I have read, yet they supposedly (according to their profiles) have numerous other interests that must take some time. I haven’t written reviews for several reasons, not least of which is that I don’t have the time to write an in-depth, thoughtful, and balanced review. I’m not a believer in the “Great book 5 stars” review, but then you probably guessed that from my suggestion that New York Review of Books reviews are the gold standard for book reviews.

I am quite skeptical of the reviews found at the ebookstores. And the 2-paragraph reviews I find at many of the ebook review sites aren’t much better (plus I have no idea who the reviewers are or their competencies). So who will become the new opinion shapers? How will we find them?

The Internet is both a great leveler and a great fragmenter. As a leveler, it makes new audiences available to authors, audiences they would not otherwise be able to easily reach. However, as a fragmenter, the Internet makes it easy for readers to find their niche and not expand out from it. Consequently, ebookers tend to take a narrow look at books rather than the more expansive look readers had to take when the only reviews were in generalist publications.

So how does a consensus get built that XYZ book is literature? You have the problems of sheer volume, Internet fragmentation, and questionable reviews that need to be overcome. Although the advent of ebooks has given everyone who wants to write an outlet for doing so, it has also made the task of finding the next J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway or Ursula Le Guin exponentially more difficult, if not impossible.

The lack of gatekeeping will cause a continual flood of ebooks, and picking and choosing among them will not be easy, perhaps even impossible. The idea that all that matters is that one find a book and enjoy it is OK as far as it goes, but it does nothing to help identify literature for new readers or future readers. The way we learn to appreciate good writing is to be exposed to good writing. But because ebooks make publishing a trivial experience, it is not possible to isolate good writing from poor writing (and pretty soon bad writing becomes the standard).

Just as poor grammar and spelling are commonly seen in ebooks (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), so those ebooks reinforce already poor grammar and spelling skills of readers (readers with good grammar and spelling skills are unlikely to have the patience to wade through the dreck of bad writing, bad grammar, and bad spelling). As writing falls perilously close to the lowest common denominator, the concepts of literature — of correct spelling, of correct grammar, of good writing — diminish until they are meaningless.

The lack of gatekeeping standards, the lack of publication literary standards that ebooks bring to the marketplace, and the sheer volume of ebooks available solely because of a person’s ability to bypass traditional publishing, indicates to me a downfall in literature.

It is not that the next Steinbeck isn’t out there — rather, it is that the next Steinbeck won’t be found.

The debate continues and concludes in round IV…

March 29, 2010

Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses

I read a lot of nonfiction books, both in my work and for pleasure, and one of the most annoying things to me is improper thought given to footnotes, endnotes, and references.

Many years ago, an academic client told me, in response to my question about why a 50-manuscript page chapter had nearly 1,000 references — a bit of overkill, I thought — that in his academic circles, if he wanted to move up the ladder his writings had to have lots of references. He went on to say that it was not unusual for people to look at the quantity rather than the quality of the references.

References do have a legitimate purpose, but this comment made wonder — and I continue to wonder — about notes (notes being the inclusive term for footnotes, endnotes, and references). Granted, I am as guilty as my client’s academic peers in that if I see a book on a heavy subject that purports to be the comprehensive study of the subject to date that has only a few references, I wonder about the quality of the work. On the other hand, if I find every other word bearing a reference, I wonder if any real effort was placed in the writing; is there any original material to be found between the covers? There is a fine line of too much and too little referencing.

There is also the problem of quality vs. quantity, especially when many of the notes cite references that are citing other references, that is, a cite of a cite of a cite or the syndrome of inconsequential citation. If Jones cites Smith who cites Waterloo for a proposition espoused by Spinster, and Jones hasn’t verified (a) that Spinster actually espoused the proposition, (b) that Waterloo has correctly cited and attributed to Spinster (as, e.g., in correctly quoting Spinster), and (c) that Smith is correctly citing Waterloo, of what value is the cite other than to take up space? And if Jones is going to go to the trouble to verify the sources, as Jones should, then why not bypass Smith and Waterloo and directly cite Spinster?

Referencing is necessary in serious academic work. I don’t dispute that. But how it is done is problematic. Is it more important that I note the references or the text? And what about footnotes (and endnotes) that provide their own discussion or explanation of the material? I still shudder when I come across a footnote that is many paragraphs long and has umpteen cites to support just the footnote. I have always been of the view that if it is important enough to be in an explanatory note, it should be incorporated into the main text.

Unlike end-of-book references, footnotes and endnotes are distractions. They interrupt the reading flow. If they give no more information than a reference cite, why distract the reader from the text with a callout to the reference? If they provide additional details that the reader should be made aware of, why not incorporate that information in the text body? If it isn’t important enough to be incorporated into the main text, perhaps it is not important enough to interrupt the reader’s concentration on the text.

Endnotes are worse than footnotes because they prevent the reader from easily scanning the note to see how worthwhile interrupting reading the text to read the notes would be. One needs to locate the endnote by physically turning to a new location in the book. How frustrating to get to the endnote to discover that in its entirety it reads: Ibid. That bit of information was certainly worth interrupting concentration on the text! Noting distracts the reader, usually for no intellectual gain.

The problem is academia. Too much emphasis is placed in unimportant things. It is the form rather than the substance that dominates. Not so many years ago, in a discussion with academics at a local college, it was made clear that if someone wanted to get tenured at the college, they had to write a peer-reviewed book that was published by a publisher from an approved list, which list was in rank order; that is, the closer the publisher was to the top, the better the chances of obtaining tenure. It was also made clear that there were specific expectations regarding noting, including a minimum number of expected notes.

It seems to me that the communication of knowledge should be the primary focus of an academic book. Scholarship should be judged on the information conveyed within the main body, not the number of times concentration is interrupted. In fact, interruptions should be minimized and minimal interruptions should be rewarded.

Readers assume that if a work is cited in a note or reference that the book’s author has actually read the cited work rather than relied on someone else’s summary of the work. Reader’s also assume that the cited work actually says what is claimed or relates to the material for which it is being cited. Are these valid assumptions? I know that as a reader I do not have either the time or the desire to check each cite for accuracy — neither for accuracy of the cite itself or for the content for which it is cited; I wonder how many people actually do check each and every cite or are we simply impressed and overwhelmed by the number of cites?

I think that scholarship can be better served by more effort placed in writing the main text, fewer footnotes (and no endnotes), and a comprehensive reference list at the end of the book that is divided into two parts: references relied on for the book and recommended additional sources of information. If the author has a message worth communicating, it is worth not interrupting and worth not going down the side roads to which footnotes and endnotes often lead. Occasional footnotes, even lengthy explanatory ones, are appropriate, but it is inappropriate, in my thinking, to bombard the reader with hundreds of distractions.

Another questionable practice as regards footnotes, endnotes, and references is the citing of online material. Here today, gone tomorrow is, unfortunately, the reality of a lot of online material. Unlike a book that gets stored in libraries for future generations to use, online material often shifts or disappears and is difficult to verify. Today’s valid URL is tomorrow’s Not Found error.

When I see a book that relies heavily on online sources, I wonder about the content. Online material isn’t always scrutinized for verity, making it highly suspect. Along with overnoting and poor noting, relying on online sources is not a sign of quality; rather, it is a sign of quantity.

Something authors should keep in mind: The purpose of writing a nonfiction book is to advance knowledge, spread it around; it is not to create a book that simply sits on the buyer’s bookshelf. It is better to be remembered for what one wrote than for what one noted.

March 16, 2010

Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 15, 2010

Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall

There have been lots of articles and comments regarding Rupert Murdoch’s views on making online news pay. Many commentators have suggested that putting the news behind a pay wall is bound to fail. I’m not so sure that Rupert is wrong. If we want original news reporting (i.e., news origination) and in-depth reporting rather than just the 10-second blurb TV gives us, we need to pay for it. Newsgathering is not free and costs need to be covered.

I subscribe to the New York Times. Daily delivery runs me about $50 per month. I am willing to pay for the subscription because I want to first know what is actually happening in my world before I start listening to the pundits tell me what those facts mean. I can’t imagine relying on Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Stephen Colbert, Ariana Huffington, or Al Franken for the facts of what is happening in my world.

I rely on the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and similar papers because of the reputation for original reporting that they have built over the decades. Because I cannot do the original investigation myself, I do not know with absolute certainty that what they report as fact is truly fact — no more so than I can know any fact that I have learned from any source outside my own original investigation; instead, I rely on the reputations they have built as fact-gatherers. Similarly, I rely on the opinion shapers — the Becks, Limbaughs, Wills, Pitts’, Harrops, and other op-ed folk — to add interpretation from a philosophical or biased perspective to those facts the NYT, WSJ, and The Economist and the like have reported.

Sources like the Drudge Report are aggregators not originators; that is, they take from already published sources their “news.” Consequently, relying on an aggregator for one’s news does not address the problem of paying the originator of the news. News aggregators don’t have paid investigative, professional reporters in Des Moines, Iowa, let alone in Tajikistan — they are not news originators.

How can we rely on the veracity of the reported “facts” if the news originators are forced to give their content away free online? Ultimately, something has to give in a free economy; in the case of news, it is credibility and accuracy that ultimately gives. We are beginning to see the effect that free has on veracity and accuracy of reported “facts” online if a recent study of online magazines is to be believed.

The Columbia Journalism Review, as reported by the New York Times, recently surveyed the editing and fact-checking practices of magazine websites. Of the 665 magazines surveyed, 59% copyedit less rigorously or not at all the online content and 43% do less rigorous to no fact checking of the online content. The likelihood of these numbers decreasing with free content probably is nil; it is more likely that the numbers will increase.

Yet our discussions about our surrounding world have to start from some base. Granted they can start from one’s imagination in which we simply declare certain things as truth, but that seems to me to be a poor base from which to decide anything. News aggregators won’t have anything to aggregate and political and social commentators anything to comment on in the absence of news originators.

Not all newspapers either can be or should be behind paywalls. For example, my hometown newspaper is generally bereft of any real news origination and at best is worth $10 a year (although it costs closer to $200 a year by subscription), but that is because it lacks any real credibility and because most of its efforts are as a news aggregator, not originator. But there are certain newspapers, those that are true news originators, whose efforts should be behind a paywall. Their credibility, earned over decades of origination efforts, not only deserves financial support but warrants such financial support.

It has been reported that Internet and TV news (local and national/cable) are the leading sources for news today. Newspapers run distantly behind. On the surface, this indicates that paywall support is undeserved by newspapers. But the reality is different. TV news operations are scaling back on reporting; ABC News, for example, recently announced it was cutting its news gathering staff by one-third. Many of the covered stories originate in newspaper exposés, not in original TV reporting, and there is a significant difference in the depth of analysis provided in a 10-second TV blurb compared with a multipage newspaper article. Besides, TV news is behind a paywall; just an indirect one. Most of us get our TV via cable/satellite for which we pay a monthly fee. The cable/satellite operators pay the TV channels a per subscriber fee. And we also pay those same cable/satellite providers for Internet access. So why not also pay news originators for their work? Why should it be free just because it is on the Internet?

Many Internet news sites are nothing more than aggregators, not original news reporters. Without the originators, there would be no aggregation possible. More important, perhaps, are the findings of the Columbia Journalism Review. Its survey (see the New York Times article linked earlier) found that 16% of the respondents didn’t fact check online-only content at all and that of those that did fact check online content, 27% used a less-stringent process than they used for their print offering. How reliable can those sources be? Would you want your lawmakers or your doctors to make decisions based on unverified information?

Consequently, I’m inclined to think that Rupert is right. I’m not sure that the New York Post is worthy of being behind a paywall, but I have no doubt about the worthiness of, for example, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, The Economist, and the New York Times — that is newspapers with high credibility and well-deserved reputations as news originators. Keeping news originators alive and healthy is important to keeping alive and healthy democratic institutions.

Perhaps Rupert is right this time.

March 4, 2010

On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!

Do word choices matter? Do word choices misspelled matter? Is there a difference between break and brake? Not if you read some of the ebook novels I have read recently!

Yes, I’m complaining about authors who don’t see the value in hiring a professional editor, authors who think they can both write a compelling story and either self-edit it or hire the next door neighbor to give it the editorial once over, and the publishers that encourage this type of thinking. Professional editors do serve a purpose and the more I read fiction ebooks, the more concerned I become about what will happen to readability, understanding, and literacy in the Age of eBooks.

I do not intend to rehash the difference between types of editing (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) or the difference between an amateur and a professional editor (see Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Nor do I intend to rehash the link between declining publishing standards and declining literacy (see Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators). You can revisit those posts if you want.

Instead I want to focus on the unfounded assumption by many ebookers that authors can do it all themselves — writing, designing, editing, marketing, selling, and whatever other “ing” is needed — in the ebook world, thereby doing away with publishers and other middlemen, yet increasing quality and decreasing cost and price.

Let me be clear: It is not that the author cannot do all these tasks; rather, it is that few authors can do each task well and few authors either have the financial resources to hire these services directly or, if they do have the resources, the willingness to gamble their own money on the success of their book. And it is the unwillingness to front these costs that is leading to the concurrent decline in ebook quality and refusal of ebookers to pay more than a few dollars (if even that much) for an ebook.

I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for an ebook because the likelihood is that the ebook is poorly edited, a phenomenon I see with increasing frequency and which I don’t discover until after I’ve made a nonrefundable purchase and am 30+ pages into the story. I am tired of reading sentences like these (the errors are in italics):

  • She seamed to be a woman with…
  • The sheers were used to cut the cloth.
  • I no what you are thinking.
  • I oppose you on principal.
  • The cloth was died purple, the royal color.
  • Johan’s piers were surprised at his dismissal.
  • Calista was badly beeten by the saber’s blunt edge.
  • In the passed, guardsmen were not…
  • Watch out for the sole catcher; he will try to steel your sole.
  • The roll Danvers played was that of a night.

The list goes on and on and on and on — Give me a brake (or is that break?)! One author had his lead character go through an “emotional ringer.” I wondered what melody the ringer was playing.

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that these mistakes don’t occur once; they occur repeatedly, which indicates that it wasn’t an isolated mistake. Rather, the ebook was either poorly edited or not edited at all. In either case, it means that the author or the publisher, although to be fair, I suspect that most of these books are self-published, didn’t think enough of their own work to spend the money to hire a professional editor.

Question: If the author thinks so little of his or her work, why should I, the ebook consumer, be willing to spend even $1 on the book? Shouldn’t I have the same disdain for the author and the ebook as the author has for me and the ebook?

Correct spelling is important. Incorrect spelling changes the message. For example, the end of the brief case and the end of the briefcase have distinctly different meanings and thus convey distinctly different messages. Similarly, Is that the boarder? asks a much different question than Is that the border? Failure to communicate means failure as a writer. When a character yells, “Brake!” but is riding a horse, what does the author mean?

Imagine visiting your doctor and being told to “take 5 every day.” Does it matter whether the doctor means 5 capsules, 5 grams, 5 liters, or 5 milligrams?

The best authors are those whose descriptions are clearly and readily understood. They communicate with their audience. The idea of a book — e or p, fiction or nonfiction — is that the message is understood readily and clearly by every reader. Thus it makes a difference whether the character asks “Is that the border?” or “Is that the boarder?”, especially if either is appropriate in the situation.

Readers should not have to guess what something means. Nor should a reader be distracted from the story by wondering whether brake or break is correct.

Based on what I see being made available for ereading, the loss of publishers and the reliance on self-publishing will be a tragedy. Although far from perfect, established publishers insulate readers from the worst of the abuses. Words do matter and incorrectly spelled words convey incorrect meaning. Dumbing down is not an award-winning strategy for the future.

Not all self-published books are as bad as the ones I recently have read. There are some good, careful authors who self-publish and do not cut corners. They are serious authors and the exception. But the general trend appears to be that if “I have a word processor and an Internet connection, I, too, can be an author and I need not invest any money to make money.” Unfortunately, this trend is exacerbated by the ease of ebooks and fueled by ebookers telling authors that they do not need publishers and other professionals — they can do it all themselves and keep all the money. Dream a little dream…

March 2, 2010

eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2010

Can eBooks Save American Education?

On February 14, in a New York Times Sunday Magazine article titled “How Christian Were the Founders?”, the question of what control people with personal agendas have over what elementary and secondary school students are taught. The article reminded me of a book I read several years ago, The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch (2004), which addressed the same issue.

What bothers me most about what is happening before the Texas State Board of Education, which is the focus of both the article and the book, is that whatever decisions the TSBE make will affect the education not only of Texas students, but of students in 46 other states. I don’t care if Texas wants to dumb-down its student population, but it bothers me that it wants to drag down the rest country along with it.

The problem, yet again, lies with book publishers. Because Texas has a centralized textbook purchasing procedure, it has clout in the textbook market, and publishers kowtow to its demands. Understandably from a financial perspective, publishers don’t want to be excluded from Texas’ $22 billion dollar expenditure on textbooks (some 48 million textbooks each year), but from an ethical/moral perspective, the publishers are contributing to America’s decline in exchange for the almighty dollar.

In past years the problem was nearly insolvable. But now things have changed — or they should be changing — and ebook textbooks can be the answer. With today’s technology, there is no reason why publishers can’t create a pick-and-choose menu for school districts. Instead of printing millions of textbooks and locking knowledge in shackles for the next 10 years (the lifespan of the Texas review decisions), publishers could both reduce textbook costs and allow each state and/or school district to create custom books for local courses.

If Texas and Kansas want to teach that the world is flat, while New York and California want to teach that the world is round, customized textbooks would let them do so. In the expansion of fact over fiction, ebooks can play a role in saving America from total educational collapse.

And think about how much money local school districts could save. It should be less expensive for schools to provide ebooks as course textbooks; in fact, it probably would be cost-effective for several school districts in a state to band together to build their own etextbooks than what is currently being spent on printed books that are not as focused on local needs.

The shame of the publishing industry is that it focuses intensely on profit, with lackadaisical attention paid to insuring that American students are truly well equipped to meet future challenges. Declines in academic scores illustrate the problems that publishers, by permitting themselves to be suborned by agenda-driven groups, are perpetuating and making worse. Publishers should exercise an ethical judgment and refuse to continue down that path.

eTextbooks will make it easy to break the stranglehold pressure groups exert over the textbook market. the questions are: Will textbook publishers go the etextbook route or stick with print? Will schools adopt etextbooks?

Actually, if I were younger I think I would consider entering the etextbook creation market. This is an opportunity for an entrepreneur to break the grip of the major coursebook publishers. And California seems intent on helping with its open source textbook plan. If more states followed California’s example and moved to open source etextbooks, we might see a smartening up rather than a dumbing down of students because there would be no reason why etextbooks couldn’t be customized not only for the local school district, but for the individual classroom or even the individual student.

Perhaps the future of education isn’t as bleak as it appears today. Perhaps the future will include enhanced, customized instruction that enables each student in a classroom to learn at his or her own pace and depth. But most important, perhaps the etextbook world of the future will prevent a whole nation from succumbing to the agenda of a few who would reverse the course of knowledge, taking us back to a medieval time. Certainly, as Macmillan is demonstrating with its DynamicBooks at the college level, the technology is available; now there only needs to be the will.

February 15, 2010

The eBook Wars: Agency & Winners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 27, 2010

For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed

We all know that a controversial topic today is climate change. Yes, this is about climate change, but no, it isn’t about whether there is global warming or not. Instead, this is the story of what happens when the editor goes missing.

The story begins with a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations-affiliated group. Five glaring errors were found in the report, errors serious enough to warrant an apology from the scientists who wrote the particular section under scrutiny.

The section dealt with glacier melt in the Himalayas and the prediction that the glaciers could all melt away by the year 2035. Alas, that prediction missed the mark by several hundred years — the year should have been 2350, not 2035. The scientist who discovered the errors admitted that the errors are neither significant in comparison to the findings of the whole report nor intentional, but they are significant enough to raise questions of credibility regarding the whole report. As a reader, imagine if this had been the drug book your doctor consulted when prescribing medication for you.

Isn’t credibility at the bottom of every author’s book and every publisher’s name? When a new Stephen King novel is published, King’s credibility as an author whose books are worth reading is on the line, as is the publisher’s reputation for publishing interesting and readable (i.e., quality) books. If the new King novel is poorly written and edited, King’s reputation suffers, as does his publisher’s. Consequently, it behooves both King and his publisher to hire professional editors for a high-quality, professional edit. And what is true for fiction is trebly true for nonfiction!

In the case of the IPCC, the scientist who publicized the errors noted, “It is a very shoddily written section. It wasn’t copy-edited properly.” Is this a cautionary tale for publishers and authors? It should be. Instead of focusing on the science behind the report, the focus has shifted to the poor editing and via the poor editing to overall credibility.

Similarly, in the world of ebooks the debate about quality (or lack thereof) has shifted the debate from the author’s story to the shoddy craftsmanship of the ebook sold by the publisher. The “story” is no longer how good or bad a particular book’s storyline is, but how riddled with editorial errors it is. What is it about publishers that makes it difficult for them to grasp the simple fact that to get professional editing, one must hire professional editors and that professional editors do not work for minimum wage! (I say this because publishers will retort that they do hire editors; what they don’t confess is that they hire the least expensive editor possible regardless of whether or not the editor is otherwise qualified.)

Editing is a skill. Bad editing, as the IPCC discovered, can lead to disastrous results. Publishers are learning the same thing as the litany of complaints keeps growing. And, as publishers have also learned, when the focus shifts to poor quality, publishers lose the debate — even the opportunity to debate — the core issue: value. That occurs because poor editing leads readers to believe there is no value; something with no value cannot command a high price. (It was not so long ago that Princeton University Press had to recall a book’s entire press run because of complaints about shoddy editing and in 2009 the American Psychological Association replaced first printings of its new style manual for the same reason.) Remember the Yugo automobile, the poster child for poor quality and little value?

Publishers are on that same Yugo path — slogging their way to becoming the new poster child for poor quality products. Too many books are replete with errors — factual, grammatical, syntactical, and spelling — with individual paragraphs having multiple errors, and most pages having several errors. This problem has become more acute within the past quarter century, there seeming to be a causal relationship between consolidation of publishers into mega media companies and a concurrent decrease in editorial funding.

There was a time when “pride of authorship” referred not only to the author’s pride but to the publisher’s pride. Publisher pride seems to have waned as the focus on quarterly profits has waxed. For the want of a professional editor, the errors in the IPCC report have caused a tectonic shift in the climate change debate from whether global warming is fact to whether or not the fact-finders are credible purveyors of fact. Lack of professional editing in ebooks is causing a similar tectonic shift as ebookers debate the value of ebooks compared to the pricing.

Professional editing is not the panacea for all that troubles the publishing industry, but a return to using professional editors to edit books will allow the debate to refocus on concerns other than wholesale lack of value.

January 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty

Part of the problem for publishers in the attempt to justify pricing for books, regardless of the form — ebook or print — is their inability to convince consumers that there is any relationship between the end product and the cost other than barebones greed. Because I am an editor (disclosure time: I am a freelance editor and am owner of Freelance Editorial Services, an independent editorial company), my perspective on what it costs to produce a book and what a publisher does differs from that I would have if I were solely a consumer; however, I am also a consumer of both ebooks and print, and not always a happy one (see my earlier post about why a good editor is important).

What a publisher brings to the table, other than high advances for authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Sarah Palin, is well hidden from the consumer. What the consumer sees is only the end product. This is really no different than manufacturing an automobile or the latest pharmaceutical phenomenon or even a candidate for political office: all we consumers ever see is the finished product. And this is where publishers fail us and themselves: Publishers are doing nothing to instill consumer confidence in the publisher’s product!

Consumers are buying books that are riddled with errors and are frustrated; I really hate paying $40 for a hardcover that has missing footnotes, or $14 for an ebook that regularly confuses the characters names and whether a character is dead or alive. One consumer reported a mystery novel that had the University of Georgia located in North Carolina and Duke University in Georgia. I have bought books with sentences with mixed up homonyms like “It seams that the principal reason for there work was . . .” or with unclear phrases like “using the gene deleted mice” (does the author mean that the gene got rid of the mice or that the mice were missing a particular gene — but for the want of a hyphen there goes clarity), or, as noted earlier, with character names that change nearly as often as the pages are turned.

I’ll grant that there is no such thing as the “perfectly” produced book — human beings are imperfect and make errors — but there is such a thing as quality control and paying for quality. Too many publishers, to appease shareholder appetite for high quarterly profits, are forsaking quality in the editorial process believing that consumers don’t care, or if they do care, will only grumble and buy the next book in the series anyway. This lack of editorial quality is particularly evident in ebooks that created by scanning print editions that are thrust on the market without proofing first, riddled with errors that even a first grader would recognize.

So publishers are losing the public relations battle with consumers. The end product is not worthy of respect, and if the end product is not worthy of respect, neither is the publisher. Thus my second modest proposal: Publishers should warrant the quality of their books!

A consumer wouldn’t buy a warrantless car or TV or  computer or ebook device; consumers believe that a manufacturer’s warranty indicates quality or at least that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind its product. Perhaps it is time for publishers to join the 21st century and say: “We put a lot of care and effort into our books so as to produce a quality book. When you buy our book, we assure you that it is a quality product and if it isn’t, we’ll do something about it: We stand behind every book we sell!”

A book is a commodity, no different from any other commodity except that a book is a warrantless commodity. Consumers are conditioned as a result of years of it being this way, to accept declining book quality: How many books have you returned because of poor quality in the last year? If publishers warranted the quality of their books, there would be an obvious justification, albeit an incomplete one, for the price of books.

The biggest stumbling block is figuring out how to make a warranty work and what would be warranted. When a part fails on an automobile, it is easy to identify the problem and fix it. It isn’t so easy with a book. But there are possibilities. For example, a publisher could warrant that the book contains no more than 15 misused homonyms, no obviously missing text, no more than 15 misspellings, that characters are consistent throughout (e.g., Jane doesn’t suddenly become Jayne), that the book footnote 25 cites really does exist. I’m sure you and publishers could come up with other things worth warranting.

What happens then. Perhaps the way to deal with warranty problems is to have a warranty alert website for each book where readers could post found errors. The publisher would indicate whether the errors will be corrected (and if not, why not), and when a new version will be available (or if no new version, why no new version). The consumer would then have a choice: If the consumer bought an ebook, the consumer could redownload from the original retailer the updated version. Or the consumer could choose to do nothing. With printed books it would be harder, but a little creativity would come up with solutions (e.g., a discount coupon for another book from the publisher, or the return of the book for a refund based on the book’s condition, or something else).

Okay, I admit I haven’t worked out all the details, all the ins and outs. But I offer the idea of a quality warranty because publishers need to convince consumers that publishers aren’t just greedy corporations (see The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)) who have no concern for their customers; they have to convince consumers that they bring something worthwhile to the world of publishing, something that is not easily replaced, and offering a quality warranty could be one step in that process. What do you think?

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