An American Editor

June 22, 2011

The eBook Revolution’s Effects on My Book Buying & Reading

For many years my reading habits ran in cycles. For x period of time, I read only fantasy and science fiction. When that cycle came to an end, it was replaced with mysteries. As that cycle ended, I moved to nonfiction biography. And the pattern kept going — I would come to the book-buying and -reading trough and gorge on books that fell within a particular genre, satiate my appetite for that genre, and then move on to feast on another genre. For 50+ years, that has been my habit. Until 3.5 years ago…

…when I received my first ereader device, a Sony PRS 505, as a holiday gift. Suddenly my reading world was threatened with upheaval. At the time, I had been in my third year or so of reading largely nonfiction and the occasional novel. All of my book purchases were hardcover and I was spending upwards of $5,000 a year on hardcovers (I am not going to discuss my magazine reading as those habits haven’t yet been affected by the ebook revolution).

When I got my Sony I learned pretty quickly that I had limited options as to where I could buy ebooks. At the time, Sony used its own proprietary format; it hadn’t yet transitioned to the significantly more open ePub format, although that came about 8 months later. I also discovered, after purchasing my first nonfiction ebook for the Sony that nonfiction on the Reader was not going to be a practical option for me. Much of the nonfiction I read is heavily noted and accessing notes was awkward at best, impossible at worst.

I also purchased a couple of novels that I had wanted to read but which were no longer available in print, yet they were available as “reasonably” priced ebooks. And thus began a change in my reading habits, compliments of the ebook revolution. I found that reading fiction on the Sony was extraordinarily pleasurable. The screen was excellent; the ease of bookmarking was great; the ability to switch among books wonderful; and the ease with which I could carry multiple books everywhere with me was breathtaking. The Sony was meant for me and for any avid reader — as long as it was fiction.

That was the kicker — it had to be fiction. The Reader could handle nonfiction, but not all that well (and from what I could see of friends’ Kindles, the Kindle was in the same boat). So what to do?

In a way, solving my problem was easy. I have always viewed fiction and nonfiction differently. I consider 98% of all fiction as read-once-throwaway material; little of it was worth saving for any reason. I also consider fiction to be a “cheap” read. What I mean is that with only a few exceptions, the most I am willing to pay for fiction is the price of the mass market paperback discounted. In contrast, I consider 100% of the nonfiction I buy to be books I want to keep in my permanent library for future reference by me or someone else (note that I said that I buy; there is a lot of nonfiction that belongs in the fiction category of read-once-then-throwaway). I consider these books to be readable multiple times (although I do not do that with a great deal of frequency) and some of them to be collectible. Consequently, I will buy the hardcover and pay the price.

The ebook revolution affected my reading habits by “making” me buy and read fiction in addition to the nonfiction I buy and read. My habits have changed; my reading broadened. The ebook revolution also introduced me to a category of books that I would not have considered at all before the advent of ebooks — the self-published book. I still have not ventured into self-published nonfiction because I still give credence to traditional publishing and its vetting process, although that credence has been under attack in recent months as a result of traditional publisher carelessness that has been publicized.

Previous to the ebook revolution that began for me with the gift of the Sony, I would never have knowingly bought a self-published/vanity press book. No exception. But within weeks of receiving the Sony, I discovered Smashwords and free and 99¢ ebooks. I grant that there is a lot of poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced drivel at Smashwords, but I was willing to do my own vetting for that price. I also discovered Fictionwise, which had some very inexpensive fantasy books, especially with the sales.

I purchased a lot of ebooks from Smashwords and Fictionwise and soon found that I was devoting much of my reading time to fiction. I’d pickup a hardcover nonfiction book only to put it back down after a few minutes because I really wanted to read on my Sony. I was hooked. (I’m waiting for the American Psychological Association to create a new mental disease category for my ereader addiction.) I will admit that given my druthers, I’d druther read on my Sony (which is now the newer Sony 950) than read a print book.

It is a constant, daily struggle for me, and I am losing the battle with myself. As each day passes, I become ever so slightly more addicted to reading on my Sony 950 and less willing to pick up the pbook. This is causing me angst on another front: the financial front.

Because of how poorly many ebooks are produced, their high pricing, and the restrictions imposed by DRM, not least of which is the idea that I am “renting” the ebook rather than owning it, I am reluctant to abandon hardcover for my nonfiction. I think making that transition is at least 5 years, maybe 10 years, away for me. As well as my Sony 950 handles footnotes and endnotes, there are still things that dedicated ereaders do not handle well that are important to nonfiction, such as images. This conflicts me because the reading experience of the Sony 950 is so great.

As this internal battle rages, I find that in some cases I buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions of a particular nonfiction book. Granted this doesn’t happen often, but even I can see it happening with increasing frequency. Whereas when I was using the Sony 505, which I did for 3 years, I only purchased 3 titles in both formats, an average of 1 per year, since buying my Sony 950 at its release 8 months ago, I have purchased 2 books in both formats and have contemplated purchasing several more (but have not yet given in).

The one battle that the ereader has won, and it wasn’t much of a battle, is in regards to fiction: I will only buy fiction in ebook form, with the exception of a couple of authors whose books I am collecting, in which event I will buy both formats.

The other battles that the ereader has won are that of broadening my reading habits and skewing the number of fiction versus nonfiction books I buy. As for the former, I now read concurrently fiction and nonfiction rather than cycling and I read multiple genres of fiction rather than cycling. As for the latter, whereas I used to buy 20 nonfiction for every 1 fiction pbook, I now buy many more than 20 fiction for every 1 nonfiction I buy, although I read only 3 fiction for every 1 nonfiction (I have large to-be-read piles of both to get through). However, I rarely spend more than 99¢ on the fiction books.

My reading and buying habits have been significantly influenced by the ebook revolution. Has it affected your habits, too?

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 17, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers

I have “bought” more than 400 ebooks since I received my Sony Reader as a gift 2.5 years ago. I put “bought” in quotes because about half of the ebooks I “bought” were free ebooks; the other half I paid for. But I’ve noticed a significant downward trend in my buying of ebooks in the past few months, and I have finally realized why that is occurring: frustration with the ebookseller experience.

Before someone jumps up and says how wonderful and easy the buying is at Amazon with the wireless downloading to the Kindle and the 1-click payment system, let me be clear: having to download to my computer and transfer to my Sony and having to go through a couple of steps to complete the buying transaction are not the source of my frustration. I don’t find either troublesome or taxing.

The source of my frustration is finding the good book to read and buy at these ebooksellers — the finding of the needle in the haystack of needles.

Let me illustrate the problem. Fictionwise lists 2751 titles in the Fantasy/Dark Fantasy category; Smashwords lists 1223 titles in SciFi/Fantasy; and Sony Reader Store lists 6810 titles in SciFi/Fantasy. How much time would it take to go through 1223 titles looking for a few books? Even at 30 seconds a title, it would take more than 10 hours to go through the Smashwords list, which is by far the shortest list. Perhaps you are willing to sit at your computer for 10 hours and do nothing else, but I’m not.

Granted each of the ebookstores has some filters in place, but those filters don’t really address the problem. The reason why is that none of the stores offer you the option to filter out books you have already “reviewed” the last time you went looking for an ebook to read.

Buying at a brick-and-mortar bookstore reduces the problem significantly because of the store’s limited inventory. But online ebooksellers have virtually unlimited inventory that grows weekly. Consequently, the very first improvement I think ebooksellers need to institute is the ability to create a custom inventory for each buyer. Just as one can choose, for example, to filter out ebooks already purchased at Fictionwise (a filter that all the other ebooksellers should offer), there should also be a filter for books that I have already reviewed and am not interested in.

It should be relatively easy to implement, although I admit I am not a programmer. Next to each title should be 3 checkboxes: Add to Cart, Add to Wishlist, and Remove from Personal Inventory. If I check Remove from Personal Inventory, the next time I search for something to read, the ebook would not be included in the choices. However, there should be a list kept that I have access to so that I can reverse my decision 3 months from now by unchecking the title.

Another problem with all of these ebooksellers is that when I look for an ebook and spend an hour going through the first 10 “pages” or so of inventory and then leave the site, on my return, I need to start over, as if I had never looked at any of the ebooks previously. Admittedly, this is a tougher problem to solve because new titles are constantly being added and ratings change. I’d like to see two separate lists: a list of new titles since my last visit (new titles list) and the list that I had been perusing on my last visit (the last visit list).

The last visit list should let me pick up from where I left off; if I was on “page” 9, I should be able to go to page 9 and continue reviewing ebooks, knowing that all of the ebooks I reviewed on my prior visit are found in “pages” 1 to 8.

I also would like to see more filters. Smashwords’ filtering is so limited, it almost might as well not exist. Fictionwise’s and Sony’s are not any better, although Fictionwise at least lets me filter out books I have already purchased (but not the titles if they are in a different format; e.g., if I purchased the ebook but not the audio version, the audio version still shows up in the list).

I don’t read, for example, vampire books. Why can’t I filter out vampires? Or fantasy that doesn’t include dragons and elves? With the descriptions and the metadata available, shopping can be made a lot easier, and the easier it is, the more likely books will sell.

It is not enough that an ebookstore has hundreds of thousands of titles; the titles must be accessible and to make them accessible, better methods of finding that needle in the haystack of needles is needed. The ebookseller who conquers this problem will be the ebookseller who leads the burgeoning ebook market.

June 16, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books — the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review  to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, “2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better  chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

May 18, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (III)

As always, I keep expanding my to-be-read pile. Since my last report, I have added several books, including these hardcover books:

  • The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education by Diane Ravitch
  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaind MacCulloch
  • The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought by Eric Nelson
  • Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam by Fred M. Donner
  • Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court by Jeff Shesol
  • Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius
  • Secret of the Dragon (Dragonships of Vindras Series) by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman
  • The Shadow of Saganami (Disciples of Honor Series #2) by David Weber
  • A Mighty Fortress (Safehold Series #4) by David Weber

David Weber is one of my favorite scifi/fantasy authors and so when I get a new book from him, I drop all else to read. Weber continues to entertain me and I enjoyed both of the books in the above list.

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman used to be favorite authors in that same genre, but their last two books have ended that relationship, particularly the one listed above — that one, I couldn’t even finish, I found it dull and boring.

The remaining 6 books are nonfiction (you probably guessed that from the titles) and just recently arrived. I haven’t broken any of them open yet, as I’m still reading through earlier purchases (hardcover novels tend to get read immediately because they are quick reads for me; nonfiction takes longer, especially if the author has a lot of footnotes, as I often get sidetracked checking out books cited to see if I want to purchase them for my library).

I recently finished reading For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus by Frederick Brown (see On Today’s Bookshelf (II)). I have a particular interest in the Dreyfus Affair. I admit, however, that For the Soul of France was not a particularly engaging book — I struggled to get through it. Another book that was on my first bookshelf that I struggled to read is Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning. The writing style simply didn’t resonate with me. I should have known that I would find the book difficult because I also had difficulty getting through his book The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. It isn’t that the books are poorly researched — they’re not; they are well researched. It is simply the style of writing that I found difficult.

I am currently reading A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland, which is a well-written and interesting book from my first On Today’s Bookshelf list. I plan on reviewing the book in the future, but for anyone interested in the Civil War, here’s an advance thumbs up recommendation.

But, as I’m sure you may know, I also read a lot of ebooks. Up to this point, all of the books I have cited in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles have been hardcover pbooks I have added to my collection. Beginning with today’s article, I will also mention some of the ebooks I have purchased.

eBooks for me are a different being altogether. Rarely will I buy a nonfiction ebook. The few I have bought have been problematic, including foot-/endnote links that don’t work, not-well-reproduced illustrations and figures, and the like. Consequently, nearly all of my ebook purchases are fiction. Unfortunately for you, my taste in fiction runs in cycles (cycles that last many years) and the current cycle is science fiction/fantasy. Someday it will switch to mystery or action or some other genre (alas, never romance or vampires for those who like those genres).

In addition, because the traditional publishers tend to cripple their ebooks by overpricing them, I often buy from unknown authors, many of whom have provided me with hours of enjoyment, others of whom either bored me or annoyed me with poor everything (spelling, grammar, character development, plot, etc.).

Rather than give you a list of what I’m waiting to read, I’ll give you a list of a few titles or series that I have already read and that I enjoyed. None of these are great literature — all are good reads and inexpensive. All are available without DRM and in multiple formats from either Fictionwise or Smashwords.

  • The Chronicles of the Necromancer (a 4-book series) by Gail Z. Martin
  • The Asphodel Cycle (a 4-book series) by Celina Summers
  • Lord of Wind and Fire (a 3-book series) by Elaine Corvidae
  • To Find a Wonder by Jennifer Carson
  • The Lords of Dus (a 4-book series) by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • The Demonstone Chronicles (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Sword of Heavens (a 7-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Forgotten Legacy (an 8-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • The Targa Trilogy (a 3-book series) by Richard S. Tuttle
  • Promises to Keep (trilogy plus sequel) by Shayne Parkinson

The last listed series by Shayne Parkinson is neither scifi nor fantasy — it is the story of a New Zealand family in the 1880-1910 era. It will be the subject of a separate review. It is not normally a genre I would read, but this is one of the best written series of books in fiction I have read in several years. I highly recommend it. It is available at Smashwords and is comprised of these 4 books: Sentence of Marriage, Mud and Gold, Settling the Account, and A Second Chance.

With summer coming, reading time may become more precious, but there is nothing like a good book to stimulate the mind.

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