An American Editor

January 4, 2018

Worth Noting: Building the American Republic

The University of Chicago Press has published two new books on the history of America. I admit I haven’t yet read the books, so I can’t say for sure that they will be the history books of the year or even the month, but the authors are well-respected historians and the press is a well-respected press, so there is high expectation.

What makes these two books particularly noteworthy absent review or my having read them is that they are being made available as free ebooks, in addition to being available at a price in print.

The ebooks, Building the American Republic, Volume 1: A Narrative History to 1877 by  Harry L. Watson and Building the American Republic, Volume 2: A Narrative History from 1877 by Janet Dailey are available for free download from your favorite ebookstore or from the University of Chicago Press at this link:

Building the American Republic

One can never know enough about the past, the present, or the future, and reading well-researched and well-written history helps expand knowledge about the past.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 10, 2012

Are Free eBooks Killing the Market?

Every day I find another traditional publisher is offering free ebooks. Amazon has made a business out of offering free ebooks. And let’s not forget the many indie authors who are offering their ebooks for free.

What is this doing to the market for ebooks?

I admit that I may be atypical in my buying and reading habits, but I do not think so. I have watched my to-be-read (TBR) pile grow dramatically in the past couple of months from fewer than 300 ebooks to more than 1,100 ebooks. If I obtained not another ebook until I read everything in my TBR pile, at my current average rate of reading two to three ebooks per week, I have enough reading material for between 367 and 550 weeks or 7 and 10.5 years.

How has this impacted my buying of ebooks? Greatly! In past years, I bought ebooks regularly. Granted, I was buying mainly indie and low-priced, on-sale traditionally published ebooks, rarely spending more than $6 for an ebook, but I was spending money.

That has all changed. Now I rarely spend any money on an ebook. In the past three months, the only ebook I paid for was Emma Jameson’s Blue Murder, which is her sequel to Ice Blue (which I reviewed in On Books: Ice Blue), at $4.99. Otherwise, all I have done is download free ebooks.

I understand the reason for giving ebooks away for free. How else are authors to attract new readers? This is particularly true when one considers how many ebooks are published each year in the United States alone — more than one million. Some how one has to stand out from the crowd. But with the ever-increasing number of free ebooks, giving away ebooks is less of a way to stand out.

The problem is that too often all of the ebooks in a series (or at least many of the ebooks in a series) or older, standalone titles by an author are given away. All an ebooker need do is wait. Giving away the first book in a series makes a lot of sense to me. If I like the first book, I’ll buy the subsequent books. But when I see that if I have patience I’ll be able to get the subsequent books free, too, then I don’t rush to buy.

The giving away of the free ebooks has brought about another problem: the decline of the must-read author list. I’ve noted before that my must-read author list has signficantly changed over the past few years. In past years, I had a list of more than 20 authors whose books I bought in hardcover as soon as published; today that list is effectively two authors. My must-read ebook author list has grown, but that is a list of indie authors, not traditionally published authors.

Again, the problem is free ebooks. As a consumer, I like free. However, free has so radically altered my book-buying habits — and I suspect the book-buying habits of many readers — that I find it difficult to see a rosy future for publishers, whether traditional or self-publishers. It is because of this that I wonder what lies behind the thinking of publishers who give their ebooks away, especially those who do so in one of Amazon’s programs.

Publishers who participate in Amazon giveaways double hex themselves. First, they undermine their own argument that ebooks are valuable. Second, they antagonize ebookers like me who do not own Kindles or are not Amazon Prime members and thus unable to get those ebooks for free. I have seen so many ebooks available for free on Amazon that are not available to me for free as a Nook or Sony or Kobo owner, that I have simply resolved, with some limited exceptions, not to buy ebooks. Either I’ll get them for free or not at all.

The Amazon giveaways also tempt me to join the “darkside,” that is, if there is a book in which I am interested, to search for it on pirate sites. The publishers, by their action of giving away the ebook on Amazon, are enticing people to pirate by not making their ebooks free at all ebookstores. When publishers degrade the value of ebooks, their message is received by all readers and is acted on by many readers.

This is a no-win situation for everyone. Ultimately, even readers lose because the incentive to write disappears when there is little to no hope of earning any money for the effort. And even if authors continue to write, the quality of the writing will suffer because no one will see the sense in investing their own money in a product they are going to give away.

It is still early in ebook revolution, so no one really knows what eBook World will look like in a decade or two. But it is pretty clear to me that freebie programs like Amazon’s are detrimental to the overall health of the book market. Authors and publishers should rethink the giving away of their ebooks, other than, perhaps, the first book in a series, before they establish in concrete the reader expectation that “if I just wait, I’ll get it for free, so why pay for it now.” If nothing else, the giving away of ebooks is helping to depress the pricing of ebooks and perhaps driving some ebookers to the pirate sites. My own experience as a buyer of ebooks demonstrates this.

I know that ebooksellers like Amazon are reporting rising ebook sales, but the data I want to see are sales numbers without the one-shot blockbusters and the price levels. The current problem with sales data is that we are seeing only the macro information and so do not know what the real effect free ebooks are having on the market. We are also still in the era of growth in the number of ebookers. When that growth stops, we may get a clearer picture. In the meantime, I know that my spending on ebooks has declined from the thousands of dollars to the tens of dollars and is getting close to zero. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this decline in spending.

August 11, 2011

Is There a Future in Editing?

When I began my career as a freelance editor 27 years ago, the future of editing looked bright with possibilities. Twenty-seven years later, I’m not so sure that editing isn’t the incandescent bulb of publishing; that is, on its way to extinction.

Those of us who are editors daily receive mixed messages from the publishing industry. One message is that publishers, who cry wolf much too often, are in significant trouble as a result of the rise of ebooks. Yet nearly every publisher is reporting rising sales as a result of ebooks.

A second message is that yes, publishers and authors want their books properly edited, but the price for that editing needs to be what it was in 1990, not what it should be in 2011.

A third message is that editors who want work need to be prepared to offer additional services gratis. Sure you may be hired to do a copyedit, but while you are at it, you should also do a developmental edit at no charge. (See The Changing Face of Editing where I discussed this phenomenon.)

A fourth message, this one coming from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, is that editing suffers from two significant problems: first, it is a very-easy-entry profession that beckons to a lot of people, and second, that job opportunities for editors are declining as the number of people entering the field is increasing. The logical conclusion to draw from that dynamic is that there is more competition for the available jobs and thus downward pressure on the fees paid/earnable.

Those who we would think of as our natural allies, authors, face similar problems. Here is Harlan Ellison on paying authors (warning: if you are highly offended by “4-letter” language, you might consider bypassing this video):

The most significant point Ellison makes, at least to my way of thinking, is that those who are asking us to do free work are themselves unwilling to do the work for no compensation.

Yet the free problem is a problem that stares us in the face. Consider this: In recent articles I have stated that nearly all of the ebooks I have “purchased” in recent months have been free. There are so many free ebooks available, that I cannot see why anyone would pay money for an ebook. How much more short-sighted can I possibly be?

If I want to be hired for my editorial skills and I want to be paid for those skills, the person hiring me also needs to be — and should be — paid for having written the book. Once the “pay me” chain is broken, it cannot be repaired.

When I address my colleagues, as I will be doing at the upcoming “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference (see Worth Noting: Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century) and have done at earlier conferences, I usually point out how myopic we editors are when considering where we fit in the scheme of things and when thinking about our business. We much too often think about today and tomorrow but not about next month, next year.

I believe the cause (not necessarily the sole cause, but certainly a major cause) of this myopia is that we are solo freelancers. As such, we have a lot of things we need to worry and think about, many of which affect us today and tomorrow, leading us to put off worrying about next year or 5 years from now. Which brings me circling back to the problem of ebooks for us editors.

An ebook is just like a pbook when it comes to editing. An editor’s tasks are the same and the approach is the same. Manuscripts we receive for editing look the same whether the ultimate destination is pbook, ebook, or both. The primary difference I’ve noted between a pbook edit and an ebook edit is the coding to be used, but even that is often the same.

So it isn’t really the skill set an editor requires that is the problem of ebooks. The real problem is that the explosive growth in publishing, which is occurring in ebooks, is occurring in those self-published ebooks that are priced so low (and more often than not free) that the expected revenue generation is insufficient to justify the hiring of a professional editor before publication. Which means that the author undertakes to self-edit. (I have discussed the problems of self-editing in several earlier articles. Two examples are On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud. For one author’s perspective, see The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?)

What we have is that endless cycle of no one wanting to pay for anything. Although an author who writes to satisfy a personal need rather than trying to make writing a full-time job that pays the bills can “afford” to publish his or her book at a nominal price point, the professional editor cannot similarly offer his or her services for little to no compensation.

All of us are being myopic. The author should not undervalue his or her work; it takes a great deal of time and skill to write a book that captivates an audience. It also takes the skills that professional editors have to fine-tune the author’s draft. We should all be looking at a much broader and more long-term relationship, one that fairly compensates all parties and ensures that a polished, well-written book reaches its maximum audience. Just as the author should not undervalue his or her book, we editors should help authors earn a decent return on their investment, encourage authors to purchase our services, and perhaps suggest to authors who offer their book for free not to do so.

I recognize that this is living in a universe that is different from the one I am currently planted in, but if we do not move toward that alternate universe, there may be no future in editing.

January 29, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (II) — Starbucks 1, Publishers 0

On January 23, 2010 The New York Times had a front-page article titled, “On Kindle’s List, the Best Sellers Don’t Necessarily Need to Sell.” The article went on to discuss the phenomenon with which most savvy ebookers are familiar: many of the “bestsellers” on any ebook bestseller list are free titles. More important to publishers is that many of those bestsellers are always-free public domain books, not paid-for ebooks being given away temporarily as promotions.

The article went on to discuss publisher approaches to freebies, how freebies are promotional, and other good reasons why giving away an ebook is good and/or bad. (Sadly, the article neglects to mention some of the best sources for free ebooks such as MobileRead and Feedbooks. Free ebooks at these two sources are well-formatted and generally well-edited by a caring community.)

Let me say upfront that I like free ebooks–afterall, who doesn’t like free. Free ebooks have introduced me to authors whose work I never would have read otherwise. But let me also say that with rare exception, I have not proceeded to buy other books of the new authors I have liked. (I do, however, buy a lot of ebooks and hardcovers — more than 100 of each type in 2009.)

Free ebooks are a two-edged sword for publishers and authors. On the positive side, it introduces readers to authors they might not otherwise have read. In my case, it introduced me to David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington Series, and now I buy all of his books in hardcover. On the other hand, it also introduced me to Fiona McIntosh, author of the Quickening Series. I liked her writing but have not bought either of her newest two books (books 1 and 2 of her Valisar Trilogy) because the publisher set the ebook prices higher than the paperback prices.

So, problem #1 is that many publishers still have no clue about what differentiates an ebooker from a print copy buyer. In the case of David Weber, Tor/Baen gave away older Weber ebooks and reasonably priced new ebooks, thereby gaining a new reader, whereas for Fiona McIntosh HarperCollins/Eos gave away the ebook then threw away the reader with excessive pricing.

Problem #2 is that publishers are creating reader pricing expectations. Readers expect that sometime down the road an author’s newer books will become freebies too, so why buy now, especially at exorbitant pricing. Once the impulse buy is lost, readers tend to forget the author and move on. Yes, the Times article quoted some success stories, but remember this: It is still very early in the ebook revolution (ebooks account for only 5% of the current book market) and what happens today doesn’t indicate what will happen tomorrow. Let me repeat: The ebook bestseller lists are stacked with freebies, not paid-for ebooks.

Let’s consider consumer thinking for a moment. Many people rush to their Starbucks and plop down $4 for a coffee. Within minutes the coffee and the $4 have disappeared, neither to ever be seen nor savored again. This is the Starbucks law: Make the product a one-time consumable and require new payment for the next one-time consumable.

Contrast consumers’ willingness to buy the coffee with their willingness to pay for ebooks. An ebook, unlike the coffee, can be savored over many hours and can be resavored 2 years later. Read that $5 ebook 5 times, and each reading has cost $1; try drinking that same cup of coffee twice let alone 5 times — it simply can’t be done. The coffee is $4 for a one-time thrill whereas an ebook is multiple thrills that cost less each time. This is the anti-Starbucks law: Make the product consumable multiple times  with each consumption costing less. Yet, consumers balk at paying for an ebook and publishers feed the freebie frenzy.

Clearly, publishers aren’t making their case about value very well. Isn’t there something amiss when Starbucks can convince someone to part with $4 for a one-time, short-lived thrill but publishers can’t convince anyone that their product has greater value because it is a long-lived thrill. Perhaps the time has come for publishers to demote the bean counters and promote those who give value to their product. There is no financial future in free books for any publisher or author.

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