An American Editor

December 5, 2012

On Books: Gatekeeping eBooks

Filed under: On Books — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
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In pre-ebook days, gatekeeping was done by the traditional publishers; today, with the rise of ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, it is the reader who is responsible for doing his or her own gatekeeping. The problem is how to do it. All of the traditional tools are still available with the exception of the traditional publisher’s staff. Some of the tools are less valid, today, such as “customer” reviews than they once were, but even the less-valid tools offer some guidance. For me, I’ve added one tool to my armory: dreams.

I know it sounds silly, but I realized that dreams are a result of some environmental stimulus — good or bad. They don’t just happen in a vacuum; something happened during waking hours that has stimulated my imagination. Consequently, I have realized that one of the ways I distinguish between an ebook worth mentioning to friends and an ebook I hope to never hear of again, is dreaming.

A quality read is one in which the characters are stimulating, are “real,” are “people” I want to know better, who have adventures I want to share. A second attribute of a quality read is that these characters are participants in a well-told story within which I, the reader, want to participate myself.

I am setting aside the usual problems of which I complain, such as poor grammar and rampant misspellings. I admit that I have read several ebooks recently where grammar and misspellings were annoying but the characters and story were such that I was willing to overlook the problems. Such books war with me: Do I recommend them to friends or not? For the most part, I decide to not recommend them because the problems are too overwhelming, too distracting.

It is these authors and ebooks for whom I feel most sorry. It is clear to me that they failed to invest in their book after they completed the manuscript, or if they did invest, they did not invest wisely. Yet, they clearly have a topnotch tale to tell. A good example of this paradox is Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny series, which I reviewed in On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny.

But I digress. Great characters and a great story are all-important when it comes to writing. A grammatically perfect manuscript is of little value if the story and characters aren’t compelling and grabbing. Thus my dreaming as gatekeeping.

I know I have hit the motherlode of characterization and storyline when I dream about a book I am reading. When in my dreams I try to anticipate the plotline, when I try to play matchmaker among the characters, when I take the characters on a new adventure that I think naturally evolves from the author’s storyline, I know that I have found an ebook that rises from the slush pile.

What I have come to realize is that dreaming is my gatekeeper when it comes to fiction ebooks. (I read nonfiction books for different purposes than I read fiction and thus do not find myself dreaming about the nonfiction books I read.) I realized in recent months that if I am not dreaming about an ebook’s characters or story, I am generally not satisfied with the ebook — whether it be because the characters are not well-formed, the story is plodding, or there are so many errors that I can’t focus on anything but the errors — and so delete the ebook without completing it.

The ebooks I read from beginning to end are those about which I dream favorably. Like most readers, I recognize that there are many more ebooks available for me to read than there are hours left in my life in which to read them, so why waste time on ebooks that cannot evoke a positive dream?

Interestingly, I also realized that there are levels of intensity to my dreams, by which I mean that some ebooks evoke a fleeting dream, a dream that is enough for me to finish the ebook I am reading but not intense enough to induce me to read more ebooks by the same author. My reading habits are such that if I find myself enthusing over an ebook, as soon as I am finished with it, I rush to buy and read the remaining ebooks available by the author. Good examples of such authors are Shayne Parkinson and Vicki Tyley, both of whose ebooks I have reviewed here multiple times.

The hard part for authors is figuring out how to capture that enthusiasm, how to encourage the dreaming. Alas, there is no easy formula for doing so. It is clear to me that there is something more needed than fundamental writing skills. This is obvious when I note how I treasure books by certain authors but not books by other authors. It is also clear to me that good characterization and storyline can only go so far; disinterested professional help is also needed. (Perhaps an editor should be viewed as being a psychologist for a book in the sense that a disinterested professional editorial perspective can help an author surmount problems that might otherwise not be surmounted or even identified.)

At least for the foreseeable future I have my own built-in ultimate gatekeeper. As long as I continue to find ebooks that encourage positive dreaming, I will be a happy reader.

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.

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