An American Editor

October 19, 2011

Thinking About Presidents: The Election of 1948

One of the discussions that takes place in my household with some frequency revolves around the questions “who were our greatest presidents and why?” Over the years, Harry Truman has ranked among my top presidents. (I also admit that I love that classic photograph of Truman holiding the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman.”)

The issue is not do I agree or disagree with what a president did, but rather the impact of the president on the United States. I cannot imagine making the decision to drop the second atomic bomb after having witnessed the destruction of the first.

Truman was a leader in many ways. Barack Obama’s national health care plan got its first breath of life under Harry Truman. Just as today’s Republicans oppose Obama’s plan, the Republicans opposed Truman’s plan in the late 1940s.

Truman broke the ground on civil rights, too. When the Republican Congress refused to integrate the U.S. military, Truman did it by executive order.

Perhaps, most importantly, I think Truman saved the United States from a crisis that could have been as impacting as was our Civil War. General Douglas MacArthur was a World War II hero and commanded a lot of attention among GIs. In fact, MacArthur was put forth as a nominee for president in the 1948 election by those who were seeking anyone but Truman.

But MacArthur had an ego that was significantly larger than deserved or appropriate, with the result being that he instigated a constitutional crisis during the Korean War. At the time, MacArthur was much more popular than Truman, which helped lend credence to the crisis.

MacArthur was ordered not to cross the Yalu River. Truman was fearful that doing so would bring Russia into the war and potentially could lead to atomic war. Truman preferred to use a “containment strategy” that would limit the scope of the Korean War. Because MacArthur made it publicly clear that he disagreed with Truman’s strategy, Truman ordered MacArthur to clear his plans with Truman, an order he was entitled to give as commander-in-chief. MacArthur disobeyed  Truman’s order by privately communicating with Congress and disparaging Truman in those communications. Consequently, on April 11, 1951, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.

This firing raised the issue of whether the military was subordinate to the president, something that was part of the American tradition of military-civil relations, but which was strained as a result of the firing. Truman’s firing and its subsequent confirmation by a congressional committee established to determine whether the firing by the president was lawful finally firmly established civilian and presidential superiority over the American military.

What brings all this to the table today? I just finished reading 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory by David Pietrusza. This is a well-written fascinating look at presidential politics of 1948.

Within months of winning the 1944 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died and Harry Truman became president. Although Truman successfully completed World War II, albeit not without controversy largely over his use of the atomic bomb, he rapidly became a rejected-by-his-party president. In 1947-1948, the Democrats tried to convince Dwight Eisenhower to run as their candidate. Polls showed that no matter who ran against Truman, Truman would lose the 1948 election.

In the end, as we know, Truman won. Why he won makes for a fascinating story, especially as his Republican opponent, Thomas E. Dewey, even on election day as ballots were being counted, was prognosticated to win the election handily. Surprisingly, it was Truman who won handily. The reasons were many, not least of which was that Americans liked Truman’s feistiness, which was in contrast to Dewey’s play-it-safe posture during the campaign.

Truman’s 1948 victory has lessons for Barack Obama. With the contempt that many prior supporters are showing for Obama, it is clear that Obama needs to do something if he wishes to resurrect himself and be reelected in 2012. He could do much worse than to read about Truman’s approach, especially as Truman faced greater opposition within his own party than Obama currently does.

Regardless, Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory is not only well-written, but it is one of the best edited books I have read in a long time (definitely 5-star) — at least the print version is; I did not buy the ebook version as I wanted this for my library. I have ordered The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zacharay Karabell (2000) in hardcover and am planning on ordering Irwin Ross’s The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 (1968) so I can compare author insights into this fascinating election.

I highly recommend Pietrusza’s 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory for anyone interested in true life, come-from-behind, against-all-odds stories.

October 17, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (X)

Filed under: On Today's Bookshelf,To Be Read — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , ,

My to-be-read pile keeps getting higher and higher. Fortunately, ebooks don’t take up much in the way of physical space or I would be in trouble. I must have a backlog of close to 500 ebooks waiting to be read.

I’m beginning to think that being a booklover is more akin to an illness than to anything else. The ease with which we can accumulate and store ebooks — and that so many of us are unable to resist adding to our ebook collection — should create a new psychological disorder along the lines of hoarding. I’m not sure what to name it, but now is the time to start thinking of names so perhaps I can get bragging rights when the American Psychological Association finally recognizes my named disorder.

Anyway, it’s time to list the new acquisitions. As usual I begin with hardcovers.

Hardcovers —

  • 1948: Harry Truman’s Improbable Victory by David Pietrusza
  • The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election by Zachary Karabell
  • The Annotated Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll
  • The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 by Piers Brendon
  • Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance by Michael Goldfarb

eBooks (a partial list of recent acquisitions) 

  • Show No Mercy: A Michael Dodge Thriller by Brian Drake
  • Mist Warriors by Rebecca Shelley
  • The Chicago Druid and the Ugly Princess by Thomas Kennedy
  • Hunting the Wolfpack by Michael McQuade
  • Starseeker by Stephen Shypitka
  • Openers by Michael E. Benson
  • Dark Moon Rising by B.K. Reeves
  • Dead is Dead by James Gabriel
  • Vindicator by Denney Clements
  • Untouchable by Scott O’Connor
  • The Girl Born of Smoke by Jessica Billings
  • Shadow Touch by Erin Kellison
  • Ransome’s Honor by Kaye Dacus
  • Night Bird’s Reign by Holly Taylor
  • Legwork: A Casey Jones Mystery by Katy Munger
  • Gap Creek by Robert Morgan
  • Birchwood by Robert Taylor
  • Deadworld by J.N. Duncan
  • The Girl Who Tweaked Two Lions’ Tails by Pierre Van Rooyen
  • Mama Does Time by Deborah Sharp
  • Deadly Sanctuary by Sylvia Nobel
  • Until Proven Guilty by J.A. Nance
  • Rys Rising by Tracy Falbe
  • The Society of Dirty Hearts by Ben Cheetham

As is usual with the ebooks, the purchase price of nearly all of the ebooks was “free.” With all of the free ebooks that are available, including from traditional publishers, I am beginning to wonder if there is really a future for the larger corporate publishers. I am accumulating so many freebies that I never have to buy a high-priced Agency 6 book to have something to read — even if 85% of the freebies turn out to be not readable at all.

For the big publishing houses, this should be worrisome. Alas, I do not think it even registers with them — if it does, it isn’t reflected in the pricing of Agency 6 ebooks.

October 3, 2011

Is This the Next Sneak Attack on eBookers?

Here’s something I’m sure every major publisher is thinking about: How can I get consumers to buy both the pbook and ebook versions of a book? Well, maybe they aren’t really sitting around the table thinking about that, but with my latest pbook purchase, I’m wondering if they are thinking about it.

I have enjoyed the “Safehold Series” of books by David Weber. Because Weber is one of my favorite authors, I buy his books in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library. A week ago, the fifth book in the series, How Firm a Foundation, was released. I had preordered it in hardcover and eagerly awaited its arrival.

It arrived and I put down my Sony 950 Reader to take up Weber’s book. That lasted a whole five minutes and two pages. The publisher chose a font size that was so small I could barely read the text. For my eyes to read the text, I needed a magnifying lens. This is the first time this has happened; I don’t know whether my eyes suddenly got worse (not likely based on the lack of problem I have with any other pbook I own) or the font size was deliberately smaller than usual in an attempt to keep production costs down.

Now I was in a quandary. Do I struggle to read the book? Do I put the book aside and simply not bother to read it? Do I break down and buy the ebook version, thereby doubling my cost because the book is published by TOR, an Agency 6 imprint? I struggled with these choices for about 30 minutes and ultimately settled on the third choice. The ebook cost $1 less than the hardcover, which was significantly discounted, so I effectively doubled what I paid to read this book.

This experience started me thinking: Will this be the next ploy of publishers? Will the Agency 6 decide that a small font size that is difficult for a good portion of readers is the best way to force readers to buy an overpriced ebook?

Experience demonstrates that publishers are investing fewer dollars in quality control, and fewer dollars in otherwise standard production services like editing. Experience also shows that overpriced ebooks from the Agency 6 are likely more profitable for them, which means a push to agency-priced ebooks.

In olden days, I would not have even thought to view what happened through the lens of conspiracy. But the Agency 6 have so badly botched their public relations regarding ebooks and ebook pricing that the conspiracy lens jumps right out at me. The Agency 6 publishers have met their Waterloo — consumer mistrust that paints everything the Agency 6 does with the brush of distrust.

It seems to me that for publishers to maximize return, they need to help move readers to ebooks and away from any form of pbook. I know I’ve written this before (see, e.g., The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern), but if I were a publisher today, seeing that the trend is rapid growth in ebooks and no to flat growth in pbooks, I would be working on plans to drop mass market paperbacks and publish only trade paperbacks, hardcovers, and ebooks. Phase 2 of my planning would be to eliminate trade paperbacks and just publish hardcovers and ebooks. Perhaps a decade or two down the road, I would look at publishing hardcovers in limited edition runs for collectors and those pbook diehards.

So, moving back to David Weber’s new book and the font size, I guess it is possible that this was unintentional (i.e., using a small font in hopes of selling the ebook version) but now that it has occurred, I wonder if someone at TOR is following sales closely enough to draw a conclusion whether future TOR books should also use this hard-to-read font size.

I’m continually amazed at how the Agency 6 stumble around the periphery of a plan for ebooks but never quite have the moxie to do something constructive for them and for their readers. Recently, I wondered if they were going to draw the right lesson from the Harris Interactive Survey (see The Survey Gives a Lesson?). It is not that I’m cheerleading for the Agency 6 — frankly, I think their pricing scheme is a major consumer ripoff that has no merit — but there are certain things that I would like to see the Agency 6 accomplish because I think it would be good for me as a consumer and for ebooks. The question is how to lead them by their collective nose to those things that would benefit everyone.

July 27, 2011

Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 6, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (IX)

It seems as if it was only yesterday (it was a month ago) when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party by Susan Dunn
  • The African American Experience During World War II by Neil A. Wynn
  • Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II by J. Todd Moye
  • Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House by Kenneth T. Walsh
  • Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang by John Ayto and John Simpson
  • Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial by H.L. Mencken (this is a paperback reprint of Mencken’s newspaper reports)
  • Hitler and America by Klaus P. Fischer

Several of the hardcover books I bought at Author’s Day, which was held at the FDR Library on June 18, 2011. The authors were invited by the Library to give a speech or reading and then autograph their books. The capstone event was a conversation between the historians Michael Beschloss and James MacGregor Burns.

ebooks —

  • In Her Name: Empire; Confederation; Final Battle; First Contact; and Legend of the Sword by Michael R. Hicks (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name)
  • Demon Lord by T.C. Southwell
  • Through a Dark Mist by Marsha Canham
  • Sacred Secrets, A Jacoby Ives Mystery by Linda S. Prather
  • Murder on the Mind by L.L Bartlett
  • Driftnet and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson
  • Stumbling Forward by Christopher Truscott
  • A Death in Beverly Hills by David Grace
  • Bake Sale Murder by Leslie Meirer
  • Blood Count and Londongrad by Reggie Nadelson
  • Durell’s Insurrection by Rodney Mountain
  • Impeding Justice by Mel Comley
  • Maid for Mayhem by Bridget Allison
  • Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander
  • The American Language by H.L. Mencken
  • The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor
  • Who Killed Emmett Till by Susan Klopfer
  • Dying for Justice, Passions of the Dead, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death by L.J. Sellers (These are books 2 to 5 in the Detective Jackson Series; the first book, The Sex Club, was listed in an early On Today’s Bookshelf — see below)
  • Enemies and Playmates by Darcia Helle
  • Henrietta the Dragon Slayer by Beth Barany
  • Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
  • Oathen by Jasmine Giacomio
  • The Last Aliyah by Chris Hambleton
  • Too Near the Edge by Lynn Osterkamp

Most of the ebooks were gotten free, either that being the author-set price or as a result of an author promotion using a coupon code. After reading Michael Hick’s In Her Name: Empire, I decided I liked the book well enough to purchase the other 4 available volumes of the series — Confederation, Final Battle, First Contact, and Legend of the Sword (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name). I purchased Christopher Truscott’s Stumbling Forward on a recommendation from author Vicki Tyley, whose books I have reviewed previously (see On Books: Murder Down Under).

L.J. Seller’s Detective Jackson Series is an excellent mystery series. When I have finished reading the recently acquired books 2 to 5, I plan to review them. However, for anyone who is looking for a 5-star mystery series, this series fits the need. Currently, the author is offering the books at a discounted price of 99¢ each (be sure to scroll down the page to the discounted price); the normal price is $3.19 each. If you like mysteries/police procedurals, you won’t go wrong buying them before I review them.

For those interested, Smashwords is having a major sale, their July Summer/Winter Sale, with authors offering their books at discount s of 25% to 100%. The sale runs through July 31, 2011. It is a good time to buy indie books and get introduced to some new authors.

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?

June 20, 2011

The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 8, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII)

It seems as if it was only yesterday when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh
  • Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer
  • Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt by William David Myers
  • Eichmann’s Jews by Doron Rabinovici (preorder)

Hardcover (Preorder) —

  • Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (fiction)
  • A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber (fiction)

eBooks (Nonfiction)

  • Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister

eBooks (Fiction)

  • Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove (short story)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel by David Mitchell
  • Bad Faith by Mike O’Connor
  • Jack’s School of Shines by Jack Sorenson
  • Secrets of the Tudor Court by D.L. Bogdan
  • The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
  • Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
  • The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood by Scott Semegran
  • Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan
  • Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry
  • Clever is as Clever Does,  The West Wind Blows, Careful What You Wish For, and The Clever Detective by Linsey Lanier (4 individual books)
  • Fair Price by Laura Lond
  • The Taking of FLOTUS by Clayton Spann
  • The Blood-stained Belt by Brian H. Jones
  • The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald
  • Soldier of God by David Hagberg
  • The Lost Fleet Series: Victorious, Relentless, Valiant, Courageous, Dauntless, and Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (7 individual books)
  • Work of Art, Bethel Merriday, World So Wide, The Prodigal Parents, Kingsblood Royal, Gideon Planish, Dodsworth, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (8 individual books)
  • A Vote of Confidence by Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Too Close to Home by Lynette Eason
  • Torch, Driftnet, and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson (3 individual books)

As you can see, the TBR (To Be Read) pile keeps growing. Worth noting, however, is that at least 20 of the listed ebooks were gotten free, either via discount coupon or because the author set the price at free. Needless to say, all of the hardcover books required payment. Finally, the list of ebooks is incomplete. It is just a sampling of the ebooks I have “purchased” in recent months, with 90% of them being free.

I admit that owning an ereader has seriously affected my reading habits. I am reading more than ever before (and I always was a voracious reader) and in a greater variety of genres. Before my ereader days, I generally read nonfiction and then the genre of the year (i.e., serially — I would read mysteries for a couple of years then switch to fantasy for a while, and then move to another genre, but each genre was exclusive). Since acquiring my first ereader 3.5 years ago, I now read multiple genres concurrently. I like to read several books simultaneously, so now I may read a mystery, a fantasy, and something in nonfiction concurrently. But whereas previously the genres I read were few, I now am reading in many more genres, including historical fiction, historical romance, science fiction, “chick lit,” classics, and so on.

Every time I look at my TBR pile, I think that I need to take a vacation from acquiring new ebooks, but I have found that impossible — too many are being produced that have enticing descriptions. Hopefully, when I retire, I will be able to get through the TBR pile more quickly.

May 25, 2011

On Books: Hearts Touched by Fire

A few days ago I was in my local Barnes & Noble checking out new nonfiction books. I came across Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer. This book is different from other books in many ways (not least of which is its size — 1230 pages), and one of those differences is what drew me to it. (It is available in both hardcover and as an ebook, and is one of the few new releases I have seen where the ebook is actually less expensive than the hardcover.)

Let me say upfront that I have not read the book in its entirety. I have read snippets. Yet let me explain what this book is and why it is worth buying for anyone interested in the U.S. Civil War.

In July 1883, on the twentieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, the 19th century magazine, The Century Magazine, entertained an argument regarding which was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Opinions differed and the discussion led to this: Why not invite Confederate and Union generals, or if dead someone who could speak for/from the dead general’s view, to write articles about various battles from their own perspectives. For example, getting the perspective from both sides of the battle for Fort Sumter, which is recognized as the opening battle of the Civil War.

Apparently the magazine had great success with this concept, as it led to the publication of a 4-volume set titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Hearts Touched by Fire is an edited and merged-into-a-single-volume version of that 4-volume set.

Hearts Touched by Fire also adds to the discussions year-by-year introductions written by eminent Civil War historians such as James McPherson and Craig Symonds. I’m sure there are other books of a similar structure, but none that I am aware of for the Civil War. It is fascinating to read the differing perspectives of, for example, the first battle of Bull Run written by P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnson. Ever wonder what the common soldier thought? The volume includes “Going to the Front: Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss.

If you are interested in the U.S. Civil War, Hearts Touched by Fire can provide unique insights into the thinking of each side. I highly recommend the book.

May 4, 2011

In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (III)

Discussion among commenters regarding the prior two installments of this series, In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I) and In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (II), continue to focus on interchangeability of authors, with some commenters agreeing with the idea and others (the majority) disagreeing.

I don’t intend to rehash this argument in this final installment, but I would refer readers to On Books: Murder Down Under, in which I review the mysteries of Australian author Vicki Tyley, as an example of an indie author who I consider the equivalent or near-equivalent of some well-known traditionally published mystery writers. Similarly, I would refer readers to On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet, in which I review Shayne Parkinson’s ebooks. Parkinson is another indie author who I consider the equivalent or near-equivalent of some well-known traditionally published historical fiction writers.

I will note, however, that if authors are not interchangeable, then ebookers are buying a unique, potentially scarce, commodity that is not replicable in the marketplace, justifying high pricing. Additionally, as a unique item, there is no reason why pricing shouldn’t be even higher. In fact, it might be worthwhile for publishers to create an artificial scarcity by limiting the number of ebook versions of a particular novel that can be sold, which, when combined with the lack of author interchangeability, could drive pricing even higher.

However, because I do find authors to be interchangeable, in this final installment I will attempt to determine just where in the continuum of book pricing ebooks should fall.

The publishing business, until recently, began with the hardcover. Publishers set a suggested retail price against which they charged booksellers a wholesale price. Until the advent of discounting of books about 50 years ago, booksellers sold the hardcovers at the suggested price. But to publishers, the selling price didn’t — and continues not to — matter much. Regardless of how much a hardcover is discounted, the publisher gets a “fixed” wholesale price. If the wholesale discount is 50%, the bookseller pays the publisher $15 on a suggested retail price of $30; the bookseller then retails the hardcover for any price between 1¢ and $30 (or more), either making or losing money on the sale.

The fly in the publisher’s ointment, however, has been and continues to be returns (see, e.g., It’s Raining, It’s Pouring: Returns in an eBook Age and A Modest Proposal: A 21st Century Publishing Model). When setting the price for a hardcover edition, the publisher needs to consider myriad costs, including returns of unsold copies. Although not a perfect science, production and return costs of the hardcover can justify the hardcover’s pricing, at least to a reasonable extent.

In addition to the hardcover production and return costs, it is the hardcover sales — because it is traditionally the first available edition of a book — where the publisher tries to recoup all of its expenses plus make a profit. The publishing of a paperback version, traditionally, was for long-tail profits.

An interesting thing about print book pricing is that publishers recognize — and have recognized for decades — that even though the production and return costs of paperbacks and hardcovers are quite similar, the publisher cannot charge readers who buy the paperback the same price, or even close to the same price, as is charged for the hardcover. The gap, which is better described as a chasm, between hardcover and paperback is enormous, with the paperback often having a suggested retail price as little as 20% to 25% of the hardcover’s suggested price, and selling for about 50% of the discounted hardcover’s real selling price.

Yet with these enormous differentials staring them in the face, publishers are satisfied — until it comes to ebooks. Suddenly, then, the perspective changes and discounted pricing is a bugaboo because it threatens to “devalue” books.

There is no sense in repeating all the things (and the arguments pro and con) that differentiate ebooks from print books, such as restrictive licensing (lease vs. own), DRM, reproduction costs, warehousing costs, no returns, etc. It suffices to say that whereas publishers see no devaluing of print books that we own and can freely disseminate and even resell when print books are discounted, they see devaluing in discounting ebooks, even though we cannot do any of the same things legally.

With interchangeability of authors, a no-returns policy (i.e., no consumer returns and no ebookstore returns), and the DRM-imposed restrictions on ebooks, there is no justification for pricing an ebook above the price set for the lowest suggested retail price for the paperback version. In the era of ebooks, an ebook is not worth more than a paperback; if anything, it is worth less.

It is worth less because the only thing an ebook provides that a paperback or a hardcover version do not is portability convenience. Once that is eliminated from the equation, an ebook provides nothing else that is superior to the print version. In fact, I’d daresay everything else is inferior. Certainly, quality control is inferior and when I buy a print version that is riddled with errors, I can return it to the bookstore, which can return it for credit to the publisher — something that cannot occur with ebooks as there is nothing to return.

If scarcity were a factor, as it can be with print books; if resale value were a factor, as it can be with print books; if the marketplace set the final retail price, as is the case with print books; if authors weren’t interchangeable; if I could lend an ebook as often as I wanted to whomever I wanted, as freely as I can with print books; if quality control for ebooks equalled that of print books, or even came close; if I owned an ebook like I own a print book; if myriad other advantages of print books were at least nearly approached with ebooks, then higher pricing would be justifiable — but they aren’t and it isn’t.

In fact, what has occurred is just what publishers feared: books have become devalued. But the devaluation has come about as a result of the absurd ebook pricing instituted by publishers, notably the Agency 6. Whereas before readers like me would willingly buy print books at relatively high prices, largely because we saw some value in doing so, we have now been converted to ebooks and are shopping for books at the under $4.99, and often free, price point.

Publishers fought the $9.99 bestseller price that Amazon tried to impose. But what they failed to recognize was that the $9.99 price point was applied to a limited number of ebooks and because ebookers were psychologically happy with that price point, they also bought, without much complaint, ebooks at higher price points — ebookers didn’t actively restrict themselves to ebooks that did not exceed a significantly lower price point. The imposition of agency pricing by the Agency 6 altered buying habits. Now instead of being satisfied with a $9.99 price point, many ebookers, such as myself, have set a significantly lower price point and actively look for ebooks that do not exceed that price point. For us author interchangeability is fact. Whereas before I might have bought a Stephen King novel, now I ignore King and find low-price equivalents, of which there are many. Similarly, I buy Vicki Tyley mysteries rather than mysteries by P.D. James or Martha Grimes, and I buy Shayne Parkinson historical novels rather than those written by Philippa Gregory or Elizabeth Chadwick.

A restricted ebook, such as is published by the Agency 6, is simply not worth more than the lowest suggested retail price for the paperback version, which is usually 25% to 30% of the suggested retail price for the hardcover. It is time for publishers to stop devaluing their books with unrealistic agency pricing for ebooks and let the marketplace determine ebook pricing, as is done for the print versions.

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