An American Editor

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

Recently, on a discussion forum, the question was asked: “Would you trust a paid book review?” Most commenters declared an unambiguous “no,” but I’m not sure the answer is so easy or should be so emphatically given.

We start, of course, with what constitutes payment for a review. In the forum, the answers began with as little as receipt of a free review copy and moved on from there. What was never really addressed, although I did try to raise the issue, was the reviewer’s credentials.

The consensus in the forum was that the most trustworthy reviews are those written by a person who bought the book (which includes either print or ebook version), but studiously avoided the question of “What if the ebook was free?” Commenters didn’t detail what makes these reviewers and their reviews the most trustworthy other than to say, in the broadest terms, that the reviewer is not being influenced. It is truly a sad commentary on our society when we see corruption and influence in everything.

My take is somewhat different. I look at reviews written at Goodreads, Amazon, and other forums with quite a bit more than a grain of salt. As I have remarked in previous posts, anonymous reviewers do not inspire confidence, at least in my thinking, in the veracity of the review. It is not that the reviewer may or may not truly believe that a particular book is worthy of 5 stars or 1 star, it is that I have no idea what criteria the reviewer applied nor do I know what specialized knowledge the reviewer has. Who reviews the reviewer?

If you do not trust any paid reviews/reviewers, you cannot trust reviews in such publications as the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books (NYRB), Publishers Weekly, or the New York Times Book Review. In each of these instances, the reviewers are paid and the publications rely on publisher advertising. But isn’t the truth elsewhere? Isn’t it true that you can rely on these reviews, regardless of whether you agree with them, because of the credentials of the reviewers and the veracity and history of the publication?

When I read a review in the NYRB, which is my favorite review magazine, I know that the reviewer is knowledgable about the area under discussion. When Max Hastings reviews a book about World War II, I know he is competent to do so as a historian of and writer in the era. I expect he will be objective, or as objective as a reviewer can be, because his reputation rides on what he writes.

Importantly, the reviews in magazines like the NYRB are detailed and compare the book(s) under review with other books in the field that address the same issue. Isn’t such a comparison valuable? Doesn’t it add to the worth of the review? Isn’t seeing Max Hastings’s name at the top of the review important for determining the value of the review?

I know that Hastings was paid to write the review, whether it be in dollars or in writing credit for his career. I also know that Hastings writes similar books. Consequently, when I read his review I can evaluate the value of his review, something I cannot do with the anonymous and/or unknown reviewers we see popping up all over the Internet and at places like Amazon.

What I would like to know is how you decide to trust a review. Can you really just ignore all the 5-star and 1-star reviews at Amazon and just concentrate on the 2- to 4-star reviews? How do you feel about a book you have purchased that got rave reviews but when you start reading it, you find it riddled with spelling and grammar errors, and even incoherent in places — none of which was pointed out in 95% of the reviews?

Although a blog is a difficult place to have a discussion, I would like your comments on what you look for in a review and/or a reviewer, not where you go to read reviews.

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

February 16, 2011

The Demise of Borders, Blockbuster, and Choice

I admit that I’m not crying too hard over Borders’ troubles. I once worked for Borders Group (a lot of years ago) and even then I couldn’t figure out how it planned to survive. It has survived a lot longer than I expected.

I am crying a little bit harder over Blockbuster’s demise. My movie watching habits come and go in spurts, which is why I haven’t joined Netflix — why pay a monthly fee if I don’t regularly watch videos? And it is true that I have through Verizon’s FiOS video on demand, but I never use it. My current bill for Verizon landline telephone, Internet, and TV is already in heart attack country — the last thing I want to do is discover that I’ve added $30 or $40 (plus the fees and taxes) to an already outrageous bill.

But the demise of these two 20th-century behemoths got me thinking, especially when combined with the daily reports of another indie bookstore closing, another art gallery that didn’t make it, the lack of record stores, about how consumers are changing the cultural landscape.

You’ve heard me opine before about how I think the growth of the behemoths like Amazon are rally not good for consumers, and as each day passes, I become more convinced of the truth of that belief. I know that many of you, if not most, will talk up Amazon’s low prices, which is the short-term view to consumer well being. This short-term view is so pervasive that it extends from the consumer to our politicians who are deciding what budget cuts should be made to Wall Street’s emphasis on quarterly profits. Instant gratification with the least muss and fuss is the consumer-politician-Wall Street mantra.

Yet if we look objectively at the long term, we can see that we are only destroying the diversity and cultural norms that we say we value. When we oppose Walmart building a new store in our community because it pays low wages and its prices are so low that local stores can’t compete, we send a message that we value local businesses and community members. Yet we make that protest then shop at Amazon or the nearest Walmart because we value the low prices. The message and values are contradictory.

This is the problem with Borders’ demise. On some forums people are posting about how they miss browsing in their local bookstore, but then end their comment by stating that they never bought there — they would just browse, find what they wanted, and then order it online because it was cheaper. Then when the bookstore closed and the staff couldn’t find other jobs and began collecting unemployment, the complaint arose about how our taxes are and we should cut unemployment benefits.

It is a vicious cycle. We choose among our competing values and inevitably most of us choose cheap over any other value.

In my youth, many decades ago, we always bought locally. We knew the store owners and the employees — we went to the same schools as their children, to the same worship house, to the same cultural events, to the same social gatherings. Not today. Today, we rarely know the store owner or anything about him or her, let alone their family. And even if we do know the owner, we want to avoid paying sales tax and pay the lower price we can get from places like Amazon. The fact that Amazon simply takes our money from our community and never returns any of it doesn’t register — price is what registers.

In the brick-and-mortar retail world, Walmart has competition from Target and Costco and other discount retailers. But with the demise of, for example, Borders and indie bookstores (who would have thought that Powell’s, a bookworld icon, would need to lay off staff because of 2 years of losses?), competition in cultural venues is declining and local communities suffer — both culturally and financially. I find it distressing that young people will be within talking distance of one another yet prefer to communicate by texting or twittering. Or that their idea of a social gathering where they can interact with peers is an online game or Facebook.

Humans originally migrated to create clans, then villages, then cities, then nations, places where they could interact with other humans and develop what we euphemistically call civilization. We are beginning to see the cultural rollback to where each human stands alone in a world of their own. When we forsake local culture for price, we chip away at one of the pillars of civilization because those nonlocal places don’t give back any of what they take away.

The Internet age has its pluses, but it also has its minuses — minuses that we are only beginning to see and of which the demise of local, indie stores and outfits like Borders and Blockbuster that have a local presence are symptoms. The forsaking of choice for price as a value will come back to haunt us.

February 14, 2011

Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks

It has been an ongoing frustration of mine, dealing with bibliographic information that cites the Internet and ebooks.

In the olden days, way back when I was a student, the rule was that citing a source meant it really existed and was verifiable; one couldn’t cite and have accepted “James, J. (2010, August 10). Private conversation.” But today, I guess, anything goes — at least if you are in the role of author but not in the role of paper grader; that is, I find these types of cites in academic papers knowing full well that if a student of the author submitted such a cite, it would be unacceptable.

More important, however, is that cites to web pages that no longer exist — if they ever really existed — seem to be de rigueur, and no one complains. It used to be that it was not enough to cite a source, but the source had to be reputable and accepted in the field. It was pretty hard to cite Portnoy’s Complaint as an authority on sexual mores, yet I suspect that would not be true today.

Recently, I edited a book that relied on the Internet for 85% of its authority. A spot check of the cited URLs showed that 50% of those checked either no longer existed or led to an article that had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Interestingly, in another book, the URLs led to third-party summaries of the cited articles, not to the articles themselves.

This does not bode well for the quality of authorship of future work. The problem is compounded when ebooks are thrown into the mix. I’m currently reading a 1200-page ebook. If I cited the ebook for some proposition, how would a reader verify it without reading the whole ebook? eBooks, unlike pbooks, are not paginated. eBooks in the ePub format come with page numbers, but do they correspond to the pbook pagination? Or are they even the same across devices?

What the Internet and ebooks have done is encourage scholarly sloppiness. Increasingly, the response to a query about a source cite is, “Well, it was at that URL on the date I noted. What has happened since, I don’t know and it doesn’t really matter.” And publishers and academicians are buying into this view of source cites — publishers because it is too difficult to get authors to provide solid cites and academicians because it is easier than the more traditional citing procedure.

No one is addressing, however, what this does to the value of the “research.” I find that when I am reading a book I bought and the author has used an URL citation or referred to an ebook, I begin to doubt the accuracy of the book. If I find that a cited URL no longer exists, the value of the book as a scholarly work diminishes rapidly.

I’m not sure what the solution to the problem is. Supposedly there are Internet archives whose purpose is to take snapshots of the Internet daily so as to preserve information, but I’ve not been able to access such an archive.

I recognize that as the face of information changes, so must the acceptable methods of citation. Yet there needs to be a method of ensuring that a cited source exists today, tomorrow, next year, and next decade or scholarly value will decline along with the availability of the source material. In addition, there needs to be a way to vet online sources such as Wikipedia for accuracy.

It is not enough that an online citation format appears in the standard style manuals; somehow the online sources need to be preserved, vetted, and accepted, especially as reliance on such sources grows. In addition, there needs to be a system adopted for universally being able to find cited information in an ebook, not just a broad citation to the ebook, and whatever that method is, it needs to be implemented by ebook device makers and publishers. Whatever method is designed, there needs to be a correspondence between the pbook and ebook versions of the same book; in addition, the method has to be device independent.

There is still a long way to go to make the Internet and ebooks scholarly sources, but the day is coming when it must be accomplished.

December 8, 2010

The Google Wars: Taking the First Step

The first salvo in the Google Wars occurred with Google’s opening of its long-awaited, but greatly disappointing Google Books. In yesterday’s post, Will You be a Googler?, I suggested how things might be, a Christmas of the Future so to speak. But if Google plans to be a real presence in the digital book world with something more than poorly scanned public domain books, it needs to put on its battle gear and get moving toward the front lines now. What follows is one suggestion for first battle orders.

What is it that Google has that no other competitor to Amazon (i.e., no other pbook or ebook competitor) has? Well, there are several things, but most important are the name Google, which is both a noun and a verb and thus ubiquitous in the online world, and the financial resources to do battle on equal terms. The former we need do nothing about; the latter we need to spend.

Let’s move beyond the basics that Google needs to address — the poorly designed Google Books website. That is easily cured; Google can hire any computer-literate high schooler and get a better design. What is not so easily cured is Google’s lack of reputation as the place to go for books. And that is the area of greatest need.

In one online discussion, someone asked whether the Kindle has become the kleenex of ereading devices; kleenex in the sense of a generic name for all devices. I know that when people see me reading on my Sony, the first question asked is, “Is that a Kindle?” How valuable to Amazon is that association of Amazon-Kindle-ebooks?

So step one for Google is to adopt a hardware device as a Google device and for that I nominate the Sony PRS-950. A partnership between Google and Sony is the way to go because the Sony gives more reading real estate and superior ergonomics and build quality when compared to the Kindle. But simply adopting the 950 is not enough.

As part of the adoption process several things need to happen, the most important being these:

  • Sony needs to rewrite the firmware so as to open up the Internet capabilities of the 950 to more than just the Sony ebookstore
  • Google needs to create a modified version of its Chrome browser to work on the 950
  • Google needs to underwrite part of the cost of the Sony 950 so that it can be sold competitively priced to the Kindle
  • Google needs to arrange for the Sony 950 to be usable anywhere in the world

Given a choice between a Sony 950 and a Kindle 3G, with easy-to-use ebookstores with similar content available, I think people would choose the Google-Sony 950 more frequently than the Kindle.

Yet that is only the start. Google needs to attack Amazon where it is most vulnerable, which is in book selection. Right now it is clear that the difference between the Amazon and Google (and Barnes & Noble and Kobo) ebookstores is the difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Yes, there may be scattered titles that one has and the others do not, but for the most part, each has an identical inventory available. (Pricing is a different matter and not one that needs to be addressed at this point.)

But Google can give Amazon a run for its money in exclusives — and it should. Remember when Amazon announced that certain forthcoming books from popular authors would be available exclusively at Amazon for 6 months to 1 year? We haven’t heard a lot about that recently but it is time to stoke the exclusivity war with Google plunging in. And Google offers something that Amazon doesn’t and can’t — search engine ranking. Entry in Google Books can be made to appear in the number 1 position on a search results page.

If I were Google, I would approach the top 25 authors in multiple categories — romance, fantasy, science fiction, historical novels, etc. — and offer an exclusive Google Books deal (I can think of lots of terms that would be appealing to authors to induce them to sign on, but we can save that discussion for another day).

I would also offer an inducement to readers to buy the Google-Sony 950. Buy one and pick 10 ebooks from our vast catalog of ebooks. If the agency folk scream about it, reverse the order: Buy 10 ebooks and get the reader with our compliments.

One more thing I would do in the this initial battle, and that is create exclusive ebook packages. The packages could be special omnibus editions of a single author’s work or it could be a themed collection that combines a major author’s work with similar type works from indie authors. I actually prefer the latter because it would expose readers to more authors. But imagine being able to buy a Dean Koontz backlist title along with 6 similar-genre titles written buy indie authors for the price of the Dean Koontz title. Granted this would require a lot of cooperation among authors but such a scenario could be a win-win for the indie authors, Dean Koontz, and Google, as well as for consumers.

Special omnibus editions would fit within the Agency 5’s hopes to sustain a viable competitor to Amazon. There is no reason, for example, why the first 3 novels written by Tom Clancy, for example, couldn’t be packaged into a single, special, Google Omnibus where readers could buy 3 for the price of 1 or 2. It is in the interests of publishers to help create a real competitor to Amazon, especially now that they should be recognizing that Apple isn’t the answer and is unlikely to ever be the solution as opposed to a future problem.

At least this would be a start down the competitive pathway. Will Google do anything more than what it has done (i.e., announce and open Google Books) remains to be seen, but this is the one hope right now of creating competition in the book world.

November 17, 2010

The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?

Recently, several authors have commented that they have turned to group sourcing for their editing needs. I have also read of a couple small publishers who are trying crowd-source editing in lieu of hiring professional editors. For the past week or so, I have been pondering whether this is the future of editing.

The immediate problem I see with this approach is that you have no idea of what skill level the participants bring to the editing. A professional editor might offer to edit a friend’s manuscript for free, but I can’t see someone at the professional level offering to provide free editing to all comers.

The second problem is that how does one determine which edits to keep and which to discard when the editing is group sourced? One person changes which to that and a second changes that to which. Which change does the author see? How does the author decide which to keep and which to reject?

The third problem that rushes to the forefront is that involving improvement of the manuscript’s structure and text, not just the basic grammar and spelling; that is, the developmental edit. Does the crowd scour the manuscript with the idea of offering suggestions for improvement or of outlining gaps? From what I have seen of group-sourced editing, this is a real weakness of the system, almost like the blind leading the blind.

A fourth problem is how well the author has prepared the materials for the crowd-source edit. For example, a professional editor will take the time to create a character list and description so that each time the editor comes across the character Betsy, the editor can make certain that Betsy is described the same. Preparing such stylesheets is time-consuming and not something that can be expected to be performed by someone working for free. So if not prepared by the crowd, it needs to be prepared by the author and distributed. From conversations I have had with authors who have tried crowd-sourced editing, they do not distribute stylesheets, often not having prepared detailed ones for their own use.

There are other problems with crowd sourcing of editorial function but there are also good things that can come of it IF crowd sourcing occurs after a traditional professional edit and proofread but before final publication. For example, it never hurts to have feedback from the target audience. Has the author successfully communicated with his or her target audience? Are there errors that still remain that can be fixed before release?

What attracts authors to crowd-source editing are the cost savings and the belief that nearly anyone can edit — the “I can read therefore I can edit” syndrome. Admittedly, it is hard for professional editors to combat the cost issue as there is a wide gap between whatever the professional would charge and the “free” of crowd sourcing. The strongest argument in favor of professionals is the debunking of the myth that anyone who can read can be an editor.

As those of us who are professional editors (in the sense that we earn our livelihood from freelance editing) know there is a lot more to editing than just reading a manuscript and fixing spelling and grammatical errors. We have developed techniques and skills over years of doing such work, and have a collection of resources that we consult when questions arise. Yet the idea that all we do is correct spelling and grammar is what most people believe when they think editing.

Group-source editing can have a place at the editorial table if properly used to supplement the work of a professional editor, but not if it is a substitute for professional editing. The challenge professional editors face in the coming years is educating authors and publishers that crowd-source editing is not a substitute for professional editing. Whether we are up to the challenge remains to be seen.

November 10, 2010

The Internet and Free: A Problem That Will Grow

Cook’s Source magazine has been the topic of conversation in recent days for grabbing a copyrighted article written by Monica Gaudio off the Internet and publishing it without permission or compensation. When Ms. Gaudio complained, she was told that she should be thankful Cook’s Source “improved” the article by editing it and then publishing it with attribution. Cook’s Source‘s editor wrote:

But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!

Ignoring the grammatical errors in the Cook’s Source response, which, considering he thinks Ms. Gaudio should pay him for his editing, adds insult to injury, the real question is whether Cook’s Source is simply reflecting a viewpoint that is becoming more commonplace among Internet users.

There has been a lot of uproar in recent years regarding software, book, music, and video “piracy.” On one side of the argument are the copyright holders whose works are “pirated,” and on the other are the consumers who do the “pirating.” (We need to be careful about using the term pirating or piracy because its use implies that the act is wrong. I want to use it here in a more neutral sense, the sense that it is simply a descriptor of action not a conclusion as to whether the action is right or wrong.)

Are the Internet and the posting of material online changing expectations? From what I observe of “consumer” attitudes, the answer is yes. Increasingly, Internet users expect these things to be free and freely usable — a phenomenon that seems to have an inverse relationship to the user’s age; increasingly, copyright has only meaning between companies and not between copyright holders and consumers.

The situation is exacerbated, at least in ebook world, by agency pricing and DRM. I suspect that there is less piracy of books that fall closer to the low-price-DRM-free side of the curve than of books that fall closer to the high-price-DRM side of the curve. The situation is also exacerbated by such things as YouTube and Wikipedia, both of which encourage sharing and free use. Consumers become accustomed to free use of intellectual property. There is also the problem of a decline in understanding among the general population of what constitutes intellectual property that is protectable and why it should be protectable. Is there any reason other than corporate greed to keep extending the protection life of Mickey Mouse?

Ask a teenager whether the sweater in Macy’s is free (or should be free) and the response usually is no, it costs money. Ask the same teenager whether the text on the Internet is free (or should be free) and the answer turns 180 degrees. The major difference, at least for books and text, is that to the upcoming generations words shouldn’t cost because no one owns them. When the discussion turns to copyright, they are either befuddled or they are familiar enough with copyright to say that it was OK to protect words when the protection was limited but with today’s extensions that make the protection nearly permanent, copyright has no meaning. Besides fair use is in such a state of disarray that few people have any understanding of where it ends. (I know of several publishers who unilaterally declare that x number of words constitutes fair use, with x changing depending on the book and the publisher. Of course, x applies to words quoted from books from other publishers, not from their books.)

If you think about it, the protection extensions in copyright law are contrary to capitalism and free market thinking. Society is willing to tolerate a limited extension, but not an extension that makes it more or less a permanent monopoly. Although Monica Gaudio is right that her work is protected by copyright, Cook’s Source is simply reflecting the capitalist-free market position that when copyright exists into absurdity (i.e., forever), it should be viewed as not existing at all.

This dilemma will never be resolved absent a recognition by the producers of copyrighted material that they are encouraging consumers to pirate their work by their demand for never-ending and increasingly restrictive protection. Consumers look at the ever-narrowing of their rights and take the only tack they can — they ignore the restrictions. The Republicans say that the midterm elections demonstrate that the Democrats don’t hear the people, perhaps the Republicans should listen to the voice of the consumer and reverse course on the DMCA and copyright laws — instead of pushing for increased protections and more onerous burdens on the consumer, they should push for a return to the original limits and a more relaxed view of fair use and what consumers can do with material they have legitimately bought.

July 27, 2010

Editors and the Amazon Paradox

In a recent tête-à-tête with a couple of publishing colleagues, the discussion turned (unsurprisingly) toward the business of editing and whether good-paying editing jobs are harder to come by in the Internet age. I asked a question that sort of chilled the conversation: “Don’t you think that by buying books from Amazon you are depressing your editing market?” This is the paradox of Amazon for editors.

As a consumer, Amazon has one great virtue: low(est) pricing on books (actually, it has a second great virtue — unsurpassed customer service — but this virtue isn’t germane to the discussion). But as good as that virtue is from the buying side, it has many negative ramifications. And before you tear into me about how there are no collateral negatives, think Wal-Mart, because that is what Amazon is — the Wal-Mart of books. And unlike Wal-Mart, which doesn’t do its own manufacturing, Amazon is crossing the line and adding publishing (i.e., manufacturing) to its stable of businesses.

Wal-Mart raises hackles because its low pricing pushes local businesses out of business and because suppliers, in an effort to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing and quality requirements, put downward pressure on pay and work conditions. And so we Americans get on our high horse and try to keep Wal-Mart out of our backyard and picket Wal-Mart to improve supplier conditions. We also complain about other high-profile companies who use low-pay, poor-factory-work- conditions suppliers in developing and third world countries. But we don’t complain about Amazon and its wal-martian attempts to influence the supply chain.

Yet for editors and others in publishing, this push by Amazon is leading us to our own Donnybrook. As I have noted in other articles (see, e.g., Viewing the Future of Publishing, eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors, and Editors in the Offshore World), the pressure on publishers has ripple effects and has been a significant force in depressing the wages of editors (and other publishing professionals). When I first entered publishing 26 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I would be offered editing work at an hourly rate of 50% of the minimum wage, yet that was an offer made to highly skilled, experienced, specialist editors just a few months ago.

So isn’t it paradoxical that the people whose livelihood is based on earnings made in publishing buy their books from the company that is leading the charge to depress pricing? I think so. Reminds me of the autoworker who picketed carrying a sign “Buy American” but then got into his foreign-made car.

The one truism about us Americans is that we are equal opportunity suiciders. We want someone else to make the sacrifice as we turn a blind eye to our own acts that lead to our own economic hara-kiri. I realize that boycotting Amazon/Wal-Mart and shopping at Barnes & Noble/Target doesn’t address the problem. This is really, fundamentally, a philosophical/ethical conundrum. I also realize that there is no truly satisfactory resolution available. So I focus what little boycott energy I have on those who are most visible and leaders in their retail sectors and simply choose not to buy from them.

I grant that my single voice is not worth much in this fight, but it is a matter of principle. I don’t buy from Amazon because I see Amazon as the behemoth who will ultimately, if successful, destroy my livelihood. I think there needs to be a balance, a fair price that is midway between low pricing and pricing sufficient to enable producers to earn a fair wage.

Interestingly, Amazon’s pressures aren’t good for authors either. As the book market’s tipping point pricewise continues downward (Does anyone really think that $9.99 for a New York Times bestseller is as low as it will go?), so does the pressure on authors to lower their prices to be competitive. Look at how many authors are pricing their books between free and $2.99 today. At a 70-30 split, $2.99 seems to be a great price point for an author, but is it really? The net proceeds the authors receive may be better than what they have been receiving from traditional publishers, but that doesn’t equate to a fair return for their labors. A fair return is an animal of a different stripe.

To break free from the competition requires a lot of work on an author’s part. To make a book that gets rave reviews from up and down the reading spectrum takes a significant investment. The work needed to publicize and distribute the book takes a lot of time and effort. The lower the price, the lower the return and the harder it is to devote the time, energy, and money necessary to turn a labor of love into the next Harry Potter.

And we’ve had these discussions before about the editorial quality of many self-published ebooks. No matter how the chase is cut, it always boils down to the author being unable or unwilling to spend several thousand dollars on professional help because the author really can’t see that he/she will sell enough copies to earn back the investment plus a decent profit. Isn’t that what underlies the problem discussed in I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors?

So, I ask again, albeit a bit differently: Although Amazon’s pressure to move pricing downward is great for consumers who love a bargain, isn’t it a mistake for those of us who work in publishing to support Amazon by buying our books from it? I expect most of you will say “no” and tell me how wrong I am, but as an editor whose livelihood depends on publishers and authors continuing to need my services, I see Amazon as wanting to be the Wal-Mart of the publishing world.

July 14, 2010

Striking Workers and American Editors

In the news in recent days have been articles about worker problems at Foxconn’s China factories (where Apple and Dell products are made) and about Chinese workers striking for better work conditions and pay — something one would never have expected to read about following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. More recently, there was an article about the inability of Chinese factories to hire younger Chinese workers who prefer not to work than to work for “slave” wages and under “slave” conditions.

Although not directly related to editing or to American editors, I do think these are a precursor of what we will see in coming years in other rapidly developing countries, such as India — the places to which publishers are currently flocking to get editorial and production services at significantly lower costs. I think that the financial class divide that exists in these countries, which is what enables the significantly lower prices, is rapidly being threatened by the interconnectedness that the Internet Age has brought to the world.

Although today is not a great time, compensation wise, to be an American freelance editor, the tides may be turning. I’ve noticed an increase in complaints about editing quality and an increase in requests from offshore book packagers to hire American editor services for American book projects. Counterbalancing this trend, however, is the increase in people who are claiming to be professional freelance editors and who are willing to work for the 80¢ a page that is being offered, for what amounts to a developmental edit rather than a copyedit (for a discussion of types of editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor).

Recently, this was brought home to me as I was hired to reedit a project that supposedly had been edited by a “professional” editor. The client ended up paying twice for the same work, and although the client got a bargain with the first editor — at least fiscally for editorial services — it turned out to be not much of a bargain when my fees were added to the pile.

But, as I began this post, the awakening of other editors around the world to what constitutes a fair wage can only harbor good things for American editors. Although we have lost our price competitiveness in recent years, the cycle is changing.

I was reviewing my company’s financial history a few weeks back in preparation for a discussion I will be participating in, and was struck by how price conscious publishers have become as a result of consolidation in the publishing industry. In the early years of my 26-year career, I could bank on a yearly fee increase; perhaps not a large increase, but an increase nonetheless. That seems to have ended in the mid-1990s.

I think the culprit is consolidation into megapublishers whose tentacles reach worldwide. The accounting departments, which justifiably look to the bottom line, see that they can pay an editor in country Y $1.50 a page and thus think that editors in country Z who want $3 a page are overpriced. There is little recognition of the differences between Y and Z and no consideration of the experience and knowledge of the individual editor.

The other trend, besides no fee increases since the mid-1990s, is the pressure to lower prices. Publishers seem to need (or want) to increase profit margins at the expense of editorial, probably because they think — and perhaps correctly — that most readers won’t notice if editing is lacking, but it is harder to do away with the typesetting and printing.

Of course, as with everything else there are countermeasures to each of these trends. The question becomes, however, how willing are freelance editors to take those countermeasures. From what I have seen so far, few are willing to do so, preferring to complain and struggle than to find a workable solution.

July 8, 2010

Valuing eBooks: Is it a Sensory Problem?

This topic has been broached before (see, e.g., Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?, On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (III), and The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (IV) — Value) and is likely to be broached many times in the future. It is a worthy topic that just won’t (can’t?) go away.

What brought it to mind again was the confluence of several events: I had to replenish my tea supply, a Smashwords July sale was being promoted, I read an article about the price of coffee, I went to see a terrible movie (and also a good movie), and a few other similar events.

Like many coffee drinkers who believe Starbucks is the barista and who are willing to pay $4 for a cup of joe, I like my tea with breakfast and the newspapers, and I don’t hesitate to spend a premium price for a premium cup of tea. Yet the pleasure that the coffee/tea brings is fleeting. A few moments after imbibing and the thrill is gone (as B.B. King would say).

Similarly, I saw 2 movies over the holiday weekend, one very good and the other exceedingly poor, yet these, too, were fleeting entertainments.

Yet, books are different. The thrill of a good read doesn’t disappear after an hour; a good story can captivate us for many hours — not only as we read the story but as we think about it long after we have finished reading it and as we discuss it with friends or recommend it to others. Nonfiction books may be books that we regularly return to for some factoid. Books do have a fading quality, but that fade occurs over a long period of time, unlike that luscious cup of tea with breakfast that fades quickly.

We all recognize this, even if only subconsciously. We often think about a book we read as a child or in high school, and we can still recall some of the characters and much of the plot — even if we haven’t reread the book in 50 years.

But in the pricing scheme of things, books, particularly ebooks, are significantly more price sensitive than our coffee. We who are willing to spend $10 a day on a couple of cups of coffee, hesitate to buy an ebook for $10.

There are lots of excuses — who knows if the ebook is really any good, the ebook has DRM (Digital Rights Management) that limits our use of it, publishers are greedy, and on and on. Aren’t the same excuses, however, applicable to that cup of coffee? How do we know in advance that the coffee isn’t too strong (or weak or burnt)? Isn’t our drinking the coffee like DRM — once drunk you can’t share it with a friend? Isn’t $4 for a cup of joe a greedy price when once can buy other coffees for half that price? And, besides, we know it doesn’t cost $4 to make that cup of coffee.

Doesn’t the same hold true for movies? Even the price of a movie rental is often more than the price that many ebooks. And we rarely go to see a movie alone, so the cost really adds up. And we willing pay the movie price — whether box office or rental — even though we know we can’t duplicate the movie, we can’t share it with friends over the Internet, and we can’t watch again in 3 weeks without paying again, and paying the same price as we did originally.

What makes ebooks different? That’s what I don’t understand. If anything, I would think the values should be reversed. The transience, for example, of the cup of tea versus the long-life of the ebook should indicate a reversal. But it doesn’t.

There was a time when books were so valuable that only the very wealthy could afford them. The books were gilded in gold and silver, painstakingly hand crafted, and highly sought objects of art. Although this esteem diminished with the advent of the mass-produced hardcover followed by the even more mass-produced paperback, the aurora of esteem didn’t wholly disappear — until the Age of eBooks and the inability to of a reader to see a finely crafted book and to hold it in his or her hands.

Perhaps that is the problem — ebooks lack a sensory touch. The cup of coffee exudes smell, a smell that pleases (hopefully), along with a taste that pleases (again, hopefully). Plus there is the sense of touch, of holding the cup in our hands and knowing that we are holding a cup of coffee that is desirable. Similarly, movies appeal to our visual and aural senses. But to what sense does an ebook appeal?

Really none. The traditional sensory reactions that we have toward a print book — the smell, the feel, the sound, the look — all disappear in the current incarnation of ebooks. Most readers agree that cover design and interior design of a pbook are important parts of the experience of reading, yet both are missing from the ebook experience.

I’ll grant that it shouldn’t matter — after all, aren’t we reading for the pleasure of reading and stimulating our mind — but the lack of the traditional sensory experience, the sensory experience that we grew up with, is, I think, the cause of our discontent with ebook pricing. All else, I suspect, is just our way of expressing that discontent because we don’t really recognize the root cause.

Of course, this will change over the next decade or two as ebooks become the standard reading method and readers lose their connection to the print book, but for those of us trying to make that transition, I expect we will continue to undervalue ebooks (and concomitantly overvalue other transient experiences) because we miss the sensory experiences we have become accustomed to associating with reading. I think readers need to become more accustomed to the ephemeral experience of ebooks. Once readers do and once readers recognize that ebooks are valuable simply for the mind stimulation they provide, then ebooks will be valued in the marketplace as they should be, with a lessening of the pressure on very low pricing.

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