An American Editor

July 6, 2010

Book Reviews: Help or Hindrance?

I recently wrote about the problems I see with book reviews and trying to find a silver needle in a haystack of needles (see Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews). But that article focused on reader reviews, not the “professional” reviews of the traditional press.

One of the most esteemed print reviews still available is the New York Times Sunday Book Review (NYTSBR). Yet every week, as I look at it, I wonder why it is still on its pedestal. I guess I should mention that I much prefer the reviews in the The New York Review of Books, although the two magazines really are no longer comparable. With each passing week, the NYTSBR seems to become increasingly irrelevant to anyone who really wants a useful review of a book.

Why am I suddenly on this hobby horse? It just so happened that had just I begun reading Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, when the NYTSBR (July 4, 2010) appeared on my doorstep with a “comparative review” of this book and At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union by Robert Remini. So I read the review (“To Save the Union” by Andrew Cayton), wondering did I buy the right book? Should I be reading both books? Should I be reading some other Clay biography?

Well I read the review and still am wondering. Typical of reviews in recent months, if not years, at the NYTSBR, the “review” is uninformative. It neither praises nor damns either book; in fact, it barely discusses the merits and demerits of either book. It gives a reader no guidance. Okay, I understand that the Compromise of 1850 is the thing for which Clay is most remembered although he had less to do with it than popular memory recalls. I also knew before reading the review that the Great Compromise wasn’t so great and that it failed a decade later. But neither fact makes a biography of Henry Clay good, bad, or indifferent, and considering Clay’s role in the 40+ years he was involved in national politics, there had to be more to his life than just the Compromise, and thus the justification for the biography.

Am I so out of touch that when I read a review I want to leave it with a sense that a book is well-written, well-researched, and a worthwhile read — or not? That it reads like a well-written novel or that it reads like a typical, dry, dense, academic text that only scholars who focus on the subject will appreciate?

Although this is becoming an increasing problem with magazines like the NYTSBR, this is also symptomatic of the online reviews of ebooks. Reviews are simply not enlightening. A review needs to balance background material that helps create an atmosphere for the book being reviewed (e.g., some context information about the times in which Henry Clay lived is important, just as it is important to know that he and President Andrew Jackson were in opposition to each other on virtually every matter during the Jackson presidency), with a description of the book itself, with a comparison to other books on the same subject (assuming there are others), and with the reviewer’s ultimate, clearly stated, opinion as to the worthiness of the book being reviewed.

To me it is as important to know that if I want to read the definitive biography of Henry Clay, I should be reading XYZ and not the book(s) under review (or vice versa). To me, it is important to know that although the book being reviewed is the best introductory general biography of Henry Clay currently available, it is so dryly written that a trek across the Sahara Desert would be a beach vacation.

What good is a review that assigns a book 3 stars, or 5 stars, or any rating at all if the reader has no real clue why it deserved such a rating? “Great book,” “quick read” are meaningless reviews, as are reviews like the review of the Clay books that raised my ire.

eBooks are clearly the wave of the future but because of the ease with which everyone can publish all of their meanderings, it is increasingly difficult to find that silver needle in the haystack of needles. The Internet is too wide a target; there is no bull’s-eye for finding a good book to read. Consequently, reviews of ebooks are going to be increasingly important to readers, which is why reviewers should look at the NYTSBR reviews, learn what is inadequate to identify that silver needle, and write their reviews with greater depth and better guidance, reviews that are more than excuses for a writer to write. Only when that happens will independent authors and publishers be able to secure the audiences they deserve.

One other thing all of these reviews should do: indicate whether the book(s) under dicussion is(are) available in print or ebook or both. Recognizing the shifting sands would be helpful.

July 5, 2010

Finding an eBook to Buy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2010

eReader Economics: Buying a Reading Device Is Economical

Several times in recent months people have sidled up to me as I have sat reading on my Sony PRS-505 e-reading device to inquire about the device and the reading experience. After going through a demonstration and letting them “play” with it a little, the final question comes: “How expensive is it?” It used to be that once they heard the price, they couldn’t wait to move on. But with recent price lowerings, people are becoming more interested.

I understand the sticker shock. My Sony cost $300 two Christmases ago, to which I added another $70 for a 3-year extended warranty that covered all contingencies (a warranty that, I should add, has given me peace of mind but which has never been used) — roughly $400 for a device to read books, which I could do already without the device. Although my particular model is no longer available, you can buy a similar Sony (the PRS 300) for about $150 (the primary difference is that my Sony has a 6-inch screen and the 300 has a 5-inch screen) or the Sony 600 for $199 (it has a 6-inch touchscreen). (Also worth noting is that Barnes & Noble lowered the price of its nook, Amazon lowered the price of its Kindle, and the Kobo is also available at a relatively low price.)

But the economics of these devices actually argues, depending, of course, on what you like to read, for the “reasonableness” of the cost — whether that cost is what I originally paid or today’s prices (and tomorrow’s likely prices). If your reading consists only of books that appear on the bestseller lists, then the reader is convenient but probably not very economical. If your reading habits tend to be closer to mine, then the economic arguments in favor of owning one far outweigh those against.

I have always been an avid reader. As a kid, I used to take out 6-10 books every week or two from my local library. As an adult, my reading habits continued except that I now buy more books than I will ever get read. In addition to quantity, I have a relatively broad reading interest when it comes to nonfiction, and a narrower interest when it comes to fiction.

What I have discovered since I received my Sony Reader is that the quantity of books I read has increased and my range of fiction topics has widened. The Reader makes it easy to enjoy reading.

But little of that has to do with the economics of the reading devices. The question is how does the cost of the reader balance against the cost of buying books? For me that balance definitely tips into the positive side of the scale. First, thousands of very good books, including many, if not all, of the classics, are available for free. If I spent an average of $8 for a paperback that I read once and I spent $200 on a reader, just 25 free books would negate the cost of the reader; the 26th book would start the scale tipping to the positive side.

Finding 25 free ebooks to read is easy. There are many sources. Granted, none are the current New York Times bestsellers, but does that really matter? My Sony Reader has also opened me to the world of the independent author and the small (need I say micro) press. Before my wading into the ocean of ebooks, the only way I would find a book to buy and read was by going to my local bookstores. How many of us can go to such a bookstore and find independent authors and small press books easily?

eBooks have changed that equation. And the advantage is that many thousands of ebooks are available for less than $3. If I only bought ebooks at $3, I would have to buy 67 of them over the life of my Reader to balance out the initial $200 purchase price. Not a difficult task for most of us; for many of us that amounts to no more than 2 years’ worth of reading, and often less than 1 years’ worth. And if I mix free with ebooks costing $3 or less, it simply won’t take long to recoup that investment.

It should also be noted that many of the available free ebooks are contemporary and well-known author ebooks; that is, not just self-published or indie authors. For example, these ebooks are available for free: John Gilstrap’s No Mercy, John Stross’ Overtime, Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind, John Miller’s Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith, and Warren Adler’s American Quartet. Some inexpensive contemporary fiction examples are Heather Graham’s Ghost Memories ($2.84), Fern Michaels’ Fool Me Once ($4.75), Stephen King’s Riding the Bullet ($4.19), J.D. Robb’s Midnight in Death ($1.99), and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dragonswan.

The point is this: Buying a dedicated device to read books can be very cost-effective if you are an avid reader and not wedded to reading only what the bestseller lists proclaim are the reads du jour. If you haven’t looked into such a device, now may well be a good time to do so.

June 24, 2010

Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers

Here’s the question of the day: Why should ebookers buy and read an author’s ebook if the author him-/herself doesn’t believe enough in his/her own work to invest in it?

I’m not talking about investing time to write the book, but about investing money to perfect the book, such as by hiring professional production services.

Yes, we know, that hiring professional services is not any guarantor that an ebook will be a quality read. At worst professional services might eliminate embarrassing mistakes (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed); at best the work would greatly improve.

And there is also the problem of how do we identify an author who hasn’t invested in professional services before we buy the ebook.

These problems have moved again to the forefront of my thinking because yet again I have found myself staring at a couple of badly done ebooks. Thankfully, my Sony Reader has a delete button! Also, thankfully, these ebooks were inexpensive.

One of the things that has always annoyed me about some of my editorial colleagues who are independents (i.e., freelancers) is their unwillingness to invest money in their business — if it isn’t free or dirt cheap, they aren’t interested no matter how much it will help their productivity or enhance the quality of their work. Would I knowingly hire such a person? No, because it seems to me that a business that has pride in its work must continually strive to improve that work, and one signal of that attitude is investment in the tools of one’s profession. It is also one of the differences, to my way of thinking, between the professional and the amateur.

Just as this is true for the production aspects of publishing, it is true for the authorship aspects. Today, anyone with a computer and Internet access can proclaim themselves an author and publish an ebook. Because of how scattered the Internet is, there is no single source where someone must “publish” their ebook. But even if we say that Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords is such a site, none of them acts as a gatekeeper of quality; anyone with a manuscript can follow the process and be “published.”

Sadly, that is what too many “authors” are doing and the people who suffer are the readers. These authors aren’t investing in their books. If they aren’t investing in their books, why should the reader invest in them? Increasingly, I am becoming hardened to the idea that no ebook is worth more than $2.99 and even then I am balking, often limiting my looking to books priced at 99¢ or less. And this is bad — bad for me and bad for authors who really do care and who do invest in their books. But very cheap pricing lets me gamble on an ebook and then when I hit the delete button, not think I wasted a lot of money on garbage.

The obverse side to cheap pricing is that very good authors who have invested in their ebook suffer too because the market forces them to price competitively.

We’ve had this discussion before — numerous times, in fact — about the gatekeeping role. The loudest voices are those who dislike traditional publishers for lots of reasons, many of which are justifiable. But their alternative — to let the readers sort it out via the Internet — really is no solution; it is, as we are currently seeing, an invitation to chaos.

One proposal that has been bandied about is to have several friends read the manuscript and mark it up, make corrections, and have a group of friends read it a second or third time, each time making corrections. Works great until the first major embarrassment.

One author was promoting his/her ebooks and gave a synopsis of the plot in his/her promotions. I was intrigued so I went to Smashwords to look at the first book in the series. I stopped reading after the first few pages, because there were numerous errors. I wrote the author about the errors. The author was appreciative but surprised because the book had been edited by committee multiple times, yet these errors remained. Why? Because there is a difference between a professional editor (who is not perfect) and an amateur editor. This author got back the value of what he/she paid.

So amongst this chaos, how do I find a good ebook? With a great deal of difficulty. I’m not sure there is really a satisfactory approach, one that will assure me that at least I do not have to worry about spelling and grammar, but I am certain that I am unwilling to invest in an ebook by an author who is unwilling to invest in it. Unfortunately, because of the chaos of ebook publishing, it means I am becoming increasingly hardened to the exceedingly low price, which creates its own problems by not providing an author with sufficient income to solve these problems. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

June 23, 2010

Do eBooks Make Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores Uninteresting?

I know the article title is a bit odd, especially having been written by a booklover, but the question has been bothering me the past several weeks.

In the past, I went to my local Barnes & Noble at least once a week, sometimes more often, and always walked out with 1 new book and often 2 or 3. But for the past couple of months I have had no desire to visit the store and the one time I did, I bought 2 books rather than the 5 I had originally picked up (i.e., I put 3 back on the shelf after first having decided to buy them). Even more telling, however, was that I had gone to the B&N only because my wife needed to pickup some B&N gift cards for neighborhood children; otherwise I wouldn’t have gone at all. And even more telling was that in the past I loved to browse the shelves looking for books; this trip I was impatient to leave.

I’m not buying fewer books; in fact, since I was given my Sony 505 Reader 2.5 years ago, I’m buying more books than ever. But what has changed in my buying habits is the number of fiction books I am buying — from a handful each year pre-Sony 505 to hundreds each year post-Sony 505 — and how I am obtaining them.

As those of you who have followed my On Today’s Bookshelf posts (On Today’s Bookshelf, On Today’s Bookshelf (II), and On Today’s Bookshelf (III)) know, I still buy quite a few nonfiction hardcover pbooks. But whereas before I would largely find them by browsing the bookstore bookshelves, I am increasingly discovering them through ads and reviews in The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and the book review sections of various magazines to which I subscribe, such as The Atlantic and Smithsonian. If I read a review of a book that intrigues me or see an ad for one, I simply go online and order the book.

Fiction books, however, follow a different trajectory. For those few authors whose new books I buy in hardcover (e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove, David Weber, Terry Brooks), I go to an online site, check the coming soon category for these authors, and preorder the books. For those fiction authors whose books I do not buy in hardcover, the process excludes the brick-and-mortar bookstore because these aren’t authors I am likely to find on the shelves — they are independent authors. And the largest growth area in published books is books by independent authors whose books are only available online.

I discover independent authors via online forums like MobileRead and by looking through the multiformat section at Fictionwise and Smashwords. At Fictionwise, I wait for the big sales because I am unwilling to spend too much money on an unknown author; I usually get to Smashwords via a recommendation at MobileRead and often with a discount coupon.

But even then independent authors are losing out — at least as far as my buying goes — because I simply do not have the patience to sift through lists of books. Neither Fictionwise nor Smashwords makes it very easy to scroll through their offerings. There is no way to stop for the day, return tomorrow, and pickup where I left off — I am forced to start from the beginning of the list yet again, which rapidly becomes tiresome. And it doesn’t help when what I see is poorly designed cover art; at least in the physical bookstore browsing is much easier. (See Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers for an earlier discussion of my ebookseller frustrations.)

The brick-and-mortar (B&M) bookstore suffers from an inability to compete either in price or selection. Independent authors are increasingly (or so it seems) pricing their ebooks at $2.99 or less. Knowing this makes me reluctant to try a new author I find at the B&M bookstore; it is one thing to gamble $2.99 on an unknown author and quite another to spend $12.99 or more.

So what is there to attract me to the B&M bookstore? As each week passes, I find it a greater struggle to want to go to the B&M bookstore. I’m not interested in the pastries and coffee; I rarely ever peruse the magazines; I can buy the same books online for less (in Barnes & Noble’s case, its online bookstore undercuts its physical stores on pricing so why buy at the B&M version?).

Are ebooks quickly making B&M bookstores uninteresting destinations? In my case, yes, because there is little incentive to shop at the B&M store, especially for fiction. Unfortunately, the online ebooksellers aren’t making their sites must-go-to destinations either. I think there can be a great future for B&M bookstores, just not in their current guise. I’m not sure what guise they need to undertake, but it is certain that they do need to make the experience an interesting one and they must become must-go-to destinations.

June 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 16, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 15, 2010

From One eBook Market to Multiple eBook Markets: Who Wins?

Amazon has announced its new AmazonEncore and AmazonCrossing publishing ventures and has signed J.A. Konrath for Kindle distribution. Now Barnes & Noble has followed suit with PubIt! as a self-publishing platform with B&N distribution. eBooks are fragmenting the book market and the loser is the reader.

Amazon and B&N are only the beginnings of the upcoming slugfest. Each will try to entice both new and established authors to abandon their relationships with traditional publishers and publish their ebooks exclusively on one of these new platforms. At first glance, this looks great, especially for authors like Konrath who are midlist authors with allegedly declining sales. The problem is that these new ebook platforms are fragmenting the book market for the consumer.

Will Amazon make Konrath’s ebooks available for everyone or just for Kindle owners? OK, it doesn’t take much imagination to answer that question based on Bezos’ past practices — most of the reading world will not have access to the ebook for reading on their dedicated device. How long will it be before Amazon decides that although the future is ebooks, the present requires both e and p, and so wants exclusive rights to both versions? Or is that already part of the deal?

Traditional publishers, including the big 6 (5 of whom, in cahoots with Apple, are already screwing readers with the agency pricing model) have lots of faults but the bottom line is that they are better for readers than Amazon, B&N, or Apple ever will be — because they distribute their product to everyone. Granted I may not like their pricing policies, their insistence on DRM, and the ebook windowing, but I sure like those unfriendly policies a lot better than Amazon’s insisting that I buy from it and if I want a dedicated reading device that I buy the Kindle.

I can hear the uproar now: Amazon makes it easy to read on nearly any device through its different device-specific applications — as long as I don’t want to read on a competing dedicated ebook reading device. But if I wanted to read on my PC or my laptop or my cell phone, why would I have bought a dedicated ereading device? Why should I be forced to kowtow to Amazon?

But the issue isn’t can I read it on my laptop computer or my tiny cell phone; the issue is can I read it on the dedicated reading device of my choice. Ultimately, I think financial survival of authors — other than the big blockbuster authors like Stephen King and James Patterson — lies in the hands of those readers who buy more than 1-3 books each year; that is, the dedicated, avid reader, the reader who buys and reads lots of books and who will buy a dedicated reading device.

Authors who sign exclusive deals with Amazon, Apple, B&N, and other similar ebook publishers/sellers should be boycotted because of the harm they are doing to their fan base and to readers in general. How many of these reading devices will I need in order to read new works from favorite authors? Why should I be forced to use an inconvenient method to read just because a favorite author has signed an exclusive deal? Why should I reward the author for the hurt caused me by the author’s greed?

I don’t disagree that authors should be compensated — and compensated fairly — for their efforts. I’ve never hesitated (well, not too often) to purchase a hardcover book that interested me simply because of price. But I am much more cautious about what I spend on ebooks because of all the restrictions and because I do not want to reward flat-out greedy authors who sign exclusive deals that prohibit interested readers from purchasing their books. Konrath, for example, has lost my business.

A fractured ebook market is not good for either readers or authors, yet authors, when offered these exclusive deals with Amazon, seem to have a great deal of difficulty looking beyond today. Perhaps an author will see a short-term boost in sales, but I suspect that over the long run these exclusive platform deals will hurt authors. They certainly will hurt readers.

The rejoinder, of course, is that the books will be available for a lot less money than traditional publishers would charge and the author will make more money. I expect that both are true, certainly in the formative years. But I always have niggling in the back of my mind this: What will happen when 60% or more of the ebook market — both publishing and selling — is controlled by a single company? History tells us that when that occurs, consumer prices tend to rise and wholesale prices tend to decline. Didn’t we see that, for example, with Microsoft’s pricing of Windows and Office?

Too many consumers think that Bezos and Jobs are really their best friends, business leaders who are really only on the lookout for what is best for the consumer. Today that may be true, but will it be true tomorrow if Amazon forces B&N out of business, or if Amazon gains the type of dominance in publishing and selling of ebooks that Microsoft has in consumer operating systems?

Exclusive deals between authors and hardware+publisher+seller companies are not in the reading publics’ best interest. I believe that consumers are best served when publishers are separated from the sellers.

June 4, 2010

Are Multifunction Devices a Threat to Young Readers?

The talk of the times in ebookland is about multifunction devices that not only allow you to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play games, and write memos, but also let you read ebooks — devices like Apple’s iPad. The discussion centers around whether multifunction devices (MFDs) or single-function devices (SFDs) are the better choice when looking for an electronic device to read ebooks.

When it comes to adults whose habits are already set, I’m not convinced that the answer boils down to anything more than a one’s preference. Right now I want an SFD; when I am reading, I want to read and not be distracted by anything else. I already am overwhelmed by e-mail at work; I don’t need to spend my leisure time dealing with it, too.

The real question — and the one that is generally not being addressed — is whether MFDs or SFDs are better for those just beginning their reading career: Do I want a 10-year-old to be exposed to the distractions of an MFD or focused on reading by using a SFD? How do we teach a child the love of reading? How do we teach a child reading for reading’s pleasure? Can a child learn to love reading when the lure of games and Internet surfing are just a screen touch away?

We already know that too much TV time, too much video game playing, too much texting are changing our society — and not necessarily for the better. Those of us who professionally edit for a living see the poor writing that seems to be the result of too little emphasis on literacy fundamentals and too little attention paid to creativity skills. (For one example, see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!)

To be a successful reader requires concentration. One needs to concentrate on the immediate words while retaining what preceded the words of immediate focus. Reading requires cognitive skills, focus, and the ability to exclude outsiders from intruding. Reading stimulates imagination and creativity, which are nurtured by concentration.

Recall the last passage you read that was rich with description that you were putting together in your mind, when — the telephone rang, the doorbell buzzed, your child called you, your spouse asked about dinner, or you heard the “you’ve got mail” chime. Think about what was lost, how it needed to be recreated as if never previously created.

MFDs are an invitation to antsy reading. It has been 5 minutes since you checked your e-mail; perhaps that long-awaited Viagra ad has arrived. Yes, this particular passage in Moby Dick is difficult to follow, so maybe a few minutes of Internet surfing will revive the thought process. If we adults can’t stay focused long enough to devote concentrated time to reading, how can we expect our children to do so?

Children are already subject to distraction. How many times have you heard the plaintive cry, “boring”? Yet, I think most of us would agree that the ability to read and to stay focused on what we are reading is the difference between learning and not learning, between subjection and freedom. (Remember that in the antebellum South one of the prohibited acts was for a slave owner to teach slaves to read and write. Why? Because reading and understanding would open the world to the slave and make the slave discontent, possibly leading to insurrection. And think about why this reluctance to educate was carried on in the subsequent Jim Crow era.) Reading is the key to freedom, for if the mind is free, the soul is free. If imagination is cultivated, it leads to change and progress.

MFDs are really not conducive to gaining these skills. The MFD provides the ability to escape from intellectual difficulty at the flick of a button. And what child won’t take the easy way out when given the opportunity? Yet, it is the facing of and the overcoming of these reading challenges today that will enhance the child’s life tomorrow. Too much of one’s future is dependent on reading skills to ignore them.

Consequently, MFD devices like the iPad are, I think, adult-only devices. They should carry a warning label to parents such as, “WARNING: Use of the iPad discourages concentrated reading and is not recommended for anyone younger than 16 years of age.” (Such a warning would both alert parents to the problems of MFDs for their children and self-fulfill Steve Jobs’ belief that people don’t read and thus the iPad is not really a reading device.) Given the choice, I prefer the SFD for the young child, as well as for myself.

Reading is a pleasure. A well-written book transports me to places I have never been, can never go, will never go; it gives me experiences that I would not otherwise be able to experience; it lets me live in someone else’s shoes, albeit for a moment. But for a book to accomplish these things, it must stir my imagination and keep me focused — there must be few (preferably no) interruptions. An SFD aids this by not distracting me, by not encouraging me to check e-mail, surf the Internet, play a game, or do a little bit of waiting work.

MFDs have their place in the adult world, but I think they are a disservice to young, developing children who should be encouraged to read because of the importance of the reading skill in our world. SFDs, I think, are better suited for this task. This is not to say that a MFD doesn’t have an educatory role, too, but perhaps not when reading is the goal. Maybe the solution is an MFD that works as an MFD in every mode but reading mode; when in reading mode, it acts as if it were an SFD. It is something to consider.

June 3, 2010

None of the Below: An Election Blessing

I live in the most politically dysfunctional state in America — New York. In my state, there is really only one truism: if it is good for the citizens, the legislature will not enact it; if it is good for the politicians, they will.

As the November elections get closer, I become more irate with the political process. With a lot of hoopla and expectations, Andrew Cuomo has been nominated for governor. So far, he has had exactly one good, solid idea — call a constitutional convention and rewrite New York’s anti-citizen constitution. Now if Rick Lazio, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, would join this call, there might be hope.

Of course, this was tried in the 1960s and failed — the politicians and special interests convinced the citizens to vote no on the proposed reforms, and like good sheep, we did. Perhaps this time would be different — assuming the politicians muster the courage to call for a convention and the delegates are ordinary citizens not politicians.

There is one major reform I would like to see: the “none-of-the-below” ballot option. I am tired of professional politicians, people whose only interest is in preserving their own jobs regardless of the cost to those whom they purportedly represent. I’m even more tired of New York’s faux part-time legislature that receives more than full-time pay. Consequently, I propose a new election system.

My proposal would begin, as is done today, with each political party nominating its candidate for a political office. The ballot would list each party-nominated candidate and affiliation but at the very top of the ballot would be the option — in extralarge letters — NONE OF THE BELOW.

Now here’s where it gets good — at least good for the citizens. If “None of the Below” gets the most votes — even if it is just a plurality — “None of the Below” wins. The consequence is that none of the party-named candidates who were on the ballot can be on the ballot again in this election cycle.

How do we get new candidates? If the election is for a county-level office or lower, anyone, regardless of political affiliation or independent status can be self-nominated by a petition signed by 3% of the county’s population (if it is a city, town, or village office, it would be by 3% of the city, town, or village’s population). A candidate for an office at a level higher than the county level, would need signatures equalling 1% of the population that the particular office covered; for example, if it is a statewide office like governor, 1% of the state’s population would have to endorse the candidate. If it was a congressional district, it would be 1% of the population of that district.

A petition-nominated candidate would have to declare any party affiliation (if the candidate is a party member) or list him- or herself as independent (nonaffiliated). The political parties would not be permitted to run a party-nominated or party-endorsed candidate — the parties had their exclusive run and lost to “None of the Below.”

To move things along, a special website would be created where potential candidates could list themselves and where people willing to “sign” their petition would go to sign it. There would be no door-to-door or street corner petitions to sign; it would all be done electronically and petition signers would be permitted to sign only one petition for a particular office. The nomination process would be open for 7 days.

Once the nomination process closed, an electronic ballot would be created within 3 days and the first-round vote held online within 30 days after that. Candidates would have 30 days to campaign. Unless a single candidate received at least 50.1% of the votes cast in the first round, all candidates would be removed from the ballot except the top 2 candidates who would face each other in a runoff. Again, the balloting would occur 30 days from the first-round balloting, thus limiting the final 2 candidates to 30 days of campaigning.

The winner of this second-round vote would be elected to office.

The advantage to this system is that it would empower the citizens and decrease the power of special interest groups, including self-serving politicians. The established parties and the special interest groups would have the first crack at electing a candidate, but if they fail, the general citizenry takes over. With the uncertainty as to who would make it to the final round, and the limited campaign time, it would be difficult for the special interests to muster their forces behind a particular candidate — not impossible, just difficult. Consequently, their influence would be reduced.

More importantly, it would also give independents and disaffected party members an opportunity to nominate candidates who don’t owe their success to the political parties — candidates who, hopefully, would be more responsive to constituent needs than to special interest needs. And it would make it easier for unhappy citizens to remove office holders. Now it is almost impossible when one party renominates the incumbent and the other party has difficulty finding a good party member to run against the incumbent.

This plan also has the bonus that once a candidate is rejected, the candidate doesn’t get an immediate second chance. The citizens rejected the candidate once, which should be sufficient. It is this feature that I particularly like, because it will mean that an incumbent who wants to be reelected will need to pay less attention to special interest groups and more to constituents to strengthen his or her chances of getting elected on the first ballot.

It seems to me that this would be a good way to flush the dysfunction and special interests out of New York’s politics and reempower the citizens. Perhaps New York would become a good place to live. I know the plan has its problems and needs refinement, but even if enacted as outlined here, it has to be better than what New Yorkers currently suffer with.

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