An American Editor

May 24, 2010

Viewing the Future of Publishing

Sometimes all the discussion that can be had about publishing’s future can be boiled down to a few minutes of video.

Although humorous, the video does illustrate the confused state of publishing. No one knows how to accommodate all  the different needs that each of the characters in the video represent.

What is clear, however, is that none of the pundits, none of the publishers, none of the technologists — no one — has a clear vision of tomorrow’s publishing landscape. Some commentators predict that ebooks will soon be 25% of all publishing; others predict it will soon be 50%. But those predictions are really unhelpful without a plan for maintaining publishing standards while moving to a more standardless medium.

Everyone says that publishers need to adapt and change. Easy enough to proclaim, but without firmer guidance as to what adaptation is needed, what changes to the industry must be accomplished, and how all the various competing interests  can be reconciled, the pronouncement is like spitting into the wind.

Before the ease of computer-to-Internet ebook publishing, the book market was inundated with new books, many of which could be classified as a waste of time, effort, money, and paper primarily because finding a particular book (without guidance to the book) was like finding a needle in a haystack of needles. Too many books were being published for any person to rummage through. Now the problem is compounded as the number of books brought to market has quadrupled with ebooks and the direct-from-computer-to-Internet model — and it will continue to grow, because with ebooks, there is no need for any book to go “out of print.” Now it is like looking for a sliver of a needle in a haystack of needles.

The one thing no one wants to hear is that the more books that are available, the fewer will be read and the less valuable books become. In the marketplace, it is scarcity that causes prices to rise, not abundance. It is true that marketplace forces have had little effect in list pricing of books before the Age of eBooks, but there was definitely an effect on actual selling pricing — at least until agency pricing. And it has been true that certain authors could lead a price increase that “trickled down” to books of all authors, but this required that the certain authors were authors of such repute that they were instant million sellers.

Alas, this is all changing under the new regime. As difficult as it was to find financial gems among 250,000 books published traditionally in 2009, imagine how much more difficult it will be to find those gems among 1 million plus books, especially as that 1 million grows to 2 million and more in the Age of eBooks.

With such increases in numbers of books available, the only way to get one’s needle to be seen in the haystack of needles will be price. Consequently, ebooks will lead the spiral of pricing downward. As that happens and as there is less money to divide among multiple parties, there will be lots of negative effects on the publishing industry:

  • a publisher who can only sell an ebook for $2.99 (or less) will be unwilling — if not unable — to spend money on production and marketing, thereby gradually eliminating the publisher’s role altogether, which will make a chaotic market even more chaotic
  • an author who has to sell his or her work for $2.99 (or less) has to rethink the whole artistic endeavor and has to consider 100% self-publishing as the only viable way to earn a return
  • such pricing and self-publishing will also put downward pressure on production quality, even more corners will be cut by necessity than are currently cut, leading to a downward trend in quality
  • readers will continue to exert a downward pressure on pricing because readers are, for the most part, author agnostic; that is, they are less interested in who the author is than in a story they enjoy, the consequence being that they will look for lower-priced ebooks to try
  • third-party book producers — the editors, the marketers, the printers, the designers, etc. — will struggle to keep afloat in a world that wants to pay less for fewer of their services, adding to the overall decline in quality

The future of publishing — once we get past the notion of quantity and instead focus on the notion of quality — as a structured enterprise appears bleak in the eBook Age. I, for one, have difficulty imagining a survivable structure focused on quality in the absence of an easing of pressure on pricing. Consequently, I am like the other pundits — I know that there has to be adaptation and change, but I can offer no guidance on how to accomplish either, not even for my role in the production process. Will historians of the future look at the 20th century as the epitome of publishing?

May 12, 2010

Judging Quality in the Internet Age

As a reader of An American Editor, you know that one of my concerns is what will happen if no one is willing to pay for news (see Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall). Compounding my anxiety over this issue is a recent The Economist article, The Rise of Content Farms: Emperors and Beggars, which notes that “[n]ewspaper articles are expensive to produce but usually cost nothing to read online and do not command high advertising rates, since there is almost unlimited inventory.” The article goes on to discuss content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, which use software to figure out what Internet users are interested in and how much advertising revenue a particular topic can support.

These content providers then send the results to freelance writers who are paid as little as $5 to write an article, which then is published on various websites, including that of USA Today. As The Economist notes, “[t]he problem with content farms is that they swamp the Internet with mediocre material. To earn a decent living, freelancers have to work at a breakneck pace, which has an obvious impact on quality.” One supporter of content farming is Ben Elowitz, CEO of Wetpaint.

In his article at paidContent.org, “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless”, Elowitz identifies 4 criteria of “old media” quality — credential (i.e., reputation of the media), correctness (i.e., fact verification), objectivity (i.e., not pushing a particular agenda), and craftsmanship (i.e., in-depth reporting) — and then relates how they are irrelevant in the Internet Age because:

The audience doesn’t care where the content comes from as long as it meets their needs. Decisions of what content is trustworthy are made by referral endorsements from our friends and colleagues on the social networks, and by the algorithms of search that help weigh authority vs. relevance. In the abundant world of content, consumers know to apply their own sniff tests — and with myriad sources, they develop their own loyalties and reputations. The brand’s stamp isn’t the point anymore — the consumer’s nose is.

He has it right that the audience doesn’t care about the source of the content so long as the content meets the audience’s need, but that is nothing to boast about. That the audience determines whether something is trustworthy is not something to praise but something to worry about, and to worry about greatly.

Essentially, content farmers and supporters leave the question of truth/fact to each reader — either the reader believes or the reader doesn’t. If a favored website repeatedly writes that the Earth is flat and 10 million people visit that website and agree, then, according to Elowitz’s standard, it must be true or that website wouldn’t have 10 million visitors. The reasoning isn’t sound — either the Earth is flat or it is round, regardless of what 10 million persons believe. Fact by definition is not belief, it is actual being or what we used to call truth.

There is a lot of distance between ease of access, which the Internet provides, and truth/fact, which neither the Internet nor mass belief can provide. This is and has been my problem with the current view of some in the Internet Age that news sources that want to go behind paywalls can be ignored because information is so readily available free. There is rarely a discussion of the credibility of the free information or how high factual standards will be maintained in the age of free.

How many Photoshopped images have you seen; if a photograph is so easily faked, why should we assume that a news story isn’t also faked? How many times have you read a press release from a repressive government that complaints of police brutality are untrue, that no one is starving in Darfur, that the Iranian elections weren’t rigged, that North Korea is paradise on Earth? And have we so quickly forgotten the few instances when “old media” found reporters faking news and the outrage it caused because of the “old media’s” credibility? Have we forgotten how quickly sound bites that were factually false (e.g., “death panels”) became believed by millions because of the viral reporting of the “new media”?

Elowitz goes on to say:

Without a staff of old-school journalists, Gawker has managed to rack up over 10 million visitors a month who come because the rumors and snark meet their definition of quality — without any of the institutional qualities of old media.

The flaw is the equating of numbers of readers with quality. The rumor that Ben Elowitz is a robot may make interesting reading but doesn’t equate with quality (or necessarily reality), and because a million people read that rumor doesn’t make the source trustworthy, the rumor true, or do away with the need for “old media” quality.

Somewhere, somehow, we all need a fact baseline against which to judge the quality of website — and government — pronouncements. In past generations, that fact baseline was provided by “old media”; in the Internet Age, if the content farmers are correct, there is no provider of that baseline — there are simply websites that agree with me and websites that disagree with me, no matter how far-fetched or absurd my beliefs are.

Elowitz and the content farmers tackle the problem from the economic perspective — “old media” qualities are bad because they are unprofitable, and therefore irrelevant, in the Internet Age. But that skirts the fundamental question of whether the only thing that matters in any decision-making process is profitability. It also ignores how businesses that are profitable make their daily business decisions; don’t they rely on truths rather than mass opinion? Additionally, if it is OK for the masses to be self-delusional, can we expect anything different from those who govern us?

We went to war in Iraq because “old media” qualities were ignored and the “new media” relevancy prevailed (remember the rumors of weapons of mass destruction?). Instead of applying the “old media” qualities of objectivity and correctness and being sure that the source of the rumor met “old media” credential standards, the “new media” qualities were used. How many more Iraqs must we suffer before we recognize that “old media” standards should be applied to the “new media” as well?

“Old media” standards aren’t irrelevant in the “new media”; rather, they are expensive and difficult to implement and thus the “new media” prefers to take the easy way out. The “new media” also tends to be more concerned with dollars than with accuracy or truth, and happily sacrifices accuracy and truth on the altar of greed — not caring about the subsequent consequences.

The danger of content farmers and of their supporters, like Elowitz, is that they believe there is wisdom in sheer numbers and that everything boils down to a popularity contest. Such thinking and believing doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization. With such reasoning, it won’t be long before we truly do revert back to the standards of the Dark Ages. In this regard, Rupert Murdoch is right and the Elowitzes of the world are wrong.

May 11, 2010

The Rarefied Literary Critic: Literary Criticism from One Author’s Perspective

Sue Lange, today’s guest writer, is a novelist and blogger on culture and technology at the Singularity Watch. Two of her published books of science fiction satire (Tritcheon Hash [2003, Metropolis Ink] and We, Robots [2007, Aqueduct Press]) are available at Amazon. Sue also has an ebook compilation of her published short fiction available in the Kindle Store or at Book View Cafe. Sue followed my articles about the downfall of literature and what follows is her take on the subject.

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The Rarefied Literary Critic

by Sue Lange

Rarefied: lower in oxygen. Extend that idea to all gases. Extend it further to the world of literature and you get a critic who is not full of hot air. I have nothing against windbags, but when it comes to literary criticism, perhaps less is more. Less gas maybe means more substance.

According to the Microsoft dictionary, rarefied also means “very high quality in character or style.” We worry that the high quality in character and style publishers and critics have exhibited in the past will go away in the new, anything goes Internet models. Consider Ben Elowitz’s assertion in “Traditional Ways Of Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content Are Now Useless” that times have changed. The credentials, accuracy, objectivity, and craftsmanship of those presenting published materials no longer matter. Speed and relevancy matter now. Content is king and the people alone crown it. No high priests. No swearing in with the right hand on the Bible.

Can the Internet audience find a king, let alone the right one? The one that can pull the sword out of the rock? Or do we need a rarefied literary critic that can recognize blue blood and ensure that we don’t go down in history as a pack of ignorant, tasteless, illiterates? Further, does it matter if we can’t leave behind evidence of our scholarliness and ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? Civilizations have come and gone without a trace. I doubt the citizens of such races suffered because they left no record, let alone one of literary achievement. However, we maybe suffer having no access to the lessons those unrecorded civilizations learned. Perhaps what you leave behind is important.

Beyond that, though, I say, yes, there is need for accurate and intelligent comment on our published works. As an author I want to know I hit the target. Sure it’s nice to get a bunch of five-star reviews by writing to the lowest common denominator, but if you put more into the material than just sex and violence, if reviews are not detailed and thoughtful what good are they? I mean beyond all the money to be made from a runaway bestseller that speaks to the lowest common denominator. There is that. But I daresay, deep down inside, every writer wants a competent analysis of their work. Because without that, an author is simply the equivalent of the tree falling in the forest. No sound is made because no one is hearing it.

Does this low-gas, high-substance critic exist anymore? It’s easy to bemoan the fact that the Internet makes a democracy of criticism as Elowitz’ article implies. Every one of the unwashed others is a critic now: educated, uneducated, those with an ax to grind, those who have something to gain personally. Everyone has access to a platform on which to exclaim their judgment. How can we glean understanding from the opinions of such?

Not only is everybody a critic, but there is exponentially more material to wade through to find the good stuff. Where will our John Kennedy Tools, Zora Neale Hurstons, Herman Melvilles come from now that the playing field is not only level but overflowing with talent? Competition for readership is so fierce no writer is going to get more than a little sliver of the fame pie. How can the critics familiarize themselves with all that is out there in order to make an intelligent decision on who is worthy? In case you didn’t realize it the first sentence in this paragraph was sarcastic. All three of those now worshipped authors were at one point dissed by either the publishing industry or the critics of the day. I’m sure there are many other such tragic instances, not to mention thousands of genius authors whose work never even saw the light of day. The point is things were never perfect and maybe the art of kingmaking was never much better than it is today.

So we, the consumers of the Internet, are heirs to a system of criticism with a history of mixed results. Where do we go from here? Our tools are suspect, our present style ruled by the mob.

Take a look at our assets. We have a collective conscious comprised of a million voices communicating with a million keyboards. This appears to be a deficit: isn’t the democracy of the marketplace why pop music sucks? Pop music is not a genre, it’s merely music that is popular. And the banal always has the broadest appeal because no one is offended.

Although music and literature are both creative arts, the end products of their criticism have different effects. The common man’s voice is now the written word. When the common man voices his opinion on music, the musical continuum is unaffected. But in writing about writing, a lesson is learned and the lesson is about writing. What happens when you write? You get better at it. And then what happens? You recognize other people’s writing and what’s good about it. In other words the medium of the Internet actually teaches people about good writing by making them do it. It teaches them nothing about good music. Maybe there will never be such a thing as pop literature then. Wouldn’t that be something?

I don’t kid myself, people find greatness in opinions that they agree with. The form of the opinion doesn’t matter nearly as much as the content of it. But some amateur critics will learn from form, about the form. Something will sink in. A more educated public will produce better criticism and better recognition of criticism.

Will it ever produce a critic as enlightened as someone who does nothing but read and write all day? Perhaps. Unfortunately, though, our system does no more to nurture the budding critic than it does to nurture the budding author. Yes, the avenues are there for a would be writer or critic, but it does nothing to nurture them and nurturing is required for excellence. An author is nurtured not only by a three-book deal, but by an editor and a public that understands the nuance and gives competent feedback. How will the critic be nurtured?

Technophilic bloggers spend more time reading tips on how to garner readers than the latest, greatest writing. With their huge readerships, they appear to be viable tastemakers, when in reality they’re just good at the pop mentality. Serious criticism requires a knowledge of what has gone before and what is out now. Who’s reading all that literature? Certainly not the technophilic blogger watching visitor stats and thinking about search engine optimization.

There is one group that does educate itself on what has gone before: the authors. The self-respecting authors, anyway. The ones that deserve critical acclaim. True critical acclaim, not just best seller status. These are the serious writers that respect the art. The ones that voraciously read and study the competition. The ones who love a good book. And they will seek and support an intelligent critic.

Perhaps the industry will turn to self-policing then. It will judge itself. I’m sure that will work. Look how well it works for the military.

I believe we need competent, thoughtful critics to help us wade through the dross. We will find those that have educated themselves on what is out there, what has gone before. Much like scientists who once were knowledgeable in every field, but now specialize, they will not know every book in every genre. They will have a field in which they know every book. We will trust them. They will decide who the king of content is. We, the people, however, will decide who the critic is. Welcome to the world. Breathe. Lots of air, lots of oxygen. It’s healthy, but don’t be afraid if things get thin. A little less gas means a lot more substance.

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As you can see, Sue and I have differing points of view. For those who would like to read my original articles, you can begin with this one: Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? It was followed by a 4-part series that began with eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I and continued over the following 3 days.

I know some of you weighed in on this discussion by commenting on my articles, but does Sue’s perspective change your mind? Do you agree with her? Have you something to add?

May 10, 2010

eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors

Here’s the tough question: Is there a future for freelance editors in the ebook Age? To which we can add this question: If there is, what kind of future will it be?

There are few things that freelance editors can be certain of, but here are some of those few things:

  • Every day our numbers increase as increasing numbers of people turn to freelance editing as either a full-time career or for a second income
  • Every day colleagues, including those with years of experience, are trying to find in-house work and give up freelancing
  • Every day there are fewer jobs available for a larger pool of editors
  • Every day another author or publisher decides that editing can be bypassed because readers simply don’t care
  • Every day another editor lowers his or her price, reducing the value of professional editing and making it harder for the professional editor to earn a living wage

We also know that there is no true professional organization for freelance editors that is actively seeking to lobby on our behalf or to find new employment opportunities for us. And we also know that computers were the first modern revolution in our business, the Internet was the second, and ebooks will be the third.

We’ve got trouble right here in edit city!

eBooks are bringing a new kind of revolution to freelance editing as a consequence of the direct-from-author’s-computer-to-Internet model that some publishers and many authors are adopting.

Editors have always faced the problem of authors and publishers being unwilling or unable to pay our fee and of authors and publishers doing without our services, with authors instead asking friends and neighbors to give the manuscript a once-over. But his has become more common and more problematic with the advent of ebooks and the proliferation of the belief that anyone can be an editor (and anyone can be an author).

The underlying problem, I think, is acceptance of the good-enough standard for publishing in lieu of the much higher threshold that existed when I first began my editorial career more than a quarter-century ago. This lower standard is a combination of industry consolidation, ease of access via the Internet, increased competition, and a desire to lower costs, with intangible costs, such as editing, being a prime target for cutting. I’ve even heard one publisher say that paying for editing is a waste of money because most readers don’t know the difference between whole and hole. Based on some of the ebooks I have read, I’m not sure that publisher doesn’t have a point (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!).

The good-enough standard is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for editing. When I started as an editor, my role was strictly limited to editing. I was expected to be careful and thorough and focused like a laser on copyediting. As time passed, the laser focus became more of a shotgun focus and other jobs became part of the expectations. And then came the need for speed. Not only was I expected to do more work for less money, but I was expected to do it faster. Where at one time a page rate of 3 to 4 pages an hour was the expectation, today the expectation is often 10 to 12 pages an hour, sometimes coupled with the request for a “heavy edit.” And where in the beginning I could expect a yearly increase in my fee, now many publishers are unwilling to pay more than they paid in 1995, yet demand more work be done for that pay than they demanded in 1995.

The good-enough standard is both the rationale and the justification for bypassing the editor. As this becomes the actual standard against which an ebook is judged, the expectations of the reader also become less — soon the reader accepts whole when hole is meant, seen when scene is meant. And as this happens, authors and publishers sell their work for less, almost as if dumbing-down readers and lower pricing are handcuffed together.

The ripple effect is that as reader quality expectations decline along with a concurrent lowering of price, there is both less need and less money available for editing, which ripples into less editing being done and declining work for editors. Admittedly, the other scenario is that more authors and publishers will have money available for editing and will want editing services but at a price that parallels the sales price of their ebook. This is equally devastating to freelance editors because there is a point at which one cannot afford to work as an editor.

eBooks are the great field opener for authors and publishers but, I fear, they will be the harbinger of doom for freelance editing as a profession for skilled editors. It is a never-ending downward spiral whose downward thrust is reinforced by the incessant consumer demand for lower pricing.

I’m open to suggestions on how to reverse the trend, but I think the future for freelance editors in the eBook Age — at least from the current view — is bleak. The need for ebooks to be professionally edited isn’t changing (see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; and other related articles under the tag Professional Editors), only the opportunities for professional editors to do that work and earn a living wage.

May 7, 2010

Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks

Smashwords and ebooksellers like Smashwords (such as Books for a Buck) are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5 (Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and HarperCollins). The reason is simple: the combination of quality and low price.

I find it hard to justify paying $14.99 for a fiction ebook unless I am absolutely enthralled with the author, and even then I am more inclined to pass on the ebook than spend that kind of money on a read-once-throwaway ebook. No need to repeat all the reasons; they have been bandied about the Internet and the magazines for months. And if I don’t know the author, I certainly wouldn’t pay the agency price. Amazon may have had it right when it set a top price of $9.99.

But look at Smashwords and similar sites. They sell ebooks in many categories from authors with whom I am not familiar for a reasonable price. I’m much more likely to spend $3.99 on an unknown author than $14.99. Of course, that isn’t enough to be a threat to the Agency 5. The Smashwords threat comes by Smashwords’ authors also being available in the iBookstore and Amazon, but primarily in the iBookstore.

It is in the iBookstore that the Agency 5 are face to face with competing books that cost significantly less. In publishing, it isn’t the publisher who sells an ebook; it is the author, the story synopsis, the ebook itself. No one goes around and says “I bought a great Hachette ebook yesterday.” Publisher branding value among ebookers is nearly nonexistent and I suspect noninfluential in the decision whether or not to buy an ebook.

For agency pricing to succeed, by which I mean the Agency 5 at minimum do not see a decrease in ebook sales from the pre-agency days, ebookers have to equate quality reads with the names of the giant publishers. Otherwise, all that will happen is that the blockbuster bestseller from the Stephen King-/Dan Brown-recognition-level authors will sell at the agency pricing and less-recognized authors down to unrecognized authors without the Oprah kick will have less-than-stellar ebook sales.

It is these second- and third-tier authors who have to compete against the Smashwords authors and for whose readers price is a major component of the decision to buy or not. In a bricks-and-mortar world, the Smashwords authors stand little chance, but in the Internet world they stand an equal chance — the Internet is the great sales leveler.

The playing field is level because all books display a cover, offer a sample read, have similar story blurbs. The differences are price and publisher name, but the latter has little, if any, swaying power, especially when you get down to the subsidiary names with which few readers are familiar. (Can you tell me who owns Ballantine? DAW? Basic? Do you care?)

The advantages that the Agency 5 do retain really relate to the level of professionalism in putting together the ebook — the professional editing, the professional cover design. But that advantage is easily eliminated by Smashwords authors who could hire these services independently [see, e.g., Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], and with the right pricing, is readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive them at all. (Perhaps the Agency 5 should rethink offering a warranty of quality; see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty.)

The big gamble that the Agency 5 is making is that ebookers will associate quality reading with their brands and be willing to pay an inflated price for that quality. The reality that will strike home eventually is that such thinking is delusional. eBookers do not equate quality with the Agency 5 brands; if anything, the Agency 5 have done such a poor public relations job with every aspect of ebooks that any association of their brands with quality have long disappeared. eBookers, as is true of most readers, look first for an interesting and seemingly well-written story. Then they look for pricing and production quality.

Combine an interesting and seemingly well-written story with a reasonable price and you have an ebook sale. The ebooker doesn’t care if the ebook is from Smashwords or Hachette. Consequently, Smashwords-type ebooksellers are the real threat to agency pricing and the Agency 5. The more Smashwords and its companion ebooksellers, like Books for a Buck, do to increase quality of the books they offer and the lower the prices they offer those books for, the more in trouble agency pricing and the Agency 5 are. I’ve yet to meet an ebooker who only buys Simon & Schuster ebooks. And we haven’t even touched upon the all the places that offer free ebooks, such as Feedbooks.

Smashwords, Books for a Buck, Feedbooks, and other smaller, independent publishers or ebook outlets are squeezing ebook pricing. eBookers want a good read at a reasonable price, which is what they get from these alternatives. The Agency 5’s plan to force ebookers to “value” ebooks by keeping pricing artificially high will not withstand the assault. Yes, the very top authors — the most popular authors — will probably be able to command the Agency 5 ebook prices, but they are not enough to sustain traditional publishers. There are too few Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings to build a business around the popularity of their books.

If iBookstore sales aren’t significant for the Agency 5 at the higher end of the agency pricing scheme, and if iBookstore sales for the Smashwords-type publishers/sellers show growth, the Agency 5 are doomed. Of course, it doesn’t help the Agency 5 that Random House is sitting on the sidelines. Imagine if its ebook sales continue to grow while the Agency 5’s sales decline.

May 5, 2010

Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed?

The current method by which book editors, designers, and illustrators, for example, get paid is hourly, by the page or illustration, or by the project. In other words, do the work and get a check.

And as the economy contracts, and as the traditional publishing world contracts, an increasing number of people join the ranks of freelance editors, designers, and illustrators, making their services available and putting additional strain on the pay scale because of their willingness to work for significantly less just to get work.

As wonderful a system as the free enterprise/freelance system is, the living wage pay scale has been put under pressure by publisher cutbacks and offshoring. Increasingly, editors, designers, and illustrators find more competition for less work at a lower rate of pay. I read recently where a person had graduated law school and when asked about job prospects, replied that he wasn’t worried because before becoming a lawyer he became a plumber. As he noted, you can offshore a thinking job, but it is hard to offshore a hands-on job like plumbing.

That got me thinking. I’m too old to start a career as a plumber, so perhaps a different pay model is the answer for intellectual endeavors. What if instead of a one-time payment for our work, editors, designers, illustrators — the whole intellectual and creative supply chain — received a “nominal” fee plus a percentage of sales?

The problem is that sales could be Harry Potterish, in which case I could be a millionaire, or it could be more typical  — less than 5,000 copies, perhaps even less than 500 copies, in which event I would starve. And if the freelancer’s focus was on specialty nonfiction, the freelancer could be in the same bind as scholarly publishers — seeking a way to keep the lights on.

eBooks exacerbate the problem to the extent that ebooks let anyone with a computer become an author-publisher, that is, someone who goes direct from computer to Internet. That route bypasses editors, designers, and illustrators. The usual reason given for that direct-to-reader approach is cost — and that is wholly understandable: How may authors are willing to gamble their own money on their own book’s success? For us service providers, the answer is too few.

And gambling it is because it is difficult to get noticed when your book is just one of 1 million. As is true in most of the creative arts, few artists (used broadly) earn enough money from their artistic endeavors to give up the day job. Yet for us freelance service providers, whose day job is editorial and production services, there is a large untapped market just waiting — and desperately needing — our skills.

It is this problem — How do I connect with those who have need of my skills but who are reluctant to pay for them from their own pocket in such a manner that the connection benefits both of us? — that forces freelancers to be creative and flexible in how they get paid. I grant that I have yet to come up with a good solution, but there has to be a better one than none.

If we do not find a solution, eventually we may find ourselves without work altogether. As is true of tossing a pebble into a pool of water, failure to find a solution has rippling effects.

One of the ripples will be the acceptance of “good enough” as the standard for a book. As it is, too many ebooks are poorly written from nearly every perspective — grammar, spelling, plot, characterization — and working downward toward the good enough standard will make these poor ebooks the norm and the expected. Once it is accepted that misspelling (e.g., making brake and break synonymous) and bad grammar do not matter as long as the book is priced right and can be waddled through, authors and publishers will decide to save costs by doing nothing more than is necessary to meet the good-enough standard.

As noted earlier, we are in a race to the bottom in terms of fees. Yes, some of us continue to earn high fees for our services, but that number of us is declining. As our ranks swell with people willing to work for decreasing amounts of money, those who continue to earn higher fees will be under pressure to lower their fees. It’s simply a truth of the free market in which price dominates all else — experience and skill take a backseat to cost containment. But if we could find a new way to be paid for working with independent authors, we could open a whole new world of clients while helping to stave off the collapse of spelling and grammar.

So how do we compete in a very competitive world? There must be a model that would work well, providing publishers, authors, and us with incentives and rewards. I just don’t know what it is. What ideas do you have?

April 30, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round IV

How do we find the next literary masterpiece among the 1 million+ books published each year (and I believe that number will rise rapidly as increasing numbers of writers publish direct from their computer to Internet). Don’t we need to find the next literary masterpiece? Don’t we need to separate the Shakespeares from the Joe Schmoes? Or does it not matter if we never find another Shakespeare? Or find another literary masterpiece? Does it not matter what our literary state says about our culture, our state of intellectual advancement?

For me, this is the dilemma. What role does literature play in our society? In our civilizing process? In our civilization? If we view the role as very limited or expendable, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway is unnecessary and having ebooks be the leveler for all writing is acceptable.

But if literature’s role is important, if it is important that future generations be able to point to particular authors as purveyors of culture and builders of social mores, then finding and nurturing the next Hemingway takes on great importance and the anything goes from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks are problematic absent some method for finding the next Hemingway.

Too many people think that the leveling of the playing field that ebooks brings is the only thing that matters; they are too dismissive of the gatekeeping role and assume that readers themselves can act effectively as the sieve. By sheer volume alone, this is impracticable, but it is also impracticable when there are no standards for determining the quality or lack of quality of an ebook.

Books serve many purposes in a society. They can be, for example, pushers of social change or recorders of social injustice. Books can be the purveyors of ideas that change a society’s direction. But to do these things, books must be read and read by more than a handful of people. The elitism that came about with having one’s book published by a traditional publisher also gave the book the social standing to be a game changer. With a leveled playing field, such books do not stand out — they are lost in the mass (morass?) of available books.

eBooks are clearly the new medium for idea dissemination and pbooks are clearly in decline. And just as the number of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks continues to increase, there is a parallel decline in literature — because society cannot create a consensus that a work is worthy of being called literature; too many books with too few readers to build consensus.

When following the traditional publishing route, an author strives for excellence because the author needs to separate his or her work from that of the masses. The competition for gatekeeper recognition that drives an author to strive for excellence doesn’t exist in the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook world. I’m not suggesting that the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet-ebook authors do not strive to do their best, but rather that the pressure to do whatever it takes to be the best no longer exists; that an author more quickly reaches the point of saying his or her work is good enough. No gatekeeper is saying more work is needed, much too often there is not even an editor reviewing the work, and the author knows that his or her ebook is going to be hard to find among the hundreds of thousands other good-enough ebooks. Good enough becomes the great leveler.

The standard of good enough is not a high enough standard for literature. It can be sufficient for the casual read (although I would argue that it is insufficient for any read), where the book will be read once, never read again, and forgotten completely within hours, if not within minutes. Good enough is not the Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird standard; it is not the standard met by a book that is still being read 50 years after its birth. Good enough, although a common standard for going direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook, is not a high enough standard for literature.

eBooks will be the downfall of literature and the arising of good enough! We already see that; and our current complaints about poor quality ebooks are likely to escalate in numbers and frequency. Future generations will miss out on today’s and tomorrow’s literature because what could be literature will not be recognized as such among the mass of direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebooks that the new publishing paradigm encourages.

The real devaluation of books is not low price but the direct-from-writer’s-computer-to-Internet ebook model of publishing.

April 29, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round III

OK, I know you aren’t convinced that ebooks and print on demand (POD) will be the downfall of literature, and perhaps there is no convincing you or perhaps I’m wrong. One commenter suggested that the great will rise, like cream, to the top. I hope they do, but I don’t think they will.

As ebooks and POD continue to supplant traditional publishing, the traditional ways of separating literature from nonliterature will also be supplanted. The question is: Supplanted by what? That is the big unknown.

Many commenters point to customer reviews at ebookstores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. So here is my first question: Excluding anger and protest reviews (such as the 1-star reviews because of price), for how many ebooks that you have bought and read have you written a review? How many of those reviews were in-depth reviews? In my case, the answer is zero. I counted up my ebook purchases over the past 2.5 years, and discovered I have purchased more than 500 ebooks and of that number have read 283. Yet I haven’t written one review (except for a couple here on An American Editor and on MobileRead). And of the pbooks I purchased and read in that same time frame, the only ones I have reviewed are the ones I reviewed on An American Editor.

Yet if you look at the reviewers on, for example, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, some have written more reviews than books I have read, yet they supposedly (according to their profiles) have numerous other interests that must take some time. I haven’t written reviews for several reasons, not least of which is that I don’t have the time to write an in-depth, thoughtful, and balanced review. I’m not a believer in the “Great book 5 stars” review, but then you probably guessed that from my suggestion that New York Review of Books reviews are the gold standard for book reviews.

I am quite skeptical of the reviews found at the ebookstores. And the 2-paragraph reviews I find at many of the ebook review sites aren’t much better (plus I have no idea who the reviewers are or their competencies). So who will become the new opinion shapers? How will we find them?

The Internet is both a great leveler and a great fragmenter. As a leveler, it makes new audiences available to authors, audiences they would not otherwise be able to easily reach. However, as a fragmenter, the Internet makes it easy for readers to find their niche and not expand out from it. Consequently, ebookers tend to take a narrow look at books rather than the more expansive look readers had to take when the only reviews were in generalist publications.

So how does a consensus get built that XYZ book is literature? You have the problems of sheer volume, Internet fragmentation, and questionable reviews that need to be overcome. Although the advent of ebooks has given everyone who wants to write an outlet for doing so, it has also made the task of finding the next J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway or Ursula Le Guin exponentially more difficult, if not impossible.

The lack of gatekeeping will cause a continual flood of ebooks, and picking and choosing among them will not be easy, perhaps even impossible. The idea that all that matters is that one find a book and enjoy it is OK as far as it goes, but it does nothing to help identify literature for new readers or future readers. The way we learn to appreciate good writing is to be exposed to good writing. But because ebooks make publishing a trivial experience, it is not possible to isolate good writing from poor writing (and pretty soon bad writing becomes the standard).

Just as poor grammar and spelling are commonly seen in ebooks (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), so those ebooks reinforce already poor grammar and spelling skills of readers (readers with good grammar and spelling skills are unlikely to have the patience to wade through the dreck of bad writing, bad grammar, and bad spelling). As writing falls perilously close to the lowest common denominator, the concepts of literature — of correct spelling, of correct grammar, of good writing — diminish until they are meaningless.

The lack of gatekeeping standards, the lack of publication literary standards that ebooks bring to the marketplace, and the sheer volume of ebooks available solely because of a person’s ability to bypass traditional publishing, indicates to me a downfall in literature.

It is not that the next Steinbeck isn’t out there — rather, it is that the next Steinbeck won’t be found.

The debate continues and concludes in round IV…

April 12, 2010

Editors in the Offshore World

Editing has come a long way, baby! All the way from being a local skill set to an anywhere-anytime-anyone skill set. How many times has a neighbor said to you: “I just finished reading XYZ and spotted 3 errors. I could have been an editor!”? That the neighbor missed 200 other glaring errors is beside the point — that everyone thinks he or she can be an editor is the point. And that publishers think that anyone anywhere can edit a book for a local audience is also the point.

No matter where you go in this world you will find the same two editorial classes: those who can edit and those who can’t. Pick a country — doesn’t matter which one — and you’ll find the two classes. So the problem isn’t that the local country has a monopoly on good editors; the problem is more intricate than that.

Editors are a reading class, or a class of readers. Editors tend to be book lovers — why else would one want to wade through some of the drivel editor’s see? As book lovers, editors (as a class) tend to spend a larger proportion of their earnings on reading material than noneditors (as a class). But as editors’ incomes decline, so does the amount of money that they can spend on reading material. And let’s face it — no matter how you slice and dice it, an editor in Ukraine is unlikely to be a large consumer of books for the American audience, just as the American editor is unlikely to be a big consumer of books for the Ukrainian market.

How, you ask, does this relate to offshoring? Think about the books we buy in the United States. When a book refers to “Appalachian-level poverty,” the U.S. reader understands the metaphor. Would the Indian or Australian reader understand its symbolism? (Yes, we can all point to the one or two U.S. folk who wouldn’t understand and to the one or two Indians or Australians who would — let’s not get quite so picky.) Would the Indian or Australian editor understand the connotations of equating living in, say, Los Angeles with living in the Mississippi Delta?

This isn’t a one-way street. There is much I wouldn’t know or understand about a metaphor relating to a French or German localism that the French or German reader and editor would understand immediately. And offshoring affects the German editor, the Australian editor, the British editor, as much as it affects the American editor. The Internet has made us all vulnerable to offshoring. Also remember this: Today’s offshore choice is likely to find itself scrambling within a decade as some other  place becomes the new cheap heaven.

When a publisher offshores editorial work, the publisher not only raises editorial problems because of localisms but also deprives a portion of its audience of the means to buy the book. It is a circle of quality plus buying power. It is true that publishers offshore to save immediate costs but at the penalty of lost future sales.

Of course, those of us who earn our livelihoods as editors know that when the publisher offshores, the publisher really is not offshoring a single part of the editorial and production cycle. What the publisher does is offshore the whole editorial-production package to a “packager.” The packager then re-offshores the editorial work by trying to hire local editors, that is editors local to the country where the book will be published.

The problem isn’t the offshoring to the packager who then re-offshores back to the local country; the problem is that the packager has cut a deal with the devil in order to get the original work. The publisher offshores to cut editorial-production costs; the packager promises reduced editorial-production costs; the packager cannot provide the editorial part in its own locale so it re-offshores the editorial work. But because of the promised savings, the packager has to short-change something and so it short-changes editorial.

Editors in the United States saw this in practice not too many months ago when a mass e-mail was sent by an offshore packager looking for experienced STM (science, technical, and medical) editors to edit book and journal manuscripts, saying: “We’re dealing with International clients only so they need very high standard of Quality and on time delivery so there will not be any compromise on these front. [sic]” In addition to the “high standard of Quality” editing, the packager required “a Non-competent [sic] agreement between us.”

A high-quality edit of STM material is time-consuming, and experienced STM editors know that such a requirement means a churn rate of about 5 manuscript pages an hour. Add in the requirement of a noncompete agreement and an editor would think the fee would be a reasonable one. Alas, this packager offered “Copyediting – $0.80 per page,” which meant that the editor would earn $4.00 an hour, slightly more than half of U.S. minimum wage.

This packager’s pricing was a bit extreme but not by much. This was my — and every editor who received the e-mail’s — Appalachian-level poverty moment.

I don’t know how many U.S. editors this packager ultimately was able to hire at this rate, but if I were a publisher who cut the deal with this packager, I sure would wonder about the work quality and the skill set of the hired editors. Of course, it also makes me wonder what the rate would be for nonspecialty editing or for inexperienced editors.

Offshoring of editorial functions to packagers because of a combined low package price is problematic on multiple levels. If publishers indirectly cause the demise of the local editorial class, they are also causing the demise of a significant segment of their buyers. If the editorial quality remains consistently poor, something we are seeing in ebooks, and which is creeping up in pbooks, people will ultimately become so frustrated with the reading experience that they will rebel at paying for it. If I have to suffer through a poorly edited book, I may as well suffer through one that cost me nothing — something that is increasingly seen with ebooks. Publishers and authors can protest low pricing claiming their products are valuable, but the marketplace, as offshoring of editorial work continues, may well view the products as worth nearly nothing.

I am reminded of what happened after World War II with the rise of the Japanese economic empire. Made in Japan became synonymous with very cheap and mediocre to poor quality; made in America was equated with expensive and high quality. But books in American English don’t carry a label that says “edited in Somalia” so readers assume — often incorrectly — that the editing — good, bad, or indifferent — was done by local editors (assuming it was edited at all). Perhaps books should be required to carry origin labels just like other products.

Books aren’t like TVs. Book editing requires a more intangible skill set than does assembling a TV; it requires knowledge and decision-making prowess. It is not repeatedly putting the same part in the same place. Although some aspects of editing can be automated, there still needs to be a decision maker who can decide between “know” and “no.”

Offshoring affects editors everywhere because economies rise and fall and today’s cheap labor becomes tomorrow’s expensive labor, so today’s editors who receive the offshored jobs will tomorrow find their jobs offshored. It also affects publishers everywhere. It is their need to produce localized books to sell to the local market at a price the local market will bear for quality that the market expects that is being jeopardized.

There is no easy answer, but with book prices climbing, editorial quality needs to keep pace. Perhaps the answer is to standardize the world’s languages into a single language with no localisms permitted.

April 7, 2010

Agency in eBooks: Just the Start?

With all of the hullabaloo lately about the shift to the agency model of pricing brought about by Apple and 5 of the big 6 publishers, the question of what this means for the future of all publishing has been sidestepped. (For those unfamiliar with the model, essentially it means this: publishers set the retail price for an ebook and every ebookseller sells the ebook at that price. The ebooksellers aren’t really sellers in this scheme; they are simply conduits — a funnel for money to go from buyer to publisher and for delivery of an ebook to the consumer. For their efforts, the ebooksellers receive a commission.)

Let’s assume that the publishers (and Apple’s) motive for the agency model in ebook pricing is pure as the driven snow before the dog is let outside. Let’s also assume that the move was necessary to preserve “quality” publishing by ensuring that publishers and authors receive a fair return for their work effort. And let’s further assume that publishers play and will continue to play an important role in getting “quality” manuscripts from the oven to the table.

Yes, I know that for some of you these are mighty big assumptions and that it goes against the grain, like a fingernail scraping across a chalkboard, to give any credence whatsoever to these assumptions, but their credibility really doesn’t matter in the real world. What does matter is what the agency model for ebooks portends for publishing as a whole, and here is where publishing may well meet its Waterloo (further discussion of publishing meeting its Waterloo is found in Will Apple’s iBookstore be Publishing’s Waterloo?).

If the agency model works for ebooks, why won’t it work for pbooks? What separates the ebook and the pbook in terms of preserving the value of the work? Why should one be treated differently?

Logically, there is no difference between an ebook and a pbook. Yes, there is a form difference and yes, there is a slight production cost difference, but there is no difference in the content — and isn’t content what is really being sold? If the sale is really the format and not the content, then why pay authors? Why not just sell gibberish? Every reader, every author, and every publisher knows that content is king — it matters greatly whether that novel was written by me or by Stephen King and it matters greatly how the same words are strung together (presumably Stephen King strings them better than me).

If the agency model is designed to preserve the value of the content of an ebook, shouldn’t it be used to preserve the value of the identical (except for format) pbook? (Further discussion of value is found in Valuing a Book: How Do Publishers Decide on Value?) Isn’t this where we are heading now that the floodgates have been opened?

The ramifications of the agency model haven’t really been thought out by any of the players. If it works for ebooks, it will work for pbooks. If it is imposed in pbookland, publishers will, in one fell swoop, eliminate their largest headache — returns (for a discussion of returns, see It’s Raining, It’s Pouring: Returns in an eBook Age). It will also stabilize pricing — no more battles based on price between Wal-Mart, Amazon, Target, and Barnes & Noble, for example.

If agency pricing works with consumers (still unknown), publishers will be able to raise pricing on paperback books — after all, if an ebook that the buyer leases sells well at $14.99, why sell a paperback that the buyer owns at $7.99?

And if agency pricing works, why not further consolidate and eliminate booksellers altogether? Oh, that can’t be easily done tomorrow because consumers like the one-stop shopping that bookstores and ebooksellers provide, but it is only a matter of putting some thought to the problem to figure out a solution, a way for the publisher to reap 100% of the money — no need to split with an agent who provides minimal service.

Apple is one culprit here. Blinded by its dislike for Amazon (among other companies that Jobs seems to have a fetish about), Apple offered publishers what seems to be the ideal solution to Amazon’s power grab. Amazon is the other culprit in this story. Blinded by its desire to dominate the nascent ebook market like Apple dominates the emusic market, Bezos made several strategic blunders, each inflaming the publishing industry and fanning a belief (a well-founded belief, I think) that the enemy is Amazon and it must be brought to its knees. Unfortunately, the ebook consumer became the first casualty in this war and, ultimately, all readers are likely to become book war casualties.

The ultimate question for publishers, however, is will the agency model actually work to the industry’s benefit? What benchmarks have the big 5 set to evaluate the effect of the agency model on ebooks? How dedicated to book buying is the reading public? Have ebookers become so enamored with pricing wars that they will forsake agencied ebooks? There are lots more questions that need asking and answering, but I suspect that the big 5 are unprepared to either ask or answer them — at least not objectively. In the end, I think the near-term winners will be Random House and those indie publishers who forsake the agency model.

Which leads to the final question to be answered: What will publishers who have agreed to the agency model do if the iBookstore turns out to be a small molehill at the foot of a mountain rather than the expected mountain? Someone who buys a Kindle or a Sony Reader buys one because they are a reader; who knows why an iPad was bought. It’s the difference between buying a dedicated device and a multifunction device. Hard to tell which of the multifunctions was the impetus for buying the device and which functions are secondary or tertiary considerations, if considerations at all.

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