An American Editor

March 31, 2010

On Books: The Death of American Virtue

As I have written in earlier posts, I like to read nonfiction history. As is true of many readers, I have subject area interests, some broad, some narrow. For example, I am interested in antisemitism as a broad topic and more narrowly the Alfred Dreyfus Affair that rocked late 19th century France. I am interested in World War II, mainly the European theater, but more narrowly on the Nazis and the Third Reich and its antisemitic and genocidal behavior. I am not much interested in the FDR presidency (surprising, I suppose, since I live near his presidential library) except for his failed attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. I am also very interested in the history of slavery and the American Civil Rights movement.

But one thing that has fascinated me is the impeachment process. I guess my interest was first aroused listening to the Watergate hearings and Senator Sam Ervin. I was appalled by the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s attempt to quash the investigation — America is not supposed to work that way — and pleased with how the independent counsels approached our constitutional crisis, displaying both a sense of fairness and justice along with a regard for history. I thought I was living in rare times, witnessing events not seen since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and unlikely to be seen again in my lifetime. I didn’t know how wrong I was.

Twenty-five years later history was to repeat itself in the form of William Jefferson Clinton. But this time, things were different.

Today many of us are appalled at the partisanship displayed by elected officials. Even at my local county level, the partisanship is appalling — and it gets worse as each day passes. This partisanship, I think, is one of the lasting legacies of the Reagan presidency. I think Reagan gave birth to the divide and subsequently elected presidents and congressman have consciously worked at making it worse, not better.

Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr is an excellent telling, in neutral terms, of one of the major political divides and one of the foundational pillars of our current partisanship. I found the story and the writing compelling; I had great difficulty in putting the book down for the night.

Let me say upfront that I was one of many Americans who thought Clinton’s impeachment was wrong. My view, like that of many fellow citizens, was that lying about sex between consenting adults is simply not an impeachable offense. I saw the process simply as wasting taxpayer dollars in an attempt by the right to remove a president who was too far left for their liking. Had the president had sex with a child (i.e., someone not older than 21) or with a spy for another country, then impeachment would be proper; but sex with a 24-year-old consenting adult who was not a spy and was not promised a job was none of my business. Like many Americans, I wasn’t interested in what was to me a family problem. I had little respect for Ken Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel. All I saw was a rigid moralist who was out to get a left-leaning president any way he could.

Gormley’s book provides a more balanced and nuanced perspective. Although my overall opinion hasn’t changed, I better understand the dynamics between the parties. Gormley interviewed nearly all of the key players in the investigation and impeachment, including, Clinton, Starr, Tripp, and Lewinsky. What comes out is that the investigation was a tragic comedy of errors. Probably the most important revelation is how Ken Starr, a well-respected judge and lawyer, was such a mismatch for this investigation.

The tragedy begins with Paula Jones. What started as a minor diversion that would not have amounted to anything had the accused been anyone but the president, soon escalated with the help of “elves” — conservative lawyers who began pushing Jones, seeing her lawsuit as a vehicle to get Clinton, but pushing and aiding in the background, never coming to forefront. Jones began with high motives, but soon got sidetracked as her husband kept pushing her, making increasingly impossible demands of Clinton and finally quashing a settlement.

The investigators had their own problems. Starr was involved in the Jones case, albeit peripherally, but failed to disclose his involvement when offered the post of independent counsel. Starr also had poor management skills, preferring to manage by consensus rather than exercise his own judgement, leading the stronger-willed, more conservative attorneys to become the decision makers and pushing their own anti-Clinton agenda.

The real victim in this fiasco was Monica Lewinsky. She was abused by everyone: by her best friend, Linda Tripp, who surreptitiously tape recorded conversations with her; by Clinton, who took advantage of a woman who thought she was in love with him; by Star and his staff, who braced her repeatedly and denied her requests for a lawyer and who threatened and coerced her mother and father as a means of putting pressure on her; by one of her attorneys, whose methodology didn’t protect her; and by the judges, who should have supervised more closely and not promoted their own agendas.

American virtue began its death march in the Reagan administration (Iran Contra being but one example), but it had its full outing in the Clinton impeachment. Ken Gromley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr adds perspective to the events that led to the constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. This is a book that every American should read, regardless of whether they believe Clinton should have been impeached or not, because it is the story of a system run amuck, the story of what happens when politics is more important than the American people whom the politicians ostensibly serve, and because it is a warning about our current state of partisanship — the destruction it could lead to if allowed to continue along its current path.

Well written, informative, and important are the words that describe The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, perhaps the most important book on recent American history published in recent years.

March 18, 2010

eBooks & pBooks in Tandem

It appears that Barnes & Noble and some publishers plan to experiment with giving pbook buyers a discount coupon to purchase the ebook version of the purchased pbook. I’ve been wrestling with this idea for quite some time and I’m still undecided about how valuable such a system will be to me.

There are several considerations. Will I need to buy the hardcover or can I buy the paperback pbook? Buying the hardcover pbook isn’t much of a problem for me as I only buy hardcover pbooks. But where it does have some effect is on which books will come with the discount coupon and how recent will those books be: Will they be brand new releases still on the bestseller lists or will they be part of the long tail only? The answer also affects the price I would be willing to pay (or maybe it doesn’t; let’s see how the discussion unfolds) for both the p and e books.

Considering the state of pricing today, I also wonder if pbooks that come with the discount coupon will be priced differently than pbooks sans the coupon? This hasn’t been raised yet, but considering the shenanigans that currently occur with pricing, I could see publishers choosing to sell what would normally be a $30 pbook for $35 as a way of covering the discount. Unfortunately, we would never know. I could also see Barnes & Noble, whose reputation has taken some pretty heavy hits since it entered the ebook business, telling B&N members that hardcover pbooks without a discount coupon get a 20% member discount; those with the coupon get a 10% discount. The one thing that can be said for B&N is that it cares very little about how it treats its book buyers, especially its members.

Also of concern is whether the tandem books will be just fiction or both fiction and nonfiction. This matters greatly to me because I rarely buy fiction in pbook form. There are a few fiction authors — e.g., L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, Robin Hobb, Harry Turtledove — whose new releases I buy in hardcover, but these authors are still read-once-then-shelve authors, so I would be disinclined to pay twice for one of their books. Conversely, my nonfiction reading runs largely to history, biography, English language, and philosophy, and these books not only grace my library shelves but they are referred to regularly and sometimes reread in whole. These books I would be interested in both p and e versions if the price and quality of the ebook was right.

My fourth concern relates to the quality of the ebook. If the ebook has the typical quality problems we see today, I am disinclined to spend twice for the same book — especially when those quality problems come wrapped in DRM. We know that ePub works pretty well for straight text, which is typical of fiction, but what about the more delicate needs of nonfiction, such as foot-/endnotes, intricate illustrations, and detailed tables and graphs? Will publishers enhance quality control or remain haphazard in the quality assurance department?

When I buy a nonfiction pbook, the typical price ranges from $30 to $40; occasionally a book costs less and sometimes more than that range indicates. On average, most of the books I purchase cost about $35. So the important question is how much more am I willing to pay to have the convenience of reading an ebook of the purchased pbook?

I admit that if I could, I would gladly read any book I purchase on my Sony Reader. I generally have a hate relationship with electronic devices, especially my computers, but I love my Sony Reader. But it isn’t well suited for reading complex nonfiction. So I’m looking to upgrade my device and the tandem idea might be an incentive — if the price of the ebook part of the tandem is right.

And that’s the kicker — What is the right price? Currently, when I buy fiction ebooks I am unwilling to spend more than a very few dollars — never more than $5 and rarely more than $3 — because quality is so low. Because I buy nearly all my fiction in ebook form, it means there are a lot of fiction authors published by major, traditional publishers whose work I never sample. I will not pay Macmillan or Simon & Schuster or any publisher $9.99 for an ebook whose quality may be poor and which is, for me, a read-once-throw-away product, especially not when I can buy the same book in paperback for less than $7 at a bookstore or in hardcover for less than $7 either as a remainder or in a used bookstore. If I’m going to read it once and then toss it, I want toi go the least expensive route possible, unless I am collecting the author, in which event I don’t want anything but hardcover.

So what is the bright line, that magic number that would encourage me to use the discount coupon and buy both the hardcover and the ebook version of a fiction book? I guess that if the pbook cost no more than $30, I would be willing to pay a maximum of an additional 15% for the ebook version. Anything more than that and I would either just buy the hardcover or not buy the book at all

My bright line for nonfiction, however, is different. I buy and use nonfiction books differently, consequently I would be willing to pay more for the tandem ebook version. For me, buying the hardcover is a given; if I don’t buy the nonfiction book in hardcover, I simply am not interested in the book and will not buy it in any form. Well, if the ebook was less than $5 by itself, i.e., no need to also buy the pbook, I might think about buying some nonfiction in ebook only, but that level of pricing isn’t going to happen. But for a nonfiction book that I am buying in hardcover, I would go as high as 25% of the hardcover price for a well-done ebook version in the tandem deal. Anything more than 25% I would pass on.

But let me add this caveat as far as B&N goes: Given the choice between a 20% minimum member discount on a nonfiction hardcover or a 10% plus ebook discount coupon member discount, I will always opt for the 20% discount and forsake the ebook. But I’ll bet B&N won’t survey active members about their buying habits and opinions on this subject any more than it surveyed members before introducing the nook or its ebook product line. If ever there was a company working hard to dig its own grave, B&N is it.

Update

Since I wrote the above, two things have happened: First, I began reading Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, and second, C-SPAN has made available hundreds of thousands of hours of past broadcasts, which hours include the Clinton impeachment proceedings and trial in the House and Senate. Because of my interest in the impeachment process and proceedings from a historian’s perspective rather than a partisan’s perspective, I would have gladly bought a high-quality ebook that included videos of the proceedings and perhaps interviews of the main players — but only if I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. I would have gladly bought an enhanced pbook that included a DVD with videos of the proceedings and trial. And I would have readily bought both the pbook and a discounted ebook of Gormley’s book if the ebook was enhanced — and I was assured that I could read and access the ebook today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now — even if the ebook’s discounted price was 75% of the pbooks price.

My point is this: Certain books lend themselves to tandeming and can command a high price for the tandem. I don’t think fiction can command that high tandem price, but a book like The Loss of American Virtue could if the ebook were enhanced because the enhancements would flesh out and put in historical context the content of the primary text. Something to further think about.

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