An American Editor

July 14, 2014

What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction

As readers of An American Editor know, I am a buyer of books. My to-be-read pile grows faster than I can read and is likely to require me to come back in the afterlife to read all that I am accumulating. (To discover what is in my TBR pile, see, e.g., On Today’s Bookshelf [XVI], the most recent listing in the series, and the previous 15 similar articles [search for On Today’s Bookshelf]) The problem is that there are a lot of interesting (to me) books being written and I want to add some of those books to my library. Even if I do not get an opportunity to read every book I am acquiring, I hope they will intrigue my children and grandchildren.

As I have remarked in previous essays, I often find books of interest by reading publisher ads in the New York Review of Books. The NYRB often has ads from university presses, and the UPs are often the publishers of books that capture my interest.

In a recent issue of the NYRB, Stanford University Press had a full-page ad for new books. Of the seven books that Stanford promoted, four caught my eye (Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution by Timothy K. Kuhner; The Headscarf Debates: Conflicts of National Belonging by Anna C. Korteweg and Gökçe Yurdakul; Mother Folly: A Tale by Françoise Davoine; and The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood by Beth Baron). Although I was interested in the four books, I was particularly interested in The Orphan Scandal.

In my normal course, I would have simply gone to either the Barnes & Noble or Stanford University Press website and ordered at least The Orphan Scandal, and more likely several, if not all four, of the books. But not this time.

There are several problems from my perspective as a book-buying consumer, which make me wonder: What are they thinking?

I am interested in buying the books in hardcover — definitely not paperback and only maybe in ebook. I want the books as additions to my library. Yet the hardcover versions are not remotely reasonably priced, even though these books are likely to be print-on-demand books, not traditionally printed and distributed.

I have no objection to POD books. I understand that academic books (especially) have limited audiences and that to do a print run of the books and then to warehouse them, as was required not so long ago, is a costly venture. I also know from my days as a publisher that small print runs are very expensive. Consequently, the fiscally responsible way to publish limited-audience academic books is POD.

But what sense is there in further limiting your book-buying audience by unreasonably pricing the book? The Orphan Scandal‘s hardcover price is $85. The book is 272 pages. Compare this to Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, which is 2 volumes in a slipcase, runs 2008 pages, and retails for $130 but is available for $100. (For those interested in Lincoln, I highly recommend this biography. It is excellent — well written and comprehensive.)

I understand that the books are different and the economics may be different so that I am not really comparing likes when I compare The Orphan’s Scandal to Abraham Lincoln. Except that Amazon has turned books into commodities and like other consumers, I decide to buy or not based on many factors, including price. I am probably less sensitive to price than many, if not most, book buyers, but I am not indifferent to it. (The other three books that interest me are $85 [2 books] and $90 in hardcover.)

There is a price point that tilts a buying decision one way or the other. There is also a price point that when exceeded acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy of limited sales. And there is also a price point that when exceeded strikes book buyers as unreasonable or absurd, especially if a book buyer believes that the book is a POD book. Again, not because POD books are of lesser quality, but because there is little to no justification for the price spread between the paperback version and the hardcover version. A POD hardcover costs a few dollars more to create, but not more than triple the cost of the paperback.

Stanford University Press is not alone in its absurdist pricing. I have noted other UPs following a similar strategy. I want these books because they interest me; I do not need these books. Because I do not need these books, economics plays a greater role in my purchasing decision.

I decide to buy a book by applying many criteria, but the primary criteria are subject matter interest, likelihood that the book will rise to near the top of my TBR pile, and does the price reflect (in my estimation) the knowledge value of the book. Knowledge value is difficult to explain. It is not a determination of the academic value of the content or the qualifications of the author; rather, it is a judgment about where the content’s value lies on the continuum of my personal interests.

For example, I am especially interested in anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. If these books fit within those subject areas, the content would have a higher knowledge value for me and thus I would be willing to spend more on the books. (This is one reason why I so willingly buy books on language [see, e.g., On Books: Dictionary of Untranslatables] regardless of the cost.) But these books do not fit into such an area; they fit more into a general interest area, and so I am unwilling to spend without limit.

University presses are generally hard pressed for money and for readers. Some of that is attributable to the books they publish. The UPs are filling a knowledge role that traditional publishers are unwilling to fill. UPs are, for want of a better word coming to mind, niche publishers. The niche is the preservation and advancing of knowledge that is of interest to small numbers of people. UPs fulfill this role admirably.

But what are they thinking when they so price their books that they make their potential audience even smaller than it could be? Again, with print-on-demand publishing, there is little justification for charging more than triple the price of the paperback version for a hardcover. If UPs continue this unrealistic trend in pricing, I know I will be buying fewer UP books.

How does pricing by university presses affect your decision to buy a UP book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 14, 2014

Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales?

I recently bought a half-dozen hardcover books published by university presses, such as The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault (University of North Carolina Press) and Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant (University Press of Colorado). I considered buying several more books published by university presses but didn’t, and it is the reason why I didn’t and the reason why I didn’t buy the books I did buy directly from the presses that is the topic of this article.

(On the off-chance someone from a university press is reading this essay, let me say that the way I found some of the books — both those bought and those I thought about buying — is from ads in the New York Review of Books or their being reviewed or mentioned in a review in the NYRB.)

What would have induced me to buy the additional books even though the cost was high?

As is typically the case with university press books, they are expensive and only slightly discounted (usually 5% to 10%) by booksellers. Consequently, I think carefully about whether to buy a book. The other problem is that although I want to buy the hardcover for my library, I would prefer, in many cases, to read the book as an ebook. Some of the books, like the two I identified above, are not available in ebook form; others that I did consider buying but didn’t buy are available in both print and ebook formats.

And that is where the university presses are failing in their sales pitch. Why not make their books more attractive by including a free ebook version to anyone who pays list price? I know that rather than save 5% on a book, I would rather have a free ebook version, and I am confident that there is a group of consumers who think the same.

I grant that many of the books published by university presses are of interest only to academics. I own several that I would be surprised even if fellow academics found comprehensible, but which I bought because I am interested in the topic. (Alas, these books are so dense that years later they are still unfinished, although they do look nice on my library shelves.)

I understand that an ebook is not cheap to produce. However, if properly planned for during the production stages of the print book, the cost is significantly less than if the job had to be tackled from the beginning. If done simultaneously with the print version, the cost is very minimal today.

The idea of buying the hardcover version and getting a free ebook version is not new but it is an idea that has yet to be implemented fully by university presses.

The logistics are not all that difficult. More difficult is getting people to part with $60 for a book, even with a free ebook. University presses charge such high prices because sales are expected to be very limited, in some instances at most a few hundred books. But I suspect that their books would have increased sales with the ebook sweetener. Perhaps not lifting a book into six-figure sales, but perhaps into five-figure sales.

Yet it is not enough to have such a program in place; it has to be advertised. If I were running the university press, I would start by advertising that for a limited time, if a reader buys the book directly from the press, the reader will also receive the free ebook. Eventually I would expand the program so that booksellers could also offer the free ebook.

Once I started advertising the buy-with-free-ebook scheme, I would be certain that I did at least two things: First, I would be sure to add purchaser names and addresses to my mailing list so I could notify them of new releases and deals. Second, I would track sales carefully to try to determine whether the bonus ebook increases nonacademic sales.

University presses serve a very important function in publishing. The question is for how much longer will they be able to survive and fulfill that function in the absence of increased sales. Because their function is to publish academically worthy books rather than “bestsellers,” profits and sales numbers — although important — are secondary considerations. But at some point, as some university presses have already discovered, they become primary considerations.

Few university presses are prepared for that moment when profits and sales numbers become primary considerations; it goes against the primary purpose of the press. But thinking about how to increase sales, making plans to do so, and implementing those plans is something every university press should do. For buyers of university press books like me, one answer to how to increase sales is to include a free ebook version of the hardcover book. I know that had at least several, if not all, of the books I considered buying but decided not to buy had included the free ebook, I would have bought the books.

Would a free ebook version induce you to buy a book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 17, 2014

If There Were Only One

A while ago I was speaking with some local students and I was asked to name the one print periodical that I think every editor should subscribe to and read. This was a difficult question. I subscribe to a number of print and electronic periodicals and read books constantly because I like to broaden my general knowledge base. But I gave the question some serious thought.

In the end, I had to nominate two print periodicals — one just wouldn’t cover the bases for me. The two I named were The New York Times and The New York Review of Books.

Let me say that the newspaper doesn’t need to be the Times; it does need to be a newspaper of similar scope. Reading the Times lets me keep abreast of what is happening in numerous fields, especially with its specialized weekly sections, like “Science,” and with its broad coverage of world and local news. In comparison, my local newspaper barely provides coverage of local news outside of sports. I think the necessity of keeping abreast of what is happening in the world around us as part of our education is self-evident. A more detailed discussion in this regard can be found in Ruth Thaler-Carter’s “On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process,” which previously appeared on An American Editor.

The choice that requires more explanation is The New York Review of Books (NYRB).

I subscribe to a wide variety of periodicals and I also read some more specialized material in electronic form. But of all the periodicals I read, none provides as broad an insight into my editing world as the NYRB. The NYRB is not just about books. It discusses films, politics, science, economics, poetry, art, music, photography, among other culture-oriented items. It is true that other periodicals also discuss some of these things, but none seem to approach the topics like the NYRB.

When the NYRB reviews a book, for example, I learn about similar books, about the author of the book, and about the book. If the book is nonfiction, for example, about a battle that occurred in World War II, the review invariably discusses other books that address the battle and distinguishes among the books, their approaches, the qualifications of the authors, and all the things that make for a great learning experience.

When an art exhibit is under discussion, the reader is educated about the artist, the period in which the artist lived and painted, and how the artist’s works are perceived. It is almost like being in an art appreciation class in college.

Importantly, the reviews are written in the analytical manner that a good developmental editor would mimic. The review builds. The reviews are also instructive for the copyeditor. I have found that many of the things that I look for today as a copyeditor are things that I learned to look for by reading the high-quality reviews of the NYRB.

There is only so much time I can spend outside work reading for educational purposes. My life cannot be solely about work. Consequently, it is important to gain as much exposure as I can to as many topics as I can so that I can be a better editor and ask more incisive questions of authors. Because of its wide range of topics, I have found the NYRB to be, especially in combination with a daily reading of The New York Times, to be an excellent platform for giving me sufficient background to ask questions of authors. Just one example —

I recently edited a book that had a discussion of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). Between what I had learned from the Times and the NYRB, I felt confident enough in my knowledge of the Act to query the authors about a couple of points. The one thing I — and I would suspect many of my colleagues — do not want to do is make a query that makes me look as if I have no understanding of the topic I am editing. For example, if an author wrote “Affordable Care Act,” I would feel foolish (and look foolish) if I were to ask: “Do you mean Obamacare?” And considering that the term “Obamacare” is laden with political meaning, I would want to be careful about suggesting that “Obamacare” be substituted for “Affordable Care Act” under the guise that readers would more quickly identify what is meant.

(I suspect most of you are saying you would never make such a query. Let me assure you that I know of a few “professional” editors who have asked such a question of an author.)

A good editor is very aware of, and knowledgeable about, more than a specialty subject area. I understand that I could be a great medical editor and also be very knowledgeable about quilting patterns, but it is not evident to me how I could put my quilting knowledge to use in my editing work. A publication like the NYRB, which provides a wide spectrum of information as part of its primary function of review, can provide me with foundational knowledge that is usable in multiple fields.

As I noted earlier, the NYRB also acts as a constant tutor for me on editing. I read the reviews carefully, looking at how they are structured, what kinds of questions I would ask if I were editing the review, and are those questions subsequently answered. I also consider word choices: Did the editor and author choose the best word to convey the particular meaning? “Intellectual” periodicals like the NYRB should be held to a higher editorial standard than, for example, the daily newspaper. By applying that higher standard, the periodical can be used as a learning device to improve my own editing.

Although I have focused on the NYRB, I am certain there are similar publications in other countries. For example, I know that the London Review of Books has a similar approach. The key is to find the one or two publications that can provide you with both a broad and current knowledge base that is transferable to your daily work. For me, it is the Times and the NYRB. What one (or two) periodical(s) fulfill these functions for you? How would you have answered the original question?

(Disclaimer: I have no interest in either the Times or the NYRB except for being a long-time subscriber and reader of both.)

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 25, 2013

Business of Editing: Does an Editor Matter?

It isn’t too often that the worth of a good editor is hinted at by a reviewer, but when it happens, it stands out.

In “The Surprising Empress” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013, pp. 18-20), Jonathan Mirsky reviewed Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. I have always been fascinated by Chinese history, so the article caught my attention (I subscribe to the print edition of the NYRB and read the articles in print, not online). This looked like a book I would add to my future list of books to buy in hardcover, until…

Yes, the until raises its “ugly head” in this quote from the article (p. 20):

I have one small and two serious criticisms of Chang’s usually impressive biography. She occasionally lapses into slang or uses the wrong word. A woman “sashays” into a room, British merchants “showcase” a railway, a “roller-coaster of events” is said to have disturbed the emperor, and a concubine is described as a former “high-class call-girl.” “Winsome” is only one of the words misused.

Mirsky goes on to write:

More serious is the matter of sources.…Chang has drawn on the “colossal documentary pool” of twelve million documents in the First Historical Archives of China, which have to do with the reign of Cixi.

It would be useful to say something about these documents and how they are organized,…[R]eaders would like to know why she has chosen this or that source. I liked this biography, but have been troubled as a reviewer because the sources are not easy to check.

What Mirsky complains about are editorial failings. The publisher, Knopf, may or may not have hired a professional editor. Based on the first complaint of wrong words and slang, I wonder if Knopf did hire a professional editor familiar with American language usage (the market/target audience, at least for the reviewed version, is Americans) to copyedit the book. The second complaint, about the sources, makes me wonder if the book had undergone any professional developmental editing.

Or did Knopf take the easy path and simply hire the least-expensive editor it could find and let the author do as she pleased?

Basically, the review, which was written by Jonathan Mirsky, a well-known historian of China who was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London, is complimentary because the book corrects 100 years of misinformation about Cixi’s reign. But for me, who is not a well-versed historian of China and who cannot read between the lines to determine that Chang’s book is a respectable addition to the repertoire, Mirsky damns the book by his quoted comments. I see, instead of a great addition to the history of China literature, a book that is questionable.

It is questionable not only because of the use of slang and wrong/inappropriate word choices, but because the sources are not verifiable or accessible. The message I receive is that neither the publisher Knopf nor the author Chang cared enough about either the book or the reader to ensure accuracy and provability. When I edit a book and see sources that cannot be accessed or identified as dominating the references, I tell the author that it reflects badly on the substance of the material. As a reader, how can I be certain that the same indifference was not given to the text?

In Chang’s case, the problem goes a bit deeper. When I am editing a book, I at least know it is being professionally edited. Granted, a consumer wouldn’t know, and if the author doesn’t follow my advice and correct the references or change incorrect word choices, the book would appear to the consumer as Chang’s book appears to me — unedited.

Editors do matter. The choice of editor does matter. The type of editing does matter. A good working relationship between author and editor does matter. And it is vitally important that an author not believe that each word he or she has written is sacrosanct and cannot be changed for the better. I’m sorry to say that in my career I have encountered several authors who wrongly believed that what they had written was already perfect and that my role as editor was simply to make sure there were no typographical errors.

There is a dual failure in Chang’s book. The first failure is that of the publisher. The publisher clearly should have had Chang’s book developmentally edited by a professional editor who has mastery over American language and usage. I would like to think that the sources problem would not have passed by such an editor. The publisher should have followed up the developmental editing with copyediting, again done by a professional editor with mastery of American language and usage. Many of the wrong word choice and slang problems might (would) have been avoided.

The second failure in Chang’s book is that, if the book was professionally developmental edited and copyedited, either the publisher did not insist on Chang following, or at least seriously considering, the suggestions of the editors (again, assuming there were editors involved) and offering justification for not following the suggestions, or Chang failed to seriously consider the suggestions on her own. It is not for the editors to be the experts on China history or the reign of Cixi, but it is for the editors to be the experts on word choice and source accessibility. (Again, all this rests on the assumption that whatever editing there was, was done by professional editors with mastery of American language usage.)

As I have written above, it is questionable whether the book was edited. But assuming it was edited, there is one other matter that could be problematic: What were the instructions to the editor?

Several factors actively impede a high-quality edit. These factors include schedule, author cooperativeness, publisher and author instructions that define the task for the editor to perform, and fee. We have discussed these many times, and the limitations each of these factors imposes do not change. It is difficult to obtain a high-quality edit when you pay a pauper wage and demand an unrealistic turnaround. (I recently was asked to edit a book on a schedule that would have required editing 116 manuscript pages each day. The material was very complex and a realistic schedule would have been 25 to 30 pages a day at most. I declined, but I do know that an editor who agreed to the schedule was hired — and was being paid less than I had been offered, which was not a celebratory amount.)

Which of these factors was present in Chang’s case, I do not know. I suspect, based on the reviewer’s comments, that several were present. Because I know that quality editing by a professional editor is important, perhaps more so in a book like Chang’s than in some other books, the reviewer’s comments are the red flags that tell me “do not buy this book” — and so I won’t.

Editors do matter and the right editor for the right job matters greatly.

November 23, 2011

On Books: The Shine of the Internet in the World of eBooks

As all of An American Editor book reviews (which are listed at the end of this article) imply, the Internet has opened reading vistas for me that otherwise would never have happened. I find that as a result of the Internet and places like Smashwords, I am being exposed to authors and stories that would not otherwise have been available to me. This has been the blessing of the Internet for readers, especially with the advent of ebooks.

The dark side remains the lack of gatekeeping and how finding worthwhile books to read is increasingly difficult. The easier it is for “authors” to find an outlet for their work, the harder it is for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, although this problem has been discussed several times over the course of the past two years, no real solution has been forthcoming. I doubt there really is a single, good solution to the gatekeeping problem, except, perhaps, to not pay more than 99¢ for any ebook from an unknown author.

Even at that price point, I find myself waffling about whether to buy or not. That’s because my to-be-read pile is already several hundred books, nearly all of which I obtained free, and it keeps growing with free ebooks. I am unlikely to live long enough to celebrate the demise of my TBR pile even should I stop adding to it now.

Regardless, the rise of the Internet and the (relatively) recent rise of ebooks has worked wonders for multiculturalism. Exposure to literature from other continents and countries has broadened my perspective significantly. Previously, my exposure was to North American and West European literature. The geographical limitations imposed by contract between publisher and author limited opportunities to expand.

That geographical limitation combined with publisher gatekeeping, which had at least one eye, and perhaps more than one eye, focused on the bottom line, meant that exposure to other cultures was limited. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I am monolingual, which imposes its own fence.) As each day passes, the geographical and gatekeeping limitations fade a little more and increasingly seem to be only relevant to ebooks published by the big six publishers.

For all of this, the Internet should take a bow. The Internet shines at making what was previously unavailable available, and I, for one, am trying to take advantage of that ready availability. Alas, as noted earlier, that Internet shine does have a darkening tendency as well.

The ease of access has caused the lack of effective gatekeeping to cast its net much wider than just the Internet. Increasingly, traditional publishers seem to be publishing whatever they can get their hands on and in whatever condition they grabbed the book. The dark side of the Internet is the lowering of quality acceptance/expectations and the increasing demand for lower prices. This is not to say that as price increases, quality increases; there is definitely no upward correlation between the two as the Agency 6 prove on a regular basis. However, there is a correlation between lower price and lower quality — absent sufficient revenue, essential production services, such as editing, are bypassed. (Yes, I, too, can point to examples of outstanding quality ebooks that are free; yet being able to do so doesn’t negate the validity of the statement when discussing the broader ebook market.)

The lesson is that we need to work harder on figuring out a way to correlate price and quality and find that sweet spot that satisfies both. I expect that within the next few years we will come close to resolving the matter even though I currently have no idea as to what is a practical solution.

A large number of ebookers believe that publisher gatekeeping can readily be replaced by crowd gatekeeping. I wish this were true but the evidence so far, at least to my eye, indicates that too many of the crowd gatekeepers base their gatekeeping on factors other than quality of writing and quality of story. We still see all-too-many reviews in which price or geographical restrictions or some other unrelated-to-writing-quality criterion plays a role in deciding whether an ebook is a 2-star or a 5-star ebook.

In addition, I have found it difficult to find reviewers whose reviews I can consistently trust. (Part of the problem is that too many reviews are written by unidentifiable reviewers. Who is TommyGumChewer and why should I value his/her opinion? See Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust for an earlier discussion.) Many ebookers have developed their own criteria for evaluating reviews (e.g., dismissal of all 1-star reviews), which may work well for them, but leaves me unsatisfied. I have grown too accustomed to reviews like those in The New York Review of Books to find many of the reviews on the Internet helpful.

In the end, what I do is take advantage of what the Internet does best — make information available to me — and I “buy” ebooks whose descriptions interest me. I read (or try to read) those ebooks and act as my own gatekeeper, as inefficient a process as it is in this era of self-publishing. And, thus, what I “buy” is largely free, because with all the ebooks available, it would be very easy to spend a small fortune to find only a few excellent ebooks and authors.

How do you gatekeep?

(For those who are interested, the following are reviews I have written for An American Editor in order of newest to oldest:

I believe that covers all of the reviews on An American Editor. Happy book hunting!)

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 4, 2010

Worth Noting: The Jewish Review of Books

There is a new book review magazine available, the Jewish Review of Books. It wants to be a New York Review of Books but with a Jewish slant. The link in the preceding sentence will take you to its first issue, Spring 2010. The publication schedule is quarterly and subscriptions cost $19.95 for 1 year and $29.95 for 2 years.

After reading at its website the article Why There Is No Jewish Narnia by Michael Weingrad, I decided to try a 2-year subscription. The Review has potential, especially if it sticks to its goal of emulating the New York Review of Books, which I consider the finest book review magazine available in the United States. The NYRB publishes 20 issues a year and a subscription runs $69.

The Jewish Review describes itself as follows (from its About Us page):

The Jewish Review of Books is a quarterly publication (in print and on the web) for serious readers with Jewish interests. In our pages, leading writers and scholars discuss the newest books and ideas about religion, literature, culture, and politics, as well as fiction, poetry, and the arts. We are committed to the ideal of the thoughtful essay that illuminates as it entertains.

(Before I forget: I have absolutely no connection to/with the Jewish Review of Books other than having paid for a subscription for myself.)

Another review magazine to which I once did subscribe is the London Review of Books. I stopped subscribing when I found myself struggling to get through the articles — the writing style was too dry for me — and when I realized that many of the reviewed books weren’t readily available to me. The focus was on UK-published books, many of which hadn’t crossed the Atlantic. However, I am considering resubscribing because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten drier myself and the LRB‘s quality is on a par with that of the NYRB. Plus the Internet makes it easy to buy books from the UK. The LRB publishes 24 times a year and a subscription runs $35.

Another book review magazine to which I also once subscribed is Boston-based BookForum. BookForum publishes 5 issues a year and subscription rates are $16 for 1 year and $24 for 2 years. I found that it focused too much on fiction for me, and I read mostly nonfiction and what fiction I do read is generally in the scifi/fantasy genre.

Of course many of the magazines to which I subscribe also carry book reviews, but none are the equivalent of the NYRB. If you know of other top-notch book review magazines, please share the details with us. I, for one, am always on the lookout for a high-quality book review magazine.

On the side: As you know, last week there was a series of articles on the downfall of literature (for the first in the series of 4 articles, see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I). My local paper today, had an opinion column by Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Clarence Page that was more broadly focused. His lament is worth reading: Quality Suffers with Rise of Amateur Critics.

April 28, 2010

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

When you have 1 million books to choose among, how do you choose which to buy and read? Even when the number was just 10,000 (last seen probably in the late 18th century), the task was daunting. But there was a process that worked — perhaps not with the greatest efficiency — until the rise of ebooks and print on demand (POD).

Admittedly, the process let any number of worthy books fall through the cracks. I have no doubt that among the lost were another Philip Roth or Ray Bradbury or Elizabeth Peters. No matter the method, none is perfect. But the process, in its original incarnation, nurtured writing and enabled the discovery of literature (see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I for a discussion of literature).

In the early days, every author was self-published. But as the numbers of publications grew and the cost of publishing grew, self-publishing became publishing companies looking to make a profit. Along with the profit motive came a gatekeeper role (for an earlier discussion of ebooks and gatekeeping see The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role). Publishers both created and reacted to the reading market.

As gatekeepers, publishers separated author manuscripts according to house criteria. Two of many criteria were likelihood of sales and literature value. Publishers separated the haves from the have nots. I grant that the process didn’t stop there and that further culling of the haves occurred. After all, this was a business. But this initial culling made the universe of manuscripts signficantly smaller and thus made it possible for a consensus to be built about the literary merits of particular books.

Book reviews continued the process even after publication. Nearly every newspaper had a book reviewer and reputations for quality reviews were built. A cadre of professional book reviewers came into being, reviewers who were supposed to look past popularity and look for literature. A favorable book review from a recognized reviewer was important to the success of a new book.

Also important was book club acceptance. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, organizations like the Book-of-the-Month Club wielded enormous clout. Consequently, a book that reviewers deemed literature got that extra shove and was pushed on a broader population. Book clubs and reviewers acted as consensus builders and when publishers, book clubs, reviewers, and readers all came together on a book, the book was closer to literature status than ever.

eBooks and POD have come about in an era when book clubs barely exist and wield little to no power and when reviewers with broad reputations are scarce. Whereas every newspaper once had a book review section, now only a handful do and those are declining.

But I can hear the clamor now: There are thousands of book reviewers on the Internet! First, I ask you to compare. Compare a review in the New York Review of Books with a review from your usual book review site on the Internet. The difference in quality should be obvious in most instances. Second, what do you know about your Internet book reviewer? What makes him or her qualified to review a book other than that they may have read it? A well-written book review, like a well-written book, is much more than a rehash of the plot and a thumbs up or down. The review itself is worthy reading.

Compare these reviews of Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: a “professional” reviewer’s review from the New York Review of Books, customer reviews at Amazon.com, and reader reviews from LivingSocial.com. It isn’t that the latter two sources aren’t useful, it is that the NYRB review is worthy writing itself.

The credibility of the reviewer is also important. It isn’t that customer reviews aren’t worth considering, especially for a book’s readability; but what about subject matter knowledge? Isn’t that an important component of a review? What about having read prior works on the same topic and comparing past books with the new effort? Isn’t that an important review component?

With the demise of the traditional publishing system and the overtaxing of readers by numbers of books published, it is increasingly difficult to create a consensus as to whether or not a book is literature. Where previously dilution was minimal (relatively speaking), with the addition of self-published ebooks and POD books dilution is extensive.

Of the 1 million books published in 2009, how many did you read? Not just buy, but actually read? How many do you think any reader read? How can we build consensus when we read so few of so many?

eBooks and POD will be the downfall of literature because it will become ever more impossible for a sufficient number of readers to come to agreement on whether or not a book deserves the accolade of literature. This is not to say that controls to limit the number of books published should be imposed; rather, it is to say that there needs to be some method for separating dreck from literature.

The debate continues in round III…

March 8, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (I)

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.

Reviews

Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

February 25, 2010

Magazines in the Age of eBooks

I’m a big magazine reader. In addition to the many books I buy each year (I have more books in my to-read pile than I can read within the next few years), I subscribe to a lot of magazines. My subscriptions include Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The Week, The Economist, American Heritage, New York Review of Books, Business Week, PC World, U.S. News & World Report, The Scientist, Discover, and several more. I begin my day, every day, with a pot of tea and the day’s New York Times and my local newspaper. Between the books I buy and the magazines and newspapers to which I subscribe, I spend a lot of time reading!

I admit to being curious. I like to keep up with what is happening around me and I really dislike the 10-second news blurbs that TV and radio offer (although National Public Radio deserves kudos for All Things Considered). I think being broadly read helps me as an editor.

But times are changing. Magazines and newspapers are struggling. Several that I had subscribed to have folded print editions and are now available online only, such as PC Magazine and a book collecting magazine to which I once subscribed; once they became online-only magazines, I stopped reading them. Unlike the magazines that have made the transition to online-only status, I haven’t followed — I really hate sitting at my computer to read an online magazine: Isn’t spending my work life on my computer sufficient? Do I have to be chained to a computer — be it laptop or desktop — for my pleasures as well as my work? This feeling of being chained to work is one reason why multifunction devices don’t appeal to me for pleasure pursuits.

As illogical as it seems, I actually distinguish between reading on my computer and reading on my Sony Reader, a dedicated reading device. I enjoy reading on my Sony Reader, equally as much as I enjoy holding a print copy of a book. I had thought that I would switch my New York Times subscription from paper to electronic when the Times became available through the Sony store; this was to be the start of my evolution from print to electronic for my magazines and newspapers. But I was cautious and downloaded a single day’s issue to try.

The experience was okay, but not great. Setting aside the slight inconvenience of having to load the Times onto my Sony Reader (my PRS 505 model doesn’t have wireless), the screen size (6 inches) simply wasn’t conducive to enjoyable reading of something as “big” as the Times. Plus there is a tactile experience that accompanies and enhances the reading experience when holding the Times in your hands. Yet, I am determined to make the switch from print to electronic; the questions are when and on what device (and how cooperative the magazine publishers will be).

I’ve been contemplating “upgrading” to the Sony 900, which has wireless and a 7.1-inch screen. I had really thought about the iRex DR 800SG, particularly because of its 8-inch display, but there are just too many things I don’t like about the device, not least of which is that its touchscreen requires the use of a stylus and I think that will be much too easy to lose (and if my cat decides it’s a toy to play with,…). So I’m sitting on the fence and waiting.

I know the Apple tablet isn’t the answer for me for a lot of reasons, but the tablet idea intrigues me. PlasticLogic’s Que also intrigues me but the price seems exorbitant (if not extortionate) for my purposes — I am looking for a device for reading books, newspapers, and magazines, not for checking e-mail, visiting websites, watching videos, and all those other things that multifunction devices permit. I’m a dedicated-device type of person.

I’ve drifted a bit from where I had intended to go with this article, so let me shift my course. Who are the subscribers to newspapers and magazines? I ask because I know my demographics (and, yes, they are still desirable to advertisers even if I am gray-haired) and that surveys show that people in my demographic group tend to be the biggest spenders on and readers of books, newspapers, and magazines. Because those outside my demographic are significantly less focused on these ways of obtaining information, I wonder what the future holds for magazines and newspapers as information sources. What is the likelihood of print versions surviving many more years? And when they disappear, what will the electronic versions be like? Will they be as shallow as much of the TV/radio news reporting and “analysis” is these days? Will we lose access to in-depth reporting and analysis because all that will interest subscribers will be 10-word “wordbites” of the latest celebrity faux pas?

And what will readers like me do? Will The Economist still be The Economist in something more than name, or will it be more like People Magazine? Will Business Week become just a steady stream of feeds and wordbites? Does anyone but me care?

What brings my concerns to the fore have been my attempts over the past 2 years to extend my subscription to the New York Review of Books. My current subscription expires in 2012 (some of my magazine subscriptions run until the 2020s). Several times I tried to extend my subscription by 3 years, and each time NYRB has declined, saying it doesn’t know what will be so far in the future. I recognize that NYRB isn’t a magazine for everyone (although I think every book lover should be a subscriber; its reviews are significantly better than anything found elsewhere including online, in the New York Times Book Review, and in the London Review of Books), but I would think that it has a loyal base of subscribers and so it wouldn’t be so worried about its future. Like The Economist, the NYRB is not an inexpensive subscription so it attracts the serious and probably faithful subscriber. (Interestingly, The Economist, unlike most magazines, continues to show subscriber growth and without “special subscription deals.” So there must be a desire for this type of coverage.)

Clearly, I am wrong, and if the NYRB is worried about its future, perhaps I need to worry about the future of my subscriptions — and about the quality of reporting that one should expect to see — in the Age of eBooks. What will survive and in what form is worthy of consideration in this transitional period, before it is too late.

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