An American Editor

June 8, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII)

It seems as if it was only yesterday when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh
  • Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer
  • Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt by William David Myers
  • Eichmann’s Jews by Doron Rabinovici (preorder)

Hardcover (Preorder) —

  • Scholar: A Novel in the Imager Portfolio by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (fiction)
  • A Beautiful Friendship by David Weber (fiction)

eBooks (Nonfiction)

  • Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister

eBooks (Fiction)

  • Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove (short story)
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel by David Mitchell
  • Bad Faith by Mike O’Connor
  • Jack’s School of Shines by Jack Sorenson
  • Secrets of the Tudor Court by D.L. Bogdan
  • The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith
  • Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh
  • The Meteoric Rise of Simon Burchwood by Scott Semegran
  • Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan
  • Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry
  • Clever is as Clever Does,  The West Wind Blows, Careful What You Wish For, and The Clever Detective by Linsey Lanier (4 individual books)
  • Fair Price by Laura Lond
  • The Taking of FLOTUS by Clayton Spann
  • The Blood-stained Belt by Brian H. Jones
  • The Dogs of Rome by Conor Fitzgerald
  • Soldier of God by David Hagberg
  • The Lost Fleet Series: Victorious, Relentless, Valiant, Courageous, Dauntless, and Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (7 individual books)
  • Work of Art, Bethel Merriday, World So Wide, The Prodigal Parents, Kingsblood Royal, Gideon Planish, Dodsworth, and Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (8 individual books)
  • A Vote of Confidence by Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Too Close to Home by Lynette Eason
  • Torch, Driftnet, and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson (3 individual books)

As you can see, the TBR (To Be Read) pile keeps growing. Worth noting, however, is that at least 20 of the listed ebooks were gotten free, either via discount coupon or because the author set the price at free. Needless to say, all of the hardcover books required payment. Finally, the list of ebooks is incomplete. It is just a sampling of the ebooks I have “purchased” in recent months, with 90% of them being free.

I admit that owning an ereader has seriously affected my reading habits. I am reading more than ever before (and I always was a voracious reader) and in a greater variety of genres. Before my ereader days, I generally read nonfiction and then the genre of the year (i.e., serially — I would read mysteries for a couple of years then switch to fantasy for a while, and then move to another genre, but each genre was exclusive). Since acquiring my first ereader 3.5 years ago, I now read multiple genres concurrently. I like to read several books simultaneously, so now I may read a mystery, a fantasy, and something in nonfiction concurrently. But whereas previously the genres I read were few, I now am reading in many more genres, including historical fiction, historical romance, science fiction, “chick lit,” classics, and so on.

Every time I look at my TBR pile, I think that I need to take a vacation from acquiring new ebooks, but I have found that impossible — too many are being produced that have enticing descriptions. Hopefully, when I retire, I will be able to get through the TBR pile more quickly.

May 25, 2011

On Books: Hearts Touched by Fire

A few days ago I was in my local Barnes & Noble checking out new nonfiction books. I came across Hearts Touched by Fire: The Best of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War edited by Harold Holzer. This book is different from other books in many ways (not least of which is its size — 1230 pages), and one of those differences is what drew me to it. (It is available in both hardcover and as an ebook, and is one of the few new releases I have seen where the ebook is actually less expensive than the hardcover.)

Let me say upfront that I have not read the book in its entirety. I have read snippets. Yet let me explain what this book is and why it is worth buying for anyone interested in the U.S. Civil War.

In July 1883, on the twentieth anniversary of the battle at Gettysburg, the 19th century magazine, The Century Magazine, entertained an argument regarding which was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Opinions differed and the discussion led to this: Why not invite Confederate and Union generals, or if dead someone who could speak for/from the dead general’s view, to write articles about various battles from their own perspectives. For example, getting the perspective from both sides of the battle for Fort Sumter, which is recognized as the opening battle of the Civil War.

Apparently the magazine had great success with this concept, as it led to the publication of a 4-volume set titled Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Hearts Touched by Fire is an edited and merged-into-a-single-volume version of that 4-volume set.

Hearts Touched by Fire also adds to the discussions year-by-year introductions written by eminent Civil War historians such as James McPherson and Craig Symonds. I’m sure there are other books of a similar structure, but none that I am aware of for the Civil War. It is fascinating to read the differing perspectives of, for example, the first battle of Bull Run written by P.G.T Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnson. Ever wonder what the common soldier thought? The volume includes “Going to the Front: Recollections of a Private” by Warren Lee Goss.

If you are interested in the U.S. Civil War, Hearts Touched by Fire can provide unique insights into the thinking of each side. I highly recommend the book.

May 18, 2011

On Books: Honor Killing & The Thousand Autumns

This time it is a two-for-one review: one nonfiction, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard, and one fiction, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Let’s begin with Honor Killing.

In the annals of American jurisprudence, one lawyer stands above all other lawyers in popular mythology: Clarence Darrow. Darrow was the most successful and popular lawyer of the 20th century. Every move he made was followed by national press. His legal exploits covered the gamut of supertrials, including the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder of a cousin, in which Darrow’s clients pleaded guilty and he spoke for several days to save them from the death penalty. Darrow was also noted for representing union members at a time when union busting was a government policy. And he was most famous for defending the Tennessee school teacher, Scopes, in what was billed as the trial of the century — the great Monkey Trial of evolution vs. creationism in which his opponent was the great orator William Jennings Bryan.

Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard discusses Darrow’s last major case. Darrow was desperate for money, having lost his fortune in the bad investments and the collapse of the stock market, and so when he was approached in his retirement to defend Thalia Massie in Hawaii, he hemmed, he hawed, he accepted.

Thalia Massie was the daughter of penniless socialites who lived off the charity of relatives. But a socialite she was. And she was married to a U.S. Navy officer. The incident occurred in 1931 Hawaii. On the U.S. mainland, also in 1931, the racial prejudice was directed against blacks and an accusation of assaulting and raping 2 white women was made against 9 young black men, collectively known as the Scottsboro Boys. In Hawaii, the prejudice was against the native Hawaiians, by the oligarchs who controlled the economy and by the U.S. Navy.

Until I read Honor Killing, I admit I was unaware of the extent and depth of the prejudice against the Hawaiians. Honor Killing was an eye opener. The Massie trial was the culmination of a concerted effort by the white community to convict a group of native Hawaiians of raping Thalia Massie, a rape that never occurred, and the killing of one of the Hawaiians when a conviction was not gotten. Darrow was hired to represent the whites in the murder trial.

Honor Killing is a well-researched and well-written book. For my taste, too much time was spent by the author laying out the social, political, and economic environment in which the trials were held, but that was not enough to deter me from enjoying the book. Essentially, the attempt by the white community to convict the Hawaiians was largely politically motivated and was the Hawaiian Scottsboro Boys trial. Although the prosecution of the Hawaiian defendants preceded the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, you could easily substitute the participants in one trial for the participants in the other.

Honor Killing is a 5-star book and worth reading to get a better understanding of how racial prejudice in the early decades of the 20th century manifested itself and the expectations of the white citizens to be believed even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. As one person noted, evidence doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet takes us to late 18th century/early 19th century Japan and the Dutch trading post at Nagasaki. At first I had trouble with the writing style, but after spending 15 minutes reading the novel, the style grew on me — so much so that I had difficulty putting down the book. Jacob De Zoet is one of the best novels published by one of the Agency 6 (Random House) I have read in years.

The story takes place in Dejima, which is the location of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor. De Zoet is a young man who has agreed to give 5 years of his life to the Dutch East India Trading Company in hopes of making his fortune and being able to return to The Netherlands to marry his sweetheart. The story is about his rise and fall, along with the rise and fall of Dejima and the Dutch East India Company, between 1799 and 1801.

The book provides an insight into Japan’s self-imposed insularity and the how Japanese society functioned at the time. In addition, it well illustrates the European attitude toward Asians.

The cast of characters is varied, covering the spectrum of who one may well have encountered at the time. De Zoet’s original plans are altered, however, after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, a disfigured midwife who is also a pupil, by special dispensation, of Dr. Marinus, who is part of the Dejima personnel. This encounter changes everything for De Zoet and ability and inability to deal with the intrigue and social customs that surround him forms the basis of the story.

Jacob De Zoet is historical fiction at its best. This, too, is a 5-star book and one worth spending the inflated price that has been artificially set as a result of the agency pricing scheme. It has been my policy not to buy Agency 6 ebooks except for rare instances, and this was one of those rare instances. I made the plunge because of the many positive remarks the book generated on an ebook forum. Well-crafted and well-written novels are becoming scarcer, but David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet demonstrates that such books are still available.

Both Honor Killing and Jacob De Zoet are books worth buying and reading in any format.

May 16, 2011

The Buying Conundrum: pBook or eBook?

In a recent post on the Teleread blog, Joanna, a contributor to Teleread, vented about being tired of pbooker’s “economic snobbery.” She wrote,

If you read any ‘ebooks versus print books’ article, you’ll soon come across the print fetishists. These are people who acknowledge the rise of ebooks—grudgingly—but then insist that ‘real’ book lovers surely prefer paper, or that paper is ‘nicer’ or a ‘better experience’ or in some way superior. I am starting to get really annoyed with these people! Overlooking the obvious ‘print and pixel really can co-exist and there is no need for an either/or mentality’ argument, I am starting to grow a little offended by the economic snobbery that I perceive in some of these arguments.

What I think a lot of these ‘paper is superior’ people fail to consider is that even in this modern day and age, having a large paper library is still an economic luxury.

(For Joanna’s complete post and the comments it generated, see Print Fetishism, Economic Snobs and the Price of Real Estate at Teleread.)

Needless to say, I couldn’t keep my fingers off my keyboard and so I wrote a response. But after thinking about it, I decided that a more expansive response here at An American Editor might be appropriate, so here it is.

Joanna essentially makes a generational argument. She is in the same generation as my children, those just starting their careers or a few years into it, whereas I am at the other end of the spectrum. I agree that this makes (or should make) a difference from the financial perspective. But that has always and will always be the case.

When I was Joanna’s age, decades ago, I learned to prioritize how my money was spent. At her age, I didn’t make a fortune and had to decide between, say, spending a few dollars to see a movie or to buy a book or not spending it at all. Yet even in those hard-pressed days, when I lived in a studio apartment whose rent surpassed 50% of my net income, I bought books. Unlike spending money to watch a movie, I never considered book buying to be frivolous — reading was (and is) the primary method for learning.

I am not dismissive of the economic woes and realities of my children’s generation, but everything has to be dealt with in perspective. I remember my parents, for example, paying a mortgage of $30 a month, at a time when they earned only $15 a week. Gas also cost less than 25 cents a gallon, the New York Times was a nickel, you could buy a Coke for 5¢, and so it went — and the take home pay reflected that cost of living. I don’t know anyone today who has a mortgage or rent of $30 a month!

Of course, in those days, ebooks existed only in the imagination of science fiction writers. Personal computers hadn’t yet come on the scene and the Internet, as we know it today, didn’t exist. To buy a hardcover book required a significant investment. In proportion to earnings, hardcover books were luxury items back then and a bargain today. Paperbacks were the “poor person’s” access to literature. How things have changed with the passing decades.

eBooks are the next step in the evolution of personal libraries. Some day — but not today — pbooks will be a true luxury item and part of antiquity. Someone will recall them but be unable to produce in hand an example.

eBooks have lots of benefits for readers today, but not financially. Yes, they are the way to build a collection when you are hard pressed for real estate to house a pbook library, but that problem existed 25 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago — some people had homes large enough to house vast libraries whereas others lived in cramped studio apartments, some less than 100 square feet in size with everything communal but sleeping quarters. Yet, people read, bought books, and endured. And they learned to love the pbook, especially the paperback, which brought reading to the masses by making it more affordable.

I admit I actually prefer ebooks to pbooks for reading. If I could, I would buy every nonfiction book that I buy in hardcover also in ebook form so that the hardcover could go on my library shelf and I could read the ebook. But pbooks do have seven things that ebooks currently do not have:

  1. When I buy a pbook, I own it; when I buy an ebook, I rent it.
  2. pBooks are resaleable on a secondary market and/or rise in value as they become scarce; ebooks are never scarce and have no secondary market in which I can recoup some of my investment.
  3. Nonfiction pbooks tend to be less expensive to purchase than the ebook version and are available for significantly less on the legal secondary market, which includes the legal remainders market.
  4. pBooks can legally be cooperatively bought, thereby reducing the price to individuals even further (I have bought in cooperation with my son several books over the years that we have shared the purchase cost of).
  5. My pbooks can be lent to other readers innumerable times; if I’m lucky, an ebook can be lent once for 2 weeks to another reader (after being lent that one time, the ebook cannot be lent again to anyone).
  6. Once I buy a pbook it remains mine; unlike the ebook, no one can remotely remove the pbook, replace the pbook, or do anything that interferes with my ownership of the pbook.
  7. As my collection of hardcovers grows, I, too, may run into the space situation. At that point, I can reevaluate my pbooks and remove some from my collection, and I either sell them on the secondary market (see 3) or, more likely, I can donate them to my local library, which is happy to obtain them as they are in pristine condition, giving me a charitable contribution deduction on my taxes at the fair market value, which is the average price in the used book market. I can’t sell or donate no-longer-wanted ebooks to anyone, let alone to my local library.

The day when ebooks have a universal format and DRM scheme, like videos do, some of these pbook advantages will disappear. But at least from a purely economic perspective, pbooks — at least those from the Agency 6 — have a greater economic value and are a better bargain than ebooks. eBooks shine on portability and ease of reading on the electronic device, but that’s about it — ebooks often cost more, sometimes much more, than the hardcover, so from an economic viewpoint, ebooks are no bargain.

It seems to me that the person struggling with finances would be better off buying a pbook version than an ebook version of an Agency 6 publication. The initial cost and the subsequent ability to recoup some of that cost seems to me to create an unbeatable combination for the frugal. Of course, free and low-priced indie ebooks change the calculation, but then those aren’t the pbooks I buy.

Joanna is right only in the sense that real-estate challenged readers have a hurdle to face and overcome with pbooks that they do not have with ebooks — the storage problem — but she loses the argument when she dresses the problem in economic terms. For the real-estate challenged reader whose disposable income is limited, the person Joanna describes, buying less-expensive pbooks is a better deal than buying the ebook because the pbook can be read and then sold on the secondary market. No need to tie up valuable real estate with a pbook collection, plus you pay less to begin with.

Seems to me rather than being peeved at those of us who still like pbooks, she should be thinking about how to maximize her purchasing power by buying and reselling pbooks. (I will concede, however, that once we move away from the Agency 6 and from the economic issues, ebooks are the better choice.)

April 25, 2011

In the Era of eBooks, What Is a Book Worth? (I)

Some questions have no answer, or at least not a universal answer. This is true of this question: In the era of ebooks, what is a book worth? Yet, every day, ebookers are making that value judgement, including in their calculation of whether or not to buy an ebook what they believe is the worth of a book.

As there is no across-the-board, universally applicable answer to the question, we need to address value/worth broadly, beginning by separating books into two broad categories: fiction and nonfiction. From my point of view, nonfiction is worth more than fiction — again, I am speaking in broad terms — because nonfiction is intended by both the author and buyer to be referred to multiple times. Granted some nonfiction’s multiple times may be only twice, but at the other extreme, consider cookbooks, course books, and how-to books, which may be referenced dozens of times over the course of the buyer’s ownership of the book.

On the other hand, most fiction is of the read-once-then-shelve-or-toss-away variety. How many of us buy a novel and read it more than once? And if we do read it more than once, how many of us will read it more than twice? As with all else, there are exceptions. I can name a handful of novels that I have read more than once — To Kill a Mockingbird, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and a few more — over the course of 60 years of reading. Considering how many novels I have read in those 60 years of reading, the handful is a very tiny fraction of books I have read, especially compared to nonfiction.

With these thoughts in mind, I wonder what the true value of a book is today, especially considering all the restrictions that are applied to ebooks, the varied pricing of ebooks, and the pricing of ebooks compared to their print versions. I also wonder about the value, by which I mean the price to be paid, of fiction in any form. Why is a new Stephen King novel worth $15 or more in any form?

When valuing commodities, and books have evolved to be commodities rather than the luxury items they once were, in a true free market system, value is set by scarcity and production costs with a margin for profit. But ebooks have no scarcity value, unless we consider each author to be so unique that no other author can be substituted. Once created, the electronic file can be duplicated innumerable times, with each duplication being a precise and perfect clone of the original.

There are production costs, but these costs can be amortized over an innumerable quantity of duplications that cost virtually nothing to create once the master has been created. This is the essential difference between a print book and an ebook: Each copy of a print book has some measurable production cost — for example, the cost of paper, the storage and shipping costs, the minimum print run cost — but the ebook lacks these measurable costs once past the creation of the master file. It isn’t that the cost of the master file isn’t or shouldn’t be amortized over the duplication run, but rather that the duplication run doesn’t add measurably to the cost of the master file, unlike with print books where many of the costs of the initial print run are incurred again with the second printing and again with each subsequent printing.

The one criterion that changes ebook to ebook is that of the author. Although Stephen King and Dean Koontz write similar books in a similar genre, one is (supposedly) not a perfect substitute for the other. Notwithstanding marketing claims to the contrary, a bar of soap from Ivory is a near-perfect substitute for a bar of soap from Kiss My Face. We may have a preference for one brand or the other, but the two bar soaps are really interchangeable in the marketplace — they are near-perfect substitutes, one for the other. Although King and Koontz are similar, it is claimed that they are not near-perfect substitutes, one for the other.

Or are they? Perhaps we have been drilled over too many years to believe that each author is so unique that one author cannot be substituted for another, that we actually believe author uniqueness to be a truism. Perhaps there is a shade of gray to that statement. Consider this: Do readers of Stephen King only read horror genre books written by King? Do they read other horror authors while waiting for the next King novel to be published? Is Tolkien the only fantasy author Tolkien fans read, especially knowing that there will be no more Tolkien novels forthcoming?

If we read other authors in a genre, are we not really saying that it is the genre that we like more so than the author, and that King and Koontz are at least near equivalents? I accept that there are tiers of authors; that is, some authors are better than others and that some are first tier, whereas others are third or fourth (or even lower) tier. But I also accept that authors in a tier are, for the most part, interchangeable for each other. Perhaps scarcity, in the sense that each author is unique and not interchangeable with any other author, is not truly a criterion applicable to books even though we have been indoctrinated to believe otherwise. Consider that other authors are hired to complete books in a series because of the original author’s untimely death. Isn’t that the publishing world’s equivalent of saying Brandon Sanderson is interchangeable with Robert Jordan?

If we accept that books are commodities and that same-tier authors are interchangeable, the current equation for determining the value of a book is undermined and needs to be rethought. Alas, this is a complex problem that cannot be resolved in just one short article; consequently, the discussion will continue another day in part II.

April 15, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VII)

Adding to my TBR (to-be-read) pile seems to be a neverending process. Since the last On Today’s Bookshelf (VI), I have added the following books:

Hardcover —

  • The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide by Daniel Blatman
  • The Eichmann Trial by Deborah E. Lipstadt
  • Bismarck: A Life by Jonathan Steinberg
  • Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial by Steven Lubet
  • William Bouguereau (2 vols.) by Damien Bartoli and Frederick C. Ross
  • Blackveil by Kristen Britain

Hardcover — Preorder

  • The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings
  • Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • How Firm a Foundation by David Weber
  • The War That Came Early: The Big Switch by Harry Turtledove

eBooks — Nonfiction

  • Germs, Genes, & Civilization: How Epidemics Shaped Who We Are Today by David Clark
  • A Philosophical Dictionary (6 volumes) by Voltaire
  • Secret Holocaust Diaries by Nonna Bannister
  • Hitler’s Pre-emptive War: The Battle for Norway 1940 by Henrik Lunde
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard

eBooks — Fiction

  • In Fire Forged: Worlds of Honor V edited by David Weber
  • Mrs. Quigley’s Kidnapping by Jean Sheldon
  • Deadly Withdrawal: An Aggie Underhill Mystery by Michelle Hollstein
  • The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick
  • Letters from Earth by Mark Twain
  • Paid in Blood by Mel Odom
  • Warriors of the Cross by T.R. Graves
  • Stars Rain Down by Chris Randolph
  • Blue by Lou Aronica
  • Life Blood by Thomas Hoover
  • Syndrome by Thomas Hoover
  • You Can’t Stop Me by Max Allan Collins
  • Protector (Jane Perry Series #1) by Laurel Dewey
  • Medical Error by Richard Mabry
  • Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • The Labyrinth by Kenneth McDonald
  • Arm of the Stone by Victoria Strauss
  • Redcoat by David Crookes
  • The Shepherd by Ethan Cross
  • The Twentyfirsters by Kekoa Lake
  • Rogue Forces by Dale Brown

Of the above listed books, I have read, and thus removed from the TBR pile, The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, Blackveil by Kristen Britain, and Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard. All three are excellent; I plan to do a review of Honor Killing as I think it is a particularly worthy book, even though the publisher did a terrible job creating an ebook version (words were dropped and too many sentences begin with “I” when it should be “It” or something else that begins with an “I”).

If you are reading or have read a particularly interesting book that you think others might enjoy, why not add a comment to this article and let us know. It is only by sharing our reading lists that we can broaden our exposure to worthwhile reads among the nearly 1 million books published each year, especially among the self-published/indie books.

March 28, 2011

Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 9, 2011

Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Smashwords is one of my favorite ebookstores. I probably buy more ebooks there than from any other ebookstore. A lot of that has to do with price, but it also has to do with my desire to find great reads from indie authors rather than supporting Agency 6 overpricing of ebooks.

The good of Smashwords is that it is a place where one can find true gems, true masterpieces among the slush, and find them at very reasonable prices. Some excellent, even outstanding, authors I have found at Smashwords are Richard S. Tuttle, Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, Lee Goldberg, Catherine Durkin Robinson, Saffina Desforges, and Markus Kane.

The bad of Smashwords is how difficult it can be to find these authors.

Consider this week (March 6 to 12), which is Read an eBook Week, both worldwide and at Smashwords. Many authors are running specials on their ebooks at Smashwords, from 25% to 100% off the normal retail price (which is often not very high to begin with). If you want to peruse all of the ebook specials, you have to wade through 12,224 ebooks. To peruse all of the ebooks available at Smashwords, you have to wade through 37,249 ebooks, a number that grows daily.

Until today, searching the eBook Week specials didn’t permit you to search by coupon code. Fortunately, that filter has been added as of this morning. The primary filters are limited. If you choose “New Releases,” “‘RE100’ 100% Off,” and “Longs (25,000+ words),” that helps cut the list to 66 ebooks, but it doesn’t show you those ebooks that have coupon codes of 75%, 50%, or 25% off that are free as well once the discount is applied, nor does it include those ebooks that are free without a coupon code.

The point is that even with the addition of filtering by coupon code, two people are getting short-changed — the reader looking for a bargain and a quality read, and the author who is trying to build a following — because there are just too many variations that are not inclusive enough. I know this from my own experience of the past few days at Smashwords.

Through last evening, I have purchased about 40 ebooks — all ultimately for free because of the coupons — yet that has taken me through only the first 1,750 ebooks in the specials over the course of many hours. I’ll never get through all 5,771 ebooks that are part of the eBook Week special event and are filtered by “New Releases” and “Longs (25,000+ words).”

The bad and the ugly of Smashwords are the filtering and the remembering. Both are inadequate considering how many ebooks Smashwords hosts and how important it is to expose readers to authors. Consequently, I think Smashwords needs to add these features to make the site better for both readers and authors.

First, it needs to give the reader the option to exclude from display ebooks already purchased. I’ve already purchased Vicki Tyley’s three ebooks; do I need to see them again when I search for more ebooks to read?

Unfortunately, just excluding what I have bought from a search won’t help me enough when I return to Smashwords tomorrow. Consequently, second, I should also be able to exclude ebooks that I have already seen in the past 30 days. After 30 days, they should be readded to the visible list because what didn’t interest me last month may interest me this month. Yet, I shouldn’t have to keep struggling to get through ebooks because there are so many of them to get through.

This raises another issue: If a book is regularly priced as free at Smashwords, you can download it immediately. You don’t have to go through the checkout process. But by not going through the checkout process, the ebook is not added to your list of purchased ebooks. In addition to not being added to your purchased list, you do not have to have purchased the ebook to write a review about it, whereas with ebooks that you have to purchase — even if they are free after a coupon is applied — you must have purchased the ebook to write a review. I think that all ebooks should be added to one’s purchased list and that should be a prerequisite to being able to review an ebook.

Third, Smashwords should add another length category: Medium (25,000 to 50,000 words) and change Longs to 50,000+ words. I generally prefer longer books and know that I will never read poetry or short stories — they just are not to my liking.

Which brings me to a fourth suggestion: Instead of having categories from which I can choose a single category to search, such as Historical, why not offer me categories to exclude. I do not like books about vampires and am not interested in erotica, among other categories. Why not make a search an excluding one rather than an including one? This way, I can exclude all the topics I am not interested in at all, yet see what books are available in the multiple topics that I am interested in.

As part of the fourth suggestion, Smashwords really — desperately — needs, fifth, to add more categories and subcategories. For example, the category “Fiction: Historical” covers an ocean, not a waterfront. But I’m not interested in caveman historical fiction and probably not in pre-Elizabethan historical fiction. I suggest that it would be beneficial to both readers and authors for more extensive categories and subcategories along the lines that Barnes & Noble provides.

Overall, I can’t recommend Smashwords enough. It is a great place to find some great ebooks at a reasonable price. You simply have to be willing to give authors a chance. My experience has been that for every 20 ebooks I obtain at Smashwords 2 or 3 will be excellent or outstanding, 4 or 5 will be good, and the rest unreadable for one reason or another.

But for Smashwords to keep being a great place to find ebooks from indie authors, it needs to improve the experience by which ebooks are found. I’ve given a few suggestions; perhaps down the road there will be more.

February 14, 2011

Citing Sources in the Age of the Internet and eBooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 9, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of my to-be-read acquisitions. Fortunately, ebooks don’t weigh much.

My newest hardcover acquisitions include:

  • Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones (story behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

My ebook acquisitions include (an asterisk [*] following a book title indicates that I have completed reading the listed book):

Fiction

  • Olivia’s Kiss* by Catherine Durkin Robinson (see my review of this book: On Books: Olivia’s Kiss)
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay* by Suzanne Collins (good series but not outstanding, although its appeal to young adult readers is evident)
  • Lady from the Jade Mountain by Jonathan Saville
  • The Man with the Iron-On Badge* by Lee Goldberg (excellent police-procedural-type story; well worth reading)
  • An Agent of the King by Nigel Slater
  • Faithful Warrior* by Basil Sands (not particularly well-written or interesting)
  • The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray
  • The complete Lord Vorkosigan* Series by Lois McMaster Bujold (an excellent and highly recommended series)
  • The complete Vatta’s War* Series by Elizabeth Moon Bujold (it, too, is excellent and highly recommended)
  • The complete Heris Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Carved in Bone* by Jefferson Bass (an excellent murder mystery)
  • Daughters* by Consuelo Saah Baehr (well-written and interesting story of multiple generations of Arab daughters; similar to the outstanding Shayne Parkinson Promises to Keep quartet reviewed in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept)
  • Starlighter by Bryan Davis
  • A Plunder by Pilgrims by Jack Nolte
  • The Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • Justice is Served by D.P. Clark
  • Champion of the Rose by Andrea Höst
  • The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ameriqaeda* by Markus Kane (a well-written thriller that imagines home grown terrorism in America)

Nonfiction

  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (I bought this in hardcover but it still sits in my TBR pile, so I decided to buy the ebook version as well in hopes of getting to it sooner; the result is that I have finally started this long tome)
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard
  • A Magnificient Catastrophe* by Edward J. Larson (see my review of this book: On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe)

As you can see just by the length of the lists, in the past couple of months I have been more involved in reading fiction than nonfiction, and definitely more involved in ebook reading than print book reading. (Many of the fiction ebooks are available for free or for nominal cost at Smashwords. If you are willing to give indie authors a chance, you can obtain myriad ebooks, ranging in quality from poor to outstanding, with most falling in the good to above average range, for $2.99 or less — all the way down to free — at places like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and Manybooks.)

Although I have been trending toward reading more ebooks than pbooks, the trend really accelerated with the purchase of my new Sony 950 in late October. Reading on the device is so pleasurable, that I almost hate to pickup a hardcover book.

My browsing habits have also changed. In previous months and years, you could almost set your watch by my at-least-once-weekly habit of going to my local bookstore and browsing the new nonfiction releases and buying several books. Except to buy a new opera, I haven’t been to the local bookstore in a couple of months.

A recent New York Times article discussed the impact ereading devices are having on children. Apparently, the devices were high on the holiday wishlists of many children and for those who received one, has changed their leisure habits. One 11-year-old girl featured in the article has spent significantly more time reading and less time on the computer or watching TV since receiving an ereader for the holiday.

Although I rarely watched TV before getting my first ereader (a Sony 505), my habits, as I have noted in various articles on this blog, also changed. I began reading more fiction and more books overall. This change has been reinforced with the acquisition of my Sony 950.

Perhaps as these ereaders gain traction among the very young, reading will have a renaissance, something that would definitely be worthwhile.

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