An American Editor

February 7, 2011

On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe

The politics of 2010-2011 is simply history repeating itself. The presidential election campaign of 1799-1800 is nearly a twin of the politics of today. The lack of comity shown today by the right, especially the pundits on Fox network, is similar to that of the Federalists and the Republicans in the 1800 campaign.

Today we revere Thomas Jefferson. But to read the Federalist newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets of the 1800 campaign, Jefferson was everything we despise — he was a deist rather than a Christian; he was a “Jacobin”; he was the white Barack Obama.

The story of the campaign, the struggle between Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Aaron Burr, and Thomas Jefferson for political supremacy is the subject of Edward Larson’s A Magnificient Catastrophe (2007). The election of 1800 was so bitter that it ended with Jefferson and Burr tied in electoral votes (in those days electoral ballots were not separately cast for president and vice-president), leading to the election having to be decided in the Congress. It took numerous ballots over many days and weeks before a moderate Federalist cast a deciding vote in favor of Jefferson.

Larson’s book is the story of the campaign, the bitterness and acrimony between the key players, and, ultimately the congressional balloting. It is the story of Hamilton’s and the High Federalists plotting against their own candidate, John Adams, who was running for reelection, having defeated Jefferson in 1796, and trying to swing the election any which way except toward Jefferson.

A Magnificient Catastrophe should be read for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the story of a presidential election that was decided by Congress and thus of historical interest. It should also be read to gain an understanding of how American politics and Americans haven’t changed in 200 years. We need only substitute labels, Republican for Federalist and Democrat for Jeffersonian Republicans, and the campaign of 1799-1800 is magically transformed into politics of 2010-2011.

Today we call Jefferson a great man and a founding father; in 1800 he was called a traitor. Today we have “news” organizations and commentators who fabricate “facts” just like was done in 1800.

For those interested in where we have been, where we are now, and where we are likely to be in the presidential campaign of 2012 (and probably campaigns well beyond), A Magnificent Catastrophe is the place to begin. A well-written, concise look at an ever-recurring political scene, A Magnificient Catastrophe should be on every American’s must-read list. Perhaps if we understand where we came from and with hindsight see the excesses, we will gain the fortitude to change our current political stalemate.

January 17, 2011

Change in Habit: The eReading Device Effect

I am now starting my fourth year as an owner of a dedicated ereading device. Three Christmases ago, my wife bought me a Sony 505, my first dedicated ereading device and my first introduction to the eInk screen. This past October, I bought myself a new Sony 950 and passed my 505 on to my wife. As I have noted before, the 505 still works (and looks) as if brand new.

With the 505 I noticed that I began to read more fiction in ebook form, yet my primary reading remained hardcover nonfiction. This really remained true until perhaps six to eight months ago when I noted I began to read more fiction than nonfiction. I assumed that this was just a repeat of my usual reading trends where I would read a particular type of book for months or years then shift to a different type for the next period.

But recently I began to realize that my reading habit has changed dramatically. The change became particularly noticeable after I acquired the Sony 950. I’m still reading fiction and nonfiction, but the dramatic change — at least for me — is that because I find the 950 such a pleasurable reading device, I am now either buying my nonfiction in both hardcover and ebook or just in ebook, and then in hardcover for my library if I discover that I really enjoyed the book or because of the subject matter want it as a permanent part of my collection.

Whereas before I looked forward to picking up a hardcover book to read, now I find it a chore and want to avoid it as much as possible. This is the seduction of the current generation of ereading devices: they not only entice you to read more, they entice you to avoid print.

Alas, it is not quite a perfect world. I can’t convince myself that an ebook has any permanency. At my age, I’m not comfortable with cloud computing or the fact that there is no agreed upon universal standard for ebooks that can cost a lot of money. Granted that we are now down to two competing standards — Amazon’s and the rest of the universe’s — but even so, that is just a format standard. There is still a babel of DRM schemes designed to limit the life of an ebook.

Because I can’t convince myself that it is a good idea to invest in ebooks for a permanent collection of books, I am becoming the double-dipper that I had so fervently wanted to avoid. This is neither good for my pocketbook nor good for the consumer side of publishing because it continues to encourage publishers and ebooksellers to place restrictions on ebooks rather than opening them up.

All of this is the fault of my ereading device. Like the muses of ancient lore, the device has seduced me. I can’t wait to sit in my recliner and read on my Sony 950; I simply do not want to pick up a printed book. The screen is easy on my eyes, the touch screen a pleasure, the ergonomics excellent for me, and the weight significantly less than most of my hardcovers. It oozes pleasure and an enjoyable time to be had. It also oozes money out of my wallet because I’m reading three to four times as many books as I did before I had an ereading device, and probably a third to a half more books on the 950 as I did on the 505.

So my buying habits have changed, both because I’m reading more and because I now tend to buy a nonfiction book in ebook version either first or along with the hardcover. If only the format and DRM wars would settle, perhaps I could think about giving up hardcovers altogether. Probably not — that is a habit that is really well ingrained, or so I believe today.

October 25, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My book buying has been a bit slow since the last On Today’s Bookshelf. I’ve been trying to get through my to-be-read (TBR) pile, especially my ebook TBR pile, which is much too large, nearly 250 ebooks. But that hasn’t wholly stopped me from buying new books to read — someday (it’s an addiction).

New hardcovers, including those on order, include:

  • Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • Above His Proper Station by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • EPUB: Straight to the Point by Elizabeth Castro
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

New ebooks include:

  • The 7th Victim by Alan Jacobson
  • The Novice and The High Lord (2 books) by Trudi Canavan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan
  • Tales from the Green Book One: The Magic Flute and Book Two: The Wizard’s Tome by S.D. Best
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
  • Sleight Malice by Vicki Tyley
  • The Sword and the Dragon by M.R. Mathias
  • Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore (trilogy) by Brian Rathbone
  • The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Last week I finished Brian Rathbones’s trilogy, Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore. With the first book being free and the second and third being 99¢ each (available at Smashwords), it is hard to complain about the books. In fact, there isn’t much to complain about as regards these books. The biggest problem is that the characters are single dimension. Unlike what I believe to be the gold standard for self-published novels, the Promises to Keep quartet (see, e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept), where the characters are such that they drew me into their lives, Rathbone’s characters have some interesting characteristics, but don’t rise to the level of my much caring about them one way or another.

On the other hand, the characterizations are not so terrible that I wouldn’t recommend the books, especially at the price (truthfully, however, if the books were $2.99 each, I wouldn’t recommend them at all). Out of 5 stars, I would give the trilogy 3.5 stars; but I have to reiterate that a significant factor in that rating is the pricing of the books — should the pricing go up, the rating would go down.

The story is interesting, albeit not compelling, and devoid of many of the spelling and grammar mistakes that are much too often seen in self-published novels. It is not to say there are no errors, just that the errors are few and are not distracting; they didn’t make me pause to decipher what the author intended. For a quick read at a very reasonable price, you can’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

In a previous On Today’s Bookshelf (IV), I listed Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris as a recent hardcover acquisition. I finally started reading it, and even though I am not yet finished with the book — I’m about two-thirds done — I can recommend it to anyone interested in the Dreyfus Affair or its surrounding events.

Dreyfus is well written and a fascinating read. Unlike many of the books I have read on the topic, Dreyfus delves into the emotional and cultural aspects of the affair. For example, Harris notes that many of the key characters were all Alsatians, and thus bonded by the same “tragedy,” which was Germany’s taking over of Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Each of these Alsatians, including Dreyfus, left their homeland and chose to become French citizens and joined the French military in hopes of someday regaining Alsace for France.

Harris explores what is really a fascinating question about the Dreyfus Affair: Why did so many of the foremost writers and philosophers and current and future French leaders become so involved in what appeared on the surface to be a proper carriage of justice applied to a junior military officer? The Dreyfus Affair occupied these people and the news for nearly a decade, yet Dreyfus was an insignificant person in the military scheme of things and an officer who was not all that well liked by his colleagues.

Harris also explores why so many of the anti-Dreyfusards continued to persist in their efforts to have the Dreyfus decision upheld even after it was exposed that the evidence was faked.

The Dreyfus Affair caused families to split — some members becoming Dreyfusards and some becoming anti-Dreyfusards — in bitterness, brought what had been a declining overt antisemitism back in full force, and nearly triggered a coup d’etat in the young French Republic. It was a story that was followed by the European and American press.

I think that if were to recommend just one book about the Dreyfus Affair, this would be that book. Harris does explore the Affair itself, as well as all the machinations that went on the periphery. What at first seemed to be an internal military affair, soon became the cause of the era. I find that it still captivates today and still has lessons to be learned by the world today.

October 19, 2010

Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem

On one of the ebook lists of which I am a member, the question was asked: How does one find a professional editor? On the surface, this doesn’t seem like too big a problem, but dig deeper and one realizes that this can be a gargantuan task, like finding a needle in a haystack. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of people calling themselves professional editors, but there is no governing body that issues editorial licenses after proof of minimal competency.

The issue really comes down to how one defines professional when speaking of editors.

In past articles [see, e.g., The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)], I suggested some of the things that separate the professional from the amateur editor. The problem is at least twofold: (a) you can’t easily verify that the editor really owns and knowledgeably uses these resources, and (b) owning the right tools doesn’t turn a person into a professional.

The definition of professional also turns on what the editor is expected to do (for an explanation of what editors do, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A professional copyeditor is not necessarily a professional developmental editor nor vice versa. Different skills and resources are needed.

As you can see, the problem of defining professional and then finding a professional editor is just that — a problem! I am not sure there is an easy or sure way.

One suggestion that many editors make is to ask about books (or articles or journals or whatever is appropriate) that the person has worked on in the past. The idea is that someone who has already edited 200 fantasy novels would be a professional editor of fantasy novels. I’m not sure that is sufficient. My own experience — I’ve been editing medical books for 26 years — tells me that all that it proves is that I have edited books, not how well I have edited them, and how well I have edited them is the true crux of the matter. I think past work is one criterion, but what do you do with the brilliant, young editor who is just starting out? We all had to start at zero at some point in our career.

There is something else to note about the past projects list. If a person copyedits only short journal articles, it is possible that their list would be thousands of titles long and thus impressive by sheer weight of numbers, especially compared to the person who edits primarily long tomes and thus can do fewer projects over the same timeframe. I know this because most of my work is on books that are 5,000 manuscript pages or longer, and it isn’t possible to complete such long projects in the same length of time as a 150-manuscript-page project.

Another suggestion was years of experience doing the particular type of work. I admit that I like this criterion better than the past project criterion for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is that it would be difficult to sustain a livelihood as an editor over the course of many years if you didn’t have at least minimal competency. This is even more impressive if the person has a couple of long-term clients. But, alas, this, too, is insufficient to separate the professional from the professional-wannabe.

A third suggestion that is often heard is to ask for references. But how telling are they? You have to trust the person giving the reference and have to assume that the person knows the difference between quality and nonquality work. A glowing reference may be because the work went smoothly and was finished on time and on budget, rather than because the work was of exceptional quality — even if the person giving the reference believes it was for superior quality work. There can be a chasm between belief and fact.

A fourth suggestion has been to ask for samples. This raises a host of problems and also doesn’t really answer the question. Among the problems it raises are whether the editor has the right to share the work with you. I treat all of my clients’ work as confidential and would not share it with anyone without written permission; after all, isn’t that how you would want me to treat your work? But a more important problem is determining whose work you are really seeing. If you are being shown or referred to the final version, you do not know what improvements to the manuscript were made by whom, not even if you can compare the originally submitted manuscript with the final version. And viewing a copy of the manuscript that shows tracked changes doesn’t really indicate a lot either. If it is the first go-round, the editing will be rougher than the final go-round; if it is the final go-round, you will have missed the important intermediate steps that brought the manuscript to this point and not know whether it reached this plateau through the editor’s efforts or despite the editor’s efforts.

Of course, there is one final problem with this last suggestion: you really can’t evaluate an editor’s work without knowing what limitations were placed on the editor by the client or the client’s approach to having someone edit their work. I can’t tell you how many times in my 26 years I have had authors tell me my job is only to code the manuscript for typesetting, not to make corrections or suggestions.

I could go on for many more paragraphs and I would still be no closer to solving the original puzzle: How does one find a professional editor, that needle in the haystack? Perhaps together we can find a viable answer by addressing these questions:

  1. How would you find a professional editor?
  2. How would you define professional?
  3. How would you evaluate an editor’s work?

September 24, 2010

eBooks in a Textbook World

Education is a splendid thing — except for the textbooks that students have to buy. When I was in school, high school and college, many, many years ago, it was rare that for there to be a single book for a course. Not only were they heavy to carry, but they were expensive — and they are still heavy and expensive today! (I haven’t forgotten what it cost to buy the texts my children used.)

eTextbooks can be the salvation for students, at least on the weight side of the equation. It is just a matter of finding (or building) the right reading device and converting all of the textbooks to etextbooks. An easy solution to a big problem — right?

Well, no.

eTextbooks could be an easy solution to a weighty problem except that the track record of publishers’ quality control efforts is mighty poor so far and I have no confidence that editorial quality will be different in etextbooks than it is for fiction ebooks.

Fiction books are the easiest of all books to make ebooks (I’m not talking about authoring/writing, I’m talking about conversion, editing, and proofing). Nonfiction is much harder, and I’m willing to say that course books, especially in the sciences and maths, are a magnitude harder yet.

We all know that publishers aren’t doing a fantastic job with ebooks now. I’m nearly done with the new Brandon Sanderson epic The Way of Kings, for example, and have found quite a few errors (I admit, however, that I haven’t checked the ebook version against the pbook version to see if the errors also appear in the pbook, but regardless they shouldn’t appear in either), some of which led to my earlier article, In the Face: eBook Errors. If Macmillan can’t get an expensive fantasy novel right, how can it be trusted to get an important educational tool right?

There are many reasons why a conversion process can go wrong, many of which argue for choosing the PDF form of electronic publishing of a textbook, but everything boils down to a publisher’s financial commitment to its product. The first mistake publishers make is to believe that editorial quality control can end once a pbook version is created — they do not think of the ebook version as being a wholly new creation that has its own complexities. Consequently, editors and proofreaders are hired once in the process, before publication in any form, rather than twice, once before the pbook is produced and once after the pbook but before the ebook is produced.

The second mistake that publishers make is not to value editorial quality control. A higher value is placed on the visual than on the content; that is, relatively a publisher will spend more on design than on making sure the content is solid. The rationale for this is easy to grasp: good design makes a reader want to pick up the book and can facilitate the reading (I still recall ordering a pbook, sight unseen, because of the subject matter and when I received it, finding it was unreadable because the design was so poorly done — wrong font and leading, for example, can exasperate the reading experience).

But editorial quality control has been the silent stepchild; people do not realize how bad or good the editorial quality control for a book until they buy the book. Editorial quality control is not what attracts a buyer to a book; it is the design that does it. And that was/is the story of pbooks.

eBooks, as ebookers know, present a different story because samples are available and design is so uniformly poor that people rarely choose to buy/not buy based on it. In eBookville, editorial quality is king, yet publishers haven’t come to this realization — yet — which is the problem with etextbooks. Until publishers do realize that editorial quality is king in eBookville, how can one trust the content of an etextbook? The steps between the pbook creation and the etextbook creation are likely to have been passed over, leaving the pbook as the definitive version and the etextbook as the sorry sister.

When our children are being taught, we “trust” that what they are being taught is accurate. We have neither the skills nor the aptitude to ascertain the verity of every taught “fact.” The Texas State Board of Education review committee’s “reviews” in recent years amply support this premise of lack of aptitude and skills in all taught subject areas on the part of the general populace; we are specialists in narrow areas of knowledge. Consequently, we “trust” the books our schools use, which means we “trust” the publishers.

Yet, publishers cannot be trusted to get the fiction ebook right. On what basis can we trust publishers to get the etextbook right?

The solution for publishers is relatively simple, albeit not painless. First, treat the etextbook as a wholly new enterprise — from scratch — rather than as a simple extension of the pbook version. Second, have the etextbook undergo a complete editorial quality process of its own — editing, proofreading, design, reproofing. Third, start hiring professional editors at professional editor pay scale and stop thinking that and acting as if editorial quality and least-expensive editor are synonymous — they aren’t. As with all else in skilled services, you get what you pay for. (For some musings on professional editors, see Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment and the linked articles noted in it.)

Maybe then etextbooks will be trustworthy. Maybe then the trickle down theory will work as publishers learn the value of editorial quality and let that trickle down to ebooks outside the etextbook world. One can always hope that a light will shine in the publishing world to lead the way to editorial quality.

September 13, 2010

Are eBooks a Bargain?

A common conversation point in recent months in discussions about the merits and demerits of ebooks has been “ebooks are a bargain.” Are they really?

I grant that my reading habits are probably atypical. It has been at least a dozen years since I read a book from the top 10 general fiction bestseller lists. (I have no idea whether any of the science fiction or fantasy books I have read were on bestseller lists in their categories.) So when the pricing wars were on and bestsellers were selling for $9.99, my response was a decided ho-hum.

Besides, what makes a bestseller? It’s the number of copies wholesaled to bookstores, not the actual number of copies sold to consumers. Granted that sometimes there is a correlation between the two, which becomes evident when you can’t buy a first printing copy and need to settle for a 13th printing edition. But most books don’t get out of the first printing — bestsellers or otherwise — and the bestseller lists are momentary lists, that is, they don’t reflect the fact that many of the books printed end up on the bargain/remainder tables within a couple of months of release.

I, for one, would be much more impressed with bestseller status if I knew that the status reflected consumer buys and not bookstore borrows. And my time is coming because of ebooks.

eBooks don’t require print runs. A single digital file given to Amazon substitutes for the 5,000 print copies. Consequently, one day bestseller lists will be more meaningful because they will reflect sales to consumers.

This has been a roundabout way of getting to the question at hand: Are ebooks a bargain? Like what is really a bestseller, ebooks equaling a bargain is a complex question. The answer is a resounding maybe. Let’s set aside all the limitations of ebooks that do not encumber pbooks, such as first sale impossibilities, DRM, the inability to share with acquaintances, lack of permanence — all attributes pbooks have over ebooks — and concentrate on the price question.

Dollarwise, ebooks that are not published by the upper tier traditional publishing houses can be significant bargains. I don’t see it as a bargain if a book published by Del Rey or Bantam sells for $8.99 as a pbook and $7.99 as an ebook. On the other hand, when I buy a book at Smashwords for $2.99, I view that as a bargain if the book is readable. And that is a key consideration — readability. I assume, and not always correctly, that a Bantam book is at least readable. I might not like the book, but the book is readable. I don’t have to recognize that the author meant “there” not “their” each time “their” appears in the text. That is, I don’t have to act as interpreter.

Increasingly, that is becoming less of a problem with the ebooks I find at Smashwords. It’s not that the problem has disappeared — it hasn’t — just that it is less. Of course, when I spend only $2.99 for an ebook, I have to be prepared to do a little of the work myself. It is the tradeoff. I suspect that the quality of less expensive ebooks will continue to rise (certainly, they cannot decline very far) as readers turn away from the expensive to the inexpensive ebooks.

I expect to see a dichotomy in the publishing world. I expect to see fewer fiction pbooks published in coming years, with the concentration for fiction being in ebooks. I also think that nonfiction books will be the primary pbooks, at least for the next decade, until the devices used for ereading are capable of handling the demands of more than text. I am aware that ereading-capable devices like the iPad may be suitable for nonfiction, but are these the devices that serious readers who sustain the nonfiction market will want to lug around? I think devices capable of straddling the needs of readers and nonfiction books are still in the planning stages.

With that shift of fiction to ebooks and away from pbooks, ebooks will become bargains. But until that shift occurs, the bargain ebooks are ebooks not published by traditional publishers; they are the ebooks published by authors directly to consumers and by small ebook-dedicated publishers.

It is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that cost less than $2.99; in fact, it is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that are available free. All you have to do is not want to read either pbook “bestsellers” in ebook form or not read ebooks by the traditional top-tier publishers. From experience, I can tell you that it is easy to avoid those high-priced ebooks; I rarely spend more than $2.99 for an ebook and have been quite pleased, overall, with what I have purchased.

To answer my question, yes, ebooks are a bargain if you buy smart.

September 10, 2010

The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!

eBooks are like a good spy: seen but not truly noticed until the last minute when it is too late — at least that was the case for me.

As each day passes, I find that I am more inclined to read an ebook and less inclined to read a pbook. This was finally hammered home to me with the release of two new fantasy novels, Terry Brooks’ Bearers of the Black Staff and Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings.

I wanted both of these books for my library, so I bought them in hardcover when they were released (just in the past few weeks). I finished an excellent mystery in ebook form (Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood, a great buy at $2.99 and an excellent read) and decided to next pickup the Brooks book. My habit is to be reading 1 or 2 nonfiction books and 1 fiction book (usually an ebook) concurrently. So I put down my Sony Reader and picked up the Brooks hardcover and got as far as the copyright page, when I realized that I didn’t want to read the book in pbook form; I wanted to read it as an ebook. I also realized that I felt the same about the Sanderson book. So I bought both books in ebook form and put the hardcovers on my library shelves. For once, the publishers got me twice.

Combine this with my struggling to get through any nonfiction book in recent weeks because I really want to pick up my Sony Reader rather than the hardcover, and a dawning occurred — I finally realized that given a choice between an ebook and a pbook, I really do prefer to read an ebook on my Sony Reader.

The preference for ebooks stealthily snuck up on me. Unfortunately, I also recognize that my preferred books to read are nonfiction and ebooks aren’t quite there yet if the nonfiction book is loaded with illustrations and notes (perhaps the new readers will be better; I plan to try a nonfiction book on the Sony 950 when I get it). So I’m in a quandary: on what do I compromise? Do I forego the footnotes (99.9% of which are useless anyway and are present only to impress readers with the extent of the author’s “research”) and illustrations (many of which help explain the text) and read nonfiction in ebook form, or do I forego the pleasure of reading on my Sony Reader and continue to read nonfiction in pbook form? I suspect that the latter is what will happen for the most part, although I will start buying nonfiction ebooks when possible.

Of greater concern is whether I am seeing a new phase in my buying habits, a phase where I buy the hardcover for my library and the ebook to actually read — format double-dipping. Double-dipping could become a mighty expensive proposition, and as much as I love books, double-dipping makes no sense, especially as I do not truly “own” the ebook versions of the books that I would double-dip.

Here is where willpower comes into play. I am resolute (at least for the moment) that the Brooks/Sanderson double-dip will not be repeated. How resolute I am is yet to be tested, especially if the new device meets my hopes as regards the reading experience. (Wouldn’t it be nice if publishers said buy the hardcover and we’ll give you the ebook for a token price?)

The problem is ebooks and the very positive reading experience, at least on my Sony Reader (I don’t feel this same lure when reading books on my desktop or laptop; then I can’t wait to go to the pbook). eBooks are seductive. First, they are convenient — I love the ease of carrying my Sony Reader everywhere, such as while my wife shops. Second, 95% of the ebooks I buy are significantly less expensive than a pbook, in fact they are usually less than $3 and rarely more than $5. Additionally, ebooks can be better reads than many pbooks, as Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood, mentioned earlier, and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, which I reviewed here and here, deftly prove. Each of these books cost less than $3 yet are exceedingly well-written and captivating.

But as seductive as they are, ebooks, for me, lack the permanence of hardcovers and the ability to pass down to children and grandchildren (which means that I value books, just as publishers want me to do; so why do publishers make it so hard to value ebooks? and, yes, I know I can strip DRM but I prefer not to), just as they lack the price of hardcovers (the great tradeoff). I have yet to surmount the peak where I am willing to forego adding hardcovers to my permanent library and only buy ebooks; I find that I look forward to giving my grandchildren my library. I expect the day is coming, however, when I buy only ebooks, but I do not see it in the immediate future and thus my need for great willpower. At least that willpower only needs to be exercised with fiction (for the moment) and I do not buy many hardcover fiction books. (I much prefer my fiction to be in ebook form so I don’t feel bad about starting a novel and deciding that it was a waste of money and time; ebook fiction is easy to delete and doesn’t take up precious space. I also generally prefer to buy from the independent authors I find at places like Smashwords, which is where I found Tyley and Parkinson.)

eBooks have captured me. Everything is right about fiction ebook reading, assuming, of course, that the book itself isn’t one of those that falls into the Give Me a Brake! or Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important category, which, sadly, an increasing number of pbooks are doing these days. Additionally, what is right about ebooks and ebook reading seems to get “righter” with each passing year, especially as devices get better and authors and publishers more careful and concerned.

I guess this needs to be viewed as a warning to all those yet to be initiated into the addictive pleasure world of ebooks. Once you stick your toe into the ebook waters, you will be captured because the reading experience is excellent and keeps getting better as publishers take ebooks more seriously. This is one of those experiences that compel you to go forward, that does not permit backward movement. Just remember to keep control of your pocketbook so you don’t end up like me: buying the same book twice; instead buy more ebooks, which is something else I do because I find I read significantly more books than ever before since I was captured by ebooks.

August 17, 2010

Struggling with eBooks: To Read or Not to Read

Don’t get me wrong — I love my Sony 505 and read on it every day for at least a couple of hours. But what I read on it are novels, fiction that goes in one brain cell and out the other, rarely making a lasting impression. (There are a few exceptions, such as Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet [see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept] which I keep thinking about and wondering why no major traditional publisher has scooped her up, in contrast to Ruth Francisco’s Amsterdam 2012, which I have yet to review because it was such a disappointment, yet the storyline is intriguing and one I think about, but I keep wondering where to begin a fair review).

No, the problem is with the mainstay of my reading — nonfiction, particularly history and biography. I keep trying to read nonfiction biography and history in ebook form and I inevitably stop and return to the pbook version. This shouldn’t be; there is nothing inherently wrong with the ebook experience — or there shouldn’t be — to make reading of nonfiction so difficult for me. Yet, it is.

I have been trying to analyze why and have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Surely part of the problem is the way ebooks handle images, which is poorly. I admit that I don’t really care about studying the fake maps that some novels include for “informational” purposes. I’m not really looking to delve into the deep psychoses of the characters or the lands; I’m looking for easy entertainment after a day of reading and correcting manuscript. But in nonfiction books, I really do care about the maps and photos. I don’t want to commit them to memory, but they often provide an insight to the history being related. When told that an army marched 60 miles, I find it hard to imagine how long and hard a march that must have been 2000 years ago and a map helps. When describing a sarcophagus, a photograph helps. And these are weak points of ebooks — the ability to show such images clearly and in a readable form. The problems lie in how the ebook file was created and in the fact that I am trying to view the image on a 6-inch grayscale screen (although I’m not sure that a 6-inch color screen would be much improvement).

Perhaps another problem I have is that most histories and many biographies are riddled with footnotes (or endnotes) and references. (For my view of the use of these notes, see Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.) I know that some readers, if not most, simply bypass these annoyances, but I admit I’m one who reads everything in a book, including the copyright page. I find myself compelled to check the notes and references — the notes because authors too often have some of the most valuable information tucked away in them, and the references because they often lead to other books I need to buy. (My to-be-purchased [TBP] list is probably as long as, perhaps even longer than, my to-be-read [TBR] list; usually what holds me back from buying a book on my TBP list is the cost. These books tend to be out of print and if I am going to buy an out-of-print book, I want to buy it as a first edition, first printing, in near fine or better condition — not a cheap undertaking in many cases.) Sadly, too many ebooks come with broken links to the notes and references because publishers and/or the converters of the books do a lackadaisical job of activating the links.

Consequently, I am always in a struggle when it comes to buying ebooks. I have little hesitation with fiction, it being difficult for publishers and converters to do a horrendous job (although far from impossible as many ebookers can attest) and because so much fiction can be bought so very inexpensively, but I hesitate, and hesitate, and hesitate when it comes to nonfiction. With one exception, For the Thrill of It by Simon Baatz, the story of the Leopold and Loeb murder trial and Clarence Darrow’s brilliant defense, which focused not on guilt or innocence but on the death penalty, my nonfiction purchases have been unsatisfactory and have resulted in my purchasing the pbook version. Some examples are Bruce Watson’s Sacco and Vanzetti and Taylor Branch’s trilogy about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Pillar of Fire, Parting the Waters, and At Canaan’s Edge. (If you haven’t read these books by Baatz, Watson, and Branch, put them on your list. It is better to read them as ebooks than not to read them at all.)

I keep trying, however, to read nonfiction in ebook form. I have purchased and tried reading in ebook form several books but nearly always gave way to finishing reading in the pbook form. Perhaps it is the ease of accessing the notes and images, perhaps it is easier to contemplate passages, reread them for deeper meaning or better understanding, perhaps it is just me. I’m not certain about the “why” but I am certain that authors, publishers, and converters have to spend more time and effort thinking about ebook design and how an ebook is read (or, in the case of nonfiction, how it should be read) by the reader. At the current juncture of development, ebooks are ideal for fiction, less so for nonfiction, but there is no reason why the ebook form shouldn’t be/can’t be ideal for any type of book.

(P.S. Some worthwhile nonfiction books I have bought in both ebook and pbook form are the following: On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker; From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America by Christopher Finan, The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God by Jonathan Kirsch; The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker; A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America’s First Presidential Campaign by Edward J. Larson; The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by Steven Pinker; The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox by Stephen Budiansky; and The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. I recommend each of these books whether you read them in ebook or pbook form.)

August 5, 2010

The 3 Stages of Copyediting: III — The Proofing Stage

In part I of this series (The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage), the focus was on getting the manuscript ready for editing by taking care of the mechanical things — the clean up — of author-provided files using macros created by The Editorium and wordsnSync. Part II (The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage) focused on EditTools, a group of macros designed to make editing faster, more accurate, and more consistent.

Now that the manuscript has been prepped and copyedited, it is time to take one last look through the manuscript to catch some things that may have been missed and to do a final cleanup. This is the proofing stage — the third stage of copyediting — and the stage where PerfectIt is so valuable.

Stage III: The Proofing Stage

No matter how good an editor is, the editor will have missed something; the more complex the manuscript, the more somethings that are likely to have gotten by the editor’s eagle eye. For example, 18 times in the manuscript the editor hyphenated time-consuming, but twice did not. Are the 2 exceptions correct or just missed hyphens? That is the question — among many questions — PerfectIt asks.

PerfectIt analyzes your document in detail, looking for certain types of “common” errors. For example, if the rule is that numbers 10 and below are to be spelled out, it will flag instances of the number 10 in digit form and ask you whether it should be corrected. And what about capitalization of heads? Was it correct to use sentence style in this head when all other heads use title case style?

PerfectIt comes with 27 built-in tests, that is, things to look for. The tests include

  • hyphenation and dashes, including phrases with hyphens and dashes, singles words split by hyphens or dashes, and compound words
  • spelling consistency, including spelling variations, numerical characters, common typographical errors, and contractions
  • abbreviations, including abbreviations in 2 forms, defined two ways, used before being defined, defined the same way more than once, abbreviations without definitions, and abbreviations not used
  • capitalization, including capitalization in phrases and heads
  • list punctuation and capitalization
  • tables, boxes, and figures, including capitalization, punctuation, consistency, and order
  • comments and highlighting left in the text
  • final cleanup tasks, such as removing for double spaces and creating a table of acronyms

PerfectIt also lets the editor create his or her own custom word lists, which are the tests to be run and the parameters for the tests. For example, rather than being presented with having to choose each time whether self esteem or self-esteem is preferred, the editor can create a custom word list that tells PerfectIt to (a) never find self-esteem, (b) always prefer self-esteem and so find instances of self esteem, or (c) always prefer self esteem and so find instances of self-esteem. This customization also works with spelling (i.e., not just phrases and hyphenation) so if the editor prefers distension over distention, the editor can make distension the always preferred spelling and instances of distention only will be found.

If the editor chose self-esteem as the preferred form, when PerfectIt finds self esteem it tells the editor how many locations this form appears in and provides an opportunity to go to those locations if needed. If the editor is certain that it needs to be corrected, clicking the Fix or Fix All buttons makes the corrections (with tracking on). No need to manually fix each instance.

PerfectIt’s display is divided into several informational panels. At the top it tells you what test is being run and what percentage of the proofing process has been completed. Immediately below the test name, PerfectIt describes the error it has found and how many. For example, if the test is “Abbreviations in two forms,” the error description may say “Error description (1 of 3),” indicating that 3 errors have been found and this is the first one.

This panel is followed by the “Choose preferred abbreviation” panel. If the error is that sometimes the abbreviation is USA and sometimes it is U.S.A., this panel will tell you, for example, “USA (found 5 times)” and “U.S.A. (found 2 times).” You click on your preference and then look below this panel to the final panel which shows the locations of the nonpreferred form. You can then fix them one at a time or all at once — or you can decide that these are not errors based on the context and thus not change one or more of the “errors.” The editor always has the option of leaving something as it is. PerfectIt is mechanically finding these errors so that the editor can apply his or her editorial judgement.

PerfectIt is a perfect way to do a final check of an edited manuscript. It can save an editor from embarrassment and can reduce the number of errors that clients find. Although not a panacea for all errors and missed items, PerfectIt does focus on the more commonly missed items.

Editors who do not already use PerfectIt in the proofing stage should consider trying it. I can tell you that when I found PerfectIt, I downloaded the trial version, and within 5 minutes of running it on a chapter I bought it. I immediately saw its value, and have been recommending it since.

The combination of  Editorium programs, EditTools, and PerfectIt is a combination that will enhance every editor’s accuracy and efficiency. Improving efficiency is a sure way to improve any editor’s bottom line; improving accuracy is a sure way to improve editor and client relations because better editing results in lower client costs.

(Disclosure: I have no financial connection to or other interest in either Intelligent Editing or The Editorium. I have purchased their macros and use them in my own editing business. I am the creator of EditTools and an owner of wordsnSync Ltd.)

August 4, 2010

The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage

In part I of this series (The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage), the focus was on getting the manuscript ready for editing by taking care of the mechanical things — the clean up — of author-provided files. Authors love to “help” their publishers (or even themselves if they are self-publishing) by formatting the document to make it look like they think it should look when published. As most editors will tell an author, doing so really adds to the cost of the editing because a good editor needs to clean out all these extraneous features and properly tag the content.

The simpler the formatting/styling done by an author, the less costly and time-consuming the copyediting will be because it will free the copyeditor to do what the copyeditor is supposed to do (and for those of you who need a reminder about what a copyeditor is supposed to do, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor).

Again, the mechanical aspects of the preparing the file are addressed by various macros from The Editorium and some of the macros in EditTools. But it is here, in the second stage of copyediting — the true copyediting stage — where EditTools becomes a key component of the process.

Stage II: The Copyediting Stage

EditTools is a group of macros designed to improve accuracy in the editing process while increasing efficiency. Not all of the macros are usable in all projects but each serves a purpose that when combined enhance the quality of the editing.

Consider, for example, Toggle, which is particularly useful in nonfiction books and articles but is equally usable for fiction. One of the things that a copyeditor has to do is make sure that there is consistency in a book. If the style is for all numbers 100 and lower to be written out except when used as a measure, the copyeditor has to convert 99 to ninety-nine but only where appropriate. And this is where Toggle comes into play. Think about how long it takes you to press a single key versus to type ninety-nine; and add up all of the single key press times versus the typing times (and the retyping because you mistyped!).

My current Toggle list has more than 1,300 entries in it, which means that with the press of a single key (I assign my primary macros that I use repeatedly as I edit to single key presses such as to F4) I can change any of 1300+ items; for example,

  • which to that
  • about to approximately
  • since to because
  • US to United States
  • Marvin to Martha
  • CFO to treasurer
  • HIV to human immunodeficiency virus
  • 100 to one hundred
  • x to the correct times sign
  • hyphen to the correct minus sign
  • and hundreds of other things

and whatever else I put in the list through the Toggle Manager (no need to understand programming or to open and close lists; the Toggle list is dealt with through the easy-to-use Toggle Manager) — all by the press of a single key. Creation of the list is wholly up to me and my needs, it is not prepackaged or limited.

Most books have multiple chapters and it is the rare author who creates a single file when writing. Thus the need for MultiFile Find and Replace. Should I discover that the character name Mariah is suddenly spelled Marya, I can now look for Marya in all of the files the author submitted and replace it with Mariah (with Track Changes on) immediately. This avoids the problem of missing a fundamental correction in a subsequent chapter.

One of the things I try to learn from a client before I begin editing is if the client has particular preferences, especially for spelling. This is particularly important when a book is being written by teams of authors, a common occurrence in medical books. When I learn of these preferences, or if as the editor I make a decision to accept one spelling over another, I enter the information in the Never Spell Word macro via the Never Spell Word Manager. For example, in medical terminology there are two accepted spellings for distension: distension and distention. Once one form is chosen I use NSW to ensure that it is used consistently. I could use either MultiFile Find and Replace or Word’s own Find & Replace but that would mean I have to go through a list of words repeatedly and manually. NSW lets me create a standard list as I edit — I can always add to it.

More importantly, perhaps, NSW through its color coding system, tells me that certain terms are OK as they are. For example, if the author decrees that WHO never needs to be spelled out as World Health Organization because everyone knows what it means, I can enter WHO in NSW, choose “no spell/OK as is” and every instance of WHO will be appropriately highlighted, reminding me that I do not need to spell it out.

As part of the NSW macro there are several other tabs. There are some default names, but with the current release you can customize the tab names and the data files they call upon. But these tabs serve a purpose, too. For example, because I do a lot of medical editing, drug names are important. But I admit I can’t remember all of the drugs that are available, used to be available, and that will be available. So I enter drug names as I come across them into the drug tab list and next time I run the NSW macro for a medical project, every correct drug name in the manuscript that matches a drug name in my data list will be highlighted in green, telling me that the entry is correct — one less thing I need to verify because I have already done so. NSW builds on experience: Once I have verified something and entered it into a portion of the NSW macro, I no longer need to reverify it.

One last example of how valuable EditTools is to a copyeditor. I do a lot of nonfiction books and most of them are replete with citations. And if there is a subject you can think of, there is probably more than one journal that is published that addresses it. Thus the Journals macro and its Journals Manager.

The task of editing reference material is complicated and time-consuming. There are a lot elements that the editor has to address and authors tend to complicate the editing of references by not being either consistent or accurate in their typing. It isn’t unusual, for example, to find in the same reference list New Engl J of Medicine, N Engl J Med, N England Journal Med, and other variations of New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, in the PubMed database that is used for medical journal names and abbreviations, there are more than 10,000 named journals — and that isn’t a complete list.

To the rescue comes the Journals macro. My medical journals dataset currently has more than 5,700 entries in it. Not all are unique journal names; there are also the author variations. But I run this macro over a reference list and if the author has correctly cited the journal name, it is highlighted in green; if the cite is incorrect and the incorrect to correct form is in my data list, the incorrect form gets automatically corrected. If it isn’t in my list, it will be — I will add it as I come to it during the editing process, thereby growing my list. I recently had to edit a reference list of 732 entries — a whole lot of cites that would take a whole lot of time to do. Fortunately, every journal cited by the authors — and every variation they used — already was in my data list. Within seconds I knew which journals were correct and those that were incorrect were automatically corrected.

The Journals macro also solves another problem: Like drugs, there are thousands of journal names. Who can remember them all? (Would you remember, for example, that a cite to the Chinese Journal of Radiology should be a cite to Zhonghua Fang She Xian Yi Xue Za Zhi?)

Although I’ve only skimmed the surface of EditTools, it is important to know that its primary function is to work with the editor during the copyediting stage, not before and not after. A professional editor uses tools to make the editing process quicker, more efficeint, and above all, more accurate. In the not-so-long-ago days, we had to keep track of everything by hand, repeat tasks endlessly, and use pencil on a paper manuscript. Today we can harness the power of computers, and using the tools described in the 3 parts of this article — Editorium macros, EditTools, and PerfectIt — we can harness the power of Word macros to make editing quality and accuracy better than ever.

The least satisfactory method is to address each problem as you encounter it during the copyediting stage. Not only is this time-consuming, but it is distracting. During the copyediting stage the focus should be on the substance not the mechanics, although there will always be some overlap. Editors who do not already use EditTools in the copyediting stage should consider trying them to see if the macros make their editing more efficient and accurate and less time-consuming.

Part III addresses the proofing stage and using PerfectIt for this stage of the editing process.

(Disclosure: I have no financial connection to or other interest in either Intelligent Editing or The Editorium. I have purchased their macros and use them in my own editing business. I am the creator of EditTools and an owner of wordsnSync Ltd.)

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