An American Editor

February 22, 2012

The Failure of the Gatekeepers

One of the arguments that many of us have made in support of traditional publishing has been the role that traditional publishers have played as gatekeepers. Gatekeeping means more than just making sure that a manuscript is literate; it includes making sure that it is original.

Increasingly, traditional publishers are failing at this aspect of gatekeeping. They are failing to detect the plagiarized book. A recent article in The New Yorker, “The Plagiarist’s Tale” by Lizzie Widdicombe, explores this problem. If you haven’t read the article, it is well worth reading.

In this case, the publisher failed to recognize that the entire book was made up of takings from numerous books. But not only did the publisher fail, so did numerous others in the chain, including the author’s agent. And in reading the author’s writing history, over the years many persons missed his plagiarizing, including the editors at the Paris Review.

If gatekeepers are failing at this fundamental task, what purpose are they serving that warrants anyone caring about their future survival? I understand missing a plagiarized paragraph here and there, but in the book that is the subject of the article, it appears as if hardly a single paragraph was original to the author.

For me, traditional publishers as gatekeepers served three primary purposes. First, they weeded out those works that really belonged in the slush pile and were not worthy of going further, even though they occasionally missed some gems. Second, they nourished writers who deserved being nourished thus enriching our culture. Third, they weeded out plagiarism. I don’t mean the one-paragraph-in-500-pages-of-manuscript kind; I mean the one-paragraph-on-each-page kind — the blatant plagiarism.

With the advent of ebooks and self-publishing, the first role has pretty much disappeared. There are so many publishing house labels that it is nearly impossible to know whether the publisher is a giant or a mouse. Smart self-publishers are creating their own “publishing houses” to publish their books. The result is that there is no weeding of books in the marketplace because books rejected by an established traditional publisher are now published by a new “publishing house” — and few readers know that they are buying from the slush pile until they buy the book and start reading it, only to discover that the book should never have found its way out of the slush pile and into the retail book market.

The second function, that of nourishing new writers, has been falling by the wayside in the last decade. Financially, traditional publishers are struggling (at least so they claim; it is hard to give too much credence to such cries when I read that a publisher had nearly a billion dollars in profit in 2011) — the competition has turned fierce. Reading is down as are traditional book sales. Fewer blockbusters are being published so there are fewer blockbusters available to generate the kind of income needed to nourish nonblockbuster authors. And authors are increasingly going their own way because they get to keep more of the money and don’t need to worry about publisher rejection.

That leaves the third function, the weeding out of plagiarists. Alas, publishers are failing in this role as well. I think there are many causes for this failure. The editors that traditional publishers hire are under the gun to publish books that make a profit and increase the publishing conglomerate’s bottom line. The accountants have taken over from the craftsman and the editor’s ability to keep a job and a steady paycheck is dependant on satisfying the accountants.

In the olden days of publishing, a book was rarely published before it was ready to be published. Publication dates were flexible; if an extra round of editing by a professional editor was needed, it was done. The consolidation of the publishing industry into the conglomerates changed that. Now publication dates are fixed in stone, regardless of whether a book is ready or not. The result is increasing numbers of errors that slip by and the inability to gatekeep for plagiarism.

Also in the olden days, editors were trained to recognize possible plagiarism. Perhaps more importantly, editors were widely read themselves and thus suspicious based on their own broad reading. A book editor, in the olden days, was not an entry-level position. One rose to it; it was a position of prestige. It attracted people like former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and master writer Bennett Cerf. Today, the editor is closer to, if not, an entry-level position. The glamour of being an editor at a prestigious traditional publisher is gone — gone with the consolidation of the industry into a few international conglomerates whose first interest is the quarterly bottom line.

Consequently, traditional publishers are no longer fulfilling their role as gatekeepers. In the absence of fulfilling that role, what purpose do they serve? Many ebookers today would say traditional publishers serve no role at all and should follow their dinosaur ancestors into oblivion. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps the time has come for the breakup of the conglomerate publisher and the return of the smaller, independent publishers, the ones who made publishing a great profession and brought great literature to the reading public.

July 27, 2011

Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks

My to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing. Unfortunately for publishers, however, it keeps growing with free offerings from both publishers and self-publishers. I admit that a lot of the free self-published books should never have seen fingers on a keyboard, but I also have to admit that I am finding a lot of good reads among the free self-published books. Some are very high quality, many are just good reads.

But “just good reads” is more than enough. These are books that aren’t of the caliber that one would choose for a book club discussion, but they are decently written and they do hold my interest. And this is the problem for traditional publishers as well as for self-publishers who want to charge a price that is reminiscent of a traditional publisher’s pricing: the world of free ebooks is becoming very competitive with the rest of publishing in terms of quality.

I used to spend thousands of dollars a year on pbooks. These days it is the rare book that I pay anything for. Looking at my hardcover purchases, I find that this year I have spent about 30% of what I had spent last year during the same time frame — and if I project it out to the end of the year based on books I have preordered, I will end the year spending about 22% of what I spent last year. That is a huge drop, and it is all because of the free ebooks.

Some readers focus on the extent of garbage that is found among the free ebook offerings — and there is a lot of it to focus on. But think about how you buy books and how that has changed with buying primarily online. Then think about how that applies to “buying” free ebooks.

Before the days of ebooks, I would spend hours in my local Barnes & Noble searching for books that were well written on topics that I wanted to read. I’d find a few hardcovers that I would purchase. When I got the books home, I’d start reading. It often happened that what I thought was a well-written book based on the sample I had read while in the store was not so well written after all. I might “force” myself to read the book anyway because I had paid hard-earned money for it, but equally as often, I would simply put the book aside to try again another day — a day that didn’t come very often.

But free ebooks have relieved me of that pressure to read a not-well-written book because I invested in it. Yet with that relief, I still find many more decently written and interesting free ebooks to read than I can read in the time I have, thus my to-be-read pile keeps growing. Free ebooks have made it very easy for me to discard a book without feeling guilty about doing so. Free ebooks have created the guilt-free age of reading.

Because there are so many free ebooks and because a large enough number of them are decently written, I see no need to return to the bookstore to look for books and I see no reason why I should pay agency pricing for ebooks from traditional publishers. This is not to say that I do not buy nonfree ebooks — I do. When I come across an author whose free ebook captures me, I’ll buy the author’s other ebooks — but free comes first.

What does this mean for the traditional publishing model that expects to be able to charge a relatively high price for an ebook? Ultimately, it means disaster. Right now traditional publishers aren’t directly competing with self-publishers; the quality gap remains Grand Canyonesque. But that gap is closing with greater speed than traditional publishers realize. Eventually, traditional publishers will need to more directly compete with self-publishers. This is not so difficult to do when the traditional publisher prices an ebook at $8 and the self-publisher prices an ebook at $7. But it becomes increasingly difficult when there is a yawning gap between the price the traditional publisher charges and the price the similar-quality self-publisher charges, especially if the self-publisher’s price is free. As Smashwords’ twice-yearly sales demonstrate, free and discounts of 100% and 75% are increasingly becoming the price of ebooks.

The salvation for the traditional publisher has to be quality when it can’t compete on price. Consequently, more attention needs to be paid to initial quality and to gaining a reputation for that quality. Unfortunately for traditional publishers, an increasing number of self-publishers are realizing that the quality problem also applies to their ebooks and they are improving their quality faster than are the traditional publishers.

It will be interesting to see how things stand 5 years from now. I wonder how many traditional publishers of today will still be profitable then.

June 29, 2011

The Editorial World — Will it Pass Editors By?

In a few months, I will be presenting again at a Communication Central conference, Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century, which is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Baltimore, MD. This year, I not only speak about making money as an editor and marketing, I also am giving the keynote address, which is a prediction on what the editing world will be like in 2015. Knowing that I have committed myself to speaking, I have begun thinking about how my editorial world continues to change and whether I and my colleagues are cognizant of the changes going on about us and are adapting to the changes.

The true impetus for my giving thought to this question was an article in the May 7, 2011 The Economist titled “A Less Gilded Future,” whose theme, interestingly, was repeated in a June 3, 2011 New York Times article “Where Lawyers Find Work.” (As an aside, although the New York Times’ article contents are identical, the titles are different for the print and online versions. I have used the print title.)

Editors have been facing the outsourcing problem (in which outsourcing = offshoring) for years now; doctors have been facing the phenomenon in recent years; and now lawyers. Offshoring seems to be moving up the food chain. Of great interest to me is that the offshoring for each of the three markets is to the same geographic area, largely India.

If doctors and lawyers are facing this phenomenon, what hope is there for editors to reverse the longstanding offshoring trend? I guess we could become plumbers and electricians because you do have to be on the spot to fix a plugged toilet or wire a new wall outlet.

As with all major problems, there is no easy solution. Entry to the medical and legal fields is, relative to entry to the editorial field, very difficult — perhaps comparable to a climb up Mount Hood versus a walk across an open, flat meadow. The ease of entry into the editorial field compounds the offshoring problem for editors. After all, what does it really take to hang out a shingle and say “I’m an editor and open for business!”?

(For some interesting data regarding editors in the United States, see Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 27-3041 Editors from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

The freelance editorial profession — developmental editors, copyeditors, technical editors, proofreaders — in the United States has multiple failings as regards self-preservation. One, of course, is that there is no organization that looks out for the political and financial interests of editors (this was the subject of an earlier article, Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), a lobbying group dedicated to improving the business life of the freelance editor. The organizations that do exist are socially oriented, generally of local interest, not well-managed, and the core members who exert control are rarely interested in looking out for the political and financial welfare of the profession as opposed to having a social outlet for themselves.

The consequence is that freelance editors think and speak the party line of having become a freelance editor to be free of corporate bondage, to be able to set one’s own work hours and schedule, to live free and work free — and all of the other trite pap that we can think of as justification for working outside the corporate box. Oh, I hear you screaming at me already — “Trite pap! How wrong you are.” And the reasons follow.

Alas, it is pap unless you are one of the fortunate few who can view working as a freelance editor as a hobby — the extra income is nice but not really needed. It pays for a fancier vacation or car, but is not necessary for putting bread on the table or for paying bills.

I’ve been in the business — and yes, freelance editing is a business and needs to be treated as a business — since 1984, although some days it seems like forever. In my case, editorial work was/is needed to put bread on the table and to pay household bills. It wasn’t/isn’t supplemental income, it is primary income — always has been and always will be — which means that I need to watch trends and adapt my business to those trends, or see my business shrivel and die.

Because my editorial business is my primary income, I cannot emulate the ostrich and hope that today’s negative trends will suddenly reverse themselves and become positive trends for me on their own. If anything, I need to push them in the direction I want to go and if I can’t do that, then I need to rework my business to account for the trends.

Most editors don’t view freelance editing through the same lens I view it. Most editors I know will defend until their economic death the status quo, the idea that they chose to become a freelance editor to be free of all corporate bonds, to be wholly independent, to be … whatever. I think that to survive one needs to alter how one thinks about freelance editing.

The result of offshoring has been a depression in freelance wages and jobs for the homegrown freelance editor. Jobs haven’t wholly dried up; rather, they have changed and the source of the jobs has changed. Whereas in 1984 domestic publishers needed freelance editors and hired them directly at a relatively decent rate of pay, in 2010 most of those domestic publishers have been absorbed into a few mega corporations who are outsourcing (offshoring) editorial work because they view it in the same global dimensions as they view accounting. The accounting thinking is that rules of profit and loss are the same regardless of location.

Unfortunately, that global accounting thinking is also being applied to editorial processes. It is true that at some level one can think globally about the editorial process, but it is not true at most levels. Although English is the most universally used and taught language, it is not a universal language in the sense that, for example, rules of grammar, spelling, conventions, and idioms are universal. Yet publishing conglomerates act as if English is no different in Britain than in Australia, in America than in India. And this hurts local editors by denying the editors opportunities to ply their trade.

The result is that accountants cannot see the value in hiring local when hiring nonlocal can be so much less expensive. So the editorial work is farmed out to nonlocal low bidders who now have to hire local talent to fulfill the contract but do so on a depressed wage scale. It is the imposition of the nonlocal wage scale on the local talent that ultimately is the problem, and most editors simply throw up their hands in surrender to “the inevitable.”

And this why I wonder whether the future editorial world will pass editors by. Adaptation to the current offshoring and its depression-level economics is not a viable solution. A viable solution would be one that makes it uneconomical to offshore what should be local, just as it is uneconomical to hire a nonlocal plumber to unclog your kitchen sink. Will editors come up with such a viable solution or will the editorial world pass us by? That is the question that must be answered in the near-term by local editors everywhere.

June 20, 2011

The Business of Books & Publishing: Changing the Pattern

We see a lot of new ebooks being released that are riddled with editorial and formatting problems. From the publisher’s side, the problem is that to proofread ebooks after conversion, especially after OCR (scanning) conversion, is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be-all and end-all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known with certainty how many ebook sales will be made.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink how and what gets published. I don’t mean which books but which formats. Perhaps the time has come to publish only hardcover and ebook formats, dropping the mass market paperback from the mix and keeping the trade paperback for those pbooks that do not justify a hardcover print run (although considering that the cost differential is slight between paperback and hardcover, I see no particular need to retain even the trade paperback).

Before the coming of the paperback, books were available in hardcover only. That limitation was the impetus for several innovations, including the public library. But the limitation served a good market purpose. It kept the price high relative to incomes; created an educated class to which people aspired; allowed nearly all print runs to be profitable; created the first commercial publishing class (as opposed to scholarly class) of books; created the respected profession of editor; and limited the number of books available for purchase. As a side effect, it created secondary and tertiary markets for books: secondary being the used-book market and tertiary being the collector’s market.

Today, the publishing world runs wild with no discipline imposed either directly or indirectly on the publishing world and process. Consider the growth of books published in the United States alone in the past decade: In 2002, 215,000 books were published traditionally (which largely means through the old-style process of vetting, editing, and so on by an established publisher) and 33,000 nontraditionally (which largely means self-published). Jump ahead a mere seven years to 2009 and the numbers are 302,000 and 1.33 million, respectively. One year later, 2010, the respective numbers are 316,000 traditionally published and 2.8 million — more than double — nontraditionally published! I’m not sure I want to know the numbers for 2011.

The jump in nontraditional publishing numbers is simply a testament to the rise of the ebook. The numbers do not imply or correlate with sales, quality, price, or anything other than raw numbers of suddenly available books. If I read one book a day, every day, or 365 books a year (vacationing from reading only on the extra day in leap years) for 60 years, I could read 21,900 books, which represents a mere 0.0078% of the 2.8 million nontraditional books published in 2010. The likelihood of my being able to read a significant percentage of all books available to me is nonexistent.

How does this tie into the idea of dropping paperbacks? It runs a convoluted course like this: As I cannot possibly read all of the books published in 2010 alone, I would prefer to march publishing backward and be less egalitarian and open access and more unequal and closed. I want to make what reading I do count with minimal search-and-find effort on my part. I want to see more profitability for authors and publishers in exchange for better vetting of books and significantly better production quality control. One way to do this is to control market access.

eBooks are already eroding pbook sales, so let’s help that erosive process by guiding it. If a person must read or buy a pbook, make the only pbook version available the hardcover version. Book buyers are already accustomed, from centuries of ingrained experience, to paying a premium price for a hardcover book. Book buyers perceive value — whether that value is real or not makes no difference; buyers believe it exists, which is sufficient for it to, in fact, exist — in hardcover versions. One side effect of that perception is that buyers of hardcovers tend to treat the books more carefully than they treat paperbacks, thus creating a secondary market with some value. Thus, let’s satisfy the pbook market need by providing a better-quality hardcover.

By limiting the pbook to hardcover only, we are also changing the secondary market. A used hardcover will now have more value because there is no pbook alternative. And it wouldn’t take a great deal of effort to figure out a way for authors and publishers to receive a small royalty from secondary market sales. Eliminate the paperback and there will be more incentive for that solution to be found.

The other benefit of eliminating paperbacks is that the ebook can easily replace it. More effort and money can be put into production of the ebook version and a more realistic price can be charged. Right now, much of the price grumbling about ebooks is a result of comparing the ebook to the paperback. Why should an ebook cost more than the paperback version? (The question is rhetorical here.) Eliminating the paperback removes the yardstick against which the ebook price is currently measured. The market will settle, just as it did for paperback pricing, around a few price points for ebooks, which will be less than the hardcover price. Within a relatively short period of time, that price stabilization will be accepted by most book buyers and what we will see is the return of the market we had before ebooks, but with ebooks in the role of paperbacks.

One other consideration is that by eliminating the paperback, traditional publishers are eliminating a major debit to their balance sheets. To offer a paperback version means you actually have to do a print run — the product has to be available in that form — which also means that the direct and ancillary costs (e.g., returns, warehousing) have to be incurred. And if the paperback is a decent seller, it means that the costs have to be incurred multiple times. In contrast, with an ebook production costs only have to be incurred once; any cost of duplication of the electronic file, once perfected, is minimal.

Will elimination of the paperback cause pain in the market? Sure it will, just as any established market change and upheaval does. But this is an opportune moment to make that change. Publishers need to move paperback readers to ebooks. They also need to enhance the value of both ebooks and hardcovers in the consumer’s thoughts. The easiest and most effective way to do this is for publishers to take their lumps now and eliminate the paperback from the equation (think of the shift from videotape to DVD and vinyl record/audiotape to CD). The period of rapid growth of ebooks is the time to reshape the market, not when the idea of coavailability of the three formats is entrenched.

May 31, 2011

On Books: Changing Buying Habits

As readers of this blog know, every so often I do a piece titled On Today’s Bookshelf in which I list a sampling of my recent hardcover and ebook acquisitions and preorders. In working on a yet-to-be-published On Today’s Bookshelf, I realized that I am stockpiling ebooks, growing my TBR (To Be Read) pile, and doing so largely by “purchasing” free ebooks — that is, ebooks that either the author has set the price at free or the author has issued a limited-time coupon that reduces the price to free. If I had to guess at a percentage, I would say that between 80% and 85% of all my ebooks fall into the free category.

I think this does not bode well for the financial future of either authors or publishers. I don’t imagine I am unique in acquiring free ebooks.

As of this writing, I have 86 unread ebooks waiting to be loaded onto my Sony 950 and 220 unread ebooks already loaded on the 950 (I delete ebooks from the 950 once I have read them). Since I received my first ereader 3.5 years ago, the Sony 505 that my wife now uses, I have “purchased” 934 ebooks, of which I have either read or tried to read 628.

I realize that many of the free ebooks are poor imitations of literature, but a significant portion are at least good (a rating of 3 or 4 stars) and a significant number — that is, significant within the schemata of the ebooks — are excellent (a rating of 5 or 5+ stars). If I had to apply a percentage to the number of ebooks I have “purchased” that are 3 stars or better (using, of course, my rating system which I outlined in On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)), I would guesstimate that 40% to 50% meet that standard.

So why does this not bode well for authors and publishers? Because as the number of ebooks I “purchase” at the free price grows, the less I need to consider actually spending money on an ebook. This is not to say that I won’t spend any money on ebooks; rather that I will spend money on many fewer ebooks than I otherwise would. At Smashwords, which is a prime source of ebooks for me, my wishlist has 38 ebooks on it, some of which have been there for many months. I do add to that list, but I have made no move to spend money on any of the listed books because I have yet to deplete my trove of free ebooks.

I have “purchased” more than 125 ebooks at Smashwords, but most of them had a final price of free. During ebook week in March alone, I “purchased” 105 ebooks at Smashwords, all of them having a final price of free.

Smashwords is not the only place these free ebooks can be found. There are numerous sources, including at the better-known ebooksellers GoogleBooks, Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon, and lesser-known ebooksellers and sources like Baen, ManyBooks, MobileRead, and Feedbooks.

It strikes me that free is rapidly becoming the new price point. One cannot even argue that the free books aren’t written by known, bestseller authors, because a goodly number of them are written by such authors, particularly in the romance, science fiction, and fantasy genres (and their subgenres like historical romance, military science fiction).

With 306 waiting-to-be-read ebooks, I have at least a year’s worth of reading currently available to me. Yet that is somewhat misleading because that year never seems to get shorter — I am constantly adding to and subtracting from that TBR pile as new ebooks are made available to “purchase” for free. True, I won’t get the newest Martha Grimes or David Weber novel for free, but that’s the tradeoff.

The economics of ebooks become baffling if one doesn’t spend money on ebook purchases. The amortization of the reading device across the free ebooks makes sense; after all, it is pretty hard to go wrong spending $150-$200, even $300, on the device when you can read thousands of ebooks for free on it. Where the economics falter is in authors and publishers earning money.

I suspect that a significant part of my focusing on “purchasing” free ebooks is that publishers and many indie authors are setting unrealistically high prices for their ebooks. Whether the prices are justifiable in true economic sense doesn’t really matter; they aren’t justifiable to the reader. A reader who gets burned once spending $14.99 on a poorly written, poorly formatted, or nonproofread ebook, especially when they are nonreturnable, is unlikely to be willing to spend $14.99 again in hopes that the next purchase won’t be a repeat sucker purchase. Instead, such a reader is likely to move down the price chain.

As increasing numbers of ebookers move down the price chain, the average selling price of ebooks also moves down the price chain, and will eventually reach the free marker. The closer that average gets to free, the more difficult it will be for authors and publishers to earn a living. (Yes, there will always be a few authors and publishers who are able to earn excellent incomes at lower rates, but we need to look at the macro picture, not the micro picture.)

As other ebookers have pointed out in articles they have written, buying habits are changing. They are changing for a lot of reasons and ebookers are not universally focused on “purchasing” free ebooks, but regardless of the reason why their buying habits are changing, the trend is clear that the changes are not for the economic betterment of authors and publishers.

In my specific case, where I used to spend $5,000 or more a year on purchasing books, I am now spending less than $2,000 — even though I am “purchasing” more books than ever before. The poor quality of ebooks has made me more cautious about purchasing pbooks. Previously, I would simply purchase a pbook that interested me because how well written and edited it was was already cast in stone — it just wasn’t going to get better than it already was. However, ebooks have changed that. I now scrutinize pbooks before buying because ebooks have made me more aware of poor writing and editing and less willing to spend money on such books — whether p or e. However, the closer the purchase price gets to zero, the more tolerant I am.

The freedom to publish anything and the failure of authors and many publishers to invest in quality for ebooks has resulted in making purchasers wary across the board. I “purchase” more books than ever, but spend less money doing so. What is needed by authors and publishers is for that to change so that the more I purchase, the more money I spend. If I were a gambler, I’d bet against that change occurring any time soon. If self-publishing authors and traditional publishers don’t soon start offering the correct balance of quality and pricing, they may well lose readers to free permanently.

October 13, 2010

Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility

I recently complained about production problems in two new novels I purchased in ebook form — Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and David Weber’s Out of the Dark — both from TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is that review-before-release rights either didn’t exist in the authors’ contracts or if the rights did exist, they weren’t exercised.

With all the problems consumers are seeing in ebooks, regardless of whether the problem lies in the conversion process or in the file preparation, authors who sign contracts with traditional publishers fail their audience if they do not negotiate review-before-release rights. Too many ebooks are being released that are poorly formatted and rife with errors that could easily be corrected just by proofreading the converted version before releasing the ebook on the unsuspecting public. And this should be of primary importance to authors, perhaps even more so than royalty issues (after all, if consumers get fed up with poor quality production, there won’t be any royalty to collect!).

The clear wave of the future is the ebook. The tsunami is about to hit and authors need to be prepared for it. Just as authors have been attuned to the problems that exist in “normal” pbook production, they need to become attuned to the problems that seem to occur with regularity in production of ebooks. It is one thing to pay $1.99 for an ebook that is riddled with errors, but quite another to pay $12.99 or higher. More important than price, at least to me, although not to many ebookers, is that if important information to the story is to be reproduced in illustrations/tables/figures, the illustrations/tables/figures need to be readable on common-size ereading devices, which means on 6-inch screens. Similarly important is that dropped words not be dropped, that uppercase letters that should be lowercase be lowercase (it is annoying to read “…they came across A cave…”), that suddenly left justified text becomes centered text, and so on.

Is it asking too much to be able to enjoy a read without being confronted with obvious, distracting errors? If you (i.e., authors and publishers) are going to permit (or simply accept) errors, can you at least make them subtle, such as using “a” when it should be “an” and “which” when it should be “that” — the types of errors that most readers won’t give a second thought to.

With the boom in ebook sales, authors owe a duty to their customers — their readers — to make the reading experience as undistracting as possible; readers should be permitted to focus on the story and not need to comment on or note formatting, spelling, and grammar errors. Authors go to great pains to ensure the quality of the pbook version; now they need to go to those same lengths to ensure the quality of each ebook format. Failure to do so jeopardizes their relationship with their readers and thus jeopardizes their future income and popularity. It is much too easy in the Internet Age to become a yesterday has-been through self-destruction.

Authors already are responsible for their choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is important). This is the result of too much author reliance on spell checkers and too little education and emphasis on correct word choice.

So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

With all the restrictions imposed on ebooks that are enforced by DRM, authors in the first instance, and publishers in the second, should at least actively strive to produce a first-class ebook and when they don’t, stand before the bar of public criticism, admit failure, make corrections, and provide free replacement copies to those who already have purchased the book.

This goes back to the publisher’s warranty of quality that I proposed nearly a year ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty), a warranty that continues to be ignored by publishers and by authors. Authors need to insist as part of their contract that a warranty be given the consumer and that the author get review-before-release rights and undertake to review the ebook form of their work before it is made available to the buying public. Doing so would be good for the author and for the consumer, and, ultimately, for ebooks. Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.

This is certainly something to think about, if not to act upon. But in any case, we readers need to expand our net or responsibility to include the author, not just the publisher, when we receive a poorly constructed ebook, especially at the prices some authors and the Agency 5 are demanding.

October 8, 2010

On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down

If you recall, a few weeks ago I wrote The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks! in which I swore I would not again buy a TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan book in both hardcover and ebook formats. Well, I did, and I was shown, yet again, that TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan only cares about something other than quality. Maybe I learned my lesson this time.

I am a big David Weber fan, ever since I was introduced to the Honor Harrington series. Because Weber is a favorite, I buy all of his new releases in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library, something I can’t do (i.e., add them to my permanent library for eternity) with a DRMed ebook. But Weber’s newest book, Out of the Dark, was released just as I was leaving for the Finding Your Niche conference. I wrestled with not buying the ebook version (the hardcover was already on its way as I had preordered it) but I lost the match and bought it in ebook form so that I could read it while at the conference.

Exactly what was wrong with Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings ebook is wrong with Weber’s Out of the Dark ebook: no one read it for errors after converting it to ePub (and probably not after converting it to any other format, although I don’t know that for certain). I can hear the call of TOR: Suckerrrrr! Suckerrrr! How difficult is it to fix problems like “A” rather than “a” in the middle of a sentence?

Enough — let’s move on to a review.

Brandon Sanderson’s book is an interesting read. The Way of Kings is disjointed in that you go back and forth between characters and scenes without something connecting them. What is the relationship between the various characters? Where will their paths intersect? The answers lie in volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t stick with the book — it is long, 1008 pages — because of the disjointedness, but instead, I found myself compelled to keep reading. The Way of Kings demonstrates why Sanderson is the new force to be reckoned with in fantasy fiction; it’s just too bad he is hooked up with such a sloppy publisher. Sanderson’s narrative is compelling and interesting. Each segment almost stands on its own and someday I will discover the connection between the characters who appear to be the primary characters of the story. In the interim, however, I’d give The Way of Kings 4 stars (out of 5). The writing is taut but leaves too much up in the air to warrant 5/5, plus Sanderson needs to take some responsibility for the poor ebook formatting. He and/or his agent should have insisted on review-before-release rights.

David Weber’s new book, Out of the Darkness, however, is a major disappointment. Here is hoping that subsequent volumes live up to the PR claims.

Weber’s new series was touted as another Honor Harrington series, implying that it had the punch and quality of the Harrington books. Sadly, it has the punch and quality of a wet noodle in a paper bag. I expected the book to at least match the Harrington books but hoped that after years of honing his writing craft, it would be even better. It is much worse than even the first Harrington book.

In Harrington, Weber created a character about who we could care; one who was interesting in her own right and who had interesting and compelling associates. Out of the Dark, in contrast, has no character about whom I care. The plot is somewhat trite and too much of the text is an exposition of military hardware, as if the hardware was to be the star of the series. I didn’t read the short story that was the original basis for this series (I’m not a lover of the short story form), but perhaps this worked better as a short story and should have been left there. Or perhaps Weber has too much to do in writing additional volumes for his other series, such as the Safehold books and the Disciples of Harrington, whose books are of infinitely better quality.

Combining the poor quality of the ebook with the less-than-stellar story, I would give this book — by stretching a bit — 2 stars (out of 5). I think if Weber wants to salvage his reputation as a master of military science fiction, he needs to work hard to improve this new series in future volumes. For those of you unfamiliar with Weber, this is not the book to buy. Better to read nearly any other of his novels. For those of us who are Weber fans, the only reason to buy Out of the Dark is to have a complete collection of Weber’s novels; otherwise, best to pass on this book.

Like Sanderson, Weber, too, needs to insist on review-before-release rights for his ebooks or find a more caring publisher. The combination of a lackadaisical novel and poor ebook quality could start a decline in interest in Weber’s work, especially when a novelist like Sanderson is available.

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 16, 2010

In the Face: eBook Errors

I’ve been thinking about the errors I find in ebooks. Sometimes they are small errors, the kind I would find even in a well-edited pbook, the occasional dropped article, the switch in tense, and the like. Nothing too serious, but noticeable. Annoying but forgivable, at least on some low level. After all, perfection is something we strive for but rarely attain.

As I thought about these errors, I also wondered whether I was more sensitive to them in ebooks. I’m not talking about the repeated big errors such as those I discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! or in Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important; again, I’m talking about the small errors, the errors that I, and most readers, would pass over without much thought — well, maybe a grimace or two — in pbooks; errors we wouldn’t dwell on and write 1000-word discourses lambasting the book, the author, the publisher, or the editor.

Yet, these low-level errors seem to annoy me more when I come across them in an ebook. That led me to wonder why these errors are so much more noticeable and annoying in ebooks than in pbooks. I think I have found the answer: The small screen of most ebook reading devices (generally 6 inches or less) limits the amount of text we see at one time (both directly and peripherally), especially when we enlarge the text to make it easier to read, thus emphasizing the text before us.

When we read a pbook we see directly and peripherally the text on two pages and we cannot increase the text size. This tends to deemphasize the text visually. Further support for my theory comes from my 26 years of editing. I’ve noticed that some editors enlarge the visible text to 150% or even 200% of “normal” so as to catch errors more easily. I generally enlarge the text to 120% to 125% and have noted how much easier that makes it to catch the little annoyances. (Even doing this, however, doesn’t result in a 100% catch rate; less-than-perfection is the price we pay for being human.) With less text to distract the eye and brain, the visible text is emphasized more than “normal.”

What does this mean? It means that errors are more noticeable by and more annoying to readers in ebooks. What might be overlooked in pbooks is not overlooked in ebooks. It means that the editor’s role in preparing an ebook for publication is even more important than it is in preparing the same book but for pbook distribution. It also means that a final proofread should be performed on an ebook reading device — it should mimic the reader’s reading experience.

It is this last step that is missing. Yesterday I complained about it as regards important illustrations (see The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!) but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the switch to digital reading requires the addition of another step in the publishing process — the step of ensuring that the converted digital file is readable.

As one of the comments to yesterday’s post noted, the current process seems to be that that a digital file (hopefully the same digital file that was used to print the pbook and not a scan file, especially an unproofed scan file) is simply sent to a producer like Amazon who then undertakes the conversion process. This takes the file out of the publisher’s hands and into a third-party’s hands, a third party whose name doesn’t appear in the credits of the book and who is not the target of consumer anger if the ebook file is riddled with errors. Perhaps this is the wrong approach to the conversion process.

As publishers begin to realize that their future is intimately tied to ebooks, they should also review their procedures for getting an ebook out to the consumer. If a vendor like Amazon insists on doing the conversion process under the guise of protecting its proprietary formats and DRM scheme, then maybe a bold statement needs to be included in the digital file:

Converter’s Statement of Responsibility

This ebook was created by Amazon, which is solely responsible for any errors related to readability found in this ebook that are not also found in the original print edition. Complaints about formatting, dropped, missing, or incorrect characters, and other readability issues should be addressed to Amazon at __________.

Seems to me that would put the blame where it belongs. It also would identify where the problem source is and allow consumers to pressure the right party.

Of course, this shifting of the blame to the converter doesn’t absolve the publisher of the ebook from its responsibility to ensure that the digital file it gives to the converter is optimized for the ebook reading platform. And this is a golden opportunity for publishers to both add value to ebooks, helping to justify some of the outlandish pricing currently seen for some ebooks, and to garner goodwill. The publishers who actually had a book proofread — and corrected — before release could include a statement such as this in the ebook:

Certification of Optimization

This book has been optimized for reading on a 6-inch-screen reading device by having a prerelease proofread performed by a certified digital proofreader on a 6-inch-screen reading device. The proofread was conducted on such a device as part of the process. Errors that have been introduced during the conversion process are the responsibility of ______, the conversion processor, and should be addressed to _______.

This is almost a warranty of quality, something I suggested quite some time ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty). But think of what this would do, the effects it would have. First, it would establish a minimum level of quality, something that readers could grasp and depend on. Second, it would eliminate a good deal of consumer dissatisfaction. Third, it would put the burden on the company doing the converting to improve the conversion process in an attempt to make it error-free. Fourth, it would add value to ebooks.

If the publisher itself does the converting, that is, creates the final digital file that will be sold to the consumer, the following statement could be included with the Certificate of Optimization.

Although we strive for perfection, should you find an error, please advise us of it by e-mailing us at __________. We will endeavor to include appropriate corrections in future releases of the digital files for this book.

Imagine the goodwill this would engender as increasingly error-free ebook versions are made available. And if a publisher has to do this often enough, the publisher is likely to invest more upfront to get it right the first time, perhaps eventually leading ebooks into the error-free zone.

Perhaps the time has come to identify who is responsible for the errors we find when we read an ebook and to pressure that entity to work toward an enhanced reading experience.

September 15, 2010

The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that 100% of publishers don’t read their own ebooks — heck, I can’t even swear with certainty that publishers even know how to read — but I am certain Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan’s publisher didn’t read the ebook version of Brandon Sanderson’s new release The Way of Kings before releasing it on the unsuspecting public.

Let’s set aside the little errors that are in the ebook. Those can be excused because they are little (e.g., a dropped “a” and “the”), they are few (at least in the first third of the book that I’ve gotten through), and no book is perfect. I’m even willing to ignore the confusion engendered by the way the story is put together. (Interestingly, rather than off-putting, I find the confusion to be a compelling reason to continue reading the book. The confusion is a result of various substories that are not yet woven together so it isn’t clear what the connection or the purpose of the characters and their stories are in the whole-cloth tapestry. But the book is well written and interesting, which acts, at least for now, as a counterbalance. However, the book is more than 1,000 pages long and I’m only through the first third, so my perspective might well change or, more likely, I may lose patience with this random flow.)

What gives me a clue that the publisher probably didn’t read the ebook version before release — and probably neither did the book’s editor nor Sanderson — are the illustrations. At the opening of the book, in the front matter that few readers read, but which I do (yes, I’m peculiar in this regard; I tend to read every page of a book — including the copyright page and the dedications and acknowledgments, as well as every footnote/endnote, which is why footnotes and endnotes are such a sore point with me [see, e.g., Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses]), Sanderson makes a big deal about the illustrations. As it turns out, he is right to do so — or at least I think he is; I can’t tell — I can’t read them, and if I can’t read them, neither can the publisher, the editor, nor Sanderson, which leads me to believe none of them read the book in its ebook form before releasing it for me to buy.

One example: In one of the stories/chapters, the characters discuss “the Code” that governs military men — or at least the righteous military men. The code that a dead king lived by and his brother lives by and wants his son to live by. But where is “the Code” outlined for the reader? In an illustration that cannot be read!

This is the problem with ebooks. Publishers, editors, and authors treat them as Cinderella stepchildren — as a way to do the work of increasing revenues without being given an opportunity to shine on their own — you know, scrub my floors, make them shine, but don’t walk on them. The consequence is that what should be an excellent reading experience becomes an annoying one. The neglect becomes evident, and the $14.99 the publisher demands for the ebook version becomes a sore point. In my case, it becomes a double sore point because I bought both the hardcover version (where the illustrations are readable) and the ebook version, as I noted in The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!. I might have done this again with another TOR/Macmillan book, albeit reluctantly, but now you can bet I won’t. Rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me!

Alright (before complaining and saying it’s “all right”, see On Words: Alright and All Right), we know that Macmillan really hopes ebooks don’t succeed but it’s time to recognize that that battle is lost — ebooks are here to stay and represent a growth opportunity for traditional publishers if done right. It’s getting to the done right part that appears to be difficult.

To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I understand if an illustration can’t be made readable on every cell phone screen — there certainly does come a point when a screen is simply too small — but there is no excuse for not making illustrations readable on the “standard” 6-inch eInk screen. The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one. Haven’t the Agency 5 already done enough to alienate the consumer with its pricing model? Must it shove the blade in deeper with a twist by also ensuring that important elements of a book cannot be read?

The cynic in me says that TOR/Macmillan did this deliberately with Sanderson’s book — an attempt to get consumers to buy both the ebook and pbook versions. But I really do know better. It wasn’t deliberate in that sense; rather it was deliberate in the sense that Macmillan is still trying to fight the battle it has lost and cannot ever reverse the tide of — the rise of ebooks at the expense of pbooks — and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

I will think at least twice, probably many more times than twice, in the future before I buy another TOR/Macmillan ebook, especially one at any price higher than $5.99, because as I said before: rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me — and leaving important illustrations unreadable is a rip off at $14.99!

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