An American Editor

May 23, 2012

On Books: Are Indie Authors Doing the Best They Can?

I know the question seems odd. Of course, indie authors are writing the best books they can. This seems an obvious answer, so why ask the question? Perhaps because the answer defines the problem: writing the best book they can is not enough in this age of self-publishing.

In the 1990s, I ran a small publishing company. I had to find the authors to publish, arrange for editing, hire the designer, and take care of all the production details — including arranging for a print run and warehousing of the printed books. This was before the age of ebooks. My biggest challenge was distribution: If the book didn’t appear on bookstore bookshelves, it was more than a guaranteed money loser — it was a sure disaster.

In the days before ebooks, it was a delicate balancing act to determine the correct print run and the retail price of a book. Too small of a print run and too low of a price guaranteed a loss even if every book was sold at 100% retail. Too large of a print run and/or too high a retail price also was problematic.

The age of ebooks has changed the dynamics. I wish I were running that small publishing company today because ebooks and the Internet have solved or reduced many of the problems of print publishing, especially those of finding books worthy of being published and distribution. But the eBook Age has changed an even more important dynamic because it has made self-publishing by indie authors viable.

Yet I wonder if these indie authors are really doing the best that they can.

All of the jobs that the traditional publisher performed in the 1970s and 1980s now need to be done by the indie author. Some do the jobs very well; others seem to miss the boat.

One of the first lessons that every indie author needs to learn is that they must always be selling their writing. You can’t just write and hope someone else will pick up the sales ball. I know that seems obvious, but it is the scope of what constitutes selling that I think gets missed. Even such simple things as how the ebook is designed is selling. Choosing the right typeface and font size is selling. Providing metadata for running heads for those devices that will display a running head is selling. Participation in forums of readers and constantly mentioning your writing is selling. A well-done cover design is selling.

For many people, selling themselves is the hardest thing to do in the world. It is why in law firms the “rainmakers” are considered more valuable than any other attorney in the firm; it is the rainmakers who bring in the business by selling themselves and the firm. The indie author has to be his or her own rainmaker.

The point I am trying to make, and probably not well, is that it is not enough to write a fabulous story; the indie author must constantly sell it to get people to read it and talk about it, and the selling can’t be just at their own website. In addition, indie authors need to learn the lesson that everything they do should be geared toward selling their writing.

The other day I complained about authors who write series but provide no synopsis of what happened in previous books in the series. This is a failure of not thinking through who one’s beta readers are. If you use as beta readers only people already familiar with your work, you lose the perspective of new readers who stumble on your books and choose the newest release rather than the oldest release to read. Authors should not assume that even devoted fans will remember plot details that are essential to understanding the current book in a series but which occurred in prior books. A good publisher (even a good editor) would/should identify this weakness; consequently, the indie author needs to be able to step back and identify it as well.

Here’s something else: I am a fan of several indie authors and I look forward to reading the next book they write. But my failing is that I do not keep a list of these authors and do a search at B&N or Smashwords to see if they have released a new book. Their failing as an indie author is not finding a way to get my e-mail address and not only telling me that they have released a new ebook and here are the B&N/Smashwords link(s), but not sending me an e-mail every three to four months to tell me that they are still working on their next book and hope to have it available by x date.

If I had to recommend one particularly good source that every indie author should emulate, it is Baen Publishing. Not its website, but its monthly mailing. Every month I receive an e-mail telling me the progress its authors are making on forthcoming books. I am told when a book is quarter done, half done, in review copy, and published, among other steps. By the time a book is published, I have received at least a half-dozen e-mails that mention the book, thus keeping the author and the book in front of me — that is, selling the author and the book to me.

I have read a good number of indie-authored ebooks that should be selling significantly more copies than are being sold. Certainly, I think that every indie author whose ebooks I have reviewed and rated 5 or 5+ stars should be selling thousands more copies than they are. That they are not indicates to me that they are exceptional writers who feel uncomfortable creating a business plan for selling their ebooks. Thus, the answer to my question is, “No, indie authors are not doing the best they can!”

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

April 25, 2012

Are eBook Authors Unwittingly Losing Sales?

In a recent article at his blog eBookAnoid, another blog that I regularly read, Tony Cole asked this question: “Do you remember the name of the ebook you have just finished reading?” Although I have not written about this topic before, I have often thought about how I rarely remember either the author or the book title of the ebook I am currently reading or have just finished.

My experience is that I can tell you the storyline of the ebook I am reading, and if it is particularly well-written, I can name and describe many of the characters. Some good examples are The Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson and many of Vicki Tyley’s mysteries (see, e.g., On Books: Murder Down Under). Long-time readers of my blog know that I cannot say enough good things about the books written by Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley, and L.J. Sellers (see, e.g., On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows). These are three authors whose names and books I can still recall, even though, for example, it has been probably 2 years since I last read anything by Parkinson.

Yet since reading their ebooks, I have read hundreds of other ebooks. Out of those hundreds, I can recall the names of a handful of additional authors, but all the others, no matter that I enjoyed their work, I cannot recall. I could look them up and have my memory triggered, but that is not nearly as valuable as recall. The ability to recall means the ability to talk about.

I asked my wife if she remembers, and her answer mimicked mine. I then asked some other ebookers I know the same question, and got the same answer from them. It is not that they never remember; it is that 95% of the time, they do not remember.

When I read a pbook, I have to physically pick it up. It is usually in closed form with a bookmark indicating where I left off the day before. When I pick it up to continue reading, I can easily see the book’s title and author, which acts as a reminder of what I am reading. In addition, pbook authors and publishers learned decades ago — if not centuries ago — about the value of constantly reminding the reader of the author’s name and the book title, and so invented the running head (or foot), the place on every page of the pbook that information about what I am currently reading can be found.

In contrast, ebook authors and publishers tend to view the ebook as a continuous flow document and so disdain the use of running heads. True, there are some ebookers who also complain when an ebook has wide margins, blank lines between paragraphs, running heads, nonjustified text, indented paragraphs, and anything else that might make it easier for the reader to read the story. Because someone else (Tony Cole) openly asked the question, I realized that I am not alone in not remembering book titles and author names. That made me realize that ebook authors have missed an important lesson to be learned from pbooks (and marketing in general): You must remind the reader of what is being read and who wrote it constantly. That reminder, especially if the reader likes the ebook, will induce the reader to speak about the ebook and look for other ebooks by the same author.

I am aware that ebooks are not intended to mimic pbooks; if we wanted a duplicate of the pbook, the solution would be PDF. But that doesn’t mean that when creating the ebook, things that enhance the readability of the ebook and that act as good marketing should be ignored just because they are in pbooks. Rather, authors and publishers should be looking at pbooks, which have a long history of success and still constitute 80% of all book sales, to discover what important design elements should be adopted for the ebook. To my way of thinking, the most important element is the running head, which will constantly remind the reader what is being read and who wrote it.

It strikes me that the one thing any author wants is not to be anonymous. An author wants readers to remember their name and look for their books. After all, is not getting one’s work read the purpose of writing and distributing? Yet ebook authors fail to do the one simple thing that would reinforce their “brand” (i.e., their name) to their audience — they fail to include (or insist that they be included) running heads in their ebooks.

Okay, as I noted before, some ebookers will complain (although I suspect that the vast majority would not). But so what. To complain about your book means they remember it and they are speaking about it. Few people would refuse to buy an ebook because it has running heads; fewer people would likely give much weight to a complaint that had nothing to do with the story or the writing as opposed to because it has a running head.

Authors need to sell themselves constantly. They need to do those things that make people remember them. Most authors are not going to write that ebook that everyone praises for clarity, style, craftsmanship, and the like; rather, they are more likely to write what is a good read that numerous readers can enjoy — think of it as the difference between To Kill a Mockingbird and The DaVinci Code. In the case of the former, the author and book are remembered because of the craftsmanship; in the case of the latter, the book and author are remembered because the book was a popular read even if not particularly memorable.

Adding a running head that repeats the book title and author name is an easy and proven method for getting readers to remember what they are reading and who wrote it. It is good marketing. I suspect that authors are losing sales because readers do not remember their name or the ebook title. This one little step could make remembering happen.

April 23, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks II

As I noted in the first part of this article (see The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I), the settlement proposed by the DOJ raises a lot of issues but doesn’t attack the central premise that agency pricing is okay.

I mentioned in part I that publishers could raise the list/wholesale prices of not-yet-published ebooks. But there is another option that could prove to be even more effective: Publishers are not obligated to give ebooksellers a 50% or higher discount as the wholesale price. Publishers could limit the wholesale discount to 30%, which would reflect the current 70-30 split that comes from agency pricing.

And there is nothing preventing publishers from limiting the format that an ebook can be sold in.

The point is, publishers do not have to think of themselves as helpless. I expect publishers will look at the situation as if they are helpless. They aren’t, but they need to be creative, something they are not known for. As the current debacle demonstrates, publishers are being led, they are not leading.

Let us not forget that the settlement proposed by the DOJ effectively separates book sales into two distinct markets: pbooks and ebooks. This could be important because one of the reasons the publishers gave for agency pricing is that they want to keep the brick and mortar stores alive. (It is worth noting that recent data show that even with the growth of ebooks, pbooks sales still account for 80% of all book sales.)

Well, the b&m stores rely on pbook sales, not ebook sales. Even Barnes & Noble relies on pbook sales. The only major bookseller of pbooks that doesn’t have b&m storefronts is Amazon. If publishers want to help ensure that the b&m stores continue to be competitors to Amazon, the simple way to do so is to not only insist that every bookseller get the same wholesale discount (there is no law that requires volume discounting) but then to supplement the b&m stores with higher co-op payments for displays, which would enable them to have additional funds for discounting to compete pricewise with Amazon.

The law requires that similar parties be treated similarly. So if Amazon wanted co-op money, it would have to open b&m stores. In other words, publishers could help level the playing field without straying from the requirements of the DOJ settlement.

It has been stated on numerous blogs and forums that the key to fighting Amazon is to do away with DRM. Without DRM, people would navigate to the ebookseller with the best pricing and service. I do not think that is true in the absence of devices that can handle different formats. Most Kindle owners will continue to shop at Amazon because Kindles can’t handle ePub in the absence of conversion and side loading. Similarly, Nooks can’t handle Amazon’s proprietary format without conversion and side loading. The question isn’t whether converting and side loading are hard to do — they aren’t — but whether most ebookers would do so to save a dollar or two. I think not.

What Kindlers and Nookers always cite in defense of buying from Amazon or B&N, respectively, is the ease of buying and then seeing their purchase appear on their device effortlessly. Right now they could buy a lot of the indie books that they buy at Smashwords in the DRM-free format of their choice. But they don’t because then they would have to side load the ebooks; they aren’t automatically loaded onto their device. Why would habits change?

Ultimately, the real keys to ensuring competition remains are a single, uniform format that is device agnostic (and if DRM must be, then the DRM also be uniform) and agency pricing.

I can hear the uproar as I write about agency pricing, but consider that many of the electronic items we buy are either agency priced or have the same effect through resale price maintenance agreements. Every ad I see for an Apple iPad gives the same price. Every ad I see for a Kindle Touch lists the same price. Yet no one complains that there is no price competition for these items (where is the DOJ’s proconsumer department in these cases?); the complaints are all directed at ebooks.

Of course, the answer is that Kindles don’t compete with Kindles, they compete with Nooks and each vendor independently decided to set the prices. But it is the blind person who fails to see that there is really no difference in effect for the consumer and the purpose of the antitrust laws, ultimately, is to protect competition for the benefit of consumers. Whereas the DOJ recognizes that the Kindle and the Nook are not the same, it insists that the Stephen King and the Dean Koontz novels are the same, at least in book form.

And if the DOJ were really focusing on the effect on the consumer, it would take a look at the various formats and DRM schemes that lock most consumers into a particular eco system. How much more anticompetitive can one be than to capture an audience and make it difficult for them to stray elsewhere?

Here is another question: Where are the authors in this dogfight? The Author’s Guild has come out against the DOJ settlement, but where are the indie authors? Based on comments I read elsewhere, most indie authors are pleased by the settlement because it will make Amazon even stronger and the majority of their sales are at Amazon.

In the short-term view, the stronger Amazon is, the better it is for the indie author. But is that true for the long-term? I can only speculate, but based on Amazon’s attempting to squeeze publishers for more money, I think it is fair to expect that eventually it will turn to squeezing indie authors. The more dependant an indie author is on Amazon, the less the indie author can refuse whatever terms Amazon wishes to impose. And it must be remembered that Amazon owes its obligations to itself and its shareholders, not to its suppliers. Amazon is the Walmart of ebooks.

There is also one other potential negative effect to the settlement. If Amazon succeeds in establishing the $9.99 price point, indie authors who have not yet found a large audience for their books will be squeezed into even lower pricing than currently. More of their ebooks will be priced at 99¢ and free because the reading public will not see them as being worth more when one can by the well-established and well-known author for $9.99 or less.

How this will all turn out is of great interest to me. I am pleased that Macmillan and Penguin have the moxie to fight the DOJ settlement, as I do not think the settlement is in anyone’s best interest over the long-term. It may be of benefit over the short-term, but somewhere along the continuum, in the not-so-distant future, publishers, authors, and consumers will face a different reality.

What do you think?

April 18, 2012

The Department of Justice vs. eBooks I

As most of you already know, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Apple and 5 of the Big 6 publishers alleging collusion in the establishment of agency pricy pricing (see “Justice Dept. Sues Apple and Publishers Over E-Book Pricing; 3 Publishers Settle”). In several of the forums I participate in, ebookers are celebrating the expected lower ebook prices.

Yet, there are several things worth thinking about and noting. First, Random House, one of the Big 6 publishers, and Smashwords, the leading indie author distributor, both of which have agency pricing, are not named defendants in the DOJ lawsuit. That signals to me that the problem is not with agency pricing, but with the collusion aspects.

Second, the 3 publishers that settled with the DOJ, which settlement, it is worth noting, is not effective until approved by a court, are restricted from instituting agency pricing for 2 years, after which they can reassert agency pricing as long as they don’t agree over dinner to do so. This, too, indicates to me that agency pricing is not contrary to the law or necessarily thought to be anticonsumer by the DOJ.

The third notable matter is that the publisher with the greatest moxie, the one that first stood up to Amazon, Macmillan, is not settling with the DOJ and intends to fight, as do Penguin and Apple. That means that the DOJ case is not so strong that it cannot fail once tested. And should it fail, so will the settlement agreements with the 3 settlers fail. It appears that in Macmillan’s case, CEO John Sargent is alleged to have attended only 1 meeting with his fellow CEOs, which means that the DOJ will have to demonstrate that it was at that meeting that the collusion occurred, not an easy task unless the settlers will testify that that is when the collusion came to fruition and that Sargent was present when the decision was made. Hachette, one of the settlers, claims there was no collusion, so it makes me wonder how the DOJ will sustain its burden of proof. Allegations are one thing, proof is another. Simply that there was an opportunity to collude doesn’t prove there was collusion.

There are other problems with the lawsuit. It has been too many years since I last practiced antitrust law (last time was nearly 30 years ago), so I’m not current on the state of the law and I admit that I’m not sure exactly what the DOJ must prove to prevail, but it is clear to me that the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t look favorably on these lawsuits. It was a Republican court that upheld resale price maintenance agreements, which has the same effect — setting a floor price below which goods cannot be sold — as the agency pricing system.

An interesting legal question, which may or may not be relevant to the DOJ lawsuit, is this: What constitutes the market? If all ebooks constitute the market, then ebooks are interchangeable commodities, an idea that is resisted by publishers and authors and even by many consumers. If the market is an individual title because you cannot substitute Dean Koontz for Stephen King, then wouldn’t the DOJ have to prove collusion among publishers to set the price for Stephen King, not collusion to set the mechanism for pricing of all ebooks? Of course, there are numerous variables to the market scenario, but they make for a fascinating legal chess game.

But all of this aside, the bottom line is that agency pricing is not illegal even in the eyes of the DOJ. Which leaves a lot of questions. For example, will Random House abandon agency pricing or continue with it? What about Smashwords? (Smashwords has already announced it will retain agency pricing and oppose the settlement agreement during the comment period.)

A more important question is this: Several of the Big 6 have — so far — refused to sign renewal contracts with Amazon because of demands made by Amazon. In the absence of agency pricing, will some or all of the Big 6 refuse to renew agreements with Amazon? Would such a refusal affect both pbooks and ebooks or just ebooks? If they do not renew the agreement, what can Amazon do about it?

The settlement agreement says that publishers cannot prevent a retailer from discounting the publishers ebooks except that it can require the retailer to make a profit across the publisher’s line. I find that an interesting proviso. Consider how secretive Amazon has been about how many ebooks it really has been selling. Amazon has only been forthcoming with broad numbers and in a few cases announcing that an author has joined the millions club. Will Amazon, who is not a party to the proceedings, voluntarily share sales information? I doubt it.

Yet the sharing of that information is necessary to make the exception meaningful. If the wholesale price, that is, the price the ebooksellers have to pay the publisher, of the new James Patterson ebook novel is $13 and Amazon sells it for $10 and sells 1 million ebook copies for a $3 million loss, somehow Amazon must sell enough other books in that publisher’s line to overcome the loss. How is that going to work?

Will Amazon offer the first 10,000 units of Patterson’s ebook for $10, the next 10,000 units for $16, the next 10,000 units for $13, and so on? Customers will be thrilled. Especially if they can buy the same ebook someplace else for $13 when Amazon wants $16.

Another problem with the settlement is that it does not — and cannot — establish a wholesale price for not-yet-published books. The DOJ could say that current agency-priced ebo0ks’ wholesale price is 70% of the current agency price, because that is what the publisher has been willing to accept. But what about future ebooks? The DOJ is not in a position to dictate individual pricing, so there is no reason why publishers cannot raise list prices to $30 and set wholesale prices at $15. The settlement speaks to discounting, not to setting of wholesale price.

There is more to say, but it needs to be said in another installment of this article, so this will be continued in my next post.

April 17, 2012

Worth Noting: One Small Publisher Says Enough!

An article in yesterday’s New York Times is worth noting: “Daring to Cut Off Amazon.” It seems that Amazon is squeezing where it can. At least this one small publisher, who only has pbooks, offering none of its titles as ebooks, is taking a stand. This article, combined with the recent expose in the Seattle Times about Amazon’s tactics, and the revelations regarding the squeeze on the Independent Publishers Group, make me think that the Justice Department has its head in the sand.

Also worth reading in the Times is David Carr’s article, “Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis.” At least one other person, aside from me, thinks the Department of Justice is trying to slay the wrong dragon.

I know that the popular view is that consumers will have lower prices, but (a) that is not assured once Amazon gains monopolistic power and (b) it ignores the loss of jobs to fellow Americans, jobs that will be either eliminated or foreign-sourced, depriving local communities of revenues and increasing the costs to those who are employed.

I’ve noted that it is easy to be for low prices at all costs as long as one is still employed, but that low prices at all costs mantra rapidly fades when one’s job is lost to a third-world country because labor costs are so much less.

Anyway, I highly recommend both articles to you.

April 11, 2012

The Amazon Conundrum: Competition in eBooks

On several forums that I visit, there has been ongoing discussion about Amazon and monopolies and how no one need worry because if Amazon were a monopoly and did raise prices, a new competitor would instantly appear. The discussions often also evolved to criticising anti-Amazon posters for not having a solution to the problem, just whining about the problem.

I think those who do not see a potential problem with an Amazon ebook monopoly for authors, publishers, and consumers are simply fooling themselves. The ebook market is not like the TV market. Unlike TVs which all meet certain standards so that a Sony can be substituted for a Samsung, which can be substituted for a Panasonic, ebooks do not meet a set of standards and a Kindle-compliant ebook cannot be substituted for an ePub-compliant ebook without some finagling and without removing any DRM.

Consequently, should Amazon drive out of the ebook business its primary national competitors, the likelihood of someone coming along and overnight becoming a major competitor is nearly nil. Consider the cost of duplicating Amazon’s already-in-place infrastructure. Plus, how would a new competitor break the Amazon eco system? The only way competition might have a chance at surviving would be with Department of Justice intervention.

Picture the ebook marketplace with Sony, Apple, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble gone, leaving just Amazon. If Amazon raised its pricing to insure profitability (or, alternatively, followed the Walmart practice and instead kept pricing stable but squeezed authors and publishers), what could be done about it? Not much. To say that a new competitor would see an opportunity and exploit it is naive.

The new competitor would have to build a business from the ground up. How likely is it that Amazon would sit back for a few years to give such a company a chance to gain a foothold? How likely is it that venture capitalists would be willing to fund the necessary billions for such a venture? And if the new competitor was ebook focused, for how long do you think they could underprice Amazon? Remember that Amazon has other, well-established divisions that could support a money-losing book division, something that a new competitor wouldn’t have.

To think that with the fall of the current crop of competitors new competitors would rise that could compete with Amazon nationally is simply wishful thinking with no basis in reality. The response is that Walmart didn’t raise prices, but ignores that Walmart has strong national competition in companies like Costco, Kmart, and Target — once you eliminate Sony, Kobo, and B&N, Amazon doesn’t. Apple is currently a weak ebook competitor and no one thinks much of the Google ebookstore’s competitive status.

This problem with Amazon was brought about originally by publishers who didn’t look beyond their noses when giving Amazon significant product discounts in the early years. The problem is being compounded by the same publishers’ inaction and by authors scrambling to join the Amazon exclusivity club. If publishers and authors do not take steps to halt the rise of Amazon, there soon will be no outlet but Amazon for national exposure.

The question is what can publishers and authors do? For authors, the only option is not to give Amazon exclusivity and to actively promote other ebookstores where their books can be found. If you promote Amazon primarily, you are feeding the problem, not starving it.

Publishers really are in the stronger position to halt Amazon’s dominance; they just lack the willpower to do more than whine. Agency pricing (which is legal; the Department of Justice is investigating whether there was collusion to impose agency pricing, not whether agency pricing itself is legal) was a first step but as done by publishers, insufficient.

What really needs to be done is for publishers to decide that their ebooks can only be sold in the ePub format and only with Adobe adept DRM (i.e., essentially social DRM like B&N uses). Once you break the Amazon closed eco system, everyone can compete on the same terms. Combine this with correct agency pricing, and the playing field becomes perfectly level. Now ebooksellers will have to compete on other factors, such as customer service.

If Sony’s ebookstore went under, it would go under because of other factors, factors that were within its control, rather than because of format wars.

The forcing of ePub and one type of DRM doesn’t directly address the exclusivity problem, but it could do so obliquely. If competitors to Amazon began to increase market share, the incentive to be Amazon exclusive would diminish.

One other thing to consider: I see no reason why, now that Amazon is a direct competitor of traditional publishers — it has established its own publishing houses to sign on authors for Amazon exclusives — traditional publishers can’t simply refuse to sell their books — both p and e — to Amazon. It seems to me to be illogical to require them to provide the means to fund their own funerals.

The longer the publishers dawdle in taking action against Amazon, the more power they devolve to Amazon. The point will soon arrive when publishers will be able to take no effective action against Amazon and we will be writing their obituaries.

The same is true of authors who sign up for Amazon exclusivity and who promote Amazon. There will soon come a time when the only game in town will be Amazon and you will be at Amazon’s mercy. You will find that no one will stand beside you should you decide to fight at that late point in time — publishers won’t because they will be powerless; consumers won’t because all they are interested in is lowest available price; other ebooksellers won’t because they will be nonexistent.

The time to fight to prevent monopolization of the ebook marketplace is now. The way to do it is to encourage publishers to only permit the sale of their ebooks in ePub format with a standard DRM and for authors to not give Amazon exclusivity. In the absence of such action, we can wear the lemming label.

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.

February 13, 2012

The Business of Editing: Editing Tests

A constant refrain over the years has been, “I’ve been editing for x years and they still want me to take a test!” Some editors routinely refuse to take editing tests, considering them an insult, whereas others take every test offered and wonder why they aren’t getting work from the companies that tested them.

On my editor side, I understand the reluctance to take an editing test. After all, I’ve been a highly successful editor for 28 years and the person who is likely “grading” my test (should I take it) probably has no more than a few years’ experience and maybe not even more than a few months. On my business side, however, I have learned — the hard way — the importance of requiring a test, regardless of the number of years of experience the editor claims.

Tests are a difficult proposition. For all the reasons that two editors will edit the same manuscript differently, so will editors complete a test differently. And taking a test means trying to figure out what the test giver is really looking for.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have taken a test and thought I did exceptionally well, only to never hear again from the test giver. Clearly I missed something or what I did may have been correct but not what the test giver wanted. The third possibility, which does occur with more frequency than it should, is that the test giver lacks the experience to properly grade a completed test.

In the beginning, oh so many years ago, I thought there was a key to being successful with editing tests. Ultimately, I learned there is none — unless I could figure out what the test giver was testing for. I have taken tests where the key was intricate knowledge of a particular style manual, others where it was how queries were framed, others where it was to determine my knowledge of the tools I was using, and yet others where it was a test of my knowledge of English usage. Needless to say, I suppose, is that there were also numerous tests where I had no clue as to what knowledge was being tested.

When I first began hiring editors, I looked at their résumé and hired them or not based on those. No test was given. My belief was that an experienced editor would be capable of handling the work. To my chagrin, I learned that, more often than not, it was not true and hiring the editor without a test was a major mistake, occasionally costing me clients. Consequently, I no longer will hire an editor who hasn’t taken a test and passed it.

That experience also convinced me that if I wanted new clients, I had to be willing to take their tests. And so I am. Passing or failing the test is a hit-or-miss proposition because the tests rarely give enough guidance and it is difficult to discern exactly what I am being tested for.

Often the tests are a hodgepodge of author manuscripts — a paragraph from this author, another from that author. The more hodgepodgy the test is, the more likely it is a test for developmental editing rather than copyediting. The less hodgepodgy the test is, the more likely it is a straight copyediting test and/or a test to demonstrate your knowledge of your editing tools.

When taking a test, a comprehensive stylesheet is important. The stylesheet gives you an opportunity to indicate just how fluent you are with the resources you would be expected to use should you be hired by the test giver. I make it clear, for example, in the stylesheet exactly which dictionaries I used and that I am aware that, while dictionary A prefers xyz and dictionary B prefers xzy, I chose dictionary A to be the dominant dictionary.

I also use the stylesheet to explain my choices when it comes to English usage. I am not afraid to say that Chicago Manual of Style prefers abc over acb but Garner’s Modern American Usage prefers to distinguish between the two, and to use each in specific circumstances. I also try to point out where style manuals differ. My objective is to demonstrate my mastery of the tools I will be expected to use.

My point is that I assume the test giver needs to be educated and that I need to be the teacher. It may not win me the job, but I can at least believe I did all I could to get the job. Both test givers and takers need to remember that editing is often a matter of personal preference and, because that is so, more detailed explanation is often required.

I also include a cover statement that explains my approach to editing. It is important, I think, for the test giver to understand the steps I take with every author manuscript and why I take these particular steps. Such understanding can help explain the editing choices I made on the test. My cover statement also includes a listing of the tools and resources I have and use. To say that I am a medical editor implies that I own at least one medical dictionary, but it is so much clearer when I say that I own and use both Dorland’s and Stedman’s medical dictionaries and that I have a subscription to the tri-monthly Stedman’s Medical Spell Checker software.

The point is that I have a lot of competition for the work. The competition is both domestic and foreign in the Internet Age, so passing a test is insufficient by itself. I believe I need to do more to impress the test giver that, of all the candidates for the work, I am the best choice and that the test giver can back up any decision to choose me with all this additional information.

Does it always work? No. There are lots of reasons why I may not be chosen; reasons that fall outside the parameters of the test. The test is but one facet of a multifaceted decision tree. A number of times in recent years I have been told that I was by far the best choice except for how I calculate a page or my minimum fee, or because I only work on a per-page basis and cannot accept an hourly rate, or that my payment terms are at odds with their terms, or whatever.

Test taking is necessary. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to assure that one passes the test and fulfills every other consideration that enters the hiring decision. Like life itself, test taking is a gamble and the odds are stacked.

February 8, 2012

Amazon vs. Big Publishing: 800 lbs vs. 798 lbs.

Last week’s issue of Bloomberg’s Businessweek included an article titled Amazon’s Hitman. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is enlightening.

The gist of the article is that Amazon is gearing up to challenge the publishing world on its own turf: the signing of and creation of big-name authors who sell hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of books. And this assault worries the Big 6 publishers — Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Random House, and Harper-Collins — with good reason: Amazon has more market value and disposable cash than they do combined.

The article discusses the history of the relationship between the Amazon and the publishers, along with what Businessweek thinks is Amazon’s thinking. But with all of their crying the blues, the Big 6 currently are in the driver’s seat; all they have to do is be willing to drive.

There is no reason why the Big 6 can’t offer exclusive deals to Kobo and B&N. Give them a 3-month exclusive selling period for expected ebook best-sellers and do away with the agency pricing during that period. After 3 months, make the ebooks available to everyone and reinstate agency pricing. This would boost competition and play against Amazon’s exclusivity program.

I suspect that this scenario won’t occur because the Big 6 simply do not have the spine. I don’t see any antitrust violation — if Amazon can do it each of the Big 6 can do it, too — but even if there were a possibility of antitrust violation, do it anyway and keep the program going while you hash out with the government the antitrust issues. That hashing out could take years, which would give Amazon’s competitors an opportunity to become real competitors. More importantly, it might well be an effective weapon in the crusade to keep competition in publishing alive.

Instead of wringing their hands and acting as if there is little to nothing they can do, publishers need to creatively fight Amazon’s onslaught while they are in a position to do so. Right now Amazon has no Stephen King-level authors in its stable. Amazon still needs the resources of the Big 6 to fill out its ebookstore. Remember that it was Amazon that caved in the dispute with Macmillan and brought agency pricing to ebooks. But the day isn’t far off when the advantage will shift to Amazon and the Big 6 will be able to spend their days writing their own obituaries.

The difference between Amazon and the publishers is that Amazon is willing to continue to lose money on its book operations for as long as it takes to control the field, relying on its other business to shore up its balance sheet. In contrast, the Big 6 are unwilling to lose money even for one day, even if it means their ultimate survival. Jeff Bezos is capable of thinking years ahead, like a great chess player who can think dozens of moves ahead; in contrast, the Big 6 CEOs are like the starting chess player, unable to think strategically even one move ahead, let alone several. Bezos has the spine to tell shareholders no payout this quarter or next; the Big 6 CEOs do not.

Yet the Big 6 have an opportunity to shakeup the ebook market and turn it, at least temporarily, until Bezos’ next countermove, in their favor while simultaneously shoring up Amazon’s biggest competitors, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Right now exclusivity is working a one-way street. Although the Big 6 declined to participate in Amazon’s current experiment, it is worth noting that Bezos had no compunction about asking them to do so. If the Big 6 won’t offer exclusivity to B&N and Kobo, perhaps B&N and Kobo should approach the Big 6. This is the one area in which Amazon is vulnerable. It is one thing to have exclusive rights to a self-published author’s books, but quite another to have them to a Stephen King’s writings.

The ball is now in the court of the Big 6. What will they do to counter Amazon? If I were a gambler, I’d say the odds were that all they will do is complain but do nothing substantive. There wasn’t much at stake in the agency pricing showdown on either side. An exclusivity arrangement with B&N and Kobo, however, puts a lot at stake. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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