An American Editor

July 7, 2014

Worth Noting: A Great Book Deal at Smashwords

Do you like to give indie authors a chance? I do and I’m happy to say I have found and read a great many excellent books by indie authors, some of which I have reviewed here on An American Editor (see, e.g., “Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson,” “On Books: Eden by Keary Taylor,” “The Book of Adam: Stimulating Thought Via a Novel,” “On Books: Ice Blue,” and my favorite indie author, Vicki Tyley, “On Books: Murder Down Under“; other reviews of indie books can be found by searching An American Editor).

I usually wait until the summer and winter sales at Smashwords to buy indie books because of the significant discount that many authors give. Sometimes it is a coupon to get the first book in a series free, sometimes it is a coupon for 25%, 50%, or 75% off the usual retail price. Regardless, I usually find a few books to add to my to-be-read pile. In addition to the discount, all of the books let you read a significant portion for free, either by downloading the sample or online. You don’t have to buy and hope.

The Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale has begun and it runs through July 31. Use the filters or just start browsing all of the on-sale books. (NOTE: Books purchased at Smashwords can be downloaded in all popular formats and are DRM free.)

Additional books are generally added throughout the month so it is a good idea to make a couple of trips to the Smashwords sale to see what new books have been added (they appear at the beginning of the lists).

I suggest bookmarking Smashwords and visiting it regularly throughout the year. It is an excellent place to find indie authors. Also, titles that appear at Smashwords also often appear at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online ebook sellers.

If you buy some books at Smashwords, please be sure to let us know what they are. Other An American Editor readers may well be interested in the books.

Smashwords July Summer/Winter Sale 2014

Richard Adin, An American Editor

(Neither Richard Adin nor An American Editor receives any compensation of any type for promoting Smashwords or the July sale. I promote it because I think it is of great value to readers and to indie authors.)

May 18, 2012

Worth Noting: Daisy’s War by Shayne Parkinson

I, my wife, and most people who have read the Promises to Keep quartet of ebooks are big fans of indie author Shayne Parkinson. For those of you unfamiliar with the quartet, I reviewed the books 2 years ago in On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet and again in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept, and have been waiting for the next book in the series to arrive. My wife and I are still recommending these books to anyone who asks for an excellent read.

In the past week or so, we were wondering if Shayne Parkinson had finally released the next volume in the series. We hadn’t heard anything and it hadn’t crossed my mind to check Smashwords, when, ‘lo and behold, I received an e-mail from Shayne advising me that Daisy’s War, the latest book in the series has been published and is now available at Smashwords.

I immediately went to Smashwords and downloaded the fifth book in the series. I began reading it within hours. I expected Daisy’s War to be of the same exceedingly high quality as the first four books in the series (all 5 or 5+ stars) and am not disappointed. I couldn’t put the book down and so finished it within a couple of days.

Daisy’s War picks up where the series left off, the early decades of the 20th century. Here is the description from Smashwords:

In 1914, Daisy lives in the quiet New Zealand valley where her family has farmed for generations. Her world seems a warm and safe one. But the Great War is casting its long shadow over New Zealand. Daisy watches in growing fear as more and more of the men leave to fight in Europe, and the War strikes ever closer to the heart of her family.

The brief description doesn’t do justice to the book. The book is a reflection on World War I and its impact on New Zealand, a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, as seen through the eyes of a child who almost understands the whats and whys of war but can’t quite grasp them. Daisy’s dreams take a back seat to the impact of World War I on her extended family and how the need for soldiers ultimately leads to conscription, beginning with single young men but rapidly moving to include married men with children, including Daisy’s father.

The story seems incomplete. We tangentially are given glimpses into the war’s effect on the adults. Because of how the prior books were written, I think Daisy’s War should have run with both major and minor story lines, the major being the tale we are given and the minor a more in-depth look at the effect on the adults. For example, Daisy’s Uncle Alf returns from the battlefields a changed man. We are briefly given a glimpse into why and we know that the children want to avoid him, but we are not given more insight into the change in family dynamics. Perhaps this broader look at intra- and interfamily dynamics is a tale that will be picked up in the next book.

Regardless, this is the outstanding book that I had been waiting for. The only thing missing from the book is an explanation of the character relationships at the beginning, before the Prologue, that a reader can either review to refresh one’s memory or ignore. It has been 2 years since I last read this series and at first it was difficult to figure out who the characters are and their relationships to each other. The first book in the series begins with Amy’s story and the child she had out of wedlock that she had to give up for adoption. In Daisy’s War, we read, for example, of “Aunt Sarah” and “Granny,” and it took me some time to recall that these are the out-of-wedlock daughter and Amy, respectively. Other relationships also took some time but did come back. For example, who was Grandma (as opposed to Granny)?

This is a gripe I have with many authors who write continuing series. It is not so bad when in every book in a series the characters remain the same, just the circumstances change. But in a series like this where there is a constant generational change and an expansion of the families and a long time between books, it should not be assumed that readers will remember what happened in a book that was released more than 2 years ago or recall who married whom and begat whom who themselves went on to marry and beget. In that interim, I have read thousands of manuscript pages for work and hundreds of books for pleasure; some refreshing is necessary.

In this case, the lack of the information poses another problem: The book doesn’t work well as a standalone book. You need to have read the previous books in the series to understand the importance of what is happening. Although that is good from a series sense, it is bad from the reader sense. A reader who picks up this book first, not having read the previous entries in the series, will not walk away singing the high praises the books deserve. Instead, they will be disappointed because much of the impact of book relies on knowing the relationships.

Regardless, as with the first four books in the series, Daisy’s War is exceptionally well-written. If you have read and enjoyed the first books in the series, then this is a must read for you. The book is reasonably priced at $2.99 and is clearly a 5-star read.

If you haven’t read Shayne Parkinson’s books, begin with Sentence of Marriage, the first in the series, which is free at Smashwords. If you  like historical fiction and/or family sagas, you are likely to find this a captivating series.

July 13, 2011

On Books: Detective Jackson Grows and Grows

One pleasure I get as an editor is the ability to work on subsequent editions of an author’s book and see the author grow book by book. By “grow,” I mean the author’s writing style — communication with the reader — improves. This pleasure is rather limited in my editorial business because of the types of books I edit.

However, that same pleasure occasionally occurs in the fiction I read. Some authors improve subtly, some more dramatically, some maintain an even keel at a high level. Good examples of the latter are Vicki Tyley and Shayne Parkinson; in both cases, the writing has kept an even keel. In Tyley’s case, it is harder to discern changes because her books are not a series that revolves around a continuing group of characters; each book is a fully standalone novel — different characters, different plot twists and turns, different venues. (For a review of Tyley’s books, see On Books: Murder Down Under; for a review of Parkinson’s books, see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet.)

And now I can add L.J. Sellers to this “elite” group of indie authors who deliver a 5-star experience from the get-go, except that, in her books, one can see the improvement in writing style as one reads her Detective Jackson Series in order. The books in the series are, in order:

  • The Sex Club
  • Secrets to Die For
  • Thrilled to Death
  • Passions of the Dead
  • Dying for Justice

The first book introduces us to the Eugene, Oregon, violent crime detective squad, with Wade Jackson as the lead character. Jackson is the choice for lead detective when the case seems particularly difficult to solve. He has the solution knack! Jackson, along with the other members of the squad, are the vehicles through which we can watch Sellers’ writing improve with each book. As Jackson grows, so grows Sellers’ communication with her readers.

Sellers humanizes her characters by giving them the attributes of everyday, ordinary people. No superheros, no supercops, no powers of deduction and reasoning that evade otherwise mere mortals and separate mortal from demigod. Jackson, for example, is in the process of divorcing an alcoholic wife and suffering from an illness that he thinks is just too much acid from too many cups of coffee, while trying to protect his teenage daughter from her mother’s alcohol addiction as well as from the usual travails of being a teenager. Lara Evans is the only female on the squad and she is having trouble finding the right soul mate, but has her eye on Jackson. Sophie Speranza is a reporter whose personal life swings between ups and downs but who is tenacious in striving not only for the story but to help Jackson. Lammers is the head honcho, who has promotion ambitions and the presence of a bull, but yet moments of kindness and understanding, as well as insight that comes from experience in a leadership role. And so it goes with each of the core crew of the series.

Sellers tries to balance reader involvement and reader standoffishness, something I discussed in Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement? and On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? (Sellers’ books fit the hybrid category.) Her success in finding that balance improves with each book in the series.

Let’s get something out of the way now: Even though each book is an improvement over the previous book in terms of writing and drawing the reader into the community, each book in the Detective Jackson Series is a 5-star book. (For more on my rating system, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).) Also worth noting is that the novels remind me of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct Series. If you like Ed McBain, you will like these books. Although you can read the books in any order, they really do build one on the other and so I suggest reading them in order.

The biggest complaint I have about L.J. Sellers’ Detective Jackson Series is that the author has not made the books available on Smashwords, only at the link provided and at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Finding good indie author books to read is difficult enough; finding ones that are 5-star reads is wearying. But when we find them, we need to support those authors by buying their books because 5-star indie authors are a rare treasure in the ebook age of self-publishing. Sellers’ Detective Jackson Series joins that exalted crowd — the mysteries are different, the plot twists are unusual, the characters are believable, the community semifictional in the sense that her Eugene, Oregon, could as easily be my or your hometown. Sellers has made it easy for the reader to become another partner in the violent-felony squad that Jackson leads. Jackson’s humanness is refreshing and his solving of a crime doesn’t rest on some obscure Holmesian fact — rather, how he solves the cases seems to be how real police solve real cases.

I think that Sellers intends to rise above the ordinary mystery by making her characters our next-door neighbors. Perhaps a bit more conservative than some of us, but not radical in any way; simply a part of our neighborhood. In this endeavor, she succeeds, increasingly so with each book in the series. The Detective Jackson Series joins my hall of fame for 2011; I eagerly await the next book in the series. Now, if she would only make her books more easily accessible to all readers. The lack of easy universal availability is an unnecessary drag on her books.

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?

March 30, 2011

On Books: Murder Down Under

My reading habits seem to me to be odd. Why odd? Because I read genres in spurts. The spurts may be months or years, but I haven’t read a genre continuously throughout my reading life.

What I mean is this: Many years ago, the only fiction I read were mysteries written by authors like Ed McBain, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, Martha Grimes, P.D. James, Mickey Spillane, and Arthur Conan Doyle. I read those books for years, then one day I stopped and moved to another genre and didn’t pick up another mystery — that is, until recently.

Several months ago I bought the ebook of Vicki Tyley’s Thin Blood at Smashwords. The synopsis looked interesting, and several people on another forum remarked positively on the ebook. I thought I couldn’t go wrong at the price. Even if I didn’t like the book, it wasn’t much of an investment.

Thin Blood, which is the story of a reporter’s investigation of a decade-old murder, reignited my interest in the mystery genre. Thin Blood is a compelling story with a twist, and Tyley keeps the reader’s interest with her articulate prose. The writing style reminded me very much of the Ed McBain/Dashiell Hammett style — sentences that have been stripped down to the barebones.

After reading Thin Blood, I had to read the other mysteries written by Tyley, Sleight Malice and Brittle Shadows. In Sleight Malice, the lead character is devastated by what she thinks is the death in a house fire of her best friend. Then she learns that the body found in the fire is male, not female, and she teams up with a private investigator to discover the truth.

In Brittle Shadows, the body of our heroine’s sister’s fiance is found hanging in his closet, presumably death by accident. Two months later, the heroine’s sister commits suicide, an act that our heroine cannot accept, especially when she learns that at the time of her death, the sister was 6 weeks pregnant.

Each of the three books is different, yet all are united by a single characteristic: strong, female leads. Tyley’s characterizations allow the reader to grasp the mental framework of the lead females. The writing is taut, direct, and without waste. Throughout the three books, there were only a couple minor grammar errors, at least from an American perspective. I admit that I am not familiar with Australian style.

What I find particularly interesting is that even with the very high quality of the writing, Vicki Tyley, as is the case with the exceptionally talented New Zealand writer, Shayne Parkinson (see On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet), remains unsigned by the major traditional publishing houses. Makes me wonder if there is a Down Under bias.

There is no question in my mind that Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a writer whose work is a can’t miss read. The writing is outstanding, the stories creative. The one failing is that her female leads are frenetic. Interestingly, although the female leads are as strong a character as any of the males in the story, and often even stronger, they do not comport themselves as well as their male counterparts in stress situations, leaving the impression that they are weaker than their male counterparts. It is almost as if Tyley is suggesting that no matter how strong a woman is, she is still emotionally ruled whereas men are both strong and emotionless, or at least better capable of contolling their emotions and thus more objective under stress.

The significant difference between the Parkinson books and the Tyley books is how the lead female characters — Amy Leith, in the Parkinson books, and Jemma Dalton (Brittle Shadows), Desley James (Sleight Malice), and Jacinta Deller (Thin Blood) — emotionally involve the reader in their story and plight: In the case of Amy Leith, I was greatly engaged, whereas the Tyley characters didn’t rise to that level of reader involvement. My emotional involvement was minimal at best.

That, however, is no reason to not buy, read, and enjoy these books and to anxiously await the next Tyley Down Under murder mystery. On a 5-star rating scale, I would rate each of Tyley’s 3 books as 5 stars. In comparison, for those of you who took my advice and read Parkinson’s Promises to Keep quartet, the quartet’s rating would be 5 stars plus a smidgen more, the difference being the emotional involvement of the reader with the characters.

As I wrote earlier, Vicki Tyley is the Australian P.D. James — a can’t miss read. Her mysteries definitely are in the same class as McBain, Grimes, and James, and like Grimes and James, have that little bit of reserve that distinguishes the English-style mystery from the American-style mystery. And at $2.99 an ebook, the value is greater than that of the better-known but not more capable English-style mystery writers. I highly recommend Tyley’s three ebooks to mystery fans.

September 10, 2010

The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 9, 2010

On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept

Over the past few months, you have read my praise for the Promises to Keep quartet by Shayne Parkinson several times, beginning with the original review (On Books: The Promises to Keep Quartet) and then as an example of quality ebooks in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Once again, I am compelled to discuss these books.

But first, because I do not want you to think I am shilling these books, let me issue my denials upfront: I do not know the author; I have never met the author. I have exchanged a couple of e-mails with her through MobileRead, an ebook discussion forum, which she initiated to ask me to perhaps edit a comment slightly I had made about her books on the forum because she thought perhaps I was giving away a surprise to those who had not yet read the quartet (in the end, it was agreed to leave the comments as they were because the books aren’t mysteries). I receive no remuneration of any kind in exchange for these mentions. Have I covered all the bases?

Okay, now to why I feel it important to reiterate praise for these books.

My wife and I are avid readers. Every time we go to a bookstore, she walks out with as many books, if not more, than I do. I suspect her to-be-read pile challenges mine if we ignore ebooks. Why ignore ebooks? Because my wife doesn’t own an ebook reader and doesn’t buy ebooks. She has consistently refused to share my reader, saying that she bought it for me and can see how much I enjoy it (all of which is true).

Our taste in reading material differs greatly. Although we discuss books we have read and recommend some of them to each other, we both recognize that it is the rare book that we would both enjoy and with our to-be-read piles growing weekly, the likelihood of one of us picking up, reading, and enjoying a book recommended by the other is slim. She likes what I call do-good nonfiction, e.g., the story of a school built in a poor remote area, and Maeve Binchey-type fiction. I prefer nonfiction books about hard subjects, e.g., wars, both ancient and modern, and my fiction rarely ventures from the scifi/fantasy genres. Even so, we do discuss books and what we have read.

Nevertheless, after I finished reading the Promises to Keep quartet, I insisted that Carolyn borrow my Sony Reader and try these books. After a bit of coaxing, she did and now things are different at our table — all because of the Promises to Keep quartet. First change is that I haven’t had access to my Sony Reader for nearly a month. Second change is that where we tend to read our magazines at the lunch table, she now reads one of the quartet books.

The third change is probably the most telling change: Carolyn is an excellent painter (visit her website to see what I mean) whose paintings are in collections worldwide. So she often spends her evenings (along with her days) in her studio working on the newest painting. Her habit has been — and this has been true for the many years we have been together — to watch an hour or so of TV at the end of the day as her method of unwinding before bed. But not long after she started the Promises to Keep quartet, her habit changed: now the TV is silent and she unwinds by continuing her reading of Parkinson’s quartet.

The fourth change, and perhaps equally significant, is that we now have regular discussions about the books in the quartet and about the characters. Neither of us had previously felt a desire to discuss more than once or twice a particular book, and certainly not to engage in speculation about fictional characters.

The final change is that Carolyn is actively recommending these books to friends. In the past she would mention a good book to a friend, but that would be the extent of it. With the Promises to Keep quartet, she is repeatedly recommending the books and providing links for her friends.

All right, you’ve got the picture about how much both of us like these ebooks, how outstanding we think they are. Well, just to reinforce the notion, let me repeat some words Carolyn has used to describe the books: “outstanding characterization,” “fascinating and compelling story,” “can’t stop reading” (how true this is — she struggles to stop reading when the clock chimes 1:30 a.m.), “can’t wait to find out what happens,” “mesmerizing,” “compelling.”

Why is this important, this exuberance for these ebooks? Because it proves that self-published, independent authors can produce high-quality literature, that not all self-published authors are simply trainwrecks in disguise. But it takes care and effort, both of which are evident in this quartet. (I asked Carolyn how many errors she has noticed in the books she has read so far. She answered 2 or 3 in total over the first 3 books, none of which were major or distracting.)

My questions are these: If Shayne Parkinson can maintain such quality over 4 books, why can’t most authors maintain it over 1 book? What is Parkinson’s secret? Isn’t the lack of quality evidenced in many self-published ebooks what causes self-publishing to have such a poor reputation? Why are the problems outlined in articles such as I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors, Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers, On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! unresolved?

In Promises to Keep, the promises are kept! Here are exceptional books that are well edited, well written, and well produced. So, again, I encourage you to give the Promises to Keep quartet a try. By reading and buying books of this quality, and by mentioning them repeatedly when we like them, we encourage other authors to reach for the stars, too. (And for those of you who love fantasy, I recommend Celina Summers’ The Asphodel Cycle, also a quartet, reviewed in L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast and mentioned in Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews. Summers’ quartet is of similar quality as Parkinson’s quartet and also an excellent read.)

June 22, 2010

Some Worthwhile Ideas for eBook Devices

I came across this video by Kevin Rose, a founder of Digg, with some suggestions for future enhancements for ebook reading devices. I think his suggestions are excellent.

The question now is whether they can be implemented at what seems to be the new price levels for e-ink readers. Barnes & Noble has introduced a new $149 wi-fi version of its nook and has lowered the price on its 3G nook to $199. Amazon has lowered its price for the K2 Kindle to $189 and Sony has lowered the pricing on its line of readers: Pocket Edition (PRS-300) $169.99, Touch Edition (PRS-600) $199.99, and the Daily Edition (PRS-900) $349.99 (I am certain I have seen this priced at $299.99). Also available is the Kobo Reader at $149.

The pricing is excellent for these devices, especially compared to what my Sony PRS-505 cost 2.5 years ago ($299). If you are thinking about buying a reader, now may be the time to do so. I suspect that the new models that will appear beginning late August will all be higher priced.

I am waiting for the new models because what I want is an 8- or 9-inch (possibly a 9.7-inch) screen so I can convert my newspaper and magazine subscriptions to electronic versions and yet read them comfortably. If all I was interested in was reading books on my reader, then I would stick with my Sony 505, which has been and continues to be excellent.

As you may recall, I highly recommended the Promises to Keep Quartet by Shayne Parkinson in an earlier article. My wife wanted to read the quartet but wouldn’t use my Sony 505, saying that she didn’t want to take it away from me because she knows I enjoy reading on it so much. Needless to say, I countered that it wouldn’t be a problem, especially as I have such a huge to-be-read pile of hardcover books (and more on order), but she wouldn’t budge.

So I borrowed my son’s Sony 505 and loaded the books onto that device for her. Now I have two things to report: (1) Like me, she loves the Promises to Keep books. She is spending more time in the evenings reading these books than she usually spends reading. So for those of you who haven’t yet tried the books, here is another vote for them.

(2) My wife loves reading on the Sony 505. She was hesitant at first, but now has decided that this is an excellent way to read and actually prefers it, like I do, to reading the print versions. She has noted how much lighter the device is than many of the pbooks she reads; how she doesn’t lose her place should she fall asleep while reading (after about an hour of no activity the 505 automatically shuts off; when you turn it back on, it opens to where you were when it shut down);, how she was able to adjust the font size for easier reading; how she can easily carry multiple books (on my reader, for example, I have 134 books) with her wherever she goes, especially when she has to wait such as when getting the car serviced; and how she can easily sit outside in the sunshine and still read. Consequently, she has laid claim to my Sony 505 when I buy a new reader and if I don’t buy a new reader for me, I’ll need to buy one for her!

June 16, 2010

Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (I): Reader Reviews

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

For the “big” books — the newest James Patterson or Elizabeth Peters or David Weber — deciding whether to buy the book isn’t a problem. Either I am already familiar with the author or I have read a review in a trusted place, such as the New York Times Book Review. In addition, even if I haven’t read a review, I am made aware of the book by publisher ads, comments from other readers, or displays in and/or frequent e-mails from booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Sony.

The books that are hard to find are the books like those written by Shayne Parkinson, Richard Tuttle, and Celina Summers, independent authors whose books are well written, well crafted, and compelling. These are the needles that need finding.

As currently setup, it is exceedingly difficult to find these needles. If you go to Smashwords, a leading purveyor of ebooks by independent writers, you quickly become overwhelmed. Fictionwise is no better, nor are the ebookstores of the “big boys”, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Sony. There really isn’t a good way today to separate the wheat from the chaff except by recommendations from friends.

But I think there is a better way, one that could be implemented with a bit of investment, some good programming, and cooperation between authors and sellers.

The first thing we need to remember is that most authors would like to make some money from their books; maybe not a lot of money, but at least some money to pay them back for all the time and effort they put into creating their books. I don’t know many authors (actually none) who given the choice of selling their books at say $2.99 or giving them away for free who wouldn’t choose the former if they could sell enough copies. The separation line, the line drawn in the sand, is, however, no one reading the book versus many people reading the book. Many independent authors would prefer to give away their book and have 1,000 people read it than sell it for $2.99 and have only 5 people read it.

Consequently, authors want their needle found and often the best way to accomplish this is via reviews — the greater the number of 5-star reviews, the higher the likelihood people will buy the book and read it. Yet under the current system, reviews are problematic.

First, there are readers like me who very rarely will write a review. Of the hundreds of ebook novels I have read in the past 2 years by independent authors, I have written about 2 independent authors on An American Editor and have written 1 review (well, actually 1 review for each of the 4 books I read by the same author but the reviews were links to the review I wrote on An American Editor) at a bookseller site. (I’m not counting the perfunctory reviews at Fictionwise. I think choosing 1 of 4 canned choices and calling it a review is misleading at minimum, and of little ultimate value to subsequent readers.)

Second, there are those who “review” a book who never bought the book, never read the book, and are really misusing the review process to protest something else (remember the 1-star Amazon reviews to protest pricing?).

Third, there are those who use the one-word review  to review a book. Reviews that read “Great!”, “I loved it!”, “Poor”, “Recommended to my mother” aren’t all that helpful. What does the potential buyer learn about the book?

Of course there are other “types” or reviewers not described here. Although an author would rather have a one-word positive review than no review at all, I’m not convinced that such reviews help sell the book to other readers; I know that as soon as I see those kinds of reviews, I just move on.

What I would like to see happen is this: (1) Buyers of a book should be given an incentive to write a review; perhaps a nominal store credit that is paid for equally by the author and the bookseller. After all, it is in both their interests that reviews occur and that additional books are sold. (2) Only purchasers of the book should be permitted to review the book. (3) Before a review can be posted the reviewer should have to answer a question about the book, a question that can be answered only if one has actually read the book — a kind of captcha but specific to the title. This would act as verification for potential buyers that the reviews are legitimate.

What about the person who buys the book, reads the first 2 chapters, and then realizes that the book is so poorly written that it deserves a negative review and not to be read, at least by this reader? Perhaps the way to handle this is to identify the review as being by someone who did not finish the book and keep a separate statistic for this type of response. (4) With that thought in mind, why not have two reported statistics: a rating based on those who read the complete book and posted a review, for example, “48 of 50 reviewers read the book and the average rating of those 48 reviewers is 4.5 stars,” and a separate rating indicating that, for example, “2 of 50 reviewers did not complete reading the book and the average rating of those 2 reviewers is 1 star.”

(5) Require reviewers to provide multiple ratings, not just a single rating. For example, reviewers could rate plot, characterization, grammar and spelling, whether they would look specifically for this author’s other books, and similar things, as well as an overall rating. And when providing a rating for, say, grammar and spelling, have the reviewer expound (e.g., “although the book was riddled with misspellings, I still found the story compelling”).

With reviews like these, potential readers would have a better  chance of finding that needle in a haystack of needles. More importantly, they would be more inclined consider the reviews credible. With an incentive to provide a review (store credit), the likelihood of more readers writing meaningful reviews increases. At least it is something to think about.

May 21, 2010

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