An American Editor

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 4, 2012

eBooks: Is Agency Pricing Good or Bad?

Recently, there has been a lot of focus on the “conspiracy” between 5 major publishers and Apple regarding agency pricing and whether these 6 entities have violated antitrust law. The focus is not on whether agency pricing is good or bad, but whether the parties colluded. That question I’ll leave for the US Department of Justice.

I’m more interested in whether agency pricing has been good for me as a consumer. Various forums have been discussing this and Mark Coker, president of Smashwords, has written an excellent piece defending agency pricing (see Does Agency Pricing Lead to Higher Book Prices?) Mark Coker makes several salient points, but they are points from the author and distributor perspective, not the consumer perspective.

(Mark Coker does make, however, one interesting observation: Before agency pricing, there was the wholesale pricing model. A publisher would set a book’s list price at say $30 and wholesale to booksellers for $15. The booksellers were free to sell the book for any price they wanted, be it $5 or $10 or $25 or $30. The reality was, however, that no bookseller could sell all books at less than cost and survive, not even Amazon. At some point, a bookseller has to turn a profit or at least cover costs. Consequently, the wholesale price was, in effect, an agency price; that is, a minimum price at which a book could be sold without putting the bookseller out of business. In other words, there really isn’t much difference in effect between the wholesale scheme and the agency scheme as far as consumers are concerned. For retailers, the agency scheme ensures that the retailer makes a profit on every ebook sold.)

But what about from the consumer perspective, and even from the indie author perspective?

In the days before ebooks (i.e., my participation in the ebook marketplace), I spent, on average, $5,000 a year on pbooks, mainly hardcover. I am now into my fifth year of ebooking and each of those years has seen a steady decline in the amount of money I am spending on books overall. Combined, my pbook and ebook spending doesn’t exceed $2,000 in a year, and is often quite a bit less.

One reason, if not the major reason, for this is agency pricing. The traditional publishers, namely the Big 6 (Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins), are overpricing their ebooks via the agency pricing. Consequently, I am simply not buying agency ebooks published by the Big 6. The newest James Patterson novel simply isn’t worth $12.99 or higher to me. They are good reads, but let’s face it — classic literature that I would read again and again and savor each phrase they aren’t. They are formulaistic books that provide entertainment but do not evoke a lasting passion.

Consequently, I consider agency pricing to be a positive for the consumer. It helps dissuade ebookers from spending excessive amounts of money on books that in an open marketplace, and without publishers setting a retail price that bears no correlation to the true value of the book, would not command such high pricing in perpetuity. It might command it for weeks or months, but not years.

Agency pricing has had another benefit for the consumer. It has made the rise of the indie ebook distributor, like Smashwords, possible along with the rise of the indie ebook author. It is not that these entities didn’t exist before; they did in the form of vanity presses for the pbook crowd. Rather, they have become legitimized, something the vanity presses never were able to accomplish.

Because the Big 6 agency pricing is so high, readers like me began to explore alternatives. And now I buy primarily indie authored ebooks at places like Smashwords. The competition among indie authors to get noticed and read has been such that ebooks are often priced at $2.99 and less, all the way down to free. Even here, however, agency pricing is beneficial because I can buy those books at Smashwords or Barnes & Noble or Books on Board or any number of outlets and not worry about price — it will be the same at every store.

I’ll grant that if my only interest in reading is today’s popular books by big name authors, what we used to call the New York Times Bestsellers but which name is no longer appropriate, agency pricing is a problem. After all, Amazon demonstrated that it was willing to sell those ebooks at a loss in order to gain market share. (Which raises another interesting observation: When Amazon was able to sell the bestsellers as $9.99 or less ebooks, it cornered nearly 90% of the ebook market. With the advent of a more level playing field, introduced by agency pricing, its market share has dropped to about 60%.) Amazon had the fortune to be able to sell at a loss because other product lines were making a profit and could support the ebook losses; most ebook sellers did not have that option if they wanted to remain in business.

Agency pricing doesn’t ensure the lowest price; the Big 6 demonstrate that daily. But from my perspective as a consumer, the advent of agency pricing has made ebook selling more competitive. Not because the ebooksellers are being price competitive but because the indie authors are being price competitive. Agency pricing has also ensured that there won’t be one supplier of ebooks, which is also important to me as a consumer.

In balancing the scale of good or bad, I think agency pricing is good for me as a consumer. It has saved me scads of money by limiting the number of expensive ebooks that I buy to a handful. It saves me money because I no longer spend as much on pbooks; I have too many ebooks to read in my to-be-read pile, so I buy fewer pbooks. It has broadened my reading. Before agency pricing I did as many readers and bought reasonably priced ebooks by name authors. Since agency pricing, I browse the indie author ebook offerings and buy indie ebooks at very reasonable prices.

One last observation: Even if the Department of Justice pursues the collusion matter, there appears to be nothing inherently wrong with agency pricing. I expect that at worst the 6 parties being investigated will pay large fines but I think agency pricing is here to stay.

What do you think? Is agency pricing good or bad for the consumer?

February 6, 2012

Is There Hope for Barnes & Noble Redux

Last week I offered the suggestion that Barnes & Noble (B&N) consider getting out of the brick-and-mortar end of the business and instead franchise its name and cut deals with indie bookstores to promote its Nooks and ebooks. The reception was varied, with some commenters thinking this was a great idea and others thinking it was a lousy idea, and yet a third group thinking it was — at least — an idea. Yet the overall tenor running through all the comments was that B&N will be steamrolled by the Amazon juggernaut no matter what it does.

That gave me pause and made me think some more about B&N and its relationship with its customers.

My relationship with B&N goes back a great many years. Even when I worked for Borders, I shopped at B&N. I have been a member of the B&N club for many years and I even have a B&N Mastercard. Until this past year, my wife and I generally visited the local B&N store at least twice a month and I spent thousands of dollars a year at the local B&N as well as at B&N online.

Yet as I sit at my desk and think about my long-term relationship with B&N, I realize that the flame has gone out. The more I think about it, the more I realize that B&N began spritzing the flame when it released the Nook; changed the spritzing to a more forceful watering when it firmly adopted its own DRM and refused to give members any member advantage over nonmembers when it came to either the Nook or ebooks; and has finally doused the flame with its newest changes to its membership plan. Try as I might, and although I will continue to buy from B&N rather than Amazon so as to do my part to keep competition alive, the reality is that B&N has consistently spurned me, and the changes in my book buying (and the amount I spend at B&N) reflect that spurning.

As you may recall, I was unhappy when B&N came out with the Nook (the original one I thought was poorly designed; the new Touch is very nice but not nice enough to make me replace either my working 1-year-old Sony 950 or my working 4-year-old Sony 505 with it) and wouldn’t give me my 10% member’s discount — even though I was prepared at the time to buy two Nooks at $249 each! B&N’s rationale was that at $249 it was already losing money on the device; my rationale was that as a relatively big book buyer ((I spent thousands of dollars a year at B&N on books, very few of which were the heavily discounted “bestsellers”), B&N should be willing to give me a small incentive to remain a B&N book buyer — especially when its primary competition was selling for less. It wasn’t the money so much — afterall, I spent more on my Sonys than I would have on the Nooks — as much as I wanted to feel that this was a partnership.

If B&N was losing money at $249 it must be shooting itself in the head with a machine gun every time it sells a Nook for $99. More importantly, because it chose to save $25 — a shortsightedness that Jeff Bezos would not tolerate at Amazon — it lost me as an ebook customer. True, if you look at my Nook library you’ll find I have purchased more than 125 ebooks from B&N, but if you look at the prices paid, with the exception of a very few, the purchase prices were “free.” And to add a nail to the coffin, nearly all those that I did pay for, I paid for with B&N’s own money — the gift cards I earned from using the B&N Mastercard.

More importantly for B&N is that in the last year my purchases at the local B&N have been few. We went from visiting the store (and buying at each visit) at least twice a month to visiting once every three or four months and sometimes not buying at all. (For the first time in six months I bought a book at the local B&N last week.) For the most part, my wife and I have become ebookers and most of the ebooks we read are purchased from Smashwords or Sony, not B&N.

I recently discussed with my wife making more visits to the local B&N. It would be easy to do as the B&N is in the same mall as our grocery store. But then came the news that the terms of the membership were changing. The discount remains unusable for ebooks but instead of a 20% discount in the store on all adult hardcovers and 40% on bestsellers, the discount is changing to 10% and 40%. As we rarely buy the “bestsellers,” B&N is simply cutting our discount. Not much of an incentive to buy at the local B&N. (Interestingly, as a general rule the books available at B&N online are much more steeply discounted than at the local store even with the membership card — and it has been quite a while since the membership did anything but give you free shipping online.)

The point of all this is to say that maybe B&N is on a suicide path and without hope for long-term survival. It is losing sight of the fact that 75%+ of the book market remains pbooks. eBooks are important, and the area of greatest growth, but ebooks are still in the childhood stage. Although they cannot be neglected, they cannot be focused on to the exclusion of the dominant portion of the market. To remain viable, B&N has to dually focus on both ebooks and pbooks. Sadly, it is becoming dangerously myopic when it comes to pbooks.

It has taken no steps to encourage those core readers, the ones who read several books a month and who are B&N members, to be active buyers of its ebooks or pbooks. Whatever it has done, it has done with the broad market in mind. Many months ago I argued that this was a mistake, that B&N really needed to cultivate that core group of book buyers who could be the proselytizers for its future. I said months ago when the Nook was introduced that B&N needed to reward its members for being members and not treat members like everyone else or B&N would ultimately be sorry.

I’m sorry to say, but perhaps there is no real hope for B&N. Whoever does their strategic thinking is spending too little time thinking and too much time doing harmful things to B&N’s future. I looked at a Nook Touch last week. The free-Touch-with-a-New-York-Times-subscription offer tempted me. But I can get the New York Times for the same price on my Sony 950 so that wasn’t much of an incentive. In the end, I was peeved over the change in membership terms and simply decided to pass on the offer. B&N really doesn’t want me; B&N has successfully extinguished the last of the embers.

The sad thing is that putting out my fire, and the fire of other B&N members, B&N may be also be putting closed on its door.

November 28, 2011

The Indie Bookstore in the Amazon Age

All the news that is fit to print about indie bookstores can generally be summarized this way: they are closing faster than a shark feeding frenzy. Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but the demise of the indie bookstore is on everyone’s lips.

The questions are why are they dying out and what can be done to halt their death march? As to why, I don’t think we need spend much time on the question. Fewer Americans want to either pay more for local availability or want to patronize a local bookstore. What they are becoming accustomed to is huge selection and lower pricing without leaving home — the online bookseller. Another problem for indies is the trend toward ebooks. Their online competitors have them and they do not, or if they do have them, they are not as cheaply priced as their online competitors. It is just a matter of economics.

I grant, however, that the loss of indie bookstores is another nail in the coffin of Americana. It is pretty difficult to call Amazon on the telephone and discuss the merits/demerits of a book selection with a knowledgeable bookseller. But Amazon is doing to the indie bookstores what Walmart did to mom-and-pop Main Street, and while many of us lament the demise of mom-and-pop Main Street, we are also the first to shop online and the last to buy on Main Street.

Yet indie bookstores can and should fight back. Although books are entertainment — few people would call a Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh book an educational bromide — they are also the source of knowledge and we continue to need help in picking through the detritus for the gem.

I have been thinking about what indie bookstores can do to fight back. I’m not sure they can ever compete on price unless book publishers, especially the Agency 6, are willing to give special help, but there are things that they can do.

First, if your local pizzeria can offer free delivery, why can’t your local indie store — or if there is more than one local indie store, why can’t they band together to offer free local delivery? Amazon’s delivery is quick but indie delivery could be quicker, and we all know how unwilling we are to wait. This seems a minor customer service that could quickly and inexpensively be implemented.

Second, consider making the local populace a partner in the store. If the store is not already a corporation, make it one. Then create a nonvoting class of stock, a preferred stock, that entitle the owner to share in dividends on a preferential basis. Give 1 share of stock for every $250 in purchases (the dollar amount could be higher or lower). Give the local book-buying public a direct stake in your success. Think about parents who would see this as a good way to introduce their children to capitalism and stock ownership.

Third, create a special members-only club. Amazon tries to do this with its Prime and Barnes & Noble with its membership, and even some indies have their clubs — but none of them are really special. What is so special about Amazon’s Prime? Nothing. Make this club special. Club members with young children can use the premises for birthday party with the bookstore staff doing the work; major holidays have special get-togethers; have a biweekly restaurant-of-the-month get-together for adult members where they come to the store and for a steep discount are cooked a special meal by a local restaurant and get to learn how to make the dishes as well as eat them; have audience participation mystery plays bimonthly. The ideas are almost endless. The point is, make the membership more than a discount membership; make it something to look forward to and you can even theme the parties around certain books.

Fourth, come to an arrangement with other local indies whereby if someone is looking for a particular book and you do not have it in stock but your competitor does, your competitor will give you the book so you can make the sale subject to a small fee and your ordering a replacement. This will expand your inventory.

Fifth, make it a point for you and your staff to comb places like Smashwords for indie authors who are self-publishing. When you find a good one, contact the author and see if you can’t cut a deal with the author to write a book that will only be available to indie bookstores, that you can use to draw people in. This is more difficult to do than the other ideas but if you can create a catalog of indie books that are available only through indie stores, you are at least fighting back against Amazon exclusivity.

Sixth, as part of finding indie authors, you need to figure out a way to offer ebooks and print-on-demand pbooks for those who only buy one or the other format. The Espresso machine is expensive, but why not join with several other indies to buy one that you can share? Or why not talk to a local print shop and see if you can work something out with them.

Seventh, create an Indie Book Mall where several indie bookstores can share the space. This type of arrangement is often done by antiques and collectibles dealers and I see no reason why it couldn’t be done by indie bookstores. It would create a shopping “destination,” which seems to be something consumers like. Some of the advantages to doing this include the ability to share fixed expenses (e.g., rent, heat, electric) and it would allow each indie to have an area of concentration rather than be required to have such a general focus that each is a full replica of any other. It would also facilitate some of the earler suggestions. Additionally, this is the kind of project that would fit right in with Main Street renewal projects and could enable a group purchase of the real estate or low rent from cities trying to draw busiensses and people back to the Main Street. Something like this could also be done in conjunction with a struggling local library system, something I proposed nearly 2 years ago in A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age.

I’m sure that others can add to this list, but it is clear to me that indie bookstores can fight back. Imagination and effort are the keys. The Internet Age has isolated more of us; we tend to do less socialization because we are working by ourselves. The indie bookstore could become our new socialization venue with some effort.

At least it is something to think about.

November 23, 2011

On Books: The Shine of the Internet in the World of eBooks

As all of An American Editor book reviews (which are listed at the end of this article) imply, the Internet has opened reading vistas for me that otherwise would never have happened. I find that as a result of the Internet and places like Smashwords, I am being exposed to authors and stories that would not otherwise have been available to me. This has been the blessing of the Internet for readers, especially with the advent of ebooks.

The dark side remains the lack of gatekeeping and how finding worthwhile books to read is increasingly difficult. The easier it is for “authors” to find an outlet for their work, the harder it is for readers to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, although this problem has been discussed several times over the course of the past two years, no real solution has been forthcoming. I doubt there really is a single, good solution to the gatekeeping problem, except, perhaps, to not pay more than 99¢ for any ebook from an unknown author.

Even at that price point, I find myself waffling about whether to buy or not. That’s because my to-be-read pile is already several hundred books, nearly all of which I obtained free, and it keeps growing with free ebooks. I am unlikely to live long enough to celebrate the demise of my TBR pile even should I stop adding to it now.

Regardless, the rise of the Internet and the (relatively) recent rise of ebooks has worked wonders for multiculturalism. Exposure to literature from other continents and countries has broadened my perspective significantly. Previously, my exposure was to North American and West European literature. The geographical limitations imposed by contract between publisher and author limited opportunities to expand.

That geographical limitation combined with publisher gatekeeping, which had at least one eye, and perhaps more than one eye, focused on the bottom line, meant that exposure to other cultures was limited. (Of course, it doesn’t help that I am monolingual, which imposes its own fence.) As each day passes, the geographical and gatekeeping limitations fade a little more and increasingly seem to be only relevant to ebooks published by the big six publishers.

For all of this, the Internet should take a bow. The Internet shines at making what was previously unavailable available, and I, for one, am trying to take advantage of that ready availability. Alas, as noted earlier, that Internet shine does have a darkening tendency as well.

The ease of access has caused the lack of effective gatekeeping to cast its net much wider than just the Internet. Increasingly, traditional publishers seem to be publishing whatever they can get their hands on and in whatever condition they grabbed the book. The dark side of the Internet is the lowering of quality acceptance/expectations and the increasing demand for lower prices. This is not to say that as price increases, quality increases; there is definitely no upward correlation between the two as the Agency 6 prove on a regular basis. However, there is a correlation between lower price and lower quality — absent sufficient revenue, essential production services, such as editing, are bypassed. (Yes, I, too, can point to examples of outstanding quality ebooks that are free; yet being able to do so doesn’t negate the validity of the statement when discussing the broader ebook market.)

The lesson is that we need to work harder on figuring out a way to correlate price and quality and find that sweet spot that satisfies both. I expect that within the next few years we will come close to resolving the matter even though I currently have no idea as to what is a practical solution.

A large number of ebookers believe that publisher gatekeeping can readily be replaced by crowd gatekeeping. I wish this were true but the evidence so far, at least to my eye, indicates that too many of the crowd gatekeepers base their gatekeeping on factors other than quality of writing and quality of story. We still see all-too-many reviews in which price or geographical restrictions or some other unrelated-to-writing-quality criterion plays a role in deciding whether an ebook is a 2-star or a 5-star ebook.

In addition, I have found it difficult to find reviewers whose reviews I can consistently trust. (Part of the problem is that too many reviews are written by unidentifiable reviewers. Who is TommyGumChewer and why should I value his/her opinion? See Book Reviews & Reviewers: Deciding Which Reviews to Trust for an earlier discussion.) Many ebookers have developed their own criteria for evaluating reviews (e.g., dismissal of all 1-star reviews), which may work well for them, but leaves me unsatisfied. I have grown too accustomed to reviews like those in The New York Review of Books to find many of the reviews on the Internet helpful.

In the end, what I do is take advantage of what the Internet does best — make information available to me — and I “buy” ebooks whose descriptions interest me. I read (or try to read) those ebooks and act as my own gatekeeper, as inefficient a process as it is in this era of self-publishing. And, thus, what I “buy” is largely free, because with all the ebooks available, it would be very easy to spend a small fortune to find only a few excellent ebooks and authors.

How do you gatekeep?

(For those who are interested, the following are reviews I have written for An American Editor in order of newest to oldest:

I believe that covers all of the reviews on An American Editor. Happy book hunting!)

October 12, 2011

The Book of Adam: Stimulating Thought Via a Novel

As I have mentioned numerous times, I have a huge to-be-read pile of books — both ebooks and pbooks (at last count, I have more than 600 ebooks waiting patiently in my TBR pile). I have decided that I need to tackle this ever-growing pile and so I determined to sort my ebooks by date acquired and simply start reading beginning from the oldest.

As a consequence of that decision, over the past weekend, I read The Book of Adam: Autobiography of the First Human Clone by Robert Hopper. What I found particularly unique about this ebook is that it, unlike nearly all other fiction I read, actually stimulated my thinking about our world, our future, and the moral, ethical, and philosophical implications that remain to be resolved as we get closer to the ability to clone humans.

My general experience with fiction is that it is either entertaining or not entertaining. I don’t reach that point unless the book is well-written; a badly written book is simply not worth reading because any entertainment value it might have is lost and buried by the poor writing. But the bottom line remains that a well-written fiction book is largely just entertainment that may be worth commenting on but is not a provoker of deep thought; provocation of deep thinking usually falls within the realm of nonfiction.

The Book of Adam is different. First, it is particularly well-written; Adam is a 5-star book. It captured me within a few pages. Second, The Book of Adam is about a topic that is not often discussed in the United States: human cloning. Years ago we had a national discussion regarding cloning and it was resolved that human cloning should be and was prohibited. The Book of Adam ignores that early discussion.

As written, The Book of Adam touches some hot buttons that religion still has to face, not least of which is what would the effect of human cloning be on the religious stories currently being told? By granting a form of immortality, does it destroy the belief in resurrection?

The Book of Adam raises issues that need a philosophical reckoning. Consider this: If human cloning permits a person to essentially be immortal through constant rebirths, does the concept of murder as an immoral and illegal act disappear? What effect would human cloning have on a fundamental pillar of civilization and socialization: Thou shalt not kill/murder?

Human cloning, as described in The Book of Adam, supports the idea of planned suicide, which is another challenge to our current mores. The author assumes that a rebirth essentially causes a remake of the previous life. This is a highly challengeable assumption, although one that is needed for the story. Yet no one knows whether a rebirth would be an opportunity to do differently or to simply relive the same life again.

The Book of Adam doesn’t discuss these conundrums except superficially. But The Book of Adam does cause a reader to pause and think about the implications, which is where, in my fiction reading experience, this ebook differs from most fiction.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future, and spans the years to the twenty-second century. The ebook also subtly raises questions regarding the differences between cloning and cryogenics, as well as the issue of artificial wombs for nurturing a fetus.

The Book of Adam also asks, albeit with circumspection, what if our brain could be transferred to a synthetic body that never “dies”? What, then, are we?

Ultimately, the questions neither asked nor answered but that form the foundation for all else are these: What makes a human being a human being? At what juncture is “humanness” no longer a viable description of us?

As seems obvious to me, The Book of Adam triggers questions that philosophers have been struggling to answer for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Whether or not this was Hopper’s intent, because of the crisp clarity of his writing, these questions come to mind unbidden, and they remain within my thinking processes even after I have completed the ebook and moved on to the next ebook.

If you want a well-written, 5-star story, The Book of Adam provides that story. If you want your thinking to be challenged, The Book of Adam will challenge you. I highly recommend this ebook.

September 19, 2011

On Books: David Crookes — More Down Under

As I have mentioned innumerable times, I usually read indie ebooks that I am able to obtain for free. I find it difficult to consider spending money (or more than a nominal sum) on an author with whom I have no familiarity.

In the “olden” days, I never thought twice about buying a book from an unknown author. The reasons why are that I found the book either by seeing it in a local bookstore or through a trusted book review, and because publishers really took their gatekeeper responsibilities to heart — I didn’t have to take a shot in the dark, so to speak. The Internet has brought about all sorts of changes. Now I’m simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books available and I lack the patience to read a sample online.

The result of the failure of the gatekeeper system and the rise of the indie author is that I am disinclined to spend money on an unknown author. Consequently, most of the books in my to-be-read pile are freebies.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened a freebie I had downloaded a while ago, Blackbird, by David Crookes. This is historical fiction based on a true story out of Australia’s history. Blackbird was my introduction to David Crookes.

In the beginning, Australia relied on slavery. Slavers would roam the islands around Australia and capture blacks to work as slaves. The process was called “blackbirding,” thus the title of the book. Blackbird is the story of one slave and her relationship with Ben Luk, a half-breed of Chinese and white mixture.

After reading Blackbird, which I found to be outstanding, I found another ebook in my TBR pile by Crookes titled Redcoat. It is the story of a British soldier who causes a superior officer to become a paraplegic and the officer’s subsequent hunt for the soldier for revenge. Once again, I was reading a book that I couldn’t put down.

The result of reading these two ebooks was that I wanted to read more of Crookes’ work, so I purchased the other available titles: Borderline; Children of the Sun; Someday Soon; The Light Horseman’s Daughter; and Great Spirit Valley. Of these, I have read The Light Horseman’s Daughter, which occurs during the Depression and is the story of a woman’s efforts to save both herself and her family, and Someday Soon, which takes place during World War II and focuses on people thrown together as a result of Japanese bombing of Darwin, Australia.

(I’ve taken a temporary hiatus from Crookes’ books because the new David Weber book, How Firm a Foundation (Safehold Series #5), which I have long been waiting for, was released. After I finish it, I will return to Crookes’ books.)

After finishing Blackbird, I suggested to my wife that she read the book, thinking she would like it, just as we both liked Shayne Parkinson’s historical novels (see On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept and the articles cited in it). Yesterday, my wife complained that Blackbird kept her reading until 2 a.m. because she can’t put the book down.

So that’s all the good news about Crookes’ ebooks. The bad news is that his books are in need of a proofreader and/or a copyeditor. It becomes tiresome, for example, to read “your” when the author means “you are” or “you’re.” The errors in the books are relatively minor and what is meant is easily grasped, but they are annoying just the same and shouldn’t exist in books for which the author is charging $3.99.

Even with these tiresome errors, I find Crookes’ books very difficult to put aside. He is a natural storyteller; even my wife has remarked on that. His writing is definitely 5 star and worth the price. Crookes can join that pantheon of great indie Down Under writers (with Down Under being inclusive of both Australia and New Zealand), which for this blog includes Shayne Parkinson, Vicki Tyley (see On Books: Murder Down Under), and now David Crookes.

As of this writing, Redcoat is available free from Smashwords. Give it a try. Although I think it is a 5-star book, it isn’t quite as good as Blackbird, but it will give you a good introduction to David Crookes.

August 15, 2011

Worth Noting: A New Vicki Tyley Mystery

As you know, I enjoy reading the mysteries written by Australian author Vicki Tyley. If you recall, I called her the Australian P.D. James. I last reviewed her books a few months ago in On Books: Murder Down Under. Vicki Tyley has written and published a new book, Fatal Liaison, which is now available at Smashwords in formats for all ereaders. To me, Fatal Liaison cements Tyley’s reputation as an oustanding author of mysteries.

Fatal Liaison is described as:

The lives of two strangers, Greg Jenkins and Megan Brighton, become inextricably entangled when they each sign up for a dinner dating agency. Greg’s reason for joining has nothing to do with looking for love. His recently divorced sister Sam has disappeared and Greg is convinced that Dinner for Twelve, or at least one of its clients, may be responsible. Neither is Megan looking for love. Although single, she only joined at her best friend Brenda De Luca’s insistence. When a client of the dating agency is murdered, suspicion falls on several of the members. Then Megan’s friend Brenda disappears without trace, and Megan and Greg join forces. Will they find Sam and Brenda, or are they about to step into the same inescapable snare?

Bonus: Discount Coupon

In celebration of the release of another book, Tyley is offering ebookers a discount coupon (code: QN93F) for use at Smashwords. The regular price of Fatal Liaison is $3.99 but with the coupon, the price is reduced to 99¢, saving readers $3.00. This is a limited time offer.

Reviews

I read the book last week in one day — I couldn’t put it down. This is an excellent mystery — one of the best I have read — and I have to confess, this time I didn’t identify the right character as the murderer. This book’s twist ending is outstanding. It is another 5-star read by Vicki Tyley.

Grace Krispy of the Mother Lode blog, which reviews books and photography, has reviewed Fatal Liaison and rated it 5 stars. The review is comprehensive and well worth reading. Grace’s reviews are always worth reading, so I also recommend bookmarking her blog.

July 27, 2011

Competing with Free: eBooks vs. eBooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: Will We Never Learn?

I no sooner published On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?, my last article lamenting authors ignoring the need for professional editing before offering their ebooks for sale to the reading public, when, lo and behold, along comes yet another glaring example of poor editing: Walker’s Revenge by Brad Chambers.

Unlike some other ebooks, Chambers at least got the title right. Unfortunately, that is all he got right. Consider his description of the book — the text that is supposed to induce a reader to plunk down his or her $2.99, which will cause, if enough people plunk, Walker’s Revenge to rise on the indie bestseller list:

Dean Walker finds things for people. It doesn’t matter what it is he can find it. He doesn’t like being hired with a knife to his throat but the money makes it worth while. Not to mention finding out who the beautiful woman holding the knife is. Searching for a necklace from a two year old robbery sounds like a normal job, but finding the girl wearing it isn’t

Chambers doesn’t appear to understand either the purpose of punctuation or why choosing the correct word is so important. Consider the very first paragraph of the ebook, a paragraph that is in desperate need of professional editing:

Water splashed away from Dean’s boots as he walked down the dark alley. He was filled with frustration and didn’t care that he was getting his pants wet or that the bottom few inches of his long coat were soaked. All he could think about was Eve and the way she had thrown him out. She had screamed, “I never want to see you again!” so loudly he was sure the whole building must have heard and he hated that. He was a private person and didn’t want the world knowing his problems. He reached the end of the alley and turned up the wet street. Raising his head a little so he could see more than three feet in front of him, he dumped water off his hat and it went down his back. Great that makes me feel better, he thought. All he had done was be an hour late for their date. So what if he had spent the time with a woman. It was business and he had to see her or lose a lot of money. He had found what she was looking for and he needed to collect the money. That was how he made a living. Finding things for people. And she was mad at him for making a living. It wasn’t his fault the woman had shown her appreciation with a kiss. He smiled. It had been a good kiss too. If he had just remembered to wipe the lipstick off, he would be on his way out to dinner with Eve now.

I’m sold — on not buying this book! I’m also sold on the certainty that this book needs professional editing.

I know it seems as if I’m crying (I am), but I find it frustrating that (1) authors whose primary job is to communicate don’t know how to communicate, and (2) the people to whom the communication is directed don’t recognize when the message is a misfire. It also frustrates me that (3) neither side of the equation grasps the notion that miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, making both author and reader losers, and that (4) although everyone thinks they can be a competent editor, not everyone can.

An author’s stock in trade is words. If an author cannot use words to create a picture for the reader, to communicate a philosophy, to explain a difficult subject, to engage the reader in discourse, then the author has failed. Similarly, an editor’s stock in trade is a grasp of grammar and all that grammar entails — syntax, punctuation, spelling, word choice, etc.

A basic requirement is that the author (and the editor) must him- or herself be literate. The idea that word processing programs give everyone a license to become a published author or a professional editor is false. To compound that erroneous notion with the belief that the spell-checker in a word-processing program is the author and editor’s vehicle to literacy — the vehicle that will ensure proper spelling and word use — is to live in a fool’s world.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most authors — and I daresay that means 99% of authors — need the help of a professional editor before launching themselves on the public. I’ve also said many times that one needs to be more than well-read to be a professional editor. At least among discerning readers, which I would venture are the readers who spend the most money on books, the surest way to be dismissed as an author and cut short one’s career is to ignore the need for professional editing.

Authors need to absorb the relationship lesson of Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process. The editor doesn’t displace the author; the editor complements the author. To complement the author positively, the editor needs to be well-grounded in the fundamentals of language, a grounding that is one of the key differences between an amateur and a professional editor.

Sadly, distributors like Smashwords simply are unwilling and/or unable to undertake any gatekeeping role. This isn’t part of their business model. Perhaps it should be. The Agency 6 opposed the $9.99 pricing threshold that Amazon was promoting, arguing that such a price would devalue their books. What do they think happens when they put out sloppily produced and edited ebooks at high prices and when they do nothing to help indie authors at least put out literate tomes?

If the Agency 6 are really interested in preventing ebooks from devaluing books, then perhaps they need to undertake an education program — aimed as much at themselves as at the indie author — that explains and convinces indie authors (and themselves) that the failure to have ebooks professionally edited and proofread, combined with flooding the Internet with the resulting drivel, hurts everyone in the reading chain — the traditional publisher, the author, and the reader.

In addition, the Agency 6 should promote true literacy in the schools, beginning with the teachers. It is insufficient to push children to read more; children need to be taught spelling, grammar, syntax — all the parts of communication — which means their teachers need to be educated first. Teachers cannot pass on to students what teachers themselves cannot grasp, and the evidence keeps mounting that today’s teachers have an insufficient grasp of literacy fundamentals. The more I see published books like LaVall McIvor’s So Your Afraid of Dieing, Andrew Cook’s A Crown of Thorns, and Brad Chambers’s Walker’s Revenge, the more convinced I am that literacy is dying in our schools. It also makes me wonder who will be the editors of tomorrow.

The decline of literacy in its multiple facets will continue as long as we sanction the idea that there are no minimal standards for authors to meet to be published — even self-published — and for editors to meet to be considered professional. As the availability of drivel increases, so will acceptance of drivel as the norm, until one day we realize that authors and readers are not only miscommunicating, but are not communicating at all!

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