An American Editor

July 6, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (IX)

It seems as if it was only yesterday (it was a month ago) when I published On Today’s Bookshelf (VIII), but there has been no stopping my book acquisitions. My recent acquisitions include:

Hardcover —

  • Roosevelt’s Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party by Susan Dunn
  • The African American Experience During World War II by Neil A. Wynn
  • Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II by J. Todd Moye
  • Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House by Kenneth T. Walsh
  • Wild Bill Donovan: The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage by Douglas Waller
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang by John Ayto and John Simpson
  • Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial by H.L. Mencken (this is a paperback reprint of Mencken’s newspaper reports)
  • Hitler and America by Klaus P. Fischer

Several of the hardcover books I bought at Author’s Day, which was held at the FDR Library on June 18, 2011. The authors were invited by the Library to give a speech or reading and then autograph their books. The capstone event was a conversation between the historians Michael Beschloss and James MacGregor Burns.

ebooks —

  • In Her Name: Empire; Confederation; Final Battle; First Contact; and Legend of the Sword by Michael R. Hicks (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name)
  • Demon Lord by T.C. Southwell
  • Through a Dark Mist by Marsha Canham
  • Sacred Secrets, A Jacoby Ives Mystery by Linda S. Prather
  • Murder on the Mind by L.L Bartlett
  • Driftnet and Deadly Code by Lin Anderson
  • Stumbling Forward by Christopher Truscott
  • A Death in Beverly Hills by David Grace
  • Bake Sale Murder by Leslie Meirer
  • Blood Count and Londongrad by Reggie Nadelson
  • Durell’s Insurrection by Rodney Mountain
  • Impeding Justice by Mel Comley
  • Maid for Mayhem by Bridget Allison
  • Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander
  • The American Language by H.L. Mencken
  • The Blue Light Project by Timothy Taylor
  • Who Killed Emmett Till by Susan Klopfer
  • Dying for Justice, Passions of the Dead, Secrets to Die For, and Thrilled to Death by L.J. Sellers (These are books 2 to 5 in the Detective Jackson Series; the first book, The Sex Club, was listed in an early On Today’s Bookshelf — see below)
  • Enemies and Playmates by Darcia Helle
  • Henrietta the Dragon Slayer by Beth Barany
  • Hostile Witness by Rebecca Forster
  • Oathen by Jasmine Giacomio
  • The Last Aliyah by Chris Hambleton
  • Too Near the Edge by Lynn Osterkamp

Most of the ebooks were gotten free, either that being the author-set price or as a result of an author promotion using a coupon code. After reading Michael Hick’s In Her Name: Empire, I decided I liked the book well enough to purchase the other 4 available volumes of the series — Confederation, Final Battle, First Contact, and Legend of the Sword (see my review of this series: On Books: In Her Name). I purchased Christopher Truscott’s Stumbling Forward on a recommendation from author Vicki Tyley, whose books I have reviewed previously (see On Books: Murder Down Under).

L.J. Seller’s Detective Jackson Series is an excellent mystery series. When I have finished reading the recently acquired books 2 to 5, I plan to review them. However, for anyone who is looking for a 5-star mystery series, this series fits the need. Currently, the author is offering the books at a discounted price of 99¢ each (be sure to scroll down the page to the discounted price); the normal price is $3.19 each. If you like mysteries/police procedurals, you won’t go wrong buying them before I review them.

For those interested, Smashwords is having a major sale, their July Summer/Winter Sale, with authors offering their books at discount s of 25% to 100%. The sale runs through July 31, 2011. It is a good time to buy indie books and get introduced to some new authors.

June 27, 2011

On Books: In Her Name

I recently came across an ebook fantasy/scifi series by Michael R. Hicks titled In Her Name. The story is that of humans versus Kreelans, a blue-colored cat- and human-like race whose members are connected to each other through “blood song” and who do everything in the name of their empress.

Currently, there are five ebooks in the series, with a sixth book due in fall 2011. The books, in the author’s recommended reading order, are:

  • In Her Name: Empire
  • In Her Name: Confederation
  • In Her Name: Final Battle
  • In Her Name: First Contact
  • In Her Name: Legend of the Sword
  • In Her Name: Dead Soul (coming in fall 2011)

The first book in the series, Empire, is available free at Smashwords.

I admit I was perplexed by the author’s recommended reading order as the fourth book, First Contact, really is the beginning of the story. The explanation I received when I inquired was that the author had written the first three books — Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — and was then asked by fans for more, which led to the Star Wars imitation ordering. Regardless, the books are certainly readable and enjoyable in the recommended sequence, and I am anxiously awaiting Dead Soul.

As readers of An American Editor know, book reviews are intermittent and then only of those books I consider to be the better indie books I have come across (although occasionally I do review some of the worst), that is, indie books that are 5-star or 5+-star rated. (For star definitions, see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I).) Overall, the In Her Name series is a 5-star series.

The books are well written and the characters are interesting. (One error that did stand out as a sore thumb, however, was the use of Forward for Foreword. The homonym gremlin strikes yet again!) I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in the emotional and physical transformation of the lead character, Reza Gard (i.e., lead character of books 1, 2, and 3 of the recommended reading sequence), from human to Kreelan, which occurs in the trilogy.

Also of interest is the ever-evolving view of humans by Tesh-Dar, the high priestess of the Kreelans, and the Kreelans in general. First viewed as soulless animals because their blood doesn’t sing, humans earn the respect of teh Kreelans and rise, especially when Reza Gard’s blood begins to sing and the Kreelans can “hear” it. This evolution does carry on throughout all of the books.

The story revolves around a 100,000-year-old Kreelan prophecy that condemned male Kreelans to procreation followed immediately by an agonizing death, which had the effect of creating a female-dominant warrior society in which males have no role (because of the curse) outside propagation of the Kreelans. At the beginning of the First Empire, which is the empire in which the In Her Name series takes place, a series of events lead to the first empress cursing her people but offering a way to remove that curse. The story chronicles broadly the centuries-old search for the prophesied male whose actions will lift that curse, but focuses on “current” events in the search for that male.

To lift the curse, a male who is not born a Kreelan but whose blood “sings” like a Kreelan’s blood must be found. To find that person, the Kreelan Empire goes to war with sentient races that it comes in contact with, looking for both worthy opponents and the singing blood. The war is to the death and prior to the current century-old war with humans (i.e., by the time of In Her Name: Empire the war with humans is 100 years old), multiple sentient races have been annihilated because their blood didn’t sing. Now it is humans who face extinction unless they are found to have a “soul,” that is, their blood “sings.”

Interestingly, although the Kreelans are significantly more techologically advanced than humans and could wipe out humans with ease, the Kreelans prefer to fight one-on-one and with a level playing field. Consequently, they determine where in the technological continuum humans are and “degrade” their own capabilities so that the humans have at best a slight advantage and at worst equality with the Kreelans. The fighting is for the honor of the empress, not merely to exterminate a sentient race.

Enough of the story. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy fantasy/scifi and well-constructed alien civilizations, then Michael Hicks’ In Her Name series is an excellent read. Even if you don’t normally read fantasy/scifi, you may find this series enjoyable. The author does delve, although perhaps not as deeply as he could have or should have, into what honor means and how it can play a role in the clash of civilizations. The first book, Empire, is free, and the other books in the series are reasonably priced at $2.99. Even before I finished reading Empire, I bought the other four available ebooks — I found that I wanted to continue reading the story without interruption. (My biggest disappointment is that I need to wait for the sixth book’s release! Hopefully I will remember to buy it when it is released. This is one of the problems with series that are published independently; one can’t preorder and if the wait is too long between books, there is a tendency to forget both the author and the series because the reader has moved on.)

Hicks has an excellent grasp of drama, along with excellent story-telling skills. His books are generally grammar and spelling error-free so the reader is not distracted while reading the story (the notable exception being the Forward/Foreword error noted earlier). Hicks has imbued the characters with believable traits; it is easy to believe that a sentient race like the Kreelans exist, just as it is easy to believe that the lead human characters are people we all know. His characterizations involve the reader, but don’t quite cross that emotional barrier that absorbs the reader in a character-driven work. These books are more predominantly plot-driven, which is why remembering to buy the forthcoming book may be problematic. (For a discussion of approaches, see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? For a discussion of approaches and the difficulty of being remembered, see On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail.)

If you are looking for a well-written, engaging, “short” series to read, give In Her Name a try. You certainly have nothing to lose with the first book being free, and the first three books — the trilogy of Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle — stand on their own; the other three books, the prequels, do not need to be read to understand or appreciate the trilogy.

June 22, 2011

The eBook Revolution’s Effects on My Book Buying & Reading

For many years my reading habits ran in cycles. For x period of time, I read only fantasy and science fiction. When that cycle came to an end, it was replaced with mysteries. As that cycle ended, I moved to nonfiction biography. And the pattern kept going — I would come to the book-buying and -reading trough and gorge on books that fell within a particular genre, satiate my appetite for that genre, and then move on to feast on another genre. For 50+ years, that has been my habit. Until 3.5 years ago…

…when I received my first ereader device, a Sony PRS 505, as a holiday gift. Suddenly my reading world was threatened with upheaval. At the time, I had been in my third year or so of reading largely nonfiction and the occasional novel. All of my book purchases were hardcover and I was spending upwards of $5,000 a year on hardcovers (I am not going to discuss my magazine reading as those habits haven’t yet been affected by the ebook revolution).

When I got my Sony I learned pretty quickly that I had limited options as to where I could buy ebooks. At the time, Sony used its own proprietary format; it hadn’t yet transitioned to the significantly more open ePub format, although that came about 8 months later. I also discovered, after purchasing my first nonfiction ebook for the Sony that nonfiction on the Reader was not going to be a practical option for me. Much of the nonfiction I read is heavily noted and accessing notes was awkward at best, impossible at worst.

I also purchased a couple of novels that I had wanted to read but which were no longer available in print, yet they were available as “reasonably” priced ebooks. And thus began a change in my reading habits, compliments of the ebook revolution. I found that reading fiction on the Sony was extraordinarily pleasurable. The screen was excellent; the ease of bookmarking was great; the ability to switch among books wonderful; and the ease with which I could carry multiple books everywhere with me was breathtaking. The Sony was meant for me and for any avid reader — as long as it was fiction.

That was the kicker — it had to be fiction. The Reader could handle nonfiction, but not all that well (and from what I could see of friends’ Kindles, the Kindle was in the same boat). So what to do?

In a way, solving my problem was easy. I have always viewed fiction and nonfiction differently. I consider 98% of all fiction as read-once-throwaway material; little of it was worth saving for any reason. I also consider fiction to be a “cheap” read. What I mean is that with only a few exceptions, the most I am willing to pay for fiction is the price of the mass market paperback discounted. In contrast, I consider 100% of the nonfiction I buy to be books I want to keep in my permanent library for future reference by me or someone else (note that I said that I buy; there is a lot of nonfiction that belongs in the fiction category of read-once-then-throwaway). I consider these books to be readable multiple times (although I do not do that with a great deal of frequency) and some of them to be collectible. Consequently, I will buy the hardcover and pay the price.

The ebook revolution affected my reading habits by “making” me buy and read fiction in addition to the nonfiction I buy and read. My habits have changed; my reading broadened. The ebook revolution also introduced me to a category of books that I would not have considered at all before the advent of ebooks — the self-published book. I still have not ventured into self-published nonfiction because I still give credence to traditional publishing and its vetting process, although that credence has been under attack in recent months as a result of traditional publisher carelessness that has been publicized.

Previous to the ebook revolution that began for me with the gift of the Sony, I would never have knowingly bought a self-published/vanity press book. No exception. But within weeks of receiving the Sony, I discovered Smashwords and free and 99¢ ebooks. I grant that there is a lot of poorly written, poorly edited, and poorly produced drivel at Smashwords, but I was willing to do my own vetting for that price. I also discovered Fictionwise, which had some very inexpensive fantasy books, especially with the sales.

I purchased a lot of ebooks from Smashwords and Fictionwise and soon found that I was devoting much of my reading time to fiction. I’d pickup a hardcover nonfiction book only to put it back down after a few minutes because I really wanted to read on my Sony. I was hooked. (I’m waiting for the American Psychological Association to create a new mental disease category for my ereader addiction.) I will admit that given my druthers, I’d druther read on my Sony (which is now the newer Sony 950) than read a print book.

It is a constant, daily struggle for me, and I am losing the battle with myself. As each day passes, I become ever so slightly more addicted to reading on my Sony 950 and less willing to pick up the pbook. This is causing me angst on another front: the financial front.

Because of how poorly many ebooks are produced, their high pricing, and the restrictions imposed by DRM, not least of which is the idea that I am “renting” the ebook rather than owning it, I am reluctant to abandon hardcover for my nonfiction. I think making that transition is at least 5 years, maybe 10 years, away for me. As well as my Sony 950 handles footnotes and endnotes, there are still things that dedicated ereaders do not handle well that are important to nonfiction, such as images. This conflicts me because the reading experience of the Sony 950 is so great.

As this internal battle rages, I find that in some cases I buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions of a particular nonfiction book. Granted this doesn’t happen often, but even I can see it happening with increasing frequency. Whereas when I was using the Sony 505, which I did for 3 years, I only purchased 3 titles in both formats, an average of 1 per year, since buying my Sony 950 at its release 8 months ago, I have purchased 2 books in both formats and have contemplated purchasing several more (but have not yet given in).

The one battle that the ereader has won, and it wasn’t much of a battle, is in regards to fiction: I will only buy fiction in ebook form, with the exception of a couple of authors whose books I am collecting, in which event I will buy both formats.

The other battles that the ereader has won are that of broadening my reading habits and skewing the number of fiction versus nonfiction books I buy. As for the former, I now read concurrently fiction and nonfiction rather than cycling and I read multiple genres of fiction rather than cycling. As for the latter, whereas I used to buy 20 nonfiction for every 1 fiction pbook, I now buy many more than 20 fiction for every 1 nonfiction I buy, although I read only 3 fiction for every 1 nonfiction (I have large to-be-read piles of both to get through). However, I rarely spend more than 99¢ on the fiction books.

My reading and buying habits have been significantly influenced by the ebook revolution. Has it affected your habits, too?

May 31, 2011

On Books: Changing Buying Habits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 23, 2011

Smashwords: Will It Ever Get Better Filtering?

Smashwords has been one of my favorite places to shop for ebooks, but its filtering system is too limited (see, e.g., Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, Finding an eBook to Buy, and Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles (II): eBooksellers), which means it is losing a lot of sales to me. I keep hoping Smashwords will devote a few hours to improving the consumer’s experience, but it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

The consequence is that I have been spending decreasing amounts of time searching for new reads at Smashwords. I used to check Smashwords every day; now I check once every week or two for a few minutes. Usually I wait for someone else to mention a specific book and provide a link; my days of simply going to Smashwords, applying the few filters it allows, and checking out the books are passé. But they shouldn’t be! Smashwords should be devoting some time and effort to improving the interface between it and the consumer. Doing so would be good for readers and authors alike. Right now Smashwords treats the consumer-reader as if he or she is the enemy rather than a friend!

I don’t think my requests are all that outrageous. How about a filter that filters out foreign language books? I don’t read Russian or any other non-English language — never have, never will — so why can’t I eliminate from search results books that are written in Russian or Croatian or any other language but English? And for those who do read in those languages, why not a filter that includes their language of choice and excludes languages that they do not read in, including English?

Smashwords also needs a third length filter. The choices should be less than 25,000, less than 50,000, less than 75,000. And why not series filters. Those would be particularly helpful to readers who want more than a singleton experience. The filters could be singletons only, multibook series only, first book in a series, any. Granted it might mean that Smashwords would have to come up with some dedicated tags and require authors to use them, but in today’s coding world, that shouldn’t be difficult.

I used to think that genre filters would be a good way to filter books, but my experience is to the contrary. First, authors too often do not tag their books correctly; they either mistag the genre, undertag the genre, or overtag the genre in hopes of snaring a broader audience. I wouldn’t eliminate the genre tags, but I would suggest better educating authors on how to choose a genre tag.

I would also like to be able to choose maybe a half-dozen key words/tags to exclude from the results. For example, I will never knowingly buy a zombie story or a horror story. I also do not purchase vampire books. I would love to eliminate them from the search results as well, along with erotica.

How about a filter based on intended audience. I appreciate quality writing for children younger than 12 years, but unless I’m looking for something to read to a grandchild or a neighbor’s child, I am not interested in having to wade through a sea of children’s books. On the other hand, when I am looking for such a book, I would like to eliminate books intended for teenagers and adults.

Another filtering system I would like to see is price. Now I can filter by free or all books, but I really need to be able to filter by price ranges, such as free only, 99 cents or less (including free in the less notion), $1.99 or less, $2.99 or less, and so forth. I already know that I am not going to spend more than $3.99 on an ebook unless I know the author and the quality of the work beforehand. If I know the author and like author’s writing, I will search by author name and buy the author’s books; I won’t be going through pages of available books. Consequently, being able to filter by price is important.

I would also like to be able to filter by star rating. Now I can filter by highest rated, which simply means that the list begins with 5-star-rated ebooks and works it way down to 1-star rated ebooks. But why not let me filter for only 5-star-rated ebooks or ebooks rated 4 stars or higher?

With proper filtering, I should be able to filter for ebooks that cost less than $2.99, are the first books of a series, are intended for adults, have no zombies or vampires as characters, are not erotica, are longer than 75,000 words, are rated 4 stars or higher, and are written in English.

If Smashwords only had 500 ebooks to choose among, filtering would be significantly less important. But Smashwords is a rapidly growing ebook seller with many thousands fo ebooks. I suspect that Smashwords’ sales are being hampered because of filtering frustrations — no one I know has either the time or the patience to sift through the many thousands of ebooks that remain even after applying the minimal filtering currently available.

I know that I start with good intentions and end up perhaps adding a couple of ebooks to my wishlist, and then quitting Smashwords after 10 minutes of searching without buying any ebook. I quit my searching because I am tired of trying to wade through all the ebooks listed when I am currently in the mood for particular types of books.

Smashwords is doing a lot of things right and for which it deserves mountains of credit. But the failure to address the inadequacies of the filtering system is a massive black mark against Smashwords and is, in my view, significantly hampering sales. Helping the customer find what the customer wants can only be beneficial to both Smashwords and the authors who use the Smashwords platform. It is time for Smashwords to seriously address filtering, its Achilles heel.

May 13, 2011

On Books: Ice Blue

Last night I finished reading Ice Blue by Emma Jameson and am sorry that I finished — because the next book in the series is not yet available and I want more! The book is well-edited, well-written, and well-formatted, indicating that the author cares about the reader’s experience, a sense that too many indie books fail to communicate.

Ice Blue is a 5-star British mystery that involves Scotland Yard and the tensions between social classes that pervade the English cultural and social milieu. Unlike too many indie ebooks, Jameson has crafted a fine suspense tale but an even finer story about a Lord and a commoner, a modern-day Cinderella tale, yet one with believable characters. (And no, there is no fairy tale ending in this ebook, which is supposed to be the first in a series that features these characters.)

I firmly believe that there are several characteristics that define the writing of an outstanding author. I do not mean to imply that to be outstanding an author must demonstrate all of these characteristics, but rather the author must have more than one to be outstanding and the more the author has, the more outstanding the writing.

Those who follow my blog know that two indie fiction authors I regularly put in the outstanding category are Shayne Parkinson (historical fiction) and Vicki Tyley (mystery). Emma Jameson (mystery) is now a third, a new addition to my pantheon of superstar indie authors and has joined my list of must-buy authors. In my rating system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I) for an explanation), she falls between Parkinson and Tyley. Her characterizations are better than Tyley’s but not as good as Parkinson’s. All three are 5-star writers.

Jameson’s lead character is Scotland Yard Detective Sergeant Kate Wakefield, a clearly lower-class denizen who puts her foot in her mouth more often than not. But Kate is a character you can touch, you can say is your next-door neighbor, is someone you want to see come out on top, is someone you can care for. Lord Hetheridge, her superior and chief superintendent, is the typical stiff, upperclass noble whose facade is cracked by Kate. Hetheridge’s character is written in such a way that a reader feels he or she can actually drink tea with this member of the nobility and feel comfortable doing so. The third major character is Detective Sergeant Paul Bhar, England-born but of Asian descent, who has a great sense of humor and such self-confidence that he steadies the investigative team and gives some “cheek” to the snobs of the upper crust of English society.

Altogether, the three primary characters are people you believe you can invite in for tea and biscuits (although they seem to prefer coffee) and not feel ill at ease.

The story itself is a typical British mystery, what one would expect from a Martha Grimes, Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. And as is typical of British mysteries, everything is understated, by which I mean there are no blazing guns and mobsters that are typical of the American style — Ice Blue is more sedate and more involved in character development than in mystery development.

I rarely suggest to my wife that there is a book she must read; our reading tastes are generally too divergent. But occasionally I come across a book that is compelling. Again, the Tyley and Parkinson books fall into this category, as does Jameson’s Ice Blue. I will be interested to learn whether my wife agrees, especially as she is not a mystery lover.

For those of you looking for a new indie author to support, it is hard to go wrong with Ice Blue and Emma Jameson, especially at 99¢. I suggest giving her a try, particularly if you like the English-style mystery. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

April 30, 2011

Worth Noting: A Gift From Down Under Redux

In an earlier article, Worth Noting: A Gift from Down Under, I printed Smashwords coupon codes for the 3 Vicki Tyley murder mysteries that I had reviewed in On Books: Murder Down Under. The coupons were set to expire today, April 30.

The response has been excellent — I hope all of you who have used the codes and bought the ebooks enjoyed them as I did — so I asked Ms. Tyley to extend the discount to May 15 for anyone who is still sitting on the fence about buying the ebooks; graciously, she consented.

New coupon codes that expire May 15, 2011, have been published. As with the previous codes, these discount each of the 3 ebooks from $3.99 to 99¢. So here is another opportunity to buy all 3 ebooks for less than $3 (i.e., less than the price of buying 1 ebook at the regular price). The new codes are available both below and in the prior Worth Noting: A Gift from Down Under, courtesy of Vicki Tyley and are usable at Smashwords, just click the links provided for each title:

  1. Brittle Shadows = XU78P
  2. Sleight Malice = VX78D
  3. Thin Blood = QF35J

Enjoy and watch for Vicki’s guest article, which will be published this coming Monday.

April 11, 2011

On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

In past articles, I have spoken of the need for indie authors to use professional editors (see, e.g., On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or nonprofessionally edited book. This topic has been repeatedly discussed in numerous blogs and on numerous forums — almost discussed to death.

Yet, here we go again.

A few days ago, I was looking at what new-release ebooks were available at Smashwords. I found a couple of doozies. Try this one, first: So Your Afraid of Dieing by LaVall McIvor, for which the author wants $4.99, and which the author describes as follows:

Everyone dies, what happens after we die. Is that the end of who and what we are? I have had two NDE’s and I can tell you there is more to ‘us’ than just the physical life we live on this world. I only lay out my experiences, what you believe to be true concerning an afterlife is up to you to decide.

Setting aside the “your” problem, does “dieing” mean dying as in death or dyeing as in coloring? OK, I get the gist and realize death is meant, but why should I have to guess or assume?

So I checked the sample to see if the title was an anomaly. Here is the first paragraph of the book:

Probably the single most commonality of all of us, is knowing that someday in the future this physical life will end. But what happens when we die, are we just consumed by the elements, is that the end of it? If you are a religious person, you have been ‘taught’ that if you live a good life doing no evil, you (your soul) will be rewarded with eternal life in ‘Heaven’. If you are an atheist, you may believe there is no ‘afterlife’, that when your body dies, that is the end of who and what you are. I was of the latter persuasion until I had two NDE’s (Near Death Experiences).

Then, as I was reeling from the title, the author’s description of the book, and the first paragraph, I came across A Crown of Thorns by Andrew Cook, for which the author wants $2. Cook describes his book as follows:

When the Spencer’s arrive at Millbridge, Virginia meets Rector Byrnes, beginning an emotionally charged and passionate relationship. Rev Byrnes is in a vulnerable position struggling with his wife’s inner demons, and his own loss of faith, and with no one to confide. Virginia is consumed with hatred towards God but they find comfort in each other’s weakness with dramatic consequences.

Tell me: Is the location Millbridge, Virginia or is it Virginia who arrives at Millbridge? No matter because within the first few paragraphs of the book, we find this:

The reason I am writing this is because I want to remember all my thoughts this morning, for it is remarkable to me that it should be this morning that I was again allowing myself the shameful thoughts of death, my own death in fact, while appreciating at the same time the pleasure and beauty of life. The green rolling hills that overlooked the cemetery and continued for miles, the bright blue sky as though painted that morning by an artist, devoid of cloud, the flowers dancing in the breeze celebrating the arrival of spring. It was a day to celebrate life, not to contemplate death. But perhaps I was not considering death in the physical sense. There are many types of death. This morning I once again felt as though my soul had died and I had paled once again into insignificance. If one died emotionally, what would be left? Without love people wither like flowers starved of water.

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published? Would you willingly pay $4.99 or $2 for either ebook?

What these two ebooks vividly demonstrate is that the combination of the Internet Age and easy self-publishing — without any gatekeeping (i.e., vetting of the manuscript, which is the role agents and traditional publishers have played) — has turned everyone who wants to be an author into a published author. Yet too many of these wanna-be-published authors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that accompany publishing, particularly the hiring of a professional editor.

Sadly, I expect both of these authors to sell copies of their ebooks. Even more sadly, I expect that those who buy their ebooks won’t (and don’t) recognize the grammar and spelling problems that are in the ebooks, nor that the ebooks have not been edited — professionally or otherwise — by someone with at least minimal competency.

Companies like Smashwords have done a great favor to both readers and wanna-be authors. They make distribution to the normal book-buying channels possible. Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

I realize that we are early in the evolution of ebooks, but the time to address basic issues is now, not later when the problems become so entrenched that they are insurmountable. Although the distributors need to share in the blame for permitting this drivel to see daylight, those of us who are professional editors also have a responsibility to reach out and educate authors. In this endeavor, we are failing as evidenced by these two ebooks and by the overall decrease in grammar and spelling skills in younger generations (see The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills).

Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process).

April 6, 2011

On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)

In the scheme of things, I haven’t got a lot of time — well, maybe I do have the time; perhaps it’s a lack of ambition and desire — to review all the books I read. (I usually read several books a week.) Consequently, I make the effort only for those books that I think are exceptional — either exceptionally well-written and interesting, or exceptionally poorly written. The in-between books are only mentioned, if at all, in my Today’s Bookshelf articles. (The problem is that I am constantly buying books. For example, in March, I purchased 116 ebooks and 8 hardcovers; I will name only a few of them when I next write a Today’s Bookshelf article.)

I have decided that such an attitude — that is, only writing about the exceptional books — is unfair to the many indie authors whose books I have read that are good reads and worth reading, but that fall at the 3- to 4-star mark. So I’ve decided to start naming names. Basically, in broad terms, this is how I rate books:

  • 5 and 5+ stars are exceptional books. They are interesting, well-written with few and very minor grammar and spelling errors, and if 5+, have characters with whom at least I, and usually also my wife and perhaps some friends, get involved emotionally; that is, we react emotionally to events that happen in a characters fictional world. These are the authors who inspire you to immediately buy whatever else they currently have available that you haven’t read and whose next book you eagerly look for even months after finishing the current read. These are the books that are worth buying almost regardless of price.
  • 3 to 4 stars are well-written books, too. They also are interesting but may have more serious grammar and spelling issues than the 5/5+ books. However, such issues are not so serious that one can’t read and enjoy the book. These books are not particularly memorable; they are memorable for a few days then forgotten. The characters don’t involve you greatly, although a 4-star book’s characters do involve the reader at least a little or occasionally. These are the “average” books — the ones you read once, perhaps mention to someone else that they might be worth reading, and then discard. Whether the author writes another book doesn’t matter all that much to you. These are books worth buying if the price is right.
  • 1 to 2 stars are the horrors of indie publishing. A 1-star book has nothing in its favor — the story/plot is bad, the writing makes a sixth-grade student look like a Pulitzer Prize for Literature winner, and the book is so riddled with grammar and spelling errors, you wonder if English is a language the author recognizes at all. Not even a professional editor could salvage the book; the book needs to be scrapped and begun from the beginning. The 2-star books are slightly better. With these books there is a glimmer of hope. These books need the touch of a professional editor, but they at least do have a good story/plot. Again the grammar and spelling is atrocious, but editorial help might fix the problem. A book with a 1- or 2-star rating should not be bought, or even downloaded for free.

So what follows are my first ebook recommendations for the 3- to 4-star ebooks. I don’t think the 1- to 2-star ebooks are worth listing, so they are excluded. I also exclude the 5+-star ebooks because those I generally review. Most of the ebooks are available at Smashwords and some at Baen Books.

5 stars

  • Sugar & Spice by Saffina Desforges
  • The Man with the Iron-on Badge by Lee Goldberg
  • The Honor Harrington books by David Weber
  • A Just Determination, Burden of Proof, Against All Enemies, and Rule of Evidence by John G. Henry
  • The Speaker by Sandra Leigh

3 to 4 stars

  • The Mudbug Trilogy (Trouble in Mudbug, Mischief in Mudbug, and Showdown in Mudbug) by Jana DeLeon
  • Pool of Lies by J.M. Zambrano
  • An Unfettered Mind by Annmarie Banks
  • Ain’t No Sunshine by Leslie DuBois
  • ExodusThe Ark by Paul Chafe
  • The Sex Club by L.J. Sellers
  • Heris Serrano, The Serrano Succession, and The Serano Connection by Elizabeth Moon
  • Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass
  • Ameriqaeda by Markus Kane

I have read all of the above books. I can’t tell you how many 1- and 2-star ebooks I had to go through before I found these books, but there were a lot of them. I hope you will find a few to enjoy from this list.

April 5, 2011

Worth Noting: A Gift from Down Under

Last week I wrote a review of Vicki Tyley’s murder mysteries, On Books: Murder Down Under. If the review sparked an interest in her Down Under murder mysteries, you can, until May 15, buy her books for 99¢ each — a savings of $3 on each book — at Smashwords using the following coupon codes (courtesy of Vicki Tyley):

  1. Brittle Shadows = XU78P
  2. Sleight Malice = VX78D
  3. Thin Blood = QF35J

Smashwords lets you download the ebook in your choice of format, one of which will be suitable for reading on your preferred device — whether it is your computer, your cell phone, or your ereader.

It is hard to go wrong, even if you only occasionally read a murder mystery. Buying all 3 of the books using the coupon  codes saves you $9 — for $2.97, you can have 3 excellent murder mysteries.

If you do buy any or all of her books and enjoy it (them), pass the word. Remember that indie authors rely on readers telling other readers about good ebooks. And be sure to share the coupon codes.

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