An American Editor

March 30, 2011

On Books: Murder Down Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

March 9, 2011

Smashwords: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Smashwords is one of my favorite ebookstores. I probably buy more ebooks there than from any other ebookstore. A lot of that has to do with price, but it also has to do with my desire to find great reads from indie authors rather than supporting Agency 6 overpricing of ebooks.

The good of Smashwords is that it is a place where one can find true gems, true masterpieces among the slush, and find them at very reasonable prices. Some excellent, even outstanding, authors I have found at Smashwords are Richard S. Tuttle, Vicki Tyley, Shayne Parkinson, Lee Goldberg, Catherine Durkin Robinson, Saffina Desforges, and Markus Kane.

The bad of Smashwords is how difficult it can be to find these authors.

Consider this week (March 6 to 12), which is Read an eBook Week, both worldwide and at Smashwords. Many authors are running specials on their ebooks at Smashwords, from 25% to 100% off the normal retail price (which is often not very high to begin with). If you want to peruse all of the ebook specials, you have to wade through 12,224 ebooks. To peruse all of the ebooks available at Smashwords, you have to wade through 37,249 ebooks, a number that grows daily.

Until today, searching the eBook Week specials didn’t permit you to search by coupon code. Fortunately, that filter has been added as of this morning. The primary filters are limited. If you choose “New Releases,” “‘RE100’ 100% Off,” and “Longs (25,000+ words),” that helps cut the list to 66 ebooks, but it doesn’t show you those ebooks that have coupon codes of 75%, 50%, or 25% off that are free as well once the discount is applied, nor does it include those ebooks that are free without a coupon code.

The point is that even with the addition of filtering by coupon code, two people are getting short-changed — the reader looking for a bargain and a quality read, and the author who is trying to build a following — because there are just too many variations that are not inclusive enough. I know this from my own experience of the past few days at Smashwords.

Through last evening, I have purchased about 40 ebooks — all ultimately for free because of the coupons — yet that has taken me through only the first 1,750 ebooks in the specials over the course of many hours. I’ll never get through all 5,771 ebooks that are part of the eBook Week special event and are filtered by “New Releases” and “Longs (25,000+ words).”

The bad and the ugly of Smashwords are the filtering and the remembering. Both are inadequate considering how many ebooks Smashwords hosts and how important it is to expose readers to authors. Consequently, I think Smashwords needs to add these features to make the site better for both readers and authors.

First, it needs to give the reader the option to exclude from display ebooks already purchased. I’ve already purchased Vicki Tyley’s three ebooks; do I need to see them again when I search for more ebooks to read?

Unfortunately, just excluding what I have bought from a search won’t help me enough when I return to Smashwords tomorrow. Consequently, second, I should also be able to exclude ebooks that I have already seen in the past 30 days. After 30 days, they should be readded to the visible list because what didn’t interest me last month may interest me this month. Yet, I shouldn’t have to keep struggling to get through ebooks because there are so many of them to get through.

This raises another issue: If a book is regularly priced as free at Smashwords, you can download it immediately. You don’t have to go through the checkout process. But by not going through the checkout process, the ebook is not added to your list of purchased ebooks. In addition to not being added to your purchased list, you do not have to have purchased the ebook to write a review about it, whereas with ebooks that you have to purchase — even if they are free after a coupon is applied — you must have purchased the ebook to write a review. I think that all ebooks should be added to one’s purchased list and that should be a prerequisite to being able to review an ebook.

Third, Smashwords should add another length category: Medium (25,000 to 50,000 words) and change Longs to 50,000+ words. I generally prefer longer books and know that I will never read poetry or short stories — they just are not to my liking.

Which brings me to a fourth suggestion: Instead of having categories from which I can choose a single category to search, such as Historical, why not offer me categories to exclude. I do not like books about vampires and am not interested in erotica, among other categories. Why not make a search an excluding one rather than an including one? This way, I can exclude all the topics I am not interested in at all, yet see what books are available in the multiple topics that I am interested in.

As part of the fourth suggestion, Smashwords really — desperately — needs, fifth, to add more categories and subcategories. For example, the category “Fiction: Historical” covers an ocean, not a waterfront. But I’m not interested in caveman historical fiction and probably not in pre-Elizabethan historical fiction. I suggest that it would be beneficial to both readers and authors for more extensive categories and subcategories along the lines that Barnes & Noble provides.

Overall, I can’t recommend Smashwords enough. It is a great place to find some great ebooks at a reasonable price. You simply have to be willing to give authors a chance. My experience has been that for every 20 ebooks I obtain at Smashwords 2 or 3 will be excellent or outstanding, 4 or 5 will be good, and the rest unreadable for one reason or another.

But for Smashwords to keep being a great place to find ebooks from indie authors, it needs to improve the experience by which ebooks are found. I’ve given a few suggestions; perhaps down the road there will be more.

March 2, 2011

Waiting for Common Sense — Not: The Agency 6

It used to be the Agency 5, now it’s the Agency 6 as Random House has caved and instituted agency pricing. This further changes my book-buying habits.

Let me start by saying that I am not outright opposed to the agency system. What I am opposed to — and appalled by — is the pricing. Granted that Agency 6 pricing clearly demonstrates lack of competition bordering on price collusion (Isn’t it amazing how similar the Agency 6 ebook pricing is across the board?), but that isn’t the primary problem I have: The primary problem is that the selected price points are extortionate considering the restrictions imposed in the license (and note that it is a changeable, revocable license). Compound this with Rupert Murdoch’s greedy ploy, through his HarperCollins subsidiary, aimed at libraries, the last bastion for education of the poor, and what you have is a devil’s cabal.

(In an interesting aside, Murdoch’s Fox News has been denied access to Canadian TV because of its lack of impartiality. See Regulators Reject Proposal That Would Bring Fox-Style News to Canada. Maybe that is why he feels he needs to bleed American libraries — to make up for lost revenues and bias outlets.)

In the past I have spent significant sums of money building both my hardcover library and my cache of ebooks. It wasn’t so long ago that I could be counted on to spend $5,000 or more in a year on such purchases. The Agency 5 put a big dent in that spending. I felt compelled — if not honor bound — not to buy books, p- or ebooks, published by the Agency 5 (except where necessary because I already had several volumes in an ongoing series). So I focused my purchases on self-published, indie presses, academic presses, and Random House books. The consequence was that my expenditures on new releases dropped by more than 50% last year.

With Random House now part of the Agency cabal, my habits will shift yet again. If I want a new release in hardcover, I will wait to buy it on the remainder or the used book market, when I know that neither one of the Agency 6 nor their author will receive any compensation. But my ebook buying will (and has been) change even more dramatically.

A good example of the change occurred yesterday. Yesterday, the long-awaited second volume in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles (the first volume was The Name of the Wind; the second volume is The Wise Man’s Fear) was released. My previous practice was to buy both the hardcover and the ebook versions; not this time, however. This time I bought just the hardcover because of the agency pricing (the ebook is virtually the same price as the hardcover and no ebookseller can sell it for a price lower than $14.99, which is exorbitant).

That is but one example. Increasingly, I am only “buying” free ebooks and ebooks that cost $2.99 or less, and those I am buying from Smashwords. The reason I buy from Smashwords is that most authors let you sample their work before you buy, some offering up to 75% of the ebook as a free sample. I admit that in the case of the free ebooks I don’t sample them, I simply download those that seem interesting, but for those that do cost some money, I generally read a portion of the sample before buying.

At Smashwords I discovered several self-publishing authors whose works are excellent. Granted they do not have the cachet of a Stephen King, J.D. Robb, or Robin Hobb, but they do know how to write a compelling story. A good example is Safina Desforges’ Sugar & Spice, a 99¢ mystery/thriller that compares well to any P.D. James novel.

The point is that the setting of exorbitant pricing by the Agency 6 has compelled me to look elsewhere for book purchases. Money that I previously spent supporting the traditional publishers is now going elsewhere — and it is costing me less yet giving me comparable enjoyment.

Yet there is one more thing that has to be said about the agency system. Currently, it is limited to ebooks. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me over the long run.

Under the more traditional wholesale system, the publisher sets a retail price for a book and the bookseller pays to the publisher approximately 50% of that wholesale price for each copy sold, regardless of the price that the consumer pays. (Yes, there are more wrinkles in the system, but I’m simplifying it for this discussion.) This is how it started with ebooks. The excuse for going to the agency system where the publisher sets the retail price below which no ebook can be sold and which pays the bookseller a fee for each sale was that low ebook pricing devalued the book and its content.

If that is a valid and sustainable argument, how does low pricing of the hardcover not devalue the book and its contents, too? Logically, there can be no difference. After all, a book is bought for its content, not for its package, and supposedly the content of the p- and ebooks are identical.

What this means to me is that we are the road to a major shakeup in the book industry. I think the agency system is only beginning with ebooks and will either have to be abandoned for ebooks or spread to pbooks. Although agency pricing has not been a big win so far, spreading it to pbooks could solve a major problem for publishers — the problem of returns, which would also solve the problem of excessive book print runs and remainders, and minimize the secondary market.

With the Agency 6 controlling more than half the publishing market overall and probably 75% or greater of the nonfiction market, the path they take could well become — and quickly — the path that smaller publishers take. The bulwark against the spread of agency pricing is the self-publishing market, but that market has to find ways of uniformly increasing its standards before it will supplant the traditional publishers.

In the end, it is clear that the Agency 6 lack common sense. At the same time that one or more of the Agency 6 publishers expects ebooks to grow to as much as 20% of all book sales in 2011, they try to thwart the one avenue of growth by imposing extortionate prices and limiting competition. Simultaneously, they allow the wholesale model to continue for pbooks, thereby devaluing their product and its content. Some day they will get it together; unfortunately, when that day comes, I expect it will not be to the consumer’s advantage.

In the meantime, I’ve changed my buying habits significantly and may well represent an unrecoverable customer loss for the Agency 6.

February 28, 2011

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break!

In 1936, in the movie Poppy, W.C. Fields tells his daughter, “If we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you just one bit of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break!” It appears that Apple has adopted it as its motto for the 21st century, at least in regards to ebooks and publishers.

I’ve got to give credit where credit is due, and Apple deserves credit for great design. Apple’s approach is like wrapping a Volkswagen Beetle in a Lamborghini shell and proclaiming the new car to be a $100,000 car. Apple gives you a great shell but the components are often mediocre at best. And when a design flaw is caught out, the usual response seems to be it’s the customer’s fault — never give a sucker an even break!

Let’s face it — the iPad is really a so-so device. Pretty to look at, but not a great computing experience, especially when compared to notebooks that permit multitasking. Perhaps this will be cured in the forthcoming version 2, but even if it is, Apple still will be a company that treats its customers and partners as suckers — suckers who will part with hard-earned dollars in exchange for good design, mediocre performance, and anticonsumer restrictions. Just consider Apple’s recent insistence on getting a cut on all ebook sales.

The initial culprit in the current ebook fiasco was Amazon who spread its tentacles to far too quickly, giving Apple the opening it needed to give false hope to publishers and consumers that there would be another, better way. Regular readers of my blog may recall my post from 9 months ago, The Decline & Fall of the Agency 5, in which I wrote:

April 2011 is the month to prepare for armageddon in ebookdom. It is when the 2010 agency model pricing scheme will be buried by publishing’s 2010 savior, Steve Jobs and Apple. You read it here first.

All the stars and moons and planets will align and the caterwaul of panic will be heard throughout ebookdom, because that is when the Agency 5 — Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette – will realize they have been snookered by the snooker master.

In April 2011, publishers will discover that the iBookstore is a losing proposition. Oh, Apple will have sold many millions of iPads, fulfilling expectations for a successful tablet, but the buyers, it will soon be discovered, either aren’t buying ebooks at all (maybe 1 or 2) or what they are buying they are buying from Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Smashwords.…

Well, I wasn’t spot-on, but pretty darn close. iPads did sell millions and the iBookstore is a loser. iPad owners who are buying ebooks, emagazines, and enewspapers are buying them through the Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and publisher apps, not from the iBookstore. But Apple has moved to close down any pipeline that bypasses the iBookstore by making it impossible for those apps to remain in the Apple iOS system.

So, tell me again how much of a friend Steve Jobs and Apple are to publishing and to readers. How did Apple become the publishers’ white knight? How did Apple save publishers from the clutches of Amazon?

Publishers certainly have had their comeuppance. What was supposed to save the industry has turned out to be less a saving grace and more of another poke in the eye. The Agency 5 can sit back and be satisfied that what ebooks they are selling they are selling at their dictated price. But if they look at Random House’s ebook sales (remember that Random House was the only one of the big 6 not to embrace agency), they must look with jealous eyes.

So how did Apple’s “generous” offer in April 2010 help the Agency 5? It appears to have put them against the proverbial wall and offered them a rotten carrot — never give a sucker an even break! The Agency 5 will have to pay yet again (i.e., in addition to lower sales for going the agency route) for siding with Steve Jobs when the various ebook apps, including the Amazon, B&N, and Kobo apps, disappear from the iOS. Because of their greed and reluctance to embrace ebooks, the Agency 5 have shot themselves in the foot yet again. They bet on Apple and the iBookstore and the only winner was Apple.

The harder it is for people to buy ebooks, the fewer ebooks they will buy. Yes, I know the Agency 5 would prefer to sell fewer ebooks, but they are already doing that. This latest Apple move simply makes it more difficult for a large segment of the reading market to buy ebooks, a segment that no publisher can afford to ignore in the long run. It seems that no matter what the Agency 5 do in their attempt to thwart the rise of ebooks or to control pricing and sales, someone is waiting to prove to them that they really are fools for not embracing ebooks and trying to exploit the new market to its fullest — never give a sucker an even break!

On many levels I am glad to see the Agency 5 suffer from this blow; it seems to be fair payback for Macmillan’s and Simon & Schuster’s refusal to sell ebooks to libraries and for HarperCollins’ new change to library licensing terms that restrict the number of times an ebook can be lent even though libraries are paying 60+% more for an ebook version than for the hardcover version of the same book. (One example: A library can buy John Grisham’s The Confession in hardcover for $17.37 and lend it out hundreds of times. In ebook, a single license costs $28.95 and if the new HarperCollins license terms were applied, it could be lent only 26 times. In addition, while libraries have to pay $28.95 for an ebook version, the consumer, whose taxes support libraries, can buy the ebook version for $9.99.) It also seems fair payback for the outrageous pricing the Agency 5 have imposed on their ebooks.

It is clear to me that with each misstep that the Agency 5 takes, the more likely it is that increasing numbers of ebookers will remove DRM and share ebooks. When you make an enemy of someone whose good wishes you need, you invite them to retaliate as best they can. In the case of the Agency 5, the best way to retaliate is to not buy their books, or if you buy them, to remove the DRM and share them.

When will publishers ever learn?

February 9, 2011

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My bookshelves are groaning under the weight of my to-be-read acquisitions. Fortunately, ebooks don’t weigh much.

My newest hardcover acquisitions include:

  • Behind the Dream by Clarence B. Jones (story behind Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier

My ebook acquisitions include (an asterisk [*] following a book title indicates that I have completed reading the listed book):

Fiction

  • Olivia’s Kiss* by Catherine Durkin Robinson (see my review of this book: On Books: Olivia’s Kiss)
  • The Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay* by Suzanne Collins (good series but not outstanding, although its appeal to young adult readers is evident)
  • Lady from the Jade Mountain by Jonathan Saville
  • The Man with the Iron-On Badge* by Lee Goldberg (excellent police-procedural-type story; well worth reading)
  • An Agent of the King by Nigel Slater
  • Faithful Warrior* by Basil Sands (not particularly well-written or interesting)
  • The First Betrayal by Patricia Bray
  • The complete Lord Vorkosigan* Series by Lois McMaster Bujold (an excellent and highly recommended series)
  • The complete Vatta’s War* Series by Elizabeth Moon Bujold (it, too, is excellent and highly recommended)
  • The complete Heris Serrano Series by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Healer’s Apprentice by Melanie Dickerson
  • New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
  • Carved in Bone* by Jefferson Bass (an excellent murder mystery)
  • Daughters* by Consuelo Saah Baehr (well-written and interesting story of multiple generations of Arab daughters; similar to the outstanding Shayne Parkinson Promises to Keep quartet reviewed in On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept)
  • Starlighter by Bryan Davis
  • A Plunder by Pilgrims by Jack Nolte
  • The Sword Lord by Robert Leader
  • Justice is Served by D.P. Clark
  • Champion of the Rose by Andrea Höst
  • The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ameriqaeda* by Markus Kane (a well-written thriller that imagines home grown terrorism in America)

Nonfiction

  • Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (I bought this in hardcover but it still sits in my TBR pile, so I decided to buy the ebook version as well in hopes of getting to it sooner; the result is that I have finally started this long tome)
  • Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard
  • A Magnificient Catastrophe* by Edward J. Larson (see my review of this book: On Books: A Magnificient Catastrophe)

As you can see just by the length of the lists, in the past couple of months I have been more involved in reading fiction than nonfiction, and definitely more involved in ebook reading than print book reading. (Many of the fiction ebooks are available for free or for nominal cost at Smashwords. If you are willing to give indie authors a chance, you can obtain myriad ebooks, ranging in quality from poor to outstanding, with most falling in the good to above average range, for $2.99 or less — all the way down to free — at places like Smashwords, Feedbooks, and Manybooks.)

Although I have been trending toward reading more ebooks than pbooks, the trend really accelerated with the purchase of my new Sony 950 in late October. Reading on the device is so pleasurable, that I almost hate to pickup a hardcover book.

My browsing habits have also changed. In previous months and years, you could almost set your watch by my at-least-once-weekly habit of going to my local bookstore and browsing the new nonfiction releases and buying several books. Except to buy a new opera, I haven’t been to the local bookstore in a couple of months.

A recent New York Times article discussed the impact ereading devices are having on children. Apparently, the devices were high on the holiday wishlists of many children and for those who received one, has changed their leisure habits. One 11-year-old girl featured in the article has spent significantly more time reading and less time on the computer or watching TV since receiving an ereader for the holiday.

Although I rarely watched TV before getting my first ereader (a Sony 505), my habits, as I have noted in various articles on this blog, also changed. I began reading more fiction and more books overall. This change has been reinforced with the acquisition of my Sony 950.

Perhaps as these ereaders gain traction among the very young, reading will have a renaissance, something that would definitely be worthwhile.

January 10, 2011

Biting the Dust — Yet Again

This past week has been some week. I’ve been gearing up to write articles with a political bent to them and have hesitated (and thus not put fingers to the keyboard) because this is not supposed to be a political blog.

I was rescued, at least temporarily, by a small notice in today’s New York Times: Key Porter Books, a prominent Canadian book publisher who has been publishing approximately 100 new titles each year, “announced it would temporarily suspend publishing operations.” Another midsize publisher bites the dust. Among its better-known authors are Conrad Black and Margaret Atwood.

Although Key Porter is a Canadian publisher, what I wonder about is why such a previously successful midtier book publisher, especially one whose local competition is minimal compared to the U.S. marketplace, suddenly faced problems sufficiently grave to warrant 100% production stoppage rather than, say, scaling back? Let me state upfront that I have nothing more than personal speculation as to the causes. I also wonder whether this is the first of many major midtier publishers who will bite the dust in 2011, both in Canada and the United States. Now for my speculation, which is more broadly geared to publishing than to Key Porter.

First up is Kobo Books, the worldwide, Canadian-based ebooktailer. Not that Kobo Books isn’t making ebooks available but that it is expanding its geographic reach instead of first addressing the failures of its online ebookstore. To my way of thinking there are two major failures that Kobo needs to address immediately.

Failure one is the inability to order more than 1 ebook at a time. What a pain it is to want to buy 3 books and to have to place 3 separate orders. Neither Amazon nor Sony nor Barnes & Noble work this way. With these ebooktailers, you load up your cart and pay once. Considering that many of the more popular ebooks are agency priced, there is no advantage to buying from Kobo over buying from, for example, Sony.

Failure two is the way one gets the ebooks one has purchased. Kobo (and in this Kobo is not alone) first downloads a file that is a link to the real ebook file. I know this is an Adobe-induced problem, but Kobo (and others like Books On Board) need to gang up on Adobe and say this is unacceptable. I should be able to download directly the ePub file.

As the primary purveyor of Canadian ebooks, Kobo needs to do a significantly better job of obtaining and retaining customers. As probably the most geographically diverse ebooktailer (along with Amazon), Kobo needs to pay more attention to the shopping experience — I would think that every ebooktailer would want a customer to buy many ebooks, not just 1 ebook, so why is Kobo discouraging multiple purchases?

Second up is the erroneous belief that self-publishing is the way to succeed in today’s changing book marketplace. We are repeatedly told of the success that authors like J.A. Konrath are having by self-publishing — Konrath boasts (and provides the statistics to support the boasts) on his blog and in interviews about how much more money he is making than when he was represented by a traditional publishing house — but the one thing missing in the telling of these stories, or if not missing simply mentioned but not emphasized, is that these highly successful authors built a following through the traditional process so that when they decided to go the self-publishing route, they had a fan base to drag along. Konrath and the other former-traditionally-published-but-now-self-published-who-are-financially-succeeding authors do not come to grips with having to start with a zero fan base. It is easier to succeed if you are already successful.

Those who promote self-publishing as the way to go ignore several salient factors, not least of which is that ebooks constitute only 9% of the current market (although that percentage is growing yearly) and that a significant portion of that 9% are romance, erotica, and sci-fi/fantasy books. I don’t know this for fact, but I would bet that if you remove those 3 genres from the calculation that the market share for all other genres is less than 4% — a tiny portion of the overall book market.

Combine the relatively small market share with the high volume of self-publishing that is occurring (Smashwords, e.g., notes that it has “published” more than 1 billion words as of November 2010; I say “published” because Smashwords is really a distributor of self-published and small press ebooks, not a traditional publisher in the sense of “published”) and how do you find financial success? It’s not impossible, but it is mighty difficult. And how do you reach the rest of the market so you can build a fan base?

Kobo Books is important because it is currently the only major ebooktailer with global reach other than Amazon. But unless Kobo Books improves the shopping experience, it is more of a drag than anything else on ebook sales for midtier and small publishing houses, sales that could be the difference between being in business and biting the dust. And if small and midtier publishers do not find a way to combat the rush by better authors to self-publishing, what currently is just a small cloud of dust will become a dust storm of publishers going out of business. That will not be good for anyone — authors will have increased difficulty earning a living from their writing and readers will have increased difficulty in finding good books to read.

November 9, 2010

On Books: Olivia’s Kiss

My general policy is to review only books that I find exceptionally good (e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept) or exceptionally bad (e.g., Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important) or that relate to language (e.g., On Books: An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology). However, Olivia’s Kiss by Catherine Durkin Robinson, which is available at Smashwords and other ebookstores, is an exception.

Catherine Durkin Robinson’s Olivia’s Kiss is a book that should (and could) be exceptional. The subject is compelling (battered spouses revenged/avenged by a female professional assassin) and author is a compelling writer. In fact, as I read her book, I immediately thought of Dashiell Hammet and Rex Stout, occasionally even Ed McBain. Robinson’s writing style is the staccato, rhythmic style associated with the original hardboiled detective story writers of the 20th century.

If I have to rate Olivia’s Kiss in its current form on a 5-star scale, it gets 3 stars; it could easily be a 5-star book, however. Although self-published, this book does not suffer from the grammatical and spelling errors often seen. In this regard, the book appears to have been well-edited.

Yet editing of a book is more than grammar and spelling and punctuation. What Olivia’s Kiss desperately needs is a quality developmental edit. As it stands now, Olivia’s Kiss is an acceptable, mediocre novel. A reader won’t go too far wrong buying it and reading it (although I think the $3.99 price is high for this particular book; in its present form, I think $1.99 is a more appropriate price) because the writing is taut and the story interesting.

I think, however, with a good developmental edit Olivia’s Kiss could become a cinderella and go from acceptable-mediocre to great-outstanding, worthy of being picked up and published by a traditional publisher, deserving of great accolades from ebookers, and worthy of a significantly higher price. This is that rough diamond waiting to be transformed by a good polish.

The author describes Olivia’s Kiss as follows:

Olivia discovered a talent for killing men while in her teens, after shooting her abusive father in the head and watching him die. Now, a sophisticated young woman, Olivia travels the world pursuing bad men and making them pay. When Max, her longtime love, proposes marriage, Olivia dares to wonder: Can she really trade guns and glory for gold bands and bath towels?

The description is accurate as far as it goes (although Olivia pursues bad spouses regardless of gender, not just men). Unfortunately, the story is inadequately developed and much is missing in its current form. Characters are underdeveloped, especially the important parts of their histories that make the connections that are presumed in the novel; more character development/background is needed. For example, how did Olivia make the transition from killing her father to professional killer? How did the friendship of the 4 women that is central to the story develop? The friendship of the 3 friends who, along with Olivia, are the core of the story is taken for granted; it is insufficiently developed to support the ending. Why did Olivia confess her story to Sarah and why didn’t Sarah disclose it? (Yes, I know that Sarah is a nun, but that doesn’t solve the problem.)

Based on her Smashwords profile, it seems that this is Robinson’s first book. Hopefully, it will not be her last. Robinson clearly has a gift for communicating, but needs the guidance that a professional developmental editor can provide.

Should you buy and read this ebook? Yes and no. Yes, because it is well-written and there are no distractions caused by poor grammar, spelling, or structure. The story is compelling and interesting. By buying and reading the book, and adding your own comments and review, you will encourage the author to work more on this and future books, and Robinson is an author who should be encouraged. No, because it is unsatisfying because the characters and story are incompletely developed. Olivia’s Kiss almost seems as if it is a draft of what could be the next great novel.

October 25, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf (VI)

My book buying has been a bit slow since the last On Today’s Bookshelf. I’ve been trying to get through my to-be-read (TBR) pile, especially my ebook TBR pile, which is much too large, nearly 250 ebooks. But that hasn’t wholly stopped me from buying new books to read — someday (it’s an addiction).

New hardcovers, including those on order, include:

  • Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews by Peter Longerich
  • Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
  • Decision Points by George W. Bush
  • Above His Proper Station by Lawrence Watt-Evans
  • Empress of Eternity by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
  • EPUB: Straight to the Point by Elizabeth Castro
  • Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

New ebooks include:

  • The 7th Victim by Alan Jacobson
  • The Novice and The High Lord (2 books) by Trudi Canavan
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Crown Conspiracy by Michael Sullivan
  • Tales from the Green Book One: The Magic Flute and Book Two: The Wizard’s Tome by S.D. Best
  • The Kinshield Legacy by K.C. May
  • Sleight Malice by Vicki Tyley
  • The Sword and the Dragon by M.R. Mathias
  • Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore (trilogy) by Brian Rathbone
  • The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

Last week I finished Brian Rathbones’s trilogy, Call of the Herald, Inherited Danger, and Dragon Ore. With the first book being free and the second and third being 99¢ each (available at Smashwords), it is hard to complain about the books. In fact, there isn’t much to complain about as regards these books. The biggest problem is that the characters are single dimension. Unlike what I believe to be the gold standard for self-published novels, the Promises to Keep quartet (see, e.g., On Books: Promises to Keep are Promises Kept), where the characters are such that they drew me into their lives, Rathbone’s characters have some interesting characteristics, but don’t rise to the level of my much caring about them one way or another.

On the other hand, the characterizations are not so terrible that I wouldn’t recommend the books, especially at the price (truthfully, however, if the books were $2.99 each, I wouldn’t recommend them at all). Out of 5 stars, I would give the trilogy 3.5 stars; but I have to reiterate that a significant factor in that rating is the pricing of the books — should the pricing go up, the rating would go down.

The story is interesting, albeit not compelling, and devoid of many of the spelling and grammar mistakes that are much too often seen in self-published novels. It is not to say there are no errors, just that the errors are few and are not distracting; they didn’t make me pause to decipher what the author intended. For a quick read at a very reasonable price, you can’t go too far wrong with this trilogy.

In a previous On Today’s Bookshelf (IV), I listed Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century by Ruth Harris as a recent hardcover acquisition. I finally started reading it, and even though I am not yet finished with the book — I’m about two-thirds done — I can recommend it to anyone interested in the Dreyfus Affair or its surrounding events.

Dreyfus is well written and a fascinating read. Unlike many of the books I have read on the topic, Dreyfus delves into the emotional and cultural aspects of the affair. For example, Harris notes that many of the key characters were all Alsatians, and thus bonded by the same “tragedy,” which was Germany’s taking over of Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Each of these Alsatians, including Dreyfus, left their homeland and chose to become French citizens and joined the French military in hopes of someday regaining Alsace for France.

Harris explores what is really a fascinating question about the Dreyfus Affair: Why did so many of the foremost writers and philosophers and current and future French leaders become so involved in what appeared on the surface to be a proper carriage of justice applied to a junior military officer? The Dreyfus Affair occupied these people and the news for nearly a decade, yet Dreyfus was an insignificant person in the military scheme of things and an officer who was not all that well liked by his colleagues.

Harris also explores why so many of the anti-Dreyfusards continued to persist in their efforts to have the Dreyfus decision upheld even after it was exposed that the evidence was faked.

The Dreyfus Affair caused families to split — some members becoming Dreyfusards and some becoming anti-Dreyfusards — in bitterness, brought what had been a declining overt antisemitism back in full force, and nearly triggered a coup d’etat in the young French Republic. It was a story that was followed by the European and American press.

I think that if were to recommend just one book about the Dreyfus Affair, this would be that book. Harris does explore the Affair itself, as well as all the machinations that went on the periphery. What at first seemed to be an internal military affair, soon became the cause of the era. I find that it still captivates today and still has lessons to be learned by the world today.

September 13, 2010

Are eBooks a Bargain?

A common conversation point in recent months in discussions about the merits and demerits of ebooks has been “ebooks are a bargain.” Are they really?

I grant that my reading habits are probably atypical. It has been at least a dozen years since I read a book from the top 10 general fiction bestseller lists. (I have no idea whether any of the science fiction or fantasy books I have read were on bestseller lists in their categories.) So when the pricing wars were on and bestsellers were selling for $9.99, my response was a decided ho-hum.

Besides, what makes a bestseller? It’s the number of copies wholesaled to bookstores, not the actual number of copies sold to consumers. Granted that sometimes there is a correlation between the two, which becomes evident when you can’t buy a first printing copy and need to settle for a 13th printing edition. But most books don’t get out of the first printing — bestsellers or otherwise — and the bestseller lists are momentary lists, that is, they don’t reflect the fact that many of the books printed end up on the bargain/remainder tables within a couple of months of release.

I, for one, would be much more impressed with bestseller status if I knew that the status reflected consumer buys and not bookstore borrows. And my time is coming because of ebooks.

eBooks don’t require print runs. A single digital file given to Amazon substitutes for the 5,000 print copies. Consequently, one day bestseller lists will be more meaningful because they will reflect sales to consumers.

This has been a roundabout way of getting to the question at hand: Are ebooks a bargain? Like what is really a bestseller, ebooks equaling a bargain is a complex question. The answer is a resounding maybe. Let’s set aside all the limitations of ebooks that do not encumber pbooks, such as first sale impossibilities, DRM, the inability to share with acquaintances, lack of permanence — all attributes pbooks have over ebooks — and concentrate on the price question.

Dollarwise, ebooks that are not published by the upper tier traditional publishing houses can be significant bargains. I don’t see it as a bargain if a book published by Del Rey or Bantam sells for $8.99 as a pbook and $7.99 as an ebook. On the other hand, when I buy a book at Smashwords for $2.99, I view that as a bargain if the book is readable. And that is a key consideration — readability. I assume, and not always correctly, that a Bantam book is at least readable. I might not like the book, but the book is readable. I don’t have to recognize that the author meant “there” not “their” each time “their” appears in the text. That is, I don’t have to act as interpreter.

Increasingly, that is becoming less of a problem with the ebooks I find at Smashwords. It’s not that the problem has disappeared — it hasn’t — just that it is less. Of course, when I spend only $2.99 for an ebook, I have to be prepared to do a little of the work myself. It is the tradeoff. I suspect that the quality of less expensive ebooks will continue to rise (certainly, they cannot decline very far) as readers turn away from the expensive to the inexpensive ebooks.

I expect to see a dichotomy in the publishing world. I expect to see fewer fiction pbooks published in coming years, with the concentration for fiction being in ebooks. I also think that nonfiction books will be the primary pbooks, at least for the next decade, until the devices used for ereading are capable of handling the demands of more than text. I am aware that ereading-capable devices like the iPad may be suitable for nonfiction, but are these the devices that serious readers who sustain the nonfiction market will want to lug around? I think devices capable of straddling the needs of readers and nonfiction books are still in the planning stages.

With that shift of fiction to ebooks and away from pbooks, ebooks will become bargains. But until that shift occurs, the bargain ebooks are ebooks not published by traditional publishers; they are the ebooks published by authors directly to consumers and by small ebook-dedicated publishers.

It is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that cost less than $2.99; in fact, it is possible to spend a lifetime reading ebooks that are available free. All you have to do is not want to read either pbook “bestsellers” in ebook form or not read ebooks by the traditional top-tier publishers. From experience, I can tell you that it is easy to avoid those high-priced ebooks; I rarely spend more than $2.99 for an ebook and have been quite pleased, overall, with what I have purchased.

To answer my question, yes, ebooks are a bargain if you buy smart.

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