An American Editor

October 8, 2010

On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down

If you recall, a few weeks ago I wrote The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks! in which I swore I would not again buy a TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan book in both hardcover and ebook formats. Well, I did, and I was shown, yet again, that TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan only cares about something other than quality. Maybe I learned my lesson this time.

I am a big David Weber fan, ever since I was introduced to the Honor Harrington series. Because Weber is a favorite, I buy all of his new releases in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library, something I can’t do (i.e., add them to my permanent library for eternity) with a DRMed ebook. But Weber’s newest book, Out of the Dark, was released just as I was leaving for the Finding Your Niche conference. I wrestled with not buying the ebook version (the hardcover was already on its way as I had preordered it) but I lost the match and bought it in ebook form so that I could read it while at the conference.

Exactly what was wrong with Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings ebook is wrong with Weber’s Out of the Dark ebook: no one read it for errors after converting it to ePub (and probably not after converting it to any other format, although I don’t know that for certain). I can hear the call of TOR: Suckerrrrr! Suckerrrr! How difficult is it to fix problems like “A” rather than “a” in the middle of a sentence?

Enough — let’s move on to a review.

Brandon Sanderson’s book is an interesting read. The Way of Kings is disjointed in that you go back and forth between characters and scenes without something connecting them. What is the relationship between the various characters? Where will their paths intersect? The answers lie in volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t stick with the book — it is long, 1008 pages — because of the disjointedness, but instead, I found myself compelled to keep reading. The Way of Kings demonstrates why Sanderson is the new force to be reckoned with in fantasy fiction; it’s just too bad he is hooked up with such a sloppy publisher. Sanderson’s narrative is compelling and interesting. Each segment almost stands on its own and someday I will discover the connection between the characters who appear to be the primary characters of the story. In the interim, however, I’d give The Way of Kings 4 stars (out of 5). The writing is taut but leaves too much up in the air to warrant 5/5, plus Sanderson needs to take some responsibility for the poor ebook formatting. He and/or his agent should have insisted on review-before-release rights.

David Weber’s new book, Out of the Darkness, however, is a major disappointment. Here is hoping that subsequent volumes live up to the PR claims.

Weber’s new series was touted as another Honor Harrington series, implying that it had the punch and quality of the Harrington books. Sadly, it has the punch and quality of a wet noodle in a paper bag. I expected the book to at least match the Harrington books but hoped that after years of honing his writing craft, it would be even better. It is much worse than even the first Harrington book.

In Harrington, Weber created a character about who we could care; one who was interesting in her own right and who had interesting and compelling associates. Out of the Dark, in contrast, has no character about whom I care. The plot is somewhat trite and too much of the text is an exposition of military hardware, as if the hardware was to be the star of the series. I didn’t read the short story that was the original basis for this series (I’m not a lover of the short story form), but perhaps this worked better as a short story and should have been left there. Or perhaps Weber has too much to do in writing additional volumes for his other series, such as the Safehold books and the Disciples of Harrington, whose books are of infinitely better quality.

Combining the poor quality of the ebook with the less-than-stellar story, I would give this book — by stretching a bit — 2 stars (out of 5). I think if Weber wants to salvage his reputation as a master of military science fiction, he needs to work hard to improve this new series in future volumes. For those of you unfamiliar with Weber, this is not the book to buy. Better to read nearly any other of his novels. For those of us who are Weber fans, the only reason to buy Out of the Dark is to have a complete collection of Weber’s novels; otherwise, best to pass on this book.

Like Sanderson, Weber, too, needs to insist on review-before-release rights for his ebooks or find a more caring publisher. The combination of a lackadaisical novel and poor ebook quality could start a decline in interest in Weber’s work, especially when a novelist like Sanderson is available.

September 15, 2010

The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that 100% of publishers don’t read their own ebooks — heck, I can’t even swear with certainty that publishers even know how to read — but I am certain Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan’s publisher didn’t read the ebook version of Brandon Sanderson’s new release The Way of Kings before releasing it on the unsuspecting public.

Let’s set aside the little errors that are in the ebook. Those can be excused because they are little (e.g., a dropped “a” and “the”), they are few (at least in the first third of the book that I’ve gotten through), and no book is perfect. I’m even willing to ignore the confusion engendered by the way the story is put together. (Interestingly, rather than off-putting, I find the confusion to be a compelling reason to continue reading the book. The confusion is a result of various substories that are not yet woven together so it isn’t clear what the connection or the purpose of the characters and their stories are in the whole-cloth tapestry. But the book is well written and interesting, which acts, at least for now, as a counterbalance. However, the book is more than 1,000 pages long and I’m only through the first third, so my perspective might well change or, more likely, I may lose patience with this random flow.)

What gives me a clue that the publisher probably didn’t read the ebook version before release — and probably neither did the book’s editor nor Sanderson — are the illustrations. At the opening of the book, in the front matter that few readers read, but which I do (yes, I’m peculiar in this regard; I tend to read every page of a book — including the copyright page and the dedications and acknowledgments, as well as every footnote/endnote, which is why footnotes and endnotes are such a sore point with me [see, e.g., Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses]), Sanderson makes a big deal about the illustrations. As it turns out, he is right to do so — or at least I think he is; I can’t tell — I can’t read them, and if I can’t read them, neither can the publisher, the editor, nor Sanderson, which leads me to believe none of them read the book in its ebook form before releasing it for me to buy.

One example: In one of the stories/chapters, the characters discuss “the Code” that governs military men — or at least the righteous military men. The code that a dead king lived by and his brother lives by and wants his son to live by. But where is “the Code” outlined for the reader? In an illustration that cannot be read!

This is the problem with ebooks. Publishers, editors, and authors treat them as Cinderella stepchildren — as a way to do the work of increasing revenues without being given an opportunity to shine on their own — you know, scrub my floors, make them shine, but don’t walk on them. The consequence is that what should be an excellent reading experience becomes an annoying one. The neglect becomes evident, and the $14.99 the publisher demands for the ebook version becomes a sore point. In my case, it becomes a double sore point because I bought both the hardcover version (where the illustrations are readable) and the ebook version, as I noted in The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!. I might have done this again with another TOR/Macmillan book, albeit reluctantly, but now you can bet I won’t. Rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me!

Alright (before complaining and saying it’s “all right”, see On Words: Alright and All Right), we know that Macmillan really hopes ebooks don’t succeed but it’s time to recognize that that battle is lost — ebooks are here to stay and represent a growth opportunity for traditional publishers if done right. It’s getting to the done right part that appears to be difficult.

To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I understand if an illustration can’t be made readable on every cell phone screen — there certainly does come a point when a screen is simply too small — but there is no excuse for not making illustrations readable on the “standard” 6-inch eInk screen. The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one. Haven’t the Agency 5 already done enough to alienate the consumer with its pricing model? Must it shove the blade in deeper with a twist by also ensuring that important elements of a book cannot be read?

The cynic in me says that TOR/Macmillan did this deliberately with Sanderson’s book — an attempt to get consumers to buy both the ebook and pbook versions. But I really do know better. It wasn’t deliberate in that sense; rather it was deliberate in the sense that Macmillan is still trying to fight the battle it has lost and cannot ever reverse the tide of — the rise of ebooks at the expense of pbooks — and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

I will think at least twice, probably many more times than twice, in the future before I buy another TOR/Macmillan ebook, especially one at any price higher than $5.99, because as I said before: rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me — and leaving important illustrations unreadable is a rip off at $14.99!

January 29, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (II) — Starbucks 1, Publishers 0

On January 23, 2010 The New York Times had a front-page article titled, “On Kindle’s List, the Best Sellers Don’t Necessarily Need to Sell.” The article went on to discuss the phenomenon with which most savvy ebookers are familiar: many of the “bestsellers” on any ebook bestseller list are free titles. More important to publishers is that many of those bestsellers are always-free public domain books, not paid-for ebooks being given away temporarily as promotions.

The article went on to discuss publisher approaches to freebies, how freebies are promotional, and other good reasons why giving away an ebook is good and/or bad. (Sadly, the article neglects to mention some of the best sources for free ebooks such as MobileRead and Feedbooks. Free ebooks at these two sources are well-formatted and generally well-edited by a caring community.)

Let me say upfront that I like free ebooks–afterall, who doesn’t like free. Free ebooks have introduced me to authors whose work I never would have read otherwise. But let me also say that with rare exception, I have not proceeded to buy other books of the new authors I have liked. (I do, however, buy a lot of ebooks and hardcovers — more than 100 of each type in 2009.)

Free ebooks are a two-edged sword for publishers and authors. On the positive side, it introduces readers to authors they might not otherwise have read. In my case, it introduced me to David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington Series, and now I buy all of his books in hardcover. On the other hand, it also introduced me to Fiona McIntosh, author of the Quickening Series. I liked her writing but have not bought either of her newest two books (books 1 and 2 of her Valisar Trilogy) because the publisher set the ebook prices higher than the paperback prices.

So, problem #1 is that many publishers still have no clue about what differentiates an ebooker from a print copy buyer. In the case of David Weber, Tor/Baen gave away older Weber ebooks and reasonably priced new ebooks, thereby gaining a new reader, whereas for Fiona McIntosh HarperCollins/Eos gave away the ebook then threw away the reader with excessive pricing.

Problem #2 is that publishers are creating reader pricing expectations. Readers expect that sometime down the road an author’s newer books will become freebies too, so why buy now, especially at exorbitant pricing. Once the impulse buy is lost, readers tend to forget the author and move on. Yes, the Times article quoted some success stories, but remember this: It is still very early in the ebook revolution (ebooks account for only 5% of the current book market) and what happens today doesn’t indicate what will happen tomorrow. Let me repeat: The ebook bestseller lists are stacked with freebies, not paid-for ebooks.

Let’s consider consumer thinking for a moment. Many people rush to their Starbucks and plop down $4 for a coffee. Within minutes the coffee and the $4 have disappeared, neither to ever be seen nor savored again. This is the Starbucks law: Make the product a one-time consumable and require new payment for the next one-time consumable.

Contrast consumers’ willingness to buy the coffee with their willingness to pay for ebooks. An ebook, unlike the coffee, can be savored over many hours and can be resavored 2 years later. Read that $5 ebook 5 times, and each reading has cost $1; try drinking that same cup of coffee twice let alone 5 times — it simply can’t be done. The coffee is $4 for a one-time thrill whereas an ebook is multiple thrills that cost less each time. This is the anti-Starbucks law: Make the product consumable multiple times  with each consumption costing less. Yet, consumers balk at paying for an ebook and publishers feed the freebie frenzy.

Clearly, publishers aren’t making their case about value very well. Isn’t there something amiss when Starbucks can convince someone to part with $4 for a one-time, short-lived thrill but publishers can’t convince anyone that their product has greater value because it is a long-lived thrill. Perhaps the time has come for publishers to demote the bean counters and promote those who give value to their product. There is no financial future in free books for any publisher or author.

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