An American Editor

January 16, 2012

Why Won’t Amazon Compete in the ePub Market?

Since the beginning of the “modern” ebook era, when Amazon entered the marketplace with its Kindle, I’ve wondered why Amazon chose to follow its own path as regards format and DRM rather than adopting the ePub standard and a more benign or universal form of DRM. I’ve wondered because by choosing its own path, Amazon has decided that readers who are not Kindlers (by which I mean consumers who read on dedicated e-ink devices that are incompatible with Amazon and thus cannot buy ebooks at Amazon unless they are willing to strip the DRM and convert the file, which the majority are either unwilling or unable to do) is not a demographic to woo.

What is it about ebooks that makes them different from virtually every other market that Amazon is in? Amazon sells, either directly or indirectly, all kinds of universally usable electronic equipment and entertainment. It does not sell, for example, digital music or movie DVDs that are incompatible with the devices consumers already own or buy at Amazon or elsewhere. Only in ebooks has Amazon struck a different path.

In every other category of goods for sale at Amazon, Amazon tries to woo every consumer it can. Only in ebooks does it deliberately exclude millions of potential customers. Why? What is it about ebooks that warrants this divergence by Amazon from its very successful business plan? Granted that Amazon would prefer to sell you a Kindle and lock you into its eco system, but that, at least on the surface, makes no sense as a reason to exclude millions of other ebook consumers from being able to buy ebooks at Amazon. One would think that Amazon’s priority is to sell ebooks on which it makes a profit, not reading devices on which it is said to lose money.

Try as I might, I see no obvious reason for this discrepancy. Amazon could sell its Kindles and also sell ebooks in a Kindle-specific format alongside an ePub format. Or it could sell its Kindles and simply make Kindles ePub compatible. Yet it does neither. It prefers to exclude millions of ebookers who are using devices that require the ePub format.

So I ask again: What makes the ebook market different from the other entertainment markets in which Amazon competes?

It surely can’t be because Amazon doesn’t think it can have a winning hand. Amazon has competed and continues to compete in the hardcover and paperback market on equal terms with all competitors, yet it is the dominant bookseller in those markets. I would expect Amazon to dominate in the ePub ebook market as well, simply because of its marketing prowess, its reputation for value and low prices, and its willingness to operate at a loss fiscal quarter after fiscal quarter.

Although no one has accurate numbers, I think it is reasonable to speculate that Sony, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble have sold millions of ereading devices, not one of which is compatible with the Amazon ebook store. Yet every B&N-branded device is compatible with the Sony and Kobo ebookstores (and every ePub ebookstore except Apple’s) — buy a book at Sony, download it to your computer, and sideload it onto your Nook. No questions asked. Similarly, Kobo and Sony devices work the same with any ePub ebookstore except B&N and Apple.

Why is Amazon willing to ignore the millions of readers in the ePub market? Strategically, Amazon has always tried to make people want to shop at Amazon because of price, selection, and ease of buying. Isn’t that the rationale behind the patenting of the 1-click system? And this is the strategy Amazon follows in everything it sells — except ebooks. Why?

I wonder about this but have no answer. I’m certainly open to suggestions, but I struggle to see how ebooks are different from movie DVDs, digital music, televisions, baby diapers, or any other commodity within Amazon’s sales world. The rationale for establishing an exclusionary system for ebooks when all else is inclusionary eludes me.

What else also eludes me is why Amazon thinks this is good policy for Amazon. Amazon has always worked on the principle that if a person buys their hardcover or paperback books from Amazon, they will also buy their TV from Amazon. So if a person won’t or can’t buy their ebooks from Amazon, are they likely to buy their TV from Amazon? Does this exclusionary policy on ebooks have a snowball effect on other items Amazon sells and on the other markets in which it competes?

Consider this difference as well: Amazon has gone to great effort to create the Kindle, its own dedicated reading device using a proprietary format and DRM scheme. But it hasn’t gone to that effort for other devices such as a DVD player. Why? What makes ebooks and the ebook market different from every other commodity that Amazon sells and every other market in which Amazon competes?

The only answer I have come up with, and I don’t find it a satisfactory answer, is that of all the industries represented by the goods that Amazon sells, the weakest in every sense of the word is the publishing industry, making it the one industry that is highly vulnerable to a direct attack by Amazon. Amazon can become a major publisher because of the industry’s weakness and thus be a vertically integrated enterprise — something that would be much more difficult and costly if attempted in the movie or TV production industries.

Of course, the same question can be asked about B&N’s choice of a DRM scheme, but at least B&N has made it freely available to all other device makers. That it hasn’t been adopted by Kobo or Sony, for example, does make me wonder if B&N hasn’t made a major error in not changing its DRM scheme to be compatible with Sony and Kobo. I think given a choice between the Sony, Kobo, and B&N ebookstores, most ebookers would shop at B&N, even if they prefer the Sony or Kobo device over the Nook.

What do you think?

January 11, 2012

eBooks: Are eBooks Commodities? Redux

Followers of An American Editor read the previous post, eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?, and probably groaned at my sacrilegious point of view while frantically shaking their heads “no, neither ebooks nor books are commodities.” The argument regarding the commoditization of books is an “old” one for me. A few years ago, Jack Lyon and I made presentations at a Communication Central conference in Rochester, NY and drove to Poughkeepsie, NY together — a 4.5-hour drive. On that drive, this was one of the weighty matters we discussed. Jack was adamant that books are not commodities

I used to think the same, but books, particularly fiction books, have gone the way of athletes and soda pop and become commodities. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the movie Moneyball, starring Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt, which is the story of a major league baseball team coming to the realization that with free agency, baseball players are now commodities, I highly recommend you see it. A true story that is well done as a movie.) What follows is Jack’s response to my commoditization view.


Books as Dish Soap
by Jack Lyon

In a previous post, Rich Adin discussed ebooks as commodities [see eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?]. This ties into a discussion Rich and I had a couple of years ago about marketing. The conversation went like this:

Jack: I hate the whole corporate mindset that treats books as “product”—just a homogenous mass of words and pages. It’s like marketing dish soap.

Rich: That’s how books should be marketed.

Jack: What?!

Rich: Yep. Just like dish soap. How else would you do it?

I never did come up with a good answer to that question. Finally, I admitted that Rich was right—but I didn’t like it then, and I still don’t!

Let’s go back about 30 years to my first job as editor at a trade publishing house. I really admired the company president, who held not an MBA but a Ph.D. in English literature. Here was an executive who actually cared about books! In a speech to employees, I heard him say this:

“I love the opportunity we have to share what we do with others, to be able to face a customer and honestly say, ‘I love what I’m doing, and I can share something with you that can change your life forever. I can give you a friend that will never, ever leave you.’…It was at least ten years ago that I heard Charles Scribner say, ‘If books become obsolete, I will make candles.’ He didn’t explain his remark, but I think he had in mind that although the electric light has made candles obsolete, candlemaking today is a $100 million industry—not large, but it casts a lovely light, and, after all, books are candles.”

Shortly after that speech, the chairman of the board assigned the president a new position—as CEO of a department store. This man who loved books so much ended up selling kitchen appliances and underwear.

I see the commoditization of books as being analogous to the commoditization of everything else, including people. We no longer have personnel departments; instead, we have human resources. We no longer have leaders who understand a particular industry; instead, we have MBAs who are cranked out like sausages to manage corporations in any industry. With our narrow focus on the bottom line, we’ve ripped the heart out of our businesses—at least, those that used to have one.

So are books commodities, like dish soap? To some degree, yes. As Rich points out, if I can’t get my horror fix from Stephen King, I can easily turn to Dean Koontz. Their books are what economists call “substitute goods.”

If I can’t get Coca-Cola, I’m happy to drink Pepsi (although that’s not true of dedicated Coke drinkers like Rich). If I can’t use Dawn on my dishes, I’m happy to use Dove. Advertisers are aware of this, which is why they spend so much money promoting Coke over Pepsi (and vice versa). Other than the emotional appeal used in marketing, there’s not a lot of difference between one substitute good and another.

The same is true of many genre books, like romance, westerns, and science fiction. I’m usually just as happy to read Orson Scott Card as I am to read Gene Wolfe. But there are exceptions. To me, Wolfe’s There Are Doors is more than just your everyday science-fiction entertainment. Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep speaks to me on a level that few other books attain.

And what do we do when a masterpiece like Moby Dick comes along—or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Little Prince, The Mouse and His Child? Don’t you have a handful of books that have changed your life? I know I do. Such books truly are candles, and their glow illuminates the world in ways nothing else can. In spite of marketers’ promises, I don’t think that’s something dish soap will ever do.


Jack’s argument is less that books aren’t commodities than it is that some books rise above the level of being a commodity. But in the case of fiction, especially bestseller fiction of today, I still think books are substitutable. If they weren’t, what would I read in my favorite genres as I wait for the next book by a favorite author to become available? And what happens when that favorite author stops writing? Do I suddenly stop reading?

What do you think?

January 9, 2012

eBooks: Has Amazon Turned eBooks into Commodities?

For a long time, publishers and readers have argued that each book is unique and thus one cannot substitute, say, a book by Dean Koontz for one by Stephen King. For years I accepted that — until ebooks and agency pricing and Amazon exclusivity. Now, in the case of fiction at least, I think the tides have turned and ebooks demonstrate books and authors are substitutable, that is, (fiction) books are commodities.

Until inflated agency pricing of bestsellers and Amazon’s concerted effort to dominate the ebook market, I would not have considered substituting one author for another author — at least not consciously. Yet the more I think about book buying and reading habits, the more convinced I am that between the criteria genre and author, it is genre that dominates.

Before the advent of ebooks on a wide scale, most readers bought (or borrowed) physical books to read. Physical books, except in the secondary market, were (and are) highly priced. A popular hardcover today, averages $25 and climbing. As a consequence, a reader carefully chose the book to buy and placed the emphasis on author and genre. For $25, the reader wants Tom Clancy, not Jack Unknown.

Amazon began to whittle away at that reader preference with its heavy discounts. Selling bestsellers at $9.99 rather than $25 meant that a reader who had already read Clancy’s latest novel could look for something else within the genre and take a chance on Jack Unknown. The investment was not overwhelming.

Today, Amazon has gone further with ebooks. Tom Clancy’s newest release may cost $14.99 in ebook form (and less in hardcover), but readers are increasingly finding ebooks at $2.99 and less in the same genre by unknown authors worth a try as they wait for the Tom Clancy novel to come down in price — or simply move beyond Clancy altogether.

Amazon, by aggressively courting the indie author and by aggressively pricing indie titles, has expanded what readers will search to find a good book to read. And Amazon has gone the further step with its Prime Lending program and Kindle Direct Publishing programs. Amazon has given its stamp of approval to indie books and authors. Although I think Amazon is not a bookseller to patronize because of its desire to monopolize the integrated book market, it deserves a great deal of credit for changing books into commodities.

I know that many of you will clamor to say that I am wrong, but I ask you to consider this: Once you have bought and read the latest release from your favorite author, do you stop buying and reading books until that author’s next release in 2 or 3 years or do you continue to buy and read books within that genre? And if you do continue to buy and read books, do you continue to be entertained by them or are you only entertained by books written by your favorite author? Finally, do you rush out to buy your favorite author’s newest release or do you wait for a less expensive edition to appear?

If you answer yes to the latter parts of each question (at least the first two questions), then books are commodities and substitutable. And this is the revolution that Amazon has wrought aided by the Agency 6 — the change in how readers view books, especially ebooks. What the Agency 6 claimed they wanted to prevent by instituting agency pricing, they have instead brought about by encouraging, through their actions, Amazon to legitimize the indie marketplace.

Prior to this legitimization, indie books and vanity books were synonymous. That is no longer true. Amazon has made it possible for known and respected authors to go indie and not be negatively viewed by readers. What vanity presses sought for decades, the Agency 6 gave them in months.

The commoditization of books is both good and bad. It is good because a wider range of authors are discovered. The Shayne Parkinsons, Vicki Tyleys, L.J. Sellers, and Richard Tuttles of the indie world — authors who write very well and excellent stories but who were unable (or unwilling) to break into the traditional publishing world — now have a chance to be discovered and claim the large and broad readership their writings deserve. I admit that prior to the commoditization of books, I would not have tried any of these authors. But once indie books were legitimized and books commoditized, I began to explore the indie world and found numerous gems, with some authors and books being better than what I could find in the traditional book world.

Commoditization is, however, also bad — bad for publishing, for authors, and readers — because in coming years the writers who currently make grand incomes from writing — the Stephen Kings and Tom Clancys of publishing — may well find themselves unable to attract an audience for their higher priced efforts. Granted that this is just the marketplace at work, but the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. As the market settles on a low price ceiling, that ceiling will become crowded and with the ease of entry into ebook publishing, it will become increasingly difficult to find the King and Clancy of the 2020s.

A balance is needed, but I have no idea how to bring it about or what that balance should be. Amazon deserves praise and scorn for commoditizing books, but more praise than scorn. In this, Amazon has done well.

January 4, 2012

The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online VIII — Macros Redux

In The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online VII –  Macros Again, I discussed how I make use of a decision tree to design macros. Jack Lyon, the master of macros and author of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word, approaches macros differently. In today’s guest article, Jack discusses his approach to macros.


Life in a Macro

by Jack Lyon

After mentioning my new Macro Cookbook over the course of several blog posts, Rich Adin has graciously asked me to write a guest editorial related to macros, something I’m delighted to do. In his most recent post, Rich described his technique for sketching out a flow chart on paper, which helps him outline what he wants a macro to achieve before he starts working on the macro itself. This time-honored technique for programming is clarifying and efficient, especially in the early stages of a macro:

As I read Rich’s post, however, I realized that it’s been many years since I created a flowchart before starting to make a macro. Why is that? I wondered. What’s changed? And what do I do differently now?

I think what’s changed is that I’m now a lot more focused on the outcome of a macro rather than its process. As my programming skills have improved, I’ve become more concerned with what rather than how, with ends rather than means because the ability to create those ends has become almost second nature. And I think most skills are like that.

I’m a moderately skilled jazz musician (Hammond organ with Leslie speaker — oh, yeah), but I still have lots to learn, and when I’m working on a new run, I have to play quite mechanically until finally my fingers learn where I want them to go. After that, I can use the run in a variety of songs. But a run isn’t a song. And it’s the song that’s important. The song is the run’s reason for being.

When I’m creating a macro, the first thing I do is decide precisely what I want the macro to do. Some examples:

  • Title case every paragraph styled as Heading 1.
  • Remove extra spaces between footnotes.
  • Convert an automatically numbered list into a manually numbered list.

After getting the purpose firmly in mind, I usually work on a simple macro to see if what I want to do is even possible (proof of concept). If I were trying to title case every paragraph styled as Heading 1, for example, my thinking might go something like this:

Okay, first I need to create a macro that finds a paragraph styled as Heading 1. Hmmm. Probably easiest just to record it.

So I record it. Here’s what I get:

Selection.Find.Style = ActiveDocument.Styles(“Heading 1”)
With Selection.Find
.Text = “”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With

Now, what’s that command to title case selected text? Can’t remember. Probably easiest (again) just to record it.

So I record it. Here’s what I get:

Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord

Well, that will take care of one instance. What about all the rest?

Then I realize that this is a classic case of a macro pattern I use all the time:

  1. Find something.
  2. Do something to what was found.
  3. Find the next something.

See my Macro Cookbookfor more on this. Basically, it just means adding the following construction at the end of the macro:

While Selection.Find.Found = True
[Do something here]

In this case, I need to add the command to title-case the selected text, like this:

While Selection.Find.Found = True
Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord

 So the completed macro looks like this:

Selection.Find.Style = ActiveDocument.Styles(“Heading 1”)
With Selection.Find
.Text = “”
.Replacement.Text = “”
.Forward = True
.Wrap = wdFindContinue
.Format = True
.MatchCase = False
.MatchWholeWord = False
.MatchWildcards = False
.MatchSoundsLike = False
.MatchAllWordForms = False
End With
While Selection.Find.Found = True
Selection.Range.Case = wdTitleWord

So gradually I’ll put together the various macro commands that work in sequence to do what I need.

Easy for me to say, right? Okay, okay. If you’re just getting started with macros, using Rich’s flowchart is a better way to go. Decide precisely, step by step, the things you want your macro to do, and list those steps:

  1. Find a paragraph styled as Heading 1.
  2. Title-case the paragraph.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 until no more paragraphs are found.

Then get the commands for each step (by recording, borrowing, or whatever).

Then put the commands together to do what you need.

Finally, test your macro to see if it does what you planned. If it doesn’t, revise it until it does.

As this is the beginning of a new year, I’m feeling a little philosophical, so I’m wondering if we could apply a similar process to life. Can we figure out precisely what we want to have happen and then figure out the essential steps to make it so? Or is life more complex and unpredictable than that? Time to get out those flowcharts!

I hope this new year will be a happy one for you and yours.


It strikes me that Jack’s approach is to have a single focus and then to combine several single-focus macros into a single macro that runs serially. I may be wrong about his approach, but I do think it demonstrates how different the approaches to writing macros can be. Jack’s approach is also one that an experienced macro creator can use, but I think for those of us who are not at the mastery level, flow-charting is better because it helps us focus on the steps.

What do you think? Which approach will you adopt?

January 2, 2012

The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online VII – Macros Again

In prior posts, I talked about how effective online editing includes mastering macros. See, for example, The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros. What wasn’t discussed is how to plan a macro.

For the simple macro, the macro that, for example, replaces two spaces with one space, not much planning is required; what is needed is fairly obvious. As a macro grows more complex, however, the difference between success and failure is often how much effort was placed in the planning of the macro. A well-planned macro nearly writes itself.

Consider most of the macros in the EditTools collection. These are complex macros that require multiple routines to accomplish designated goals and tasks. Because of their complexity, it is easy to get lost in the programming and thus not produce a usable macro.

Consequently, when planning a macro I use a decision-tree process. I also use Storyboard paper that I buy from Levenger because it helps me visualize what I need to do. More importantly, it breaks what I need to do down into manageable chunks.

I begin at the end of the process: I define what I want the macro to accomplish. I then try to define each step that will take me to that endpoint. I use the If…Then… process: If abc is found, Then do xyz, but If abc is not found, Then do pqr.

Using the storyboard, I make each If…Then… its own entry. In the blank box on the left, I write the If…Then…; on the lines to the right, I write the code, line by line to make the If…Then… happen. It takes at least a pair of boxes to make a single whole If…Then… phrase because the first is the found and the second is the not found. Sometimes more than one not found is required so a single If…Then… process may need more than a pair of boxes.

Note, however, that I am using the If…Then… concept as a substitute for a lot of possibilities. It should not be taken literally as an If…Then… in coding terms. It is simply a way of breaking the process down into manageable chunks.

Making these small blocks of code serves many purposes. To make them reusable, I also number them. The numbers are not used except as a way to cross-reference. If I have already written a chunk of code that will do what I need done in the next step, I simply refer to the block of code by number for later copy and paste.

The small chunks also serve a much more important purpose: they make it easier to figure out why something is not occurring as I intend. Plus they can be reused in other future macros — no sense reinventing the macro. And they make it much easier to rearrange a macro’s coding when I subsequently think of a better or more efficient way to accomplish a task.

Yet I can hear the question now: Why do on paper what you need to do online? Yes, it can be repetitive work to first do the coding on paper and then transfer the coding to online, but the process allows me to think twice about what I am doing and — definitely of more importance — coding online takes away the storyboard decision-making tree, thus making it harder to visualize the entire process or even how a small portion fits within the scheme of the macro. A little extra work now often saves a lot of extra work later.

If you look at the Storyboard paper, you see the box at the left in which I place my decision-tree information. That information serves much the same purpose as inserting a comment into a macro. But on the Storyboard I can readily see what comes before and what comes after the block on which I am working, which can be difficult to do onscreen.

No matter what method you ultimately choose, you need to have a decision-tree method at hand so as to avoid missing important steps in the macro process or leaving out things you want the macro to do depending on what is found or not found. If you use or have available Microsoft PowerPoint (or a similar program), you can use it to create an onscreen storyboard. I have tried it, but found it too cumbersome for me; at heart, for these kinds of tasks, I’m still a creature of habit and my generation and paper and pencil seem to work best.

The key is, however, to plan your macro. Even if the coding is beyond your capabilities and so you intend to hire someone to code the macro for you, having a decision tree that can be given to the coder will reduce your costs and ensure that the coder understands what you want. The coder may have suggestions for improvement, but the decision tree ensures that everyone is on the same page.

The decision tree can also make your learning to code complex macros easier and quicker. Combine it with Jack Lyon’s Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and you will discover that as you learn to code a small portion of a macro you are mastering macros. You will also find a greater sense of accomplishment as one coding success follows another in logical sequence.

The combination of the decision-tree process and the Macro Cookbook is a sure way to master the macro process a professional editor needs. Remember that the more efficiently you can edit the more money you can make over the long-term. The biggest failing professional editors have is the inability to get beyond the short-term outlook. Taking on the challenge of mastering macros will help you extend your outlook to the longer term.

December 26, 2011

Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources

In recent weeks, two new publications have appeared: Cite Right, 2nd ed., by Charles Lipson (ISBN 978-0-226-48464-8), and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed (ISBN 978-0-547-04101-8).

Although I have the print versions of Scientific Style and Format (7th ed), by the Council of Science Editors; The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed); the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual (6th ed); and the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style (10th ed) within arm’s reach at all times (plus previous editions of these books also readily available), Cite Right is a timesaver and the first place I look for a quick answer to a reference styling question.

Alas, the second edition, published by, as “proudly” noted on the front cover, “…the University of Chicago Press, publisher of the The Chicago Manual of Style” suffers from the some of the same problems that the original release of the Chicago Manual (16th ed) did: a critical resource was not carefully checked for accuracy. I’ve noted a couple of errors in Cite Right, but even with those errors, this is a valuable tool for an editor.

A professional editor would not — should not — rely on a secondary source for primary source information. Rather, the secondary source should be used to refresh one’s primary source memory information. If used in this manner, that is, you have familiarized yourself with the primary source and have access to the primary source, but use Cite Right for a quick refresher of a style question you haven’t come across recently, then Cite Right is an excellent tool — and it is reasonably priced (list price is $14; discounted price at B& is $10.45). If you deal with references, and if you deal with more than one reference style manual, Cite Right should be sitting on your desk within easy reach. Among the various styles it includes are these: Chicago (Turabian), American Psychological Association (APA), American Medical Association (AMA), Council of Science Editors (CSE), American Chemical Society (ACS), Modern Language Association (MLA), and American Anthropological Association (AAA).

As pleased as I was to see a new edition of Cite Right, I was even more pleased to see a new edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. I own — and use — a lot of dictionaries. I like to compare usage, spelling, and definitions. Usually they are in agreement, but sometimes they do disagree. Also important is that coverage is not precisely identical as the editorial boards of the various dictionaries often decide differently about whether to include a “new” word.

Of all the single-volume dictionaries for American English that I use, the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) is by far my favorite. I especially like its choice of font. As I’ve gotten older, and my eyes have gotten wearier, I increasingly appreciate the design of the AHD. Counterbalancing that, however, is the AHD’s physical dimensions and weight. Compared to the AHD, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) is like a feather. Yet, I reach for AHD first.

A nice feature of the AHD is that for some entries it offers synonyms and usage information. That ties in nicely with my interest in word origins and usage (I do need to start writing again about usage and word histories; it has been too long since I last did so). I especially like reading divergent views about a word’s usage (which is why Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage [3rd ed] is always nearby), because of the insight into language it can provide.

In any event, the fifth edition of AHD was published last month and it is a worthy, albeit not inexpensive (list price $60, discounted price at B&N $38.46), addition to any professional editor’s resources, even if your clients consistently prefer a different dictionary. AHD is worthwhile as a supplement that provides insight into our language, something that many of its competitors lack.

One negative I have found to being a professional editor is the constant procession of new or updated resources that I “need” in my library. I admit that I am always on the lookout for print resources that improve my editing skills and knowledge, which, hopefully, increases my value to my clients and prospective clients. But I am careful not to let these resources sidetrack me, which can easily happen. Books like Cite Right and The American Heritage Dictionary serve useful purposes, but they are not a substitute for a good grasp of editing fundamentals. That is something to keep in mind, especially if you are looking to hire a professional editor: An editor’s bookshelf can provide an insight into the editor’s skill level and interest, but is not a substitute for those skills. The resources an editor uses should complement the skills the editor has and applies.

December 19, 2011

Working Effectively Online VI — The Books

One thing I have noticed when discussing resources with my colleagues nowadays is that they often rely on online resources rather than printed books for everything they can. For example, rather than opening The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, now in its just-released fifth edition, to check a spelling or a definition, they will go to or Merriam-Webster online.

The good about doing so is that (presumably) the online sources are not only accurate, but are updated regularly and thus more current, than a print book can be, at least if the supplementation is in print form. Even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary has turned to online, offering a year’s subscription for the (relatively) paltry sum of $295.

I don’t disapprove of using online resources — as long as one is choosy about the resource. What is good about the Internet is also what is bad about the Internet. It is easy to post information; anyone can do it. I make use of online resources that are specific to the type of editing I do and that are no longer available in print form or I don’t use often enough to warrant purchase of a print version. Three good examples for me are the National Library of Medicine (NLM)’s Catalog, which provides access to NLM bibliographic data for journals and books; NLM’s PubMed, which comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books; and Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS)’s Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist, a comprehensive catalogue of all known species of organisms on Earth that contains 1,347,224 species, which is probably just slightly over 2/3 of the world’s known species.

But when it comes chemical compounds, spelling, definitions, grammar, and usage, I prefer the printed book.

I was thinking about this anomaly — doing 100% of my editing work online yet still using print resources to check things — and wondering whether my continued reliance on print books as resources lessens the effectiveness of my online editing. Alas, I can come to no definitive conclusion.

The answer is, at best, “maybe or maybe not.” For example, in experimenting with using Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (31st ed.) online versus the print version, I discovered that the online version is ill-designed and requires multiple steps to get to what may be a dead end. Generally, I found using the print version easier and quicker. The same was true when I experimented with Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (28th edition).

I also have a habit of liking to look in multiple sources. As a result, I have built up a good library that is focused on my subject areas. I also like to check history. For example, while Dorland’s 31st likes eponyms to be nonpossessive, the possessive was preferred for years and many editions past. When a client insists that, for a particular book, the possessive needs to be used except in those instances that were specifically noted to be nonpossessive (I always loved that about Dorland’s — there was no rhyme nor reason to when an eponym was possessive or not; they were just possessive or not — before the 31st edition), I simply whip out a copy of an earlier edition, something I cannot do with online sources.

Let’s not forget the expense. A lot of colleagues use only free resources. I’ve always been leery of free sources. After all, it takes time and money to put this material together, to check it for accuracy, and to update it. I know I struggle just to find time to update the list of books I’ve edited, to the point that I have neglected to do the updating for a couple of years. I’ve viewed this like the free antivirus programs — they are great until the first time they aren’t great. We all know that the free antivirus program cannot be as good as the paid version of the same program for the logical reason that, if it were as good, the company would be out of business.

The online sources that I would rely on in many areas are not inexpensive. And the cost grows as one renews each year. In contrast, I buy a print book and its cost amortizes over the years of use; it is a one-time payment, which appeals to the frugal in me.

Regardless of whether we use print or online resources, the bottom-line is whether we use a sufficient number and variety of resources to ensure that we are providing the best quality of editing or information that we can to our clients. I once asked at a seminar, “How many editors present regularly check word usage and if you do, in how many sources?” I was surprised to discover how few check usage and wasn’t surprised that those who do usually check one source. When I probed further, I discovered that usage was checked by Binging or Googling.

I admit that I had never thought to Bing or Google a usage question; I have always turned to the various usage books I have sitting next to my desk. Interestingly, the most important usage guide for American English, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition) by Bryan Garner, isn’t available online except as part of Oxford University Press’ Dictionary Pro package, which must be expensive because they don’t post a price — you have to request it.

I guess this is one area where one has to compromise. Some things are readily and reliably researched online; some things are better researched in print. Whatever your editorial field is, you need to keep handy both online and print resources. The biggest advantage that print has is the ability to go back to earlier editions if necessary — online resources tend to always go forward without preserving the previous. Yet, as I have discovered on several occasions, there are times when the answer to a question cannot be found in the current edition, but can be found in a previous edition, which is why I keep past editions of all my resource books.

I suspect that in future years fewer print resources will be used by editors and a greater reliance will be placed on online resources, especially as those of us who grew up using print resources retire and those who grew up on the Internet take over.

December 14, 2011

eBook Exclusivity — A Good or Bad Idea?

The answer really is “it depends.” It depends on who you are and where you are in the ebook world.

Recently, Amazon started a program for its Prime members: they can borrow 1 ebook for free each month, choosing from a list of more than 30,000 titles (and the list is growing). The source of these ebooks appears to be the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. Amazon is encouraging self-publishing authors to participate in KDP. KDP will “lend” books in its program to Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which is part of the Prime membership.

Amazon hasn’t ignored compensation, either. It has set up a pool of money ($500,000), which is the pool for the first month (Amazon plans to set aside $6 million for the 2012 pool). Every indie-author-participant whose book is borrowed will receive a share of the pool based on the number of times the book is borrowed as a share of total borrowings of all particpating ebooks. Presumably, if your book is borrowed 100 times and the total number of borrowings is 500,000, you would receive $1 for each borrowing (hopefully my math is correct). If, on the other hand, your book is lost in the ever-growing list and not borrowed at all, you will receive nothing except for whatever royalty you are due in the normal course of business with Amazon as a result of sales.

So far, so good — or so it would appear.

Let me say upfront that I am not a friend of Amazon. I disapprove of Amazon’s attempts to dominate the ebook market. But I do admire Amazon’s creativity. The one thing I truly feel confident in stating about Amazon is this: whatever Amazon does, it has carefully thought about how it will ultimately benefit Amazon and further Amazon’s dominance interests. In other words, Amazon is a business’ business. Unfortunately, a corollary to that equation is that what is good for Amazon may not be good for consumers and/or authors and publishers in the long-term. Amazon is proving adept at focusing everyone outside Amazon on the short-term and assuming that the long-term will be equally glorious. As the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

The deal with Amazon is this: The author/publisher agrees to give Amazon’s KDP exclusive rights to the ebook. The author/publisher agrees that the book will not be available at any place other than Amazon, not even the author’s own website, during the exclusivity term, which term runs for 90 days and is automatically extended unless the author/publisher takes affirmative action to withdraw from the program — with the long-term consequences of withdrawal not currently known.

Exclusivity both bothers me and worries me. It bothers me because Amazon’s environment is a closed environment (yes, I know one can strip the DRM but most consumers can’t and won’t, and I know that Amazon has application for nearly every reading device known to humankind, but that means that even though I’ve chosen Sony or Barnes & Noble over Amazon, Amazon is pressuring me to kowtow to it), unlike virtually every other ebook retailer (with the notable exception of Apple). To read an Amazon DRMed ebook, you must use an Amazon device or application; with most other ebook retailers all that matters is that your device be ePub capable. (And, yes, I do know that there is a DRM problem with B&N and even more so with Apple.) So the exclusivity program bothers me because Amazon is locking up authors and their books to the Amazon platform, whether I want to be on it or not.

Yet worse is what worries me about this program — all the unknowns. I know that Amazon’s big ebook authors — its million sellers like J.A. Konrath (whose books I have never read or bought) — signed on but what I don’t know is whether they signed on under the same terms as Sally Unknown has to sign. More importantly, however, is that Amazon is trying to get the Agency 6 to sign on and is rumored to be offering them a set fee for each borrowing, that is, they would not participate in the pooled money.

If the deal being offered the indie authors is such a sweetheart deal, why isn’t it the same deal as being offered to others? The mighty shaft is rising and it’s not aiming for the Agency 6!

I am also concerned that authors may feel they must join this program in order to stay within Amazon’s good graces. After all, for most authors currently, the bulk of their sales are via Amazon. Yet, there is something that indie authors need to look at, and do so carefully: how are their sales trending?

Jeff Bennington, a suspense writer, explains at his The Writing Bomb blog his decision to participate. Personally, I don’t find his arguments convincing. Bennington states he is joining because 97% of his books have sold via Amazon. One needs to back up a bit from giving that fact too much credence. For example, that number represents past sales not future sales. More important than past sales is the sales trend: has growth on Amazon plateaued while sales at B&N are growing at a 30% rate? What has the author done/not done to promote his book at the Sony store? Have all his promotion efforts been geared to Amazon?

Ultimately, the exclusivity arrangement will hurt lesser-known authors for several reasons: (1) once on the exclusivity bandwagon, it will be difficult to get off (not only must one take affirmative steps to get off, but one has to overcome the fear factor of doing so). (2) Amazon dominates the U.S. market but does it dominate elsewhere? As I understand it, the exclusivity is worldwide. (3) Authors face the same problem in KDP that they face outside KDP — who knows of them or about their book? If KDP already has more than 50,000 participating titles, what are the odds of someone picking your book over another book? (4) If Amazon is successful in getting the Agency 6 to participate and that participation includes the top-tier authors — the Stephen Kings and Clive Cusslers and Ruth Rendells of the publishing world — how likely is it that someone will pick Sally Unknown’s ebook to read for free as opposed to one of Stephen King’s ebooks, especially when the reader can only borrow 1 ebook a month?

What exactly is the indie author getting by participating — not what does the indie author hope to get by participating? All I see that is definite are benefits flowing to Amazon, which has put itself in a no-lose situation; it is wishful thinking and hopes that flows to indie authors.

One other issue matters, I think. What KDP indie-author-participants earn is based on the percentage their sales represent of all sales (unlike the Agency 6 who get paid a set amount each time a book is “borrowed” and who knows what the million ebook club members get). Who has the right and is going to audit the program to verify that the numbers are correct? As far as I can tell, authors are not given the right to audit the entire program, which seems to me to be fundamental to determining whether exclusivity with Amazon is the right move for your book. When Amazon sends you a check for $10, how do you know that it shouldn’t be for $100 if you cannot audit the whole program? And if this is such an up-and-up sweetheart deal for the indie author, then why can’t an indie author or a group of indie authors audit the program? I guess it all boils down to believing “Amazon is my friend and will do me no harm.”

As I noted earlier, I am not a friend of Amazon. I fear what will happen when the only choice for buying an ebook is Amazon, and Amazon is doing everything it can to hasten that day. It is worrisome when indie authors are willing to jump on Amazon’s bandwagon without looking in depth at Amazon’s KDP program and its exclusivity arrangements and the red flags that should be arising. Instead of joining the herd and singing the mantra “Amazon is my friend, I need not worry,” indie authors should be singing the mantra “Amazon is Amazon’s friend, and I do need to worry.”

Indie authors — and all publishers and authors — need to think and look long-term and not be seduced by the possible but uncertain short-term. The waters are shark infested.


December 12, 2011

On Books: Saladin

History and biography captivate me. Although they seem intertwined, and they usually are, I find that I can read with great pleasure a biography of someone whose importance in history is perhaps marginal or of importance only in a narrow set of circumstances. Biographies of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, and Paul Cézanne come to mind as examples. Although interesting, I suspect if their biographies were never read or written it would not matter much to history.

In contrast, there are people whose biographies are so intertwined with history that one does not get a full picture of the historical events with which they are associated in the absence of reading their biography and the biographies of those both close to them and in opposition to them. Some examples that come to mind are Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, and John Brown.

I would add to this list of indispensable biography that of Saladin. I have long searched for a good, comprehensive biography of Saladin and finally found one. Published in the United States just last month (a translation from the original 2008 French edition) Anne-Marie Eddé’s Saladin, translated by Jane Marie Todd, is an exceptional look at one of the great figures of history.

Over the years, I have read, or attempted to read, several “comprehensive” biographies of Saladin. Not only were none comprehensive, but most were very cursory. Eddé’s Saladin, on the other hand, is rich with detail and clearly the fruit of original research. (Kudos also have to be extended to Jane Marie Todd. Her translation is outstanding. Much too often I find translations to be accurate but lacking in flow and tone, especially the tone of the original. I admit that I do not read French and so have not read Saladin in the original, but I feel confident in stating Todd captured the nuances and tone of the original. This translation was easy to read; I would have thought that English was Eddé’s native tongue.)

Even today, the Muslim world celebrates the achievements of Saladin. Interestingly, although the Arabs claim him as one of their own, Saladin was a Kurd, not an Arab. More important, however, to both ancient and modern history is that Saladin was a Muslim who fought for the Muslim cause against the Christian crusaders.

Saladin was a living hero and remains a hero today. He united Egypt and Syria under a single ruler, he fought Richard the Lion-heart in the Third Crusade to a draw, cementing a relationship in history between two giants. (For an excellent dual biography of Saladin and Richard that is focused on their complex and intertwined relationship during the Third Crusade, I recommend James Reston’s Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade [2001]. Unlike Eddé’s Saladin, the focus of Reston’s book is narrow.) And he recaptured Jerusalem, perhaps the most fought-over city in history. (Sitting on my to-be-read shelf is the newly published Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This is at the top of my TBR list, although I also have several other books that are vying for the next-to-be-read position.)

During his lifetime and over the course of subsequent generations, the myth of Saladin grew, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction. In this sense, Eddé has a difficult road to walk but she does so admirably. A reader comes away with a better sense of the real Saladin, which is not a denigration of his greatness — Saladin was great for his time.

Eddé’s biography does one other thing, and I think does it well: it provides the Western reader with a view of the Muslim world and of the Crusades from a Muslim perspective, rather than solely from a Western perspective. In addition, we get to see Saladin as more than just a warrior; after all, he was responsible for governing as well as military affairs.

During his lifetime, Saladin gained a reputation for chivalry, trustworthiness, and magnanimity. This reputation was extant among both his followers and his enemies. Saladin’s magnanimity, however, did not preclude his enslaving thousands of prisoners or beheading those who refused his offer of a reprieve if they converted to Islam. He was a semi-enlightened ruler for his era, not a revolutionary ruler who changed the dynamics of the time. Eddé’s biography of Saladin gives us the opportunity to learn more about Saladin as a man of his time, rather than as a mythical warrior-hero.

If you are interested in the history of the Crusades, Medieval history, or great biography, I highly recommend Saladin by Anne-Marie Eddé. It will change your perspective about an important moment in human history. If the book has a failing, it is, perhaps, that it is too richly detailed. Regardless, this is a 5-star book that deserves space in one’s permanent book collection.

December 7, 2011

Working Effectively Online V — Stylesheets

When professional editors work on projects, they create a stylesheet for each one, a central form that details the editing decisions they have made. For example, in the medical world, distension and distention are correct spellings of the same word. An editor would decide which spelling is to be used for a project and note it on the stylesheet. Some may be handwritten, some may be online. I (and those who work for me) use an online version.

The stylesheet serves multiple purposes, the two most prominent ones being a guide to the editor as the editing project moves over days, weeks, even months, and as a guide to the proofreader. In my editing world, our online stylesheet serves additional important purposes. First, it is designed to enable two or more editors to work together on a project, yet use the same stylesheet and see decisions made by other editors in real-time. In my system, there is virtually no limit to the number of editors who can access and use the same online stylesheet.

Second, it lets me make a project’s stylesheet available to my client 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In my system, the client is given access to the online stylesheet to view it and to print it but the client cannot make any changes to the stylesheet. Because this is where all editorial decisions regarding the project are stored, the client can review the decisions and alert us to any of which the client disapproves. That allows us to make changes before the “mistake” becomes very costly to correct. Client access also means that, when the client sends material from the project to the proofreader, the client can also provide the proofreader with a current-to-the-minute stylesheet.

Beyond these vital functions, I can give the book author(s) client-type access (i.e., view and print but not change) so the author can give us guidance. (It should be noted that just as editors need to create a stylesheet, so should authors. The smoothest editing projects I have encountered in 28 years of editing have been those in which the authors created stylesheets and provided them before I began editing.)

I realize that much of what is, in my eyes, wonderful about my online stylesheet is because of the type and size of projects on which I work. The projects are often medical, with thousands of pages of manuscript, and require two to four editors. My system helps reduce inconsistencies that would otherwise occur when multiple editors work on a project. What is wonderful for my work may be inappropriate for most editors who work on much smaller projects by themselves.

Yet every editor needs to use a stylesheet to reduce inconsistencies and to alert, ultimately, the client to the decisions made. Many editors still do stylesheets on paper, which works when stylesheets are kept small, which leads to the question of how large should a stylesheet be?

Editors are in disagreement about this. I believe a stylesheet should be comprehensive. Many of my stylesheets run 40 to 50 pages. Again, my view is colored by the types of projects I do. Most of the books I do will have subsequent editions — a comprehensive stylesheet can clarify decisions made in earlier editions.

Many editors think short and sweet is better. After all, who can remember what is contained in 40 pages of style information? I think that misses the purpose of a stylesheet, which is to answer a question when it arises. No one has to read and remember everything in a stylesheet; an editor needs to concentrate on certain information, such as what form to follow for references, and then use the stylesheet to answer questions as they arise.

Regardless of how you use a stylesheet, I think editors universally agree that one must be created and kept. And this is another instance of when a mastery of your tools, especially macros, can be timesaving. Even if not timesaving, it can make using a stylesheet easier.

In the years before I created my current online stylesheet, which is based on my website, I used a local online stylesheet with macros. The macros let me select text in the main text and then process it. The selected text would be copied, the macro would then shift focus from the main text to the stylesheet and would put the cursor in the correct alphabetical box on the stylesheet. Then the macro would paste the selected text into the box, select all entries in the box, sort the entries alphabetically, save the stylesheet, and return focus to the main text. Looks complicated and difficult, but it was (is) neither, and adding to and using the stylesheet was quick and accurate.

I am an advocate of using multiple monitors when editing. My current setup uses three 24-inch pivoting monitors — usually two in portrait orientation and one in landscape, although occasionally two are in landscape. (I am thinking about adding a fourth.) I think editors should use at least two monitors, keeping the text they are editing on one and the stylesheet open on the second. With this system, macros won’t be needed as it is easy enough to select, copy, and paste and occasionally alphabetize.

The ultimate point is that, to be an effective editor, you must use stylesheets. To be an efficient editor, you should use a readily available electronic stylesheet. A stylesheet is intended to promote consistency; consequently, an editor should not only keep it handy, but should note all editorial decisions on it.

Curious About My Online Stylesheet?

For those who are curious about my online stylesheet, for a limited time you can view it and even make entries to a demonstration project. (If you do try it, I ask that you make no more than a few entries and that you be courteous and careful with your word choice so you don’t offend others who may view it.) Below is how to access the demonstration project. Please be sure to log-out when done.

NOTE: I haven’t previously given numerous people simultaneous access using the same username and password; usually each editor has his or her own username and password, and when I have given a demonstration, access was to one person at a time. Consequently, I hope this will work but do not know if it will.

  1. Go to and click on Log-in.
  2. Click FES Staff Log-in, which will bring up the log-in page.
  3. Eenter as the username demo and as the password staff and click Log-in (if someone is already logged in with this username and password, you may see a message stating you are already logged in toward the top of the page; if you see the message, click Go to Staff Service Home and continue with step 4).
  4. In the directory at the left, under All Your Projects, click wordsnSync Max to open the wordsnSync Max home page.
  5. Because you only have access to the demonstration project (A History of Freelance Editorial Services), only the demonstration project appears in the dropdown menu; click Load to bring up the stylesheet for A History of Freelance Editorial Services.

You are now viewing my online stylesheet just as an editor sees it and you can use it just as an editor can (a client sees a different view but does see the same content in the alphabetical “boxes”). Scroll down to see entries that have already been made. Feel free to make a few entries yourself. How it works should be self-explanatory. You type (or copy and paste) entries in the box at the top. If you type an entry such as

bluebird of happiness (BoH)

you can click the Add Entry to Stylesheet button (Reset Form clears out the entry box) and your item will automatically be entered in two places: first under B and in the form you typed it, and then in B acronym but in reverse form, like this: BoH (bluebird of happiness). If you try to add an entry that is already present, it won’t be permitted. Placement choices appear below the entry box.

After clicking Add Entry to Stylesheet, you are taken to a confirmation “page” where you will see other, “similar” entries. You can also change placement here. When satisfied, you can either click Confirm Entry to immediately add the text to the stylesheet or you can do nothing and, after 45 seconds, the text will automatically be added to the stylesheet.

After making an entry, watch the Newest Entries box at the left. Your addition will appear there. Via that box, each editor working on a project can see the newest entries as they are being added to the stylesheet or can check for entries made while that editor was offline.

I look forward to reading your comments on how my online stylesheet works and whether it convinces you to adopt online stylesheets for your editing work.

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