December 19, 2005 - Issue #213

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

All About Romance is a "full-service" site, featuring commentary, reviews, interviews, message boards, and two discussion lists. Because we offer so many different facets for considering romance novels, I thought handing over the reigns to my co-columnist - and AARList moderator - Anne Marble for a discussion on what topics provoked the greatest interest on AARList throughout the year would be a smart way to end the year. We hope that this will be an annual column for ATBF. (Because of confidentiality requirements built into our reader-only canwetalk list, we can't share any of those discussions.)

AARList - Hot Topics (by Anne Marble)

First, a quick introduction. What on earth is AARList? AARList is All About Romance's busy e-mail discussion group, hosted by YahooGroups. Laurie was asked to moderate the Prodigy Romance Listserv in 1997, and when Prodigy bit the dust, she moved it to ONElist as AARList. ONElist became eGroups, which gave way to YahooGroups. To further confuse the issue, I'll be referring to AARList throughout this article, but the list is technically AARList2; some years ago AARList stopped functioning, and because of a lack of support, we moved the entire membership over to a mirror list called AARList2. A year or so later, YahooGroups fixed the old list, but we stayed put. I've been the moderator of AARList since 1999, and I've seen it go through lots of permutations.

Every year, the "hot topics" on AARList demonstrate what a wide range of interests and beliefs romance readers have. Past topics have included everything from virginal and experienced heroines to "end peekers" to wallbangers and birth control. Some topics rise up and then fade up, only to rise again a couple of years later. Others, such as silly titles, will be with us always.

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This year, while the hottest topics on AARList were varied, there was a connection among several of the most popular topics. In some way or another, many of them revolved around publishing. Now don't go to sleep yet. Some of the hot discussions directly involved facets of publishing, such as e-books or the new larger format paperbacks. Others were connected to publishing indirectly - such as the future of the traditional Regency and the selection of historical romances.

E-books

Yes, you heard me right. E-books! Once considered (OK, still considered) by many to be the red-headed stepchild of publishing. When a lot of people weren't looking, e-books went up in the world. In the past, most e-book advocates were e-book authors. Now, many of the advocates are fans, including recent converts. (Yes, even LLB reads them now!)

You know all the arguments against them. Many of them were repeated on AARList this year. Who wants to read on their computer screen after a hard day of working at a computer? The "indie" e-books are written by people nobody has heard of, people who couldn't get a contract with a "real" publisher. And the darn things are full of typos and grammatical errors, anyway. The e-book editions of books published by major paper publishers are often overpriced, and the selection stinks.

Those complaints are sometimes still true. And I say that as someone who has been reading e-books on a regular basis since spring of 2000, when I bought my first Palm. However, they aren't always true, or at least not true all the time.

That's not to say e-books can't be incredibly frustrating at times, even as they are rewarding the next. First, there are the formats. A lot of sites will sell e-books in several formats --usually everything but the format I need. Some formats are difficult to use because of security precautions. (Imagine trying to learn to drive while wearing handcuffs, and you'll get the idea.) Sometimes, the hardware doesn't always behave. Then there's human error, also known as "Let me tell you about the time I accidentally deleted all forty e-books from my Palm and had to reload them when I got back home."

Then there are the publishers. Big name publishers simply don't put out enough e-book titles. Some even seen scared of e-books, for various reasons. The selections can be illogical - some publishers might have an e-book edition of book five in a series but no e-book editions of books one through four or six through ten. Also, when a book comes out in hardback (not so for trade size and paperback), the e-book edition almost always costs as much as the hardback, or nearly so - this is so the sales of a cheap e-book edition don't hurt sales of the hardback. The one reliable exception to this rule is SF publisher Baen Books, and boy, I sure bought a lot of e-books from them. They even started putting free CDs with e-books in some of their hardbacks. And guess what? Those hardbacks ended up hitting best-seller lists.

OK, there are the indie publishers. But until recently, I didn't buy all that many of those. Do you remember the Star Trek episode where Spock says, "I am endeavoring, ma'am, to construct a mnemonic circuit using stone knives and bearskins"? Well, I think that's how some small publishers designed their shopping carts, catalogs, and search engines. Things have improved in the past few years - I think because these publishers are good at listening to their customers. Still, looking for good books sold through these publishers can be a challenge. When you read the excerpt of a serious romance, you aren't supposed to end up laughing at the writing style. And I would like to give some e-book publishers tips on HTML formatting! Still, the major indie publishers, such as Ellora's Cave, know how to do it right, and as EC founder Jaid Black shared with Laurie earlier this year in another ATBF column, EC has been contracted to produce and distribute e-books for Dorchester (Leisure/LoveSpell).

Erotic romance is one reason more fans are turning to indie e-books. But it's not the only reason. When I first found out about Ellora's Cave, I visited the website, looked around for a while, bought one book, and then stayed away for a year or two. When I came back, my first thought was, "Wow! They have so many more titles now!" (No kidding, Anne!) The quality also seemed better to me. I think that has as much to do with the new-found readers as the sex. Sure, some fans are happy if a story is hot, but most fans want, well, you know, a story. Author Lynne Connolly, who has long advocated e-books, points out that in today's market, it can be as hard to get your book read by a good e-book publisher as it can to get your book read by a New York publisher. Some e-publishers are now meeting the RWA requirements for "recognized" publishers, and sales have risen from 250,000 to 500,000. These sales aren't just due to Romantica, either - paranormal romances are popular, and e-book publishers are now providing a home for traditional Regency romances as well. Lynne argues, "Quality has long been on a par with anything you will find in a New York bookstore. Of course, as with the print market, quality varies, but e-books are regularly reviewed side by side with print books, and not found wanting. I find e-books are best taken side by side with what New York has to offer."

I don't agree that the quality is always "there" with indie e-publishers. On the other hand, these publishers have opened up a whole new world to me - a world where authors are free to write love stories about vampires, werewolves, starship pilots - you name it. Where authors can write hot sex scenes (or no sex scenes at all), write about continuing characters over a series of books, create complicated worlds - you name it. It's a wild frontier, and sometimes, the writing is as unreliable as the coach in a mining town. Yet in the past couple of years, something strange has started to happen. I'd read the excerpt of an e-book on an indie e-publisher's web site - and want to read the rest of the story! The first time this happened was for Barbara McMahon's Regency e-book Banished, which I bought through Hard Shell Word Factory. But I'll admit (without blushing) that the first site where this happened on a regular basis was Ellora's Cave. Wink wink, nudge nudge...know what I mean?

Also, thanks to e-books in general, I've been able to read a number of books, from hard-to-find classics to today's latest romances. E-books have given me access to stories I might not otherwise have read - the acclaimed fantasy novel Tea with the Black Dragon, ghost stories by authors such as Algernon Blackwood, romance novels ranging from sweet Regency trads to historicals to erotic stories that made me think "Ouch, that must've hurt!" Thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg and Blackmask.com, I even have access to free public domain books such as penny dreadfuls that would cost way too much to buy in paper format. OK, I'll admit that I don't have the patience to read all 220 or so (!) chapters of Varney the Vampire, but I'm glad I can download it without having to fork out seventy bucks for the cheapest available reprint edition. All that with the instant gratification of a download and no shipping costs, as well as great customer service.

Just think, it was all the fault of a local radio talk show host. One day, he said that he read e-books on his Palm. My reaction was... "Cool, you can do that?!" Before long, I bought my first Palm, and then my first Palm e-books. While some people hate reading on the tiny Palm screen, I didn't mind - most of the time. If the book has lots of long paragraphs, the tiny screen doesn't work. Still, when Fictionwise.com announced that they were going to put a rebranded edition of the Gemstar eBook (previously the Rocket Reader) on the market for just over $100, I was one of the first in line. My eBookwise has made me an even bigger fan of e-books because the screen is bigger and brighter, and the device is easier to use and hold than a Palm. Besides, with the eBookwise, I no longer have to listen to people ask "How can you read anything on that tiny screen?"

Even better, thanks to the growing number of posts about e-books on AARList, I no longer feel like a lone voice in the wilderness when I tell people about e-books. If you're a romance fan, you can probably guess one big reason for this -- romantica. With the arrival of Ellora's Cave (and other erotic romance publishers), more and more romance readers now want to read e-books. Also, in the past couple of years, more and more readers (myself included) started asking about e-book authors on AARList, as well as on AAR's message boards. This year, the discussions really took off. This wasn't just a one-time thing, either, but a trend throughout the entire year. It's a topic that keeps coming back, like the Energizer Rabbit.

Nancy is one AARList member who counts herself as an e-book fan. The authors she loves in e-book format include big name authors such as Linda Howard, Suzanne Brockmann, JAK, Lisa Kleypas, and Liz Carlyle. One reason she loves e-books is because she loves to reread books. E-books make it easier for her to keep books that were good but not great without having to worry about running out of shelf space, so she can reread them whenever she wants. Also, she can read books while in line, in waiting rooms, in bed with the lights out, you name it. Nancy has loved some of the "e-book only authors," but she wishes more big name authors were available in e-book format. Jazz also reads e-books and finds that she hasn't bought a paper book in months. She reads on a PDA, which also lets her listen to audio books and watch videos.

And Beibei thinks e-books are great because they are a way to buy more books without everyone in her family getting on her case. I can so r elate to that! She prefers print books (as I do in many cases). But she likes e-books because they are cheaper and because her parents don't see her coming in the house with a bag of books. Once she goes away to college, Beibei hopes to be able to buy lots of books without anyone noticing. Still, she's not ruling out e-books. Take it from me, Beibei. When those books start piling up in a tiny dorm room, you'll wish you had electronic copies of all your books, just to save space!

We've all witnessed the marvelous success of some previously e-book (and/or small press) published authors who are now being published by major New York publishers. Authors coming out of the e-book industry are now viewed as actual authors by the same publishing houses that once viewed e-publishing with a jaundiced eye. Part of this comes from the technology itself, where books are never out of print, thereby allowing e-authors to build readerships around their backlists. It seems as though New York publishers are becoming more open to edgy stories that are out of the mainstream because of the success of some hybrid-esque e-books and e-authors. Laurie's recently noticed that some print romance love scenes are "less vanilla" in a manner similar to e-book Romantica, and that "monsters and love and sex (in a more earthy way) are coming together in the 'new' Urban Fantasy sub-genre as they've existed in e-books for a few years now. While Laurell K Hamilton has long written Urban Fantasy, some of the sub-genre's newcomers, like Keri Arthur, first published by ImaJinn, btw, have clearly been influenced by electronic and small press books."

Yet not everybody is entranced by the new technology. Quinn has a Dell PDA, but she still doesn't want to read e-books. First, she doesn't like reading on screens, especially small screens. She wants to hold a paper book in her hand. "And, unfortunately, my experience with ebooks has not been good. The writing and editing have not been anywhere as good as print books. Not worth print book prices."

Barbara has several problems with e-books. First, she finds that e-books are often shorter, so "just like some readers aren't satisfied with series romances or short stories, ebooks will not be as satisfying." Also, as she is not a fan of series, she finds it somewhat off-putting that so many e-books are part of ongoing series. She also sees differences in style - comparing e-books to Harlequin Presents or perhaps Silhouette's Bombshell series. And she has problems with the storytelling - while e-book storytelling can be dramatic, sometimes it is too dramatic for her. Barbara says, "With every book comes an expectation. When I held e-books to the same standard as regular print books, I was quite dissatisfied. If you hold series to the same standard as longer historicals, you will be dissatisfied with series. Or a Regency with its rules to the same standard as Romantica. ... If I continue to read an e-book against a criteria of a print book, I wouldn't buy any more." Against print books, Barbara believes the average e-book lacks the polish of experienced writers, sometimes utilize the "pick-a-phrase" from the romance phrase book, and may lack "the deeper touches of conversation of character development I may expect in print books."

But Kay points out, "Yes, I agree there are really some poorly written, poorly edited e-books. I've read them. I've also read some wonderful e-books that are better than anything in print. Of course, I've read many a print book that I felt was a waste of paper! "

In today's environment even people who historically haven't been fans of e-books are now more willing to try them. The great thing about a place like AARList is that if you have a question, someone will answer you. Heck, someone will probably tell you more than you thought you wanted to know. <g> Concerned that e-books are too short to be satisfying reads? Someone will come out with suggestions of longer e-books and help you figure out the lengths of e-books. Worried that the technology will be a pain in the butt? People will give you tips about the best formats, not to mention which formats to avoid like the plague. Worried about the quality of the books? Readers will suggest authors you might like. Looking for an e-book about a blond vampire hero having hot sex with a werewolf heroine? Someone will probably come up with several possible titles!

And while more AARList members are becoming e-book fans, at least some of the time, two things remain controversial, however - prices and reviews. See, e-books really are becoming more like print books - just as with print books, nothing can get readers more annoyed than high prices and the lack of reliable reviews. Kim noticed that most of the e-publishers increased their prices last year. "I don't know if this was such a good thing, considering one of the major selling points early on in reference to e-books was the fact that the price was so low. I would pay $7.99 for this book only because I already know how she writes. If she was unknown to me, I would only buy it if I had several sources say it was worth it. I feel the same way about the Brava line. I have found many of those books that I like but I can't afford to buy them all at prices between $11 - $14. Like you, I can get three other books for that price so I have to see several glowing reviews before I spend that much."

Kay is reluctant to pay $7.99 for an e-book, too. Because she shops at Wal-Mart, her paperbacks usually come in at $4.88, with the highest price being $5.97. Within those prices, she has found some very good books. "I used to do a lot of book buying at Ellora's Cave, but not since their prices have gotten so high. I know I'll probably get some flack for this, and I know that EC has good quality stories, I honestly just can't afford them anymore." On the other hand, because she lives in England, Karen finds e-books a bargain. Thanks to the exchange rate, that $7.99 e-book costs 4.20, but a paper book of that length would cost eight pounds. Having recently visited England, I can vouch for the prices of paper books there. Ouch!

And reviews? Don't get me started! When I first tested the waters with indie e-books, I couldn't find decent e-book reviews. Mostly, all I found were reviews that said glowing things about the books. With Romantica reviews I learned that for the most part, the best I could hope for were sites that listed how many sex scenes and what types of sex acts were performed. While that was helpful in some ways, those reviews still didn't tell me whether or not the book was good - just that it was hot hot hot. I had better luck asking about e-books on AARList or on AAR's message boards. There, people weren't afraid to criticize a book. That made their recommendations all the more trustworthy. Because of AARList, I've also witnessed controversies involving e-books and reviews. To sum them up, let's just say that not everybody appreciates honest reviews.

On a mailing list, Kim has seen controversies involving reviews, including one where a publisher became upset about a review and persuaded the site to take it down. Kim yearns for honest e-book reviews and was looking forward to AAR doing e-book reviews because of the honesty of the reviews. "I have spent a lot of money on e-books that were given a great review, only to find out they were bad. This doesn't happen as often with the print books that I read." She thinks that the "softer" e-book reviews result from the interactions between publishers, authors, and reviewers on the e-book lists, as well as the preponderance of sites having 'find something nice to say' policies. Kim has become reluctant to trust e-book reviews after seeing some interactions on the lists. Also, she doesn't trust reviews on sites where she knows reviewers are required to find something nice to say or where books are passed on from reviewer to reviewer until a reviewer likes it."

AngieW agrees that "...the e-book community is an incestuous one. ... It's nice to get a good, great, glowing review, but it's difficult to know who is being sincere and an honest reviewer, and who just doesn't want to piss off their favorite- or even not so favorite- author." AngieW points out that on e-book lists, it's not unusual to see reviewers on e-book lists gushing over a favorite author, and then reviewing that author for a magazine or website.

Karen is cynical about reviews in general, and she is even more cynical about authors who praise books and then turn out to be on an author's list. "As humans, it's hard to criticize someone you personally like, and to do it in a public arena is even worse, so I do agree that from time to time objectivity would become a huge issue for some. I say this because I have read some work that was truly awful, both technically, and plot-wise, that were given high plaudits, and when you find out or know, that that reviewer happens to be on the authors group list, it sure makes you wonder."

Lynne Connolly says, "There are certain sites I don't go to when I'm looking to make a reading list up, and they're the ones that give good reviews to everything that comes their way! There are other sites that don't 'chime' with the way I feel about books." One thing she likes about AAR is the ability to find reviewers who match her tastes in books.

I, for one, am really glad to see some e-book reviews at AAR. When some sites say that a book is hot and the characters are great and the plot is emotional, I tend to roll my eyes. But when AAR review Ha Nguyen says something like that about a book, then I perk up and remind myself to look for that title...Laurie does too.

Last spring when I realized my house would eventually be overrun with books, I decided to investigate methods for reading e-books. In a column I wrote for Romancing the Blog in April entitled A Closet Full Of Betas, I shared with readers how difficult the choice can be. Over the years I'd read enough e-books on my computer to know I didn't like it; I find it difficult to relax sitting in my desk chair where I work day in and day out. And after looking at various multi-purpose PDA's, I realized they, as my daughter and niece say, "aren't your technology" (which explains why I don't "get" text messaging - it's "their" technology.) Even PDA's with the very largest screens weren't big enough for me, and those with the largest screens were also the priciest.

My husband suggested looking into notepad computers, which weigh quite a bit and came down in price only after I'd decided they were too costly. That left dedicated e-book readers. There were fewer options, and each pointed out another problem with reading e-books - their format. Many e-books are available only as Adobe (pdf) files or Microsoft Reader (lit) files. Adobe files are not meant to be read on a hand-held device. MS files can be read on desktops, laptops, and other Windows-compatible devices such as the Windows Table and Pocket P.C.. But most PDA's read mobipocket or palmreader. The Hiebook utilizes a unique format (hi and kml), as does the eBookwise (eobff). And the Cybook, which offers a screen nearly the size of a magazine, reads multiple formats, but not yet Adobe or Reader files, and is also very expensive ($400) as compared to the Hiebook ($250), and particularly, the eBookwise.

In the end I settled on the eBookwise, which is very reasonably priced at $130, and offers a screen nearly the size of a paperback page. I didn't immediately buy, though, because of my concern that unless more and more books were offered in the eBookwise format, the company would eventually go belly up and I'd be left with something akin to a closet full of Betas in a VHS world (truly only a meaningful analogy before the popular use of DVD's in the late 1990s). But Anne provided sage advice and held my hand throughout the process and this spring I started using my eBookwise, and along with TiVo and my iPod, it's the best electronic thingamabob I own.

At first I only bought ebooks that were available in the eBookwise format, but learned that the html format is more versatile. Later I discovered a free download lit converter and a very inexpensive ($13) pdf converter. Because most if not all e-books are available in either or both of these formats, the entire world of e-books was now open to me! If I'm buying through eBookwise, the download process simply requires my plugging in a USB cable. If I'm buying from a different e-bookstore or e-book publisher, I buy in html if possible, and if not, lit or pdf. Because I'm still not sure how secure pdf files might work throughout the process, I generally go for lit files. Either way - either lit or pdf - I pop the files through the appropriate converter and they become html files, which are easily readable after uploading them via USB cable and downloading them into my device using the eBookwise Librarian. It may sound complicated, but it's actually a very easy process, and I don't "do" complex electronics well.

A memory card gives me a tremendous amount of space so that currently I've got about fifty books stored on a device smaller than a single hardcover book. My eBookwise provides about fifteen hours of reading time between charges, can be recharged in a couple of hours, and you can use it while it's charging. It's backlit, so I'm able to read in bed at night when my husband is sawing z's next to me, and when we went on our Baltic cruise this summer, we brought multiple extension cords to handle recharging: three iPod's, my eBookwise, and battery packs for three cameras (two digital and one video).

My husband gets a big smile on his face whenever he sees me with my eBookwise because he knows how much I love it. I wish the technology had existed when I was in college and graduate school because no doubt I could have fit a semester's worth of textbooks on it...and you can "mark-up" text just like using a highlighter!

I take my eBookwise with my everywhere, and rather than "only" being able to read the one book I might toss into my car on any given day, I've currently got dozens loaded onto the memory card - downloaded from many sources online - including several as yet unread titles by Julia Quinn, Jo Goodman, and Elizabeth Lowell, as well as many existing favorites, including The Temporary Wife and The Obedient Bride (both by Mary Balogh), Julie Garwood's Castles, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, Lucy Monroe's The Real Deal, and Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma . Then there are more recent reads, such as Adrienne Basso's To Wed a Viscount, The Harder They Fall, a fun little Jill Shalvis Loveswept, Julia Quinn's It's In His Kiss, and Kimberly Dean's Fever, one of my favorite Romantica titles (I've read several Ellora's Cave titles this year). Granted, I don't generally go for Romantica out in public, but just recently Harlequin/Silhouette have begun releasing some series titles in e-book format. Wouldn't it be wonderful to simply settle on all the books you wanted to buy off our Coming Attractions lists each month, buy and download everything you want in a flash, and not have to worry about where to stick another group of paperbacks? Hey, a girl can dream, can't she?

--Laurie Likes Books

My other ATBF co-columnist, Robin Uncapher, has been one of the biggest e-book skeptics at AAR. And yet, she too may "come on over to my pad!"

In the whole e-book discussion, I have felt like a bit of a Neanderthal. Like many people I like the look and feel of books. They have many wonderful associations. The smell of old books, especially the ones printed before 1920, carries me back to my childhood and days spent hunting through my Grandma’s bookcases of children’s books. A house full of books has always seemed like a wonderful thing to me. Years ago I remember having a discussion on AARList where many of us - including Anne and Laurie - admitted to hoarding books in the event of some terrible disaster. The idea was that no matter what, we would always have books. As a kid who grew up in a rural area without bookstores, I completely understood this instinct to horde books, Many was the time when, bored beyond belief on a Sunday afternoon, I scanned my parents old college books and found something wonderful to read. The idea of depending on some sort of equipment for books makes me a bit jittery. If the PDA breaks or the power for the computer fails, will I be cut off?

Like Laurie, I was having space problems; reading romance has meant collecting many more books than I used to read. As a literary fiction and history reader I read about a book a week. As a romance reader I often read twice that and it is not unusual to read more, but my difficulties with screen reading kept me from jumping into e-books. How would reading an e-book be different from reading a screen?

Another problem was my general skepticism about what was available. Nothing made me more leery of e-books than reading a post from an e-book author which said that, after having her manuscripts rejected by print publishers for ten years (because they were too “original”) that she was now a happily published e-book author. Now it is entirely true that this author may have been brilliant, and I have come across one case of a self-published author whose work was brilliant, but that is a rare exception. To be convinced to read e-books I had, at the very least, to be shown that books I would want to read in paper, were now available as e-books. This was true not only because I want to read good books, but also because I write my portion of At the Back Fence, for the general romance reader. If, in reading e-books, I would be missing out on the latest books by major print authors, I was going to be in trouble helping to write this column.

I have begun to change my mind because of a couple of things. I haven’t bought a PDA yet, but I am thinking about it awfully hard. The first thing that changed my mind is my realization that reference books are becoming less and less useful. As a mom I have spent many hours helping both of my children with research papers. The ease with which research papers can now be done simply astonishes me. I know that research papers are frequently sold and plagiarized, and given how easy research papers are to do these days, I am amazed. Back when I was in school the hardest part of doing a paper was the typing, especially the footnotes. Days had to be scheduled just for paper production and many professors marked down for typos and even the use of too much “wite-out.” Hours were spent in the library looking for the right information and hours and hours were wasted reading articles and books that proved useless.

By contrast my kids are easily able to crank out a first draft of a five page paper in a night. The reference books are not only available through Google, but through our library database and through reference collections subscribed to by their schools. At bedtime one night in the fifth grade, my son announced to me that we had a major project due the next day, on the State of New York. I told Peter we would stay up all night, if necessary, to finish it. In fact we were done by eleven and had a project was far superior to anything I could have produced at that age. My reference sources at 9:00 PM on a Sunday night would have been our family's edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My 1930s era black typewriter made producing a paper pure torture.

Little by little I have gotten rid of most of the reference books in the house, except those with sentimental value. So I have been migrating to e-books for a while.

But the thing that is really pushing me towards e-books is my library. The Montgomery County Library system now subscribes to two e-book websites, Maryland's Digital eLibrary Consortium and netLibrary. Books from these websites can be “checked out” by library patrons for a period of three weeks. It’s very easy. All you do is type in your library card number and password and download the book. Books can only be downloaded to one person at a time. Sometimes you need to put the book on hold, and wait until you are advised by email that it is ready. Audio books are also available this way and many of the titles are brand now.

What is really great about this, for the person who chronically keeps library books too long, is that there is no need to return an e-book to the library! E-books can be renewed but, failing that, on the three week due date the book simply stops working. There is no fine and no need to do a thing. Nothing can be lost. Parts of e-books can even be printed out for easy reading.

I have also learned that the screen version of these books is much easier on the eyes than any website, because each page is literally a picture of the page in the book. The one drawback is that I am still tied to my computer because I do not have a PDA, but that may change soon.

For those who want to put a toe into reading e-books, using a library subscription site is a cheap way to start. There are no books to buy. If you have a computer you can see if you like the format before shelling out money on equipment. I highly recommend that you check your own library’s website to see if they subscribe to a similar service. If not many large public library systems allow subscriptions by out-of-area patrons for a very reasonable fee. In Montgomery County a non-resident card is available for $10 (though whether it is possible to get one without visiting a library is not clear).

--Robin Uncapher

Large Format Mass Market Paperbacks

While e-books had lots of new fans, those new large format mass market paperbacks didn't, for the most part. Except the books in Harlequin's Next line of series fiction. It's one thing to spend ten bucks for a large format mass market paperback of the latest thriller novel. Argh! But spending less than six bucks for a large format book in the Next line isn't so bad.

Like many of AARList's members, I've seen the new large format paperbacks in stores. However, I haven't bought a single one yet. This is despite the fact that I don't mind trade paperbacks. I have seen a couple of books in that format that I would have bought in mass market format, but I don't want to make the extra monetary plunge. I have even managed to resist the urge to buy them at Target, despite the discounted price. Even though these books do look kind of "neat." If the print were a little bigger, I might spend the extra money.

However, they may be a success with some readers. I visited a Borders when the first of these books were released, and they were displayed prominently on the table containing the new mass market paperbacks. When I picked one of them up, a staff member told me that the books were selling really well. So maybe some people do like the larger format. Maybe they bought them because they stood out from the rest. Or heck, maybe they bought them because they liked those authors and wanted to buy their latest books. To really test the format, I wish the publishers had made the books available in both mass market and larger format editions, just to see which ones sold better. After all, it's clear that this new format isn't "testing" well with romance fans, at least those on AARlist.

Quinn thinks the new format is going to mess up her shelving. Also, Quinn says, "I can't help feeling that it's just another gimmick. Why not just add more pages? Is the half inch or so they have added to the height, really doing any good in terms of space for text?" Lynne Connolly says, "Seen them, hate them. Hate hardbacks, too. They're too difficult to hold and carry around. And they can't be stuffed in your handbag to read in transit!"

Falcon doesn't mind the new format. "In terms of those taller paperbacks, since I pretty much read any average 400-page book in two hours I don't have any problem with carrying it around. I hardly if ever keep books, I give them away as soon as I finish them so that takes care of the shelving part. As long as the story is good, I'll buy it."

Author Michelle Hauf says, "I like the look of them! And I've been told the Next books that are taller should also have a bit larger print and it's spaced for easier-on-the-eyes reading. Gotta love that!"

And while I'm not crazy about the larger format mass market paperbacks, those Next books do look cool. I already bought two of them and will probably buy more. Is this a contradiction? Forgetfulness? No, it's the fact that the publisher doesn't expect me to pay a couple dollars more for the books in this line. Wow, what a concept. Sounds like they actually have the readers in mind.

Cheapened by the Checkout?! No Way!

Pricing and discounts became an issue more than once. Another hot topic consisted of responses to Cheapened by the Checkout, an article in England's The Guardian newspaper that read: "The mountain of discounted books at supermarkets isn't democratizing publishing but dumbing it down." This article implied that the "democratization" of the marketplace was "not much more than a synonym for cheap rubbish." Reminiscent of Andy Rooney's diss on libraries carrying novels, eh?

Like many other readers, I've come to this sort of attitude before. Just as some people believe that the only clothing stores worth visiting are fancy boutiques, some people think that the books you buy in a grocery store or drugstore aren't legitimate. We've all heard people get smarmy and refer to certain types of books as "dimestore novels." Which is silly, as nobody calls them dimestores any more. But that just proves how old-fashioned and out-of-date these attitudes are. Those "dimestore novels" are sold in regular bookstores, too. Why does it matter that someone bought them in a grocery store instead? The pages of the book don't change, even if they are displayed next to the Slim Jims, and even if they cost 30% less.

Author Jo Beverley believes that the article stems from the fact that "the UK is behind North America in retailing popular fiction. Book stores there hardly ever even have a romance section. So this new trend probably is a bit of a shock to some."

In the U.S., readers are now accustomed to discounted paperbacks sold in discount chains, grocery stores, and other non-book outlets. In fact, for many readers, those stores are the only places available for them to buy books, unless they want to drive dozens or even hundreds of miles to a bookstore. Not everybody understands this, especially if they live in a more populated area. A lot of people depend heavily on those "other stores" for their books. This became really clear in the past several years, when changes in mass market distribution made it more difficult for many readers to find the books they wanted because certain retailers began to only sell best-sellers and reprints. Even people who don't depend on these outlets for books have gotten used to buying paperbacks in these stores. Just as a rose is a rose, a book is a book, no matter where you buy it. So it's no surprise that readers on AARlist were annoyed by the assertions of the article. And as you can guess...

Responses to that article were ... heated. Or, as KarenS said in response to the article, "Sanctimonious people suck." Quinn argues that if it hadn't been for supermarkets and drugstores, she would have had much less access to books when growing up. She remains grateful for stores that discount the prices of books. "Any place that puts out books for people to buy is great. We need to increase access to books, not decrease it. Book snobs drive me up the wall."

Sandy says, "So, let's see if I've got this straight. More books available at cheaper prices is bad? Or is it just that 'common' people buying 'cheap rubbish' instead of 'serious' books is bad? I'm desperately trying not to go into my standard rant about literary fiction." She also thinks that if the author's books were available on the grocery store shelves, that article would have a completely different tone.

Author Jo Beverley believes that the article stems from the fact that "the UK is behind North America in retailing popular fiction. Book stores there hardly ever even have a romance section. So this new trend probably is a bit of a shock to some."

Falcon says, "What I gathered from this article is this person is not familiar with how marketing works most especially the 'go to market' strategy. It's all about distribution and pricing. She obviously equates places and prices to the quality of the books being sold which is of course absurd."

I'll have to watch my language when I comment on this article. <g> There was a quote in the article that said "Even George Orwell worried about the likely effect on the book trade, reasoning that someone with five shillings to spend on books would probably settle for three sixpenny paperbacks rather than two half-crown hardbacks."

Oh, excuse me while I gasp in horror at the concept of a consumer buying three books instead of only two books! Or should I roll on the floor laughing instead? George Orwell was a great writer, but that didn't mean he could count. Besides, he was part of a far different market, one where paperbacks were even less respected than e-books are today. People hadn't yet wizened up to the fact that great books can be found in all formats. This article, and many others like it, help us to realize that even today, not everybody "gets" it. It doesn't matter what the format is -- hardcover, softcover, or electronic. It doesn't matter whether the book is literary or romance or some other genre. It doesn't matter whether the author bought it at a bookstore or a grocery store, or for that matter, whether she found it at a yard sale. What matters is whether or not the reader enjoyed the darn thing. And if she didn't enjoy it, the very least she can do is join AARList and warn us to avoid it!

Time to Post to the Message Board

Before we send you off to the At the Back Fence Message Board, here is an upcoming calendar of columns - and events - that we do on an annual basis. Because of the new publishing schedule (from the first and fifteenth of the month to the first and third Mondays of the month), we don't want you to miss anything.

January 2nd An annual column from LLB on the reading year. This topic will not fill an entire column, so we'll revisit Conversion Kits (I've started a Potpourri thread on them today).
January 16th An annual column from Robin on the reading year, buried treasures for the past year, the kick off of the 2006 reader poll (which will run until midnight February 19th), and the kick off of our annual Isn't It Romantic? contest.
February 6th We generally take off one ATBF column per quarter. The last month to feature just one column was in August, so we're well overdue. But we will post the interim results in our annual reader poll on this date.
February 20th An annual column from Blythe on Reviewer's Choice as well as the results in our ninth annual Isn't It Romantic? contest.
March 6th The results in our tenth annual reader poll.

Now that the calendar of events has been provided, let's get back to the topics at hand. Please consider these questions in addition to others that may have arisen out of your reading of the column:

Do you read e-books? If so, how long have you been reading them, and where do you read them (ie, laptop, desktop, PDA, etc)? If not, is what keeps you from trying them the technology (ie, not wanting to read on a desktop or not wanting to read on the screen of a hand-held device) or your perception of the quality? If more print-published books were also available in e-book format, would you change your mind? In other words, have you not tried them because you believe the vast majority are published by e-book or small print publishers that were first rejected by the New York print publishers?

For those who read e-books, what sorts of e-books do you read? Are they e-book versions of print-published books or books that have been primarily published in e-book form? From which e-bookstores or other venues do you generally buy your e-books, and what format do you use? How bothersome are all the various platforms to you, and do you wish there were a standard?

In the past we've added new categories in our annual reader poll; last year was the only year we didn't. Readers only: Is it time to add a Best E-book category?

Have you seen the new larger paperbacks? Do you like the idea of having a size available inbetween mass market paperback and trade size? For that matter, do you think trade sized novels are a good or bad idea? If the idea behind trade size novels was to differentiate them from mass market genre fiction without charging hardcover prices, was it a good one?

Do you think literature and books in general are "Cheapened by the Checkout"? Or do you pay little or no attention to where you buy your books? If you buy a lot of books in non-book outlets, what are the reasons? Price? Convenience? Location? Also, what is the selection like?

Have you encountered people who scoff at the idea of buying books in drugstores, grocery stores, etc.? Or people who look down their noses at a book because it's a paperback instead of a hardback? What do you think drives those attitudes?

 

Anne Marble,
Laurie Likes Books, & Robin Uncapher

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

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