Issue #56 (August 1, 1998)
Electronic Books: Can We Talk?
Shortly after AAR expanded early this year to include more reviews, the publisher from one of the electronically published book houses asked if we would consider reviewing their books. We, of course, said yes, but given the various computer-related injuries many of us had/have, we said we'd have to read these books on paper. Three huge packages were received, assigned to reviewers, and the three huge packages were mailed out at considerable cost to us.
The reviewers gave each of the three books F ratings, and indicated that the books seemed poorly (if at all) edited, and among some of the worst books they'd read. Because this is purely a volunteer site, because of the high cost of mailing manuscripts, and because readers had not clamored to read reviews of e-books, we decided to no longer accept e-books for review.
About a month ago, we began to receive messages from authors of e-books asking why we had made this decision, and after hearing from so many such authors, we decided we would re-evaluate our stance at year's end. We realize e-books in some form are part of our future; indeed, AAR has published Write Bytes by two e-book published authors, including one on cyber-publishing.
However, giving support to a new form of romance book publishing, in our minds, is different than giving undeserved ratings. Because, you see, our decision and our ratings of those three books have led to quite a furor in e-book circles. . . .
There was quite a ruckus raised on my listserv beginning last week. E-book author (and longtime list-member) Marilyn Grall was quite upset about reviews we have given to e-books, and to a posting sent to her by Reviews Editor Marianne Stillings. Marianne indicated that, in addition to the high cost of mailing manuscripts for these books, there are possible health problems associated with lengthy computer use, such as hand/wrist injuries, back strain, and eyestrain. Ms. Grall made her views known vociferously on the list.
Around the same time, I was made aware of an article in the RWA newsletter. I was told that RWA is concerned about minimal editing of e-books, and that e-published authors are not eligible for the PAN-link, which is a section of RWA for published authors. Because I had not seen the article, I put out a request for information on my listserv asking if someone in RWA who had seen the article could confirm what I'd heard. I also asked to hear from readers who had tried e-books and liked them, tried them and didn't, and from those afraid or not willing to experiment. Little did I know just asking this question would be so volatile. But then, perhaps I should have, since I included in my posting that AAR had reviewed three of these books and had found them wanting.
You would have thought I had dropped a bomb from that innocent little posting! It reminded me of the furor a couple of years ago when I gave survey results of the publishers readers had found disappointing. A publisher that didn't fare well didn't care for this column and banned me from their chat room for a time, then later started an author mail campaign against me.
In this most recent instance, I received a message from an author AAR has worked with in the past; she wrote me this e-mail, simply on the basis of my listserv (to which she is not a subscriber) posting:
Get your collective heads out of the sand about electronic books. Remember the people who had said that the world is flat and that TV is the devil's instrument? How about those who burned witches at the stake? Looks like you are in great company, doesn't it?
It simply amazes me to come across such ignorant, cruel and unenlightened naysayers in today's progressive world. Don't you believe in supporting new ventures? Can't you conceive of other possibilities? What tragic occurrences in your lives allowed for such a negative outlook?
You should be ashamed of yourselves. Grow up and stop acting like children unable to accept the new kid on the block just because they are a little different.
Being called an Inquisitor was a new one for me. I responded to this author that we had worked together in the past and said that all I had done was put out a request for information, to verify some things I had heard. She sent me an apology, stating the email had not been meant for me, but an RWA chapter.
Wait. . . the Plot Thickens! or The Mendacity of it All:
I was prepared to accept her apology on face value, until I learned that she had posted to another listserv what she had written to me, and indicated to that group that she had meant the message for me all along. Here's a bit of advice to anyone on listservs, BB's, or newsgroups - never assume your posts will be kept private. Things you say will come back and bite you on the ass.
Now, none of this is meant to hurt or embarrass anyone in particular or e-authors in general, but taking such strident stands often turns people off. And, in my case, makes me more and more curious about what's going on, both in public, and behind the scenes.
Laurie Learns the "Truth"?
First, I was sent a copy of that RWA article. Concerns were raised about all the issues discussed above, although the official RWA stance is to adopt a conservative path. Mention was made of poor editing (and poor editing in paper-published romances as well), PAN status, and the issue of vanity press, but mention was also made of two e-publishers that are not running vanity presses. Those publishers are New Concepts Publishing and Hard Shell Word Factory. The three e-books reviewed by AAR were all published by New Concepts. To date, we have not reviewed a Hard Shell release.
Back on the listserv, readers and an author were starting to respond. A few readers wrote that they would not read an e-book in their current format because they didn't want to read any book, let alone a romance, at their desk. They, as well as I do, look forward to the day when those newish "readers," reminiscent of those from Star Trek: The New Generation, become less expensive and readily available. One reader loved both of Marilyn Grall's e-books. Another reader wrote that she likes reading e-books because she can read them while she's supposed to be working and her boss is none the wiser. In response to every posting made, was at least one response from author Grall. But, boy, did the fat hit the fire when she wrote in complaining heavily about AAR's Reviews.
She included in her posting an excerpt of Marianne Stillings' review of one of the e-books:
"My first reaction after reading this book, was to package it back up and return it to the author with a note telling her I can't, in all fairness, review her book. It isn't ready for publication yet. However, when I discovered this book is already available and can be purchased for money - your money - the rules changed, making an honest review of this book justifiable, even though I feel like a worm doing it.
"The issue here is not really whether [the book] is a good book or a bad one. The issue is more that any person with the tools and the time can publish books electronically. What does this mean to writers? This new medium allows writers who may have been turned down by publishing houses because the topics of their books may not have fit genre-of-the-moment, a place to showcase their work, and sell it anyway. What does this mean for readers? Readers are going to have to wade through a lot of unproofed, unedited, first-draft quality, unprofessional piles of pyrite to find the gold.
"[This book] is just such an example. While the historical aspect of the book is fascinating, entertaining, enjoyable, and even educational, the book is riddled with typos, odd turns of phrase, confusing scenes, and story line inconsistencies that several heavy-handed swipes by a good editor would have caught. Even in the age of electronic publishing, the rules of good writing must still apply - writing is not putting down words on paper then pronouncing it done. Writing is re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing; polishing, polishing some more, re-reading, re-writing, and still more polishing. From reading [this book], this process was not applied prior to making the book available for purchase."
After the excerpt, Ms. Grall provided her own analysis of the review:
"Who died and made this woman the God of Publishing? I haven't read the book in question yet (I deleted the name of the book to protect the innocent), but the above paragraphs are meant to malign an entire industry, not just one book. This is what I meant by exceedingly unfair. This reviewer thinks she is saving the public money. I think she is simply being mean-spirited. I've heard it said by many, many people that negative reviews often have more to do with the reviewer's bitterness and frustration in her own writing career than they do with the quality of the book or books. I don't know if that's true here, because I don't know the reviewer's credentials. I must assume that she has, at the very least, a four-year degree in English. Otherwise, surely she wouldn't have written the above, sweeping editorial statements.
"I sure hope a lot of you took advantage of New Concepts free giveaway last week. I've read at least 20 books from New Concepts and found them ranging from good to excellent. Not all gems, I'll admit. That's true of any publisher, but certainly not anything deserving of an F. Remember, folks, an F means absolute failure. I seriously doubt that's true."
As I've asked before, how can someone disagree with a review if they've not read the book in question? This posting was more a disagreement with negative reviews in general, and understandably protective feelings and beliefs toward a new arena. But there are better ways to go about it than to lash out at reviewers, especially when the reviewer's comments were in no way malignant. At least that's what listserv readers and one published author thought.
Many responses were sent in to the list. AAR reviewers were gratified to discover that not one list member found either that particular review or our reviews in general to be mean-spirited or unfair. In fact, published author Ann Josephson aka Sara Jarrod wrote in to say that she found her free give-away from New Concepts quite a bit less than stellar. Some of her comments also echoed Marianne's.
Anne wrote, in part, "Not having read the e-book that got this review, I can't comment on it. I can comment on the NCP e-book I got to sample as a result of the 'free book' promotion. The copy edit, if any, left a great deal to be desired. This book reads to me like a good first draft - or a poorly polished manuscript in need of a lot of cosmetic work. . . a good copy editor can clean up author's errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. No one did, in the case of the book I'm reading. It has so many of these mistakes on the early pages, I'm having difficulty getting past the nuts-and-bolts errors and into the story."
She added, "I haven't yet managed to get past being jarred by poor mechanics in the book I'm reading, so I'm not able to evaluate the story overall. I cannot imagine a book so mechanically flawed, however, not having problems with at least some of these far more difficult technical elements of writing. . . While I'm not fond of sitting to read e-books at my computer screen after having worked on my own writing all day, I believe e-publishing has a bright future. Unfortunately, the quality of e-books in general is going to be adversely affected by e-books that lack a reasonable standard of quality. Buyers are not going to put out their hard-earned money to buy unpolished first drafts which have obviously never been subjected to the pen of competent copy and line editors. That's why I haven't run, or even walked, to submit stories I haven't been able to sell to conventional publishers to the pioneers in the new e-publishing field. Like many authors, published and unpublished, I'm waiting to see which e-publishers float to the top. My bet: the ones which don't take shortcuts and who spend the money to get (1) well-written, timely stories and (2) competent editors."
There's the Rub!
Shortly after having read Ann's comments, I received a message from a paper-published author who is seriously looking into the e-published realm. Although not on my listserv, she had read my comments and had some calm, well-reasoned thoughts to share. What really caught me eye as we corresponded was her comparison between electronic publishing of romance novels today and the paper-published romance novels of the late 1970's/early 1980's. When I asked her on behalf of one of AAR's reviewers, "If there are 150 books published each month by paper publishers, are e-books the last choice for authors who can't get picked up by a paper publisher?"
Her honest response was, ". . . for some folks, yes. Let's face it, one of your reviewers said one of the e-books read like a first draft of a manuscript - obviously in that case the person 'settled for' electronic publishing. OTOH, there are many other writers whose stories just miss the cookie cutter mold that NY wants, so for those authors (many who are paper pubbed), epublishing represents a gold mine of creativity. To me, epublishing is where the romance market was years ago - they're buying up manuscripts right and left. Did romance buy some schlock back then? Yes (I remember - I read it!). Does epubbing buy some schlock now? Yes (unfortunately)."
We continued to correspond, especially about the comments she and other e-published authors have made about traditional publishing offices being so narrowly focused these days. The feeling among many e-published authors is that if your romance doesn't have a baby, cowboy or a cop, or doesn't fit the "narrow guidelines from New York," it won't be published.
This may well be true, but none of the e-books we've reviewed so far has broken the mold or stretched the genre. And, just so I could speak about this myself, I downloaded an e-book myself and read it. I tried at first to read it on my desktop, but found that not conducive to romance reading. So I popped the floppy into my laptop and sprawled out on the couch. Not as good as holding a real book, but I would never have been able to read that book on my desktop.
As for the e-book itself, it was completely forgettable. Nothing genre-stretching about it. No typos or grammatical errors either, but a couple of historical inaccuracies that even I, who am not a stickler about this kind of thing, was taken aback. The premise was basic, the story-line very typical for medieval romance, and nothing either lead character did surprised me in the least. This did not read like a book that had been turned down by paper publishers because it did not fit the mold. If paper publishers had turned it down, it was because it was so very average.
A couple of authors interested in e-books wrote very intriguing commentary about all this flaming going on. Of particular interest are those comments made by Hollis Manheim, which I've provided below:
We are teetering on the brink of a new millenium, a unique time in history and in our civilization. Understand that the flame war between the electronically published authors/books and readers/paper published folks is an accumulation of many years of both paper publishing and electronic publishing, which are two sides of a similar coin.
First of all, no dialogue can ever be established between people with differing viewpoints and opinions if one side has blinders on and especially if one side is screaming. That's the best way to shut down any and all discussion and in that case, everyone loses. So I'd like to dedicate this to the upbeat, positive face of publishing.
Electronic publishing is the new kid on the block. I believe that it's quite possibly (and very probably) the wave of the future, and if you have a child under the age of 17, you know what I mean. These kids do everything on the computer. Reading will be no exception. But their time isn't now. It's coming, though, and probably faster than anyone expects.
In the 1970s and 80s, romance was a new kid on the block, too. Not Harlequin, but Silhouette, Second Chance at Love, Dell Ecstasy, Gellen, Loveswept, and many others I can't even remember now. In those days editors switched houses like they were playing musical chairs - and bought up romances like they were going out of style. The public couldn't get enough of it or get it fast enough. I know; I was part of that public. Remember when The Flame & the Flower came out and Woodiwiss ripped open the bedroom door? That opened the floodgates for romance and the face of popular fiction has never been the same. Editors bought manuscripts like wildfire; books flew off the shelf. Even today, romance still sells almost 50% of the mass market paperbacks.
Unfortunately, this also had a down side. I remember reading some of those early Silhouettes and even Woodiwiss' classic. I'm a feminist, have been since the movement first started, and I make no apology for it. I only mention it because in the early 70s, rape was a rite of passage for the heroine. And she had to be raped by the hero - that was the rule. Even those early Silhouette (including the Special Editions, etc.) featured an ultra hard hero who usually grabbed the heroine and ferociously kissed her and generally treated her like garbage, which is why I could never figure out why she actually wanted to marry the guy! Since I grew up around angry, bullying men, those early heroes held no appeal for me, but if you wanted to get published, you wrote what the line demanded. That much remains the same in New York today.
Back then an editor bought a book, she bought the idea, the concept, and worked with an author, trained the author, cultivated the author. I've heard many authors talking about their early days when an editor literally rewrote and walked them through the manuscript. Some houses would correspond with potential authors, those with an idea they liked. One Midwest author corresponded for three years with a Loveswept editor before her book was deemed publishable.
The cold hard fact of today is: It ain't gonna happen like that again, sweetheart!
So what if you're a good, even an excellent writer? Isn't New York just waiting to read your well-written manuscript? First of all, let's be honest. Just because you think you can write, chances are you can't. I've been a contest judge for over a decade and believe me, simply putting pen to paper (or finger to computer) isn't enough. But let's assume you can write and your stuff is fresh and sparkling. New York wants you, right? Wrong. Consider some of the reasons some people have been turned down: "Great writing; wonderful characters, but we wouldn't know how to market this." Or (my favorite): "Your characters are too strong for our line." Or any number of a hundred other supercilious reasons. I have a friend whose manuscript was returned and she later found out that the house was having staffing problems and they were simply returning them unread.
What that means is that author can't submit to that house again. These days, if one Silhouette editor turns you down, you're rejected for all lines in that house. And if Silhouette doesn't want your contemporary, you can try Harlequin. Other than that, the markets are closed. Ten years ago, a currently hot historical author said thirteen editors had turned her down before Kate Duffy picked her up at Tapestry. You don't get that many chances today.
Well, hopefully it shows you why electronic publishing is so beloved by so many authors. Sure New York has its good points (mainly more money), but so does this new medium. The only reason I can see that anyone would dismiss it out of hand is fear, a very natural human quality. We always fear the unknown.
Electronic books run the gamut from nonfiction to mystery, to sagas, to romance to children's books. Are there some out there that are horrible, that read like a first draft manuscript? Yes. (Sorry to say, but People magazine said Danielle Steele sounded like a C+ junior high English paper) Are there some fabulous electronic books out there? Yes.
Are there some e-authors who merely sold to electronic publishers because they couldn't sell to New York? Yes. Are there some eauthors who sell because they want to be pioneers in a new and hopefully growing field? Yes. Are there eauthors who write beautifully crafted, well-written books that New York turned their noses up at? Yes. Do some authors turn to e-books because publishers won't break the mold in order to publish their stories and they turn to the electronic market to fulfill their dreams? Yes, yes, yes!
But, there are those whose fear is greater than anything else. These are the folks who diss anything new. Electronic publishing isn't seeking to take over the New York market. They're seeking their own market. They're seeking their own readership and they're seeking approval.
The criticism that ebooks aren't "real books" is as preposterous as saying romances aren't "real books." Different isn't bad, it's just different. We humans seem to have a lot of problems with this concept. All electronic authors and publishers are asking is for patience and vision. Step back. Look at the big picture. Take a chance on trying something different and you might just turn out to be a pioneer in a profound technological adventure that may impact not only the future, but our own history.
All electronic authors ask is that people have an open mind and (pardon the pun) don't judge a book by its cover. Granted, the biggest drawback to ebooks is if you have to sit at a computer to read them. Pretty boring. But that's all about to change and as technology improves, give it a chance. That's all they're asking. Try it; you might like it. If you're a reader, don't let one, or two, or even three bad reviews taint an entire industry for you. I've read at least three bad books from almost every romance line and I didn't stop reading because of them. OTOH, e-authors need to stop railing at those who are wary of their new medium. Reviews take a lot of time and when folks get badly written books, they're naturally hesitant to pick up another of the same type.
As to the current flame wars going on between the electronically published and those who easily dismiss it, I can only say one thing: Don't you folks have anything better to do with your time than rail against one another? Why does it all have to be one way? I, for one, welcome honesty in reviews. I'm so very sick of the good-old-girl-club like RT where every book gets a decent rating. There are some D and F books out there, folks, and only those with the toughest hides can handle the truth.
One last parting piece of wisdom directed at the most strident ranters and ravers (this includes those who dash off nasty notes they're later 'sorry' about) - it's high time to wipe your collective noses and grow up. There's more than enough room in the sand pile for everyone and just because someone asks a legitimate question doesn't mean you need to take your toys and march home.
There is no hidden agenda at AAR - there never has been. We are willing to support any new romance ventures as long as they are worthwhile ones. I can't wait for the day when I'll be able to download all the new releases by paper-published authors I generally buy and to read them on a "reader." I've visited both New Concepts and Hard Shell - each publishes books by authors also published on paper. The one author I've read in paper who is published as well online doesn't particularly appeal to me, although she was nominated for a RITA two years ago. No doubt there are some good romances to be found online, but being a detective to locate them is something that doesn't appeal to us at AAR.
I'm sure that the quality of books released by these new players to the scene will improve; it's just that I'm not sure I want to "be there" until the evolution has occurred. Based on what AAR has seen so far, that evolution is still in its infancy. It's exciting to see something new growing, but newness isn't necessarily a good thing. We're taking a wait-and-see attitude as well, and hope e-authors and publishers smooth over some of the bad relationships they are creating, along with improving the quality of what is accepted for publishing.
June 26, 1999: We've started accepting e-books for review once again because we've got more reviewers on staff, and more reviewers willing to read them. Check our Reviews feature and see if we think there has been an improvement.
Some Final Words:
I'm about to say that this column is not the typical LN&V, but I realize I say that quite frequently. It is atypical in that one topic was discussed and that it is shorter than those of late. The reason for that is my aching wrist. I've moved beyond Western medicine and have recently made my first visit to an acupuncturist, who advised laying off the p.c. as much as possible. I'm trying to take her advice because I've reached the end of the line, medically speaking, with no diagnosis or treatment in sight.
As for just one topic being discussed here, it occurs to me that we've really talked about two or three things: electronic publishing, ratings/reviews, and online behavior. I think all of these topics bear discussion on the message board, don't you?
There are lots of great things coming up, both in this column and at AAR in general in the future. We should have a report from this year's national RWA conference online in just over a week, and most of our features are updated quite often. You can look forward to a discussion of the marriage of convenience/arranged marriage in the very next issue of LN&V. Coming soon to AAR as well is a reader-generated Q&A of author Dara Joy; if you've got questions to pose to her, please send them to me.
The Message Board:
It's time to post to the message board again. Here are the questions I'd like you to consider responding to:
Electronic Publishing - Let's talk about reading, and especially romance reading, at a desktop computer. Let's talk about what Marilyn said, what the unnamed author said, what Ann said, what Marianne said, and what I've said (did I miss anyone there?). Let's talk about "readers", those new hand-held, Star Trek: The Next Generation things that have just come out. Let's talk about the e-books you've read or not read. If you are clamoring for reviews of e-books, now's the time to let us know! And, if you have suffered injuries or health problems from computer use, tell us about it; you might be able to help others. Finally, should I re-run the publisher survey I first ran two years ago?
Ratings/Reviews - Let's talk about AAR's reviews and ratings. We have nearly 200 AAR Reviews and more than 100 Desert Isle Keeper Reviews. Of our AAR Reviews, 14% were rated as A's, 43% were rated as B's, 28% as C's, 10% as D's, and 6% as F's. This is hardly a bell curve, but are our reviews, honest, entertaining, and helpful? Be specific, be general, and let us know what you like and don't like.
Online Behavior - What rules of Netiquette do you think are important? Let's not get bogged down in frustration over two-line posts or frequent "me-too" responses, but the type of behavior you find objectionable online. Lying, yelling, all those things that tend to make you want to look the other way. Have you ever lost respect for an author based on her online behavior? Have you ever gained or lost a friendship because of the Internet? If you have had a terrific or a horrible experience, please share it with us!
Regency Romance - I first requested readers post on this topic in my last column, but response has been light that I'm keeping it active. Do you love Regency Romance? Do you hate Regency Romance? Are you afraid of Regency Romance? Are you a longtime Regency reader or recent convert? I'd like to hear from you regardless of your stand.
Rifs on Political Correctness - I first requested readers post on this topic in my last column, but response has been light that I'm keeping it active. Please share your views on p.c. in general - anachronistic behavior in an historical, for instance. And, do you think writing p.c. characters are another form of stereotyping, an easy out for the author? Do you separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction? Is there a difference in a romance novel between forced seduction and rape? Are you like me in that there some books you've read that have had forced sex that have worked and others that haven't worked?
LLB: On August 10, The Mining Company's Romance Fiction Page ran a feature story about this column. They also awarded us their Best of the Net award, which can now be found on our Awards Page.