Sunday, March 21, 2010

Expectations, Misconceptions and Sheer Foolishness

As readers, we have certain expectations when we buy a book. These expectations influence whether or not we make a purchase. When those expectations are met, we put that author or series on our to buy list. When they aren't met -- especially if they fail spectacularly -- we stop buying books by that author or in that particular series. Those expectations have been fairly static over the years but, of late, a new set of expectations have emerged and with them have come some misconceptions about the publishing industry and who is responsible for what.

I'm going to admit right now that this blog entry is written in defense of some authors I happen to enjoy and respect. Authors who are being slammed in reader reviews and online fora for things they have little or no control over. But I'll get to that shortly.

Expectation 1: The book we find on the shelves or order online will be properly edited and proofed before ever reaching our hot little hands. Unfortunately, over the last decade or so, that hasn't always been the case. There are a number of factors that all play a part in this. The first is that too many of us simply rely on spell-check and grammar-check to make sure everything is correct. Another factor is that publishers have, in an attempt to cut their costs, let go a number of their copy editors and proofreaders. If you search the blogs of late, you'll see a number of entries about how agents are now playing the role of proofreader and copy editor. Moreover, it's a role most of them don't want because it takes away from the time they have to do their traditional duty -- promoting the authors in their stable.

The companion misconception that goes along with this is that e-book retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., have editorial and proofreading control over e-books they sell. Nope. They don't. They simply put up the electronic file they have been provided with. If you are an author putting your own work up through the Kindle store, once you upload the files, there is a way to check it before it goes live for download. I'm sure the same ability exists for publishers. Just as it is unreasonable to expect the mom and pop corner bookstore to be responsible for proofing every book that hits their shelves, it is unreasonable to expect online retailers to do the same thing.

Expectation 2: If an author starts a series, that series will be completed. The unfortunate truth is that a series will be completed only if each book sells well enough. If those books don't sell well enough to justify the continued investment by the publisher, there is a very good chance subsequent books will not be released.

Misconception 1: Authors make lots of money so they should be writing our favorite books more quickly than they do. There shouldn't be years between books in a series. The vast majority of authors don't make enough from writing to live on. Real life happens and interferes with the writing process. And, most importantly, publishing isn't a lightning fast industry -- not even if you are publishing electronically only. At least not if you want to have any quality control of your product. So, readers clamoring for more books from that favorite author, sit back, chill a bit and read another book. Better yet, send a letter or email to that favorite author's publisher telling them how much you like books by Author X and hope to see more soon.

Misconception 2: The agency model of pricing e-books will only affect Amazon. WRONG. Each e-book retailer will find, sooner rather than later imo, that they are going to be forced to either agree to the model or not carry that publisher's books. And, just to remind you, under the agency model, the publisher will set the price of the e-book and the retailer will have little control over changing that price. In other words, no sales without publisher approval. No competitive pricing. No shopping around for the best buy.

If this doesn't worry you, it should. I can see the publishers also trying to enforce this model on hard copy retailers later, as their contracts come up for renewal. If that comes to pass, gone will be the discounts at your local Wal*Mart or Target. Gone will be the discounts if you are a card holder for a certain bookstore or other. We will be back to purchasing books at cover price -- and how many of us actually do that for most books we buy these days? More importantly, how many of us will continue to buy as many books if the prices are set to cover prices?

And now for the real reason for this post. The sheer foolishness that is happening now. Readers, listen closely, when buying a book and gnashing your teeth at the price, don't blame the author. He isn't the one who set the price. This is true be it hard cover, paperback or electronic version. That is left up to the publisher. Let the publisher know how you feel by writing to them and by refusing to buy a book that is priced unreasonably. Do not, I repeat, do not give an author a 1-star review based solely on the price of the book.

That's right. There are people out there right now who are downgrading books they haven't read simply because of the price. Folks, listen carefully. This hurts the author. When people go to sites like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, Powells or Borders, they see the reviews. They don't have to read them. The "stars" are listed right there. And if the book has 47 starred reviews and of those 47, a large number of them are 1-star reviews, that will keep people from buying. And that is money out of the author's pocket. If you have to, note in the text of your review that the price is unreasonable. But don't give a book a bad review just because of the price.

So, what are your expectations when buying a book? What do you do when those expectations aren't met? How about misconceptions you see about the industry? Do you see any misconceptions the industry might have about the buying public?


Jonathan D. Beer said...

I have a particular beef with the paring down of copy-writers and proofreaders from the industry; I think its a crying shame that is leading to poorer-quality reader experiences and, as a cost-cutting, margin-increasing measure is self-defeating at best.

I have an axe to grind on this myself, really. A publisher from whom I buy a lot of books (an IP owner, and I happen to adore the IP) is not a particularly large company, but it has what I consider to be a pretty decent output (three-four books a month). But some of that output, each and every month, has at times been so full of typos and basic copy-editting misses that the joy of reading is sucked from the experience.

It might just be that I have an over-developed eye of errors (which I suspect many of the writers and readers of this blog will share), but for me these mistakes do not belong in books, and a publisher which does not take pains to ensure their books are not fulfilling a good 25% of their responsibilities to readers (and to authors). Or maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion, and having a rant over nothing :p

Jim McCoy said...

The editing thing really gets to me. I'm an amateur writer (hopefully that will change, right now I'm working on a novel that I'm going to submit, I just haven't gotten it done yet) and I see some editing mistakes in these books that my twelve year old nephew could catch. It drives me up a wall when I see a sentence fragment with a misspelled word in it. I mean, grammar and spell check can catch some of this stuff, and it gets to feel like some of these authors aren't trying.

As far as other expectations go, the one thing that really drives me nuts are authors that have like 45655646464645 series going at once. I mean, I get how hard it is to write a novel, I get the fact that publishing takes TIME and I get the fact that things don't happen overnight. But when I'm sitting around (not so) patiently waiting for the next book in a given series to come out and then I find out that the authors has a new book coming a universe completely unrelated to the one I'm excited about. Being the absolute junkie that I am, I'll buy the new one anyway but it's just frustrating.

I mean, I'm not trying to berate an author for following his/her/its muse, but there is an audience out there who wants their next book. It makes me crazy

Amanda Green said...

Jonathan, I admit bad proofing of a book drives me up a wall. Misspellings and the use of the wrong word are the worst. I can deal with sentence fragments, at least in fiction with a first-person or limited-pov because people think and talk in fragments. But I hate it in non-fiction.

Bad formatting is even worse and drives me up a wall with e-books. It isn't that difficult to format for electronic distribution and it doesn't take that long to do quality control. So I must assume that QA, like copy- and proofreading has gone the way of the dodo. Sigh. And, no, you aren't blowing this out of proportion, at least not in my opinion ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Jim, the editing, or lack thereof, is a problem in too many cases, imo. It is also why I don't think publishers should expect agents to do it for them. That's not the agent's job. However, I caution you against relying on spell-check and grammar-check. Both can lead you badly astray. Spell-check because it only tells you if a word is spelled properly according to its dictionary (for a good example of this, run it in MSWord and then in Open Office or Symphony or Atlantis and see what differences you find). As for grammar-check, turn it off. Get a copy of Strunk & White and the Chicago Style Manual. You'll save yourself a lot of frustration if nothing else.

I share your frustration about authors who write more than one series at a time. I'd love to have David Weber putting out an Honorverse main line novel every year. There are others, including members of this blog, who fall into that same category for me. But I also understand why authors write outside of a series between installments. They need the break to keep their plots and characters fresh, to keep from doing what Sarah wrote about yesterday -- breaking their characters. So, much as I might whine and stomp my feet when a book that isn't in a series I'm following comes out, I understand.

I also understand the economics of it. An author, unless he happens to be a best seller getting HUGE advances, needs more than one book out at a time to make ends meet. (Assuming he isn't also working full-time). The only way to do that is to write more than one series. You don't want books in a series coming out too close together. You also might want or need to publish with more than one publisher. That means different books and series. I'm sure the others here can explain it better than I if you're interested.

In the meantime, good luck with your novel and I hope patience is a greater virtue with you than it is with me (I HATE waiting for responses).

Kate said...

My biggest issue is with certain publishers (and alas, authors) who believe that all books should be "worthy" and "enlightening", and if you the reader don't like it, then you need to be "educated".

If I want to be educated, I buy non-fiction in topics that interest me. If I want to be enlightened, I read spiritual books or go to church. Ditto if I want to be preached at.

If I want "worthy", I'll go to museums or the like.

What I want for fiction is to be entertained. I don't want authors stepping out of the story to lecture me on how bad such and such a practice is - and I don't care if I agree with them or not - and I don't want to be told that entertainment has to uplift or enlighten me. Bullshit. Sometimes all I want is brain-candy. Sometimes I want fiction that's intriguing and challenging as well as entertaining. But I always want to be able to forget reality for a few hours and immerse myself in someone else's world.

Anything that fails to do that, be it poor copyediting and proofing, authorial rantings, or a book with a section of pages printed upside down, is not a book I want. Period.

Amanda Green said...

Kate, I absolutely agree. I read fiction, for the most part, to be entertained. The only other reasons I read it are to know what is on the market and how certain authors I happen to admire and respect plot, world build, etc. I don't read it to be "enlightened" or "educated". It's the same with movies, as far as I'm concerned. If I want to be educated by a "movie", I'll watch a documentary, not go see the latest from whatever hot-shot Hollyweird star.

Authors who have some platform, for lack of a better word, they want to bring attention to would be better served, imo, if they managed to do decent world building and had great characters and a plot that made sense and that "platform" became just a part of the plot. Don't preach. Don't have authorial intrusion. Just have a good story that people may, at some point after reading it, think about what was said.

What it all boils down to is that authors need to remember they are writing for their audience's enjoyment first and foremost. At least that's my take on things.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

Kate, I couldn't agree more. For me, reading is escapism. As I'm using 95% of my free time at the moment to write my own novel, I find that pretty much the only time I get to just sit and read is on my lunch-hour at work. If an author expects me to sit and use that carefully husbanded time reading something which is not entertaining, then they can forget it.

Mind you, I have no problems if a book carries a message with it (I'm pretty sure there was a really good article on here a few weeks ago about that), but if the way it delivers is not entertaining, I see very little point in it. Like you, I don't want to be lectured; I want to be inspired, and challenged, and involved in a story and its characters.

Anonymous said...

On Expectation 2 and Misconception 1. I've got a pretty clear view on series, and while it saddens me that some series just can't be continued for a number of sundry reasons, I understand that it does happen.

I also understand that authors are under no obligation to work on a particular series -- contrary to the beliefs of certain hardcore fanboy-types. There are numerous factors why an author isn't writing your favorite series. Here's one: Author X could need a new roof for the house, and the advance from writing a trilogy of books in a totally different setting/genre will be enough to pay for it, whereas the advance for the next couple books in his signature series would fall far short. Note to fanboys: even though your favorite author creates these amazing dream worlds, populated by these fantastic characters, at the end of the day, he still lives in the real world with the rest of us, with all the house payments, car insurance, and dentist's bills that entails.

Another reason that authors don't always work on your favorite series is maybe that author (who actually is a human being) is utterly burned out on that series and wants to write something different. Or maybe they want to take a break and write something different so they don't get burned out writing your favorite series. Or sometimes the publisher, for various reasons, wants the author to write something different. Authors like a change of pace too, and you fanboys need to stop acting like that's a Bad Thing. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, there's always the chance that the author might start a new series (or write a stand-alone book) that completely blows you away. If David Weber hadn't taken a break from Honor, we wouldn't have the Bahzell series or the Safehold series. If John Ringo hadn't taken a break from the Aldenata series, we wouldn't have the Council Wars or the Ghost series (okay, mileage may vary on that one...). I'm of the belief that our favorite authors are our favorite authors for the STORIES they write, not merely the series they write.

Then, of course, there's a few authors I know who I really wish would have the opportunity to crank out a ten-volume trilogy or two, even if they'd have to put up with all the fanboys that would result... but that's a whole different discussion ;-)

So, I guess what I'm saying is that some of you readers out there (particularly you fanboys) really, seriously, need to lighten the hell up. Life's too short.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Over here in Australia books have always been more expensive than in the US. $20 for a paperback, sometimes if it comes in from US or comes in as a trade paperback up to $30. And hardcovers $30 - $50. These are just round figures.

There is a perception amongst that book buying public that authors make piles of money, that they are greedy. The public doesn't realise that the sales figures for JK Rowling and Dan Brown are anomalies. Most writers hold down two jobs, one they get paid for and one they do for love.

And since nearly everyone in first world countries can read and write, the public think it can't be that hard to take the next step and write a book. After all, they can think up ideas.

They don't understand writers spend years learning the craft, or how individual that learning process is.

What we mustn't lose sight of is that without the writer, there is no publishing industry, no fiction books in the book store and no 'shared dreams'.

Amanda Green said...

Robert, well said. I find it amazing how upset fans can become because Author A dares to write a book that isn't part of the series they are following or, gasp, doesn't continue writing a series. They cynic in me also marvels at the audacity of those same fans who don't buy the books, or even read them at the library, but instead pirate them from some online site (okay, I'll admit it. Today is my day to be more cynical than usual for a number of reasons).

If you like an author and a series, or even just a particular book, let that author know. More importantly, let the publisher know. We so often raise hell if we don't like something, but we don't -- on whole -- say anything when things go right.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, you are so right. Which is why I continue to scratch my head and wonder at the some of the idiocy I see in the industry these days. It is why I also encourage those who like a author to let that author as well as their publisher know. So many people don't hesitate to write fan letters -- or tweets or whatever -- to actors. But they never think to to authors. And yet, without the author or the screenwriter, those stars they follow wouldn't have scripts to act out and, gee, wouldn't be stars.

More importantly, as you said, most of us have "real" jobs as well as write. We also work at learning and honing our craft. That is so we can write a better story, for our readers, for our editors and for ourselves.

Chris McMahon said...

As far as expectations go, I usually expect a certain amount of payoff from
1)The story as indicated/implied in the blurb
2)The promise of the initial PoV characters
3)In some cases the rave from either reviews or award listings or word of mouth

When the expectations are not satisfied? Its sad to say this mostly what I expect these days - and so I am pleasantly surprised when I do find a jem:)

Amanda Green said...

Hi, Chris. I think your "expectations" are much the same as mine when starting a new book or short story. And, you're right, too often it seems those expectations aren't met. What is worse is when I go back and try to reread a book I loved when I first read it and now find it difficult if not impossible to finish now. Part of that is, I think, my own changing expectations and understanding of what is a good book. Part of it is a change in taste. Still, it does make me sad when it happens.