Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Are Printed Books Dead?

With the rise of tablets and other e-readers, some are starting to pronounce the traditional hard back book as dead. As new versions of e-readers like the Kindle become more advanced, the noise about the death of books becomes louder.

Are we really part of the last generation to be able to purchase, own and consume paper books at will? Here are a few reasons why many think we are:

Book shops dwindling

In a world where we can buy things at the click of a button, many high street and independent retailers suffer as a result. In 2011 American book retailing giant Borders closed its doors for good, despite being the prime retailer of books in both the UK and USA (alongside its parent group Barnes & Noble). A lot of this was attributed to the fact that as well as there being fewer people actually reading hard back books, those who did want to read solid printed books usually bought their desired books online. Retailers like Amazon, who are a one stop shop for almost any need you have, took the custom from shops as consumers could buy books here at the same time as making any other purchase. The convenience factor plays a big role here, especially at peak retail times like Christmas. Not only that, retailers like Amazon are able to offer books both used and new at a much lower price than book shops as there are no store overheads, not to mention free delivery on orders of a certain cost, meaning the consumer isn’t put out by ordering this way so it becomes less of an issue that they may not get to open their book for a couple of days.

And so with less book shops comes less need to print as many books overall. However Amazon has contributed to the death of print in a much bigger way.

The rise of e-readers

The first Kindle launched in November 2007 and in the last 7 or so years the device by Amazon has gone from strength to strength with each new model which has been released. The small sleek design, roughly the same size as a paperback but far lighter, proved appealing for those who love to read at any opportunity. Both a popular space saver in your handbag, suitcase and in your home, the Kindle breathed a whole new lease of life into the hobby that is reading. Soon many different brands of e-reader cropped up, offering all the same benefits as a Kindle.

As a result, e-readers and in turn e-books then became popular, fashionable and affordable. As e-books don’t have to be printed and delivered to a store, the cost to produce and sell them then becomes much less than an average paperback or hardback. This means that e-books can sell for much less, and in quite a lot of instances you’ll find e-books for free available in most e-reader libraries. Therefore although you pay an initial expense with an e-reader, it becomes more cost-effective in the long run to enjoy reading this way, which then drives down the need for as many printed books.

The digital world

Although e-readers make up a large part of the digital world, our whole attitude and adoption of the digital technology available to us is another contributing factor to the death of printed books. For example, with an e-reader you can buy a book directly from the library and have it added to your device in seconds. You could have an account linked to your bank details or you may opt to use a payment method like PayPal, but either way, the transaction is almost instant and you can enjoy your books in minutes.

But it’s not just books we can consume in the digital world or even on our Kindles any more. Now you can pay your bills, play games, gamble and so much more too.

With all these factors considered, it’s easy to see why it looks like the death of printed books is near.

Why Book Reviews Are Oh So Very Important

8774134-important-rubber-stampBook reviews are, first and foremost, for readers. But they're also for authors…and advertisers.

As a reader, I use book reviews to help make buying decisions. I write them because I want to help others make that same decision.

As an author, I sometimes read reviews because I want to know what I'm doing right or wrong. There are different camps on this one. Some authors never read reviews because they feel very strongly that reviews are for readers. Also, they don't want to become upset or distracted by a negative review. On the other side of this are authors who read every single review, good or bad. They use this knowledge to (hopefully) make themselves better storytellers.

Which brings me to the last group that uses reviews: advertisers. Before I get into that, though, let me talk briefly about why advertisers are important to authors.

As a relatively unknown author, I rely on advertising to help get my books in front of people. Sounds simple enough. But the field of effective advertisers has narrowed considerably in the past 1-2 years, and so has the competition to get listed. It used to be that advertisers took anyone and everyone. Pay them the money and they'd feature your book. But readers soon grew wary of these sorts of 'email blasts' because there was no guarantee of quality. So along came a new style of advertising where advertisers started curating the books sent their way. No longer was it acceptable to have poorly designed covers, content riddled with grammar and other errors, or, getting back to the point of this post, poor ratings and reviews.

Not only that, but advertisers began to require a minimum level of stats before they'd even consider a book for listing. Many of them now require a minimum of 4 stars for a rating and 10 reviews. Further, they look at the content of those reviews, weeding out any books with 'too many typos' or those that 'need editing.'

I can only deal with one of those criteria: the last one. The quality of the work is entirely on the author.

But the reviews are entirely on the reader. Sure, I can help it along with review copies, which I have done, but you still reach a point where you need the reader who you didn't contact or don't know to step up and leave a rating or review.

So, the next time you finish a book, think about taking a few minutes to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or elsewhere. Reviews don't need to be long or in-depth. A sentence or two is sometimes enough. A review doesn't have to be positive, either. Sometimes a negative one is just as beneficial as a positive one.

And if you've read one of my books, why not leave a review now? I'd really appreciate your honest opinion. I'm pretty sure other readers will, too.

The Fussy Librarian

The Fussy Librarian

One of the challenges of selling any product is making consumers aware of it. eBooks are no exception to this. As an author, there are myriad ways to get my books in front of people. One of the best ways is to let someone else do it. Even better if this middleman (or, in this case, middlewoman) 'sells' to people who requested a pitch. In this case, the request takes the form of a reader signing up to receive an email containing information about books to buy.

The key to success here, though, is for the sender of the email to provide a curated, filtered list of eBooks based on reader preference and selection. Enter The Fussy Librarian.

They're a new outfit in town, still growing their list and extending generous advertising terms to authors such as myself, but they're doing everything right so far, which is a pretty good first step.

Not only am I using their service as an author, but I also use it as a reader. When signing up to receive an email from them, I like that I can specify which sub-genre (Steampunk and Epic Fantasy for me, of course) from which to pull books for me to see. They also let you specify what level of language you're comfortable with in your books, as well as violence and sexual content. It's another way to narrow down the books you'll see each day.

I'd like to see The Fussy Librarian do well, both as an author and a reader. We need more services like this. Not ones that will hurl a barrage of titles at you each day, but ones that curate what they're sending so we can avoid some of the you know what.

The other side of this is that without more services like this certain ones (Bookbub) gain a stranglehold on the "good" advertising venues.

So do us all a favor and go check out The Fussy Librarian.

8 Ways To Fix Online Review Systems

The review and ratings systems of the online world have a problem. That problem is anonymity and the lack of a verifiable online identity to properly identify individuals who leave reviews or make comments.

While it's easy to point fingers at places like Amazon, this is a problem that belongs to most if not all online retailers. Amazon just happens to have the largest (or close to it) online presence and also, as a result, seems to be at the center of controversy more often than others.

What sort of controversy am I talking about?

Really two things:

  1. Reviewers who hide behind a shield of anonymity while leaving cruel, derogatory, and really quite pointless reviews.
  2. Shills and sockpuppets, who leave reviews for their own books or even negative reviews for others they perceive as competition.

The last thing I want to do with this post is perpetuate these stories any further. Much like the talk of PED's has completely taken over the great sport of baseball before the 2013 season has even begun, I'm getting tired of hearing about all of it. I don't mean to take a 'bury my head in the sand' tact on this, but there are already a lot of other people who have talked about these subjects and I don't really have anything new to add. I have provided links, however, at the bottom of this post if you want to read all the sordid details.

In this post I'd like to focus on the positive. Namely I'd like to throw out some suggestions on how online retailers can fix their review systems.

Let me preface these ideas with this disclaimer: I know there are privacy, implementation, and flat-out unintended consequences that go along with these suggestions (for example, requiring a person to have purchased the product before being allowed to leave a review precludes someone with an advanced reader copy from posting a review). There simply is no "one solution fixes everything" answer to this problem. But, hopefully someday, we'll have a solution in place that solves the problem with minimal negative side-effects.

So, here goes.

1. No more anonymous reviews

Amazon and many others do not allow anonymous reviews, but Barnes and Noble does. This should stop. It's easy enough to get around this by creating a fake account, but having this simple barrier might at least keep the less motivated from breaking the rules.

2. Require reviews be left by "active" users

I would define an 'active' user as someone who has made at least two (possibly more) purchases in the past 12 months. Again, this is easily gotten around but presents another small barrier to keep some people from dropping a bomb and running away, never to be seen again.

3. Minimum of 5 reviews written before any one review is visible

There is a policy on many, many forums where a person is not allowed to have a signature until he or she has at least made 5 posts. A signature in these cases serves as an identifier as well as, if you're an author, a place to put your book covers and links. In the case of reviews, reviewers should have to establish themselves as legitimate contributors by leaving more than just a single review.

4. Enforce your own review guidelines

Amazon takes a lot of flack for this one. Deservedly so, too, I think. They seem to be, in general, very unwilling to step in and edit or even remove reviews that are in clear violation of even their own guidelines. This should change with better moderation (see #7 below).

5. Expel authors or readers who violate the guidelines

This one will never happen with authors as long as that person is making a lot of sales. Companies like Amazon are public and therefore beholden to shareholders who expect a return on their investment. People like John Locke make far too much money for them to ever take action. However, I think they should. Put the fear in people who create multiple fake accounts then leave themselves a multitude of 5 star reviews. This would apply as well to those who pay money for a single person or company to write numerous glowing reviews for a single product.

6. File charges against authors who perpetuate scams using your system

This goes back to those authors who have either paid for mass fake reviews or used alternate identities of their own to leave glowing 5 star reviews. What this amounts to (in my mind, anyway) is fraud. Fraud is punishable by possible prison time and most definitely a fine here in the United States. I'm no lawyer, but I also suspect profits from said scam would be forfeited. In this case, I would advocate such profit be given to libraries.

7. Provide better moderation

This kind of goes back to #4 above, but online retailers should moderate the content of reviews inasmuch as foul and demeaning language is concerned. The things people get away with when no one knows who they are is ridiculous and they only continue with such behavior when no one is there to stop them.

8. Require identity validation

Another dream, I know. But, unfortunately, I don't think Amazon or anyone else will ever have a worthwhile, accurate, trusted review system until we have established a single online identity registry of sorts similar to how every citizen in the United States has a social security number. With a single online identity you get just the one. It's universally accepted across all web sites, forums, blogs, etc. and undeniably identifies you. Period. No hiding behind fake screen names, accounts, or other chicanery. No more anonymity, either, which I think is a very good thing. You aren't anonymous in face-to-face interactions, so why should you be when online?

OpenId was at one point going to do this for us, but it suffered from poor adoption. Now, with so many users on Facebook and Twitter, those sites are leading the charge. Twitter, however, only verifies a small number of their users while Facebook has stated up to 10% of their user base is fake or "unwanted".

Of course, any identity system has a potential for fraud. Social security numbers are forged every day, so why not online identities? Legitimate crooks will always be crooks. But that's the thing—most people aren't crooks. But give them anonymity and they'll say some wild and crazy things. Take away this anonymity and, well, we might have civil discussions and legitimate reviews to boot.

Conclusion

This is one of those subjects where I get to throw out all sorts of ideas without having to worry about the really hard part, which is their implementation. I'm far from the only one who thinks online review systems are broken, though. At some point someone is going to have to step in and establish some real rules on how people conduct themselves online. You would think people could just act with respect and not game the system. But that'll never happen. Sadly, online retailers will take real action only when it seriously affects their bottom line.

Further Reading

Do book descriptions matter?

I've been thinking about book descriptions as they relate to sales (and sales rankings) and I've stumbled into a conundrum.

We all know what a 'book description' is. It's information meant to convey to a reader what a book is about. In its simplest form, the book description is what's on the back of a print book. You see this being used "as is" by a lot of books at online retailers. It's pretty standard, straightforward, and safe. In more elaborate fashion, though, the book description can become much more as it's embellished with editorial quotes, bolded lines meant to intrigue and catch the attention of the reader, and a short, to-the-point synopsis that tells the reader what it's all about much more concisely than a typical, back-of-the-book summary. Therein lies the conundrum for me as there seems no rhyme or reason to the effectiveness of one approach over another.

Without naming names, I've seen books with basic descriptions (and horrible covers, but that's a topic for another day) with very high rankings. I've also seen more dynamic descriptions associated with books that are also high ranking. Then I've seen the complete opposite: either basic descriptions or more elaborate ones, but in both cases relatively low sales rankings.

All of this makes me wonder which methodology is more successful and if readers are really looking at the descriptions at all.

There's really no answer to that other than to ask if readers prefer a basic, straightforward description or one that starts out with a bang and keeps them interested right up until they hit the 'buy' button.

It also might be that the description is only one piece of the puzzle, so looking at it in isolation is kind of pointless. It's the cover, description, reviews, ratings, and word-of-mouth that ultimately help a reader make the buy decision.

Whatever it is, it's a mystery to me.