Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

On perfection

What is perfection?

Dictionary.com defines it as this:

the state or quality of being or becoming perfect

It defines "perfect" as:

excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement

Anyone who cares about their work strives for perfection. Very few ever achieve it. In some ways, it is unachievable. Art, for example, is subjective. One person may look at something and declare it a masterpiece. Others may view it as something less than that.

But if you take the subjective out of something and look purely at the form or execution, I think you can in fact achieve perfection of a sort. At minimum, one might consider a novel "perfect" if it contains no errors—no spelling mistakes, misuse of grammar, punctuation, etc. One wouldn't think this is that hard to achieve. Surprisingly, it is. A writer on his own, forget about it. A writer who uses a copyeditor or a succession of proofreaders and multiple editors… the chance of perfection rises, but still isn't guaranteed.

I've been thinking more and more about perfection, or at least the pursuit of it, as I come to see my writing as perhaps not quite a viable alternative occupation yet, but at least a second source of income. Besides for that, I'm one of those types of people who cares enough about their work to want perfection, or at least as close to it as I can get. It bothers me to no end when a reader finds a typo, for example. Especially a dumb one. One that I should have caught. One that never should have made it into the final product.

In software engineering, we often have groups dedicated to quality control. These QA (quality assurance) groups are charged with varying levels of testing to make sure bugs are fixed before the client ever sees them. This doesn't guarantee perfection, but it at least removes the "dumb" errors. The point is that a programmer should never perform the final QA testing of their own code or features or software. He or she is "too close". This doesn't mean he or she shouldn't test their own "stuff". They should. But they should also have a second (or third) set of eyes take a look before shipping.

Of course, this model translates into writing. The programmer is the author and the QA person is the copyeditor. The copyeditor's job is to apply a specific set of rules (spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.) as well some subjective ones (style, wordiness, confusing passages, etc.) to a manuscript in order to help the author achieve perfection.

Even this is not enough to guarantee it, though. Even worse, it doesn't guarantee that everyone is going to like your finished product. Nothing can guarantee that, obviously.

Yet I will continue to strive for perfection. I know I won't ever truly reach it, but it's the journey, not the destination (or something like that).

An amazing quote to go in this space, or mistakes happen

I was out on Goodreads earlier today when an exceptionally done cover caught my eye. Here it is at the size I first saw it at:

I don't know about you, but I want to click-through on this cover. I did, which brought me to this:

Notice anything kind of… odd?

Looks like someone put this cover out before it was quite ready for primetime (kind of like a certain Raymond E. Feist novel).

Here's the above cover again, this time taken from Amazon.com:

Looks like they at least got this one right… or not.

The first image says at the top "…the Rasenna Trilogy". The second, "…the Wave Trilogy". Your guess is as good as mine as to which is right.

All this being said, hey, mistakes happen—spelling errors, typos, mistakes in grammar, cover goofs. But it's somewhat reassuring to know that even the big traditional publishers make them, too.

Favorite Reads of 2011

311px-Gold_seal_v2

Something I’ve done the past few years is engage in a reading challenge. I documented 2010’s on this blog, but left it to GoodReads to handle the bookkeeping exclusively for me for 2011 (41 books read and counting on a challenge of 35. Yeah, baby!).

Reading challenges serve a couple of purposes. Most notably, it allows me to track what I’ve read in a fairly unobtrusive and sometimes fun manner, while also allowing me to gauge progress over the course of the year. Of course, it also makes it easier to write a “Favorite Reads of the Year” post, something which has become an annual thing for me.

So, without further ado, here are my favorite reads of this past year.

The Best of Robert E. Howard: Volume 1: The Shadow Kingdom The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
Fool's Fate (Tawny Man, #3) Viking Warrior (The Strongbow Saga)
Dragons From The Sea (The Strongbow Saga #2) The Children of Cthulhu
Into the Storm Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Crusade The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Burton & Swinburne, #1)

An introspective on Borders' liquidation

In what can only be seen as a sign of the times, Borders is closing its remaining 399 stores. Last ditch talks that would have brought in additional financing have failed, leaving the company with no choice but to liquidate.

This news makes me neither sad nor happy. I'd always been more of a Barnes & Noble shopper, before Amazon came along anyway. In comparison with Barnes & Noble, Borders always seemed to have higher prices, and, for whatever reason, Barnes & Noble was always just more convenient for me. It helped that B&N from early on had an alliance with Starbucks, where Borders had… I don't know. Seattle's Best? (Seattle's Best is now owned by Starbucks.)

Borders' demise is without a doubt a result of the changing book landscape. There was some mismanagement as well, poor choices for store locations, etc., but much of this can be laid at the feet of eReaders and online shopping. Another blog posed the question of when was the last time you'd been inside a bookstore. I thought about it for some time, but had no idea. It's been that long for me. Before I bought my Kindle, I was already buying exclusively from Amazon. Now, even more so.

One has to wonder if this isn't a tipping of the scales in the other direction. The "big box" retailers such as Home Depot, Wal Mart, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and others have long been responsible for driving many smaller retailers out of business. Yet here we are now with one of those same large retailers taking a swallow of the same medicine. The market changed, and Borders couldn't change with it. It will be interesting to see if the void Borders leaves behind is filled by smaller players, gobbled up by their main rival, B&N, or if it will just remain a void that people, over time, forget is even there as we push further into the electronic world.

I'll leave you with the farewell letter sent by Borders to their Rewards Members.

image

Pricing: eBooks vs Paperbacks

Most of the time when I finish a book, I'm ready to buy the next one on my wish list right away. Since I own a Kindle, my preferred reading format is digital. The problem of late is that too many of the eBooks on my list are, in my opinion, over-priced.

Amazon ignited widespread interest in eBooks with the introduction of their first Kindle eReader. As prices for the device came down, and the device itself got better (smaller, faster, crisper display, smaller form factor, etc.) , more and more people joined the eBook revolution. Unfortunately, with the success of the Kindle came increased scrutiny from the Big 6. In particular, publishers were not pleased with Amazon's practice of slashing eBook prices to the point where the price of the eBook was actually lower than the wholesale price Amazon paid for the book in the first place. It made sense from Amazon's perspective: they wanted to sell Kindles. In order for people to buy into a hardware purchase amounting to several hundred dollars (at that time), there had to be some perceived value. That perceived value was being able to purchase an eBook version of a bestseller or other book for $10-15 less than the print edition price. From the publisher's perspective, this was not good. Amazon was lowering the price threshold to the point where they were creating a "new normal", and undermining a pricing infrastructure the Big 6 had gotten quite comfortable with. The end result of their confrontation was Amazon's capitulation.

This has left us with the pricing structure we have today, with many eBooks costing the same (or more, in some cases) as their print equivalent. Regardless of the costs involved in producing a book (and irrespective of its final format), the perception is that an eBook should cost less.

I subscribe to this perception, and so I expect that when I find a print book that the eBook version should cost me less money. If only this were the case.

I decided to do a little analysis to see how many of the books on my Amazon wish list have eBooks priced the same or higher than the print equivalent. The list spans multiple genres: fantasy, thriller/suspense, steampunk, alternate history, and historical/informational.

Here's the list:

Title eBook
$
Paperback
$
$
Diff
% Diff
A Princess of Landover $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
City of Dreams & Nightmare $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05%
Daily Life in the Middle Ages $14.74 $36.42 ($21.68) -59.53%
The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica $4.99 $9.95 ($4.96) -49.85%
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1) $9.59 $12.00 ($2.41) -20.08%
Infernal Devices $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05%
Into the Storm: Destroyermen, Book I $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
Leviathan  $8.99 $11.16 ($2.17) -19.44%
Life in a Medieval City $9.99 $11.19 ($1.20) -10.72%
Life in a Medieval Village $9.99 $8.92 $1.07 12.00%
The Age of Wonder $13.99 $10.31 $3.68 35.69%
The Blade Itself: A Novel $6.99 $6.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Bookman $4.69 $7.99 ($3.30) -41.30%
The Breach $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Broken Kingdoms $9.99 $10.60 ($0.61) -5.75%
The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86%
The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm $9.59 $12.46 ($2.87) -23.03%
The Doomsday Book $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Hammer $9.99 $10.19 ($0.20) -1.96%
The Last Days of Krypton $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00%
The Road to Vengeance (The Strongbow Saga)* $9.99 $12.23 ($2.24) -18.32%
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86%
Wolf of the Steppes $9.99 $14.96 ($4.97) -33.22%

* title available in hardcover but not paperback

I've listed the title of the book along with it's eBook and paperback prices followed by the difference in price between formats in both dollars and as a percentage. In all, there are 25 titles listed.

The first thing that struck me about this list is how many titles have both eBook and print editions priced exactly the same. 7 titles! Out of 25, that's 28% of the sample. 15 titles have eBooks priced lower than the print editions. Only 2 have eBook versions priced higher than the print edition.

I don't know how publishers rationalize charging the same for both eBook and print formats. It's analogous to charging the same for the paperback and hardcover editions. That would be ludicrous, right? The cost to produce a hardcover is higher than that of a paperback; you'd expect to pay less for the latter. I don't think it's unreasonable to pay less for the eBook than the paperback. You've gone from something physical to electrons. While there are (minimal) data storage as well as distribution (transmission) costs with an eBook, I can't see how that equates to the costs associated with printing, boxing, storing (whether shelf or warehouse), and shipping a print book.

At least 15 of the eBooks listed come in at prices lower than the print editions. Even still, the differences are minimal, averaging to just $3.01.

One bright spot is that at least most of the eBook editions come in at $9.99 or less. $9.99 is still too much for an eBook, in my opinion, but it's better than $14.99.

Which kind of leads into another observation… A while back I had just finished the second book in Robin Hobb's Rain Wilds Chronicles and was all ready to buy the next book in the series, Dragon Haven, until I saw the eBook price: $14.99!

The Big 6 had been pushing for higher eBook prices on new releases. As evidenced by the price of Dragon Haven, they got it. Over time, then, and especially once the paperback came out, the eBook price fell. In the case of Dragon Haven, and many of the titles I listed, the eBook price fell no further than the paperback.

Which made me wonder: How long does it take for the eBook price to fall to a reasonable level?

Here's the data once more, this time with Kindle pub date added.

Title eBook
$
Paperback
$
$
Diff
% Diff Pub
Date
A Princess of Landover $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
Among Thieves: A Tale of the Kin $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2011
City of Dreams & Nightmare $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05% 2010
Daily Life in the Middle Ages $14.74 $36.42 ($21.68) -59.53% 2001
The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica $4.99 $9.95 ($4.96) -49.85% 2010
Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt 1) $9.59 $12.00 ($2.41) -20.08% 2008
Infernal Devices $4.79 $7.99 ($3.20) -40.05% 2011
Into the Storm: Destroyermen, Book I $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2008
Leviathan  $8.99 $11.16 ($2.17) -19.44% 2009
Life in a Medieval City $9.99 $11.19 ($1.20) -10.72% 2010
Life in a Medieval Village $9.99 $8.92 $1.07 12.00% 2010
The Age of Wonder $13.99 $10.31 $3.68 35.69% 2009
The Blade Itself: A Novel $6.99 $6.99 $0.00 0.00% 2010
The Bookman $4.69 $7.99 ($3.30) -41.30% 2010
The Breach $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
The Broken Kingdoms $9.99 $10.60 ($0.61) -5.75% 2010
The Buntline Special: A Weird West Tale $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86% 2010
The Crooked Letter: Books of the Cataclysm $9.59 $12.46 ($2.87) -23.03% 2006
The Doomsday Book $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2011
The Hammer $9.99 $10.19 ($0.20) -1.96% 2011
The Last Days of Krypton $7.99 $7.99 $0.00 0.00% 2009
The Road to Vengeance (The Strongbow Saga)* $9.99 $12.23 ($2.24) -18.32% 2009
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack $9.59 $10.88 ($1.29) -11.86% 2010
Wolf of the Steppes $9.99 $14.96 ($4.97) -33.22% 2006

Unfortunately, I don't know what the eBook prices started at; that information would make this metric more meaningful. But it's pretty clear that while an eBook may come down in price, it isn't going much below the cost of the paperback. Are the Big 6 publishers creating their own new normal here? By setting eBook prices at $7.99 – $9.99, they may be attempting to create a perception of value on eBook prices simply by maintaining higher paperback prices. You can see that on 15 of the titles listed. Prices rise over time naturally due to inflation and other factors; it's sad to think publishers may use the digital medium to create an artificial spike.

One of the many benefits of eBooks, other than being cheaper than paper books, is that they're highly accessible to many readers worldwide. This is why many writers have been looking into eBook publishing options for their work.