Even though this blog has been fairly dormant for the last two years, starting now I’m going to be doing a lot more reviews about ebooks.
Let me explain.
I continue to write fiction and produce ebooks for Personville Press. That keeps me busy. In the past decade or so, I’ve said that I just haven’t had time for book reviews — although I have always kept a detailed list of books I’m reading (here’s the 2018 list and goodreads list of recent reads).
Even though books are the center of my life (and always have been), I haven’t felt particularly inclined to write book reviews. First, although I’m a “good” book critic, I wouldn’t call myself a great one — and more importantly, I am not a particularly fast one. It’s true that in the early 2000s I posted over a 100 reviews on Amazon.com, but a lot of them were IT/technology nonfiction books, and often I needed only to skim them to form an interesting opinion.
Book reviews are so …. forgettable. I’ve published some great book reviews, but I’m too slow and careful; also, my memory for details isn’t that good. I’m no James Wood or Michael Barrett or Daniel Green or Dan Schneider or Michael Dirda or Steve Moore. At the same time I have been writing a fair number of essays for the Personville titles, and although they are analytical and carefully written, they have an explicitly promotional purpose.
In the early 1990s I used to write reviews for the Houston Post and maybe other small publications, but it was a thankless task. It can take 10 hours just to read the damn book, and 4 hours to write about it; who has that sort of time? My literary/film critic Michael Barrett can dash these things off, but for me, I’m not as glib about it. Also, I can get sidetracked by deeper issues of aesthetics and storytelling. For most of my life, it’s very hard to write a 500 word or even a 1000 word review. I can do it, I can even enjoy doing it, but others can do it much better.
Over the last decade or two, some strange things have happened. Indie publishing and ebooks exploded, and the quality of book reviewers have declined. There are bloggers to take up the slack, but not entirely. For one thing, the “advance review copy” distribution apparatus has been extremely favorable to the NY publishing world. I have nothing against authors like George Saunders or Celeste Ng or Min Jin Lee, but individual books by these author have been reviewed THOUSANDS of times. Frankly, I tire of critics and bloggers who claim to have high literary standards and then review only titles available on Net Galley or Amazon Vine. I used to think NYTBR or Washington Book Review had daring book reviews, but that is not really the case; the reviewers themselves may be distinguished authors, but the books they review are often the same old books from Random House and FSG
A Cost-Conscious Approach to Ebooks
As a literary cheapskate, I pay a lot more attention to the freebie and 99 cent titles by authors that nobody has ever heard of. This year (and maybe part of last year) I have rediscovered pleasure reading — and to my dismay I am noting the dearth of reviews about high quality indie or self-published titles. I just started reading — for example — a nice story collection by an Irish author living in Thailand and all kinds of special interest books which are lucky to receive more than 5 reviews. Yes, if an indie title has 5 reviews, 2 or 3 are by friends who rave about it, one is a random person eager to dump over a random author, and one is a shallow 2 sentence review by a reader with juvenile standards.
I’m not saying that a book review needs to be long or in-depth. Sometimes just a paragraph is enough to convey the gist, but often we’re not even getting that. In August I was finding remarkable 99 cent titles from Simon & Schuster (i.e., a major publisher), and I was horrified to see how many titles weren’t being reviewed.
One of the problems is related to reduced prices and reduced marketing budgets of indie authors. The bigger problem is the glut of titles and the declining demand for books in general. This may be an oversimplification; casual readers may simply be unaware of how many cheap ebooks are now available, so they end up paying $10 for a title with ample word of mouth.
Frankly, I am spending a lot of time searching/uncovering and promoting interesting-sounding books which I haven’t yet read. For the Simon & Schuster sale items, I did this because I wanted to let people know about the titles before they returned to their regular prices. But over this year I’ve become extremely comfortable recommending books that I’ve only read a chapter or two from. First, I’ve already researched these titles to know that I would like them and read enough to confirm this suspicion. I’m reasonably confident that my high opinion will be confirmed when I finally read them from start to finish. Consider the titles below:
Nearly complete works of Donald Harington
Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
Nothing remains the same by Wendy Lesser
Life in the Lion’s Mouth by James Dubbs
Love and Other Afflictions by Jonathan Finch
Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett
Broken Places by Susan Perabo
New and Selected Poems by Charles Simic
Marlene and Sofia by Pedro Barrento
Soil by Jamie Kornegay
Favorites by Mary Yukari Waters
Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzhko
My Last Continent by Midge Raymond
South Street by David Bradley
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
White Tiger on Snow Mountain by David Gordon
Aside from the Simic and Dobelli title, I’ve only read one or two chapters from each title, and yet I’m pretty sure that all of them are going to be terrific! (I obtained almost all of these for 99 cents each!)
About half of these titles (the ones published by Simon and Schuster) are currently priced at $12 or so (ugh!), but if you set up a price alert (on ereaderiq), you can almost certainly buy every title for under $3.
The amazing thing about publishing today is that many high quality ebooks are very cheap. Seriously, if I had enough time, I could make a list that is 3 times as long.
My methods of finding good cheap ebooks are not esoteric. I subscribe to 20+ ebook deal newsletters (and actually read them every day!) but really the only ones that matter (from the standpoint of indie publishing) are bookgorilla, bargainbooksy and booksends. For midlist titles from the bigger publishers, earlybirdbooks and bookbub will give you more low-cost ebooks than you know what to do with.
Also: I have included my most useful ebook deal links on my blogroll to the right.
Finally Amazon posts some remarkable deals, and indeed, every month it picks about 100 titles published by its inhouse publishing imprints and discounts them to 99 cents. I am not a fan of Kindle Unlimited/Prime Reading, but an increasing percentage of indie published titles are available to read through that.
As if that weren’t enough, Smashwords publishes a lot of low cost/free titles that for some reason don’t make it to Amazon. Often titles are on both Smashwords and Amazon
Certainly an ebook’s price is not the primary consideration when deciding on an ebook to read or buy. Some library enthusiasts say that the price of an ebook should be irrelevant to the consideration of the book’s value because …. can’t you find it for free from the public library?
This indifference to the price of ebooks can be infuriating.
First, I have library cards with three public libraries (two of which are well-stocked and well-funded). I can safely say that these libraries fail to buy about 80% of the new titles out there, and probably 95-97% of the new indie titles.
Second, although I strongly endorse lending services like Lendle which facilitate the lending of Kindle ebooks, publishers of most commercial titles have turned OFF the lending feature for the Kindle version of their ebooks. (To its credit, lendle has been outstanding for sharing and borrowing titles by indie authors on Amazon).
Third, public library systems have their own priorities about what ebooks they acquire. They remain susceptible to the promotions of the Big 5. Also, they have social and community goals (literacy, inclusiveness, political diversity) that doesn’t always result in the smartest of acquisitions. If you don’t believe me, go to your library’s ebook system and look up how many ebooks the library possesses of these authors: 1)Donald Harington, 2)Jack Matthews, 3)Ronan Bennett and 4)Barry Yourgrau.
Next go to your library ebook’s system and look up books by these authors: 1)Ann Coulter, 2)Bill Oreilly, 3)Suzie Orman and 4)Stephanie Meyer.
After you have recovered, taken a shower and (hopefully) gone to confession, you should understand how public libraries can fall short.
For this reason, I’m going to invest more time in publicizing and talking about overlooked books (even if I haven’t actually read them!) Usually this will take the form of book reviews, capsule reviews and roundups. For the last year or two I have been posting announcements about ebook sales on reddit, teleread and social media. Now though I’m going to try to put as much original stuff on my blog (and then copy them to other places).
New Focus: Smashwords
Finally, I am giving special attention to the ebook distributor Smashwords. I recently posted something about how my blog can help Smashwords authors.
First, I am participating in Smashwords’ affiliate marketing program and would love to find a way to monetize this blog AND help other indie authors. (PS, Amazon’s affiliate marketing officially sucks!)
Second, Smashwords is really the best alternative to Amazon.com at the moment.
Third, Smashwords offers coupon codes and lets you price things temporarily for free. These are things not easily done on the Amazon site.
Fourth, Smashwords offers DRM free ebooks — and EPUBs! Horray for ebook standards!
I don’t want to sound anti-Amazon. Amazon is awesome to authors and publishers and readers. But so is Smashwords, and there is no reason why the quality of Smashwords catalog cannot be as high as or higher than Amazon.
Finally and perhaps least importantly, when talking about ebooks on this blog, I’m not going to include an image of the cover of every ebook I talk about. Sounds easy, but actually it’s a chore to do — especially when you’re book blogging. Also, I like my home page to contain full articles (not just the first paragraph or two). If I include a ton of ebook covers, that will just cause the website to load more slowly.