Ideological book formatting and the NDR discovers e-books

First of all, I was interviewed today by erotic romance writer Clarissa Wild, so come on over and say hello.

Here is a cautionary tale about hiring external help to bring your e-book to market. The religion-critical site Pantheos reports that one J.O. Herrera wrote and planned to self-publish a book about atheism. He hired a formatter recommended by Smashwords. Unfortunately, the formatter vehemently disagreed with the content of J.O. Herrera’s book and decided to “improve” it by adding a bunch of religious links to a book about atheism. The book in question may be found here at Smashwords, hopefully without problematic links.

Now I fully understand if a service provider refuses a job they cannot do in good conscience. As a translator, I have been in that situation myself with regard to translations regarding business deals with blatant human rights violators (I used to have a client who never met a dictator or shady regime he wouldn’t do business with. I was so glad when he finally retired), selling products or services I find morally repugnant or translating correspondence that made me uncomfortable (because peeking into somebody else’s argument is unpleasant) or that was just plain rude. I’m not exactly overly sensitive either, for example I translate a lot of military stuff, which makes many translators uncomfortable. I even did translations for the nuclear power industry, even though I am strongly opposed to nuclear power. So far there have been only two occasions where I flat out refused a job (and two more where I came close). It’s never pleasant, especially if you fear losing a client and/or need the money. However, if you feel that you cannot do a job in good conscience, then refuse and recommend someone else. But accepting the job only to mess up a client’s project is bad form and just plain unprofessional.

This isn’t the first story I have heard about e-publishing service providers not doing the job they were contracted for for religious reasons. At Kboards, there were at least two authors recounting experiences with audio book narrators who suddenly had moral qualms about “rude” words in the text they were supposed to narrate. Of course, it’s always possible that the service provider really had no idea that the book in question violated their moral code and/or religious convictions until they had already commenced working on it. But with a book entitled God doesn’t exist and yes, I can prove it what did the formatter think it would be about?

Meanwhile, the North German radio and regional TV station NDR has discovered e-books and self-publishing. At any rate, I was watching their weekly cultural program Kulturjournal today. Sandwiched between reports about ugly architecture, Polish WWII resistance fighters and comics about dadaist artists was a report about the e-book phenomenon. The video is here.

The report was basically the usual “Amazon is evil” screed. They interviewed a publisher’s representative (thinks e-books are important and is currently in the process of setting up an e-book store on the publisher’s website – a little behind the times, isn’t he?) and a fellow from the German publishers’ and booksellers’ association, who believes that only a united front can stop Amazon (Isn’t Amazon as a bookseller operating in Germany a member?). The gentleman of the publishers’ and booksellers’ association also expressed concern that the proposed free trade agreement with the US might put an end to the German fixed book price agreement, since the USA obviously won’t introduce fixed book prices. He is right about that, if the uproar about agency pricing and supposed price collusion surrounding Apple and the Big Six/Five publishers is any indication, since agency pricing basically was a fixed book price agreement of sorts. However, I don’t view the free trade agreement, if it is signed at all, as a threat for the fixed book price agreement, since there likely will be a cultural exception to allow programs like the fixed book price agreement or film support grants to continue.

Among all the doomsayers, the NDR report also interviewed a German self-publisher, writer Kristen Wendt, who said that self-publishing was quicker and less complicated and therefore more suited to 21st century publishing. Meanwhile, the voice-over lamented that no publisher decides whether those self-published books were or good bad and that there is no publisher to provide editing, nurturing and marketing. They also added a quote by Ms. Wendt about the importance of reader reviews and sales rank and that “everybody wants to be in the Amazon top 100”. Kulturjournal host Julia Westlake then added her own comments about how the e-book revolution had opened the floodgates for “unedited trash”. I knew there was a reason Ms. Westlake always rubbed me the wrong way.

In short, it’s business as usual. “Amazon is an evil monopolist (plus, they refused to talk to the NDR – geez, I wonder why), publishers and independent booksellers are vital, self-published books are unedited trash”. As usual, there is no mention of any Kindle competitors such as Kobo, Apple or Tolino, the e-reader developed by the German Telekom and a bunch of German bookstore chains. As worried as these people are about a potential Amazon monopoly, you’d think they’d at least mention Amazon’s competitors for balance’s sake. Still, at least I hope Ms. Wendt got some sales out of this. Though NDR doesn’t even have the common courtesy of linking to her Amazon author page on their website.

I can totally understand why Amazon doesn’t want to talk to NDR reporters BTW, cause the NDR is a member of the ARD network and the last time Amazon had ARD reporters camping out at their gates, they found themselves accused of exploiting workers and hiring Neo-Nazis for security. There is a thread at The Passive Voice about the uproar here, while the original documentary (which almost no one who repeated the Neo-Nazi thing watched) is here. So after that hatchet job (which attacks labour practices that are highly problematic, but far from limited to Amazon and the result of ill thought-out welfare reforms under the Schröder government), I wouldn’t talk to ARD reporters either, if I were Amazon.

While looking for a link to the Kulturjournal report about e-books at the NDR website, I also came across this radio report about self-publishing from last October, which I didn’t hear at the time, because I always listen to Radio Bremen rather than NDR Radio and I definitely don’t listen to NDR Info a.k.a. talking head radio. The audio version is here.

In many ways, this report is even worse than the Kulturjournal report. To be fair, they do have author Florien Tietgen extoll the “radical democratisation of the book market” due to e-publishing. However, his statement is immediately followed by the statement of a publisher representative about a lack of quality control for self-published books. “You can’t tell whether a book has been edited or for which age range it is intended”, laments Ms. publisher representative. Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?

What is more, there is zero mention of Kindle Direct Publishing or Kobo Writing Life or Smashwords or Draft2Digital or XinXii or indeed any commonly used self-publishing platform – in a report on self-publishing! So what do they talk about, if not about actual self-publishing? Turns out that this report extolls the virtues of assisted self-publishing on platforms like Tredition and neobooks. Now I’m not familiar with either platform. neobooks seems to be a cross between Authonomy and Smashwords. I might actually use them one day, since they distribute to some stores I can’t reach otherwise. Alas, for the time being they only accept Word documents and not formatted epubs, which is a dealbreaker for me. Never mind that I’m not sure if they accept English language e-books at all. I’m not so sure about the other one. It might be legit, but it’s certainly not a service I will ever be using.

It turns out that the self-publishing report was part of a whole series of radio reports on e-books. There is a pretty good installment about the German e-book market and why e-books are having a harder time here in Germany than in the US (though the US market share figures they give are seriously out of date for 2012), there is a report about reader demographics and one about enhanced e-books. All in all nothing really new there.

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5 Responses to Ideological book formatting and the NDR discovers e-books

  1. Pingback: An Interview and a Link | Cora Buhlert

  2. Daniela says:

    The Feindbild Amazon seems to be by now an instinctive reaction on behalf of the German publishers’ and booksellers’ association.
    The German indie-community is by now mostly only rolling their eyes when once again Amazon gets smashed in an article by the Buchreport. Although some seem to take pleasure in pointing out the reserach mistakes or the lack of reserach in the articles. And it’s always Amazon that gets smashed (in addition to indie writers) and none of the other suppliers.

    And they are wasting a lot of money and energy trying to stop Amazon by all kinds of legal actions to retain the old status instead of trying to offer alternatives and be inventive. No, if they try to be inventive, they come up with something like this new watermark-DRM.

    Neobooks belongs to Droemer Knaur, so it’s in form affiliated with the publishing house. The selfpublisherbible has done a relatively extensive list of German ebook-platforms and thier pros and cons. Here: (sorry, too tired to make a proper link)

    One issue I have with neobooks is their use of a hard DRM and that you can only exclude Amazon from their distribution-list on books that are priced 2,99 and higher.
    Bookrix also sounds like an interesting alternative.

    • Cora says:

      Looks like what the Passive Voice calls Amazon derangement syndrome has hit the German media hard. And it’s always Amazon that gets slammed, while other e-publishing services, mail order booksellers and mail order retailers in general are of course wonderful, even if their terms and/or service are worse than Amazon’s. Hence we get journalists lamenting the demise of Neckermann and Quelle (having suffered from their scratchy synthetic clothing as a kid they couldn’t be gone fast enough for me), while Amazon is evil. As for the “rich German bookselling landscape” many of those media reports extoll, if you read SFF in any language or preferred English language books, the German bookselling landscape was never all that wonderful to begin with.

      Besides, it doesn’t seem to me as if Amazon is seriously threatening German booksellers. The big Thalia stores are always full (though they are closing one of two Thalia stores in Bremen city centre next year, probably because two Thalia stores within 500 meters of each other is too much) and I even see plenty of people special ordering out of stock books, which always makes me scratch my head, because online ordering is so much more convenient.

      Thanks for the link about the German e-book platforms. I would like to get at least my German language books into, and the other German stores, because they do seem to have a big market share here. But you can’t go direct and the German distributors all have serious issues, e.g. you can’t unselect stores, processing fees per book, enforced DRM, don’t accept formatted e-pubs, require ISBN, etc… As for ISBNs, I looked into buying a block, but as soon as you want more than one, they require you to submit a “Handelsregistereintrag” to prove you’re a proper publisher, sigh.

      • Daniela says:

        *Nod* Just yesterday 3Sat had a report about ebooks and guess what ‘the evil that is Amazon’. Can’t find it in their mediathek right now.

        Same old, same old though and I had to switch channels because the report made me so angry with the statement that Amazon would lead to a simplification of the *rich German bookselling landscape*, especially without vetting by publishers. Completely ignoring the fact that publishers are businesses as well and have to keep the bottom-line in mind and that there will be good books that won’t get published because they don’t match the current trends or don’t fit into the program of the publisher. Amazon has broken that open. Writers now have options they didn’t have before.

        Even today the bookselling landscape in Germany isn’t that rich when you’re reading SFF in English. When the Tolino came out, I did a brief check on the shops linked to it to see if the Tolinio would be an option. It wasn’t. Almost none of the shops had English ebooks. Or in the one case where one of the shops had the eBook it cost almost twice as much when compared to Amazon.

        Phantanews also did a series on that, testing German online book-stores to see if they had English ebooks and what they cost. And they did some research to find out why some stores ask such high prices for English books and ebooks.

        And don’t get me started to the whole jumping through hopes, having to install Adobe DE just to be able to read a book. When I decided to buy my mom an ereader I went with the easiest to use option which was the Kindle. And of course I have a Kindle so I was able to explain everything to her without having to figure out a new system.

        I have seen a few bookstores close but they were either in small towns or more specialized and in bad locations while the big chains seem to thrive. Every time I hear people bitching about Amazon and then mention Thalia as an alternative I try to point out that Thalia belongs to the Douglas group and that they maybe should to a bit of research into the Douglas Group and their CEO. For them books are just products to be sold, like soap, perfume, or chocolate. I’m pretty sure that Thalia has destroyed more small bookstores than Amazon.

        German eBook-platforms are a nightmare. I really wish someone would come up with something like smashwords, but I have the feeling that it’s not only the distributers that are the problem but also the online bookstores due to the old business-network-chains and where everyone (but the writers) wants to profit from the book.

        I’ve also looked into the whole ISBN-thing and yeah, no, not interested in starting another company and doing the whole accounting for two companies. One freelance business is enough. It’s also what stopped me from selling some of my handcrafted jewelry and bookmarks on etsy/dawanda.

        • Cora says:

          I watched the 3sat report, too, and it was exactly the same report that NDR broadcast last week with the same wrongness. “The Kindle can only read e-books purchased at Amazon”, which is flat-out wrong.

          I looked at Thalia’s pre-Tolino reader (forgot the name) and though the device was nice, the English language Thalia offerings and prices were awful. Ditto for Weltbild, only that their reader wasn’t very good either. And even for buying physical English language books, Thalia is slow and cumbersome, as I found out when I turned to Thalia to buy a book that Amazon listed as out of stock, while Thalia still claimed to have copies. I actually did an Amazon vs. Thalia comparison in this post.

          And Thalia certainly did drive many smaller stores and chains out of business. The Grüttefien, Montanus and Phoenix chains were all gobbled up by Thalia. We used to have all three chains for a while, now they’re all Thalia stores. Thalia in combination with a direct mail order company for English language books, which was favoured by many students (even though they frequently messed up orders), killed off the great independent bookstore where I bought most of my English language SFF books as a teenager, because they just couldn’t compete. A much diminished version of the store still exists in a bad location (used to be on our main shopping street, is now in a sidestreet) and focussing solely on literary fiction and art books. And Douglas is not a nice company at all and killed all of the small independent perfumeries, which didn’t treat you like crap for daring to walk into their store without being made up within an inch of your life. I like Thalia okay (but then the big Bremen city centre Thalia has a very good manager), but flat out hate Douglas.

          Regarding the distributors (which aren’t normally open to indies at all), it’s the same situation with English language e-books in German shops that we had in pre-Amazon times, where a handful of bookstores carried a small and erratic selection of English language books at ridiculous prices. Americans always gasp with disbelief when I tell them that an standard English language mass market paperback now costs me less than it did in the 1980s. Wuith foreign language magazines, you still have the same issue of the distributor price hikes. An issue of The New Yorker or SFX costs more than a trade paperback.

          And I agree that many booksellers and the Börsenverein simply don’t care about people who prefer to read in the original language. We’re an exotic niche market to them and not worth their while, even though Amazon proves that there’s a lot of us. Occasionally, you also get a superior sneer for not being satisfied with all the wonderful German books on offer and preferring American trash instead.

          The “Handelsregistereintrag” requirement for buying more than one ISBN was a dealbreaker for me, since I don’t want to pay dues to the fucking uselessness that is the Handelskammer. Plus shelling out an annual fee for the “Eintrag ins Verzeichnis lieferbarer Bücher” – dude, e-books will never go out of print.

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