And they say no one reads the classics anymore

They say no one reads the classics anymore. But they’d be wrong. At least as it applies to ebooks. Or so say the checkout statistics for the Project Gutenberg titles available from OverDrive.

In a recent blog post, OverDrive listed their top 25 circulating titles from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg digitizes books and other media that are out of copyright in the United States and makes them available for free download.

It’s the list of the “biggest hits” that fascinates.

Obviously, sex still sells. Always and forever. Even when no one actually has to buy anything. The number one book on the list is the Kama Sutra. An ereader or a tablet computer is even better than a brown paper wrapper for hiding what a person is reading. The Kama Sutra is referred to so often, in literature and elsewhere, as the original sex manual, that curiousity alone would prompt many people to idly search for it. And if they could borrow it without anyone else being the wiser, many would be tempted to delve into a copy.

Love still makes the world go ’round. Two classic love stories made the list: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And just to show that all is fair in love and war, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is also part of the top 25.

The titles that make up this list represent every genre of fiction. Inspector Poirot’s first case, otherwise known as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, barely makes the list at number 23. But The Secret Adversary, Dame Agatha Christie’s first work starring Tommy and Tuppence, weighed in at number 10. And, one of my personal favorites, the world’s first consulting detective Sherlock Holmes is the second most popular book on the list. Considering that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes includes the case of A Scandal in Bohemia, where Holmes was bested by “The Woman”, otherwise known as Irene Adler, perhaps we are still on the topics of love and war after all.

For any folks wondering about science fiction, fantasy and/or horror, the answer is yes, they are well represented, not just in numbers, but also by some of the greats. H.G. Wells’ journey in The Time Machine, Bram Stoker’s discovery of the nosferatu in Dracula, and Edgar Rice Burroughs sword and planet fantasy of The Princess of Mars.

Yes, the usual suspects are also on the list. The titles that we all know are assigned for classes like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the Count of Monte Cristo. But people are also taking advantage of the ability to have the entire works of Shakespeare or the Bible (Old and New Testaments) or War and Peace available on their ereader of choice, without having to lug the totality around.

The point is that these aren’t classics because of some esoteric quality they have. They are classics because they are still read.  There is one book on the list I personally wouldn’t touch with someone else’s barge-pole, because it’s not my taste–someone take James Joyce’s Ulysses, please! But most of the books on the list wear their years well.

I’ve never read any of the Tommy and Tuppence books by Agatha Christie. Maybe it’s time to start.

 

Why I’m willing to pay for ebooks

Please don’t get me wrong, I like to get things for free as much as the next person.  But the word free has multiple meanings.  Free as in kittens, or free as in beer being two well-known examples.  Free kittens usually have long-term ancillary costs, such as food, vet bills, love, grief, scratched furniture, frayed electrical cords, aggravation, additional rent or security deposits, etc., etc., etc.  I am intimately familiar with this particular definition of “free”.  Free beer is free, unless you buy the next round.  But beer, well, someone gives you a beer, you drink it, it’s over.

Should ebooks be free because there are no costs to print, warehouse and transport them?  Ebooks don’t require a physical bookstore with rent and light bills and heating and A/C to sell them.  So they should be free, right?

What goes into the creation of a book?  Not the container, the content.  The book has to be written.  That’s a creative process on the part of the writer, or writers.  Whether the book is printed or electronic, the actual creation doesn’t change for the creator.  They have to invest time in that creation, whether it’s invention, research, or a combination of the two.  If the reading public desires more, the authors need to be compensated for their time, otherwise, they will have to find a different way to make a living.  There are people who write their first book, or first couple of books, in their spare time from a day job that pays the bills.  But they write a lot fewer books than folks whose full time job is writing.

There are other parts of the process that would still need to go on, even in an all ebook world.  Editing is importing!  Editing doesn’t have anything to do with whether a book is print or electronic, it has to do with making a book better.  Everyone who reads a popular authors’ work over time can tell exactly when that author stopped being edited.  The books get longer, and they are less “tight” and not quite as good.  I call it “describing the wallpaper”.

Crystal Dragon coverDragon Variation coverBooks sell better with covers.  Library books circulate better with covers.  Ebooks will probably sell better with good cover art.  A quote from science fiction editor Lou Anders in the January issue of Locus Magazine probably said it best. “I won’t buy a book with a crappy cover, and I am finding I won’t buy an e-book with one either.  E-books need to have compelling cover art…”   A picture really is worth a thousand words.  While there is a print edition, the print cover is used to sell the ebook.  When there is no print edition, the publisher has to create cover art.  Good cover art sells books.  Cover art is produced by artists, who are also creators who need to get paid for their work.

One of the things that has turned into a brave new world for everyone is promoting books, especially works by new authors.  How does anyone decide to spend money on someone they’ve never heard of?  It turns out that people are browsing “bricks and mortar” bookstores but buying ebooks.  We look, we touch, we click.  It turns out that Barnes and Noble had a really great idea when they allowed Nook users to browse the entire bn.com while they were inside a B&N store, just like you can sit and read any book on the shelf, as long as you don’t leave the store.  Sampling is good.

Books sell a lot by word of mouth.  I like a book, I tell everyone I know.  Blogs and lists and Facebook multiply that effect.  But how to get that ball rolling?  Different channels of promotion have been created.  Publishers need people to work those channels.  It’s an investment in keeping the company in business, so that it can, in turn, discover new writers, and promote them, which feeds my addiction to reading.

But I expect to pay less for an ebook than a hardcover, and so do most people.  Instinctually, the fact that there is no thing that I can hold, no physical piece that has to be toted and shipped and stacked and stocked, means that it should cost less than a hardback.  Also, I can re-sell or give a hardback (or paperback) away when I’m done.  An ebook still feels slightly ephemeral.  And Amazon or B&N can take it away without my consent if things go awry, and Amazon has done this in one famous case. (1984 anyone?)  When Michael Connelly’s latest best seller, The Fifth Witness, initially cost more on the Kindle than it did as a hardcover, Amazon users revolted by giving the book one star reviews and vowing to either wait or purchase it in hardcover elsewhere.  The Kindle price has since dropped below the hardcover price.

I’m willing to pay for the creative process.  I want more books that I want to read, and I expect to pay for that privilege.  One way of voting for which books I want to read more of is with money.  But not an unreasonable amount of money.  If I buy an ebook, I’m not willing to pay for the storage costs of the print book, since I didn’t purchase that and I’m not getting the benefits that go with buying a physical item.

Free ebooks make great teasers.  The freebies exist as introductions to new authors, or series.  They are designed to get me hooked, so that I will then purchase more books by the same author.  It is supposed to be a win-win.  If I don’t like the book, I’ve lost nothing but a little time.  If I like it, I’ll buy more, and the author and publisher win.  But I am willing to pay.

The only way Amazon gets me in the Kindle Store

eReaderIQ iconI just received an update from eReaderIQ.  This is a service that lets you know when there are new free books added to the Kindle store.  It will also tell you about price drops, and recent Kindlization of previously non Kindle titles, as well as an advance search feature for the Kindle store.  I don’t have a Kindle, and I don’t even like Amazon all that much, but I love this service.

Barnes and Noble logoWhen I was purchasing “dead tree” books, I got them from Barnes & Noble.  Strictly speaking, I usually got them from www.bn.com, but that’s still not Amazon.  They had a real store I could visit when I wanted truly instant gratification, and, when I only needed moderately quick gratification, B&N shipped faster without my having to pay extra for Prime Membership.

When I bought an ebook reader, I bought a Nook.  One of the big selling points was that it had some built-in flexibility.  I could use it for ebooks from the library, if I was willing to jump through some hoops (that process was fairly teeth-grinding the first time).  I could also get free books from Baen and Project Gutenberg, while still having the advantage of being able to shop for books in bed at midnight if I really didn’t feel like reading anything I had on hand.  (The local Barnes and Noble currently hands out a cheat-sheet with every Nook they sell that gives new Nook owners the handy-dandy instructions on how to borrow ebooks from the library and read them on their new Nook.  This is a win-win that Amazon just can’t match.)

But now I have an iPad, and it changes things.  An iPad is essentially vendor agnostic.  As long as “there’s an app for that”, it can be anything I want it to be.  Or, everything I want it to be.  It’s a Nook and an Overdrive Media Console and a Bluefire Reader and, occasionally, a Kindle.

eReaderIQ tells me when there is a new ebook available for free in the Kindle store.  Even if I absolutely hate the title, I absolutely love getting the information.  And, unfortunately for the state of my various TBR lists and piles, sometimes I find the title interesting enough to download.  I know this is a loss-leader for Amazon.  They hope that people will get the freebie and then buy other books by the same author.  If I want something that’s not free, I’ll either check the library, or, purchase from B&N, so it’s not working on me, but the concept is excellent.  And, it absolutely proves the point made by librarians that letting people read the actual work is what turns people on to getting more books, including buying more books!  The freebie is a teaser, and I’d be willing to bet that both Amazon and the authors who put their books up think it works for them in the long run.

Baen Books LogoBaen Books has a terrific explanation of this from their perspective, written by Eric Flint, who has also put his money where his mouth is as an author.  The Baen Free Library makes the first couple/three books in many of their most popular authors’ series (including Flint’s) available for free download.  They know that if a reader likes the first two or three books, they will feel compelled to read the rest of the series.  Think of it as a gateway drug.

Project Gutenberg logoBut it’s the service aspect of this that I keep thinking about.  As a service, this is absolutely fantastic.  Barnes and Noble does not seem to have anything to match it, or if they do, they are hiding it quite thoroughly.  Project Gutenberg even manages to do this, and they won’t make a profit on it, but Barnes & Noble can’t seem to manage it (neither can Google).  What’s up with that?

Can libraries do the same thing?  Just think about it for a second.  Send out an email to patrons of what the library added, today.  Just today.  Every single day.  And/or what the library placed on order today.  And/or all the ebooks added to the library’s ebook site.  There really isn’t any need to get fancy about this, eReaderIQ certainly doesn’t.  It’s the books, and it’s all the books. There’s no added text, there’s no filtering, just the publisher blurb and the cover picture.  If I don’t like the books, I can delete the email or ignore the twitterfeed.  This could be automated, and it would provide a daily reminder of what the library does that’s good for readers.  And it would be an automatic update to the library’s twitterfeed and Facebook page every day.  Think of the possibilities!