Friday, October 19, 2018

Dark Fantasy: A Warning About OTR eBooks

They say if you do not have anything nice to say, don't say it at all. This is an idiom I have applied over the years for book reviews. If the book is terrible, I made it a policy not to do a book review. Regrettably, I find myself having to break my rule for the first time in a decade. With sincere respect for the author, this review is not targeted towards his book specifically, but rather books of similar nature that are becoming problematic... and it is my hope that this review will save you, the reader, money and disappointment in the near future.

eBooks are economical when it comes to purchasing the latest James Bond novel or Paul McCartney autobiography, but when it comes to reference books in an academic field… exercise caution.

To understand the trepidation one must understand how the publishing industry works. Over the past decade, has become the 400-pound gorilla in the industry. The company now dominates the distribution for print-on-demand, raising pricing structure and changing wholesale terms, forcing publishing companies to consider the digital market – all of which provides Amazon with a larger slice of the pie. Uploading a book to print-on-demand eliminates labor force; little to no up-front fees and no warehouse stock to contend with. Customers simply place an order for a book and the machines that are equipped with printing one book – not mass quantity – will print and ship automatically. 

For publishing companies, this minimizes labor costs and once a month they receive a statement of sales, along with a deposit in their bank account. A one-man operation could publish 800 books and never have to lift a finger to fulfill an order after the initial set-up.

All of which comes down to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other companies that provide eBooks such as Kindle and Nook. Any book submitted for print-on-demand can also be converted to Kindle format with a single push of a button. But here is where the problem lies: anyone can write a book in Microsoft Word, upload the file and voilĂ  – instant eBook. Sadly, a large number of people are simply cutting and pasting from Wikipedia and re-formatting their text files to produce fast books on the cheap. Others interject a deliberate product placement in their “how-to” books, every so many pages, providing links to their website where people can buy their products. 

Without literary representation, most of these books are referred to as “Indie titles.” For decades published indie titles were stocked side by side alongside books that were submitted by traditional publishers. You could always tell when the employees at a bookstore knew their product by shelving indie titles separately, with the shelves labeled respectfully. But in today’s market vetting out “books” written by indie authors implements a policy of segregation. Indie authors cry foul at this practice, claiming no one would browse or buy their books – and their admission is correct. But segregation in classifying any type of books is what we need and (not surprisingly) already established commonplace – after all, can you not search on Amazon by author name, publisher name, subject, fiction vs. non-fiction, reference vs. science-fiction?

Off the side I would like to state that just because a published book is an indie title does not indicate it is a bad book. I have seen indie titles, reference books, dominate over the same subject matter published by a University Press. 

Publishing companies today have no qualms about offering their best sellers in both paperback and eBook formats, the average price of traditionally published material ranging from $9.99 to $18.99. But there is a growing trend of eBooks produced by anyone with access to a computer and there lies the problem. Those books have no editorial curation or anyone vetting out books that have overt sexual themes, deliberate sales presentations or are rift with spelling mistakes. Unsuspecting customers are duped into purchasing them because they might have a similar name to a best-selling title, or because of the bargain level pricing. The average indie title for Kindle eBooks ranges from .99 to $3.99 and make no mistake – their goal is to make money. (The authors of those books set the price; notice they are not giving the book away for free.) Among the indie press who take it seriously, it is called "authorpreneurship" (a real industry term used today) and it is their hope that cheap prices will justify the quality and size of their books, minimizing complaints and returns. Some are published in this way with the authors taking full entrepreneurial risk because the titles are so small that no one publisher would ever be interested.

Last week I purchased an eBook for $3.99 titled Old-Time Radio Listener’s Guide to Dark Fantasy by Brian Schell. The description, as cited on Amazon, discloses: “This book is a listener’s guide to the series. It briefly covers the creation and format of the series then looks at each of the existing episodes individually, including a synopsis, cast list and commentary on each episode.” Expecting a brief history of the 1941-42 radio program, in what was described as 142 pages, I was disappointed to discover only two pages documenting the history and cast. The majority of the book features plot summaries for the 30+ extant recordings of vintage radio broadcasts, and author commentary for each and every episode. Worse, Brian Schell in his introduction claims historians and scholars of old-time radio “will argue to death that their trivia and history is the correct one, disparaging each other along the way.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Fact: The majority of OTR historians gather frequently at fan gatherings and nostalgia conventions, often going out to dinner to discuss their recent findings, even arranging to meet up and chat about the hobby in general whenever we travel out of state for research projects. Many of us even assist each other with research. On two separate occasions, when travel expenses or copy fees were too expensive, a bunch of us pitched in to offset the expenses.

There is only one OTR historian who does not make appearances at conventions, choosing to remain behind a computer screen operating a website about OTR – bad-mouthing other researchers in this academic field in an attempt to make himself appear authoritative – giving the false impression that there is animosity among historians and researchers of old-time radio. Author Schell cites two different websites as reference in his eBook, one from that same OTR historian, so it appears Mr. Schell temporarily forgot the idiom that you cannot believe everything you read on the internet. Worse, in printing his statement he now gives the false belief that OTR historians are "disparaging" each other.

While the book description on Amazon clearly discloses the fact that the book was meant for the reader to listen to the recordings “simultaneously as reading the book,” this truly is a listener’s guide. There is even a page devoted to the best and worst episodes of Dark Fantasy, which is getting into subjective territory. Make no mistake -- I am not complaining about the $3.99 I wasted in purchasing this book. But why would I want to buy an eBook that states "briefly covers the creation and format of the series" when the author (by admission) consulted two websites?

If you want to buy the paperback edition for $8.99, the enclosed link is provided for your convenience:

Regrettably, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are not relying on book reviews and search algorithms to vet out the indie books from the professionals. Most bookstores will not offer a refund for eBooks – who would ask for a refund for a $1.99 product they received and cannot return? As a result of this, the level of customer service in digital books is severely lacking. I provide my critical review of Brian Schell’s Old-Time Radio Listener’s Guide to Dark Fantasy solely as an example to warn people to be apprehensive when purchasing eBooks on Amazon -- whether the reference book be focused on old-time radio or other non-fiction.

Luckily, there are a few tips to apply when vetting independent books. Besides the obviously bargain-level pricing stated above, be cautious of page count such as books with 44 pages or 62 pages, etc. Check the reviews and while one negative review versus fifteen positive reviews is not indicative of a bad book, four bad reviews out of five suggests you will not get your money’s worth. Another tip is to browse books from the most expensive price to the least. 

Make no mistake: “indie books” such as these will continue to pop up on Amazon. There are lots of great eBooks available. Just do your research first before clicking “buy it now.”

As for Dark Fantasy, Karl Schadow spent years researching the subject and wrote what is clearly the definitive work on the subject. You can read it for free if you click on these links below:


Joe W said...

I ran into the same issue, MG with an e-book about Suspense. The author believed that certain scripts were written by a prominent guest star using a pseudonym. Had the author just gone to IMDb and done a couple of other Google searches, and RadioGoldindex, he would have seen that the announced writer was indeed a real person who wrote radio scripts through the Golden Age, but also was a writer for early television. I've been in business research for all of my career, but my best research advice came from Yogi Berra: "sometimes you can see a lot just by looking." I know Yogi said "some of those things I said I really didn't say" but this was something I always said to students and other researchers, and it always rang true. With all of the resources we have online today, for free (!), it is easier to investigate and support this kind of research than ever.

Sandra Cowlan said...

I am embarrassed to admit that I, too, was a victim of the same. Paid for a couple ebooks on my kindle which was a Christmas gift and too quick to look at the reviews beforehand. A monkey with a typewriter probably wrote those books because I caught so many errors it was annoying. Those authors probably consulted websites. This is why I avoid kindle books. Not worth the money the charge.