NookReview 012

Update: Diane Duane has written an interesting piece in response, that I will cover in full when I have time.

I was going to bring this up in my review of the Nook Reader app, but realized that doing so would be putting the blame in the wrong place.

When I was reading the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane on the Nook Reader, I ran into this particularly egregious typo in the first chapter of So You Want to Be a Wizard. “The reader is invited to examine the next Jew chapters…”

And it was not the last. Characters might enjoy meals of “arroz con polio”, or instead of arch-adversary the Lone Power go up against “the Tone Power”. Occasionally entire words would simply be missing.

Up to this point, I hadn’t bought a lot of e-books from either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Apart from DRM-free Baen, my commercial purchases had been from eReader and Fictionwise, and I never discovered a typo in any of those books. I had thought that some of the other complaints about e-book quality I’d heard elsewhere (including Joanna’s famous rant about hurting authors back in the Amazon-vs.-Macmillan days, or her more recent examination of four Kobo books for errors) might have been exaggerated. But now I buy my first complete series from Barnes & Noble and discover multiple errors in every book.

And it’s not B&N’s fault either. I downloaded the sample chapters of So You Want to Be a Wizard from Amazon and found the “Jew” typo there as well. The error was not introduced by the e-book vendor, but was present in the e-book file provided by the publisher. In fact, as I understand it, e-book stores can’t change anything in the e-books they sell without the publisher’s consent—so even if they wanted to fix the typos themselves, they couldn’t without the publisher’s explicit say-so.

Why are publishers providing these flawed, faulty scans? It doesn’t make sense. The whole point of a publisher is to be able to take an author’s book and polish it so there aren’t any mistakes, because selling a typo-riddled paper book would reflect poorly on both author and publisher. To that end, publishers employ hundreds of people in structures organized for the sole purpose of scrutinizing submitted manuscripts for mistakes—and writers get proofs and advance copies to eliminate errors in printed books before they get printed.

Why on earth are publishers not sending their e-books back through those editing structures on the way out? If they don’t have enough people, they could hire more. Even running an e-book past one person would be an improvement, because it’s hard to believe that this kind of error could go uncaught if scanned by living eyes.

I don’t have any way of knowing what percentage of e-books actually have this kind of error. These, and all the others that people complain about, might just be anecdotal evidence and the vast majority of e-books, that people don’t complain about, might still be all right. But looking at it another way, any typo-filled e-book is too many. We don’t tolerate any typos in printed books, so why should we tolerate them in e-books?

Are they just not taking the e-book market seriously yet because it’s still small compared to the paper market? I suppose that makes a kind of sense. I’m not going to fall into the conspiracy-theory trap of assuming publishers are trying to harm the e-book market to promote the print market, because that doesn’t make sense—and it also makes more sense not to ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

But publishers really ought to get their act together. Releasing e-books full of typos makes them look bad both to authors and consumers, and publishers depend on the one for their source material and the other for their money. Authors might decide to take their books elsewhere if the publishers prove incapable of doing a good job with them—including publishing them themselves on Amazon or Barnes & Noble where they can keep more of the royalties.

And consumers might decide to stop buying poor-quality books. Or they might decide to go to peer-to-peer where the books will not only be free, but they’ll at least sometimes be higher quality too. Since many of those who contribute e-book scans to peer-to-peer do care about how efforts associated with them look, they’ll take the time to edit.

The sad thing is that the current infrastructure of Internet-connected readers would make it possible to get these errors fixed quickly and cheaply, if publishers and e-booksellers could be sold on the idea. After all, they’re already sending data back upstream if only to let the Amazon servers keep track of where we left off reading. Why not take a cue from Distributed Proofing and Wikipedia and let us submit corrections?

I know that if it didn’t take too much effort, I’d be happy to correct errors I came across for free, and I’ll bet a lot of other people would, too. If it were a simple matter of just tapping a couple of keys to change that capital “J” into a lower-case “f” and click “submit”, why wouldn’t I want to?

There could be someone at the e-book store or publisher whose job would be to review the corrections, and perhaps he would also be able to call up the original scan or photograph of the printed page and compare it to make sure that the fix was correct. Once the fix was applied, a corrected version could be made available in the store and pushed out to all the people who’d already bought it, (To save on constant updates, they might be generated just on a weekly or monthly basis.)

Eric Raymond said that “to many eyes, all bugs are shallow.” All typos could be shallow, too. It would take less manpower at the publisher, wouldn’t be that much work for people reading the books, and would result in better quality books overall. Of course, it’s probably never going to happen—and as long as publishers continue to let poor-quality e-books slip out, that’s a pity.