An open letter to publishers about the sale you lost today

Dear Publishers,

I want to start off by apologizing for the generic greeting; in spite of my best efforts to determine just who is actually responsible for the problem I’m having, nobody’s saying a word about whose job quality control of ebook editions actually is. I have asked authors when I have written to them about errors in their books. I have asked the president of Kobo himself, both in person and via email, to give me an email address, a contact number, a job title, anything. And everybody shrugs because it isn’t their problem; so I am addressing this generally in hopes that this letter goes as viral as it’s possible for  these things to go and somebody out there in publishing land will read it, and care.

Anyway, I want to explain to you about the $9.99 that you lost today. It involves a purchase I made in good faith this morning from that stalwart (and lone) Canadian ebook seller, Kobo Books. They will shortly be refunding me this money—learning from the past experience of at least four previous complaints of a similar nature, I submitted fairly substantial documentation along with my customer service query—but for now, let’s still call it a purchase so that you can understand what’s happened here.

The short version, publishers, is this—somebody at your company is running a PDF or Word file or whatever through some kind of meatgrinder converter, and then failing to give it a final proof before slapping a full, non-discountable retail price on it. And what’s arriving in customer’s hot little e-hands are shoddy books with basic errors that are just appalling. As a customer, it is completely unacceptable to me to pay full sticker price and get an inferior product. And I don’t just mean inferior in the ‘I can’t re-sell it like I can with paper and it’s crippled by DRM’ sense. I mean ‘inferior’ as in my teenaged brother could spend twenty minutes reading it and run out of fingers on which to count the really obvious mistakes.

Some examples from today’s book—and, remember, this was with half an hour of reading during my lunch break, I am barely through the introduction of the book here—

‘if sugar created an opioid effect, it would en- hance self-esteem.’
’92 percent of the graduates were sdii clean and sober’
‘I want you to sue- ceed on this plan.’
‘Did you make a special trip to get a bigjar?

See what I mean? If you found yourself with a box of printed books that had such obvious mistakes, you’d recall them and not send them out to the stores. If you learned about it after the fact, you’d issue an apology and refund your reader’s money. If this was a book that you yourself had purchased, you’d be driving back to the store to return it—why should you pay your hard-earned money for something that’s so obviously not yet ready for sale? And…to bring it back to my little problem of this morning…why should I?

Somebody has to proofread this stuff, you guys. I have tried in vain to find out just which job title at each of your illustrious firms is the responsible party. But I do know whose job it should NOT be, and that’s mine, after I have already shelled out money. Get it together, people. Hire a college lit major for minimum wage or whatever and have them wade through your final output before you release it to your e-vendors. Or hire back the intern you fired when you got rid of the slushpile and have them do it. But somewhere between your ‘convert to epub now’ button and my wallet, there simply has to be another set of eyes, because—and this is the part that makes this so tragic, for both of us—I’ll happily take back the $9.99 that Kobo will refund to me. But I would have rather had the book.

91 Comments on An open letter to publishers about the sale you lost today

  1. Just look at the cover of Lee “Lamorthe’s”[sic] book by Dundurn Press of Free Jazz.
    At least spell the surname correctly so his other books show up together in a catalog search.
    If you want us to buy the book at least make it “findable” in a catalog search.
    Besides @Joanna’s comment above, this is the other big problem with buying ebooks. The cataloguing “sucks”. At least let us à la Stanza app edit the metadata.
    This things are as they say, annoying big time.
    Do something constructive.

  2. The sickening and infuriating thing is that a fix is so cheaply and easily doable.

  3. If publishers are really worried about the piracy of ebooks, they should be presenting a product that feels worth the price. In the book I’m currently reading on my Kindle, there is a really obvious error at least every few pages. There will be periods between words instead of spaces, or incorrect letters entirely (an “n” instead of “ri,” for example), or dashes for no reason. A ten-year-old would notice these sorts of things.

  4. I think that part of the problem is that many of the bigger publishers don’t see ebooks as an important market. Its the red headed step child that they only grudgingly support and do as little as they can with it.

    I think the worst error that I have had is that the ebook that I bought was not the one in the file that I downloaded! After reporting it and asking for it to be fixed, and it not being fixed for over a month, I gave up and just asked for a refund. I really would have rather read the book!

  5. This is precisely the reason why I haven’t yet bought a single ebook, despite being a voracious reader. I can’t stand obvious spelling and grammar errors in print, and I refuse to pay for a book full of them.

  6. Omg, FINALLY somebody is spreading this! I myself own a Kindle, and while the errors aren’t often, they still are appalling when found. Simple mistakes like hyphenating a name that does not need to be hyphenated (Da-vina instead of Davina) really spoils the moment when you’re super immersed in the book. I (used to, not anymore) get pirated books online and NEVER did I once encounter error. It’s about time publishers realize ebooks are to stay, and if they want to continue making a profit (instead of people turning to pirated books) they should at least attempt to get them well edited and formatted.

  7. Chris Collins // May 25, 2011 at 3:26 pm //

    It both irritates and confuses me when I come across this sort of thing. The irritation comes from having worked in the quality control field for the last two decades. The confusion comes from wondering why they didn’t fix it when it’s so cheap and easy to do. It’s not as if they have put a slew of manhours and material costs into a part that must be thrown into the scrap bin because the machinist didn’t keep after his cutter and the whole process started over. We’re talking about editing a digital file. There’s no excuse, other than a lack of concern on the part of the publishers. They need to accept the fact that ebooks are here, and are most likely the future of their industry, instead of hoping they can sour people on the idea of ebooks.

  8. Jussi Keinonen // May 25, 2011 at 3:33 pm //

    The reason is so, so simple: e-books are too cheap and they’re not selling enough per title to valuate a serious effort.

    What else could it be? Not laziness – if there’s enough business, everyone works like h*ll.

    Now e’s are released as betas.

    But it’s always the same on new frontiers. This issue will be solved. Someone always solves things if they find it worth enough of their time.

  9. @Amelia: No. Publishers DO see ebooks as an important market, the problem is that they’re a little like deer caught in headlights in the face of figuring out how to integrate a completely new distribution/production system into their current work flow. THEN you get the proliferation of small niche e-publishers who churn out poorly edited e-books because they have no experience in the traditional book publishing world.

    @Howard: It’s not easy or cheap to fix. You need to hire an editor (a GOOD one) who not only knows the ins and outs of the Chicago Manual of Style but also how to use e-book tags properly.

    All books have errors. No editor is perfect enough to catch everything but the issues mentioned in the OP is just outrageous. There IS a way to produce quality e-books but the keyword is QUALITY. And newsflash to KOBO, the editing process is NOT the place to be cutting corners..,

  10. Grumpy Old Man // May 25, 2011 at 3:37 pm //

    I don’t post much these days, but this really struck a cord with me!!!

    In my case, it’s mostly straight outta B&N’s content dump: First I read a steam punk style nov el that kept put ting spaces in ran dom parts of words, the ulti mate win ner was one word bro ken in to four(!) parts, then right afterthat I started reading thefirst shortstory of my SciFimagazine subscription which didthe exact opposite, glomping wordstogether likethis.

    OK, I’ll stop here, but have you ever tried reading page after page of that? For starters, it’s a disservice to the author, who spent quite some time crafting the prose, and here you are spending most of your attention deciphering words rather than getting immersed in the flow of his story…

    And than there is the fact that you are PAYING for this, when the same or similar reading material can be found not only for FREE in the dark corners of the web, but often in BETTER shape because it was proofread by people who actually care!!!

    Now I do put my money down, for the author, that is. Certainly not for the publisher who obviously does not care one wit, neither about the product they output, nor the damage to their reputation, when even an underpaid intern could spot these glaring problems in a couple of minutes of proofreading… of course, maybe they’d rather not because than they’d have to pay for fixing it.

    In all those years, I haven’t had a single cheapo paperback that was so poorly edited and formatted than some of today’s -more expensive- ebooks, and my advice to those publishers: if you despise ebooks so much that your reputation, your standards, your authors do not matter to you, then do everybody a favor and just do NOT release them, period.

  11. This is why I’m self-publishing my next book (a serialized novel). I don’t want to trust this formatting stuff to anyone. If any errors remain in the fina product, I’ll know I tried my hardest and will take ownership, fix it, replace it, sweat blood about it. Also: I’ll do a better job making it look right from the get-go.

  12. I agree, Amelia. But it won’t *become* an important market if people don’t believe they will be getting an acceptable product should they buy.

    And, out of all the problems the publishing industry has to solve right now, here at last is one that is not hard to fix…

  13. This is beautiful, thank you. I couldn’t agree more. I’m so frustrated with having to error-check my ebooks for obvious errors like this. I do at least try to leave a review on the purchase page so that others can avoid the problem. :(

  14. I know what the problem is. An author like me can only get to Kobo specifically by uploading a DOC file to Smashwords.com. Smashwords DOES NOT allow us to upload Epub or Mobi or even flippin’ text files. So we, or our publishers, spend hours formatting and cleaning up files for Kindle and Nook but Smashwords does not allow us to send them these files. Instead they insist on a document that cannot be suitably cleaned up since Word loads the file down with “invisible” formatting that only causes problems when Smashwords’ automatic formatting system (called “meat grinder” but I think you knew that already). So then those of us on the uploading side of things constantly get notes and complaints about the crappy formatting, but every time we try to upload a clean copy Word and meat grinder screw something up. I know some presses and people who refuse to upload to Smashwords at all, but then they lose out on Kobo sales. So the people to complain to here would be Smashwords since the meat grinder is their system. http://www.smashwords.com/ The comment link is at the top of the page.

  15. Publishers? The problem does not stop there. You should mention that Amazon, the world’s largest distributor of ebooks is perhaps the worst offender. How many of their ebooks (Amazon Digital Services) or those of publishers they work hand in glove with (General Books LLC) are cluttered with typos, missing text, and run-together words? From what I have seen, almost all of them.

    It particularly ticks me off that, at the top of the detail page for my carefully edited, carefully proofed printed editions of classic texts, Amazon will place a link to what they call a “Kindle edition” of that book. It’s not. And in the description of that Kindle edition, they’ll even list me as if I were the author and include my description of the improvements I made to the original (i.e. added writings from the same author), as if that were true of their own impoverished, sloppily OCRed Kindle edition. That isn’t what some sleazy publisher is doing through Amazon. That’s what Amazon itself is doing.

    No, the problem isn’t with publishers in general. Mainstream publishers and most small-to-medium publishers do care about the quality of what goes out under their name. The problem is that distributors, including perhaps Kobo and most certainly Amazon don’t exercise any quality control over what they distribute. As you point out, they don’t care if what they sell is junk. That’s created a hole into which these quick-buck ‘publishers’ have rushed.

    The sad reality is that neighborhood bookstores aren’t being replaced by something more convenient and more efficient. They’re being replace by distant entities (I won’t call them businesses) with no quality standards at all. Books no reputable brick-and-mortar bookstore would stock are not only sold by these online behemoths, their search results are often loaded to make these junk editions appear at the top of lists and render the better but less lucrative editions virtually invisible.

    The closest parallel that comes to mind are the late 19th century railroads that made so little effort to ensure the safety of their passengers, Mark Twain wrote about an uncle whose remains were sent to the family in basket with a curt note from the railroad informing them to return the basket.

    This mutilated books are like those mutilated bodies. The railroads didn’t care because no one was forcing them to care. The same is true of online ebooks sales. Until distributors such as Amazon and Kobo are forced to clean up what they sell, probably by legal action, they aren’t going to act.

    Forgive the strong wording, but a couple of hours ago I sent a notice to Amazon trying to get them to straighten out the very Kindle-linking problem I describe above. My previous communication got nowhere. I doubt this will do any better. Since Amazon and I share the same federal court, making any dispute convenient for the both of us, I may end up having to resort to legal action.

  16. Jussi wrote: “The reason is so, so simple: e-books are too cheap and they’re not selling enough per title to valuate a serious effort.”

    This doesn’t make sense. Delivering ‘adequate’ quality of product doesn’t mean each and every product needs to individually justify the modest time to achieve that modest success. A couple of hours of type checking would increase the quality by orders of magnitude and there is no doubt that the overall sales justifies that.

    Amazon is a brilliant company and they have delivered a brilliant service for years. I have been buying books from them for years and they are incredibly convenient, cheap and fast.

    When I pick up a copy of a paper book from my high street book superstore and find typos I don’t blame them – that is just ridiculous.

    The culprits are the publishers and the writers.

  17. I thought it was pretty funny that this article was separated from the comments on it by links to other stories, the second of which misspelled Greg Bear’s name in its head.

  18. Now a real comment on the issue Joanna raises: A huge percentage of the ebooks offered for sale commercially have been created by automatic processes from reference files, and simply shipped off to distribution without anyone’s having checked or validated them.

    This has to stop.

    At $9.99, or even at $2.99, the customer expects that someone has read the output for textual correctness. Some of the errors she noted look like bad OCR followed by a failure to copyedit. This is an insult to the reader, and shows too great an emphasis on low production cost. If you can’t afford to check over the books you’re publishing, you shouldn’t be publishing them.

    But what about those extraneous hyphens? Ah, someone is trying to create a text that will break well, and look good on all those many different screens. And he’s doing it with optional hyphens that hide in the Word files, and reappear like angry mice in the conversion to ePub.

    Check your work before you turn it in.

  19. DensityDuck // May 25, 2011 at 6:37 pm //

    “And he’s doing it with optional hyphens that hide in the Word files, and reappear like angry mice in the conversion to ePub. ”

    Which is yet another reason to wonder why people do anything other than generate files in stone-hammer ASCII with HTML 1.0 hand-coded in.

    Like the man said, the more they o’erthink tha plumbin’, t’easier it is tae stop up tha drain…

  20. This article is spot-on. So many e-books I read have nit-picky little errors, and some are just beyond awful. I returned a $9 ebook to Amazon just last week that had page numbers and chapter titles strewn about within the text and had no paragraph indents, which was exacerbated by having no line spacing between the paragraphs. Had the person who formatted this mess looked at just the first page, they would have seen it.

  21. Since many publishers don’t care about what the paper book contains, why should it be any different with the ebook?

    A few months back, I read a massmarket of a bestselling author where on the first page, a paragraph was repeated but in first person rather than the book’s third. I finally figured out the editor had copied the paragraph and changed it to use on the back cover as the “blurb” and never bothered to remove the paragraph itself.

    I could go on and on at the major appalling problems I’m seeing.

    Simple OCR errors and an occasional mistranslation looks good in comparison.

  22. The recent statistics quoted by Amazon quote that as of April 1st 2011, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books.

    So the stats are saying e-books are well and truly here and quick on the uptake… therein lies the problem… The publishers have had to seriously compromise standard protocol for error control in order to saturate the market with enough material to build pronto a library of any worth.

    The industry is clearly in the cowboy stage. There’s a lot of authors, experts and customers that have no idea how this is all going to pan out… including me.

    What I do know is that we need to go through this dot.com-esque madness to find an even, balanced path. There will be a market for digital everything. There will also be a market for page and paper stock lovers… it will just take some time

  23. The problems you cite frustrate us all. Personally, I like reading ebooks, and find the low quality that you dislike annoying, too. Since I see that other book folks haven’t commented on this one, let me take a shot at explaining what sometimes causes the problem. Not excusing it, just providing context. And please pardon me if this is a little long, and/or overly simplistic.

    Copyediting, which is where the problem lies here, costs at least $3 per “page.” It’s not a simple job to do, although it seems as if it should be, and even at that rate, the copyeditors aren’t getting a comfortable living.

    Publishers need to be able to make that money back. It doesn’t come out of the author’s share, nor out of Kobo’s (or Amazon’s), so that money has to come out of the publisher’s piece. So let’s suppose that this publisher is getting 70% of the purchase price. And that the author is getting 25% of the publisher’s revenue. Then the publisher’s conversion costs have to be covered by 52.5% of the retail price. So, for every $10 purchase, that’s $5.25

    Let’s say that the book was 288 pages. (The total number of pages is usually divisible by 32, because that allows for all of the most common “signature” sizes when printing the “book block.”) At $3 per page, that’s $864. But that’s not the only conversion cost. And the copyediting will need to be separately done for each and every conversion.

    So, let’s say that the copyediting cost is per-format (and not even all epub’s are the same, by the way). And let’s also say that there’s another $1 per page in conversion costs, per format. That supposes that very little is done to the file by humans.

    Total for the Kobo-format? $1152. Divide that by $5.25, and the break even (not allowing for overhead, much less profit!) is 219 copies. Through Kobo alone, if it’s one of the ones that has some quirks in it’s version of the epub file. (I’ve never actually worked with them, so I’m not sure if that’s the case or not, but it’s not uncommon to find that a file that’s beautiful in one epub display tanks miserably in others.)

    If this is a big front-list blockbuster, that sales volume is no problem. But if it’s an older book, or one of the literally MILLIONS of books published in any given year, then that’s just not going to happen.

    In other words, NO, they can’t copyedit each and every format, and make any money. And no, ebooks aren’t yet a big enough deal for publishers to worry about them too much.

    Fiction, which is a pretty small part of the publishing pie, sells well in e-formats. But the total ebook sales volume I’ve seen reported recently (and I haven’t checked the very latest figures, I admit that) is something like $2 billion per year. That’s less than 6% of the $35 billion total revenue of the US book publishing industry. And the 94% is still the most critical piece.

    For now, what I think publishers need to do is:
    –figure out how to automate conversion of new manuscripts into all current and future e-formats, which includes making sure that they’re initially laid out in a standard version of XML, or something similar.
    –learn how to connect with readers directly, when the traditional marketing venues are losing readers’ attention, and social media takes a large amount of (expensive) time.
    –implement procedures and techniques that reduce the cost of producing the first edition of a book, so that when the viable price of a copy drops, as it has with music, those edition costs don’t price the resulting (e-)books out of the market.
    –and other infrastructure building to support an entirely new set of processes to fit into structures that are still in flux.

    Now, if the book wasn’t from a mainstream publisher, but from one of the “new model” publishing houses, then the quality issues you’re talking about are even more obviously explicable. Since those places barely spend $500 to $1000 getting a book out the door, very, very little is ever done to it, except by automated systems. (By way of context, even a nondescript, basic, book that you find in a bookstore has at LEAST $20,000 invested in it by the publisher before the first copy hits the shelves.)

    In short, while your frustration is not only completely understandable, and even something I share, there may truly be reasons other than the obvious that are causing the problem.

  24. They’re doing this on purpose I tell you. They’d rather see ebooks fail. That way they can maintain control like they used to.

  25. Ms Gropen, thanks for your comments. It is always informative to hear from those in the publishing business.

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