proffread.jpegI recently complained about production problems in two new novels I purchased in ebook form – Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and David Weber’s Out of the Dark — both from TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is that review-before-release rights either didn’t exist in the authors’ contracts or if the rights did exist, they weren’t exercised.

With all the problems consumers are seeing in ebooks, regardless of whether the problem lies in the conversion process or in the file preparation, authors who sign contracts with traditional publishers fail their audience if they do not negotiate review-before-release rights. Too many ebooks are being released that are poorly formatted and rife with errors that could easily be corrected just by proofreading the converted version before releasing the ebook on the unsuspecting public. And this should be of primary importance to authors, perhaps even more so than royalty issues (after all, if consumers get fed up with poor quality production, there won’t be any royalty to collect!).

The clear wave of the future is the ebook. The tsunami is about to hit and authors need to be prepared for it. Just as authors have been attuned to the problems that exist in “normal” pbook production, they need to become attuned to the problems that seem to occur with regularity in production of ebooks. It is one thing to pay $1.99 for an ebook that is riddled with errors, but quite another to pay $12.99 or higher. More important than price, at least to me, although not to many ebookers, is that if important information to the story is to be reproduced in illustrations/tables/figures, the illustrations/tables/figures need to be readable on common-size ereading devices, which means on 6-inch screens. Similarly important is that dropped words not be dropped, that uppercase letters that should be lowercase be lowercase (it is annoying to read “…they came across A cave…”), that suddenly left justified text becomes centered text, and so on.

Is it asking too much to be able to enjoy a read without being confronted with obvious, distracting errors? If you (i.e., authors and publishers) are going to permit (or simply accept) errors, can you at least make them subtle, such as using “a” when it should be “an” and “which” when it should be “that” — the types of errors that most readers won’t give a second thought to.

With the boom in ebook sales, authors owe a duty to their customers — their readers — to make the reading experience as undistracting as possible; readers should be permitted to focus on the story and not need to comment on or note formatting, spelling, and grammar errors. Authors go to great pains to ensure the quality of the pbook version; now they need to go to those same lengths to ensure the quality of each ebook format. Failure to do so jeopardizes their relationship with their readers and thus jeopardizes their future income and popularity. It is much too easy in the Internet Age to become a yesterday has-been through self-destruction.

Authors already are responsible for their choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is important). This is the result of too much author reliance on spell checkers and too little education and emphasis on correct word choice.

So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

With all the restrictions imposed on ebooks that are enforced by DRM, authors in the first instance, and publishers in the second, should at least actively strive to produce a first-class ebook and when they don’t, stand before the bar of public criticism, admit failure, make corrections, and provide free replacement copies to those who already have purchased the book.

This goes back to the publisher’s warranty of quality that I proposed nearly a year ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty), a warranty that continues to be ignored by publishers and by authors. Authors need to insist as part of their contract that a warranty be given the consumer and that the author get review-before-release rights and undertake to review the ebook form of their work before it is made available to the buying public. Doing so would be good for the author and for the consumer, and, ultimately, for ebooks. Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.

This is certainly something to think about, if not to act upon. But in any case, we readers need to expand our net or responsibility to include the author, not just the publisher, when we receive a poorly constructed ebook, especially at the prices some authors and the Agency 5 are demanding.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.


  1. I find this odd that a publisher would produce “a poorly formatted” book, as this was precisely their argument against self-publishers. Phrases akin to “We must maintain standards!” were repeatedly emailed to me via my publishing contacts on LinkedIn over the last two years.

    I don’t know why they can’t take a tip from Smashwords; in order to get my first novel into the Premium Catalog, I spent 3 week weeding out every single little formatting error; it was rejected 11 times before finally being declared ‘acceptable’.Clearly, I am a mere novice at formatting, but if Smashwords and I can scour out errs pre-release, then a behemoth like MacMillan should have no problem.

    It’s almost as if publishers still want eBooks viewed in a ‘lesser’ light and thus don’t care how they appear.

  2. Good point that authors need to be more proactive in assuring their e-books are quality productions. Its the author’s name that is prominent and remembered. Thus, the author will get most of the blame for a poor product, even if it is the publisher’s fault.

  3. I believe customers hold the Publisher as the culprit. They are the ones handing the efile to the online seller.
    As Deran says this is not rocket science and in case Publishers start to bleat about the cost, this is also not expensive. All it needs is the will to produce quality and a little effort.

  4. As I just happened to have this same thing happen to me with a Jack McDevitt novel, Deepsix, I found myself suddenly making a lot of waves: Demands of a refund from Barnes & Noble, and letters to Harper Collins and Mr. McDevitt. So far, I heard from B&N (got my refund), and from McDevitt (actually offered me a mass-market edition of the book!). McDevitt also indicated he’d contact HC, which will probably take a lot more weight than my email to them.

    I’ve suggested in a MobileRead forum that publishers should include in their printing information, details about how ebooks were prepared, ie, uploaded from a digital source or scanned and OCR’d, proofed when and even by whom or what firm/department, etc, and this should be up front for readers to have access to in the ebook previews. This way they can decide whether to buy based on the likely quality of the book… and if the specs are misleading, and the book quality is that bad, you have more of a leg to stand on when you demand a refund of the book.

    Most importantly, I think everyone should demand refunds if they are unsatisfied with ebooks harboring serious errors and omissions (Deepsix had literally hundreds of misspellings and incorrect punctuation, and was actually missing a number of lines from the last chapter… yes, the ending was MISSING), put such information in reviews, and make sure customers know who is selling “damaged goods” out there.

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