On The Verge, new e-book reader Laura June comes to the same realization as quite a few of her forebears (including me) over the last few years: in emphasized orange all-capital header-sized letters: “e-books are apparently lousy with typos.” She brings up the example of Umberto Eco’s Foucalt’s Pendulum, a still-in-print book by a living author translated from Italian at great trouble and expense, which features a number of c-for-e OCR errors:

I’ve found other typos in other books too, but statistics on this are hard to come by, and since I’ve only been using an e-reader for a few weeks, I don’t have much history to go on. But I’ve asked around a lot and everyone I’ve talked to since noticing this shocking fact has basically said the same thing: in their experience, they’ve seen more typos in ebooks than in their printed counterparts.

She discusses the typo-reporting procedures for Apple and Amazon, and notes that some Amazon devices and applications offer the ability to report typos, but it’s unclear how or whether the typos are dealt with. She is under the understanding that Amazon does not allow publishers to push updates to their books. (Which doesn’t explain how Neal Stephenson’s Reamde famously got typofixed last year. Perhaps it was just egregious enough that Amazon made an exception?) She thinks typo fixing should be a great potential application for crowdsourcing, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot actually happening in this regard.

Of course, the reason behind that is probably the same reason as a lot of the bureaucratic problems that plague e-books—built-in barriers as a result of legacy publishing contracts. Amazon may not be inclined to let publishers push updates (though apparently this may not be uniformly true, given the Reamde thing and this example from 2010), but neither can it make corrections on its own without publisher permission.

It occurs to me that it’s more than a little crazy the e-book market is this far along and there are still all these blatant typos out there. Did early paperbacks have this problem? I can’t imagine any author or publisher wants to have typo egg all over their faces, but in some cases it still doesn’t seem like they’re paying a whole lot of attention.

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  1. There’s absolutely no excuse for any errors in an e-book that could have been be picked up by a spellchecker. As for the others, can I put in a plug for crowdsourcing here? Offer a $5 voucher to the first person to notify the distributors about a specific typo, and you could have most of your ebooks perfect in a week.

    I have noticed, by the way, that some errors which I would miss on paper I often pick up on a screen; perhaps because there are fewer distractions in things like paper texture and individual variations in characters introduced by the printing process.

  2. One reason is that typos that have been invisible in one media have a strange propensity to appear in another. Paper seems to be particularly good at making them pop out.

    Modern books that start out digital almost always have paper copies for proofing before the print version is released. And when you’re printing thousand of copies, you have to get it right. Ebooks typically don’t have a paper stage. I’m not even sure many of them get read on their target device. Easy digital publishing often means sloppy publishing.

    Even a different digital format helps. I’ve been working on a book for months in Scrivener, so it should be clean. And yet yesterday, when I created an iPad version, typos began to appear.

    Apple should do its users a favor and adapt iBooks Author’s handy Preview to iPad function to work inside almost any text app. Making it work via WiFi would be even nicer. And proofing would be so much nicer if it could be done away from a desk.

  3. The fundamental problem here is that OCR (Optical Character Recognition) alone will not transcribe print to digital with acceptable fidelity. Apparently, publishers are engaging low paid clerical persons to feed book pages to cheap scanners connected to cheap computers with cheap OCS software installed. Proofreaders are just too expensive it seems and customers find it harder to return digital goods. Having a symbiotic-style relationship with customers as would be required to launch a crowdsourced solution is probably too alien a concept as well as more too costly. How about outsourcing the job to Google?

  4. It does make me wonder if the guilty publishers care about having pride in what they are releasing upon the world. I self-publish and follow the usual on-screen and print-out proof-reads with a final check using my Kobo. It’s time consuming, but for something that carries a cover price, I want to to try my best to make sure it is right first time.

  5. Michael,

    It’s not necessarily the medium change that makes typos show out, as changing the position on the paper/screen. Just changing the margin on a document to move stuff around on the page can make it easier to find them.

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