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I’ve been thinking about the errors I find in ebooks. Sometimes they are small errors, the kind I would find even in a well-edited pbook, the occasional dropped article, the switch in tense, and the like. Nothing too serious, but noticeable. Annoying but forgivable, at least on some low level. After all, perfection is something we strive for but rarely attain.

As I thought about these errors, I also wondered whether I was more sensitive to them in ebooks. I’m not talking about the repeated big errors such as those I discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! or in Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important; again, I’m talking about the small errors, the errors that I, and most readers, would pass over without much thought — well, maybe a grimace or two — in pbooks; errors we wouldn’t dwell on and write 1000-word discourses lambasting the book, the author, the publisher, or the editor.

Yet, these low-level errors seem to annoy me more when I come across them in an ebook. That led me to wonder why these errors are so much more noticeable and annoying in ebooks than in pbooks. I think I have found the answer: The small screen of most ebook reading devices (generally 6 inches or less) limits the amount of text we see at one time (both directly and peripherally), especially when we enlarge the text to make it easier to read, thus emphasizing the text before us.

When we read a pbook we see directly and peripherally the text on two pages and we cannot increase the text size. This tends to deemphasize the text visually. Further support for my theory comes from my 26 years of editing. I’ve noticed that some editors enlarge the visible text to 150% or even 200% of “normal” so as to catch errors more easily. I generally enlarge the text to 120% to 125% and have noted how much easier that makes it to catch the little annoyances. (Even doing this, however, doesn’t result in a 100% catch rate; less-than-perfection is the price we pay for being human.) With less text to distract the eye and brain, the visible text is emphasized more than “normal.”

What does this mean? It means that errors are more noticeable by and more annoying to readers in ebooks. What might be overlooked in pbooks is not overlooked in ebooks. It means that the editor’s role in preparing an ebook for publication is even more important than it is in preparing the same book but for pbook distribution. It also means that a final proofread should be performed on an ebook reading device — it should mimic the reader’s reading experience.

It is this last step that is missing. Yesterday I complained about it as regards important illustrations (see The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!) but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the switch to digital reading requires the addition of another step in the publishing process — the step of ensuring that the converted digital file is readable.

As one of the comments to yesterday’s post noted, the current process seems to be that that a digital file (hopefully the same digital file that was used to print the pbook and not a scan file, especially an unproofed scan file) is simply sent to a producer like Amazon who then undertakes the conversion process. This takes the file out of the publisher’s hands and into a third-party’s hands, a third party whose name doesn’t appear in the credits of the book and who is not the target of consumer anger if the ebook file is riddled with errors. Perhaps this is the wrong approach to the conversion process.

As publishers begin to realize that their future is intimately tied to ebooks, they should also review their procedures for getting an ebook out to the consumer. If a vendor like Amazon insists on doing the conversion process under the guise of protecting its proprietary formats and DRM scheme, then maybe a bold statement needs to be included in the digital file:

Converter’s Statement of Responsibility

This ebook was created by Amazon, which is solely responsible for any errors related to readability found in this ebook that are not also found in the original print edition. Complaints about formatting, dropped, missing, or incorrect, characters, and other readability issues should be addressed to Amazon at __________.

Seems to me that would put the blame where it belongs. It also would identify where the problem source is and allow consumers to pressure the right party.

Of course, this shifting of the blame to the converter doesn’t absolve the publisher of the ebook from its responsibility to ensure that the digital file it gives to the converter is optimized for the ebook reading platform. And this is a golden opportunity for publishers to both add value to ebooks, helping to justify some of the outlandish pricing currently seen for some ebooks, and to garner goodwill. The publishers who actually had a book proofread — and corrected — before release could include a statement such as this in the ebook:

Certification of Optimization

This book has been optimized for reading on a 6-inch-screen reading device by having a prerelease proofread performed by a certified digital proofreader on a 6-inch-screen reading device. The proofread was conducted on such a device as part of the process. Errors that have been introduced during the conversion process are the responsibility of ______, the conversion processor, and should be addressed to _______.

This is almost a warranty of quality, something I suggested quite some time ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty). But think of what this would do, the effects it would have. First, it would establish a minimum level of quality, something that readers could grasp and depend on. Second, it would eliminate a good deal of consumer dissatisfaction. Third, it would put the burden on the company doing the converting to improve the conversion process in an attempt to make it error-free. Fourth, it would add value to ebooks.

If the publisher itself does the converting, that is, creates the final digital file that will be sold to the consumer, the following statement could be included with the Certificate of Optimization.

Although we strive for perfection, should you find an error, please advise us of it by e-mailing us at __________. We will endeavor to include appropriate corrections in future releases of the digital files for this book.

Imagine the goodwill this would engender as increasingly error-free ebook versions are made available. And if a publisher has to do this often enough, the publisher is likely to invest more upfront to get it right the first time, perhaps eventually leading ebooks into the error-free zone.

Perhaps the time has come to identify who is responsible for the errors we find when we read an ebook and to pressure that entity to work toward an enhanced reading experience.

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.

14 COMMENTS

  1. I have found numerous errors in a variety of ebooks from amazon. For the most egregious, I send a feedback to amazon. I have never gotten a direct response, but I have noticed that several have been re-released in a corrected version. And they are getting better — the errors are smaller and fewer.

  2. I think Amazon and other eReader manufacturers need to build in an easy way to report these problems. One of the inherent benefits of digital publishing is that is fairly cheap to make corrections and reissue a corrected version, but no one is going to do that unless they know about errors.

    I don’t know about other eReaders, but my Kindle has context-sensitive menus. The menu I get when I am reading a book is different from the one I get when I am in the home screen or in the web browser. The reading-a-book menu should have an option to click a location and then send a note to the publisher (via Amazon) about what the problem is.

  3. what karen wester newton says.

    part of it is a cultural problem. many publishers and editors have a complete lack of respect for the electronic format. the new york times online has sucked for years from this standpoint. maybe improvements in the move to the paid subscription model have been promised, but i’ve heard nothing to that effect.

    this is something that publishing needs to change, even if it means replacing personnel.

  4. Lots of excellent quality suggestions Rich. I agree with you fully on them. On the subject of noticing errors in eBooks more – I disagree, I am afraid. I don’t believe we so notice them more. I believe that when we used to read our paper books there was no way to complain about them off hand. Nowadays with eBooks we have forums like this and emails etc etc that let us complain.

    I agree with you Asphalt – they just don’t have any respect for their customers.

  5. If I can weigh in with one more observation, one type of “ebook error” is a direct result of the current “make print first, then do an ebook from that” workflow. Publishers take a PDF and slap it into ebook format. The problem with that is that words hyphenated only for typesetting end up hosed in the ebook text. It usually looks like this: hyphen- ated.

    Of course it doesn’t help if you never even look at the results.

  6. Excellent points. Don’t forget that one can return the book to Amazon for a refund if it is not acceptable. As for the ability to catch errors on larger fonts, I have not noticed a larger percentage of errors in Large Print Books. My biggest complaint is OCR books that have not been proofed. OCR errors are very obvious when the letters can be separated back out but it should have been corrected at the source and never released as a readable book. Try reading a Google book for example.

  7. When self-publishing my out of print pbooks into ebooks, the main money i spent was on a professional copy editor/proofreader and on a professional coder. And I got a friend professional to design the cover to look sharp at thumbnail size. I think any serious writer DIY publishing their work has to spend money on these aspects, otherwsise, all too often, the book looks and reads like crap.

    With major publishers, personally I think it goes back to the breaking of the proofreaders unions in the 60s and 70s, and the current use of poorly paid freelancers. Many of these freelancers are excellent proofreaders and copyeditors, but the publishers don’t want to pay them for the time to do a thurough job.

  8. It should be relatively easy to set up a ‘distributed proofing’ system where readers can flag errors on a reading device, and that information is then automatically sent back to base for incorporation in the next revision. Of course, that revision should then be made available as a free upgrade for anyone who purchased the original book.

  9. It all comes down to a matter of commercial ‘will. It’s clearly an easy thing to fix, if they choose to do so. Readers have to start making it clear that they want it done.

    Perhaps teleRead can take this on as a challenge and a coordinated campaign. It seems appropriate.

  10. I recently purchased my first ebook, “American Assassin” by Vince Flynn from Amazon. After finding numerous errors I contacted Amazon to make them aware of the errors and continued to read finding more errors along the way. How about “rapidly” instead of “rapidity”; a car called a Flat instead of a Fiat; or a “Trojan hoarse” instead of a Trojan horse” I finally asked for a refund which Amazon agreed to provide as they simultaneously removed the ebook from my iPad. I decided to purchase the book again from the iBooks Store (Apple). Lo and behold the same errors appeared in the ebook I purchased there. I am waiting now to see what Simon & Schuster has to say. I have not been able to compare the ebook errors with those in the pbook.

  11. I have read several ebooks (on my new Kindle) by the author Paul Levine. They are riddled with errors (up to 40 or 50 per book). I diligently write down the location and the error details and send them off to Amazon UK. I guess I’m like an unpaid proof reader but I am getting tired of it. After all I pay my money to sit back, relax, and enjoy a good read.

    Disappointingly, whilst Amazon have responded promptly to my complaints (i.e. offering refunds each time), I notice the ebooks concerned are still available for download in their corrupted state.

  12. Today, February 16th, 2011, iTune released a “new version” – presumably now edited – of “American Assassin” noted above by Richard. Unless we keep pushing for better quality, they’ll just get away with it. It’s important to complain. The errors were at first sort of funny. Now, paying almost full book rate for eBooks, we deserve as good a copy as a hard cover book.

  13. Part of the problem is that e-books are also a bastardized form of HTML. This results in errors such as I found in “The Girl Who Played With Fire”. When Salander is typing on her computer, the p-book text looks like , but HTML interprets carets () as delimiters, so the e-book text disappeared entirely from some e-book editions. Again, this is the result of sloppy conversion, and a cursory edit (or even just a word count comparison) should have revealed the omission.

  14. Hmmm – my submission had the same problems as my e-book. Text in carets (“less than” [shift-comma] and “greater than” [shift-period] signs) disappears. Fortunately, I proofread my post.

    In the above, Salander’s p-book text looks like [The quick brown fox] with the square brackets replaced by less than and greater than carets. And as you can see, this kind of text just disappears.

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