Okay, I admit I don’t know that 100% of publishers don’t read their own ebooks – heck, I can’t even swear with certainty that publishers even know how to read — but I am certain Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan’s publisher didn’t read the ebook version of Brandon Sanderson’s new release The Way of Kings before releasing it on the unsuspecting public.

Let’s set aside the little errors that are in the ebook. Those can be excused because they are little (e.g., a dropped “a” and “the”), they are few (at least in the first third of the book that I’ve gotten through), and no book is perfect. I’m even willing to ignore the confusion engendered by the way the story is put together. (Interestingly, rather than off-putting, I find the confusion to be a compelling reason to continue reading the book. The confusion is a result of various substories that are not yet woven together so it isn’t clear what the connection or the purpose of the characters and their stories are in the whole-cloth tapestry. But the book is well written and interesting, which acts, at least for now, as a counterbalance. However, the book is more than 1,000 pages long and I’m only through the first third, so my perspective might well change or, more likely, I may lose patience with this random flow.)

What gives me a clue that the publisher probably didn’t read the ebook version before release – and probably neither did the book’s editor nor Sanderson — are the illustrations. At the opening of the book, in the front matter that few readers read, but which I do (yes, I’m peculiar in this regard; I tend to read every page of a book — including the copyright page and the dedications and acknowledgments, as well as every footnote/endnote, which is why footnotes and endnotes are such a sore point with me [see, e.g., Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses]), Sanderson makes a big deal about the illustrations. As it turns out, he is right to do so — or at least I think he is; I can’t tell — I can’t read them, and if I can’t read them, neither can the publisher, the editor, nor Sanderson, which leads me to believe none of them read the book in its ebook form before releasing it for me to buy.

One example: In one of the stories/chapters, the characters discuss “the Code” that governs military men — or at least the righteous military men. The code that a dead king lived by and his brother lives by and wants his son to live by. But where is “the Code” outlined for the reader? In an illustration that cannot be read!

This is the problem with ebooks. Publishers, editors, and authors treat them as Cinderella stepchildren — as a way to do the work of increasing revenues without being given an opportunity to shine on their own — you know, scrub my floors, make them shine, but don’t walk on them. The consequence is that what should be an excellent reading experience becomes an annoying one. The neglect becomes evident, and the $14.99 the publisher demands for the ebook version becomes a sore point. In my case, it becomes a double sore point because I bought both the hardcover version (where the illustrations are readable) and the ebook version, as I noted in The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!. I might have done this again with another TOR/Macmillan book, albeit reluctantly, but now you can bet I won’t. Rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me!

Alright (before complaining and saying it’s “all right”, see On Words: Alright and All Right), we know that Macmillan really hopes ebooks don’t succeed but it’s time to recognize that that battle is lost — ebooks are here to stay and represent a growth opportunity for traditional publishers if done right. It’s getting to the done right part that appears to be difficult.

To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I understand if an illustration can’t be made readable on every cell phone screen – there certainly does come a point when a screen is simply too small — but there is no excuse for not making illustrations readable on the “standard” 6-inch eInk screen. The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one. Haven’t the Agency 5 already done enough to alienate the consumer with its pricing model? Must it shove the blade in deeper with a twist by also ensuring that important elements of a book cannot be read?

The cynic in me says that TOR/Macmillan did this deliberately with Sanderson’s book — an attempt to get consumers to buy both the ebook and pbook versions. But I really do know better. It wasn’t deliberate in that sense; rather it was deliberate in the sense that Macmillan is still trying to fight the battle it has lost and cannot ever reverse the tide of — the rise of ebooks at the expense of pbooks – and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

I will think at least twice, probably many more times than twice, in the future before I buy another TOR/Macmillan ebook, especially one at any price higher than $5.99, because as I said before: rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me — and leaving important illustrations unreadable is a rip off at $14.99!

Via Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog.


  1. I knew publishers didn’t read their books the moment I was asked to write a literary critique of the first book in a rather recent teenage vampire fiction series. The editor must have also been napping or heavy partaking of cold medicine whilst glancing it over; over 125 fragmented sentence in the first 10 chapters alone, and that was just the beginning. I was astounded that a “professional” publishing house would allow it ‘out of the gates’ in such a state.

    As an eBook online publisher I know errors are missed here and there in between versions, but with a gaggle of editors and beta readers most of them are usually detected and fixed. If the illustrations are integral to understanding a story (I find this a bit odd) then absolutely they should have been embedded, or at least attached as open-able files.

  2. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Hanlon’s Razor

    Or laziness or cheapness.

    Considering the amount of mistakes found in the average paper book from the conglomerate publishers, it’s rather paranoid to call the same problem in ebooks a conspiracy.

  3. I don’t care if publishers read their books or not.

    I *do* care if they hire a professional proof-reader. You know: compare, word-for-word, the “galley text” vs. the blessed final copy and blessed final formatting. And fix the errors before releasing it!

    Is that asking too much? Isn’t quality control a core publisher competency?

  4. 1. What Alexander Inglis says. After all. Aren’t publishers always whining that producinng e-versions costs ‘very nearly the same’ as producing print? So now that they don’t have to pay for print-runs or decide on their extent, they don’t feel like paying proofreaders either? Or even just someone who’d open the book on the device and double-check image quality/legibility?

    2. Being a bit nit-picky, but I have to suggest that ‘the problem’ lies not with e-books, but with publishers.

  5. I don’t think this is nit picky at all. This is casual indifference and patronising profiteering.

    Publishers re pumping eBooks out at a fraction of the cost of a paper book. And Rich paid 12.99 for this eBook ? So the Publisher is making ‘super profits’ over and above what he would make on the paper version. Note is selling the hard back at 15 dollars!

    I find this kind of think quite personally offensive because it is so easily and cheaply fixed. It should be part of standard thinking by any publisher of any work, that they check it before asking people to hand over cash for their product. Not doing so shows a complete lack of respect for their customers – and I can say that the reputation of Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan should reflect their behaviour.

    I just visited the book on and can see the illustrations in the preview and they are illegible.

    I think you (and perhaps us all) should write a review on the Amazon web site to reflect the situation!

    In businesses that I have been involved in over the years I have been involved in many business plans and business presentations. Even on typo in 50 pages is considered deeply embarrassing and unacceptable. I think paying customers should expect zero errors.

  6. While I can’t disagree that MacMillan has the worst quality control in the industry (which is saying a great deal, considering the overall poor quality of ‘professionally-published’ ebooks) the particular beef here – the illustrations in Sanderson’s Way of Kings being unreadable – may just be a matter of your reader/software: the illustrations display fine on my 6″ Kindle and are quite readable, especially if I use the zoom function on the image.

    We, as readers, need to stand up to shoddy industry practices – not buying future books from the publisher is one option; another is demanding a full refund from the bookstore-I-mean-agent that sold you the defective product. If a store/agent won’t give you a refund, stop doing business with them, and be sure to let them know why.

  7. Actually it’s a book from TOR and from my own experience they are quite good in correcting the mistakes. Myself I submitted some mistakes I found in the Wheel of Time series and a few weeks later I downloaded the ebook again and the mistakes were gone.
    On the other side I have to admit that it shouldn’t be like this. An ebook is not a computer program that needs some revisions, pbooks suffer much less from this problem.

  8. I figured out that publishers–by and large–don’t read their own books when I was asked to pen a literary critique of a popular teenage vampire fiction series at the behest of a Facebook group. The editor(s), I found, must have been under the influence of cold medicine as I found over 120 fragmented sentences in the first 10 chapters alone, among other glaring errors that only a novice would miss. Frankly, I was shocked that a “professional” publishing company would put out such a flawed piece of writing.

    Ebooks tend to have errors, but a plethora of editors and a flock of beta-readers can usually scour mistakes (eventually) from the surface of the books. If indeed images were required to understand the book, then absolutely they should have been embedded; as an online eBook publisher I am familiar with how easy that is to do… it can even be done with ‘free’ software.

  9. I haven’t bought very many ebooks published by Macmillan, but the few that I have purchased include the warning: “If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property.”

    Not only is the warning totally irrelevant for ebooks, it’s also ironic considering Macmillan doesn’t include the book’s actual cover image with their epub books. They just use a standard boilerplate with the title and author name added.

  10. I have purchased several ebooks from Macmillan.

    Perdido Street Station (ISBN 9780330467193) has a complete act (with 12 chapters) duplicated, so you get to read act 2 again after you finish it once, and it’s also in a single html file, which also makes the book not load in Digital Editions-powered devices.

    The Scar’s (ISBN 9780330466998) epub file contains a “backup” zip of the entire text of the novel, so the file itself is almost twice as big as it should be.

    At least they were DRM-free.

  11. incidentally.. well before e-ink readers really existed i observed the poor editing of macmillan’s st. martin’s press print publications. it appeared to be evidence of a complete lack of respect for the mystery genre. there were so many errors and misprints, that i felt for the authors. so apparently the point was to sell books without a thought to the possibility that they might be read? this is at odds with their commitment to publication of titles in series, so i really don’t know what to conclude. each title has a pre-production budget, and it was decided to spend it all on a pretty picture for the cover — designed by yet another person who didn’t have time to read the book?

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