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.

About Joanna Cabot (1594 Articles)
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."

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 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. 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 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 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.

  26. Still pretty bitter about the time I got The Pinhoe Egg by Diana Wynne Jones and was so excited to read it, I’d lost my paper copy in a flood, and… there were no quotation marks. None.

    An email to harper ebooks was never replied to. I’ve avoided buying from them since and with my poor impulse control, that’s actually a fair bit of cash.

  27. Oh, I tell a semi-lie. Or did, at any rate. I get my terry pratchett books from them, and it’s been so long since this happened I can’t remember why I think there’s a difference between those and the Diana Wynne Jones books I got. I feel stupid now. Maybe one was an american division? I’d check inside the book to find the publishing info to make sure, but I deleted the bad one in irritation.

    I do know I’d also complained to them about errors in a Terry Pratchett book (and I remember, it was to a uk address) and they were very polite and responsive. Mostly I was trying to bring it to their attention so they’d fix it in the future, but they gave me two free Terry Pratchett books, which was v. nice of them. But I also know that I was sure the Wynne Jones problem was a different place entirely.

    Oh, it’s three am and I’m far too tired for this. But I want to say, I feel like a liar because my memory is all spotty.

    Let’s pretend my original comment was ‘I bought an ebook this one time and it had no quote marks. WHY’ and nothing more.

  28. There are four typos in this article alone…

    possible for these things (two spaces)
    ‘Did you make a special trip to get a bigjar? (needs a quote mark at the end)
    in customer’s hot little e-hands (customers’, not customer’s)
    refund your reader’s money (should probably be readers’)

  29. There has always been issues with data conversions. This is not new. I raised it in July 2009 on my blog when experimenting with content freely available in the epub format. I have been reading “e” for a while and have had a poor experience with some publishers but the quality from the major publishers has improved over time. The strange thing is, after two years of reading “e”, I’ve gone back to “p”. It’s a much better experience, apart from when travelling or requiring a book that very instant to read (!) There are pros and cons for “e” and “p” which have been covered well over time in blogs, newsletters, industry forums etc. The patience factor from those not in the book trade however is pretty much zilch. The consumer wants it, the way they want it, right now. They should not be paying for an inferior product. It’s disappointing you had such a dreadful experience. Quality matters. The reading experience matters. Publishers will have to listen or lose many new readers who have come on board with the rise in ebooks.

  30. @Marion Gropen — Although I generally concur with your comment, I think some additional clarification is warranted. First, copyeditors charge by the manuscript page, not by the print page (at least the more experienced copyeditors do). Consequently, a 288-print page book may actually be 400 manuscript pages. There are various formulas used to determine what constitutes a page, for example, 250 words = 1 page or 1500 characters, including spaces = 1 page. There are other formulas.

    Second, the actual per-page charge varies widely based on the experience and skill level of the editor, what the client wants done, the type of book involved (e.g., at the macro level fiction vs. nonfiction), and the schedule.

    Third, most of the errors that are being complained about are really addressable by proofreaders rather than copyeditors. There is a significant difference in the functions performed by copyeditors and proofreaders. The copyeditor really should be employed BEFORE the manuscript is typeset/formatted. In fact, the correct sequence would be author drafts manuscript > developmental editor works with author to revise draft and create final draft > copyeditor reviews final draft for grammar, spelling, missing text, etc. and returns manuscript with corrections and queries to author/publisher > author reviews copyeditor changes and suggestions, accepting or rejecting them, answers any queries, and returns manuscript to copyeditor to put in final form > copyeditor reviews final author pass, discusses any outstanding issues with author/publisher, and creates final manuscript for typesetting/formatting > author/publisher has final manuscript formatted/typeset and sends a copy to a proofreader for either a “cold read” (i.e., no comparison of typeset version to final submitted manuscript) or a comparison read > proofreader reviews for dropped text, misspellings, and the like — proofreader does NOT reedit the manuscript and does NOT perform functions of developmental or copyeditor except to flag obvious problems; when done, proofreader returns proofread copy to author/publisher > author/publisher then merges proofreader’s and author’s final corrections to create a final, camera-ready manuscript (in electronic form) for publication; author/publisher can, and often does, reject proofreader changes.

    All of the foregoing is done electronically. At this stage, the final file is sent to various vendors depending on what is to be done. This is where the deviances in the ebook from the pbook occur — it is at this stage that the electronic file is converted to the various ebook formats needed, and this is where the proofreading — not the copyediting — function needs to be reduplicated for the converted electronic files.

    But this stage requires a different type of proofreader, one that is more skilled than is needed for the first proofread. In addition to the normal proofreading skillset, this proofreader needs to also be skilled in XML coding and the needs of the various formats. This proofreading cycle adds additional costs to the process and costs more because of the increased skillset required. And each conversion variation needs to be proofread, not just a single conversion.

    In the end, you get a quality conversion only if you are willing to pay for the appropriate skillsets in the required quantity, something few authors are willing to do from their own pockets (thus the problem with self-published material) and many publishers are unwilling to do for backlist and midlist titles, and even many frontlist titles.

    It is easy to be dismissive of the costs that can be incurred when you are not personally incurring them, but the costs for doing it correctly are not inconsequential no matter how many times commenters claim they are.

  31. Chris Collins // May 26, 2011 at 6:45 am //

    While irritating, I’ve found only mostly nitpicky errors in the ebooks I’ve paid for. Yet the godsawful formatting of Google’s free ebooks has put me off them altogether.

  32. John Cunningham // May 26, 2011 at 6:50 am //

    It’s not just e-books. I have a paper book, Red for Danger, and just recently bought the latest edition. compared to my older edition, it is full of elementary errors – which were not in the older edition!!

  33. Richard- the cost of NOT doing it correctly are not inconsequential either. Last year, I spent almost $1500 on ebooks. This year? Barely $250. Why should I spend money on it when I can’t be assured I will get a product of minimal quality? And then they complain that ebooks are such a ‘small’ market? It boggles my mind.

  34. Jussi Keinonen // May 26, 2011 at 7:45 am //

    Joanna wrote: “Why should I spend money on it when I can’t be assured I will get a product of minimal quality? And then they complain that ebooks are such a ‘small’ market?”

    Again, an easy short answer: we are at a developing market. The Wright brothers had a difficult time flying. The e-book market is now something like the airline business in the 1930’s: yes, you can fly, but it’s noisy, the flight is choppy, and they’re still trying to figure out if you need service on the plane or willing to pay for it.

    In the meantime, you can go back to train travelling (paperbacks) or the horse carriage metaphor. Or accept the fact that not enough income = not enough work done = not enough good e-books (yet).

    In the end, the free market will fix things as it always does.

  35. I would like to see the resellers remove the “Buy” button on e-books like this and create a banner that says, “We have had to temporarily remove this book from sale because it does not meet the quality standards that you demand. We will resume sale of the item when the publisher [insert name here] provides us with a quality edition. We apologize for the inconvenience and we will continue to refund purchases of the defective edition.”

    When a product is as defective as you describe it should not continue to be sold. There is no excuse for this, it’s not acceptable.

  36. Dear Joanna,

    I just wanted to say how much I agreed with you about the importance of quality control in the digital market and the comparisons you made between the treatment of the printed market and that of the digital market.

    I responded to your post by writing my own which is available at

    Ian Caithness

  37. I am repeating myself I know – but I believe that this quality failure with the big publishers particularly is a SIGNIFICANT opportunity for small publishers and Indies to STAMP ON Amazon et al by really nailing down their own quality control and letting people know it loudly !

  38. What is really at issue here is the technologically moribund state of the publishing industry. Software companies have been using revision control systems for decades. An ebook is just a bunch of text and XML that is a whole lot simpler than C++ source code. What readers mostly notice are ordinary text conversion problems, not coding errors. Once you have a clean master, you can comp the files generated from it. You don’t need to manually proofread each version. For small and self-publishers, the Word compare feature is perfectly adequate.

  39. I totally agree. Now, if only epublishers would hire me to edit their books at a decent wage. Instead, I’m seeing want ads for editors on Craigslist that say “only GED or high school diploma needed,” at close to minimum wage. Sometimes the job title says “Administrative Assistant,” but for all intents and purposes, it’s an editing job.

    Um, no. Unless you happen to find a very, very smart high school graduate who wants to get some experience under his or her belt, you aren’t going to find anyone with the skills to edit properly.

    Oh, wait. That’s probably why you’re seeing crappy editing. Silly me.

  40. Yep, it sucks for ebooks. But there really is no excuse. On the kindle if it looks bad you just pull it down and make it right. You have to be specific but…just be specific. That and I’ve read too many great ebooks from smashwords to fault their grinder, although it is imperfect. There is a point when people just don’t know how to upload to an ebook. If you upload to kindle like you would to smashwords it would just be horrible. And it’s even more different if you try to upload via pubit! It’s like you need a different file for each venue and then you need how to work each file. Publishers suck though anyway.

  41. As a small – micro – publisher who does all the converting work myself, I also make a plea for an easier interface to make edits. I’m no programmer but have basic familiarity with .html. I use Calibre to convert my books, which is fantastic. But even I, and I do care about quality, cannot figure out how to edit certain items, including:
    * setting hard page breaks – I’ve read what’s out there and used it but it doesn’t work
    * keeping line breaks from happening when I use such “exotic” formatting as underlining or superscripts
    * getting graphics to size properly, even after I’ve followed the instructions to size the file

    At some point, I step back and say I have to wait for the technology to get better. We’ve figured it out in the realm of websites, now that we have easy interfaces like WordPress. We can do the same for publishing ebooks. And let’s get it together so that we can publish across platforms – eg Kindle, Nook, Sony, etc – without having to make a different version for each platform.

  42. Why are people ignoring Marion Gropen’s post about the costs of conversion and market size? It’s all spelled out and should really be a blog post of its own. Oh that’s right, most of the readers (and contributors for that matter) on this site don’t care about reality, they just want to whine and discuss their self-importance.

  43. obscurebooks4all // May 27, 2011 at 1:00 pm //

    My initial experience with my e-book reader has not been what I’d hoped, so I’ve decided to hold off on purchasing paid content until such time as it becomes clear that the content would actually be usable.

    My experience is probably pretty typical. After considerable research, I bought the e-reader that looked most promising for reading the older, obscure epub and .pdf books on Google Books. It turns out that the .pdf is too small to read more than about 3 pages, and the e-pub OCR is like reading transcriptions of someone with a very bad speech impediment. This “speech impediment” effect is especially evident in books scanned from Fraktur, where the old fashioned lower case “f” sometimes scans as “s.” Since there’s no way to go back and ask the e-book, “What were you trying to say?” it is impossible to get accurate information. I’d been hoping to use my e-book reader for writing Wikipedia articles, but it’s become very clear that the words and numbers visible on my e-book don’t match the original unless they’re in .pdf, and that .pdf is too small to read.

    Right now, the e-book OCR format is fine for leisure reading of non-challenging materials. However, at this point, it’s necessary to issue a disclaimer on the order of “What you are reading is a close approximation of the original. For serious work, you will need to use print.”

    Industry standards of approval, such as “This e-book has been quality checked for spelling errors,” and “This e-book has been quality-checked for numerical accuracy,” with the ability to submit further corrections, may well be in order.

    Meanwhile, someone might to well by hacking together a DIY e-book magnifying stand for those .pdfs ….

  44. Gropen’s post is, imho, simply not credible. That is the reason. I certainly do not believe a word of it.

    It is an utter nonsense to expect intelligent people to believe that content likes this:

    ‘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?

    … costs $3 per page to correct and another $3 per page in each other format.

    Please !

  45. If I might add some numbers to Marion Gropen’s comment, “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.”

    RosettaBooks is currently giving away five older novels that were made into movies: “The Graduate”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “A Passage to India”, “Shoeless Joe”, and “Red Alert”. In its article about the giveaway, The Wall Street Journal reported that RosettaBooks says that for all five titles put together, “In April, cumulative sales of the books numbered an estimated 250 copies across all e-retailer websites.”

    That’s an average of 50 copies per month per title, for some relatively big-name back-list titles. It makes me wonder how many copies the lesser-known back-list titles sell.


  46. @Howard,

    I did make a couple of mistakes, as Rich Adin, for whom I have a great deal of respect, pointed out. I thoughtlessly conflated ms pages with typeset ones, and I also thought that it would be better to use a copyeditor (who looks at the material as it stands) rather than a proofreader (who compares a correct version of the ms to a typeset or otherwise processed version), clean it up.

    As for the $3 per page, even “obvious errors” have to be found by the same process of laboriously examining each and every line, word, letter and punctuation mark. It’s grueling, demanding work, and it goes far, FAR more slowly than simply reading the content does.

    And I know you have no reason to know who I am, or what my credibility might be in the small press world, so allow me to suggest some other reasons why you might find this more credible.

    All publishers are very well aware that music sells in enormous unit volumes since the iTunes price revolution hit. And ebooks that are priced at 99 cents move briskly, too, when they’re content that is in demand. Blogs like this have told us so, loud and long, even if we somehow managed to miss the fact on our own.

    So, if we really did have such low costs to make quality product, and we actually could afford to sell at that price, don’t you think we’d do the math and figure out where we make the greatest total profit? And don’t you think that we’d push hard for the takeover of a format (ebooks) where the reproduction and distribution costs are so low? And where the conversion from browser to buyer was so easy (increasing the purchase rates by those who see our publicity efforts)?

    Even if you think we’re utter scum, you have to admit that, if you and the rest are right, we should be acting in our own best interest and doing what you are advocating. Unless of course, we’re too dumb to come in out of the rain.

    And we all know that stupid people are JUST the sort who fall in love with books and choose to work for peanuts and the pleasure of being around books all day . . . . .

  47. Hi Marion.

    Firstly I hope you realise I am not being personal at all in my comments. I deliberately referred to the post and the contents as not credible. I am sure you yourself know a lot about publishing. I am not in the publishing industry – coming from about 25 years of business management, financial management, IT and web design management. I am disappointed you didn’t restate the corrected costs as you see them though.

    There are a number of issues here. I am sure I am not comprehensive but here they are as I see them in this particular thread. The scanning of existing paper books into text. The preparation of titles by authors before they self publish. The editing of titles by Publishers AND their checking of the final file pre publishing. Finally there is the wider issue of offering a product to the public which is sub standard.

    The errors set out in the article here are not those resulting from normal editing. These errors clearly arise from proof reading. I suggest to you are this kind of proof reading is clearly a very cheap and straight forward task that does not need specialised skills.

    Editing itself is a task that, as I understand it, should have been done long before the title ever got near publishing. The copy editing comes along.

    For self published titles – the onus is on the author to ensure all of these tasks are completed before they have the temerity to offer their title for sale. The public may be tolerant of poor writing, but poor editing of any kind is, imho, unacceptable.

    For publishers offering titles for sale that are subject to the old low level royalty model the costs of editing and copy editing should be built in to their higher royalty earnings. Proof reading to prevent the appalling errors above should be a very modest cost item.

    For scanned paper books, the editing is already completed. The copy editing is also completed. The only task yet again is proof reading.

    It is not an acceptable excuse, imho, for publishers to claim that each title must earn it’s own income to cover such a quality control. Quality control should be spread over ALL titles controlled by that publisher. If a product is not of a reasonable and acceptable quality then it is an outrage that is be offered for sale.

  48. The same way arts & humanities types will blithely blurt out that they are “bad at math,” they have similarly been content to remain clueless about technical matters, and now it’s coming back to bite them in a big way.

    The XHTML used in ebook markup is truly simple stuff. If you’re a publisher–large or small–and you can’t hand-code a Kindle ebook (okay, I’ll settle for a chapter), I’m not surprised you’re getting overcharged for substandard work.

    Let me repeat: there’s no way formatting an ebook corrupts the text. If you’re starting with an RTF dump from InDesign (or the like), you’ll end up with typesetting code that has to be stripped out. With Search & Replace.

    Anyway, the errors cited here would be caught by a spell check. How hard is it to hit the F7 key in Word? In any case, when you get to the beta version stage, email the .mobi or .epub to the author and have him sign off on it.

  49. @Eugene:
    Larger publishers code their current books in XML or XHTML as a matter of course, and have for several years. But their backlist isn’t coded that way, because it wasn’t a widely used standard until the last few years, and didn’t seem likely to justify the expense until recently, especially in light of the financially painful experiments with ebooks in the early 90s.

    The hidden code isn’t inserted by word processors isn’t always something you can strip easily. And when you’re converting old files that have real H&J built into them, there are all sorts of other issues, as well as leading and kerning and all the rest of the compositors’ skill-set, built into them, then things get really complicated.

    (Spellcheck often adds errors. And Word? It’s a pain for all of us in the business, even as we rely upon its ubiquity.)

    Often, older books are simply OCR’d, but that introduces lots of new errors, and it is NOT cheap or easy to pull them out. Every ordinary person will see a different set of errors, which is why a professional proofreader gets about the same amount as a professional copyeditor, and they both get more than outsiders think is reasonable.

  50. @Howard —

    Your continuing stream of comments declaiming the credibility of other commenters perplexes me. It doesn’t seem to matter what the topic is, Howard “knows” and no one else does. As you acknowledge, you have no experience in publishing yet you so kindly tell those of us who do have such experience what fools we are and how wrong our statements are. Chutzpah must be your middle name.

    You wrote: “Editing itself is a task that, as I understand it, should have been done long before the title ever got near publishing. The copy editing comes along.” What exactly does “The copy editing comes along” mean? What is the difference between the task of “editing” and the “copyediting” that “comes along”? As editing is part of the publishing process, it is unclear why it “should have been done long before the title ever got near publishing.”

    You wrote: “For self published titles – the onus is on the author to ensure all of these tasks are completed before they have the temerity to offer their title for sale. The public may be tolerant of poor writing, but poor editing of any kind is, imho, unacceptable.: Pray tell, how do you determine whether something is “poor writing” or “poor editing”? And, perhaps more importantly, assuming you can identify the cause precisely (i.e., writing vs. editing), how do you know who to credit for the result that you find so distasteful? Do you (incorrectly) think that editors have the final word? That an author cannot reject every suggestion, including spelling and grammar corrections, made by an editor? Why do you think the self-published author has different burdens than a traditionally published author? Just because you pronounce something repeatedly and loudly doesn’t make the pronouncement correct!

    You wrote: “For publishers offering titles for sale that are subject to the old low level royalty model the costs of editing and copy editing should be built in to their higher royalty earnings. Proof reading to prevent the appalling errors above should be a very modest cost item.” First, what is the difference between editing and copyediting? Second, what do you mean when you say the editing costs should be built into the publishers’ “higher royalty earnings”? (FWIW, in publishing, “royalties” usually refer to the author’s compensation, not the publisher’s compensation or expense.) Third, some concrete facts to support your conclusion that proofreading should be a “modest cost item” would be welcome. What does modest mean? Do you have any clue as to what proofreaders either do or charge for their services? What factual basis do you have to support the idea that proofreading should be a “modest cost item” compared to other skilled services?

    I appreciate, Howard, that you believe you contribute to the dialogue by asserting that comments by other contributors aren’t worth the characters of which they are composed, but I have yet to read any comment by you that indicates you understand the business side of how a book evolves from an idea in an author’s head to a finished product read by a consumer — in either the traditional publishing world or in the ebook world. Before asserting that someone’s comment lacks credibility (and implying that your pronouncements are gospel on the subject), I suggest you first establish your own credibility.

  51. Richard – I find that a very offensive post.

    I have never thrown doubt on the character of ANY commenter and to be accused of doing so is very disappointing indeed. I have consistently discussed the individual comments and claims and arguments made on this forum and I never personalise it.

    Yes I have opinion on a lot of things. Why shouldn’t I express them ? what right do you have to suggest I not ?

    If you disagree with me or if I express opinions that you feel are inaccurate or wrong, you are free to point that out. I have engaged in many pleasant discussions here in the last year. I have never attacked anyone for doing so.

    You point out that I am not in the publishing business. That is accurate. It seems to me by the way publishing has been going and is headed that the smart publishers are those that are moving with the change and bringing in people from outside the industry. Your view appears to be that only ‘inside’ people really know the business. I don’t agree with that view one little bit.

    By the way, all of the above is my opinion. I don’t claim to be an expert. If you disagree please feel free to do so. There is no need to be so personal and arrogant.

    I believe I have a deep experience of business and finance and in addition I am a reader. Are you claiming that only publishing insiders comment here ? or should they do so with due deference to the old fart club ?

  52. @Marion If you can export an RTF file somewhere along the line, then it is that easy. I’ve done it plenty of times. Yes, you end up with files littered with all kinds of typesetting code, but the beauty of exporting to HTML is that it all gets tagged. Then it’s a matter of filtering out the junk (there are tools for doing that).

    What’s harder is prepping a Smashwords-compliant Word document, because then the file really has to be scrubbed clean. But there are tricks to speeding up that process too.

    In the early 1990s, back when hypertext was the big new thing (“interactive books” were an early tech bubble), one of my co-workers wrote parsers (part-time, no less) to convert typesetting tapes to hypertext (i.e., HTML). He got to where he could process a book in a few hours (on a 486 Dell running DOS).

    It doesn’t matter what the code is, if it’s code then it can be handled with minimal human involvement. OCR errors are a separate issue. Again, let’s not confuse coding with the integrity of the text.

    Publishers–and authors–should have enough pride in their work that if they can’t justify the cost of cleaning OCR dumps, they won’t release the ebook. As I said before, if publishers treated ebooks like software, with beta versions and revision control, then fixing bugs would become a natural part of the process.

  53. Anon, we are got ignoring what Marion said. We’re just saying that it doesn’t affect the end result, which is that publishers are selling, for full and not-discountable price, products for which they simply should not be charging customers money. They are selling shoddy, incomplete work. And there is NO excuse for it. If they truly cannot afford to proof-read their books before they offer them to customers for money, then they should not be putting them for sale on the market, period. There is NO excuse. If it costs too much, they need to find a way to streamline their processes and make it cost less, or they need to get out of business. I am not denying that publishing books does have real costs. I am just saying that I, as customer, am not prepared to subsidize these costs if it’s not going to assure me of a product I can actually use. Think of any business out there in the world. Would you tolerate spending full, premium price on a house only to be told that the plumbing didn’t get quite finished because plumbing costs a lot to do? No. You bought the full-price, premium house and you expect all that entails. Would you pay for a full-course dinner in a restaurant and just shrug it off if they decided not to include the salad today? No, you would not. And if the waiter tried to placate you with a long explanation about the true costs of lettuce, what would you say? Oh, okay, now that I understand that, just take my money anyway and I’ll accept less? Hell, no. You’d be saying sorry, but that’s your problem to figure out, I paid for the dinner and I expect to receive it.

    No offense intended to Marion. But, interesting though her explanation might have been on the technical/academic level, it really does not excuse the publishers from their obligation to clean up their books before they start charging people money for them.

  54. Phil Spinelli // May 28, 2011 at 6:50 pm //

    As one who works with an eBook conversion company on behalf of small publishers and authors, I look at every single page as an extra proofing step. This is an ESSENTIAL step in the proofing process and allows us to produce as error free a final eBook product as possible. I know for a fact that large publishers skip this step for the reasons stated in other posts here. So what can readers do about this? Do what you’re doing here. Post comments to publishers of books with errors direct, on blogs, Social Media, and retailer book reviews. Public consumer pressure is powerful in our digital culture, but you have to be specific about what you’ve experienced. General ranting will only cause publishers to point at other publishers.

  55. Jussi Keinonen // May 29, 2011 at 7:33 am //

    I’m getting confused by the comments here. I think some people are saying that they want cheap e-books, and at the same time saying they want error-free e-books.

    I’m always amused that simple minds have simple demands.

  56. We all wish for things we can’t have. It’s human nature. We all want to maximize the government services that benefit us (for example), while minimizing the taxes we owe. It’s up to the adults in the room to state what is possible. If simple minds have simple demands, then corporations (publishers, in this instance) that assume they can meet them by selling substandard products must be even more simple-minded. That explains a lot, actually.

  57. Of course I want cheap books. But I also want a quailty product. I’m much more likely to overlook conversion errors in a 2.99 book than I am in a $9.99 book. If a publisher wants me to pay a premium price for a book, they’d better give me a quality product for my money.

    Usually it’s cheap-fast-good pick two. Publishers seem to be saying expensive + non-good is what they want to sell us.

  58. @Jussi, I can’t speak for others but where my frustration usually comes in is when the publisher is asking print price or more for a book and it’s riddled with errors (I don’t expect $2-$3 ebooks from publishing companies, although slightly cheaper than print would be nice :)).

    One of my big frustrations is that a lot of the time the errors I find could have been fixed with a simple spell check. I’ve got one where the errors filled eleven pages in Word and all of the errors except for three would have been caught with a spell check.

  59. Jussi Keinonen // May 29, 2011 at 11:24 am //

    @ Brian “I can’t speak for others but where my frustration usually comes in is when the publisher is asking print price or more for a book and it’s riddled with errors”

    That I can understand. It’s just that many people seem to think that cheap ebooks should be of high quality.

    The other thing is, that the e-frontier is still new stuff for many in the business. Many think that just by pressing a couple of buttons you get an e out of a pdf or .doc. Nope. There are new tricks to learn in everything new.

    In general I resent the whining mentality of humankind.

  60. Most of the whining is coming from the legacy publishers, who insist–and stamp their feet very hard, so it must be true!–that creating ebooks is super-duper complex rocket science that costs zillions. It’s not. Even if it was, that doesn’t excuse dumb text errors that have nothing to do with the underlying technology.

  61. Speaking as someone who is actually doing e-book conversion work of out of print titles, the claims being made by the publishing veterans are old school nonsense. At best, they serve as a testimonial to any author considering self-publishing of their backlist.

    $3 a page? That is simply insanity. This is a task that can be performed by a high school graduate at entry level wages. Or at least what a high school graduate was a few decades ago. This is not editorial. It’s simple proofreading of what should be glaring errors. Heck, Word finds the blatant spelling errors by itself, and a good percentage of other possible errors it marks for scrutiny.

    I’m starting off with musty old paperbacks, stripping off the binding and feeding the pages through a Fujitsu duplex scanner. Then OCR gets the text into Word. From there, proofreading and formatting. This takes perhaps two days for a 200 page novel. I’ve done it in one when my focus was good and the novel was familiar. The skill most used here is basic literacy. (I also take advantage of pirate versions on torrent sites to avoid the scanning but often the formatting is so bad as to make it a toss-up whether it is saving any work. It at least saves the book for being dissected.)

    Once in a great while I’ll find an error that was in the original. Rarer still is the passage that required some conceptual correction that needs to be brought to the author’s attention. (Is that really what you meant to say?) But it’s 99% brute proofreading.

    I would be deeply embarrassed to have produced some of the shoddy conversions I’ve seen. One Science Fiction publisher who was an early trailblazer in e-book publishing is especially bad in this respect. They also don’t place their titles on Amazon and B&N, which is a major disservice to their authors. If you aren’t on those venues you simply don’t exist for a major portion of the market.

    If an error is detected in one of my conversion jobs, a corrected file will be delivered ASAP to replace the one currently being distributed. It takes but a few minutes and costs nothing beyond that minor bit of time and effort. I don’t care if the error is found on the day of delivery or a year later. There is no excuse for letting it remain. It’s just a few bytes in a small upload.

    On my current job, I’ve spent nearly as much time formatting a five page section as I needed for the entire proofing task. This is because I’ve never tried to do this particular type of arrangement before and the Kindle is a bit stupid about stuff that EPUB does without a problem. If it comes up again it will take less than a tenth of the time because I’ll have that knowledge. The author isn’t going to be penalized for the time it took me to learn something new.

    E-book conversion is laborious but not expensive in terms of the skill set. At least, it shouldn’t be. If big publishers cannot accept that, the world will move on and leave them to commiserate with those who once saw a bright future in buggy whip manufacture.

  62. This whole thread highlights why I am dubious about the ability of legacy publishers to make the transition to a digital world. They don’t even seem to understand what is needed, much less how to go about providing it.

    I can tolerate simple proofreading errors to a degree in a cheap ebook. I can tolerate simple proofreading errors to a degree in a backlist ebook that wasn’t produced originally in digital form. But it’s pretty annoying to pay $14.99 for a just published book and still find the same simple proofreading errors, and that’s still happening.

  63. The errors are annoying and frustrating. Their response to them is even more frustrating. Good customer service dictates that they should fix the problem when pointed out and send you a updated version! This is not rocket science!

  64. Why are proofreading errors acceptable in a “cheap” ebook but not in a more expensive one? Why should self publishing authors produce lower quality material?

    Self and independent publishers should be held to the same high standards expected from the large publishing houses. In fact, they should ensure that their work is better … perfect even … than what the Big 6 produce.

    No matter who or how the book is published I still expect a well crafted, edited and proofread product.

  65. Why don’t the content creators download a pirated version of their work? Invariably, the pirated version has far fewer typos and formatting issues than the publisher OCR’d version. This is because the pirated version has often been proofread several times and has version numbers. It would be ironical if the content creators could profit off of the free work of those individuals.

  66. Really great posts – Joanna and epobirs.

  67. @epobirs
    Do you have permission to do those conversions? The process you are describing is not dissimilar from the one used by the publishers to add back-list books to their ebook inventory WHEN the books are old enough that the manuscript files aren’t available, and when the expected sales are too low to be worth doing a better process.

    But the proofing does take a good long time, and if you’re going to make a living doing nothing but proofing, then you have to charge a fair bit. Consider: Let’s say you need $50,000 per year. You’re not a kid, you have to live on this. (In NYC, you couldn’t live on that, without another, larger, income in the family or a roommate if you’re single, but you can in a lot of the country.)

    Let’s say that you work freelance, as many proofreaders do. And let’s also say that you need to spend 1/3 of your time hunting jobs, and 2/3 working, and that you work 2100 hours per year. (That’s a tad more than 40 hours per week.)

    So, you’re getting paid for 1400 hours, and need $35.71 per hour. Let’s say that it takes you 5 minutes to proof one page. That’s $3 per page.

    It’s not a number we pick out of a hat. And if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Anything less than this and you get exactly what the original post complained about.

  68. Let me make clear — I’m not one of the publishers who is producing these books. I am a financial and management consultant for small publishing companies, who has been in larger ones, and worked in the business for more than 20 years. So, I’m not defending my own, or my company’s, practices here — just trying to add a little light to the mix.

    Also, an earlier commenter was correct, there are a lot of different types of players in the mix. It would be easier for all of us to judge what’s going on if we knew whether the ebook was fiction, trade non-fiction (that is, the kind that might make it into a bookstore, in print), or something else. I’m sure you all know that trade books (fiction and non-fiction) are less than half of book sales in the US, but they do tend to be most of what gets discussed in public.

    It would also be useful to know who published the ebook, how long ago the print original was published, and what the “high price paid” was.

    The economics of publishing are cruel to the publishers, to booksellers, wholesalers, distributors, and authors. There’s no reason readers should care, EXCEPT to understand that driving prices down, especially with piracy, will eventually have consequences. And that cheap books have to be made cheaply. You do get what you pay for.

    If the downward pressure on ebooks continues, and if the price settles around that of a song rather than that of an album, for book length works, then readers shouldn’t be surprised at the results.

  69. I’ll give a couple of examples, Marion, without identifying the exact books. One is a recent Pulitzer prize winning history book. It was published by Penguin in 2009, currently listed at $14.99. I actually paid $9.99 because I bought it just before agency pricing kicked in (I knew I wanted to read it and I knew the price would go up.) It’s not horrible, but there are several instances of words being sep-arated like so, inappropriately.

    Another is a just published (April 2011) fiction book, from Macmillan, priced at $11.99 (which is the price I paid for.) There were several consistent mistakes in the book, including “Jesum” for “Jesus”.

    Neither of these is cheap, nor can the problems be blamed on OCR. These books would have begun life as digital files. The errors aren’t significant enough for me to want to return the books; I want to read them. I’m pretty tolerant of errors. However, I’m not tolerant of publishers telling me that they can’t produce a quality product when they’re charging me near print prices.

  70. @Sherri,
    I haven’t experienced those kinds of errors myself — that is, in books where the likely sales are in the hundreds of copies per year, and perhaps in the thousands over the life of the title/format comobination, which would justify a modest expenditure. I can’t suggest an explanation.

    Most books that sell in those kinds of numbers will have better conversions.

  71. @Sherri and Marion — The kinds of errors Sherri describes are very common in new Agency 6 ebooks. By new, I mean pbooks and ebooks that are copyrighted 2010 and newer, thus presumably done digitally. These errors that Sherri describes are the minor errors that appear only in the ebook version; unfortunately, some of the more major errors appear in both the pbook and the ebook versions.

    One of the more expensive ripoffs I have “suffered” with is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s
    Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2010). This is a big book, 1200+ pages in hardcover and expensive: I paid $27 for the hardcover version and then, because I wanted to read it digitally, I paid $30 for the ebook version (the price on the ebook version has subsequently dropped to $19 and the paperback has been released at $15).

    This book relies on symbols, especially for the writing done in Greek and Aramaic. As to be expected, the pbook version gets it right but the ebook misses every time. There are other failings in the ebook, but there shouldn’t be any, as this book had to have been digitally created.

    Had I paid $5 for the ebook, I wouldn’t complain (or at least not too much) but at $30 I feel justified in complaining loudly. I did write to the publisher and received back the form thank you letter. My complaints fell into an abyss.

    This book has taught me 2 lessons regarding ebooks: (1) Do not buy agency priced ebooks, especially if I am buying the pbook. (2) Do not spend more than $5 on an ebook regardless of source because there is no assurance that the quality will be consistent across ebooks.

    The experience has also resulted in my rethinking my buying habits of ebooks. A review of my ebook “purchases” over the past 3.5 years indicates that more than 80% (and probably closer to 85-90%) of all ebooks I have “purchased” have cost “free,” either as a result of author/publisher pricing the ebook as free or the author/publisher offering a coupon that reduces the price temporarily to free.

    Poor quality production of ebooks is not driving me to buy more pbooks. Rather, it has made me warier about purchasing any book — p or e — to the point that I now scrutinize every pbook I purchase so I can return one that has too many blatant errors, something I did not do previously. The result has been a 60% decrease in the dollars I spend on books, even though I am acquiring more books than ever. What the poor quality of ebooks has driven me to is primarily “buying” free ebooks and not buying both p and e versions of some books as I had previously done.

    Of course, the problem from the publisher side is that to proofread ebooks after conversion is expensive — contrary to what the naysayers believe, it is not a job for a high school graduate who thinks Twittering is the be all and end all of language literacy, but a job for a skilled professional — especially when it cannot be known how many ebook sales will be made.

  72. Mark Forrest // May 31, 2011 at 7:00 am //

    I’m sorry but I still don’t buy the difficulties in producing an error free ebook from either a digital text source or OCR’d pbooks.

    I once scanned in and OCR’d a treasured fantasy fiction book. This took me I would say a whole day to photograph the pages, OCR and bulk spellcheck and correct common format issues with search/replace functions. I acknowledge that I had the original pbook to refer to as I error checked the book but there were very few extra errors to go back and alter. Automation should surely be available to handle most of these stages.

    As I don’t want to get into a semantic debate over the definitions of proof reading and copy proofing I will just call it error checking, which could be done by anyone of reasonable literacy, with reference page images, at the alpha stage. I would happily read beta versions and feedback any errors, feedback could be done through suitably configure ereaders by a panel of error spotters by simply tagging the text as you go along.

    Also when a current pbook is printed surely the text used came from an electronic source having had all the errors already corrected, any errors must have been fed back into the electronic source.

    As to cost, if geographical restrictions didn’t apply the pool of buyers would be worldwide thus spreading the cost across global sales and this only has to be done ONCE.

    I know I’ve said nothing new here and it does seem like there is very little common ground between the industry justifying how things are and readers wanting reasonably priced decent quality ebooks.

  73. I never said anything about wanting the books for free. But here’s my issue re price and quality—if they can afford the editing for a paper copy, I don’t see why they can’t for an ebook too—especially since they start with something digital from the get-go. So, if the paper-associated costs account for 5-10% of a book’s price, as they themselves have said is true, then an ebook priced at paper cost minus 10-15% should be both fair to the customer and equally as manageable to them from a cost to do it standpoint. Right?

  74. in re proofing for paper vs proofing for electronic versions:
    The volume for ebooks is much smaller than the volume for print, especially for the long-tail titles.

    Remember, the optimistic figures for ebook sales in the US run around $2 billion — and that’s including the retailers’ share. And for the printed books it’s more like $35 billion, AFTER discounts given to retailers.

    Proofing a book costs the same whether you sell 5 copies or 5 million, and whether you sell them for $1 or $500 (and yes, there are books with a price tag like that — not many, but there are some).

    So, yes, I’d like to see books sold only if they were more or less error free. And no, proofing isn’t as easy as some of you seem to think it is.

    And no, conversion of the final, corrected manuscript file isn’t automated, not for ANY of the myriad flavors of epub, or for the Kindle format, or . . . . It takes a human being to proof this stuff, or we’d already be proofing by computer. Trust me, no CFO out there would be anything but thrilled if they could automate a lot of this!

    It’s not as if the publishers WANT to kill ebooks, or fill them with errors. We’d have to be dumber than dirt to want that. If we can produce high quality ebooks cheaply, as the primary format for a lot of types of books, and as an important secondary one for the rest, we stand to gain a ton of money. Distribution of print is now very expensive. Print is also a big chunk of our cost structure. And returns of 25 to 50% of gross sales are a royal pain in our bottom lines. (Especially since we then have to pay the shipping and warehousing fees TWICE for no associated revenue — nasty just doesn’t cover it.)

    None of those is a problem plaguing ebooks.

    And if the quality of our books could be a lot better than pirated copies, without associated high costs, that would help us draw all the potential buyers out of the pirate pool. (I know that there are some who would never buy.) Even at lower price points than you’re discussing, l would be far better off, as would authors!

    So, if any of you really DO know how to make these great leaps in quality for tiny little sums, and to do it on commercial volumes, then you really should set up a service company, and start making money for everyone involved. Goodness knows, the market is there for you to exploit.

  75. But Marion, they are already doing it—low volume or not—for the paper edition. So why is the ebook version different? Why is it affordable for the paper version and not the ebook version?

    I think part of the issue too might be that publishers are too reluctant to cede control, and maybe they need to, at least a little, in this one area. I had a VP at Kobo tell me he would happily correct reported errors, but that copyright law prohibits him from doing so. So he has to send it back to the publisher and wait for them to do it, if they even do at all…

  76. Jussi Keinonen // May 31, 2011 at 1:45 pm //

    I know that some publishers outsource the making of their e-books from the proofread texts finalized for printing in software like InDesign. However the tools that should “automate” the process as much as possible make many mistakes. End result: either have it proofread again at the prices Marion explains, or use the spell-checker route and have a lot of mistakes.

    Scanning of physical books and OCR brings a lot of mistakes. OCR apparently doesn’t do grammar, it recognises words.

    It’s not easy to do anything properly. And some people shouldn’t be even trying, I guess.

  77. Jussi Keinonen // May 31, 2011 at 1:55 pm //

    Joanna wrote:
    “Why is it affordable for the paper version and not the ebook version?”

    Even though I suspect the currently better income of p-books is a good reason, I’ll have a cynical shot at this:

    Maybe publishers believe that e-book readers are more of the Facboog generation who’re so used to typos they won’t mind two much. :-)

    Or an evolutionary one:

    Maybe publishers think that e-book readers are more of the software generation who are already used to betas and patches, and are taking that route.

  78. “either have it proofread again at the prices Marion explains,”

    Except those prices are ridiculously inaccurate.

  79. @Howard–
    “ridiculously inaccurate?” Really? Based upon what? You’ve done finance in other industries. I’ve done finance in book publishing for more than 20 years.

    How long does it take YOU to proof a page the right way? That is, looking at each word and space, and then at each sentence and its punctuation, and then at the paragraphs, and lastly at the flow of the whole, making sure that there are no omissions, duplications, no mis-conversions, mis-spellings, wrong punctuation, or incorrect grammar? A fair number of proofreaders go from back to front, as well as front to back of the book, of course, because that way they catch the errors that even experienced eyes can auto-correct.

    If you can do that whole process faster than 12 pages per hour (per the numbers I was citing), you’re damn fast, and should consider a career in this — unless you’re already making more than the bare bones numbers I quoted. And if you do finance at all well, I’m sure you make a LOT more. Most of us do. But proofreaders are the unsung galley slaves of this business (why, yes, that was a pun — apologies to all). They work down in the engine room, and make it all go, but they earn very little.

    Why such an involved process? Because, as I’m sure most of the readers of this thread already know (are there any of you who are still hanging in?), you can’t rely upon your internal checks to spot most errors. You’ll look right past the majority. And the ones you DO see will be different than the ones that other readers see.

    “Ridiculous?” Maybe. But also necessary — if you want your proofreaders to be anything other than homeless, or maybe people who live rentfree in their parents’ basements . . . .

  80. But again, Marion, you still have not adequately explained how the publishers can make a low-volume book any more cost-effective in print than they can in ebook. Let’s take my dad’s book, for instance. From what he told me, it sold 500 copies and the publisher was happy with this. And they gave him a contract for a sequel. So okay, I accept this is a low-volume business.

    Now, all the proof-reading you describe in your previous reply had to happen for the print version, no? And yet, somehow, they still managed to do so cost-effectively enough for the book to merit a sequel. It’s selling for $14.44 on and clearly, the publisher is making money on it at that price or else they would not have signed him on for another one.

    Now, let’s knock 10% off the price to account for the cost of paper and shipping that the publishers themselves have said is an accurate amount. That means we can sell the ebook for about 13 bucks and it will cost the same to produce as the paper book did—in other words, we are spending exactly as much as we did for the paper version in ALL OTHER AREAS (editing, promotion, etc—everything) and the only thing we are taking away is the actual paper cost. I still feel like logic and common sense tells me it should cost less since we already did the heavy lifting for the paper version, but I will go with your assumption that we must start from scratch to edit the ebook. Explain to me why under such a scenario, when all other costs are being maintained exactly as they were, the ebook would be MORE onerous to produce? We still have the same editing cost we had for the paper. And it was profitable then! So…what’s the problem?

    You are going on a lot about how hard proof-reading is and how editors are under-paid etc. But you are not answering the central question here.

  81. 500 copies is a LOT for a low-selling ebook. That’s one difference.

    And 500 copies of a $14 trade paperback is very few. I don’t know what would move a publisher to request a sequel. 5,000 is passable for a trade book, but you would still probably not want to do another with that author.

    You MIGHT be able to make 500 work for a scholarly work, or a work in another non-trade area, where the average discounts at which books are sold by publishers are far, far lower.

    (Remember, the trade publisher gives the bookstore 40%, the wholesaler 15%, pays 10 to 15% for distribution to wholesalers, and uses the remaining 30 to 35% to cover royalties paid to authors, printing, marketing, production, and overhead — and maybe a tiny bit of profit. So, no, you’re not covering the fixed cost of proofing at 500 copies for a trade book either. Discounts for scholarly, academic or professional books tend to run more like 20% than 55%, although distribution tends to cost about the same. Return rates — at full price — are also lower.)

  82. Oh, and the price on Amazon is nothing to do with the list price, upon which all of the discounts are based. Amazon does whatever they feel like doing, and since they’re getting larger discounts as an RDC, instead of a retailer, they can afford to do it.

    And publishers are working pricing out on the assumption that most paperbacks will soon be extinct, and utterly replaced by ebooks. So no, we’re not pricing them as incremental, or expecting print to carry the freight for them. Then we would set the expectation that the price would be next to nothing, and when the print versions weren’t there anymore, we’d be up a creek in a big way.

  83. Jussi Keinonen // June 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm //

    Marion Gropen wrote: “And 500 copies of a $14 trade paperback is very few. I don’t know what would move a publisher to request a sequel.”

    I was also bemused by Joanna’s post. Even in a small country like Finland it would be a non-profitable failure financially.

    But there are many other reasons to publish a second book: the author can give the publisher good PR and/or brand image for the publisher; they can believe that he will earn the money invested back with later books. That’s what most of legacy publishing is about: you build on the author… and pray that one day his book will stick to the wall…

    I bet all aspiring authors would love a publisher like that!

    Hmm… maybe the book was a “local book”, only accessible, marketed and delivered to a limited area?

    In any case, I’m certain this example doesn’t help to understand the financial mechanics of trad pub.

  84. Yes, it was a small local book, and there are some ancillary benefits to both the author and publisher in this specific case. But my point, which—with all due respects—Marion still has not addressed, was this: if we take off about $1.50-2.00 as the 10% cost of the paper/printing/shipping, that means that the editorial cost for just the words themselves is about $12. So why is that enough to pay for a paper book, which we can sell at $14, but suddenly NOT enough to pay for an ebook edition which we can sell for $12? It just defies any sort of logic or reason. Marion, can you address that, please? Because I am starting to feel like you are throwing around a lot of numbers and processes and explanations as smoke and mirrors to avoid admitting that there really is no reason why the publishers should not be able to pull this together a little bit better.

  85. Marion wrote:”“ridiculously inaccurate?” Really? Based upon what? You’ve done finance in other industries. I’ve done finance in book publishing for more than 20 years.”

    $3 a page ?

    To fix these errors ?

    ‘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?

    I called that ridiculous and I stand by that. The idea that ‘publishing’ is a magically different industry is really naive.

  86. Oh, NOW I see where the disconnect between us is.

    To cover the fixed costs (cover design or images that serve the same purpose for the ebook, text layout, editing, copyediting, proofreading, and so on) requires either a LOT of copies or a LOT of gross margin on the copies sold.

    Ebooks CAN do that. But not ALL of them do that. Either you sell thousands of copies (and very, very few do), or you sell at a high price (and cause people like me to not buy), or you cut corners (and cause griping) or do several at once (and cause legit uproar, like this).

    Print books can cover those fixed costs, too, because most trade publishers sell a LOT more copies in print than in e-, even now. (NB: Amazon is a pretty small part of the market for print, but almost all of the market for ebooks, and they’re selling about the same number of copies of print and ebook.)

    More than that, publishers don’t get as much of the Amazon pie as you seem to think that they do.

    Amazon charges $14.44, so I’ll guess that the list price of the book is $17.95. Amazon pays 45% of that (gets a 55% discount, assuming that this book is in the Advantage program, which it seems likely to be, but Amazon gets nearly that much even from the biggest presses). So, the publisher, before paying its distributor gets not $12, but $8.08.

    Now the distributor gets its cut. (Or if this is a big press, they pay for their own warehousing, at slightly lower rates, but not much lower.) That takes another $1.80 to $2.70.

    Pick a number in the middle, and say that the publisher’s net is $8.08-$2.25=$5.83.

    Now, if this is a trade book, the author’s royalties should be something like 7.5% of LIST price, for the first 5,000 copies sold. (NB: sometimes small presses pay the same rates on NET receipts, cutting the royalties steeply.) Picking the lowest number, because of the very low sales we’re talking about, that’s 7.5% of $8.08, which is $0.61 per copy.

    Printing a trade paperback in high volumes would normally be about $2 per copy, but at 500 copies, over the life of title, you’re going to pay a lot more. POD printing would cost you $4.74 for a middling book (256 pages), but let’s say you can get a really good quote from a printer with short-run presses standing idle. Let’s say you can do it for $4 per copy.

    You actually WON’T cover $800 in proofreading or copyediting, let alone any marketing or other expenditures.

    In short, 500 copies sold via Amazon is going to kill your bottom line, UNLESS you give up on ever selling through bookstores. THEN you can go to LSI (the largest POD printer, in part because printing there gets your books into Ingram’s database — and Ingram is the 900 pound gorilla of the bookselling world), and change your discount structure. Amazon will take books that are listed at Ingram and LSI. So you set your discount to the minimum acceptable, 20%.

    THEN the publisher gets $14.36. (and why does Amazon ever discount it that far? maybe I’m guessing the list price wrong? Maybe it’s $15.95, so the publisher gets $12.76? Or maybe Amazon is doing one of its odd things. I’ve seen them sell books at a loss more than once.) Let’s assume Amazon is being odd, and the publisher is getting the higher number, to make it harder for me to make my point.

    The publisher is paying no distribution expenses, because LSI gets them listed at Ingram, and the books are shipped immediately after they’re printed.

    The royalties would be $1.08, and the printing would be $4.74, for a total of $5.82 in variable costs.

    So, in this scenario, the publisher gets $14.36 less $5.82, which is $8.54, per copy, times 500 copies, for a total of $4270, with which to cover
    ==$1000 in cover design,
    ==$600 in composition and text design,
    ==$900 in proofreading,
    ==$900 in copyediting, and
    ==$400 or so in marketing.

    That’s $1,000+600+900+900+400=$3800 in direct expenses.
    Total contribution to overhead and profit is $4270 – $3800=$470.

    That doesn’t cover a lot of office supplies and software, let alone the computers to run it, the office to run it in, or the utilities to keep it lit. And I haven’t paid the publisher’s salary yet, either.

    In short, the example Joanna tossed in is not normal. 500 copies of a trade book is not usually a profit making enterprise.

    So, now that I’ve laid out a lot of details, am I making more sense of the situation? or did I just confuse things further?

  87. @Joanna,

    Looking over my last comment, I realize that I was waaay over-detailed.

    You asked: why won’t the publishers’ take from an ebook cover the costs of editing and such, when their share of a printed book will.

    The short answer is: Because the publishers’ share per book is almost always multiplied by a LOT more copies when they’re selling in print than in e. The ebooks where corners were cut are usually the ones where sales expectations were very low.

    And yes, there are books that sell well where the publishers have done a dreadful job — print and ebooks. For those, I have no explanation and no excuses.

  88. @Howard — see my answers to Joanna.

    And, yes, some errors are leap off the page — to you. Others will for others. Proofreaders have to catch as many as is humanly possible. Lousy proofreading isn’t much cheaper than good proofreading, for that matter. If you’re going to do it at all, might as well do it right.

    Obviously, the ebooks you’re appalled by weren’t proofread at all. Equally obviously, that’s because their publishers are either
    –not very good at it, or
    –don’t have much faith in the sales potential of this book in e-formats, or
    –are just launching their conversions, and don’t know that the process will introduce a LOT of errors. (That’s actually a special case of not very good at it, but it’s more curable.)

  89. Jussi Keinonen // June 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm //

    Marion Gropen said:

    “because their publishers are either
    –not very good at it, or
    –don’t have much faith in the sales potential of this book in e-formats, or
    –are just launching their conversions, and don’t know that the process will introduce a LOT of errors. (That’s actually a special case of not very good at it, but it’s more curable.)”

    I think we now have The Best Answer.

    Thanks, it’s been interesting.

  90. Marion, thank you for the explanation. I have some further thoughts, which I will be posting shortly.

  91. shawn girsberger // June 11, 2011 at 10:54 pm //

    Yes. Imagine my surprise when I purchased a copy of my husband’s ebook and noticed that Amazon has listed the editor, who actually did not edit the project but provided a few entries when the book was almost finished, as the author of the book when it’s downloaded into the Kindle library. The distributor, it seems, was responsible for this, because they have the conversion done for the publisher. As of this writing, the situation has not been remedied.

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