The biggest ebook issue: quality

ImagesStuck at home for a snow day, I’ve been snuggling up with my ebook reader, and have to my dismay found the experience less than satisfying. I guess my relatively problem-free ebook purchases until now have either been sheer luck, or else I was so blinded by the import of the geographical restrictions bugbear that I didn’t even notice the odd quality glitch—until today. I opened four purchased books up on my ebook reader, and all four of them were riddled with mistakes.

Book 1 is a current best-seller, purchased from Kobo. Its problem seemed to be a line spacing issue. There would be line breaks at odd, random places and also spaces in the middle of words. The book was still readable, but given I had paid a near-paper price for this, I was unhappy and sent Kobo a help request. It was answered by a form letter that explained in great detail how to sync the ‘I’m Reading’ list using the Kobo desktop software—in other words, it was not even remotely about my problem. I replied back to that effect and was told my request would be ‘escalated’ to a level 2 technician.

Meanwhile, a Kobo rep was trolling the Mobile Read forums and sent me a message asking for the ticket number so he could have a look. By the time I was stuck home today and had the chance to reply to him, I had another book to add to the list. This one was clearly the product of an inept, unproofed OCR. The title of the book showed up in random places, words were misspelled, quote marks were missing, as were line breaks…it just went on and on. I added the name of that book to my reply to the nice Kobo man and opened up another book.

And…this book has no apostrophes or quotation marks. At all. It’s completely unreadable. And it’s part of a series, so even giving me a refund on it wouldn’t be a completely satisfactory resolution since the point of a series is having all of them. I added this to my ‘tell Kobo’ file and opened up a fourth Kobo purchase only to find that it too had problems. There were extra periods added after every three-letter word such as and or the. The book was still relatively readable—but at near-retail prices, four books our of four with errors is, to me, unacceptable.

Kobo allows sampling of the ‘first chapter’ of each book, but in nearly every case, the ‘first chapter’ is the copyright page and acknowledgments, so there is no way to tell if the book is of acceptable quality until you buy it and get burned. No customer reviews, either. I have been an avid Kobo customer and have, it appears, been lucky. It also appears that this luck has run out. I can no longer be assured that I will be getting a quality product for my $10 and up. Yes, I could file a helpdesk ticket every time a book has errors. But are they really going to fix them? And will there come a point where, through no fault of my own, I have accumulated too many helpdesk tickets and they just cut me off, like Amazon does? It makes me reluctant to purchase. It makes me reluctant to report and complain. And as a book lover, this makes me sad.

I hope someone from Kobo is reading this. I hope they can clarify, for our numerous Teleread readers, just what their protocol is when they take your money and sell you an inferior product. And I hope that publishers take heed that customers like me, who buy often, are going to buy LESS often unless these matters can be easily solved.

32 Comments on The biggest ebook issue: quality

  1. Don’t bother with Kobo’s help desk. I have six books from them with errors (words run together, all italics missing, etc, one line style sheets) and have been trying to get them fixed since September. The books I have a specifically a Kobo problem as someone else I know has them from other retailers (some Amazon, some BoB) and their copies have no problems. The publisher has even sent Kobo new copies of the books twice and they still can’t seem to get them fixed. Their VP for content, Michael Tamblyn, said he’d look into it in November and there’s been nothing done. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with these titles being old enough to be from when they were Shortcovers and something got messed up in some kind of conversion process, but good luck getting anything but a run around. I will say that I was offered a refund at one point, but the books weren’t all that expensive and I’d rather see them get fixed as maybe it won’t be such a chore for the next person it happens to.

    The other 108 books in my Kobo library are all fine.

  2. I am floored every time I see folks paying over $15 for an ebook. There are scads of Kindle books available for under $5, including those of best-selling authors, not to mention thousands (literally) of indie writers that give books away or list them at less than $4.

    I understand if you ‘must have’ a certain title by a certain author by a certain time, then yes you may pay that premium price. In that case if you get an inferior product, shame on them. Line breaks are an easy fix, too. Smashwords wouldn’t accept our first book simply because of linebreaks, indeed they rejected our piece over and over until we’d hunted down every last one.

  3. I won’t pay anywhere near that for an ebook, but if I did, I would be on the warpath over those errors.

    When I buy indie books, I can live with a certain amount of error for the price. However, most indie authors are meticulous about their books, their reputation is on the line.

    I find the bulk of the errors in older books that have been haphazardly OCRed.

  4. Two comments.

    First, as to Kobo, I will never buy anything from them. I bought one book with a coupon, and found out only after purchase that the coupon had expired. I contacted them before even downloading the book, and they refused to do anything about it. So — they will never get another dime from me.

    Second, as to errors. They drive me crazy. Not just formatting errors, copy editing errors and even grammar. It seems to me that somehow people publishing ebooks seem to think that they do not require the same care as paper books. I reviewed one poorly done book on amazon (5* content -0* for errors), and the author wrote back that he was appalled and apologetic, and that he had gone through carefully to correct the errors. He probably won’t make the same mistakes again. But many books, especially self-published or indie books have lots of errors. I’m hoping that like any new product, quality will find a way, and people who are really proud of their work will take the time to make sure it is presented well. My advice to other readers: review the book noting that there are errors. The authors will eventually get the message.

  5. Joanna – Thanks for bringing this to our attention — did you share the names of the problem books with the Kobo rep with whom you spoke? If you can send me the titles as well, I’ll make sure someone looks into it. (mt at kobo dot com).

    eBook quality is a serious issue and one to which we wish publishers would pay more attention. We do maintain a full-time team that does nothing but check ebook file quality (add that to your list of jobs to avoid!) They reject hundreds of titles, sending them back to the publisher for correction. Our import filters catch even more. But with thousands of new titles arriving every day, we can’t visually inspect them all. In the rush to make content available, some publishers did cut corners on conversion or proofing and some of those titles have made it into our catalog.

    As to the issue of pricing, we are always, one way or another, constrained by the pricing set by the publisher. With agency titles, we are obliged to sell the book at the publisher-set price. With reseller/wholesale titles, we can discount, but do try to leave the thinnest of margins for ourselves. I can definitely appreciate that the combination of a high price and ebook errors is especially infuriating. Give me some more info and we’ll get on it.

    When we sell an ebook with formatting errors that the reader considers unacceptable, we either refund or attempt to get a replacement version of the ebook from the publisher. We do not generally force our own corrections/fixes on the title–that really is the publisher’s job. But as mentioned above, we expend a great deal of effort to try and prevent these titles from reaching our customers in the first place.

    Brian — I’m looking into what happened with your request. I will follow up with you directly.

    Thanks again,
    Michael Tamblyn
    EVP Content, Sales & Merchandising

  6. I appreciate your reply, Michael. I have emailed you.

  7. Keep in mind that the problem isn’t just OCR-generated typos. Those we can usually figure out. Pages can also stick together, and automated page turners don’t know the difference. If the missing two pages are obvious, that can leave us frustrated about what we are missing. If they’re not, we may be left wondering why the story has such strange gaps in it. Either way, we’ve been cheated.

    Until recently, I had a business creating new, high quality, carefully proofed editions of classic texts, adding new headings, notes and whatever it took to make the reading experience pleasant. I’ve gotten away from doing that, not because my books can’t compete with the badly scanned competition on a level playing field, but because Amazon, and according to you Kobo, have no interest in the quality of what they distribute. In the case of Amazon, their search engine links to the edition that gives them the most profit, even if it’s clearly trash. It conceals better and cheaper printed editions because they make Amazon less money. That’s not my surmise. An Amazon lawyer confirmed it to me as their policy.

    I’m not sure what can be done. Having an online store with integrity would be great, but quality costs money who can compete with Amazon? Having reviewers screen books and post recommendations would be helpful, but how are they going to be compensated? Even Amazon’s blurbs and reviews can’t be trusted. If the title and author are the same, Amazon will crosspost a review and description of one publisher’s edition with that of another publisher. Like I said, they’re clueless about quality.

    The real problem isn’t hard to diagnosis. A decade and more ago the owner and staff of brick-and-mortar bookstores exerted quality control. If a book was done badly, they shipped it back. If a publisher routinely marketed junk, they quit buying from it. The online stores, particularly the large ones, don’t seem to have the same love for books or the same concern for quality. They seem to be jostling for market dominance and profit at the exclusion of all else.

    New technologies bring on this sort of thing. Railroads first arrived in the early nineteenth century. At the end of the century writers such as Mark Twain were still criticizing the railroads for their refusal to take responsibility for accidents, collisions and deaths. He has one story in which he claimed that the last remains of an uncle were sent to the family in a basket with a harshly worded note attached demanding the return of the basket. Exaggeration yes, but not that different from your frustration with Kobo and mine with Amazon.

  8. Can’t you return these e-books to Kobo? I know Amazon gives you a week to return e-books, but I imagine for reasons like the ones you describe they would let you return purchases anytime.

  9. I was told that the coupon I used had expired and that there I could not return the book (that I had not even downloaded) for a refund or credit. Without the coupon it was considerably more than amazon, too. There were a lot of people who had the same thing happen to them about the same time with the same coupon offer. So, there are lots of places to buy books, no need to ever darken Kobo’s door again. As it happens, I almost always get books from amazon — usually cheaper, and ALWAYS excellent customer service. In fact, when I mistakenly bought a book instead of getting a sample on my new smartphone — getting used to those tiny buttons — amazon not only graciously reversed the charges, but sent me a personalized email offering help with the smartphone app, and asking for feedback if I thought changes should be made. So, no mo’ Kobo.

  10. While you *can* “return” faulty e-books to Kobo, it’s anything but an easy or straightforward process – figure a month, minimum, of dealing with half-trained minimum-wage cubicle monkeys in the warehouse holding their outsourced customer disservice department to just to get to somebody who’ll admit that getting your money back for the raw OCR dump they sold you is possible.

    Life’s too short, and my time’s too valuable to waste on dealing with Kobo.

  11. Michael Tamblyn wrote:
    ” But with thousands of new titles arriving every day, we can’t visually inspect them all. ”

    I am afraid I find this comment totally unacceptable and shocking. If the business is prepared to place these eBooks on sale and accept cash from the public then it is not good enough to come up with this kind of excuse. This indicates an astonishingly dismissive attitude to customers.

  12. Howard — I think you’ll find that this is a challenge facing all ebook retailers; we’re just the ones talking about it. I’d say we’re spending more time and resources on ebook quality than many of our competitors, many of whom push up files with no inspection processes whatsoever. Of course there is always more to be done and we can and will continue to improve in our ability to catch ebooks with formatting and quality issues. We are in this business because we love books and we know how frustrating it is to open one up and encounter errors.

    Interestingly though, all the time I worked in print bookselling, I don’t remember a step where we opened every book that came into the store and checked to make sure the paragraphs were formatted properly. 😉 It was simply assumed that any publisher worth its salt would not put a book into retailers that was riddled with errors. I think we can officially say that we are at the “end of the beginning” of ebook sales. We are hoping that publishers start to obsess about the quality of their ebooks in the market as much as they do their print product. In the meantime, we’ll continue to do the best we can.

    Michael Tamblyn
    EVP Content, Sales & Merchandising

  13. Stephen Brooke // February 3, 2011 at 10:06 am //

    There is no wonder pirated books are doing so well, this a quote from a torrent site…

    ‘Here is the work of nearly 6 straight weeks, proofed, and formatted as closely as possible to the original, while making allowances for e-readers’

    This has been done by someone who loves books and reading to share with others of the same, it is a disgrace that purchased ebooks should contain any flaws. I know when I am reading if any error appears I am suddenly brought out of the reading state and very often do not return to that book just incase there is another one.

  14. As a publisher and an aggregator who delivers to Kobo and other retailers regularly, I can tell you that if a book makes it through Kobo’s or other retailers QA process, any fault the ebook has lies with the publisher. Faulty formatting, poor proofing, etc, are rarely the result of technical issues on the Kobo end, and if they are a simple reload will usually cure what ails. If you’re the victim of a poorly formatted book, its because the publisher didn’t put enough effort into working on the book. Look at books from smaller houses that put some time into their conversions versus bulk-conversions of big houses; error free, well proofed, correct chapter breaks and paragraph spacing.

    This thread, though, is a good representation of how publishing is changing. Publishers now need to be customer service providers. Before when you got a book, you had it and it wasn’t going to change. But an ebook is a complicated product, and its a product that can be fixed. Publishers need to step into the role of customer service providers.

    (full disclosure, I worked for Michael Tamblyn at BookNet. I’m not trying to defend them, but I want to encourage publishers to take responsibility for their product.)

  15. I have to agree with Howard’s candid assessment, though I am pleasantly surprised the Kobo rep took the time to post at all. One of the major perks of being a rather small indie self-publisher is that any problems with the books we sell can be immediately addressed, usually the same day; indeed, we’d lose a lot of our word-of-mouth business if we did not quickly respond and provide refunds/exchanges/edits as necessary. In that regard, we have some advantage over a larger operation with tens of thousands of titles, however, if the sale of books is Kobo’s business, then it behooves them to at least read through each piece for errors before putting them up for sale. A few things may slip under the radar, (it happens) but booksellers must at least bother to look.

  16. Michael Tamblyn – I accept the validity of your explanation. I agree that things have changed. I really do. And I respect your candid comments and willingness to visit us here and say so.

    Where I depart from that is to say that although this is a legitimate logistical problem for your business – firstly you have had several years warning on it, and secondly it is still no excuse for posting eBooks on your site for sale to the public without each being thoroughly checked. The formatting issues with eBooks is also not a new issue and has been know for some time. It comes down to respect and business professionalism. As someone with several decades of business management behind me I believe this kind of thing should be assumed and not questioned.

    In addition Michael – this is an emerging and very competitive market. There is a significant marketing advantage to be had here ! There is a reputation for quality to be gained! Your people should be looking for any USP, any edge you can get and it is clear all across the Web that this is an area that is up for grabs.

    Get your people into a room and come up with a process and then in two weeks time tell your customers loud and clear that you guarantee NO ERRORS in any ebook. If you do that and achieve that you will mark yourselves out and gain a very positive reputation that will produce real advantage as the market matures.

  17. Brian/AnemicOak // February 3, 2011 at 12:27 pm //

    One thing that also bugs me (and it’s not just Kobo), but months after being told about problem books they’re still happily offering them for sale to everyone.

  18. I’ve had the same problems. I bought a copy of Stephen King’s cell and the margins are so thick that it shows a little strip of text in the middle of my Reader. I filed a help desk report, it got sent to Level 2 and I never heard back again.

    As much as I was reluctant to go to Amazon and the Kindle, there device and the books seem to work properly.

  19. I don’t expect retailers to proofread. That’s the job of publishers. What I do expect is for retailers to provide prompt refunds for poor-quality e-books. If returning low-quality books to a retailer is a hassle, I will stop buying from that retailer.

  20. Amazon makes it very easy to return ebooks, and even better, they show the number of returns to the publisher in their sales reports. When publishers start seeing all those lost sales, they may pay more attention to making quality ebooks.

    Catherine M. Wilson

  21. This is indeed a publisher’s and a reseller’s problem… but most of the onus is on the publisher.

    It is generally the publishers that are arranging for scan and OCR of their backlist books. Most of them are farming it out to third-party contractors, who are not doing the greatest job of scan-and-OCR in the first place. And apparently neither the publisher nor the contractor is obligated to proof the content. Therefore, you have badly-formatted or non-proofed content arriving at the reseller… that’s the publisher’s fault for delivering shoddy content.

    (And @ Common Sense and soozie: I have seen far more errors in major publishers’ backlisted titles than I’ve ever seen in an indie book. Suggesting indie titles are worse is simply unfair.)

    Having said that, I believe the reseller has an obligation to check their own stock for quality control… if not every single book, at least a regular and random check of merchandise, with an assurance to the publisher that failing material will be yanked from stock, and not restocked until it is certified to be fixed (and verified by the reseller).

    Obviously this will result in a load of books that need to be checked and verified, at the publisher’s and reseller’s end… but the sooner the publisher starts turning out good quality books, the less rechecking will have to be done, the less stock will be held up, the faster the consumers get quality books, the faster everyone gets paid… win-win.

  22. What I would like to see is the resellers to document clear quality standards with the publishers. If the reseller validates that the ebook doesn’t meet the quality standards (via returns and quality checks) the book would be removed from the site with a message along the lines of:

    “This ebook has been temporarily removed from the site as it doesn’t meet our quality standards. Customers will be provided a replacement copy once the publisher has resolved the issues or they can request a full refund.”

  23. Dan – As a customer I don’t care who does the work. But I blame the people I buy the eBook from. It is ultimately the retailer’s responsibility and customers (who do not know or care about what goes on behind the scenes) will correctly blame the retailer.

  24. Brian/AnemicOak // February 4, 2011 at 10:00 am //

    With the influx of titles some of these retailers get each week I’m unsure how they could check them all (especially if they aren’t also the distributor), but it would certainly be nice. The checking really needs to be done as part of the publishers workflow, just like they already check paper books. I don’t know if it always happens, but authors I’ve spoken to usually receive a printout/copy of the typeset book before a new hardcover or paperback edition gets printed. The idea being it’s another set of eyes before they actually go to press, do authors receive ePub and Mobi (etc.) copies of their books before the ebook goes on sale?

    I recently bought a new release ebook (not from Kobo) put out by a division of Harper Collins on November 30th and it had so many errors, mainly words run together, that it took 11 pages in Word to document to record them all. This was a new first time release, not a backlist OCR’d title. I also checked samples from other retailers and they had matching errors.

    On 12/1/10 I put these errors together and sent them to the author, Harper’s customer service and to HC’s executive editor for this label. I got a nice email back from the exec. editor saying “Thank you for letting us know about the problem with this title. Our Production dept is looking into this and we will hopefully have a fix soon.”, but it’s over two month later and it hasn’t been fixed and is still for sale everywhere.

    I’m accustomed to an occasional error (one or two for an entire book), usually two words run together or an errant hyphen, but not that many. Maybe I’m picky? I don’t see all that many complaints about errors and it sometimes seems like a lot of folks would be happy reading a plain text file with little to no formatting. For me each error takes me a bit out of the story.

  25. @Howard: Blaming the reseller would be incorrect. When I buy a Tickle Me Elmo and it breaks down in a week, I don’t blame Toys R Us. I blame the company that manufactured it. Then I go back to Toys R Us, ask for a replacement or a refund, and I let Toys R Us worry about getting its money back from the manufacturer and obtaining quality products (or pulling them from the shelf if they cannot).

    I think most customers have that understanding from ebooks as well. As long as resellers are reasonable about refunding customers for defective merchandise, I don’t think customers should even get into the middle of the publisher and reseller negotiations… let them work it out.

    The resellers need to have a system of being reimbursed by publishers for refunds due to defective merchandise (though this obviously wouldn’t be a one-to-one transaction, since there’s no physical copy). As the publishers may only agree to reimbursement of royalties paid, that gives resellers incentive to check products before they are released, or do regular random QC checks.

  26. Steven:
    “@Howard: Blaming the reseller would be incorrect. When I buy a Tickle Me Elmo and it breaks down in a week, I don’t blame Toys R Us”

    Steven – quite the contrary I ABSOLUTELY blame Toys R Us. When I shop I pay money to a retailer. I have a contract of supply with that contractor. He has a responsibility to deliver products that are fit for purpose in exchange for my money. It is not good enough to pass off responsibility and throw his hands in the air.

    I would suggest to you that the public take the same view as myself. When they come home after buying a paper book from the local bookshop and find some blank pages they don’t look inside for the publisher’s name to ridicule. They return the book and tell their friends to avoid that shop, quite rightly. The same when they buy a laptop, a suit, food from a supermarket. It is the retailer who’s responsibility it is and their reputation that is on the line. A retailer who does not recognise and understand this is heading for a steep cliff.

    You may view this as unfair. I may agree to some extent. Clearly the retailer of a faulty laptop cannot thoroughly test every model. But fairness is not what life and commerce is always about. It is about reputation and blame and who is the one the public sees and has direct contact with. A smart retailer knows and accepts this.

  27. As I said: The retailer does have a responsibility, and it’s not to “pass off responsibility and throw his hands in the air.” Yes, if they do that, it’s time to find another store.

    Most retailers know better than that, and if they sell merchandise that proves to be defective, they’ll take it back and issue a refund. Barnes & Noble has done this for me–twice–with defective ebooks. And I’ve learned to be very cautious about the backlist ebooks I buy… from absolutely anyone, not just B&N.

    And I maintain that most people know who’s to blame when there are merchandise quality issues, and it’s not the reseller. Most people who believe a reseller has a say in the quality of a product they carry is being deliberately obtuse. They make orders, trusting in the manufacturer to give them quality goods, and knowing that having to pull those goods later will only cost them in the long run… so they do all they can to assure they are getting good quality goods in the first place. The fault starts with the manufacturer… period.

    If you’re going to blame resellers for product issues that are not their fault, that’s your issue. Considering most ebook etailers carry most of the same books, and most of the backlists have such OCR errors across the board, that means… there’s absolutely no place for you to shop. Nice talking to you.

    I’d rather put the blame where it is properly due: Primarily on publishers’ production and QC; then with QC double-checking on the retailers. No point in whining to retailers about production errors they are in no position to fix; just get your money back, and let them deal with the real culprits.

  28. I recently purchased an ebook from and was surprised to see the shoddy formatting that was evident on every page. A lot of books that I read on my device came from and the formatting was much better. However, I think we all know what’s going on with Fictionwise. Needless to say I wanted to find another bookstore.

    The book I was reading was part of a series and I’m not entirely sure that I want to continue if this is likely to be quality throughout.

    I suspect if you bought a hard copy of a book over the counter and opened it to discover line spacing issues, typos, and words joined together, you would be well within your rights to return the book. I wonder if the same can apply to a purchased and downloaded ebook.

  29. Perhaps the publishers can’t actually proofread their epub books because:
    1. They can’t figure out how to get ADE on their computer
    2. They don’t know how to authorize ADE to work with their e-readers

    The scary thing is that I have bought several ePub books and then because the copy was so poorly edited/proofed, needed to download a pirated copy that is better formatted to read.

  30. MarkChan – I have done exactly the same thing for two eBooks that were badly formatted.

    stellastar – I agree with your point about returns but posted my comment noting the claims in this and other threads that returns are not being offered promptly and flawed copies are still being sold months later.

  31. I was delighted to receive a Kobo for my birthday in February. I went to the site and decided to download the classics that were on my bucket list – and many of them were free! Unfortunately, the free titles, so far, all have significant errors as noted by the writers above – missing, duplicated or substituted words, missing quotation marks, and since I haven’t read the books before, who knows what else. I am very disappointed, but how can I complain when the books were free? Kobo must know that these books are low quality, but offers them anyway. I know that the onus is on the publisher to edit and proofread their books, but surely Kobo knows that their free titles are riddled with errors. If I were them, I would put a quality control clause in the contract that states that the publisher has proofread the book. Unfortunately for Kobo, this experience has taught me that Kobo does not provide quality books. I will look for another e-pub reseller that provides a better quality product when I decide to buy my next e-book.

  32. Sooo, I signed up and downloaded kobo, I then downloaded and paid for my book of choice, only to then go to read and it says ‘book must have first chapter’ what does this mean and how can I read my book?!?!?

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