Hours of DevotionI try to keep my Kindle spending to $10 or less per book—partly for budgetary reasons, and partly because I find most e-books so error-filled that I resent paying so much money just to copy-edit them myself.

When I wrote about the errors in JK Rowling’s new hardback-priced bestseller, I made the point that if publishers want to make the argument that e-books are worth full retail paper price, they need to put out a product that merits that price. My experience in the last year or two has been that they are not putting out such a product. But every so often, a book comes along that feels worth breaking my price point on. It happened this week. I gambled on a pricey book—and I lost.

Authored by Dinah Berland, the book is called Hours of Devotion, and it’s a translation of a German devotional that was allegedly the first full-length book of prayers for Jewish women, which was written by a woman. As the over-long, over-dull synagogue services of my parents’ synagogue become less sustainable for me, literature has been my way into a more meaningful exploration of my faith. Much great material remains out of print and unavailable; Berland submits that her translation is the first to appear in half a century. I did find a fragment of this work at the Internet Archive, but its formatting was atrocious, and my research suggested that the translation which was available in the public domain was inaccurate and took some liberties.

So, I bit—for $18.42, which for me is a fortune for an e-book. And wow, what a mess! I have returned other e-books before—to Kobo—but this was the first e-book I’ve ever returned to Amazon. I can’t even count the errors—they were that numerous. On the formatting front, lines were randomly italicized; others didn’t break where they should have (the translation was rendered into poetic stanzas, and you can tell where the lines should break because of the capital letters); some chapters had no line breaks at all and simply ran together. And the typos! ‘Adonai,’ a name for God, was rendered variously as Adona1, Adonal, Adona; and so on, in every permutation you could think of. Other notable typos included Gqd for God and be-lieve for believe.

What makes it all the more heart-breaking is that I perused the author’s website in search of a contact email so that I could tip her off about what happened, and I found this:

Dinah Berland
Dinah Berland

“In her moving introduction, Dinah Berland describes her serendipitous discovery of Hours of Devotion in a Los Angeles used-book store, It was a time of painful estrangement from her son, and the prayers she found in the slim volume provided immediate comfort. Eventually, they would also lead her back to Jewish study and to a deeper practice of Judaism.”

How sad is that? The author poured her heart and soul into this book—indeed, it was a spiritual journey for her—and it’s being spoiled, all for the lack of a cursory proof-read? If the author could only see how dreadful this looked on my Kindle …

Well, at least I can order the book in paper, right? Oops, no. Apparently, Amazon can’t ship this book to my default shipping address. So it’s the Kindle version—badly mangled, at $18.50—or nothing. It’s such a shame. A Kindle edition, properly done, would have been worth $18.50 to me. There simply aren’t too many books like this available. If they had done this properly, they could have both earned their author a profit and opened up a long-lost genre to a new audience. Instead … disappointment. For everyone. Well-played, Random House Digital!

UPDATE: I finally heard back from the author. She was on vacation out of the country when this story went up. The short version was, she is very sorry, can’t imagine what happened and suggests I write Amazon for a refund.  (October 31, 2012)

Um … that’s it? I would have rather had a corrected book!

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"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."


  1. I’m not sure why so many ebooks come out looking so shoddy. Proofing is hard work, but it’s not that complex or expensive a process, particularly catching the crude sorts of errors discussed here. At best, those who are creating them seem ignorant of a basic principle of proofing. Proof in some media other than the one in which the text was created, including printing to paper. There are also tricks. If you find a misspelling like the “Adona1” above, use search and replace to fix every occurrence.

    You also need to check you product on the actual device on which it will be displaying, here a Kindle. Not doing that is inexcusable, particularly for a $18.42 book.

    The previous poster is right. If you love this book, why not create your own accurately translated, carefully proofed, beautifully laid-out edition? Make it a labor of love.

    As C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien discussed among themselves. If no one is creating the sort of books you like, create them for yourself, perhaps in cooperation with others.

  2. Ebooks aren’t alone, alas. Print books have been on a downward spiral in terms of editorial standards for a long time now. To take one example: Faber Finds’ recent publication of long-out-of-print work by the British horror writer Robert Aickman was hugely welcome, but the text has apparently been carelessly digitized and just as carelessly edited before printing. The publishing companies really aren’t contributing much added value on that side of the equation.

  3. Oh man, what a disaster. It sounds like they did some half-assed attempt at an OCR conversion with those types of errors (e.g. “o” being replaced with a “q”). If publishers want to set the price point this high for a digital good, they need to do a much better job with quality control.

  4. I don’t think I could strip and edit Berland’s proprietary translation, but I suppose the Internet Archive copy is fair game. Alas, I don’t know German, so I am stuck with whatever that first long-ago translator is going to give me. But I may give it a go. It would be as much work as getting this Kindle atrocity into readable condition…

    I’ve written about this sort of thing before and every time it happens, it makes me sad. We are not talking about $100 an hour major editorial work here. We’re talking about easy stuff that a cursory proofread by an intern could clean up in a couple of hours. Such a waste!

  5. In a time when anyone can publish, one would think that the value-added services of editing and proofing would be in demand to help the consumer avoid throwing away money… some publishers have long been known for poorly-written, poorly-edited, or poorly-constructed books and others for good-quality content. What publishing brands are known for quality eBooks these days?

  6. I’m currently reading “A Leap in the Dark: the Struggle to Create the American Republic” by John Ferling. Again, a mess. Every pages in the print version there’s a picture of the person being discussed with a caption and credits. The Kindle text on the page prior to the picture is interrupted by the insertion of the aforementioned caption and credits, often in mid-word as in “John APortrait of John and Abigail Adams, 1781 Courtesy Harvard Librarydams left Baintree for Philadelphia in August.” The picture will appear on the next page with the caption and credits correctly placed beneath the picture.
    This is more than sloppy — it’s contemptuous of the reader who paid for the book. It’s why I shed no tears for publishers. They serve some important roles but they have painted themselves into the same corner as the music industry: they saw themselves as being at war with their own customers. That is an invitation for your business model to be, pardon the cliche, “disrupted.” Amazon and Google can and will crush them like so many walnuts and customers will cheer them on.

  7. When DIY publishing my novel my only real expenses was some help with the cover, and hiring a professional proofreader (not just a friend or whatever) who works with literature. And luckily he’s a professional copy editor, so I can hire for that service as well.

    I blame the demise of the well proofed book to the major publishers in NYC breaking the proofreaders union back in the 1960s, at least as a starting point of all these problems.

  8. Dan, I reached out to both the author and her listed PR person when this story went up. The author never replied to me and the email for her designated PR person bounced. It’s shameful. You’d think the author would care how readers are perceiving her book…

  9. Maybe try sending this story to Altie Karper the editorial director of the Schocken imprint? akarper@randomhouse.com

    I’ve always found that tracking down someone higher up in the imprint gets me better results while contacting the publisher through their ‘normal’ customer service channels rarely gets any kind of response.

  10. Update: I finally heard back from the author. She was on vacation out of the country when this story went up. The short version was, she is very sorry, can’t imagine what happened and suggests I write Amazon for a refund.

    Um…that’s it? I would have rather had a corrected book!

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