February 5th, 2010
There’s been a lot written about the Amazon vs. Macmillan dust-up. I’ve seen a lot of posts by people that work for publishers saying that there are costs to making a book, and that $9.99 just won’t cut it for an ebook. They say that publishers invest in typesetting, editing, selection, art, and various stages of quality control. All of that is true.
Too bad they aren’t doing it with ebooks.
I’ve had some books published, and while the process varies from publisher to publisher, the editing process usually involves technical editors (people that check my facts), copy editors (people that help the writing and grammar), cover designers, and QC staff. Often I will see PDFs or printed pages at the final stage, and at that point can catch things like bad table formatting or lines split at inopportune places. My point here is that there’s a lot of editing going on, and there are many pairs of eyeballs looking at the printed page before it goes to the presses.
In the year or so since I’ve owned my Kindle, I can absolutely guarantee you that this process is not happening with ebooks. Most of the time, it is quite obvious that nobody has even looked at the finished product. Some intern has whipped up a quick conversion from whatever typesetting software they use, give it a quick glance, and call it good. One of my own books, Real World Haskell, is available in Kindle form. O’Reilly took better than average care of that process, but even so, I certainly didn’t approve screenshots before it went out like I did for paper (not that I’d have had time after the paper project was done anyway.) From memory, some of the flaws I’m aware of:
- Huston Smith’s Why Religion Matters included some illustrations, but they were scanned at such a low resolution that the text was completely unreadable, even at maximum zoom.
- All electronic editions of Lord of the Rings, not just the Kindle version, suffered some serious issues including missing words and deleting 19 characters after each instance of a particular letter.
- Shmoop converted Project Gutenberg versions of The Iliad and Odyssey, but converted each line of Gutenberg text to a Kindle paragraph, wrecking word wrapping.
- Countless examples of hyphenated words in the middle of lines (probably from someone forcing a hyphenation point in a print edition), paragraphs that should have been block-indented but weren’t, etc.
In some of these cases, it is quite obvious that a human didn’t even bother to look at the result. Harper Collins got a huge black eye after their LOTR fiasco, and still took quite a long time to fix it.
Now, if the publishers were actually going to put as much care into the quality of their ebooks as they do into the quality of their paper books, then sure, I’d pay almost the cost of a paperback. But very few of them are doing that. It is quite obvious to me usually by the end of the first chapter of a book whether anybody even looked at the result of their conversion.
Bottom line: If they’re going to sell me an inferior product, don’t expect me to pay near full price. If they can get their act together on quality, only then would they have room to start arguing for higher prices. If all you’re going to do with the ebook is run the paper version through some buggy filter, you haven’t incurred much additional cost, and it is plainly visible to all.
Note: I would like to say that Lonely Planet and O’Reilly have done good jobs with the tools available, and while their results aren’t perfect, they have done a good job working with rendering their sometimes very complex print layouts for a Kindle.