The Big-Publisher Ebook Scam

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:

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.

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  1. Lars Wirzenius

    Today, I wanted to buy the third and fourth volumes in the Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold as ebooks. I did not succeed.

    I will not buy a DRM-infested ebook, not for any price. For every store I looked at, either the DRM-status of the ebook was unclear or it was clear that DRM was used. Either way, I had to put away my credti card, held in my eagerly shaking hands, so that I could grab a tissue and wipe my eyes as tears started swelling after yet another disappointment.

    Even if I did consent to buying a DRM-infested ebook, I wouldn’t be able to read it. I read ebooks either on my laptop, running Linux, or my phone, also running Maemo. Neither is a popular target for DRM-enabled ebook readers. In fact, I don’t know of such a reader for either platform.

    It should not be this hard to give publishers money.

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’m totally with you on the evils of DRM.

    I’m not sure what to do about it. I certainly won’t buy something where I can’t get at my own data. Tools are available, on Linux even, to strip the DRM from the vast majority of Kindle files, and also to convert the resulting .mobi to a directory containing HTML.

    I don’t like it either, but carrying around paper is even less attractive to me (not to mention more expensive and less environmentally friendly.)

    Reply

    Lars Wirzenius Reply:

    I won’t reward publishers that use DRM, so conversion tools to remove DRM don’t help me. I won’t buy paper books, at least now that I’m travelling around the world looking for a job. As a result, for the time being I’m limited to free stuff. So far, it’s been fine.

    However, I would not mind at all paying for e-books, as long as I don’t get DRM. I have done so in the past. I am so very disappointed in not being able to give money to publishers (and, indirectly, to authors). Sigh.

    Reply

  2. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho

    Baen’s Webscriptions has been selling ebooks for 4–6 dollars per book for a decade now (with only some specialty items having a bigger price than that), and I hear they’re profitable. AND they don’t do DRM.

    In any case, as Charlie Stross writes (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/01/amazon-macmillan-an-outsiders.html), the issue in the recent AmazonFail incident is not the price of the book, but the relationship between Amazon and the publishers.

    Reply

  3. Lynoure Braakman

    Recently I bought an ebook about Pomodoro method. After ordering it for 16 dollars, the publisher wanted to know if I also want the paper version of the book for 13 dollars. Frankly, I would have left a happier customer if that offer had not been made.

    I did like the book, but unfortunately the .epub was optimized for iPhone (colours, and backlight) and .mobi for Kindle (more grey tones), so all versions had quite crappy images on my Sony Reader Touch edition.

    Reply

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