An American Editor

September 24, 2010

eBooks in a Textbook World

Education is a splendid thing — except for the textbooks that students have to buy. When I was in school, high school and college, many, many years ago, it was rare that for there to be a single book for a course. Not only were they heavy to carry, but they were expensive — and they are still heavy and expensive today! (I haven’t forgotten what it cost to buy the texts my children used.)

eTextbooks can be the salvation for students, at least on the weight side of the equation. It is just a matter of finding (or building) the right reading device and converting all of the textbooks to etextbooks. An easy solution to a big problem — right?

Well, no.

eTextbooks could be an easy solution to a weighty problem except that the track record of publishers’ quality control efforts is mighty poor so far and I have no confidence that editorial quality will be different in etextbooks than it is for fiction ebooks.

Fiction books are the easiest of all books to make ebooks (I’m not talking about authoring/writing, I’m talking about conversion, editing, and proofing). Nonfiction is much harder, and I’m willing to say that course books, especially in the sciences and maths, are a magnitude harder yet.

We all know that publishers aren’t doing a fantastic job with ebooks now. I’m nearly done with the new Brandon Sanderson epic The Way of Kings, for example, and have found quite a few errors (I admit, however, that I haven’t checked the ebook version against the pbook version to see if the errors also appear in the pbook, but regardless they shouldn’t appear in either), some of which led to my earlier article, In the Face: eBook Errors. If Macmillan can’t get an expensive fantasy novel right, how can it be trusted to get an important educational tool right?

There are many reasons why a conversion process can go wrong, many of which argue for choosing the PDF form of electronic publishing of a textbook, but everything boils down to a publisher’s financial commitment to its product. The first mistake publishers make is to believe that editorial quality control can end once a pbook version is created — they do not think of the ebook version as being a wholly new creation that has its own complexities. Consequently, editors and proofreaders are hired once in the process, before publication in any form, rather than twice, once before the pbook is produced and once after the pbook but before the ebook is produced.

The second mistake that publishers make is not to value editorial quality control. A higher value is placed on the visual than on the content; that is, relatively a publisher will spend more on design than on making sure the content is solid. The rationale for this is easy to grasp: good design makes a reader want to pick up the book and can facilitate the reading (I still recall ordering a pbook, sight unseen, because of the subject matter and when I received it, finding it was unreadable because the design was so poorly done — wrong font and leading, for example, can exasperate the reading experience).

But editorial quality control has been the silent stepchild; people do not realize how bad or good the editorial quality control for a book until they buy the book. Editorial quality control is not what attracts a buyer to a book; it is the design that does it. And that was/is the story of pbooks.

eBooks, as ebookers know, present a different story because samples are available and design is so uniformly poor that people rarely choose to buy/not buy based on it. In eBookville, editorial quality is king, yet publishers haven’t come to this realization — yet — which is the problem with etextbooks. Until publishers do realize that editorial quality is king in eBookville, how can one trust the content of an etextbook? The steps between the pbook creation and the etextbook creation are likely to have been passed over, leaving the pbook as the definitive version and the etextbook as the sorry sister.

When our children are being taught, we “trust” that what they are being taught is accurate. We have neither the skills nor the aptitude to ascertain the verity of every taught “fact.” The Texas State Board of Education review committee’s “reviews” in recent years amply support this premise of lack of aptitude and skills in all taught subject areas on the part of the general populace; we are specialists in narrow areas of knowledge. Consequently, we “trust” the books our schools use, which means we “trust” the publishers.

Yet, publishers cannot be trusted to get the fiction ebook right. On what basis can we trust publishers to get the etextbook right?

The solution for publishers is relatively simple, albeit not painless. First, treat the etextbook as a wholly new enterprise — from scratch — rather than as a simple extension of the pbook version. Second, have the etextbook undergo a complete editorial quality process of its own — editing, proofreading, design, reproofing. Third, start hiring professional editors at professional editor pay scale and stop thinking that and acting as if editorial quality and least-expensive editor are synonymous — they aren’t. As with all else in skilled services, you get what you pay for. (For some musings on professional editors, see Great Expectations: A Recipe for Disappointment and the linked articles noted in it.)

Maybe then etextbooks will be trustworthy. Maybe then the trickle down theory will work as publishers learn the value of editorial quality and let that trickle down to ebooks outside the etextbook world. One can always hope that a light will shine in the publishing world to lead the way to editorial quality.

2 Comments »

  1. Can you make notes and highlight important passages in etextbooks?

    I still remember coming home with history-class essay assignments that had reading lists of, oh, three books per topic. I would show the assignment to my dad. He would ask me which topic interested me the most. I would pick one, and he would disappear for a few minutes, then come back with a stack of books from his personal library (which we firmly all believed held up the house; when my mother sold the house in 2000 and I helped her take the thousands of books off the shelves for packing, it was hard not to hold my breath and wait for the walls to fall in), and say, “I have a book!” I had the best-researched papers in class (pretty well-written, too, if I say so myself).

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 24, 2010 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  2. [...] New and Projected Sales Numbers …Starting an Open Textbook? Think 100 or 200 Level CourseseBooks in a Textbook World – American EditorLonely Planet's Augmented RealityModernBookFactory.com: The First Complete Online Audiobook [...]

    Pingback by New Articles of Interest — September 24, 2010 @ 9:55 am | Reply


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