An American Editor

January 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty

Part of the problem for publishers in the attempt to justify pricing for books, regardless of the form — ebook or print — is their inability to convince consumers that there is any relationship between the end product and the cost other than barebones greed. Because I am an editor (disclosure time: I am a freelance editor and am owner of Freelance Editorial Services, an independent editorial company), my perspective on what it costs to produce a book and what a publisher does differs from that I would have if I were solely a consumer; however, I am also a consumer of both ebooks and print, and not always a happy one (see my earlier post about why a good editor is important).

What a publisher brings to the table, other than high advances for authors like Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Sarah Palin, is well hidden from the consumer. What the consumer sees is only the end product. This is really no different than manufacturing an automobile or the latest pharmaceutical phenomenon or even a candidate for political office: all we consumers ever see is the finished product. And this is where publishers fail us and themselves: Publishers are doing nothing to instill consumer confidence in the publisher’s product!

Consumers are buying books that are riddled with errors and are frustrated; I really hate paying $40 for a hardcover that has missing footnotes, or $14 for an ebook that regularly confuses the characters names and whether a character is dead or alive. One consumer reported a mystery novel that had the University of Georgia located in North Carolina and Duke University in Georgia. I have bought books with sentences with mixed up homonyms like “It seams that the principal reason for there work was . . .” or with unclear phrases like “using the gene deleted mice” (does the author mean that the gene got rid of the mice or that the mice were missing a particular gene — but for the want of a hyphen there goes clarity), or, as noted earlier, with character names that change nearly as often as the pages are turned.

I’ll grant that there is no such thing as the “perfectly” produced book — human beings are imperfect and make errors — but there is such a thing as quality control and paying for quality. Too many publishers, to appease shareholder appetite for high quarterly profits, are forsaking quality in the editorial process believing that consumers don’t care, or if they do care, will only grumble and buy the next book in the series anyway. This lack of editorial quality is particularly evident in ebooks that created by scanning print editions that are thrust on the market without proofing first, riddled with errors that even a first grader would recognize.

So publishers are losing the public relations battle with consumers. The end product is not worthy of respect, and if the end product is not worthy of respect, neither is the publisher. Thus my second modest proposal: Publishers should warrant the quality of their books!

A consumer wouldn’t buy a warrantless car or TV or  computer or ebook device; consumers believe that a manufacturer’s warranty indicates quality or at least that the manufacturer is willing to stand behind its product. Perhaps it is time for publishers to join the 21st century and say: “We put a lot of care and effort into our books so as to produce a quality book. When you buy our book, we assure you that it is a quality product and if it isn’t, we’ll do something about it: We stand behind every book we sell!”

A book is a commodity, no different from any other commodity except that a book is a warrantless commodity. Consumers are conditioned as a result of years of it being this way, to accept declining book quality: How many books have you returned because of poor quality in the last year? If publishers warranted the quality of their books, there would be an obvious justification, albeit an incomplete one, for the price of books.

The biggest stumbling block is figuring out how to make a warranty work and what would be warranted. When a part fails on an automobile, it is easy to identify the problem and fix it. It isn’t so easy with a book. But there are possibilities. For example, a publisher could warrant that the book contains no more than 15 misused homonyms, no obviously missing text, no more than 15 misspellings, that characters are consistent throughout (e.g., Jane doesn’t suddenly become Jayne), that the book footnote 25 cites really does exist. I’m sure you and publishers could come up with other things worth warranting.

What happens then. Perhaps the way to deal with warranty problems is to have a warranty alert website for each book where readers could post found errors. The publisher would indicate whether the errors will be corrected (and if not, why not), and when a new version will be available (or if no new version, why no new version). The consumer would then have a choice: If the consumer bought an ebook, the consumer could redownload from the original retailer the updated version. Or the consumer could choose to do nothing. With printed books it would be harder, but a little creativity would come up with solutions (e.g., a discount coupon for another book from the publisher, or the return of the book for a refund based on the book’s condition, or something else).

Okay, I admit I haven’t worked out all the details, all the ins and outs. But I offer the idea of a quality warranty because publishers need to convince consumers that publishers aren’t just greedy corporations (see The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (I)) who have no concern for their customers; they have to convince consumers that they bring something worthwhile to the world of publishing, something that is not easily replaced, and offering a quality warranty could be one step in that process. What do you think?

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: