An American Editor

September 15, 2010

The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!

Okay, I admit I don’t know that 100% of publishers don’t read their own ebooks — heck, I can’t even swear with certainty that publishers even know how to read — but I am certain Tom Doherty Associates/TOR/Macmillan’s publisher didn’t read the ebook version of Brandon Sanderson’s new release The Way of Kings before releasing it on the unsuspecting public.

Let’s set aside the little errors that are in the ebook. Those can be excused because they are little (e.g., a dropped “a” and “the”), they are few (at least in the first third of the book that I’ve gotten through), and no book is perfect. I’m even willing to ignore the confusion engendered by the way the story is put together. (Interestingly, rather than off-putting, I find the confusion to be a compelling reason to continue reading the book. The confusion is a result of various substories that are not yet woven together so it isn’t clear what the connection or the purpose of the characters and their stories are in the whole-cloth tapestry. But the book is well written and interesting, which acts, at least for now, as a counterbalance. However, the book is more than 1,000 pages long and I’m only through the first third, so my perspective might well change or, more likely, I may lose patience with this random flow.)

What gives me a clue that the publisher probably didn’t read the ebook version before release — and probably neither did the book’s editor nor Sanderson — are the illustrations. At the opening of the book, in the front matter that few readers read, but which I do (yes, I’m peculiar in this regard; I tend to read every page of a book — including the copyright page and the dedications and acknowledgments, as well as every footnote/endnote, which is why footnotes and endnotes are such a sore point with me [see, e.g., Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses]), Sanderson makes a big deal about the illustrations. As it turns out, he is right to do so — or at least I think he is; I can’t tell — I can’t read them, and if I can’t read them, neither can the publisher, the editor, nor Sanderson, which leads me to believe none of them read the book in its ebook form before releasing it for me to buy.

One example: In one of the stories/chapters, the characters discuss “the Code” that governs military men — or at least the righteous military men. The code that a dead king lived by and his brother lives by and wants his son to live by. But where is “the Code” outlined for the reader? In an illustration that cannot be read!

This is the problem with ebooks. Publishers, editors, and authors treat them as Cinderella stepchildren — as a way to do the work of increasing revenues without being given an opportunity to shine on their own — you know, scrub my floors, make them shine, but don’t walk on them. The consequence is that what should be an excellent reading experience becomes an annoying one. The neglect becomes evident, and the $14.99 the publisher demands for the ebook version becomes a sore point. In my case, it becomes a double sore point because I bought both the hardcover version (where the illustrations are readable) and the ebook version, as I noted in The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha!. I might have done this again with another TOR/Macmillan book, albeit reluctantly, but now you can bet I won’t. Rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me!

Alright (before complaining and saying it’s “all right”, see On Words: Alright and All Right), we know that Macmillan really hopes ebooks don’t succeed but it’s time to recognize that that battle is lost — ebooks are here to stay and represent a growth opportunity for traditional publishers if done right. It’s getting to the done right part that appears to be difficult.

To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I understand if an illustration can’t be made readable on every cell phone screen — there certainly does come a point when a screen is simply too small — but there is no excuse for not making illustrations readable on the “standard” 6-inch eInk screen. The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one. Haven’t the Agency 5 already done enough to alienate the consumer with its pricing model? Must it shove the blade in deeper with a twist by also ensuring that important elements of a book cannot be read?

The cynic in me says that TOR/Macmillan did this deliberately with Sanderson’s book — an attempt to get consumers to buy both the ebook and pbook versions. But I really do know better. It wasn’t deliberate in that sense; rather it was deliberate in the sense that Macmillan is still trying to fight the battle it has lost and cannot ever reverse the tide of — the rise of ebooks at the expense of pbooks — and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

I will think at least twice, probably many more times than twice, in the future before I buy another TOR/Macmillan ebook, especially one at any price higher than $5.99, because as I said before: rip me off once, shame on you; rip me off twice, shame on me — and leaving important illustrations unreadable is a rip off at $14.99!



  1. “To do ebooks right means one cannot simply take the pbook version, convert the electronic files used to create it to ePub, and declare we have an ebook. Instead, before the declaration of success, someone needs to read the “ebook” carefully to make sure that not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job . . . but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. . . . The only excuses are laziness and a disinterest in making the customer’s experience a positive one.”

    I just ran into this big time while judging an e-novel contest. While I expected the usual range of gravel to diamonds as far as the writing was concerned, I was shocked — nay, appalled — by the “typographic” quality of the books themselves. A contest requirement was they had to be the “as sold” version and submitted as PDFs. I read my group in their original PDF form on a PC, no further conversions involved. And every single one of those PUBLISHED books was beyond dreadful in presentation.

    When I broached this subject in the contest-related forum (which also hosted a huge discussion about the acceptable limitations of typos and grammatical errors), I received many technical explanations for the hideous appearance of these PUBLISHED books, which were enlightening, on one hand, but sounded like a barrel of excuses, on the other.

    In fact, I saw an opportunity for a new line of business. Anyone know where I can get some training in file conversions?


    Comment by Carolyn — September 15, 2010 @ 5:12 am | Reply

  2. Leaving aside the quality of the figures, were the typos in the print book? Most of the conversions I am aware of are from PDFs or composition files (InDesign, Quark, CB2, etc.) so any typos in the print are in the ebook. Or was this book an e-only book? There’s an attack here and if you’re right, you’re right, but I can’t tell from this post where the error is originating.


    Comment by Chris — September 15, 2010 @ 9:03 am | Reply

    • Chris, as I noted, the errors were minor — very minor — so I didn’t bother checking the hardcover version. The focus of the article is on the illustrations.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 15, 2010 @ 9:55 am | Reply

      • Since you pointed the typos out twice in your post, it seems as though they are at least part of the point (and your frustration), not to mention they would have to be included in a critique of whether the ebook was correct or proofed or looked at by any of the editors. Be that as it may, this post smacks of a bit of arrogance to assume that no one reviewed the ebook files. They may not be good, but just because they are not good does not mean no one looked at them. In fact, if I had to guess, I would bet some lowly PE reviewed them, pointed it out (it’s very unlikely that no one noticed that due to the limitations of the hardware the images sucked) and was told that it as (a) too expensive to go back and fix, (b) there was not enough time, or (c) due to the limitations of the hardware vs. the original file types nothing could be done about it. So publish it. It’s also problematic to judge an entire publisher based on one bad experience. I’ve had computers, iPods, cars, etc. fail but I didn’t stop buying from IBM, Apple, and Honda. I complained and got them fixed.

        And: publishers are not going to re-read an ebook if they’ve already invested the time, money, etc. into editing, proofing, checking the print book. If typos are introduced, that’s a problem with their compositor (or whoever is doing the conversion) that they need to address. It’s as if you said that publishers need to read the InDesign files and the PDF made from the InDesign files and the bluelines made from the PDFs and the imposed plates and the advance copies and then the final book.

        While I wholeheartedly agree that images (and math equations and superscripts and a host of other things) are a major problem in ebooks and it should be brought to the world’s attention, the attack seems misguided. Attack TOR for not addressing your issue (maybe a refund) once you brought it to their attention.


        Comment by Chris — September 15, 2010 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

      • PS: I don’t work for TOR/Macmillan/etc.


        Comment by Chris — September 15, 2010 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  3. […] via The Problem Is: Publisher’s Don’t Read eBooks! « An American Editor. […]


    Pingback by Go Read This | The Problem Is: Publisher’s Don’t Read eBooks! « An American Editor | Eoin Purcell's Blog — September 15, 2010 @ 9:29 am | Reply

  4. […] by Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by The Problem Is: Publisher’s Don’t Read eBooks! — September 15, 2010 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  5. Nice post, but fix your title. No apostrophe in plural.

    Otherwise? Some cogent points.

    The stepchild thing is similar with blogs, I think. Too often, writers don’t invest in them the same amount of effort they would a book or other content.


    Comment by Will Entrekin — September 15, 2010 @ 10:02 am | Reply

    • Thanks. The title was originally something else and I changed it at the last minute and admit that when i wrote the article (4 a.m. this morning) I missed the change from single to plural.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 15, 2010 @ 11:53 am | Reply

  6. Hi, you’d increase your credibility by taking that apostrophe out of your headline!


    Comment by Kathleen Jun — September 15, 2010 @ 11:00 am | Reply

    • It’s the problem of writing at 4 a.m. and changing the title at the last minute. But the apostrophe is gone. 🙂


      Comment by americaneditor — September 15, 2010 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  7. […] link: The Problem Is: Publisher's Don't Read eBooks! « An American Editor Comments […]


    Pingback by The Problem Is: Publisher's Don't Read eBooks! « An American Editor « Ebooks Extra — September 15, 2010 @ 11:19 am | Reply

  8. and by a deliberate policy of not caring enough to have the publisher, the editor, or even the author read a prerelease ebook version on a standard 6-inch eInk device.

    From comments that a senior editor at Tor made a SF Convention, they typically submit files to the e-retailer (e.g. iBook), and don’t get to see the end result before it is on sale. Which is a reason for the problem, not an excuse. They appear to be aware at some level that it is an issue (e.g. the editors are really annoyed), but resolving it is another matter.


    Comment by Errolwi — September 15, 2010 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  9. […] last step that is missing. Yesterday I complained about it as regards important illustrations (see The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!) but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the switch to digital reading requires the […]


    Pingback by In the Face: eBook Errors — September 16, 2010 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  10. This is definitely one of the two biggest mistakes that large publishers are making with ebooks: they’re not taking the formatting demands of electronic media into account. (The other is obscenely overpricing ebooks, but that’s another topic.)

    When I launched my small press, I knew I’d be using my layout, typesetting, editing and graphic design skills. I did not expect to be using my computer and web design skills to the extent that they’ve become absolutely essential in the last three years.

    All our titles are released simultaneously in hardcover, paperback and multiple ebook editions. This means that setup for every title includes (but is not limited to) the following:

    1. Format and lay out the book block in InDesign and create the press-ready PDF file, with all that traditional book interior design and page layout entails, including getting the page count to the right multiple of 2 or 4.

    2. THEN, slightly revise the InDesign file to make a PDF file for Search Inside This Book, Google Books and ebook sales in PDF form. This includes adding cover images and bookmarks, removing blank pages, and other, usually minor, changes.

    3. THEN, take the final book block out of InDesign (where the final proofing and edits are done), completely strip it of formatting, and manually html code the entire book for Kindle conversion. Run it through Amazon’s converter, check the output, use cuss words, correct code, try again.

    4. THEN, make another version of the InDesign file, reformat it for optimum epub conversion, convert to epub (which InDesign does, but basically it’s xhtml and css, pretty basic), check the output, use cuss words, correct formatting, or manually correct epub code, try again.

    Along with this are various sizes and resolutions of the cover image because everyone has different protocols for images.

    @Errolwi: Yes, it’s true that bigger publishers outsource conversion to third-party service providers, but they also pay quite a lot of money to those providers to convert their titles to ebooks, and they have a right to expect good quality results. Either way, not checking your product before it goes on sale is just plain dumb, and makes Tor wholly responsible.

    Illustrations are the bete noir of ebook conversion because their display is so unpredictable. For one thing, more and more readers are using their smart phones to read books–how do you guarantee that an illustration will be legible on a two-inch screen? Ideally, you could zoom in, but you’d have to code the file to allow for that, and make sure the illustration was high-resolution enough to be sharp at magnification. These aren’t the kinds of fine points that vendors mass converting titles by the hundred for big publishers pay attention to.


    Comment by Inanna Arthen — September 17, 2010 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

  11. […] TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is […]


    Pingback by Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility « An American Editor — October 13, 2010 @ 5:37 am | Reply

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