An American Editor

September 16, 2010

In the Face: eBook Errors

I’ve been thinking about the errors I find in ebooks. Sometimes they are small errors, the kind I would find even in a well-edited pbook, the occasional dropped article, the switch in tense, and the like. Nothing too serious, but noticeable. Annoying but forgivable, at least on some low level. After all, perfection is something we strive for but rarely attain.

As I thought about these errors, I also wondered whether I was more sensitive to them in ebooks. I’m not talking about the repeated big errors such as those I discussed in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! or in Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important; again, I’m talking about the small errors, the errors that I, and most readers, would pass over without much thought — well, maybe a grimace or two — in pbooks; errors we wouldn’t dwell on and write 1000-word discourses lambasting the book, the author, the publisher, or the editor.

Yet, these low-level errors seem to annoy me more when I come across them in an ebook. That led me to wonder why these errors are so much more noticeable and annoying in ebooks than in pbooks. I think I have found the answer: The small screen of most ebook reading devices (generally 6 inches or less) limits the amount of text we see at one time (both directly and peripherally), especially when we enlarge the text to make it easier to read, thus emphasizing the text before us.

When we read a pbook we see directly and peripherally the text on two pages and we cannot increase the text size. This tends to deemphasize the text visually. Further support for my theory comes from my 26 years of editing. I’ve noticed that some editors enlarge the visible text to 150% or even 200% of “normal” so as to catch errors more easily. I generally enlarge the text to 120% to 125% and have noted how much easier that makes it to catch the little annoyances. (Even doing this, however, doesn’t result in a 100% catch rate; less-than-perfection is the price we pay for being human.) With less text to distract the eye and brain, the visible text is emphasized more than “normal.”

What does this mean? It means that errors are more noticeable by and more annoying to readers in ebooks. What might be overlooked in pbooks is not overlooked in ebooks. It means that the editor’s role in preparing an ebook for publication is even more important than it is in preparing the same book but for pbook distribution. It also means that a final proofread should be performed on an ebook reading device — it should mimic the reader’s reading experience.

It is this 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 addition of another step in the publishing process — the step of ensuring that the converted digital file is readable.

As one of the comments to yesterday’s post noted, the current process seems to be that that a digital file (hopefully the same digital file that was used to print the pbook and not a scan file, especially an unproofed scan file) is simply sent to a producer like Amazon who then undertakes the conversion process. This takes the file out of the publisher’s hands and into a third-party’s hands, a third party whose name doesn’t appear in the credits of the book and who is not the target of consumer anger if the ebook file is riddled with errors. Perhaps this is the wrong approach to the conversion process.

As publishers begin to realize that their future is intimately tied to ebooks, they should also review their procedures for getting an ebook out to the consumer. If a vendor like Amazon insists on doing the conversion process under the guise of protecting its proprietary formats and DRM scheme, then maybe a bold statement needs to be included in the digital file:

Converter’s Statement of Responsibility

This ebook was created by Amazon, which is solely responsible for any errors related to readability found in this ebook that are not also found in the original print edition. Complaints about formatting, dropped, missing, or incorrect characters, and other readability issues should be addressed to Amazon at __________.

Seems to me that would put the blame where it belongs. It also would identify where the problem source is and allow consumers to pressure the right party.

Of course, this shifting of the blame to the converter doesn’t absolve the publisher of the ebook from its responsibility to ensure that the digital file it gives to the converter is optimized for the ebook reading platform. And this is a golden opportunity for publishers to both add value to ebooks, helping to justify some of the outlandish pricing currently seen for some ebooks, and to garner goodwill. The publishers who actually had a book proofread — and corrected — before release could include a statement such as this in the ebook:

Certification of Optimization

This book has been optimized for reading on a 6-inch-screen reading device by having a prerelease proofread performed by a certified digital proofreader on a 6-inch-screen reading device. The proofread was conducted on such a device as part of the process. Errors that have been introduced during the conversion process are the responsibility of ______, the conversion processor, and should be addressed to _______.

This is almost a warranty of quality, something I suggested quite some time ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty). But think of what this would do, the effects it would have. First, it would establish a minimum level of quality, something that readers could grasp and depend on. Second, it would eliminate a good deal of consumer dissatisfaction. Third, it would put the burden on the company doing the converting to improve the conversion process in an attempt to make it error-free. Fourth, it would add value to ebooks.

If the publisher itself does the converting, that is, creates the final digital file that will be sold to the consumer, the following statement could be included with the Certificate of Optimization.

Although we strive for perfection, should you find an error, please advise us of it by e-mailing us at __________. We will endeavor to include appropriate corrections in future releases of the digital files for this book.

Imagine the goodwill this would engender as increasingly error-free ebook versions are made available. And if a publisher has to do this often enough, the publisher is likely to invest more upfront to get it right the first time, perhaps eventually leading ebooks into the error-free zone.

Perhaps the time has come to identify who is responsible for the errors we find when we read an ebook and to pressure that entity to work toward an enhanced reading experience.



  1. Thought-provoking essay. I am sharing the link with people I know in the e-publishing community, who are wrestling with these issues.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 16, 2010 @ 5:56 am | Reply

  2. […] by Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by In the Face: eBook Errors — September 16, 2010 @ 8:28 am | Reply

  3. annoying is the fact that pBooks – once printed – cannot be corrected anymore. However an eBook should be easily corrected so the next person buying an eDition could have a better version than the previous buyer


    Comment by Jørgen — September 19, 2010 @ 6:32 am | Reply

  4. This adds as a one more reason for me to strip the DRM protection from the ePub files I buy.
    I often need to correct some obvious errors that strike me during the reading.

    I also add a new cover on occasions — could you explain what kind of stupid legal issue is preventing an editor from adding to an e-book the same cover as in the p-book? I can’t get it: once someone designs a cover, how can it be used in several reprints of the paper book, but can’t be used in the e-book? How can the license for the actual book contents be accommodated with the electronic medium, but not the cover?


    Comment by Béranger — September 22, 2010 @ 2:25 am | Reply

    • The cover illustrator/designer may have only given the publisher rights for pbook version. This is common on older books.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 22, 2010 @ 1:10 pm | Reply

      • This is not about older books. It’s also about brand new books that have both paper and e-book editions. For instance, Penguin almost always puts its penguin logo instead of a cover. Random House also uses a generic cover. And so on.


        Comment by Béranger — September 23, 2010 @ 2:20 am | Reply

  5. Here, please explain why a new book CAN’T have any of the covers used for the print editions:


    Comment by Béranger — September 23, 2010 @ 9:10 am | Reply

    • I don’t know the answer other than to suggest that the publisher doesn’t have the rights to it. Otherwise, it is a simple image file.


      Comment by americaneditor — September 23, 2010 @ 9:30 am | Reply

      • But wasn’t the published SUPPOSED to buy those rights too?
        After all, many e-books are $10.49 or $12.49 or whatever, not $1.99!
        Readers are ripped off.


        Comment by Béranger — September 23, 2010 @ 11:25 am | Reply

  6. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. As an editor in an ebook publishing house, I found this quite interesting and certainly something we need to think about.


    Comment by Penny Ehrenkranz — September 24, 2010 @ 2:25 pm | Reply

  7. […] 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 […]


    Pingback by eBooks in a text book world – Rich Adin’s views on this. | eBookAnoid — September 25, 2010 @ 2:50 am | Reply

  8. Penny wrote: “Thank you for sharing these thoughts. As an editor in an ebook publishing house, I found this quite interesting and certainly something we need to think about.”

    I recently participated as a judge in an e-book contest for published works. We were presented with PDF versions of the “as sold” books, and their quality was all over the map — predominantly bad. There was a lot of discussion among the judges about this, with opinions split between poor quality being a by-product of format conversion, and poor quality being a result of low production standards in the industry. The truth is probably a combination.

    Point is, the material I saw and comments I heard support the common belief that e-books are inferior to p-books, even though the point of the contest was to demonstrate otherwise. It was hard to get past ugly and unprofessional presentation to focus on story. As e-books struggle to compete and establish their place in the world, the publisher who figures out how to produce consistently clean presentation will rise to the top of the pack.

    What the e-book world lacks, IMO, is a status publisher . . . THE one to be picked up by, the way that certain p-book houses have reputation and importance, and whose names known by the general public. I’m waiting for somebody to raise the e-bar high and make writers jump for it, then deliver the goods at the highest standard.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 25, 2010 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

  9. Common errors are one thing and can be over looked in most cases, after all a good read is still a good read. The errors that should never occcur are the random mix of letters and numbers and odd signs, sections of text too small to read and words sometimes five or six all shown as one word.
    When I buy an ebook I should get the same quality as the printed book. If I buy a paper book that has errors or miss cut pages I can return the book not so with the ebook once purchased they are yours.
    These issues along with prices that are higher then I feel they should be makes think twice on all ebook I buy now.


    Comment by Therese Dupre' — May 30, 2011 @ 9:19 am | Reply

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