An American Editor

March 16, 2011

The Missing Ingredient: Quality Control in Indie eBooks

To me, the lack of quality control is a big deterrent to paying more than a dollar or two for an indie ebook from an author whose books I have not previously read. In the beginning, Smashwords was a great place to find indie books and give them a try, but that is rapidly changing as the number of indie ebooks rapidly increases. As Smashwords has grown, as indie publishing has grown with the rise of ebooks, and as the needle in the haystack has become increasingly difficult to find, we need to implement a method that imposes some sort of quality control.

A common response to this puzzle is to suggest looking at reader reviews on ebookseller sites like Amazon, on social sites like Goodreads, and on book review blogs. Perhaps in the very infancy of ebooks these were good and practical ways to determine quality, but that has changed with the rapid growth of indie ebooks. Not only are many of the indie ebooks simply not reviewed, those that are reviewed are often not well reviewed except in the sense of whether or not the reviewer liked the story. The insight of a professional reviewer is missing.

I began to notice the problems with reviews when readers began giving 1-star ratings because of price; that is, they were protesting the price of the ebook rather than evaluating the content. Price should not be a determining factor because each of us is capable of determining whether we are willing to pay the price, independent of whether someone else believes a particular price is too high, regardless of the book’s other qualities or lack thereof.

Compounding the price boycott review problem are the reviews that give a book 4 or 5 stars but do not detail what is good or bad about the book. One book I was interested in had a rating of between 4.5 and 5 stars. Of the 23 reviews, only 2 mentioned that book clearly had not been edited or proofread and, thus, reading it was difficult. This is not to suggest that the other 21 reviewers either didn’t or shouldn’t have enjoyed the book; rather, it reflects another concern of mine: Perhaps readers are unable to discern the difference between there and their, seen and scene, or seem and seam, and thus do not know that a book has errors. Some readers have told me that, as long as they get the idea, they do not care. I’m not convinced that bodes well for the future of literacy.

Yet another problem with these reviews is that it takes a leap of faith to accept that they are legitimate and made knowledgeably. This is the result of a lack of uniform, accepted criteria against which a book is judged by everyone — the gatekeeper role. When someone with the screen name “opus941” and no other identification tells me that so-and-so’s ebook was by far the best fantasy ebook he/she has read since Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but doesn’t mention that there are 4 homonym errors, 2 run-on sentences, and the same character’s name spelled differently within the first 3 paragraphs, I wonder whether opus941 ever read LOTR or simply watched the video, and I wonder how much credence to give to the review and the reviewer.

It is true that with a lot of work on my part, I can overcome many of the problems. For example, if I discover that opus941 has reviewed 42 ebooks and that I have read 10 of them and agreed with his/her reviews, I can probably move toward the end of the spectrum that says I can gamble on an ebook with a good opus941 review. But such trust is rapidly shattered by the first ebook opus941 raves about where I can’t get past the first few paragraphs because of poor grammar and editing, an occurrence that happens much too frequently with indie publishing.

The real question, however, is why should I have to do so much work to find a decent indie ebook to read? The consequence is that I am unwilling to pay much, if anything, for an indie author’s ebooks until I have read 1 or 2 and am convinced that the author can actually write a coherent sentence that captivates my attention. There are just too many things competing for my attention for me to undertake yet another major project, and looking for indie ebooks that worth reading is becoming such a project. Clearly, this is neither good for authors nor for their distributors. Yet, in the absence of traditional publishing that assures at least a minimal gatekeeping, this hurdle needs to addressed by 90% of indie authors (yes, there will always be a percentage for whom none of this is a hurdle to overcome).

The solution may be for distributors to become the new gatekeepers, either themselves doing the gatekeeping or requiring authors to attest that their ebooks meet certain prestated editorial criteria. I am not talking about storyline, plot, or other content related to the storyline or plot. I am talking about quality control — that the book has been professionally edited and professionally produced. The question is how to implement such a system at the distribution level.

I suppose one way to do it is to require every ebook to have a minimum price of 99¢ and to require the author to offer a double-your-money-back guarantee should the buyer find x number of grammar and/or spelling errors. (I accept, and think everyone must accept, that no book, professionally edited and proofread or not, is wholly error free. The question really is one of numbers: 1 error every 2 to 3 pages may be acceptable whereas 1 error every paragraph would not.)

Another way might be to require reviewers to respond to certain questions as part of the review process: “Did you find any spelling errors? Give examples. Did the ebook appear to have been edited? What is the basis for your conclusion?” Perhaps 2 or 3 more standardized questions should be asked and answers required before a more general review about the story or plot can be posted and a star rating awarded. Then the star rating can be given as weighted to include the answers to the required questions. For example, if a reviewer gave the story a 5-star rating but said that spelling errors had been found and the ebook appeared not to have been edited, the weighted rating might be 4 stars. However, a reader could see the review, the answers to the questions, and the story rating, as well as the overall weighted rating, and can assign his/her own weights.

I’m sure there are other creative ways to get a truer sense of an ebook, we only need to collaborate to find them. Authors and distributors should agree to the method ultimately settled on should be agreed and it should be applied uniformly across distribution channels. Authors would still be free to do as they please. However, readers would be better served and the better authors — those who really do care about their relationship with their readers — would profit more because readers would feel assured of getting a quality read from these authors and thus be more willing to spend a reasonable sum to buy the author’s ebooks.

It could only be good for all concerned when distributors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, authors are able to sell ebooks for a reasonable sum, and readers can improve their odds of finding that proverbial needle in the haystack. Certainly, it is worth thinking about.

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.

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