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Error-Free E-books Will Come “When Cars Can Drive Themselves”

Why are there so many damn errors in e-books?

By Olivia Snaije

E-book reading devices

Books are a wonderful form of addiction. Last year my addiction increased when I became an e-book reader. Now about half of what I read is in e-book form. Unlike print books, e-books can instantly be purchased and delivered. In my case, most of my shopping is done in bed late at night, which can be extremely dangerous. A click here and there and five new books can be sitting in one’s Kindle with an alluring tab on the side marked “new.”

But there is a downside to e-book lust: As I began reading e-books I noticed something very irritating. There were often spelling mistakes, formatting problems and line breaks or odd symbols appearing instead of letters, which interrupted the pure pleasure of reading seamlessly. The first time I noticed the errors was when I read Lisa Alther’s 1984 novel Other Women in a digital edition. I was so annoyed that I asked Amazon to refund me, and to their credit, they did. (Amazon will also offer customers new versions of e-books when corrections appear.)

A quick look at the Nook, Kindle and Amazon online forums revealed I was hardly alone in my irritation.

The worst affected seemed to be even older books, such as Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where a reader complained that the number “1” and the letter “I” were often switched. (Considering Rand’s Objectivist philosophy focuses on the “virtue of selfishness,” perhaps this was merely a fateful, karmic mistake.) But more recent titles have fallen victim, too. One reader complained about problems with Dean Koontz’s Lightning (a book from 1987), another was exasperated that Barbara Kingsolver’s 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible was “riddled with errors,” and yet another person noted spelling mistakes every five pages in a recent Harlan Coben thriller.

Why — after we’re well into the digital age — are publishers not able to exert rudimentary quality control at a level equal to print? Is it too much to ask?

Perhaps it is. E-books exist in a variety of different formats, which themselves change frequently. Earlier versions of e-book software were inflexible and often difficult to work with and many publishers outsourced their conversion activities to specialized companies. Adding additional steps to workflow and each new time the file is opened invites the introduction of errors and mistakes — and finding out who is responsible for fixing them can be even more problematic.

What’s more, when an older book is scanned to convert it to an e-book, the images are run through optical character recognition software, and then go through a series of steps before they are converted into a basic e-book format. In the case of these pre-digital titles — and Alther’s Other Women would be considered pre-digital — the original copy may have aged, the ink could be faded and blurred, or there could be dust on the page when it was scanned, resulting in text that is difficult for the computer to read.

Recent titles are “born digital” — with the original files in digital formats — making this less of a problem. Or so one would assume.

When I asked Open Road Integrated Media, the digital publisher and multimedia content company responsible for re-issuing Other Women, why so many mistakes persist in e-books, the company — which responded via e-mail through a spokesman — was circumspect:

“Open Road recognizes that this is a challenge and therefore has a stringent process in place and puts in a lot of resources to produce quality e-books. The books go through a thorough proofread and at least two subsequent levels of quality assurance before being finalized. While the technology is certainly new and there will always be some mistakes when you publish hundreds to thousands of e-books a year, we are proud of our track record and will continue to invest in and improve our already thorough process.”

At Aptara, a prominent digital publisher and conversion house, Sriram Panchanathan, senior vice president for digital solutions, explained that mistakes are often introduced in the conversion process because the software used to convert to e-book formats “is very good for handling structured information, but not very good at identifying and processing information that varies and is inconsistent.”

Panchanathan added: “Software will get you 90 percent of the way, but the rest needs to be controlled manually. To ensure top quality you need quality control editors to look at every line and every page…the challenge is when you are converting a large number of books and you’re not willing to spend the hours of quality control.”

Christèle Blay of Jouve, a French content management company that makes e-book conversions primarily for US and UK publishers, concurred, noting that the number of errors often depends on the condition, state and accuracy of the original material (true, it must be noted that many print books also contain errors). Blay underscored the fact that many backlist, out-of-print and out-of-copyright titles are simply being converted with the objective of making the books available once again, albeit in a digital format.

Indeed, in the rush to get these older books back into print and capitalize on this otherwise moribund intellectual capital, it appears that expediency has often been prioritized over accuracy. When a book may only sell a modest number of digital copies and “good enough” will do, proofing likely seems like an unnecessary step.

In the end, Panchanathan summed it up best when he said that in order to avoid errors, there always needs to be a human involved in finalizing the text, which inevitably entails additional expenses.

“You can design software to drive a car but you can’t have a car without a driver…the day cars drive themselves is the day you will find a perfect e-book without the manual touch.”

This, I somehow found reassuring.

Editor’s Note: Yes, we know, you may well likely find an error or two in this piece as well, and any errors will be corrected with alacrity.

DISCUSS: Are You More Forgiving of Errors in E-books?

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  1. Posted August 23, 2011 at 3:54 am | Permalink

    Interesting that the volunteers over at gutenberg.org manage to produce decent copy for ebooks.

  2. Tina
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Agree with Wen. I tend to download older books only from sites that use Project Gutenberg books, because they will be virtually free from errors, and it’s quite remarkable the difference this makes. For instance, I recently downloaded a book from Manybooks.net that I simply couldn’t read because it was so full of errors – I later found that it wasn’t a PG book, but part of the Google project, which on the original site is a scan converted to a PDF. However, as Manybooks offer a number of different formats, it had been converted to an epub at some stage, complete with all the errors marked on the original scan, plus the errors introduced during conversion.

    Although there is a case for digitizing these old books quickly to avoid their loss, I do feel that once this has been done (and certainly if they are to be sold), they need to be proofread, as PDF is usually the format least favoured by ereaders. And as PG has shown, it doesn’t necessarily have to cost much!

  3. Posted August 23, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Scanned books have their own kind of errors, as noted. OCR (optical character recognition) is neither a new technology nor a perfect one. But with newer books a lot of the errors come from using a workflow that puts print first and then uses the same file to produce the ebook. Anything done specifically to make the printed page look good is likely to make the ebook look bad. I did a whole guest blog post for it on the Kindle Obsessed blog: http://www.kindleobsessed.com/uncategorized/guest-reviews/damn-those-errors/

    Ultimately, of course, a lot of the problem boils down to the publisher being willing to take responsibility for the ebook. When I reported some ebook formatting errors to a small press, they suggested if I cared how the book looked, that I should buy the trade paperback version.

  4. Posted August 23, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Legacy conversion is always going to be problematic as scanning and PDF conversion do not lend themselves to converting from the print paradigm to the eBook paradigm; however, digital first is another matter. Just like a print book, care should be taken to proof the electronic file. Some typos may still slip through, just as they do in print publishing, but the problems with readability and usability are not acceptable. This is the new norm.

    An excerpt from my new upcoming book “eBooks 101: The Digital Content Strategy for Reaching Customers Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device” in the “Quality Assurance” chapter:

    “Create an eBook, check it for potential issues, and test interactivity, usability, text to speech capabilities, and other accessibility functionality. Do everything a user might do including changing text size to see the effects of the reflow. Follow links to see if a user could get lost in the book or if the links are broken.”

  5. Posted August 24, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I see typos and other errors in PRINT books daily, never mind ebooks. The errors are avoidable, but few publishers have the resources to invest in the kind of proofreading and quality control that will identify and eliminate all of them.

    Related: cars CAN drive themselves: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/10/science/10google.html We’re still holding on the “self-licking ice cream cone”, though.

  6. Posted August 24, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Now this is one occasion where I do agree that the publisher is ultimately to blame for any error … Aye is won, an eye half nut heaver maid a mist ache in my laugh.

    (Just for fun, chums, run that through a spell-checker. It’ll pass muster with flying colours — and automated spell-checking is what some ‘publishers’ working in UK or US Standard English or claiming to handle both mean by ‘proof reading’. [My own default in informal posts like this is UK Standard])

    It’s all down to careful formatting of digital editions of a title by a skilled and painstaking technical team, AFTER meticulous editorial preparation and before final editorial proofing of all e-editions.

    Too many established publishers (and a new breed of start-up ‘publishers’ who hopped, cock-eyed, onto the self-pub bandwagon) were unprepared for the E-bomb.

    The result is that they often resort to page scans of hard copy or for-print PDFs that contain occult errors when converted for digital screen reading of their heavy current catalogues and back-lists, outsourcing to nincompoops on the cheap, or automatic meat-grinder conversion of a basic file by a careless aggregator/distributor … and that, folks, spells disaster.

    So there must be at least one professional pair of in-house proof-reading hawk-eyes on the finished product before green-lighting upload for sale (we always inbclude the author and beta readers before a file goes).

    In short … far too many corners are cut in a rush or through penny-pinching.

    There are several serious houses (mainly of small-to-middling-size) that, like my own, produce digital editions of their print titles in house and that present flawlessly on ANY electronic reading platform from PCs, laptops and tablets, through the full range of ebook-dedicated devices, to iPods, smart phones, etc. We know because we test them on ALL platforms. I believe you can even read ‘em on the telly, but I’ve never tried. I don’t know how. I’m a humble scribe, not a technotop.

    All it takes is effort, time and the determination to put quality before quantity in title release. Developing and equipping a highly-skilled technical and design division doesn’t come at bargain basement price. But if a minnow like our wee house could find the cash (without third-party borrowing), surely the bigger fish and the whales can.

    Perhaps it’s a question of it being easier to turn on a sixpence in a Mini Cooper than at the wheel of a giant juggernaut. I don’t know. But as I say, it seems the bigger the house, the greater and more frequent the offence.

    And here’s a special offer for you; spot an error in one of our ebook editions and we will give you one million dollars (or a free DRMless ebook or three, whichever we deem appropriate). One thing we guarantee is that should you spot a tiny slip, we will fix it immediately and will repay the kindness in some way. That’s in everyone’s best interests, eh?

    Best wishes. Neil

    PS: And Project Gutenberg is innocent of all charges and no crime on their part is implied. That admirable project is run by volunteers and is NOT commercial. So, of course, there will be flaws in the tens of thousands of classic and other public domain books they scan and that are handled almost exclusively by enthusiastic, unpaid and well-intentioned amateurs. PG ebooks, don’t forget, are also free. If you don’t like the presentation of one of their titles, find the time to do a better job yourself and send it in. They need every keen eye they can get. You get appreciation rather than a pay cheque. N

  7. Posted August 24, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    What’s ironic is a typo in a first edition hardcover book makes it a “collectible” – they call such things “points” to look for, like the duplicated lines in PATRIOT GAMES or the typos in THE DA VINCI CODE, and they “add” to the value of that particular edition. In an eBook, it’s just considered a nuisance or a sign of poor editing… Hmmmm…

  8. Ari
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Of course errors that make a print copy distinguishable as a first edition make it more valuable — they’re the proof that it IS a first edition. Who’s going to ‘collect’ ebooks, really?

    And to Wen, good luck getting three rounds of proofreading by increasingly skilled proofreaders plus two extra rounds of formatting BEFORE the smooth reading AND post-processing checks out of a publishing house that actually has to PAY people for all those hours of work!

  9. Benjamin Lukoff
    Posted August 24, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, Ari. Publishers can’t pay people for that sort of work if people aren’t willing to pay a reasonable price for the product. As they drive down prices, they will drive down quality.

  10. Posted August 27, 2011 at 4:18 am | Permalink

    Great job here, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.

  11. Posted August 27, 2011 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I have published several books for the Kindle on Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Bennett/e/B0058EBFJS/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 and I can speak to several issues.

    Regarding the formatting errors, when you change the font size on the Kindle, a feature which makes it my preferred reading format as the eyes start to go, it will throw off the spacing, line breaks, etc.

    Next, the spelling and errors in a lot of the Kindle books published by independent authors are on us. While some of use edit and re-edit books, there is always the chance errors are just missed. I think this is mainly because we get so involved in the work we miss obvious mistakes.

    Third, the ability to publish so easily on the Kindle means that there are many authors publishing books who just don’t know how to spell and don’t know the difference between many words which sound alike but aren’t. I was just reading a work by another author this morning, and one who is actually a fine writer, but he referred to someone saying “bullocks” when he got into a bind when he obviously mean the English term “bollocks”.

    Things will get better as the digital publishing industry progresses and as readers tell authors about the mistakes. If someone points out a spelling error in one of my books I will take the time to make the change and “re-publish” as would most authors.

  12. Gena
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 4:16 am | Permalink

    There is much more to it than that. It is perhaps because people read less and so fewer books are sold, but it is certainly true that publishers are no longer what they used to be, they are more and more simply what the name suggests. To wit: a recent (last year, I think) discussion I heard on the radio (CBC R2) concerned the dwindling numbers of editors at publishing houses. Academic publishers, at least in mathematics that I know about, rely on authors do the work and essentially only accept pdf files (together with LaTeX files that they can modify for formatting purposes). Even these they sometimes manage to mangle (I had a paper whose first two – and only those – pages became incomprehensible). It is somewhat akin to automatic translation: a capable human is needed.
    I have not started e-reading yet. When a book costs as much in electronic form as it does as a hard copy (and when publishers do not give a substantial discount on the e-version when one buys both, as is the case for many people with academic books) while producing it costs virtually nothing, there is a problem. Perhaps I would not mind the cost if editors and readers were hired to produce error-free books.
    I am old enough to remember books on paper only. The number of misprints was very small, as was the number of grammatical errors. This is no longer the case. Even excellent writers have bad grammar in their books, and this is down to the (partly non-existent) editors. Yes, even great writers can have atrocious grammar, but that is what the editors are for. Perhaps a part of the problem is that editors today are computer savvy but no longer language savvy.

    And so it goes (sic).

  13. Gena
    Posted August 28, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    P.S. I forgot to add: the crowd-sourcing idea is certainly an great one and should supplement (not replace) editors and proof-readers.

  14. Posted August 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I found ‘smashwords’ has a very strict process before one is allowed to put their book on their website for sell. You are told to be diligent in correcting your errors, and most of all use an editor for your works. The old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ is an understatement. I have to admit it was frustrating at times, but it makes a big difference! Even though my book ‘CIRCUS’is a childrens book, I was just as thorough. Remember, kids can read!

  15. Posted August 28, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    When the author touches their manuscript, they are making higher level editing changes. Unfortunately, every edit can fix a few typos and introduce new ones. The author simply has to reach a stage of revision in which they do not feel the need to change the wording. After that point of perfection has been reached, typos become the next target.
    So, the quantity of books rife with typos is merely a reflection of the level of perfection the author achieved–or lack thereof.

  16. Posted August 29, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    “Error free” is a misnomer. I constantly see glaring errors in print books from the big six. There is no such thing as an “error free” book. Quality eBooks will appear in exact proportion to the amount of time spent on them. Getting close to “error free” requires skill and time that many eBook authors deem unnecessary, but many are learning is very necessary. For example, a friend just took her very successful (roughly 80,000 eBooks sold) first novel off the market to have it, and her second about-to-be-released novel professionally edited. I delayed publication of my first eBook novel, Old Scores, for months of editing, revising. Still, after publication, three errors were found. There may be more (thank God we can correct and repost – an advantage print lacks).
    Pete Grimm

  17. Posted August 29, 2011 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    I was wryly amused by Open Road Media’s vanilla assurances about quality control, especially the claim that “The books go through a thorough proofread and at least two subsequent levels of quality assurance before being finalized.”

    The last book I read was Open Road’s unexpurgated edition of James Jones’s From Here to Eternity. Granted, it’s a long book and, given its origins (because the original edition had been cut down by the book’s first publisher, Scribner’s, it obviously wasn’t possible to scan an existing copy of the book — so I assume an actual typewritten manuscript was used instead), Open Road likely faced some challenges in converting it to an epub file. Nonetheless the book contains at least a dozen or more typos, including one I can think of offhand — the word “liable” rendered as “hable” — that is clearly an OCR goof anyone using a simple Spell-Check program could have found.

    So a thorough proofread? I beg to differ.

    BTW: book publishing isn’t the only medium that suffers from an absence of interest in proofreading. On my own blog I noted the lousy proofing (if there *is* any proofing) on high-profile commercial web sites and elsewhere. Have a look: http://bit.ly/pr00fj0b

  18. Posted August 30, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    The error-prone nature of publishing (the single best example of an inspection-driven industry, I think) is problematic in both traditional and digital forms, but I don’t think the driving metaphor works. Cars are built to be driven, and so they need a driver; books are created to be read, and so they need readers. The call for editors may be apt, but the metaphor isn’t.

  19. Posted August 30, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Books and stories are made up of words. If the words are wrong, are not the publishers showing a lack of respect for their medium, as well as their audience?

    If this were math and the numbers were wrong, the equation would be tossed out.

    I’ve read three novels, all written in the last two years, on my Nook. All three had more than a few errors – one consistently putting an extra space after the letter combination of “fi.” “Fi lled and Fi nally” occurred throughout. That’s a simple search/replace. You can’t tell me proofreaders checked this. Generations of typesetters are collectively groaning.

  20. Posted August 31, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Amazon removed the gate keepers by allowing all comers to publish through CreateSpace, and be given a detail page indistinguishable from a traditional publisher. I relish the democritizing effect of publishing just as I relish the democratizing effect of information via the Internet.

    Of course, the absence of gate keepers will mean some loss of quality, but it also means many good and great writers will be published that would not have been, as the gate keepers were becoming fewer and harder to pass through.

    The good news is Google has designed a car that drives itself.

    David Griffiths

  21. Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Typos and grammatical errors do grate, whether in print, in an ebook or on a website. Or they can brighten the day. I posted a blog item (http://www.noelchidwick.com/2011/09/fine-words-from-fine-wines/), about one I found.

    Mistakes are made, but the beauty of digital world is that mistakes can be rectified quickly. I like the idea of rewarding readers, and will add that to a publishing project I’m working on.

    I did email the offenders about the above error, but it is still there: that I’m less inclined to forgive.

  22. Billyray
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    “I’ve just learned that the production AND PROOFREADING for Bantam/Spectra e-books is done…in India. By people who barely speak English. (Apparently this applies to every e-book published by the conglomerate which includes Bantam.) Maybe it’s time we all starting paying attention to who publishes the e-books we want to read.”

    I found this on a web blog from an author (name intentionally left out) his books are among the best and yet he is plagued with publishing companies that use substandard editors to save cost and increase profits on e-books. The big question is why? Why do I have to pay as much for my e-book as I do for a paperback? There is no cost in printing, and many publishing companies are paying next to nothing for non English speaking editors to mutilate the book.

  23. Linn Browne
    Posted December 12, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    The highest-quality e-books I have yet seen are the handsome film tie-in editions from Scarlet Oak Press; all the supplementary materials are prepared by two Princeton professors of literature (and profits go to libraries and literacy programs, a nice touch): http://www.scarlet-oak-press.com/

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