Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Lazy New York Publishers Act Like eBook Amateurs

Steve here:

Having Having owned an Amazon Kindle since mid-summer, and used it for much of my reading (including newspapers and magazines), I've been meaning to sit down and write a detailed report about the experience.owned an Amazon Kindle since mid-summer, and used it for much of my reading (including newspapers and magazines), I've been meaning to sit down and write a detailed report about the experience.

This isn't it.

Oh, it's coming, but I want to spend some time on it and do it right, and an annoying issue has come up that simply couldn't wait.

Oh, it's not about the Kindle itself.  It's about the indifferent way New York publishers put their books on Kindle.

Even the most casual observer must have noticed that there are a lot of vocal complainers among early Kindle adopters.  They complain about digital rights management.  They complain about their inability to resell or trade their Kindle books.  They most especially complain about prices.

My inclination coming in was to dismiss them as whiners, especially on the price issue.  The attitude of some people is that since you aren't buying a physical book, you shouldn't pay anything, or at least darned little, and that you should be able to resell your near-free book, or trade it, or give it to all your friends.

Bunk, I say.  Yes, eBooks should be less expensive than printed books, generally, but if you don't think the content is the bulk of the value of the book, why do you even care enough to read?  Information doesn't want to be free.  It wants to be reasonably priced.  That's my thinking anyway.

The question is, what constitutes a reasonable price?  The golden price of the moment, the one that both publishers and readers can just barely tolerate is $9.99, and that's where a lot of Kindle books are priced.

For new releases only otherwise available in hardcover or trade paper, that doesn't strike me as a bad price.  On the other hand, for books out in mass-market paperback, there's just no way the Kindle edition should cost as much as the paperback, much less more, which has occasionally happened.  If you can't discount at least 25% from list, then you're obviously just intent on making people feel ripped off.

But this all assumes that the Kindle edition is roughly the equivalent (ignoring the rights issues) of the print edition.  But in my limited experience so far, this is almost never the case.  Mainly it boils down to two points, one minor but glaring, the other less obvious but ultimately far more important.  But taken together, they lead to one conclusion: the major New York publishers are almost criminally indifferent in their packaging of eBooks.  At the same time they're arguing that new releases should be priced at hardback price levels, they're  producing eBooks with all the care and attention that a Holstein turns out cow-pies.

Let's start with the covers.  Most ebooks out of New York don't have them, and this is just plain stupid.  Yes, it's easily possible to take the metaphor of the paper book too far into the digital world (like those stupid eReader programs that make you "flip" digital pages by swiping the corner), but this isn't one of them.

People like covers.  They are the face of the book.  They establish a tone, and remind us what the book is about and why we chose to buy it in the first place.  They give each book a unique identity, which is especially important in the too-uniform world of the Kindle (okay, I'm getting ahead of myself on the Kindle-experience, but this is important) where every book, magazine and newspaper tends too look exactly like every other.

What many, possibly most (I don't have that large a sample, and you usually can't know until you've downloaded the book) have instead is some kind of generic cover page.  Sometimes this will just have the title and author name in large print.  Sometimes it will have a bit of completely generic design, like a large version of the publisher or imprint logo (often blown up far too large for it's own good) or a background behind the text made of grayed-out logos.

These things are actually uglier than the plain title pages.  They evoke general composition books from high-school, or those horrible "generic food" packages that were a craze in the early 80s.

What I don't understand about this is why?  It isn't like there isn't a cover right there on the front of the print book.  Even on re-releases, it almost certainly exists in your office in digital form (for catalog shots if nothing else), meaning you don't even need to scan it.  Now, admittedly, this is a cover that is intended to be viewed in far higher resolution than the Kindle offers, and it may look muddy if converted from color to black and white, but at least it gives a taste of what the printed cover is like, and that's all I (or most readers) really need.  If there's a pretty picture or some nice typography on the cover of the print edition, at least give me a muddy little version of it on my Kindle.  It would take maybe, oh, 30 seconds of some low-level employee's time, moving the file around.  Sorry to be such a bother.

Second and ultimately more important, is the text itself.  What's more important than the text?  And yet this is where publishers have really, really, fallen down.  For example, I've been using the Kindle to read a few books by classic sf authors.  Most of these are old enough that they had to have been scanned in from printed text, probably bound books, and it shows.

Now, if you've ever used a scanner and OCR (optical character recognition) you know it's an inexact process.  There are always errors, and depending on the font, layout, quality of printing, and other factors, there can be a lot of errors.  Somebody has to go in and manually find these errors and correct them.

Or at least, they should.  That hasn't been the case with many of the books I've read so for.  For example, I bought an older novel by a major science-fiction writer that I hadn't read.  I wasn't far into the text when I found the first major scanning error.  This wasn't just a case of a misplaced letter or a word mangled by the spelling checker.  This was full-on gibberish.  A "Beetle Bailey" curse-balloon.

Fortunately, it was only one word, and there were one or two correct letters in the mess, so that I could guess what was missing given the context.  But it wasn't long before I found another one.  And another.  They were random though, and far apart.  They were an annoyance, but they didn't render the book, so I plowed on.  But well into the book they became more common, until by the end, I could expect about one of these things per page.

It was painfully obvious that they'd simply scanned this thing, did some quick formatting, and dumped it on the Kindle store.  Maybe somebody had glanced at a few pages to make sure it was still in English, but clearly nobody, nobody at all, had ever read through it, or even read an entire chapter of it.

This was a worst-case (so far, and based on a rather limited sample) but not atypical.  Another example.  Another science fiction novel by a well-known writer.  In fairness, this book was a free download, but it was issued by a major publisher, and clearly intended to entice the reader to pay real money to buy other books in this series and/or from the author's considerable back-list.

But once again, there were uncorrected scanning errors.  Not gibberish, but mis-scanned letters and occasionally words.  One curious example was when a character stepped into a "Corn Booth."  From the context it was obvious that a "Corn Booth" was a video-phone booth/public computer terminal.  But "Corn Booth?"  It kept turning up again and again, very consistantly.  A character used a Corn Booth.  A child curls up on the floor of a Corn Booth to sleep.

My best guess was that the error was a corruption of "coin booth," old-fashioned as that sounded.  It was only after the fifth or sixth occurrence I realized that to an OCR scan, an "m" might look a lot like "rn."  It was a "Com Booth."

Now, it's a dirty little secret that even big books from big publishers are rarely perfect.  The occasional typo, glitch, or formatting error will inevitably will find its way in.  But the expectation is that such a book will be proofed and edited so that such errors are rare.

Okay, professional New York publishers, a little straight-talk here.  If you expect to charge premium prices for eBooks, or even discounted premium prices, you have to serve up quality product.  That means (shocker!) that when you scan and format things for eBook publication, you actually have to at least pay some minimum-wage employee to read the book and look for serious scanning and formatting errors.

An in the long term, as ebooks become a bigger part of the market, and writers have more options to directly take ebooks to their readers, you're going to have to compete.  The best way you have to compete is through marketing, editorial services, and delivery of a professional product.  When it comes to ebooks, item one varies from book to book and author to author, two is being undermined by shoddy ebook production, and on three you're completely falling down.  If you're giving authors a smaller share of ebook royalties that Amazon is and I can make a better product, you'd better be doing a hell of a promotional job or writers are going to start walking.

Hopefully this is only a short-term aberration in the market, and publishers will clean up their ebook act.  Until recently, the financial incentive wasn't there.  Ebook sales were too low, but that's rapidly changing.  And I do understand the publishers are struggling to convert vast catalogs of books into electronic format, many of them too old to have any kind of electronic files available for conversion.

But they need to act, and act quickly, especially on current releases.  The window for authors (and readers) to move to a new publishing system is now, and New York isn't giving either much incentive to stick with them.  If I, as the author, can with a little effort make a book that looks better and more professional.  If I can make more money per copy sold.  And if I can promote it as well or better than New York, then what should I reasonably do?

At the very least, every new ebook release should be read from cover to cover by a human being for basic quality control.  A form should be provided on the web for readers to report errors, and readers should be given the opportunity to download later, corrected, editions free of charge.  Without these steps, mainstream publishing could lose the reputation of legitimacy that is their greatest asset.

One more example before I quit.  

I'm currently reading a non-fiction historical biography.  It's from a second-tier, but still mainstream publisher.   This isn't a new release either.  The copyright is only a few years old.  But I suspect it was scanned rather than converted electronically.  It's full of mangled full-justification that sometimes results in huge gaps between words and random hyphens in the middle of words.  But the most pervasive problem, though easy to read past, appears all through the book, on almost every page.  I'd estimate that about 80% of the upper case letters "I" in the book are replaced by the number "1."  

If you've read more than a page or two, there's no way to miss it.  It's clear that no human being at the publisher ever looked at this ebook before putting it out for a $9.99 download.  

Not even 1-ce.

(Postscript.  Having read this, you must run right over and read THIS post on writer Lee Goldberg's blog.  The world is getting very interesting...)