Quality control: it’s a good thing

Overall, this whole e-book/e-reader experience has been a positive one to date. But as I read more and more e-books, one characteristic is leaping out, and it’s not so positive: the quality control of many e-books is wretched.

I must say, the errors have a great deal of variety to them. Common spelling errors are actually not that frequent in e-books. When they occur, often it’s because they were misspelled in the original print edition. Unwanted hyphenation, however, is a major problem. The Kindle doesn’t hyphenate words itself. Lines are fully justified whenever possible, even if that leaves large spaces between the words. But often the original print editions do have hyphenated words and when they’re scanned, the hyphenation carries over. I suppose the publishers can’t easily edit the hyphens out with a search-and-replace command, since it would also eliminate the legitimate hyphens in words like “self-published,” but it’s still annoying.

Some e-books don’t so much have typos in them as glitches. I just finished reading one in which the first two words on the first page after the start of each new chapter were run together as one word. If I changed the font size, which shifted new words into that position, then those new words would be run together instead. Occasionally, the scanning (or however the text is converted to e-format) creates bizarre characters on its own. In the sample of one book I was considering buying, every “Th” had been replaced by an Æ. While the problem in the sample has since been fixed—and it’s great to see that if you report a formatting problem, someone will read your message, at least at that publisher—I still haven’t bought the book.

More frustrating, because it affects the usability of the e-book itself, are the problems with hyperlinks. With one book, the links in the table of contents to the chapters always dropped me off about two pages ahead of the beginning of the chapter. (Doubly frustrating: this was a new e-book, written this year, so the publisher could create the e-book from the original files and not have to convert text files.) In another book, a scholarly work with gobs of footnotes and references, the publisher chose not to link to the footnotes at all. To look up a footnote, you have to either figure out the right keywords to search for it, or jump to the list of references and page your way through it.

From my perspective as a reader, the easiest solution is for publishers to do a better job of quality control. This doesn’t seem to be happening, however, else I wouldn’t have blogged about this. Sure, as I noted with the e-book with the Æ problem, you can report the problems that you find. But having paid for the book, I don’t then want to be put in the role of proofreader, nor should the publishers be relying on crowdsourcing to do their jobs for them. It stings to be asked to pay good money for an e-book—sometimes more than the paperback edition is going for—and be given an unfinished product. But I don’t know what could pressure publishers to upgrade the quality of their e-books. Refusing to buy them just leaves me with fewer e-books to read and if I wanted to buy all those books in print, I wouldn’t have bought the e-reader in the first place. So I’m still looking for better leverage—and bracing myself for the next weird e-glitch in my reading.

September 5, 2011: Quality control is not impossible. I’m reading The Soul’s Religion by Thomas Moore. I’ve found maybe three hyphenation errors and that’s it. The Soul’s Religion was originally published in 2002, so it had to have been converted to e-format later, and yet most of the potential typos were nipped in the bud. So it can be done, which makes the massive quantity of errors in other e-books even less forgivable.

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