Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility

I recently complained about production problems in two new novels I purchased in ebook form – Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and David Weber’s Out of the Dark — both from TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan (see On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down and The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks!). The failure in both instances, I think, at least as regards the problem of producing an ebook, is that review-before-release rights either didn’t exist in the authors’ contracts or if the rights did exist, they weren’t exercised.

With all the problems consumers are seeing in ebooks, regardless of whether the problem lies in the conversion process or in the file preparation, authors who sign contracts with traditional publishers fail their audience if they do not negotiate review-before-release rights. Too many ebooks are being released that are poorly formatted and rife with errors that could easily be corrected just by proofreading the converted version before releasing the ebook on the unsuspecting public. And this should be of primary importance to authors, perhaps even more so than royalty issues (after all, if consumers get fed up with poor quality production, there won’t be any royalty to collect!).

The clear wave of the future is the ebook. The tsunami is about to hit and authors need to be prepared for it. Just as authors have been attuned to the problems that exist in “normal” pbook production, they need to become attuned to the problems that seem to occur with regularity in production of ebooks. It is one thing to pay $1.99 for an ebook that is riddled with errors, but quite another to pay $12.99 or higher. More important than price, at least to me, although not to many ebookers, is that if important information to the story is to be reproduced in illustrations/tables/figures, the illustrations/tables/figures need to be readable on common-size ereading devices, which means on 6-inch screens. Similarly important is that dropped words not be dropped, that uppercase letters that should be lowercase be lowercase (it is annoying to read “…they came across A cave…”), that suddenly left justified text becomes centered text, and so on.

Is it asking too much to be able to enjoy a read without being confronted with obvious, distracting errors? If you (i.e., authors and publishers) are going to permit (or simply accept) errors, can you at least make them subtle, such as using “a” when it should be “an” and “which” when it should be “that” — the types of errors that most readers won’t give a second thought to.

With the boom in ebook sales, authors owe a duty to their customers — their readers — to make the reading experience as undistracting as possible; readers should be permitted to focus on the story and not need to comment on or note formatting, spelling, and grammar errors. Authors go to great pains to ensure the quality of the pbook version; now they need to go to those same lengths to ensure the quality of each ebook format. Failure to do so jeopardizes their relationship with their readers and thus jeopardizes their future income and popularity. It is much too easy in the Internet Age to become a yesterday has-been through self-destruction.

Authors already are responsible for their choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is important). This is the result of too much author reliance on spell checkers and too little education and emphasis on correct word choice.

So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

With all the restrictions imposed on ebooks that are enforced by DRM, authors in the first instance, and publishers in the second, should at least actively strive to produce a first-class ebook and when they don’t, stand before the bar of public criticism, admit failure, make corrections, and provide free replacement copies to those who already have purchased the book.

This goes back to the publisher’s warranty of quality that I proposed nearly a year ago (see A Modest Proposal II: Book Warranty), a warranty that continues to be ignored by publishers and by authors. Authors need to insist as part of their contract that a warranty be given the consumer and that the author get review-before-release rights and undertake to review the ebook form of their work before it is made available to the buying public. Doing so would be good for the author and for the consumer, and, ultimately, for ebooks. Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.

This is certainly something to think about, if not to act upon. But in any case, we readers need to expand our net or responsibility to include the author, not just the publisher, when we receive a poorly constructed ebook, especially at the prices some authors and the Agency 5 are demanding.

reposted with permission from An American Editor

9 Comments on Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility

  1. Writers are usually pretty poor at quality control, especially when it comes to their own work. Their eyes see what they intended to write, no matter what is actually on the page. That’s why publishers employ editors and proofreaders.

    That said, there is a bright-line distinction here. The text of most books is under the author’s copyright. If the author incorrectly wrote “dessert” instead of “desert”, that’s the author’s problem. The publisher can (and should) request that the author correct it, but if the author doesn’t change it, the publisher must put out the book with the incorrect word.

  2. Doug, sometimes those errors are out of my control. I found a glaring error in my first book. I was mortified and pulled out my proof copy. The word was correct in the proof! I let the editor know so I could correct it, but the book was already in a second printing by the time my copies landed in my mailbox. Lucky me, eh?

    Or, witness what happened to Johnathan Franzen’s “Freedom” in the UK. Not his fault that the printer used an old file and HarperCollins had to recall the print run. If you had purchased a copy before the story broke, would you have blamed Franzen?

    Rich, I would also like to point out that authors whose works appear in print do not always have the opportunity to proof ebook text. It would be nice. Yet, if I was given the proof in .mobi format and they reformatted it to another platform, I doubt I’d get the opportunity to recheck – and that’s assuming I have the hardware. (I have, but not all authors do.)

    The only authors who can bear final responsibility for the text are those that oversee the process from beginning to end. In other words, the truly self-published author with an eye for quality control.

    Believe me, every writer I know is (and here I use the word again because it’s true) mortified when these errors happen – especially when they’re beyond their control. That’s because most readers automatically blame the writers.

    I invite you to learn more about how the publishing industry works.

  3. So why not hold authors responsible for poorly done ebook versions of their books? We are quick to blame the publisher, who does deserve heaps of scorn over this issue, but we need to include the author in this because the author could raise a fuss and publicly demand that the ebook be corrected and purchasers be given new versions. Yet authors are silent for the most part; not even self-publishing authors alert readers to having corrected errors and making redownload possible. It is almost as if there is disdain (perhaps contempt?) for the reader.

    Writers have no control. Writers who are not Stephen King or Nora Roberts or Anne Rice or [insert supermegastarwriter here] kick up a fuss get punished for it somehow, even if it’s just a quiet non-issuance of a contract for a new book.

    I don’t know why anybody thinks a writer under the traditional publishing system has ANY control whatsoever. They can’t control their titles, their cover art, or their post-proof files. Why would they be able to control their ebook files?

  4. I am a romantic / suspense author and if there are errors in the novel I am reading I blame the author and the publisher. Especially it is my own.

    I say this because as an author who just finished going through the process of editing, proofing etc… I worked tirelessly to make sure every word was perfect.

    Now there are always going to be hiccup’s this is reality after all! However, when you read a novel that you spent twenty dollars on and you are consistently finding stupid careless errors…that is something different. That is a slap in the face to the person who spent their money on the product, whether it be $1 or $20.

    If I ever put out a product that was less than my very best, not only would I be horribly ashamed of myself for allowing it to happen, I would be appalled and disappointed in the publisher that produced it. It is a privilege to be a published author. I value and respect everyone of my readers and I would not disrespect them or my passion in such a careless way.

    BTW, in my contract both the writer and the EIC have to approve the proof BEFORE is goes to bed.

    TTFN!

    Amy

  5. @Julie and Moriah,

    If writers currently have no control, then that is a failing of their contract negiotiaters. If writers don’t want to have control or if they want to place all the blame on the publisher, then they should come forward and say “Don’t buy the ePub version of my book because it is riddled with errors that my publisher won’t correct. The pbook version is much better.”

    As for being familiar with how the publishing industry works, I claim 25 years of experience in the industry, including several years as a publisher at a small press. Every publisher I currently work for provides authors with an opportunity to review proofs; I don’t see it as such a big step to also permit proofing of ebook conversions, especially if there is no cost to the publisher.

    Authors stand on the rooftops screaming copyright infringement when they think their copyright is being violated; perhaps they should also stand on the rooftops and scream when their readers are being abused. Surely this is something the Author’s Guild could get its teeth into.

  6. @Richard, I’ve actually done that, although for a print version of a book. I was not given the opportunity to proof a UK version of a book (it got rushed to press as I was proofing the US version). The book was riddled with errors, plus they (shades of Franzen) used an older version of the manuscript. It was pretty clear no one had proof read it.

    The publisher pulled the book – but only to correct some illustrations. The text stayed in place. Readers in the UK got the word out for me.

    Writers can negotiate a contract, but please understand that ebbooks are still uncharted waters in a sense. This is no excuse for a shoddy product. However, some writers are stuck with contracts written before ebooks were on their publisher’s radar, and they’re getting screwed over. You bet the Author’s Guild is screaming about this. So are agents.

    As I said above, not all authors have the hardware/software/tech skills to be able to review their book in every single format.

    By the way, this sentence struck me: “Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.” With 25 years of industry experience, you should be aware that authors have zero control over the selling price of the book.

  7. @Julie — You wrote:

    >By the way, this sentence struck me: “Receiving a well-crafted ebook would make the higher price demanded by some authors and publishers more palatable.” With 25 years of industry experience, you should be aware that authors have zero control over the selling price of the book.<

    I am aware that with traditional publishing authors do not set prices, but with the rise of self-publishing and/or the retention of electronic rights, some authors do set their own prices and setting them in the stratoshpere just like the Agency 5. These authors are often — not always — as lackadaisical about proofing as the publishers. See the Give Me a Brake! article (linked to in the above article) for some illustrations of what I have been finding.

  8. @Richard: I’ve read that article. It would be helpful (and less inflammatory) to separate commercially published authors from those who are self-publishing.

    It’s bad enough that readers are giving one-star reviews on Amazon to protest agency pricing. It doesn’t help the authors who are unable to control that sort of thing.

  9. It is obvious the Richard Adin does not understand business. Most writers are just happy to get their work published. Ask them. To say it is the fault of their contracts is ridiculous. Do you think that most authors have any clout to make demands like control of their e books and how it is printed for the reader? If they make too much of a fuss, then they are just going to be passed over. There is a far greater number of publishable authors out there than spaces open to be published by the big book houses.

    As Julie has said, e publishing is still in it’s infancy right now. Until it becomes more profitable than the printed version of a book, it will not be the forefront of contract negotiations.

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