Thursday, February 18, 2010

The scandalous state of ebooks

An email I received this morning from my colleague Jamie Todd Rubin:
I ran into the same problem with the Kindle that you reported with the Nook regarding hyphenation. They implement full justification without adherence to any hyphenation rules and that makes some lines look awkward (4 words, widely spaced).

The other thing I've noticed, and I don't know if this is Amazon or the publisher, but in numerous books that I've read on the Kindle, there are substantial typos that appear to be the result of some kind of OCR import. The word "t-u-r-n" appears as "t-u-m" from time-to-time, but it's not consistent. There are other minor errors that I don't find in the printed text and I wonder if copyeditors look at the eBook text before it goes live.
Those are the three great scandals of the ebook industry:

1) The people designing the way pages are presented on screen seem to know nothing at all about typography. This ranges from the outrageous (the eSlick until last week's firmware update thinking that it was okay to break lines at the embedded apostrophe in words, or before the closing quotation mark) to the merely incompetent: the insistence on right justification ("because that makes it look like a book, see!") without understanding or doing any of the work required to make right justification aesthetically appealing.

2) The complete lack of proofreading or even spot-checking of ebooks before they are put up for sale. For example, I recently bought the eReader-format ebook edition of The Mind and the Brain by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Sharon Begley, a book published by a major publisher (HarperCollins), and every line on every page throughout the book was centered -- no one had so much as glanced at the book after converting it.

3) The use of OCR as a way to get books into ebook format. For instance, Tor Books offers my Golden Fleece for the Kindle and the nook. For the print edition they typeset from my computer files, but for the ebook edition, they used a scan of the printed pages, and ran it through optical-character recognition. Page one proudly lists other books by "Rohert J. Sawyer."

Print publishers keep arguing that they have to charge high prices for ebooks in part because of the care and expense that goes into proofreading and laying out a printed book's text, but if that's just thrown out the window -- if not one dime of the money spent for that is actually reflected in the ebook edition -- then it's a specious argument to say that those costs need to be reflected in the ebook's price.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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