E-book Abomination Index

I’ve been reading a lot of e-books in the past ten days or so, and I have seen a lot of messy formatting. But the latest one takes the cake: a McGraw-Hill Professional book in which the first letter of every paragraph appears on a line by itself. Thus:

T
he quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Hella annoying. And there was an egregious typo in the book, repeated three times in one paragraph. Annoying enough that I dug around on the McGraw-Hill site until I found a place to lodge my complaint.

But then I got to thinking, as I filled out their lengthy incident report form, that if I want to report every fucked-up e-book I come across—which is most of them—I could spend the rest of my life chasing around on publishers’ websites for the buried feedback addresses or forms. And then I thought, Why not set up a sort of Hall of Shame where not only I but anyone else who finds a crappy e-book can post the gory details?

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the E-book Abomination Index submission form?

If you find an evil e-book, won’t you please come report it there? I’ll post results once I accumulate enough to make it interesting.

I threw this questionnaire together hastily, so if you have any suggestions on ways to improve it, I’d appreciate your letting me know.

Kick ass and take names!

Photo: Pillory by kriscip / Paul Krisciunas some rights reserved.

13 thoughts on “E-book Abomination Index

  1. Got a reply from McGraw-Hill yesterday morning (which was, to their credit, less than twelve hours after I filed my support ticket). My original message, posted on Thursday night, read as follows (after a bunch of form fields asking which book I was talking about, operating system, and so on):

    I purchased this book from Fictionwise.com in eReader format, and I was amazed to find that the first letter of nearly every paragraph—the exceptions being those that immediately follow section heads—is on a line by itself. Thus:

    T
    o find it, let’s explore . . .

    This is extremely annoying to read, as I’m sure you can imagine.

    Furthermore, in one paragraph of the book, William Kunstler’s name is misspelled three times as “Kuntsler.” He was a well-known figure, and a competent proofreader should have looked the name up if he or she didn’t know it already from reading the news.

    I don’t know if McGraw-Hill converted this book to eReader format or if Fictionwise did it—I see that only the Adobe Digital Editions version is available from mhprofessional.com—but either way, it’s insulting to charge $15 for a DRM-encumbered book that is so carelessly produced.

    I am very disappointed to find that McGraw-Hill puts out such shoddy work.

    On Friday morning, I got a reply from MH Professional Technical Support, with no specific tech’s name, though I see now that on the incident page in their web-based “Customer Portal” the case was handled by someone named Andre. Thus spake Andre:

    Thank you for your inquiry to McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing Technical Support.

    Hello India,

    Here at McGraw-Hill we do not offer or convert our ebooks into eReader format. Any issue you see in that format is not a result or caused by us. I have examined the a copy of the Adobe Digital Editions version . . . and it does not contain the issues you have noted, so the issue you have is with the http://www.fictionwise.com/ website and/or the entity that facilitated the book being converted or reproduced into the eReader format.

    So that answers that question. But it’s still their problem, as I said in my reply:

    Thank you for your reply, O nameless person.

    What you have described is what I suspected was the case, after discussing the matter with colleagues who produce e-books for other publishers.

    I must stress, however, that when an e-book is so badly formatted, regardless of who performed the conversion, it reflects poorly on the publisher, devalues both e-books and books in general, and reduces the likelihood that the reader will recommend that book to another person. It costs McGraw-Hill sales in the short term and will drive e-book prices down across the board in the longer term, as consumers come to think of buying an e-book as a crapshoot—maybe they’ll get something readable, maybe not.

    The fact that McGraw-Hill is not directly responsible for the appalling quality of this e-book does not mean that this issue is not McGraw-Hill’s problem.

    Thanks for your time.

    India

    So, aside from giving poor Andre a hard time, so far I’ve gotten nowhere. Crap: 1; reader: 0. Next stop: Fictionwise.

  2. These are the sorts of glitches that would lead me to throw the e-reader device at the nearest wall. If errors this egregious are that common in e-books, that would end up costing me a fair chunk of change (and no small bit of my security deposit). I’ll go with running a free Gutenberg text through a quickie InDesign template until a critical mass of text coders begins Getting It Right.

  3. B
    ut a drop cap on every paragraph, John? Surely not.

    M
    eanwhile, I mentioned this on Twitter, but not here: five weeks after I filed a support ticket with Fictionwise, I received the following resolution—

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Our provider has not yet replaced the file . . . I have returned the ebook and credited your Micropay so you can purchase another book. Your Micropay balance is now $17.65.

    We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and thank you for your patience.

    So, good on Fictionwise, but I wish the conversion vendor they use didn’t suck so much in the first place.

  4. I like the idea of your Abomination Index, but gee, did you have to make it as long-winded and as difficult to fill in as a McGraw-Hill complaint? May I suggest some more questions?

    When you first read Proust’s “A la recherche du temps perdu”, did you [a] throw up [b] faint with amazement [c] take up camomille tea?

    When you think about an e-book version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, do you [a] burst into tears [b] write an angry note to Sir Laurence Olivier [c] take a two-month drama course?

    When someone tells you that 1940s typing schools forced tyro secretaries to type two spacebars after a full stop (US: period), do you [a] scream No! No! [b] tell your tyro secretaries that no novel on their bookshelves has two spacebars after each full stop, just look at the bloody things why don’t you [c] smile and meditate?

  5. Just want to say I love your style India! I collect my rants to vendors (including publishers and web site owners) and their responses with the intention of posting them somewhere publicly but never get around to, so I’m really enjoying this reporting.

    I know I have a couple ebooks with horrendous errors (from major publishers), I’ll look them up again … where to report them?

  6. Why, thank you, Your Geekness! How very kind!

    You can report errors via my form or An American Editor’s Hall of Shame, or both. Or on the Twitterz, with the hashtag #ebookfail, though people don’t seem to be using that very much, lately.

    Be aware also of Jane Litte et al.’s LostBookSales.com, where you can report e-books you didn’t buy for whatever reason (though it was originally inspired by frustrations over territorial restrictions).

  7. I wonder what it is about Ebooks that result in poor formatting. Do publishers, whether a large publishing house or individual publisher perceive Ebooks as less valuable and not worthy of proper formatting and high-quality publishing? Perhaps it’s the intangible aspect of it that reduces the publishers’ efforts for quality formatting and publishing.

    The irony is that many Ebooks cost as much or more than the printed forms. I don’t begrudge charging the same amount for a digital book, but at least it could be properly formatted. I recommend Adobe’s InDesign which is great for any level of publisher. I produced a digital book with InDesign and it was intuitive to use and it looks very professional.

  8. Well, there are a lot of reasons for e-books’ being full of errors—for one thing, the current chaos of devices and file formats makes everything about creating them a hell of a lot harder than it needs to be—but I think the main issue right now is that for most publishers, e-book production still falls outside what they consider their normal workflow.

    With few exceptions, most of which are relatively new and small-scale, everything in a given publishing company is organized around the complex, time-consuming, and expensive process of producing print books. And as long as a publisher continues printing traditionally—that is, not using very short runs or print-on-demand, either of which makes it much less hazardous to change systems through a a flurry of incremental, perhaps “agile” improvements—it’s logical to stick with that workflow, which has been refined over many years to produce the fewest possible errors in print for the least possible cost in time and money.

    The problem is, a lot of those print-centric refinements rely on quick, cheap, and dirty ways of doing things that make e-books more errorful, slow, and expensive to produce. And while it’s not rocket surgery to come up with a process that can be used to make both kinds of books cleanly, quickly, and cheaply, it is most definitely no mere parlor trick to switch to however brilliant and rat-simple a new process on the fly, when you’ve got dozens or hundreds or thousands of books at every stage of production already in the pipeline, and dozens or hundreds or thousands of staff who are already demoralized, chronically underpaid, and neck-deep in work—because if they’re indispensable enough to still have jobs in publishing at all, they probably became so through the typically uncomfortable and exhausting expedient of absorbing the workloads of several of their less fortunate erstwhile colleagues. The atmosphere is neither empowering nor inspiring, and rebuilding the industry from the ground up is out of most publishing production employees’ pay grade.

    Put more succinctly, and in a vaguely Pascalian way, if they had more time, publishers would come up with a shorter and cleaner workflow; but right now most of them are just scrambling to stay alive, and that means quality’s going down, which makes it harder for them to stay alive, etc., etc., etc.

    Which doesn’t mean that book-buyers should cut them any slack, necessarily, but just keep in mind that these issues are not arising just because people don’t care or aren’t working hard enough.

    Or, put another way, When was the last time you tried performing brain surgery on your own head? It’s not much fun.

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