The Dismal State of e-Book Editing – Case: Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff”

Ever since I bought the Kindle a year ago, I’ve been a big fan of e-books and this autumn I’ve spent quite some time learning to make them. One thing has started to annoy me about many commercial ebooks: far too many of them are littered with all kinds of encoding errors: extra line breaks, missing spaces between words, indents turning into empty lines, etc. It seems like this problem has been getting worse, not better, during this last year, and now I ran into the total nadir of this: the Kindle-edition of “Snuff” by Terry Pratchett.

A nice introduction to the book…

To put it mildly, it looks like the whole first page of the book is fucked up. First you see some code, then a rather strange heading called BEGIN READING which might or might not be from the original book. In middle of the page the text turns to indented italic, but it reads like the whole page should have been that, the quote from the same fictional book.

I think this is not supposed to happen.

Okay, big fucking deal, they messed up the first page. Well, not really. There are stretches in the book where they have managed to mess every damn page with quite disturbing errors. First of all, every damn drop cap floats over the chapter in a way that looks decidedly silly, but the most annoying thing is that there’s an incredible amount of spaces missing from between the words, which seems to be connected to the word “people”. This is really jarring when reading, and drops you off from the story to being annoyed at the text.

All of these are from the same page. Methinks someone didn’t watch his search-replaces…

I’m slagging the ebook version of Snuff here because it’s absolutely the worst example of this I’ve seen, but this isn’t meant to be understood that this is somehow rare. At least half of the ebooks I’ve read have had crap that would’ve never made it to the paper version, most notably extra line breaks that cut up the chapters this way and that. I actually contacted one publisher about this and pointed out some of the errors, and they were pretty friendly and grateful for it, gifting me a free book for my trouble. I’m not expecting any kind of reply from Harper-Collins, though.

I spent some time researching the ebook formats and it took me more or less one work day to do my first conversion, the Musta antologia by Uusrahvaanomainen spekulatiivinen fiktio. I did it by hand on the code level, and I’m willing to bet that it has less typographical errors than 90% of the commercial ebooks out there.

Okay, okay, I do understand that a large publisher has a pretty high volume of books coming through and they have to rely for automation pretty heavily, but for fuck’s sake – ebooks should nevertheless have the same level of quality control as the print books. As a computational linguist by education, I can’t see automated detection of extra line breaks to be such a big problem. Or proofreading crap like missing spaces.

So, really, all you publishers out there,  put some more effort in making the ebook versions of your books – signed, your customer.

Meanwhile, if someone wants to commission me to make ebook conversions, drop me a line at the comments 😉





5 Responses to “The Dismal State of e-Book Editing – Case: Terry Pratchett’s “Snuff””

  1. jtarheel on November 19th, 2011 05:35

    What I do not understand is why they do not use the digital version that the book should have been in when the author writes the book on his/her computer. I can understand that some older authors may not like using a computer, but didn’t someone type it in so that it could be published? I do believe that all publishing is digital now.

    Even still, even print editions have errors due to everyone’s reliance on the spell checkers in their word processor. Very few actual people checking for errors like they used to do.

  2. Janos on November 19th, 2011 11:43

    The thing is, they probably did – it’s just that the ebook version requires some editing too. An ebook is not just a copy-paste of a text file, but technically it’s a very lightly formatted web page. The publisher probably has some kind of less than optimal automatic conversation tool that takes a Word file or something similar, and automagically turns it into a .mobi-file for Kindles. The thing is, in many cases this automation doesn’t really work that well and it leaves a lot of crap in the finished file. The most usual thing are extra line breaks, fucked up paragraph breaks or broken indentation. There should be some kind of quality control to catch these pretty elementary mistakes, but apparently the publishers are often just all about fire-and-forget…

  3. Jaana Nyström on December 1st, 2011 16:20

    I soon received an updated, error-free version after I bought the Kindle e-book of Snuff.

  4. Janos on December 1st, 2011 23:53

    Yes, I also got an updated version, but not before I had already read 3/4 of the book. This is not a problem with just that one book, though, but a more widespread thing. It feels like about 4/5 of Kindle books has the kinds of layout and editing errors that wouldn’t exist in paper books, such as missing empty lines between chapters, or extra line breaks in middle of sentences. At times there are only a couple of them, but far too often they are so common they really get annoying. I’m currently reading Stross’ “Fuller Memorandum” and I’m starting to get pissed off at the missing chapter breaks, and IIRC Miéville’s Embassytown had a ton of extra line breaks. I’m starting to find this crap unacceptable.

  5. David Barnard on January 27th, 2012 17:34

    Re Snuff – first error I’ve noticed in a Terry Pratchett – seems to have the rules of snooker a bit wrong on page 322 of the hardback. My limited understanding is that you only sink each red ball once, the black as often as you can, roughly the reverse of Vimes’ rules. But perhaps in Discworld snooker is different?

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