Consumers Will Punish Publishers For Poor Quality eBooks

Jan 05, 2012

I'm a digitally-savvy consumer. Increasingly, so are my parents, most of my friends, and almost all of my younger relatives, peers, and co-workers. Yet, despite our differences in age, education, and technology know-how, we all share a common trait. We're continuously victimized by less-than-optimal digital experiences -- especially when it comes to ebooks.

Words go missing or are exchanged wholesale for unaffiliated terms. ("The reader is invited to examine the next Jew chapters...") Entire sentences are replaced with nonsensical phrases ("arroz con polio") and illogical expressions. Charts and graphics disappear. Formatting suddenly changes for no good reason. Fonts rescale or shift to 48 point bold italic Times New Roman -- try reading that on an iPhone! Tables, well, they just don't work. And don't get me started on the random typographical artifacts, unsightly indentation, hyphenated headers, hexadecimal notation, character codes, and other digital gibberish that appears for no good reason in the body of sloppily converted ebooks. All of these errors -- and others -- aren't just facts of life in the digital world, they are preventable problems that slow down and disrupt the pleasure of reading experiences.

Publishers, in their quest for short-term revenue boosts, are to blame. They rush back catalogs (previously published titles) into digital form often by automatically converting error-laden, early draft computerized versions of the print book to e-reader-friendly formats, without a thorough review by competent editors. They slap a scanned image of the original cover on them, then sit back and wait for sales figures to soar. In their rush to market, they miss one important fact: quality matters.

While convenience is one reason digital consumers flock to ebooks, the main thrill is the user experience. When it's great, the experience converts those who were skeptical into ebooks lovers who are willing to pay for digital publications. Some even become evangelical about their love of ebooks. They tell their friends about their experiences. They show off their ebooks readers. They encourage others to join the digital revolution. They may even buy e-readers and ebooks as gifts for those who have yet to take the plunge.

But when the experience sucks, or is less than what they expect, they may spend significant time and effort dissing digital goods by sharing their negative experiences with other consumers, including those who have yet to cross the digital divide. They may join in on an online discussion with others who feel equally as disgruntled and fuel additional negative media coverage. Some readers may ask for their money back -- or, at least, ask for a partial refund. Worse, they may decide that paying for low quality content isn't something they want to do. They may opt for the piracy approach.

While not directly related to ebooks, one retail sales analyst claims he can measure the specific financial impact of a spelling mistake on sales. Brand credibility is damaged by poor content quality, he says.

William Morrow/HarperCollins must have realized this fact after they pulled Neal Stephenson's ebooks, Reamde, off Amazon after readers discovered just how many errors that escaped detection by the publisher.

Cynthia Ewer, summed up her experience in an review of Reamde:

"I expect some adjustment to compensate for this issue.

First, it seriously damages the reading experience. I've invested many hours in the book, overlooking various format errors along the way. Now-without more-I'm told that what I've read is incomplete. Do I begin again at the beginning? Do I plow on? Either way, the reading experience is fatally tainted.

Second, this situation oozes contempt for the ebooks buyer. As a published author, I'm aware of the word-by-word scrutiny that my print manuscripts receive. Why should ebooks be any different? Tossing a carelessly-formatted file out at random reflects badly on all links of the publishing chain, from author to publisher to distributor Amazon.

Third, this level of carelessness is inexcusable on economic grounds. I'd expect to find format errors and mangled content in a pirated ebooks, not in a $17 Kindle edition. When I purchase an ebooks at a price point so close to the print version, the publisher rakes in far more profit than from a print title. To then turn around and offer shoddy, incomplete text in that pricey Kindle title shows an arrogant disregard for economics, the reader, and the distribution channel."

And when the content of an ebooks is indexed by a search engine, content quality matters even more. In the online world, it's no secret that spelling errors can cost a company millions in lost sales opportunities.

But, some publishers seem to understand the importance of ebooks quality. In a recent survey of a cross section of the publishing industry, Data Conversion Laboratory, (DCL), a provider of digital publishing services, reports 70% of 411 respondents cited "quality" as the most important consideration when publishing an ebooks. Another important finding is that 63% of the respondents plan to publish a digital book in 2012.

"Eighteen months ago, more publishers were concerned about getting their information onto an ebooks platform and quality was not the overarching theme it is now," said DCL President and CEO Mark Gross. "The survey demonstrates that the publishing industry realizes consumers will not tolerate typos and bad formatting in a $15 ebooks," predicted Gross.

In another shift away from tradition, 64% of the respondents stated they were interested in publishing non-fiction and technical digital content. This statistic is indicative of an expansion in the use of e-readers from casual reading of novels to a myriad of business and technical applications.

"The survey confirms what we have been hearing from publishers, that while the initial push to digital was important, they are now seeing a need to go with the best partners and to improve their quality control and workflow," says Bill Trippe, vice president and lead analyst at Outsell, an industry analyst firm. "Digital products are becoming the lifeblood for publishers, and consumers are expecting an optimal experience," he adds.

Of course, the DCL survey isn't representative of all publishers. But, it's a good indication that quality won't be pushed to the back burner for long -- at least not by some.

Or, as a commenter asked on the BBC News website: "Deos it relaly maettr aubot the splleing or grmaamr, as lnog as you get the message?"

What's important to you in an ebooks? Quality? Price? Interactivity? How about an ebooks warranty?

I'd like to know. Share your thoughts below.