Rowling's Ebook Glitch a Cautionary Tale

Oct 05, 2012

Article ImageAuthor J.K. Rowling knows how to cast a spell on readers with her enthralling stories. But she and her publisher probably wish they had a magic wand that could undo the troublesome technical defect in the faulty first run of the ebook version of her new novel, The Casual Vacancy.

A formatting error in the initial file downloaded from Amazon and Barnes and Noble caused some e-readers to display the font in a size either too large or too small to easily read. The publisher, Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, has issued a corrected version, and consumers who purchased the defective version have either been notified by the retailer they purchased from, or are recommended to contact that retailer, to download the fixed file.

While the formatting snafu reportedly only occurred with e-readers-and not smartphones or tablets-the mishap, and the negative publicity generated from it, has caused e-book publishers and authors to sit up and take notice. "For my company, such a glitch would have caused severe problems and dented my sales expectations severely," says Deborah Emin, publisher, Sullivan Street Press, Kew Gardens, NY. "Any author expects the (publisher) to know how to do these simple tasks such as properly format a title for the e-readers it is sold on."

Ellen Violette, president of Create A Splash, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based e-marketing and writing consulting firm, says the problem in this instance was compounded by the fact that Rowling is a celebrity scribe.

"When it's an unknown author, it's generally not a huge problem because you don't have thousands of buyers going there unless you're doing an e-book launch or tour," says Violette. "It's always a big problem with a known author of the caliber of Rowling when people are lining up waiting for the release. And thousands if not hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars can be lost."

Violette says instances where ebook titles are rushed out and distributed prematurely before quality control is carefully checked happens a lot more than people realize. Case in point: The ebook version of "Reamde," Neal Stephenson's novel from 2011, was riddled with errors in its first incarnation.

Sriram Panchanathan, senior vice president of digital solutions for Aptara, a digital publishing services and content technology solutions provider in Falls Church, Va. that works with major publishers like Harper Collins, Random House, and Wiley, says electronic publishers face many challenges that result in problems like those suffered by Rowling's e-book.

"If you compare the cycle for pre-press typesetting for print books versus ebooks, it's very different. The process for producing a print book is a lot more rigorous, and there are more levels of quality control," says Panchanathan, who added that the production time for ebooks is much shorter than for print versions, which can lead to mistakes.

Additionally, Panchanathan says, ebooks have to be optimized for and tested out on several different devices. "At any step in the conversion and production process, errors can be introduced. They can be errors in the metadata, compatibility issues, or even style setting issues."

The silver lining, however, is that it's quicker, easier, and much less expensive to correct a problem with an ebook than a print book, says Panchanathan.

"An ebook is basically a software product. Replacing the software can literally be done with the press of a button by posting an update or patch," he says.

To safeguard against ebook technical errors, "publishers should be the first buyers and read the book just like a customer would. And they should build in more time in the production process and have a more exhaustive checklist," Panchanathan says.

Violette says it's also a good idea to ensure that your hosting company has the necessary bandwidth and adequate protection against site crashes.

As for how to react in the event of an ebook glitch, Emin recommends a swift and accountable response.

"If I were Rowling," says Emin, "I would be furious and, given her access to the press, make a very strong statement about this and offer her readers some kind of compensation. (Little, Brown) should have offered a refund or a free book from their catalog. They instead responded in a let-them-eat-cake manner. Their answer-go to the retailer and ask them to reload it-(was) truly a bad way to handle this. A refund would have been a smarter move."

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