Quality Control: It Matters

July 28th, 2009 · 14 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

I posed a question last week and received no response. I didn’t expect one because it addresses issues great and small, depending on how you approach it. I was looking at it from a narrow perspective, but you know how it goes: the more you think about something, the bigger it becomes. So here goes.

Are publishers undermining their own arguments through lack of quality control?

I asked this question in the narrow context of ebook prices, addressing, specifically, the issue of lousy final layout in digital books. So much effort goes into the acquisition, editing, and marketing of a book. So much is destroyed when the final product is near-unreadable. It’s hard to argue for the value of a book when the publisher of that book throws a sloppy edition at the market.

I am talking about a digital file where every line (and paragraph) is double-spaced. Talk about your uncomfortable reading experience! The publisher should have paid me for my pain and suffering. I’ll admit it: part of me kept reading because I wanted to know if the problem was ever fixed. It wasn’t. Mind you, this happened on books (plural, multiple) with digital list prices over $20.

Then there are figures and tables and lists. Oh my. I cannot express the joy of turning a page and discovering random floating text that is either a) a very bad bookish version of an Easter egg, or b) carelessly formatted sidebar text. There is something special about tables and lists that abandon the grid in favor of a random or staggered pattern.

These are the moments when I grit my teeth because screaming might disturb the neighbors. Quality control issues undermine every publisher claim that higher prices for ebooks are justifiable (for today’s laugh, check out the pricing of mass market paperback versus ebook from HarperCollins here and one from Simon & Schuster here). Why should I, as a reader, be expected to respect the supposed value of a book when the publisher doesn’t offer the book, nor me, that same respect, via pricing and quality?

I have heard excuses. It’s Amazon’s fault! It’s because we outsource our conversion! It’s new! We’re still working out the kinks of our process (ah, gee, thanks, love that)! It’s only a small part of the market! Tables? Nobody told us that book had tables!

For years now (maybe forever), readers have been complaining about the quality of books: poorly written stories sold at hardcover prices; light or seemingly non-existent editing, particularly copyediting (for the record, there is a difference between “sheer” and “shear”); books that fall apart after one or two reads.

For years now (maybe forever), publishers have remained silent about these complaints. Readers aren’t taking this in a meek and mild fashion. And publishers don’t help their arguments with silence or, in rare responses, defensiveness. I’ve been on a “listen to readers” kick recently for good reason: they remain, once again, the people who buy books and talk about books.

This week, the industry is excited about the possibility that, finally!, Apple will sell the long-rumored tablet computer. If it does, it will be flashy, sexy, reliable, and, oh, pricey. The Financial Times reports that Apple is talking to book publishers; Business Insider uses the term “Kindle Kiler”. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen.

But the consumer who invests in a high-priced toy (and, yes, I am looking in the mirror) will have expectations of quality. As these devices bring new digital readers into the market, these readers will expect quality and consideration. Oh, and they’re connected to the world 24/7. Right now, major corporations like Comcast are reaping rewards due to smart customer service.

Here’s hoping major publishers do the same.

File Under: Back To Basics

14 responses so far ↓

  • Chris // Jul 28, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    The big publishers can’t seem to get into their heads that readers (you know, the little people) are their customers, not just the booksellers. Quality control is a huge deal, especially in this economy where discretionary spending money is at a premium. Disdain as a business model is not going to work. Readers need to be offered not only a quality product, but a high class experience as well. Yes, publishers need to offer innovative products to remain relevant, but understanding the needs of their customers is key to brand loyalty.

    Big publishing has an identity problem: it doesn’t yet understand that it is a B2B model in a B2C world. Niche marketing to the public needs to be exploited on a wider scale to give readers a chance to connect with the company. There are no certainties in this industry: when authors change publishers they take their audience with them- oops. Company branding, with an adherence to high standards, needs to come into play.

  • Gil Roth // Jul 28, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I NEVER buy a book on Kindle without downloading a sample first and checking out the typography. Peter L. Bernstein’s “Against the Gods” was the e-book that convinced me to do this. The serifed typography, many typos, and poor formatting of graphs made the e-book interminable.

    Recently, I thought I’d reread “Bonfire of the Vanities.” I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and discovered that the publisher apparently used OCR on a 10th generation Xerox of the book to make the file. Thanks for charging $9.99 for a crappy transfer of the text of a 25-year-old book. No sale!

    Seriously, if you use a Kindle, ALWAYS download a sample before purchasing an e-book.

    (I know this doesn’t solve the core problem of poor QA/QC, but I only have reader-side advice.)

  • Chris // Jul 28, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Personally, from a consumer perspective, I look at products as an extension of the company producing them. Put out a quality product and you are recognized as a quality company. When a DTB comes out where the binding starts to fall apart after one or two reads, or the digital file is improperly formatted, what does that say about the company producing it?

    If I buy a $20 DVD player from a discount store, I know I am buying a cheap DVD player. If I go out any pay $200 for a DVD player, I expect the quality to be much higher.

    I would be perfectly willing to pay for a quality ebook. There is even room for enhancing the ebook experience with digital enhancements (links to websites…). Leaving images out of ebooks (while referring to the images in the text), improper formatting, and other digital errors tells me that the publisher doesn’t care about it enough to put out a quality product. If you don’t care about quality, don’t expect me to pay a premium for it.

  • Rich Adin // Jul 29, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Although problems like double-spacing are annoying, there is nothing worse than a poorly edited book — at least to me. That’s probably because I have been editing books for publishers for 25 years and have witnessed the decline in editing over the years.

    The problems with book quality — both e and p — are a result of many trends including the need to show quarterly profits for short-term investors, the invisibility of the value that good editing and typography add to a book, the thought that because one spotted an error in a book one is qualified to be an editor or a proofreader, and the Internet, Twitter, and e-mail.

    We have become a world of 140 bytes and acronyms and abbreviations. Students are not taught the fundamentals of grammar and speech because the teachers don’t understand either or their importance in communication. Companies look for the least expensive, not the best, supplier, so knowingly and willingly hire poorly qualified editors, proofreaders, designers, typesetters, etc. I can’t tell you how many times I have been told that my type of service can be obtained for significantly less elsewhere — and I’m charging today what I was charging in 1995!

    Publishers for the most part do not care about quality; they care about expense and profit. This includes academic presses whose standards have sharply declined in recent years (one $45 book I bought from an academic press was so badly edited that I had to stop reading it after page 56). But publishers know the big secret — people will grumble but will buy the next book because they hope/expect it will be better, or certainly no worse than the last.

    Book buyers care somewhat more than publishers but not a lot more (excluding us vocal few who are really dedicated book lovers) for several reasons, including that they have already bought the book and it can’t be returned or the hassle of returning is greater than the refund would be, and because they know no better — they think the poor grammar and typography is fine because it resembles what they read on their Twitter account.

    Sadly, ths is an unresolvable dilemma. In fact, my great prediction is that it will get worse. The ultimate arbiter will be spellcheck: If it passes spellcheck, it passes quality control.

  • Susan // Jul 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    It’s not just e-books. The lack of editing in paper books appalls me–even in expensive hardbacks produced by, say, an academic press with the books intended for an academic audience. Typos and misused words are common. Not to mention fiction–doesn’t anybody know English or punctuation any more, or the difference between “I” and “me”?

  • ReacherFan // Jul 29, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I have to agree with Rich Adin, I too can live things like double spacing, but the editing errors are egregious in even best selling hardcover books. I read one book this week and found 4 editing errors that affected the flow of the story within the first 3 pages. It’s hard enough dealing with the various writing styles, but when basic editing skills are absent it’s an insult to the reader.

    Another problem is many books seem to be edited by people for whom English seems to be a second language. The errors are consistent through the text, and it goes beyond homophones. No writer would make such an error in language.

    This goes well past bad grammar or some academic complaint scholarly texts and hits ordinary consumers where it matters, in the disruption of the story. Fiction is meant to be a coherent, cohesive whole, not something you have to fight and reread because of editing errors. Everything from missing commas to using the wrong word stops the flow, forces the reader to go back and try and work out what SHOULD have been there, and then try and get back into the story again. I’ve actually given up on both ebooks and prints books when I hit the one error too many.

    The sad part is, publishers don’t care. Surely writers must hate seeing their efforts corrupted by bad editing ruining their hard work, yet I’ve never seen a writer complain on any of the forums. I cannot help but wonder why.

  • Clive Warner // Jul 29, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I don’t really understand how it can happen on a normal PDF. It’s possible to quite easily format the book block into a nice readable PDF, in fact that’s how we make the printed book anyway, and adding the cover isn’t exactly rocket science.

  • Pauline Baird Jones // Jul 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Some of the worst problems with quality control are with NY published books. I agree, I get samples before to see if its readable.

  • Melinda Blau // Jul 29, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    I’ve resisted a kindle or other electronic reader so far, but I know at some point I’ll have to give in. Reading the above post and comments certainly strengthens my resolve to hold out as long as I can. I’m lucky because I’m about to see the publication of my book, by W.W. Norton, a company that seems to really care. (I’ve been published by other biggies, and I can’t say that’s always true). I’ve been told that Kindle and Sony versions will be available. I just have to hope that the same care Norton took to produce the hardcover they’ll apply to the electronic version. But we all better steel ourselves: Books might never disappear entirely, but ebooks are here to stay. I just hope they get better and they don’t take over!

  • KatG // Jul 30, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    There is no one in a publishing house in upper management whose job is to be in charge of quality control. They can’t afford it and they don’t know how to do it. They haven’t the money to hire the people who can do it properly. They pile on job after job responsibility on editors and cut editorial staff to the bone, making editors do the work of two, three people, especially in recessions like the current one. So editors can’t edit and new editors coming in aren’t trained much on editing. Copyediting is entirely freelance, and I’m pretty sure almost nobody checks the copyediting except the authors, many of whom aren’t trained to do it. Ditto the proofreading. And no one in the editing process handles quality control on printed books.

    Production is in charge of organizing the rounds of copyediting, proofs and getting everything to the printers, but they aren’t in charge of the printed books which go to warehouses. I doubt much quality control goes on at the warehouses. Paper, ink and glue, the big costs, are gotten as cheaply as possible. If there are problems, booksellers, wholesalers and distributors let publishers know about “errata” and they fix it in the next edition. Despite attempts to improve orders and shipping procedures, books are still shipped out in large numbers and come back in large numbers as returns. Mass market paperbacks are so unimportant that they only ship the front covers back and pulp the rest, so quality is not the big concern.

    The publishers have no electronics divisions at this point. They don’t have people who know how to do e-books. They hire companies or have Amazon do it. They have no ability to quality control e-books, and since it’s only 3% of their market, they have little incentive to make a big effort to put out a high quality product or to price it competitively. You’ll either buy it or you won’t. They don’t see a good angle for them yet in that market, and most of the profits on e-publishing are going to companies like Amazon.

    Or Sony, or Apple — big electronic firms who are the richest companies in the world, who have armies of quality control people and design techs, who have technology at their disposal that book publishers can only dream of ever obtaining — technology that the electronics companies invented, so if they want to sell e-books, they could very well use it on producing the things they are licensing. The last twenty-five years of whirlwind computer development swept right by book publishing, which was mired in the 1950’s ways of doing business. Compared to book publishers, newspapers are cutting edge.

    So of course, the book publishers want Amazon, Sony and Apple to figure it out for them and to buy the rights, figure out the pricing, give them their cut of sales and leave them out of the tech. Authors have to do most of their own publicity too. It’s been a semi-effective strategy to sit back and let others figure out things for them.

    Does that mean that authors are going to end up selling directly to Apple for e-books? Not likely, because Apple doesn’t want to invest that kind of time on little old books. They want the publishers to supply them with titles and have a big inventory of books, mags, newspapers, etc. for their e-readers and other devices.

    There’s a huge potential market for book publishers with e-books of readers who don’t buy print books and readers who do but want lots of books. But that market is not going to be there enough until Apple, Amazon and the other tech companies work out their tech infrastructure and their DRM issues, which involves many other industries besides book publishing. When they do, it will first help the newspapers, online sites and magazines, and only then will it help the book publishers. It’s going to be a clutzy, complicated, poorly financed transition.

    So yes, publishers undercut their market. They are always undercutting their market. It’s one of the most inefficient, trapped industries around. It has the fewest vendors selling its products. It makes some money, it’s glamorous, but it’s not fulfilling its potential yet. If you want change to happen, go bug Apple, not Random House. Because Random House isn’t up to it, hasn’t the money for it, and has not yet been given enough reason or guarantees to care about e-books.

    They’re waiting. And since an average print book might only sell 5,000-10,000 copies, they aren’t particularly freaked that a high priced e-book might only sell a few thousand copies. Book publishers are used to working on such small scales. They are used to readers putting up with errors because they looove books, even if those readers sometimes complain. So it’s not just a matter of quality service — it’s big shifts in how publishing operates.

    Some of the big publishing firms are working on ways to improve print operations. Unfortunately, a lot of those new experiments involve really poor terms for authors, and quite a few of them won’t work out. But there may be improvements in print or e-publishing, especially if Apple et. al. improves the tech, and also buys your argument that they can charge $50 for a game or a program, $20 for a CD or a DVD, but you want them to charge $6.99 for an e-book.

    But in the meantime, as Amazon showed you with the Kindle, nobody is going to accommodate you over what they see as their short-term profitline as they attempt to snag gadget buyers who have little else available to buy. And the tech hapless publishers least of all. It’s not going to happen yet.

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  • Helen E. H. Madden // Aug 1, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    I’ve yet to run into an e-book where I had problems with the formatting, but have run into enough e-books that were so poorly written I couldn’t believe I’d wasted money on them. There are quite a few of those out there, and it makes me wonder, who the heck is buying such drivel?

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