Thoughts on Errors, Publishing, and eBook Quality

Here’s a good question raised by GalleyCat: “How Should Publishers Respond to eBook Errors? This comes in light of Amazon having to replace the newly-released yet poorly-edited Neal Stephenson Kindle ebook, Reamde.

Customers who were willing to shell out the hefty $17 for the Kindle version seem, understandably, pissed:

“One customer called for a 75 percent refund: “this level of carelessness is inexcusable on economic grounds. I’d expect to find format errors and mangled content in a pirated ebook, not in a $17 Kindle edition. When I purchase an ebook 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.”

(Credit to for getting the scoop on this earlier this week: “Neal Stephenson E-Book Yanked from Amazon!”)

To answer GalleyCat’s question about the best wayto address ebook errors: don’t have them. Anyone who’s read more than a few ebooks has probably noticed a couple of errors (if not more). Whether those ebook errors are a matter of line-spacing, odd punctuation errors, pages in wrong places, or — perhaps most egregious and annoying of all — typos, the reputation of the quality of ebook offerings still leaves something to be desired.

Perhaps this is all part of the growing pains of a publishing industry still in the process of figuring itself out — perhaps an unfortunate result of publishers forced to reduce staff, while at the same time attempting to meet the pressure of offering more and more ebook titles. What does seem clear is that the system in place isn’t perfect. Here’s an idea, that would solve some of those problems, while also being suggestive about what it might mean for the publisher/reader relation: could there be a crowd-sourced solution to ebook errors? There are a lot of sharp-eyed ebook readers out there, and much like software error-reporting, could be done quickly, and curated by the publishers themselves. Strength in numbers and all that. I doubt something like that would actually happen anytime soon. But, still.

Check out Wired: “Steven Levy on Typos in the Kindle Age” and his own Kindle error-finding experience:

“So why is my title page still wrong? According to’s Drew Herdner, “When we find a copyediting or formatting error in a book, we ask the publisher for a new file and replace the one in the Kindle Store so that new purchases of the book do not have the error. We will update the file for a book a customer has already purchased only when the customer asks us to.”

“But when you are connected to an e-reading service, the seller does have the capability to mess with the content on your device, whether you ask it to or not.”

The question of digital content that lives in the cloud is a tricky question of ownership (see: Amazon, 1984).But just as there are less-comforting implications for this digital existence of our ebooks, there could, in theory, be some usefulness:

“But sometimes a book can stand a little mending. Consider the case of a copyediting mistake that changes the meaning of a crucial sentence in a novel. Or a nonfiction author who wants to enrich a book with a new chapter about developments in the field. And wouldn’t a travel book be improved if it reflected new places to visit and current phone numbers?”

It’s only natural that unhappy customers are going to complain to Amazon (as Levy did, in fact), Google, Barnes & Noble, and wherever they happen to buy these faulty books. But, this is a serious and rather embarrassing problem for publishers. And, as in the case of Reamde, when readers are paying nearly the same price as a hardcover edition, it’s sort of a rip-off. And kind of embarrassing for publishers.

This is also a popular topic over at, “The biggest ebook issue: quality

[update: TeleRead also has other thoughts on this topic, which you can check out here, here, and here. As the folks at TeleRead ask in one of these posts: “We don’t tolerate any typos in printed books, so why should we tolerate them in e-books?”]


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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