When Editors Don’t

One of the main arguments publishers make for how they add value in the book ecosystem is production values: a professionally edited and designed book will be attractive, clean, and readable. Why is it, then, that the e-reader versions of so many books from major publishers are riddled with obvious design mistakes? I have seen:

  • No chapter divisions
  • Non-interactive indices keyed to physical page numbers (useless in a “location”-based Kindle book)
  • Drop capitals formatted inconsistently within a book
  • Endnotes with no way to navigate between note number and note
  • Unnecessary hyphens wherever there were line breaks in the physical book
  • Typographically incorrect quotation marks
  • Repeated passages

The inescapable conclusion is that the publishers either didn’t notice these issues or didn’t care enough to fix them. Now, perhaps publishers believe that readers don’t care about production values in electronic editions. But if not, then remind me why we we’ll need publishers in the all-digital era?

It’s the same thing in news, in music, and everywhere else you look. You don’t get to be part of the future by pointing to what you did in the past. The argument that only professionals can do good work isn’t very convincing if the professionals don’t actually do good work.

James Trying to ‘translate’ existing publishing formats to ebook formats… you might as well start from scratch.

There doesn’t seem to be purpose built WSYWG editors for ebook publishing format The ones I have seen are reminiscent of web authoring apps back in 1996.

Do you know of any equivalents to quark/publisher et al, explicitly aimed at ‘e.pub’ design ?

‘Drop capitals formatted inconsistently within a book’ - one should be hung, drawn and quartered for such mortal sins!


This is what happens when readers pressure publishers to issue ebooks very, very cheap—or even free. The publishers then have to cut costs, and printing is by no means the only cost. You get what you pay for, and plenty of readers are vigorousl, loudly , and publicly asserting they don’t care what they get as long as it is cheap or free.

BUT, it is also unfair to pick up a couple of ebooks, find some glitches, and then extrapolate that all ebooks are of low quality.

Frances, these examples aren’t cherry-picked. I’ve purchased about twenty-five e-books, most of them either heavily marketed new releases or recent backlist. Once you count the issues that recur in multiple books, between a third and half of all of the e-books I’ve read have one or more of these problems.


It’s still what happens when publisher see readers insisting on all ebooks being very cheap or free. There are not only significant costs in print editing, design, proofing, etc.; transfer to eformat is by no means automatic. There is a lot of hand tweaking and the proofing has to be done all over again.

You don’t get much for cheap.

Frances, If you run the numbers, it’s the publishers who are being shortsightedly cheap, or perhaps financially inept. Deluxe formatting and proofing for a book costs under $5000. The sort of errors that James is talking about are what you get for <$1 a page conversion. When a paperback is released, the lower price is no excuse for a cover that falls off.

The QED initiative is worth publicizing. It’s an effort to set some very basic standards for ebook quality. Widespread adherence to QED would be a boost for the industry.

The book editors that we know, are only now starting to be vaguely aware of ‘epub’ as a possibility and none at all have any experience in the area , especially of XHTML type mark up language stuff. Equally most professional web authors have only basic knowledge of book design protocols. A few cracks are provably inevitable.

I see the list and the problems make complete sense in terms of converting files in an environment that requires publishers to:

  • spend as little money as possible for the conversion (due to both ROI and set production budgets),
  • create as quickly as possible to make all editions available at the same time
  • With as little training of staff as possible (see previous two points).

I think people are starting to realize that e-books are not as simple as clicking on “convert.”

InDesign will get you 75% of the way, but the rest of the process needs to be handled by hand depending on the device. As the market matures there will be better books as tools become available and workflows are normalized. It is like the early days of the web. Most designers are still learning. Most designers I know are not equipped for this process and most web designers can’t take the pay cut to do the design work.