Ebook thoughts

Finally got around to reading two things that separately ended up in my Instapaper bin. They combine in a very unsettling way which reinforces my feeling of dread about what ebooks will look like for scholars.

Thing 1: blog post at An American Editor on the prevalence of typos in ebook editions of books, particularly at the lower end of the cost scale.

Thing 2: analysis of a study of downloadable ebooks done by the American Council of Learned Societies, which sells a major collection of scholarly ebooks.

I read non-fiction, which in general translates less well into ebooks, because the formatting of notes and side-matter is generally more important. Novels are continuous streams of text and therefore translate well. Newspapers, which require browsing and skimming, don’t work so well Kindle-wise. Nobody has come up with a way of formatting substantial non-fiction that doesn’t make me want to claw my eyes out.

ACLS says the problem is that people can’t quickly scan or flip through an ebook version, or take notes on it. That is also a problem with their page-by-PDF-page web format, which, as previously mentioned, makes me want to scream. I understand that every sale counts for something with a print run of a couple thousand copies….but PDFs are for printing, not reading.

I will leave out an unrelated discussion of my feelings about needing to mark in books. I am opposed.

A scholarly publishing society says, essentially, that it’s too expensive to have humans proofread OCR texts which they know have lots of errors. They cite a .01 percent error rate. Which sounds great, except that that’s two errors per two hundred word page. They did actually end up doing some manual correction, but I am unclear from the discussion whether ACLS thinks the math works for them. For my part I’d think that a product which pays for itself in about twenty downloads would be worth investing in. The print version of Italian Manpower is $260 right now on Amazon. So, yeah, I’d pay $10-15 for a good quality scholarly ebook edition, if such a thing were for sale. The only possible market for the other price is institutional, and every library with a Roman history collection already has a copy.

Here’s why I am not sanguine. Another of my favorite classically-themed books is The Landmark Thucydides, which adds a fantastic supporting apparatus of maps, commentary, and timelines to an author who is tough going if you have to stop and look up every four-syllable small town and area he mentions. Here’s the Amazon page for the print edition. Use the Look Inside feature to see what a representative page looks like. Now go to the Kindle store and download a copy to your iPhone or iPod Touch’s Kindle app. Notice how the sidebars get jammed into the text? Notice how the maps, which are the whole point of this edition, are not legible when zoomed?

I don’t actually expect everything to work on a three and a half inch screen, and I have no idea what it looks like on a Kindle or an iPad. But I do kind of expect publishers to treat all the editions they publish as important. If you’re not going to do a good ebook edition of your work, please don’t do one. I suspect that’s the actual agenda: we’re not sure we can make money on ebooks, so let’s do them badly and make people buy the print version. I understand that ebook sales have until recently been a microscopic fraction of revenues for most publishers. But is that the chicken, or the egg?

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Boston area academic librarian and instructional designer. News junkie. Fan of marine mammals, October.