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?

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday

In which I attempt to unfold my somewhat odd arms-length relationship with pro football. College football has never really done much for me, though I did feel like the OSU-Michigan game was a bit of home while I was living in South Carolina. It’s NFL week 2, and I find myself wondering what the games are this week even though I probably won’t pay all that much attention to them while they’re on.

I am a man of no team, which makes me an oddball. It’s relevant that I grew up a Cleveland Browns fan in the 80’s, hanging on all the last-second outcomes of the Cardiac Kids. It’s partly a reaction to the emotional trauma of The Drive and The Fumble. (Note, by the way, how much better Wikipedia is at documenting trauma than joy. Best thing in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is his realization that fandom is inherently about pain). It’s partly about Bill Belichick dismantling that team as part of his first step toward becoming what he is now. It’s partly about fraking Art Modell. All of this pain is twenty years old, but I still feel it.

I like watching long spirals, and the unfolding of blocking schemes, and a well-run West Coast offense. I like fingertip catches and open-field tackles, and the two-minute drill.

I am not a fan of hype or manufactured drama or advertising which plays on people’s obsessions to sell crap or weirdly frenetic graphical sidebars which purport to provide information but which actually just draw attention away from the game. I’m looking at you, Fox, with your bizarre football robots.

Must be time to check the broadcast map and see what’s on in my TV region.

Ebooks are a mess

Was reading Tim O’Reilly’s comment that ebooks, especially EPUB ones, are essentially web pages which have been locked away from the web. I wish they would just converge already so there will be some findable authoritative editions. My own experience of ebooks lately has been about pain, largely to do with bad metadata. Two projects this week: looking for Thomas Hobbes’ translation of Thucydides, and looking for a copy of the Koran.

Hobbes’ translation was done in the 17th century. It’s definitely out of copyright. There’s a version in Early English Books Online, which I try not to use because I’m offended that it’s so expensive that only about two dozen libraries in the country can afford it. There’s a version at the Online Library of Liberty, which looks to have been directly ripped from someone else’s scan and completely conceals where it comes from. Google Books has part of it, volume eight of Hobbes’ complete works, but I spent half an hour trying to figure out whether they had volume nine. There’s also an 1823 edition, but they’ve maddeningly regularized the spelling. Also, I can have a PDF or I can have EPUB based on an annoyingly bad OCR job. Internet Archive seems to have it, but again I can’t tell whether they have all of it or not. Elapsed time: forty-five minutes. Kindle edition, elapsed time fourteen seconds. Except that it’s the same version in Google Books.

Failing OCR, which doesn’t work terribly well on older books, I need to be able to put the details of particular editions into my searches and have them work. A little help here?