Last month, I finally took the plunge and purchased my first eInk device, the new Nook. I write that with some guilt, since I have been working with ebooks for about three years now and have never made it a habit of reading on a device specifically devoted to digital reading. I couldn’t be happier to join the ranks of those reading on eInk, as the new Nook is a wonderful device – simple, intuitive, and uncluttered. My colleague Peter Costanzo has his own review of the new Nook and Kobo Touch eInk devices up on his blog, Bookcurrents, in case you’re interested in learning more about how the two compare.
The touch screen is responsive and clear. The “flashing” that has been the hallmark of eInk until now has been minimized to approximately every sixth page turn. The slider mechanism for browsing between pages is fluid and feels as easy as fanning the pages of a book. When looking for a passage I want to reread, the process is just as easy as it is in a print equivalent – better, in fact, since I also have a robust search feature.
I love that Barnes & Noble decided against a physical keyboard. When eReaders devote 30% of their real estate to keyboards, they feel to me like devices for searching and purchasing that double as devices for reading. The focus of the Nook is on experiences, not on transactions, which is more than can be said for the Kindle. The new Nook, which fulfils much of the promise of the first touch screen eInk Sony Reader at a lower price, is, for the moment, the gold standard of eReaders. But on the subject of experiences, the same relentless focus on quality cannot be said for the titles that one reads on an eInk device.
In the past three years of digital publishing, we’ve declared “turning points,” “tipping points,” and “points of no return” regarding ebooks to the extent that I’m sure most publishers are tired of discussing seismic business model changes. But I feel that as we become more consumer-centric as an industry, the introduction of a truly print-equivalent eInk device reflects a more important (and perhaps more subjective) change in ebooks:
eReaders are now crafted with greater quality and an eye toward the reader experience than ebooks themselves.
Don Linn, a member of the Digital Book World Roundtable and one of my favorite voices in publishing for level-headed, cogent commentary, had an instructive blog post last month that I think offers a good baseline for what we should be focusing on in digital publishing today. Regarding the most pressing issues in publishing, he wrote:
“Quality of the work (And let’s stop calling it ‘content’, dammit; “content” comes from boiler rooms…books come from the heart.) We are, at bottom, a creative business. We are fighting for share of mind against hundreds of alternatives and if we do not put our best foot forward with regard to the titles we acquire, the care we give to the editorial process, and to the production quality of both our print and digital books, we won’t (and don’t deserve to) survive and prosper. When I see a poorly conceived, apparently unedited or copy-edited, badly designed book, that is produced (whether in hardcover, paperback or in a digital edition) in what is obviously the cheapest possible way, I fear for our future. Resources are limited, but if we can’t produce consistent quality, then let’s reduce quantities until we can. Nobody wants to buy a bad product.”
We’re not there yet. Here’s why:
Recently, I decided to compare a new ebook bestseller by a television personality and a key backlist title from a classic bestselling detective writer (I’ll withhold titles to protect the innocent – and the not so innocent).
First, the good news. The new ebook bestseller is a great example of some of the best practices that can make ebooks a pleasure to read. The ebook opens on a cover (the same cover as in print I should add) and moves directly into a modified nav menu that gives three options: Start Reading, go to the TOC, or look at the copyright information, which is conveniently placed at the end of the ebook. Images that appear in the book, while not enlargeable (the Nook is not a multi-touch device that allows you to pinch-to-zoom, but neither is a print book), are centered and appear in line with the text. There is clear information hierarchy – new chapters start on new pages and the chapter header text is larger than the body text. The front matter (which we should start calling back matter), doesn’t include any residual references to print materials – no “first printing” notes or print ISBNs.
The backlist book I finished on the Nook is another story. It opens to a generic cover and moves to a poorly formatted front matter area where the author name inexplicably falls on two lines. In the imprint name, an upper case “I” has been mistakenly digitized as a “1.” The only explanation I can posit for this is that whoever did QA on the ebook checked it with a sans-serif font and missed this.
On the positive side, the front matter has been minimized. For publishers who make the mistake of not moving copyright information to the back of an ebook, much of the “free sample” offered by major retailers is instead used up with useless page turns (which often contain ISBN and copyright information that describe the print version, rather than the ebook ISBN). The body text has extra line breaks in between paragraphs, which on larger text size settings wastes a lot of screen real estate on white space. The Nook allows the reader to set their own margins and line spacing, so this unchangeable extra spacing becomes very disconcerting when the dialogue is rapid-fire.
That said, this particular backlist ebook is not anything close to the worst. I’ve seen all of the following:
- Indexes displayed as unreadable images.
- Missing symbols that were included in the print book but simply don’t display in the crippled browser environment of eReaders.
- Inclusion of consumable content (workbooks, fill-in-the-blank spots) that is impossible to use unless you feel like taking a sharpie to your Kindle.
- References on the cover and in the text to content that simply doesn’t exist in the ebook, such as an included CD.
The list goes on. For a prescriptive post on how publishers can begin to think about the QA process as an all-hands approach, Fran Toolan has some solid pieces of advice. Short version: your house needs to be buying, reading, and thinking about ebooks in their natural environments.
Of course, that backlist ebook’s publisher might contest, “that key backlist book was digitized three years ago, before we knew all these best practices – our titles moving forward are much better” and they would be correct. As someone with Quality Assurance experience, I know that effective QA is tough, time consuming, and hard to do when most (or close to all) publishers are outsourcing the original ePub creation.
But consumers don’t realize or care, nor should they, that publishing has had some catching up to do.
While new ebooks may look better than their predecessors, the digitization strategy undertaken by most publishers, wherein key backlist books were digitized first so they could be available as soon as consumers started purchasing ebooks en masse, has heightened this problem. Because of this strategy, the popular backlist ebooks I’m most likely to search for are also most likely to have lacked were produced without an effective eye towards design.
This has been a subject that I’ve been thinking about since 2009 when Liza Daly gave a presentation at Digital Book World entitled “Getting Past Good Enough eBooks.” Most of the lessons she enunciated then hold true today – because many publishers still haven’t reimagined their ebooks as digitally native products and because the poor quality ebooks created in 2008 and beyond are still in the marketplace.
I’m not sure who will be the first publisher to quietly start fixing those mistakes, and in fact to do so would be expensive both in time and resources, but until publishers begin taking QA seriously, great book content will continue to look outclassed by lower quality, but digitally native content. Publishers can be rightfully proud that in many cases, the books they acquire are of greater substance than those that are self-published. To me, though, buying ebooks is still a crap-shoot for two reasons:
- There is no accepted minimum standard for ebook quality that can be displayed on a title’s retail description that differentiates ebooks that are lovingly crafted from those that go through an automated conversion from a Word Document.
- Consumers have no way of realizing that an agency, Big Six ebook that costs $9.99 will be better designed than a self-published title that costs $0.99. Nor should they. In the marketplace today, many publishers who have great book content couch their ebooks in bad formatting, design, and usability. Most ebook readers have been bitten not once, but many times, by badly created ebooks. Ask any of them. Really.
If traditional publishers want to express their value-add to a title’s production, the ebook should be more than just professionally copy-edited. It should be designed. The ebook should be created from more than just a printer’s PDF and flipped around in two days.
As I’ve been thinking about the relaunch of the Publishing Innovation Awards over at my day job at Digital Book World, a commitment to quality in ebooks has been my top priority. The retailers such as B&N, Amazon, and Kobo, the ones who have the direct relationship with customers, know that readers are a discerning lot, and they’ve put quality at the top of their priority list. I encourage you and your house to do the same.
 One quibble I have with Peter’s blog post: the conclusion. Personally, I think that the Nook is the best device on the market today. It’s not a “half-generation” device that you should watch while you wait for the next Kindle. Seriously. Go to a B&N and try it out for yourself. You’ll love it.
 As a side note, copyright information in the front of an ebook is a pet peeve of mine. The ebook that is packaged with Apple’s iBooks is a perfect example of how annoying excessive front matter can be. When opening that title for the first time on an iPhone, the reader has to turn the page 8 times before they even reach the dedication. For some readers, this will be their first experience with an ebook – having to page forward that many times sets a bad precedent for the experience of digital reading.