distractions: some pretty flowers (white flowers)
[personal profile] distractions
It's unfortunate that the Kindle garners media attention for something as silly as how the text-to-speech module pronounces "Barack Obama," (News flash! computer voices sound weird!) while more serious issues are ignored.

Almost since the Kindle's inception, there have been significant issues with the formatting of some titles. Problems have included large amounts of blank space between lines, backward indentation, missing first letters in each chapter, random words or lines missing with no apparent pattern, and similar errors. When Kindle users notify customer service of these problems, they are sometimes offered a refund (sometimes not) and the assurance that Amazon will "notify the publisher."

The titles with problems are hardly obscure or trivial, and this issue recently came to a head with the long-awaited release of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.  The omnibus edition was riddled with errors.  In addition to dropping characters after words with an acute accent (of which, as any Tolkien reader will know, there are many), entire phrases were dropped from random sentences.  Because these errors did not appear in the individual editions of the books, it is highly unlikely these were scanning errors, but rather conversion errors related to the omnibus edition only (which, unsurprisingly, is less expensive than buying all three volumes separately: currently the omnibus is $14.04 and the individual editions are $7.99 each).  While Amazon was notified of this problem almost immediately upon the book's release, and has continued to offer assurances that it would investigate the problems, it remains unfixed, and perhaps more disturbingly, Amazon continues to sell the flawed edition.

The formatting problems (and by formatting I include substantive errors such as omitting phrases, etc.) present a two-fold problem.  The first is alerting Amazon to these errors.  At the moment, there is no way to do this other than to send Amazon an email with as many specifics as possible -- it's probably self-evident that not every reader is willing to do this, and a more elegant method of flagging errors should be on the top of Amazon's development agenda.  

As Mobileread member Alisa recently suggested, one solution would be for Amazon to include a feature to flag an error, which would then be uploaded to Amazon (and auto-forwarded to the publisher) the next time the user connected to Amazon via Whispernet.  This type of method would harness the collective power of Amazon's readership to make improvements to the quality of its product -- an outcome which could only benefit Amazon and publishers in the long run.

Amazon, of course, can only do so much. The quality of ebooks themselves is ultimately up to the publishers, and they need to do a much better job.  No Kindle book should be released without human proofreading, and without examining how the book actually looks on a Kindle.  Yes, this costs money -- but publishers expect to charge prices for ebooks that are at least comparable to paperback prices, and readers have the right to expect the same level of quality.  

Publishers should also allow customers to directly contact them regarding errors (it's amazing how many publishers have no feedback mechanism at all for ebooks via their own web sites) and perhaps even recruit readers as proofreaders in exchange for free ebooks.  In short, it's time for publishers to get creative and find new ways to make ebooks both excellent and profitable, because if they aren't excellent, ultimately, they won't be profitable.

The second element of the problem, with respect to Amazon, relates to what happens after the publisher (hopefully) corrects errors.  Amazon tells customers that they can download updated versions of their purchased books.  Whether or not this is actually possible is unclear -- some small publishers claim it is not, but this may be a difference between big publishers and those who use Amazon's digital text publisher.  But let's assume it is possible to download an updated version.  

At the moment, there is no mechanism to allow customers, either those who have kept a problematic version of a book, those who obtained a refund, or those who heard about the problems and held off buying, that a new version has been provided by the publisher.  Amazon's product web pages for Kindle books do not include version numbers, "last updated" dates, or anything else that would alert a consumer that a new version has been released.  Amazon should also remedy this oversight, preferably by including such information on the product's page, but also by emailing purchasers of the older version to let them know that a new version is available for download.

Quality counts -- it doesn't matter if Amazon sells the best e-reader in the history of the universe if its customers become so disillusioned with the quality of the product that they give up on ebooks altogether.   I love my Kindle -- I truly do, and I do not want to open each new ebook with trepidation, knowing that it might include easily fixable problems that make reading at least less pleasurable, if not impossible.

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August 2010

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