Amazon’s Kindle ebooks will bear a label warning customers of content and formatting errors starting February 3, 2016. If publishers don’t work to correct the errors in their ebooks, they could be facing hundreds, if not thousands, of their products being deemed faulty in some way.
As a proofreader of a prominent Canadian publisher, I was informed of Amazon’s new quality-assurance program for ebooks last week. While my publisher is officially happy to comply and improve the quality of its ebooks, it is also unofficially unhappy to be strong-armed into addressing issues that are so trivial to most readers they are non-existent. And us proofreaders get to do all the glorious grunt work.
But let’s take a step back to understand the situation with Amazon’s new program.
A Two-Pronged Approach
Amazon defines two levels of errors: non-critical and critical. Which error level an ebook reaches determines how Amazon will label it and whether or not Amazon will pull the ebook from their digital shelves.
Non-critical, or minor, errors are those that don’t affect customers’ ability to read an ebook. Typos, spelling mistakes, incorrect punctuation, soft hyphens, and unsupported characters are all non-critical. These issues will create a label in the ebook’s details page that specifies the errors. It is up to the consumer whether the non-critical errors warrant refraining from purchasing the labeled ebook.
Critical errors do affect an ebook’s readability. Some of the critical errors include the following: poor image quality covers; formatting errors, such as extra-wide margins, poor line breaks, and improperly separated paragraphs; duplicated text; and missing content or wrong content. Ebooks with critical errors will also have a label detailing the error. However, if Amazon determines that the errors make an ebook unreadable, they will make the ebook unavailable. Even if consumers wanted to take a risk and purchase ebooks with critical errors, they wouldn’t be able to.
The full rundown on their error classification system can be found on their website, here.
Reporting to Publishers
Because an error label could be harmful to an ebook’s sale and the publisher’s and author’s reputation, Amazon is reporting the errors directly to the publisher. If the publisher remedies the errors and resubmits their ebooks, Amazon will not label or will remove the label from the corrected ebooks.
Amazon promises to deliver weekly error reports to publishers until further notice. Already Amazon has delivered reports to publishers with an initial list of problematic ebooks, giving a week for publishers to address the worst offenders before the program goes live.
In its reports to publishers, Amazon lists the specific version of the ebook in question and a short description of the error. Even though Amazon may specify the location of the error on the ebook’s details page in the Kindle Store for customers, Amazon does not notify publishers of the error’s location.
Who Is Finding These Errors?
You, the reader. Consumers can report errors online for any ebook they have purchased. Consumers with Kindle e-readers can also report midread with a few taps through the menus on their Kindle devices.
Error reporting is nothing new, though. Consumers have always been able to report problems with their products to Amazon, and Amazon has endeavored to ensure and maintain the quality of its products. Publishers have also always welcomed feedback directly from readers via mail, email, phone, and customized reporting forms on their websites.
This is the first time, however, that the reported errors will be made public on the ebooks’ product pages until amended.
The blogger John Dopp in his post on the issue states that he spoke with a Kindle Direct Publishing representative. The representative said that Amazon employees must confirm the error reports manually—no computer tricks here—before Amazon sends its reports to publishers. By manually validating error reports, Amazon will ensure that they do not provide false reports to publishers.
The Benefit for Consumers
From a consumer stand point, Amazon’s new program is nothing but good. The program itself is encouraging to consumers insofar that it shows that Amazon takes its quality control seriously. The program might even encourage consumers to report errors in ebooks if readers now know that their efforts can truly make a difference.
Which is important in the world of ebooks, where self-published and digital-first or digital-only products are pumped out much quicker than print ones are. Quality concerns have long been plaguing the ebook world. Unreadable ebooks are unacceptable—consumers pay good money for ebooks and have the right to expect them to be in good, readable form.
That consumers will be unable to purchase and download ebooks with critical errors saves consumers time and money from purchasing faulty product. In addition, Amazon’s push for publishers to fix the critically faulty ebooks is a soft promise to consumers that the ebooks will be corrected and available for sale once again, hopefully in a timely fashion.
The label for non-critical errors in ebooks is more to the personal taste of consumers. If consumers do not want to purchase ebooks that have typos, misspellings, or improper punctuation and the like, then consumers can make more informed ebook purchases.
Either way, the consumer-generated error labels alert potential consumers to the technical errors contained in an ebook—errors that consumers otherwise would have to swim through piles of reviews to find or might find out only after purchase.
The Problem for Publishers
The problem is that Amazon, so far, is not being transparent about its policies regarding the program—at least not to publishers.
For one, Amazon has not told publishers how many consumers must report an error before Amazon moves to validate it and report that error to the publisher. Is one reader’s report of a misspelled word enough for Amazon to respond, or must dozens or hundreds of readers report it?
For two, Amazon has not told publishers that it will validate reports (I got that little detail from the blog article by John Doppler), and nor by what methods. If that one reader reports that “favourite” is misspelled, will Amazon confirm what dictionary the book is using and ignore the report if the book is following the Oxford English Dictionary? And if a publisher decides to stet an error Amazon has flagged, will Amazon accept the publisher’s decision?
For three, Amazon has not provided timetables for when it will apply its labels to ebooks. In its initial reports to publishers, Amazon has detailed which titles will receive a label when the program first goes live, but all the other titles that Amazon has identified as problematic do not have dates for their labels. How much time will Amazon give publishers to correct their ebooks before Amazon labels them as faulty?
For four, the majority of publishers do not have the resources to address all the reported errors in their ebooks. Since Amazon doesn’t detail the locations of the reported errors and lists the errors for only one edition of an ebook, publishers must find the errors themselves and find them across all editions and reissues of that text. That means if one book was first released as a standalone, then rereleased in a two-in-one, then included in a box set, and finally excerpted in other books, the publisher must find all those editions and correct every one of them. Many publishers, especially small or independent houses, do not have enough people or time to go on these scavenger hunts in addition to their usual busy, deadline-driven workloads.
The last concern is really for consumers, and that is whether or not Amazon will provide customers for free with the new, corrected versions of previously labelled ebooks. Will only future customers benefit from the error reporting and mending process? If Amazon does provide customers with the corrected versions, readers will surely lose any highlighted text, notes, and bookmarks they had on the old version, since the text itself has been altered.
The program is nearing launch, and the one question publishers have is “How will this affect sales?” How will consumers respond to the new labels on Amazon? Will they refrain from purchasing ebooks with a label indicating non-critical errors? Will consumers care?
Publishers won’t know until the numbers come in and their sales decrease, increase, or stay the same. Many publishers don’t want to take the risk and are jumping to fix the errors Amazon has reported. No one wants their books labelled as faulty, and certainly no one wants their books pulled from Amazon’s shelves altogether.
Amazon is powerful. Just by enacting this one new program, they are making publishers jump. If all publishers banded together and refused as a unit not to respond to non-critical errors (critical errors are still important to fix because all ebooks should be readable), they could tell Amazon that they will not be bullied into worrying over piddling errors. Together, publishers might have the strength to influence Amazon to remove its non-critical error labels.
We proofreaders, typesetters, editors, and publishers do our utmost to ensure that our books are of the highest quality and meet the highest standards. We welcome feedback to widen our knowledge and improve our skills and to better ourselves as members of the publishing and literary communities. However, branding our ebooks as faulty or of poor quality because of a few non-critical mistakes like typos is extreme.
Human mistakes and errors do happen. Most books will have one or two typos and other inconsequential errors. Unless a book is mired in such mistakes, the overlooked typos don’t make a book unreadable or any less enjoyable. Oftentimes, our brains fix the errors without our realizing it—that’s often how the errors are missed in the first place. I challenge you to find a book that is free of any error.
So the question readers have to consider is “Do you want to see the majority of ebooks bearing a label warning against typos and spelling errors?”