February 1, 2010


Posted in books, business, e-books, production, Rants, technology, Typesetting at 2:42 pm by India

Left: Eirik Newth. Right: Me.
Easy mistake; could happen to anyone, we’re so alike. Except that, y’know, he’s a genius.

Here (with some corrections), in case anybody else interpreted my posts from this weekend in similar ways, is a way-too-long comment I just posted in response to Doyce Testerman’s Publishing, Charlotte*, and John*. You should start there, or it won’t make much sense. The part of Doyce’s post where poor Eirik gets dragged into things and where my grumbling gets taken somewhat out of context is at the very end:

In the postscript to this piece, Eirik Newth explains why Big Publishing consistently cites costs to create ebooks that fall miles outside my experience and expectation.

Short version: they’re doing it wrong.

Long version:

Publishers are still producing paper books the “X-Acto–and–wax” way and then outsourcing their e-book production to other companies, which probably automate the conversion process, and then they’re not practicing any kind of QA on what comes back, because nobody gives a shit, because the people who make the decisions don’t read e-books.

No wonder they think making an ebook is an expensive, time-consuming process.

Yes, you read that right. Publishers aren’t producing workable electronic files when they produce a paper book — their product essentially has to be OCR’d by a third party company to get an ebook out of it. They start with a hardcopy and make someone else turn it into an electronic version, which they’ll never read.

Oops. So I sez to him I sez, No, actually, you didn’t read that right:

Hi, Doyce.

Thanks for linking. The post “What’s been gnawing at me lately” is, in fact, by me; only the photo is by Eirik. Although he is an author and an e-book aficionado and has a lot to say on the subject [of e-books, not what’s been gnawing at me lately], it’s usually in Norwegian; worth reading, if you can bear automatic translation (or if you read Norge).

A couple of things.

Regarding the snorking over the word monopoly, the point is not that anybody thinks Macmillan doesn’t have a monopoly on its content, it’s that it’s such an obvious statement—most manufacturers have monopolies on what they produce. Amazon has a monopoly on the Kindle; oooh, spooky! So Amazon is treating its customers like idiots, trying to make this normal state of affairs sound like an evil conspiracy when, in fact, it’s Amazon that’s using its near-monopoly in online bookselling to punish Macmillan for trying to negotiate new terms.

About Charlotte, she has other options, if she really “just wants to read.” I’m a starving graduate student, and I simply don’t pay for e-books at all, unless they’re technical books I need for school or work. It helps that I tend not to read any book published after 1850 to begin with, so most of what I want to read is in the public domain.

The pricing change that Macmillan is trying to implement is no different from the pricing scheme that’s been in effect for books for decades: the book is released first as an expensive hardcover, and only those people who have to have it right now buy it. Everyone else waits for it to go on remainder or get released in a less expensive paperback. In certain genres (mysteries, science fiction, military, etc.), readers can count on being able to buy a mass-market paperback even more cheaply, if they can just wait long enough. Nobody is saying that e-books are going to always cost $15, throughout the life of the book. Rather, a book will cost $15 until sales drop off, then it’ll probably go to $10, and when sales slow again at that rate, it’ll drop to $5. If Charlotte doesn’t want to spend $15, she can simply not read frontlist books; frontlist is a tiny slice of what’s available for sale at any given moment.

And lastly, what I’m saying about the X-Acto and wax technique is directed to book designers, who make up a lot of my readership, and further up in that post I linked to an earlier rant explaining in greater detail what I meant. I’m sorry if [that (Obviously not if, you ninny, since it clearly was unclear. —Ed.)] that was unclear. My point is not that the books have to be OCR’d to make e-books out of them. That’s simply not true, except in the case of converting pre-digital-production backlist—let’s say, books published before 1985, though it’s probably a bit later—as I describe in a comment near the bottom of the page. My point about the X-Acto thing is that files are being created in ways that are not easy to convert. They’re digital, of course. They’ve been digital for years. But because of the way they’re put together, converting them to e-book formats requires a lot of fiddly hand-work—basically, re-proofreading the entire text—that is apparently not getting done. Some publishers have been using an XML workflow for years—Cambridge University Press is one—but it’s still a relatively new process, so a lot of trade publishers have not yet gotten around to converting things.

I hear you with the story about John; I’ve worked with Johns everywhere I’ve ever worked. But the problem [in book production] is not that the tool is sitting in front of them and they won’t learn it, it’s that the tools are expensive, and retraining all those people to use them is expensive, and converting an entire production process while you’ve got thousands of books halfway done is a huge headache, and there is not—has never been—enough profit in the books business to pay for that kind of thing.

Independent publishers that started up in the last five to ten years are having a much easier time of digitizing their books because they started digital, and they have a lot fewer people involved, and a lot fewer software licenses to buy, and a lot fewer salaries to pay, and a lot fewer books in production at one time. It’s much easier for them to adjust their process as they go along. They also are more likely to have direct relationships with their readers, through direct mail and e-mail, because they can’t afford to compete with larger companies on traditional advertising and promotion, and on buying placement in places like Barnes & Noble. (The consolidation of publishing companies over the last several years is a big villain in all this, and Barnes & Noble’s massive superstore deployment in the 1990s definitely helped set the stage for what Amazon is doing now.) Does that mean all the big publishers are big bad meanies and are doomed and deserve to go out of business? Well, I don’t think so, and I don’t think that would be a good thing for readers or writers.

I could go on, but I would probably grow even less articulate as I did so. I apologize for taking up so much space. But my point is that the situation is more complex than you’re making it out to be [and that I’m not Eirik]. Please go back to my post and follow more of the links. Much of what I linked to is intended for insiders, but Scott Westerfeld’s Zinc Blinked and Tobias Buckell’s Why My Books Are No Longer Available on Amazon.com are particularly good overviews directed at general readers.

Thanks again. Sorry for the confusion, and the blathering.

Photos: Self-portrait: at work while waiting for plane in Harstad by Eirik Newth; some rights reserved. November 21, 2007, 1:38 pm by India Amos; all rights reserved.


  1. Eirik Newth said,

    First my picture of Linus, and then a picture of me? I’m flattered – srsly. :-)

  2. India said,

    That’s what happens when you CC-license your photos!

  3. Elisabeth said,

    Hey, anyone could get you two mixed up. You both have two cats, and you’re both very clever. (I’m thinking I should probably CC-license all the pictures I’ve got of you and your cats, to give the world more pictures to chose from.)

  4. India said,

    Well, see, Creative Commons is a tricksy thing: I usually CC-license all my photos except those that are of me or of other people I know, because I wouldn’t want anyone using a picture of me or of any of my friends without the subject’s permission. Accordingly, even though all of Eirik’s photos are licensed by-nc, I felt squicky about using his self-portrait without asking him first.

    Is it really okay, Eirik?

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