TT: The E-Book Elephant

JANE: So, last week, as we were ending our chat about e-books, you mentioned the elephant in the room.  I’m looking at it now, and it truly is enormous and complex.

Hello, There!

Hello, There!

ALAN: Yes – and it is also rather smelly. The elephant we’re talking about is Digital Rights Management (DRM),of course.

We spoke about this once before in relation to how DRM was created in an attempt to prevent piracy and I don’t see any point in going over that material again. But there’s one aspect of DRM that we haven’t discussed which I think is quite important.

If a book has DRM attached to it, I can’t edit it and tweak things. You may well ask why I’d want to do that…

JANE: I have a suspicion, but go ahead: Why would you ever want to fiddle with a published book?

ALAN: I’m glad you asked me that. The production values on commercial e-books are often appallingly bad. The books generally require a lot of proofing and adjustment of the layout to make them acceptable to my somewhat jaundiced eyes.

Publishers seem to have a naïve faith in the efficiency of the software that creates the e-books, and they don’t seem to realise that human intervention is required. If there is no DRM, I can tweak the layout to my satisfaction. Everybody wins!

I feel sure you agree with me about the necessity for careful proofing of e-books. Didn’t you mention last time that you’d used an e-book reader to review electronic versions of your own books?

JANE: Yes.  I had to do that because of the different formatting errors that show up in print vs electronic versions. When I was working on my books, I went over them carefully and repeatedly.  Many authors (and, sadly, ostensibly professional publishers) simply run the text through a converter and consider the job done.

ALAN: I’m sure that’s exactly what they do, and in my experience it never works satisfactorily. By the way, I think the effort you put into your own e-books was well worth it. They are the best produced e-books I’ve ever seen. Well done!

JANE:  Thank you.  I was lucky that Emily of E.M. Tippetts Book Designs was extremely patient with me.

Can you give me some examples of what annoys you so much in commercial e-books?  I’m sure I’d find it educational.

ALAN: The other week we were talking about the movie The Revenant and about how I went and re-read Roger’s novel Wilderness as preparation for seeing it. Well, I also wanted to re-read Mountain Man by Vardis Fisher. The events of the movie are a minor plot thread in that book. I no longer possess my original paperback, so I went to Amazon and bought an electronic copy (with DRM of course).

JANE: Ah, yes.  As I recall from our earlier discussion, Amazon frequently puts DRM into books, even if the original publisher does not.  Go on…

ALAN: The paragraphing was appalling. There was no indentation on the first line of the paragraphs and each paragraph was separated from the next by a huge number of blank lines. I read three pages, gave up in disgust and returned the book to Amazon for a credit.

If I’d been able to edit the book, I could have fixed those problems in seconds (I know exactly what causes them). But because of the DRM, I couldn’t do that. Therefore Amazon, the publisher and the literary estate of Vardis Fisher lost a sale.

JANE: That error would have driven me nuts, too!

Can you explain what formatting choice caused this?

ALAN: One of the elements making up an e-book is something called a style sheet that defines the layout of the text. Style sheets have a formal (though quite simple) descriptive language. The particular error I mentioned will probably be caused by a style sheet entry that says something like:

text-indent: 0;
margin-top: 10pt;
margin-bottom: 10pt;

Even if you aren’t familiar with style sheets, I think it’s easy to work out what those lines will do to a paragraph, and it’s equally obvious what you have to do to fix it…

There are other possible reasons for the bizarre formatting, but this one is the most likely.

JANE: Excellent explanation!  Even I could understand it.

I’ve had it said to me that readers of e-books have a high tolerance for errors, and that my pickiness is a reflection of my background in traditional publishing.

ALAN: I’m not completely convinced of that. I do know people who are willing to tolerate formatting problems in e-books. But I have a couple of friends who are even more picky than I am, and I consider myself to be almost anally pedantic about these things!

JANE:  Sadly, even in traditional, print publishing, the error rate seems to be rising, especially for reprints.  Jim purchased some reprints of Andre Norton’s “Witch World” novels in an omnibus edition and was horrified by the number of typos.

ALAN: Indeed so. And lately I’ve found that the copy editors (if they even exist) tend to be illiterate morons. I am so sick of seeing “could of”, “should of” etc. (And I’m also sick of seeing “ect” instead of “etc”). But with non-DRM e-books I can correct these solecisms as well.

JANE: I believe “could of” instead of “could have” has become American dialect/slang, but I agree with you.  It’s annoying.  I might use it in dialogue, but not elsewhere.

ALAN: Here’s another reason for wanting to edit an e-book that might amuse you. I have a paperback copy of What Mad Universe by Fredric Brown, published by Bantam in 1978. In the front it says:

“This low-priced Bantam book has been completely reset in a typeface designed for easy reading and was printed from new plates. It contains the complete text of the original hard cover edition.


(capitals in the original). As it happens, I also possess a first edition paperback of this novel published (by Bantam again) in 1950. This earlier edition mentions Idlewild airport. The 1978 edition updates things a bit and gives the airport its present day name of Kennedy. Therefore the one word Idlewild has been omitted. Maybe I could sue the publishers under the Trades Description Act?

If I had an e-book of the novel (I don’t) I must confess that I would take enormous delight in turning Kennedy back into Idlewild…

JANE: That’s fascinating…  It’s a shame that this happened so long ago.  It would be delightful to find someone who could explain the rationale.

ALAN: I imagine it was arbitrarily changed by some moronic editor who wasn’t aware that in 1963, one month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Idlewild airport was renamed as a memorial to the 35th President. After all, since everybody knows there really isn’t an airport called Idlewild in New York, the mistake had to be fixed. Probably they felt very proud of themselves for spotting the “error” in the first place…

JANE: Are there any other common formatting errors that annoy you?

ALAN: Indeed there are. I often see paragraphs that break in the middle of a sentence (this is particularly common if the e-book has been made from a pdf document).  I also see paragraphs that are supposed to be separated from the preceding paragraph by a blank line, to indicate the passage of time, but which don’t have that separator.

JANE: Ah, yes!  Those are one reason my e-books use dingbats, those little icons, rather than blank spaces.  It’s a nuisance to work out which will send the subconscious message “pause,” and which sends “new scene,” but I think it’s worth it.

ALAN: Yes, I much prefer dingbats to blank lines and I do tend to insert them when I’m tweaking my e-books. Because I can!

JANE: I know that a number of our Tangent readers prefer e-books – and that a few have produced e-books of their own.  Maybe some of them can comment on their own experiences to fill out our discussion.


7 Responses to “TT: The E-Book Elephant”

  1. Peter Says:

    I suspected Denial of Rights Malware was the elephant being referred to, but DRM doesn’t trouble me all that much (mostly because in most cases it’s so trivial to remove it I don’t even notice it’s there anymore) – I find regional restrictions a much more serious problem (they can be worked around too, but it’s more complicated.)

    I find calibre a fantastic tool for dealing automagically with certain formatting issues (like books with no indenting for paragraphs, or screwy line spacing). Fixing OCR tyops is more complicated. When I did a lot of my own e-book conversions I created a quite convoluted regular expression search and replace macro that caught a lot of common problems like sentences that

    spanned paragraphs because the sentence ran across a page break in the print copy and some of the common character confusion issues that OCR can cause. I later updated it to catch some common Cupertinos and I still dust it off every once in a while for commercially-published books that seem to have relied on Word’s spill chuck function rather than a human eye.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I’ll speak up for Amazon, at least for what happened with Hot Earth Dreams. They produced the best ebook version of my book, and I spent a long time with Calibre on it too. The worst was Smashwords, who told me that to be in their “premium” section, I’d have to work with someone on their list of book designers and spend hundreds of dollars fixing some critical errors. My crime? Including tables in the book. Smashwords premium can’t hack tables, no matter how much time I spent with Calibre trying to solve the problem. Unfortunately for Smashwords, Kindle and Kobo both can do tables with no muss and no fuss. Indeed, Smashwords basic handles tables well enough.

    Personally, I’m more fond of print and pdf, simply because you can do a few useful things with these that you can’t with an ebook: you can do reasonable footnotes, a better bibliography, and most importantly, a working index. An index isn’t a conglomeration of search terms, it’s a separate document where the indexer (me, in this case) went through and created links to what he (in my case) considered the important points in the book, as well as the things that are likely to stick in people’s memory and a couple of referential in-jokes that nobody has so far noticed. Not all my index links are directly to particular lines of text, but they all are to the concepts being indexed. Try searching for a concept in an ebook sometime, if you don’t understand the difference.

    You cannot do that kind of index with an ebook, unless you want to include hundreds to thousands of hyperlinks. That’s the difference: an ebook is basically a streaming line of text, bent into pages of text by the ereader. A book is a two-dimensional document, and things like footnotes, indices, even paragraph breaks are designed to take advantage of two dimensional pages in ways that ebooks at best fake. They’re not the same. For fiction, this doesn’t particularly matter, but for many forms of non-fiction, it matters a great deal.

  3. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    DRM’s one effect for me is forcing me to buy certain books from one company instead of another because the DRM won’t let me convert what I buy for the reader I have. (I’m not technically savvy enough to remove DRM.) I’ve found books published in one format but not in the other, or with wildly varying prices, but I can’t buy what’s best for me because of DRM, so I *don’t* buy some authors’ books due to the price.
    Oh, and in what universe is an ebook supposed to cost more than a new paperback? You get a license which can be revoked at any time (read your agreements) instead of a physical object; the publisher has less physical costs; and yet they charge more. That’s just wrong.
    On a non-rant topic: Has anyone successfully used the functionality of an ebook to have it be more than just an electronic version of a book? I’m surprised the choose your own adventure books haven’t roared into that space, based on what I’ve seen as possible with the link-to-footnote features. Or links to follow books like Lord of the Rings but following only one character if you want (such as only reading sections that have Elves … or just Aragorn … or just Sam). It’s like professors who use Powerpoint as nothing more than a pre-written chalkboard instead of really using its full capabilities. I’m waiting for the breakthough e-book experience.

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    Mammoth facts might help. the biggest difference is their fur. ELEPHANT TOTEM DESCRIPTION could maybe help you decide how to have the main elephant behave. Elephants can be considered royalty. Carts, Circus, Jungles and Parades, do you want the elephant wandering and busy learning like a horse, like SMOKY and BLACK BEUATY do in their own stories, or do you want the elephant wild and playful like the mammoths in ICE AGE, THE JUNGLE BOOK, or TARZAN, or would you like this elephant to go TO AND FRO REPEATEDLY?? These are the kinds of actions I’d mix together to figure out your own elephant character, to start getting hints of your own elephant book scenes. Plus DRM stuff just to have the elephant more real than pretend in its character description. GOOD LUCK.


    • janelindskold Says:

      Here’s a fun word fact for you “elephant in the room” is also a saying meaning “something everyone sees, but no one wants to talk about.”

      This might be something silly, like someone having the zipper open on their pants or it can be something serious like DRM, which is the abbreviation for Digital Rights Management.

      My favorite elephant characters are in Kipling’s story “Toomai of the Elephants.”

  5. Alex Says:

    For me the best thing about being able to edit ebooks is that when I’m reading The Colonisation series by Harry Turtledove, I can change every mention of “explosive-metal bomb” to “Abomb”, and delete every “and added the emphatic cough”. Which will shorten the books by a third!

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