Friday, October 28, 2011

A Proposal For Improving eBooks

Every book can have typos. Sadly, the rate at which typos occur--especially in ebooks--has increased at just the time when it might be easiest to report them. Books today are written on word processors with spell checking, but even the best spell checker won't catch a substitution of one valid word for another valid word--like there and their, or where and wear. And repairs

There are systemic reasons why ebooks often have a higher rate of typos than conventional books. This can be traced to the workflow of typesetting and printing that catches typos without propagating fixes back to the writer's original manuscript. This file is in turn converted to ebook formats.

I think we should turn the workflow inside out. Let's produce ebooks first, put them in front of a lot of alpha-readers' eyeballs to find typos, then propagate bug reports back to the writer to fix before typesetting and printing.

The trouble with the last paragraph is that it can be tedious to mark a typo in an ebook and report it back. I think technology can make this a lot easier and it can streamline reporting. Amazon could tweak their Kindle software to do this fairly easily, and if they get the @author thing working, it might be turned to this purpose. However, since Jeff Bezos doesn't take orders from me, I think we should modify an open source reader program--since we have the source. Pick one that runs on any Android device--cell phone, rooted Nook Color, or tablet. Maybe a Kindle Fire if Amazon doesn't get in the way.

To this application a programmer could add code to mark a word or words, where it appears in the text, what the problem is, and who the reporter is, pack it up in a well-formatted message, then transmit the message via the web to the writer. Bonus points for macro commands for the writer's word-processing program that will position the text at the location of the error as indicated by the report. And the reviewer's notes inserted as a comment.

The publisher could circulate advanced review copies to alpha/beta readers who'd use this system as indicated to improve the work's accuracy.

Since I'm a programmer all this seems very feasible to me. But I've learned that if I'm the only one interested in making something happen, progress goes very slowly. Does anybody else think this could be useful?

Leave a comment if you think so. If enough votes are in favor, I'll see about next steps.


  1. Hi Steve,

    We just found each other on Twitter but I am glad I followed your Tweet here. What you are proposing is pretty much what I do as an indie author.

    The method could be improved, though.

    I am fortunate in that I have a number of alpha/beta readers. I use Calibre to convert my books into multiple formats (note: Calibre sometimes has a mind of its own when it comes to formatting, but it gets something close to Amazon or Smahsword's Meat Grinder).

    My betas (they are wonderful and I am lucky) either use the WORD doc I send to copy/paste an email back to me, or they re-type the sentence (are they wonderful or what?), OR they give me the page number and paragraph number of the mistake.

    I have no qualms about sending them a WORD doc because I take some precautions to, theoretically, be able to prove later that the work was mine first. I pray for the day that I become popular enough to be pirated so that prospect does not concern me either.

    Once I get their feedback, it is then up to me to take whatever way they send me the noticed errors and change my manuscript accordingly.

    It is clunky, but it works. It requires some willing alpha/beta readers and quite a bit of my time because I have to adapt to whatever format they choose to use. Once I am past my test readers, only then does the MS go to an editor.

    It would be WONDERFUL to have an open source app that would make notations easier on both ends.

    My questions are: how do we know which devices the readers will use? Are we not talking about multiple apps?

    Just my thoughts. Glad to see someone is thinking about this stuff too!


  2. Honestly, I'm a not a huge fan of this idea. I think it opens the writer up to a lot more critiquing, as opposed to simple spelling or grammar mistakes. I do see the benefit that this could offer, but if I understand you correctly, you are asking ARC readers to be editors as well. In my opinion, that's what editors and betas are for.

  3. To address Splitter's comment I want some kind of software tooling/system in place that'll be not-clunky and support a workflow suited to his needs.

    To address AE's comment, I need to point out that the readers' error reports would not be made public. How the system gets used isn't for me to dictate. Would it produce best results if only used as a communication tool between writers and editors & betas? I think so. Would it work to open the system to ARC readers (as opposed to hand-picked alpha/beta readers)? Probably not for the reasons you cite, though the most typos would be spotted with the largest number of eyeballs.

    Keep in mind, I don't have anything but questions right now and were I to start dictating things, I'd have to be Steve Jobs. I ain't him and he's dead.

  4. Hi Steve,

    I like your idea.! I use Google docs and share my stories with a small group of friends English as Americans and they all spot mistakes of mine and also learn themselves in that process cause I don't always write in the queens English but more after the character itself.


  5. I would love it. I just finished reading a book on my phone with no way to mark all the errors other than highlight, which I found out too late was possible. The author asserted she had corrected all the errors before sending it, LOL. I have an eagle eye for anyone's errors but my own. Oh, I'm here because you followed me on twitter and I follow blogs too, if they look interesting. I was a Clinical Lab Scientist with minor in CS (one class short in math) but never wrote poetry that way. My book has some. I write SF/fantasy for MG/YA. I use a lot of puns because I love layered meanings. Would love to trade betas because my MC is a Boy Scout.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Glad we connected on Twitter - thanks for your message. Pinfolio is designed from the start to make it easy to share drafts ("alphas") - the writer just clicks "New Folio," types, saves, and sets the sharing options to allow reviewers to view the work in a web browser. The viewer can also download it in just a few clicks as a Kindle or ePub file to review it on an e-reader device.

    There's a built-in commenting bar on the right side of the interface that allows the reviewer to post comments directly while viewing the page in a browser. Because Pinfolio allows you to organize more complex works into folios and subfolios (like chapters and sections), reviewers can post comments to specific sections. These comments are visible to anyone with access to the folio, but the author can create multiple copies of the original folio and give access to certain reviewers for each copy to keep their comments private.

    For more in-depth revisions, a premium Pinfolio desk (account) comes with a revision comparison feature. The reviewer can click "Save Copy" to save a copy of the folio he's viewing to his own desk, make any changes and comments directly on the page, and share the copy with the author. When the author signs in to the reviewer's edited version, he can click the "Compare" button, choose his original folio from the box that pops up, and see a marked-up revision comparison report ("diff" output).

    I've posted a screenshot of a sample revision comparison report at:

    Since the author's original folio copy is the source for the generated eBook file, changes will not get lost in the typesetting workflow chain.

    Since free desks only allow private or public sharing (not with specific individual users), I would have to add a hard-to-guess secure URL sharing feature to allow reviewers without premium desks to (somewhat) privately share their revisions with the author.

    I'm always looking to improve the service (although updates may be a bit slow sometimes, since I'm working on this by myself), so please let me know if I forgot to address a point in your proposal, or you have any other feature suggestions that might make Pinfolio a more useful tool for writers!

    Best regards,

    Jae-Sung Lee

  7. In the case of the Kindle -- or at least Kindle Fire, which is the only one I know -- much of what is needed is already there, if they would just reimagine it a bit. It already allows you to highlight text, add a comment, and share it on Facebook. If they added a private share that went only to the publisher and author, it would accomplish the basics here.

  8. I agree that ebooks could make the tracking of typos/errors a lot easier. I have an original Nook and adding a note or comment is tedious at best. Finding the note later takes a genius IQ. However, I think most writers are working in a word processing program like Microsoft Word which has a change tracker built in. I am a traditionalist and I think even ebooks should printout their book for their final read. There is nothing like reading your work on paper and nothing jumps out at you like red ink slashing through that black printed ink. As more writers and editors (of printed and ebooks) doing all their editing online I believe that this pandemic will continue to grow. See my article "Typo Flu Is Going Pandemic"


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