"E" Stands for "Errors"

10/21/2011 10:51 am ET | Updated Dec 21, 2011

"House" for "horse." The number 1 for the letter l. Strange, random characters where accented characters should be. If you read e-books, you've seen mistakes like these, and more. Most are mildly distracting. But at times, the mistakes get so bad that readers have to stop and back up and reread a passage in order to make sense of it.

Self-published authors frequently take the hit for poorly edited and badly formatted e-books. But the truth is, many of them are more careful about proofing their work than traditional publishers seem to be.

"I don't think I've yet seen an e-book that didn't have some pretty blatant formatting and typographical errors in it," says Keith Cronin, author of the novel Me Again, "and I'm talking about even bestselling books from the major publishing houses. In some cases I've also owned the paper version of the book, and have confirmed that the error only appears in the e-book."

Why are there so many mistakes in the e-versions of print books?

While many of the most egregious errors involve scanning and OCR mistakes for older publications, book designer and typesetter Maggie Dana, author of the novel Beachcombing, explains why newer books aren't exempt:

In the print book production process, typesetters work from an author's word processing files that have been electronically edited and are ready to proceed to the next stage: formatting and page layout.

Typesetters strip the author's codes and import these word processing files into page layout programs, such as Adobe InDesign or Quark, and massage them into attractive book pages per the publisher's design specifications.

At this point, all connection with the author's original files is lost. Any changes made from this point forward are made solely inside the page layout software, NOT in the Word document as well. It is not a parallel process.

From these page layout documents, typesetters generate PDFs to send to the publisher as page proofs. The publisher and author mark their
 corrections on the PDFs and send them back to the typesetter, who makes the changes. There are often several rounds of proof corrections going back and forth before everyone is happy. Therefore the final PDF that goes off to the printer is often quite different from the author's original Word files.

Now, if the publisher decides to produce an e-book, the publisher can't always use the page layout files, which are usually too complicated and inappropriate for current e-book production, though this situation is changing as we speak.

In many cases, this means that the e-book is created from the author's original Word files because it's the easiest (currently) to format. And because this document doesn't reflect the editorial and proofing changes that the book underwent during the typesetter's page layout process, the author's Word file that winds up as an e-book is often full of errors.

Authors who have massaged their book to perfection during the editorial and page proof stage may be dismayed to learn that the electronic version readers are purchasing and reading frequently represents an earlier effort.

A certain amount of errors in both print and e-books is inevitable. But no matter the format, consumers deserve a quality product.

"When you consider the fact that many e-books from the major houses are priced higher than paperbacks," Cronin says, "a mistake-riddled reading experience is pretty hard to rationalize."

For now, says Dana, "One thing's for sure. Publishers are not checking their e-book output as carefully as they check page proofs. Maybe this will change as e-books gain more market share."