Friday, October 7, 2011

"Typos Have Been Found in Your Book" - Questions About Kindle Quality Control

Anyone who reads many Kindle books has had the experience of getting a book with multiple typos, unintended line breaks, and formatting errors. That's annoying. Many customers are calling for quality control. And apparently Amazon has responded. But in a rather strange way.

Along with many Amazon KDP authors and publishers, I have recently received a couple of "Dear Publisher" emails from Amazon KDP. Here's one:

"During a quality assurance review of your title, we have found the following issue(s):

Typos have been found in your book. Examples:
*loc; 578; "I wouldn’t you to bust a blood vessel" should be "I wouldn’t want you to bust a blood vessel".

Please look for the same kind of errors throughout and make the necessary corrections to the title before republishing it."

KDP was correct about the missing word. But another proofreading of the book did not uncover any other missing words. We did find the word "willing" spelled with three "l's" and a couple of places where periods were outside quotation marks. We didn't find any formatting errors or unwanted line breaks. In fact, our book wasn't perfect, but it was pretty clean. Not surprising as the book had been carefully proofread before its original publication.

So I began to wonder about this "quality assurance review" of our title. How did Amazon happen to find this minor error that we had somehow missed. Have they hired an army of skilled proofreaders to go through all the Kindle books? I decided to do a little internet research.

Here's what I found. According to a post on reddit, some Amazon customers have discovered that if they complain about typos in a book, Amazon will refund their money and in some cases give them an extra $5.00 credit. Amazon makes it easy for the complainers by offering a feedback box at the bottom of every book page, where customers can click to report "poor quality or formatting in this book."

I know Amazon is proud of its customer-focused culture. But crowdsourcing as a way of identifying errors in books only works if the crowd members know what is an error and what isn't. And some Kindle readers don't know the grammar and punctuation rules in the major style guides. Unfortunately, Amazon is now sending out quality-control emails identifying "errors" that are actually correct useage.  

Author Robert Bidinotto reported on Kindle Boards that Amazon wanted him to remove "unnecessary commas," which turned out to be commas following the next-to-last item in a series. Bidinotto, a professional editor, replied that this usage of commas is consistent with the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. Amazon backed off.

Author D.D. Scott received an email telling him his book contained "hyphens, underscores or other unreadable characters." When he pointed out to KDP that his "unreadable characters" were his use of the "en dash," which is grammatically correct, they responded that a reader had complained of finding his book difficult to read because of too many hyphenations and punctuation errors.

So far, Amazon has not pulled many books from sale because of customer complaints, and they have been responsive to authors/publishers who point out the reasons for the useage that has been flagged.

But this crowdsourcing system of proofreading is scary. It's hard to know what readers will mistakenly identify as errors. And it's unlikely that Amazon staff have the time to do detailed follow-up on customer complaints. This raises issues such as:
  • What if an uneducated character in a novel speaks with poor grammar, or writes notes that are misspelled?
  • What about dialects and slang?
  • What about foreign words or words the author makes up?
  • What if the book is a novel, written as a series of emails (as is our book referenced above)? Writers of email often ignore spelling and grammar rules. If in the interest of authenticity, the author puts spelling and grammar errors in the emails, will Amazon ask to have them corrected? 

Don't get me wrong. I love being able to publish ebooks through Amazon KDP. And I'm happy that they care about quality. And I appreciate being notified of errors in my books. In both cases, we corrected those errors and republished.

But I'm a little nervous about where this will go. Amazon may believe that the customer is always right, but I don't necessarily agree.