Sunday, November 13, 2011

eBook Markets Need eBook Quality Standards

Yes, the Kindle is UL rated!
Underwriter's Laboratory (UL) issued its first standard, covering "tin clad fire doors", in 1903. It then became easier for architects to specify fire-resistant doors for new buildings, which no doubt was a boon to tin clad door manufacturers, who no longer had to compete with doors made with too-thin tin. The UL® labels now let consumers buy all sorts of electrical products without thinking about whether their new Amazon Kindle will burst into flames in the middle of Maharaja's Mistress.

Think about all the things you didn't have to think about today. If you nuked a mug of water for tea this morning, you probably didn't consider whether the microwave's magnetron would fry you. You probably don't even know that your microwave oven has a magnetron. Our modern civilization is built on being able to not think about these things. Quality standards such as those developed by UL help us to think less, and help marketplaces sell more.

Unfortunately, if you're an avid ebook reader, in 2011 you have to think more than you want to about ebook quality. When Neal Stephenson's new novel, Reamde, came out, early purchasers of the book were dismayed to find that it was rife with typographical errors. (But not the title. That "typo", for ReadMe, is intentional!) Amazon was forced to suspend sales.

I've been watching an important effort on ebook quality. It's worth supporting. The entry deadline for the Publishing Innovation Awards is this week, November 15. Entrants submit ebook files which are evaluated for quality, innovation and design. New this year is the "QED" seal, which is awarded to entrants that satisfy a checklist of basic ebook quality no-brainers:
  1. Front matter: the title does not open on a blank page.
  2. Information hierarchy: content is arranged in such a way that the relative importance of the content (heads, text, sidebars, etc) are visually presented clearly.
  3. Order of content: check of the content to be sure that none of it is missing or rearranged.
  4. Consistency of font treatment: consistent application of styles and white space.
  5. Links: hyperlinks to the web, cross references to other sections in the book, and the table of contents all work and point to the right areas. If the title has an index, it should be linked.
  6. Cover: The cover does not refer to any print edition only related content.
  7. Consumable Content: The title does not contain any fill-in content, such as workbooks and puzzle books, unless the content has been re-crafted to direct the reader on how to approach using the fill-in content.
  8. Print References: Content does not contain cross references to un-hyperlinked, static print page numbers (unless the ebook is intentionally mimicking its print counterpart for reference).
  9. Breaks: New sections break and/or start at logical places.
  10. Images: Art is appropriately sized, is in color where appropriate, loads relatively quickly, and if it contains text is legible. If images are removed for rights reasons, that portion is disclaimed or all references to that image are removed.
  11. Tables: Table text fits the screen comfortably, and if rendered as art is legible.
  12. Symbols: Text does not contain odd characters.
  13. Metadata: Basic metadata for the title (author, title, etc.) is in place and accurate.
Next year, I hope they add a checklist item for typographical errors. If a publisher can produce print with minimal errors, there's no excuse to allow them in digital books. As the Reamde debacle showed, even typos can create significant customer service expenses for retailers.

A few years from now, it's likely that any ebook that doesn't meet these standards will be unsaleable; for now, a QED seal is a great way for publishers to realize the value of making a good digital product, and for readers to be able to think less.


  1. In building, we've realized that we need to give book lovers some assurance that the ebooks they support for ungluing will be of a quality that they will be proud to have contributed to. We'll point to QED as a reference point for the quality we expect from unglued ebooks.
  2. I read the print version of Reamde. I thought the spin-up was Stephenson's best, but there was a lot of carnage as things spun globally out of control.

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  1. The Reamde debacle was a particular low-point in recent ebook production (although apparently the first ebook version of the Steve Jobs bio also had to be corrected). Neal Stephenson is not just a fine author, but also CEO of a digital publishing startup, Subutai Corporation. His major investor: Jeff Bezos. I covered it in a blog post:

  2. Eric --

    I'm in complete agreement about adding a checklist item for typographical errors in ebooks as a QED seal requirement. In the brief time I've been reading ebooks it's been rare for me not to spot goofs. But then, in the Internet Era proofreading, like proper spelling, has become optional if not unimportant. (I recently visited an ereader device review site where one of its contributors spelled the word *sophisticated* as *suffisticated*.) I posted my own blog entry on this syndrome, Proofreaders Need Not Apply, here: