While I had long suspected that it is common practice among publishers to scan printed books to convert them to e-books (instead of using a master text), I never sought the actual evidence. It’s out there, though, and it’s no secret, as I’ve come to find.
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with this system (known as Optical Character Recognition, or OCR). Books are scanned page by page, and the scanned images are then converted into an editable text.
Emphasis on editable.
Because the problem with this process is that a very important post-scanning step is too often (it seems) left out: proofreading for errors. E-books, particularly e-books created from older works of literature, are absolutely jam-packed with apparent “typos.” They’re not actually typos, however, and they have nothing to do with the layout of a keyboard; they are errors in character recognition. A common error, for example, is an “e” in place of a “c,” or vice versa. The combined characters “rn” may become “m.” An occasional mistake of this nature is understandable, but in my experience, these mistakes aren’t occasional. They’re on nearly every page.
I am not criticizing publishers who use this extremely efficient tool, despite the errors it can produce. I am simply asking them to send a proofreader—one measly proofreader, who would catch 99% of these errors—through each work before it’s published and distributed. I hereby offer my proofreading services, if they genuinely cannot find anyone else. But they easily could, and simply don’t, due to time/money/effort/blah/blah/blah.
I continue (and will continue) to read modern publications on my Kindle, but I refuse henceforth to read older books, particularly the classics, on any e-reader. The scanning errors in my most recent Kindle book, Dante’s Divine Comedy, were so frequent, so blatant, and so distracting that they became a) insulting, to me, and b) embarrassing, for Amazon. These weren’t free, public-domain downloads, by the way. I paid for the John Ciardi translation of all three parts (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso)—separately, even. And when I did so, I expected the same quality I have come to anticipate in any hardback or paperback novel I pick up in a bookshop.
(I’m far from being the only reader who feels this way, either. Here’s Laura June’s stunning rant on this issue.)
I guess I should be thanking Amazon for arming me with even more excuses to visit my local bookstores. But I wish that e-book publishers respected their customers, and authors, enough to value quality as much as convenience. Dante deserves better, and I deserve better.