Looking for Tedium? E-Books Are Your Medium

In his wrap-up remarks at the 2010 Tools of Change conference, host Tim O’Reilly urged attendees to focus on “the boring stuff” that needs to be done to realize their vision of the future of the e-book industry.

I found this statement puzzling. Despite the widespread impression that e-book people are the jet-setters of the publishing business, the truth is that just about every step in the creation and publication of e-books is excruciatingly boring. In fact, e-book publishing may be described as long stretches of stupefying tedium punctuated by moments of numbing monotony.

Let me take you through a book’s conversion so you will understand what I mean. I urge you to have a strong cup of coffee to stay awake. Bear in mind that though this abstract will take but a minute for you to read, the actual operation requires dozens of man-hours per title. I say “man-hours” but “troll-hours” is more apposite, as the people who do it work in Stygian gloom, eat living things and snarl when poked with a stick.

A brief explanation is in order. Most books published by E-Reads are previously published works that went out of print and reverted to the author. In order to reissue them we scan the original printed volumes rather than use text documents furnished by the author, because the former have been copy-edited.

Scanning. The first task in the production of an e-book is scanning. The book’s cover and binding are stripped to facilitate the feeding of pages into the optical reader, and headers and page numbers sliced off to reduce garbage in the scanned document. Even if high-speed scanners are used the process must be overseen by a human. Monitoring a scanner has the allure of watching someone rake seaweed.

Proofreading. However state-of-the-art the scanner may be, a digitized document will invariably have errors due to misreading by the camera. The word “in” for instance may be interpreted by the scanner as “m”. Thus a proofreader must view and clean up the obvious glitches in the first-pass RTF (Rich Text Format) file created by the scanner. That process is called OCR – Optical Character Recognition. The RTF is then closely read and corrected by a proofreader who compares it word by word and line by line to the original published copy of the book. If you are ever given a choice between proofreading a text file and spending six months in a sensory deprivation chamber, take the chamber.

Final Review. The RTF – the basic building block of e-books – must then be reviewed page by page by a designer to make sure it reads seamlessly. “Once a book gets scanned,” explains Nathan Fernald, E-Reads’ production manager, “it tends to lose all of its formatting with the exception of single line breaks. And line breaks must be clearly delineated to prevent scene shifts within a chapter from running into each other. When we get a file back from scanning, I have to flip through the physical book page-by-page, comparing it with the file to see if there was any formatting lost such as centered text, indented text, extra line breaks, etc.”

The staggering monotony of this process will explain why I granted Nathan one day off every week. He was beginning to exhibit classic symptoms of going postal.

Formatting. Once we have a clean, error-free RTF we format it for various e-book platforms plus print on demand. For print editions, cover art must be sized precisely to the trim of the book using charts comparable to those used to navigate the waters off the Cape of Good Hope.

As if these labors were not excruciatingly demanding enough, we must then create…

Metadata. Metadata is vital book-related information required by retailers. It includes cover image, ISBN number, BISAC code, language, territorial rights, suggested retail price, publication date, brief description and other details and data. Retailers provide pages and pages of metadata definitions, specs and tolerances, all in fine print. And each retailer has different requirements or a different order of the same requirements. You can read about it in detail in Mastering the Mysteries of Metadata, but – long story short – it is comparable in complexity to the instructions for applying for a Fulbright grant, except that you can get away with lying on a Fulbright application.

ISBN Management. ISBNs are unique identifying numbers used in the book industry. They identify not just a book but every edition of a book. Publishing companies purchase a block of ISBNs and, after assigning them to each edition of each book, register them with R.R. Bowker, the official ISBN agency in the United States. (You can read more in Learning to Love your ISBN Number.) Of all the lassitude-inducing tasks performed by our staff, none compares to selecting, assigning, maintaining and registering ISBN numbers. It is like sorting jelly beans by color, except that when you are finished you are obliged to ship the jelly beans to a facility where someone else will eat them. Tales of woe abound. For instance, just when we had become resigned to the Sisyphean labors of managing 10-digit ISBNs the gods imposed 13-digit ones on us. Then Amazon informed us that none of our ISBN’s were suitable for the Kindle, and required us to produce unique Amazon identifier codes.

Royalty Management. Retailers furnish sales information in spreadsheets. In an ideal world the formats and information fields would be uniform. In reality royalty reporting is the Second Coming of the Tower of Babel. We have to reformat each and every retailer’s report so that our accounting system can read and process it. Though it is universally agreed that ISBN numbers are the key to successful royalty report generation, our filters constantly catch busted numbers requiring hours of sleuthing to set right. We find rogue data in other columns, too. All it takes is one misplaced article – “The” at the beginning of a title instead of at the end, for instance – to send our royalty tracker into paroxysms of indignation followed by stern instructions to mercilessly hunt and correct the offensive mistake.

There is much more that I haven’t reported, but I’m afraid it would make you suicidally depressed. I asked John Douglas, who manages our database, to tell us what is boring about his job. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to tell you,” he replied. “I’m too busy doing a boring job.”

In conclusion, be careful what you wish for when you wish for boring stuff.

The most exciting thing about being in the e-book space is telling people that we are in the e-book space. Showing off a cool e-book to a civilian? That’s exciting. But making the e-book you’re showing off? I think I’d rather watch paint dry.

Richard Curtis


One Response to Looking for Tedium? E-Books Are Your Medium

  1. Jon Moses says:

    And here I thought that you could create them from the digital press files. But I guess that *might* only be the case if it’s the print publisher doing the ebook as well. That sucks, since I hate out-of-print books in a world where ebooks are a thing.


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