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J.K. Rowling’s new ebook: Literally unreadable

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Update, 9/28, 6:30 AM ET: Kindle e-reader owners with their WiFi on should see “update available” for The Casual Vacancy this morning. Or go to the “Manage Your Kindle” page on Amazon’s website to download the new file.

Update, 9/27, 5:15 PM ET: Hachette released the following statement:

Yesterday the eBook file for The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling was released to all U.S. eBook retailers. There were issues with that file, including the adjustability of font color and size and adjustability of margins. As soon as Hachette was made aware of these issues a replacement file was uploaded to all eBook retailers. Hachette has requested that each retailer contact their customers directly about reloading their eBook. Any consumer who purchased the eBook on Thursday, September 27, before approximately 3:00pm ET, who has not heard from their retailer, should contact them and request that their eBook be reloaded. No consumer should have to repurchase the eBook.

Amazon says “We have worked with the publisher to correct this issue, including for customers who have already purchased the book.  The updated file is already available for new purchases and we will make it possible for past purchases to get the updated file in the next few hours.”

Update, 9/27, 2:30 PM ET: Hachette confirmed that the problem was on its end, not Amazon’s, and that the problem was across all ebook retailers. “There was an issue with the file (no issues reading the book, just adjusting the type), but that has been corrected and is fully adjustable/functional for all those who have purchased the e-book and for those who will purchase it in the future,” Hachette executive director of publicity Nicole Dewey told me. But that’s not true: If you’ve already bought the ebook, the file isn’t going to correct itself. You’ll have to download it again — and Amazon isn’t yet pushing out an updated version, so you can either try buying the ebook again (which: why?) or wait for an update to roll out.

“Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling’s new book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, was published today to great fanfare and decidedly mixed reviews. Some ebook readers are holding on off on purchasing the digital edition because it’s priced at $17.99 (here’s why), but e-reader owners who did buy it right away are in for a disappointment: It’s basically unreadable, unless you have a magnifying glass.

Twitter user Alan Jacobs was among the first to notice the problem (thanks for the tip, Robin Sloan):

I confirmed the problem on two separate Kindle e-readers (the book looks fine on the Kindle app on iPad) and it’s happening on other e-readers, like the Barnes  & Noble (s BKS) Nook, as wellAmazon customers are complaining (leading to a slew of comments about whether it’s fair to comment on the book’s formatting rather than its content, but I think it’s justified in this case since the problem isn’t apparent before you buy the ebook). Adjusting the book’s type size on the Kindle only adjusts the margins. Here are your choices:

This is clearly just a file formatting problem. It’s unclear if the problem is with the file Hachette supplied Amazon or if the problem is on Amazon’s end (I’ve asked both companies for comment). Hachette confirmed that the problem is Hachette’s not Amazon’s. It won’t take long to fix. It will probably be fixed by tomorrow, if not earlier.

But. This book is the big book of the season. Why didn’t either Amazon or Hachette test the ebook before putting it on sale? (Maybe because of all the embargoes on it?) It’s $17.99. At the very least, it should be readable. The Rowling fans who were so excited about The Casual Vacancy ebook that they pre-ordered it or bought it this morning should be able to start reading it right away, and they shouldn’t have to have super-human vision to do so.

27 Responses to “J.K. Rowling’s new ebook: Literally unreadable”

  1. If they had uploaded through Smashwords, our human vetting team would have alerted Hachette to the problem *before* the book reached retailers. Every week, we help hundreds of authors and publishers avoid such embarrassment. We run every book through two layers of QA: AutoVetter does automated checking of common formatting errors, and then our human vetting team manually inspects each book.

  2. The book looks fine on my Ipad kindle reader. After converting it to .mobi format from .epub…. Perhaps it’s something weird on the Kindle itself. I’m starting to fall asleep after reading the first four chapters; but that’s another problem….

    • Yup, book looks fine on Kindle iPad app. As I’m sure you know, though, most readers are not going to know how to convert a mobi file to an epub file (or necessarily want to do that). So the question now is when does the fixed file get pushed out to readers who preordered the book or bought it this morning before the new file was (apparently) posted?

  3. Hey all, post updated to reflect the fact that this is a Hachette problem, across e-reader companies (Nook users are having the same problem).

    Hachette says it’s fixed now; in my experience, it’s not. You’ll need to wait for the retailers to push a new version of the file to your device. I am not sure when that’s going to happen.

  4. I’ve released six of my own books for Kindle (among other formats.) It is the publisher”s responsibility to load and check the book on the Kindle. Come on, how hard is it? Someone at the publisher did not do their job.
    Luckily, it’s an easy fix. If readers expect proper formatting from indies, then a large publisher should be expected to provide the same minimal vetting.

  5. Rebecca Springer

    It’s easy to blame publishers for not doing enough QA, but I’d put this one on Amazon. There are too many disparate user experiences and no plausible way to test them all. I’d bet money this was fine on the Previewer.

    • J. R. Tomlin

      Large publishers don’t use the Previewer, by the way. And even for indies, it is perfectly possible (and easy as a matter of fact) to load the file onto a Kindle. That’s what anyone who is smart does. Why on EARTH would a publisher not go to that much “trouble”, except that they don’t care about eBook sales?

    • @Rebecca: My books cost a meagre $3 and I check them on two different Kindles, smartphone app and a tablet before pressing the “publish” button on Amazon. I’m sorry, but there is no excuse to release something like that – and for that price. That’s just unforgivably lazy.

  6. J. R. Tomlin

    Considering how often indies get hit with similar comments, I see no reason why it isn’t fair on a Hatchette book. They should be able to afford to correctly format it AND have someone look at it to be sure it’s done correctly. Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon with large publishers who don’t bother with eBooks.

    It isn’t Amazon’s JOB to test the eBook. That is the publisher’s job.