Publishing and Copy Errors

on September 13, 2013 in Books

One of the bad raps against indie and small, start-up press books is that they are all poorly edited monstrosities. Some of them are, and these are the books that give the rest a bad name. Yet whenever a consumer fixates and repeats this meme, they are repeating a myth that, by and large, is untrue.

I’ve worked in publishing, know the process intimately, and can tell you every book, magazine and journal out there has at least some errors. Coming from a major publishing house doesn’t change that. So, here are some things every reader, every writer, and every prospective start-up publisher should know.

All Books Have Bugs
Once upon a time, I was given a freshly published, leather-bound copy of a classic novel I adore, one that was listed as the 14th edition of said work. I happened to have a used and well-worn paperback of the same book on the shelf, and that was the 6th edition. I compared the two, and found exactly the same bugs in both books, uncorrected and faithfully reprinted decades later. The publisher didn’t (and likely still doesn’t) care about them, and as the bugs didn’t detract from my reading experience, neither did I.

Getting more specific, I love ancient history, and earlier this year I picked up a two-volume set of books about Sicily from one of my favorite new authors. I have no desire to piss in anyone’s cornflakes here, so I won’t identify the books any further than that, but suffice it to say they come from a well-established publisher that has a lot of good work. No one would call the company “indie.”

The first volume had eight spelling errors, and the second had eleven. Over the two volumes, that is an error rate of 1 per 25 pages, double what I consider acceptable when you are paying someone to catch such things. These were errors any spell-check should have caught, nevermind a copy editor, and this from a thoroughly professional publishing house. It’s not great, but it in no way alters my overall opinion of the books.

No published work is perfect, so perfection isn’t the issue. The issue is if the errors hinder reading the book.

That Error Is Deliberate
Some errors in a book aren’t actually errors, but are instead examples of deliberately agrammatical prose. This is especially the case when it comes to dialogue or text that is meant to describe a character’s thoughts. In these instances, breaking the rules of English 101 is not just desirable, but sometimes it is absolutely necessary.

To cite a work near and dear to my heart, thumb through Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. That novel is built on a foundation of sentence fragments and other grammatical “errors,” which are integral to the style Shaara developed to write it. Half the novels on my bookshelves use an agrammatical style of some kind or another to enhance the voice of the author. Yet despite being a common practice, some people don’t get it, or worse, selectively don’t get it.

The Killer Angels won a Pulitzer Prize, and since the release of the film Gettysburg has becomeĀ arguably the single greatest Civil War novel, and a classic of historical fiction in general. Yet if you scrutinize the reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N and other websites, you will find people who just don’t get Shaara’s style and nitpick his grammar. As if the presence of entire paragraphs composed of nothing but sentence fragments were anything but deliberate!

It’s Not Me, It’s You
In the “my ignorance trumps your hard-earned knowledge” department are those who are woefully underqualified to comment on anyone’s use of language. More than half the reader/consumer reviews I’ve seen griping about copy errors in various books over the years were written by people who seem to be unable to put two or three lines of text together without bungling the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and/or capitalization multiple times. Some of these “reviews” had more errors in their mere 40 words than were in the entire 90,000 word novel being criticized. Credibility, anyone?

These Things Matter
This blog is not saying that copy errors don’t matter, but only that all books have them and that in some instances they don’t matter. Every writer needs editing, and every publication needs proofing. Professional standards are critical to producing a good piece of work, and that is an ironclad rule.

Even so, if a publication has a long enough word count, it will contain mistakes. Every single book on my shelf has at least one typo in it, someone will always be there to nitpick it, and everyone concerned should keep that in mind.

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