Book Editing: A Rarity

12 Oct

Nothing can be more irksome for an editor than when someone, usually English teachers, call out mistakes in a published piece. Sometimes mistakes happen, especially in a fast-paced environment like a daily newspaper.

I never liked having my gaffs, when they did make it to print, pointed out, and I try not to point out gaffs others make, especially in material already published. But, I find myself noticing errors now when I read more than I used to, and find it hard not to comment, at least to myself, about those errors.

Periodically, over the past two or three months, I’ve been making my way through Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars by David Silverman (Mark reviewed this book in an earlier post) and I’ve become bogged down noticing errors that shouldn’t have escaped the copyeditor’s eye, for example, “In the morning I didn’t feeling very prepared to meet with Jose Bembo, the father of the brothers who ran the company and the money behind it.” Is the sentence supposed to read “I didn’t feel”? or “wasn’t feeling”? or some other variation? There are persistent inconsistencies in this book, and this one falls on page 65.

Thursday, some marketing and sales reps from Delmar Cengage Learning were at the school hawking their books, and I visited their booth. When I introduced myself, one of the sales reps (or was it a marketer?) said, “You’re a rarity.” Yes, I am unique. Of course, what he meant was this: It’s rare now for any publishing company to have an in-house editor.

I knew vaguely this was true, having looked at publishing from the other side of the looking glass: the aspiring writer reading books, magazines and blogs to learn about how to market, submit and publish my writing. I knew the intimate relationships forged between writer and editor like those of Max Perkins and (insert name of famous literary novelist at Scribner’s in the early 20th century) were long gone, fading even in the golden age when Perkins worked. But, I didn’t know just how far those relationships had faded.

From what I’ve been reading and hearing of late, publishers are much more interested in having marketing and sales reps on board to push the books out into the world, a world I keep hearing is less hungry for books than ever before (if this is true, however, what exactly accounts for the success of Amazon and Barnes and Noble–though B&N has longevity on its side). At the same time, publishers are sending manuscripts out for freelancers to edit and design (not to disparage freelancers, given that I also freelance) their books.

Not to fault publishers for wanting to sell books. Publishing is a business after all, and businesses want to make money and profit from their ventures. But to cut costs by cutting in-house editors and designers seems risky. As a reader, who also happens to work as an editor and writer, I get bogged down by errors that stand out, just as my readers did when I gaffed at the paper. (Then again, I also get bogged down by things not so apparent, like the inconsistent use of drop caps.) Isn’t sacrificing the reader’s satisfaction leaving the publisher at risk of losing customers, or does it really matter, as long as the bottom line gets filled?

I didn’t set out to call out Soft Skull Press, who published Silverman’s book. Their books are nicely designed, and Typo itself is fascinating (I prefer the narrative memoir style over just nuts and bolts plain-facts of most business books) — who would have thought a general-interest book about a failed business venture in typesetting would be so quirky and appealing? I just hope the editor was, like most of us in publishing, overworked and underpaid, when he or she undertook the copyedit of Typo, and that publishers take a greater stock in producing quality books over ones that are simply marketable.

Oh, and if you spot any errors in this blog post, feel free to let me know — I won’t get irked. At least not this time. (And the fragment is intentional.)


5 Responses to “Book Editing: A Rarity”

  1. tianodesign October 13, 2007 at 10:03 am #

    Todd, I think there’s another way to look at it. Freelancers sing for the supper with each project they take on. There’s a higher degree incentive at work when you’re a freelancer: to do the job well enough that the client will want to use you again. That’s true for me now as a designer; it was true for me years ago as a freelance proofreader.

    When I was employed as a proofreader, not so much. And it wasn’t deliberate. It’s just that eight hours a day—or night, at one point, while I was finishing college during the day—six or even seven days a week, when I was really trying to sock some money away, the work starts to feel mechanical if you don’t love it. And that’s when quality can suffer.

    Now maybe it’s different because I love doing book design and layout. Or maybe because, as a freelancer, I’d better keep on my toes if I hope to continue working. But working freelance, I know quality is uppermost on my mind, right there with timeliness.

  2. tglasscock October 15, 2007 at 9:21 am #


    Actually, I value freelancers very much. Without the freelancers we have started to work with on a project we’re producing, I’d be overwhelmed with work, more than I already am, given the amount of hats I’m wearing here, including some marketing, at least as in the sense of editing our marketing material, and providing word-of-mouth promotion.

    As a reader, though, it does throw me off to see so many errors in one publication. And it makes me wonder whether publishers are putting more time and money into marketing than in editing and design, whether the editors and designers are in-house or freelance.

  3. David Silverman October 15, 2007 at 5:25 pm #

    Well, as the author of Typo, I can say that the errors are, of course, mine. I constantly make errors (both grammatical and buying companies I shouldn’t have).

    But also, the final copyedit of the book was done by a wonderful man who also did the typesetting. He was, in fact, overworked as the main designer and copy editor at Soft Skull. And when Soft Skull sold to Counterpoint during the fiasco of Publishers Group West going bankrupt, he lost his job. This was right around the time that Typo was going to the printer.

    That’s no excuse, but it is true that the error rate in Typo is the same or lower than a lot of books published by big houses–signaling an overall reduction in copyediting. I just have the advantage of an especially eagle-eyed audience on top of my own difficulties with English.

    I’ve got a list of errata that folks have sent me here:

    After dinner, I’ll be adding the one you listed here. It wasn’t already there. Sigh.

  4. Mark Long October 16, 2007 at 8:03 am #


    I think that is a really good point about the overall decline in copyediting, especially at big houses. As I think you mentioned in Typo, publishers are reluctant to reduce marketing budgets or advances to authors so they are left to cut overhead by slashing production costs.

    At the Delmar Publishing reception at our school last week I talked to one of the marketing people they had there who had flown down from New York. I asked her what in particular she did, given that “marketing” can cover a wide range of things. She said, “We put catalogs and marketing pieces together and work with authors and sales reps and the business folks. Basically, we work with everyone. As I tell folks, we’re really the engine that keeps this whole thing running.” Later on she told me (more or less), “Once you can sell one kind of book, it’s the same for selling any kind of book.”

    I find this relatively problematic because there you have it for too many marketing departments: Books are just widgets like any other indiscriminate widget to be sold. On the other hand, as Jason Epstein said in Book Business, most people get into publishing–or at least USED to get into publishing–because they liked books to begin with, not because they have a marketing degree and want to sell whatever product is at hand.

  5. Helen July 26, 2008 at 9:52 am #

    Hi, Todd — I think you meant gaffes, not gaffs.

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