An American Editor

March 4, 2010

On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!

Do word choices matter? Do word choices misspelled matter? Is there a difference between break and brake? Not if you read some of the ebook novels I have read recently!

Yes, I’m complaining about authors who don’t see the value in hiring a professional editor, authors who think they can both write a compelling story and either self-edit it or hire the next door neighbor to give it the editorial once over, and the publishers that encourage this type of thinking. Professional editors do serve a purpose and the more I read fiction ebooks, the more concerned I become about what will happen to readability, understanding, and literacy in the Age of eBooks.

I do not intend to rehash the difference between types of editing (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) or the difference between an amateur and a professional editor (see Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Nor do I intend to rehash the link between declining publishing standards and declining literacy (see Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators). You can revisit those posts if you want.

Instead I want to focus on the unfounded assumption by many ebookers that authors can do it all themselves — writing, designing, editing, marketing, selling, and whatever other “ing” is needed — in the ebook world, thereby doing away with publishers and other middlemen, yet increasing quality and decreasing cost and price.

Let me be clear: It is not that the author cannot do all these tasks; rather, it is that few authors can do each task well and few authors either have the financial resources to hire these services directly or, if they do have the resources, the willingness to gamble their own money on the success of their book. And it is the unwillingness to front these costs that is leading to the concurrent decline in ebook quality and refusal of ebookers to pay more than a few dollars (if even that much) for an ebook.

I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for an ebook because the likelihood is that the ebook is poorly edited, a phenomenon I see with increasing frequency and which I don’t discover until after I’ve made a nonrefundable purchase and am 30+ pages into the story. I am tired of reading sentences like these (the errors are in italics):

  • She seamed to be a woman with…
  • The sheers were used to cut the cloth.
  • I no what you are thinking.
  • I oppose you on principal.
  • The cloth was died purple, the royal color.
  • Johan’s piers were surprised at his dismissal.
  • Calista was badly beeten by the saber’s blunt edge.
  • In the passed, guardsmen were not…
  • Watch out for the sole catcher; he will try to steel your sole.
  • The roll Danvers played was that of a night.

The list goes on and on and on and on — Give me a brake (or is that break?)! One author had his lead character go through an “emotional ringer.” I wondered what melody the ringer was playing.

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that these mistakes don’t occur once; they occur repeatedly, which indicates that it wasn’t an isolated mistake. Rather, the ebook was either poorly edited or not edited at all. In either case, it means that the author or the publisher, although to be fair, I suspect that most of these books are self-published, didn’t think enough of their own work to spend the money to hire a professional editor.

Question: If the author thinks so little of his or her work, why should I, the ebook consumer, be willing to spend even $1 on the book? Shouldn’t I have the same disdain for the author and the ebook as the author has for me and the ebook?

Correct spelling is important. Incorrect spelling changes the message. For example, the end of the brief case and the end of the briefcase have distinctly different meanings and thus convey distinctly different messages. Similarly, Is that the boarder? asks a much different question than Is that the border? Failure to communicate means failure as a writer. When a character yells, “Brake!” but is riding a horse, what does the author mean?

Imagine visiting your doctor and being told to “take 5 every day.” Does it matter whether the doctor means 5 capsules, 5 grams, 5 liters, or 5 milligrams?

The best authors are those whose descriptions are clearly and readily understood. They communicate with their audience. The idea of a book — e or p, fiction or nonfiction — is that the message is understood readily and clearly by every reader. Thus it makes a difference whether the character asks “Is that the border?” or “Is that the boarder?”, especially if either is appropriate in the situation.

Readers should not have to guess what something means. Nor should a reader be distracted from the story by wondering whether brake or break is correct.

Based on what I see being made available for ereading, the loss of publishers and the reliance on self-publishing will be a tragedy. Although far from perfect, established publishers insulate readers from the worst of the abuses. Words do matter and incorrectly spelled words convey incorrect meaning. Dumbing down is not an award-winning strategy for the future.

Not all self-published books are as bad as the ones I recently have read. There are some good, careful authors who self-publish and do not cut corners. They are serious authors and the exception. But the general trend appears to be that if “I have a word processor and an Internet connection, I, too, can be an author and I need not invest any money to make money.” Unfortunately, this trend is exacerbated by the ease of ebooks and fueled by ebookers telling authors that they do not need publishers and other professionals — they can do it all themselves and keep all the money. Dream a little dream…

29 Comments »

  1. Much has been said over the past few years about the failures of the publishing industry as a whole, and the various ways in which it has been shooting itself in the feet, but I don’t think enough has been said about what I feel may be the worst of such wounds: the increasingly deep disconnect between acceptance by the industry of a particular manuscript and something I’m going to call “literary merit,” with the caveat that I’m not referring to literary fiction in particular. Rather, I believe that each book should be approached solely on the merit it brings with it into the interaction with its reader, and not on such essentially irrelevant features as the ability to be aptly described in one paragraph, which is one of the two things the current query mill is designed to select for.

    As I wrote my first novel, I was aware that I was going to need an agent in order to get into the corporate publishing world. I was also aware (I thought) of what self-publishing meant, because my mother self-published a book in the sixties, when I was young. Self-publishing means you get to eat macaroni and cheese for three years solid while you scrape together the thousands of dollars you need, and then you have four big boxes of books in the garage, while corporate publishing simply requires that you get an agent, which means you have to find an agent to read your novel and love it.

    Well, no. Actually, both of those images are so wrong in today’s world it’s astounding, but the most stunning of the two is that you can query 30+ agents (as I did) and be rejected every time by people who have not read one word of your manuscript. “If you can’t write a query,” you’re told, “then you can write a novel.” “If you can’t put the hook in the first line of your query, then the novel isn’t ready.” Most of the queries were simply never responded to, and I have to assume now, given what I have learned since, that I had the audacity to use “Ms Smith” when I should have used “Mrs Smith,” or vice versa, or that this particular agent demands the “why I chose you” paragraph before the “why I wrote this book” paragraph.

    Make no mistake about it, agents receive far too many submissions. They are looking for reasons to reject yours, and as long as the process is based on queries, those rejections will primarily be of the query, and not of the novel. It is this very frustration which leads people such as myself to the self-publishing option, where we find that we are competing with the people whose work you’ve discussed in this post, and whose books find themselves reviewed in such places as http://theselfpublishingreview.blogspot.com.

    But I’m fairly certain that the frustration of readers who expect to find literary merit in the books they choose to read (and again, I’m not being a snob here — I include so-called commercial fiction in my search for literary merit) will lead to the rise of a new model of publishing, where the acceptance of a manuscript will be based on the quality it presents as it is being read, and not on the ability of the author to describe it in one paragraph (face it — can you imagine the author of THIS comment doing well in one paragraph?). The new publisher will also not take the manuscript and then lock the author out of all further steps in the process. The availability and ease of self-publishing will prevent the new publisher from saying “We don’t care if you don’t like the cover (new title/new name for your character/new location). Shut up and go away.” The new publisher will not have the option of simply saying “We don’t care if your book is about a black girl, we put a white girl on the cover because the book won’t sell with a black girl on it.”

    The publishing industry has become so disconnected from both its readers and its writers that it has come to look at writers as the providers of a raw product to be shaped into money by its skilled workers and to look at readers as people whose only job is to buy books.

    I don’t think the readers of the world are going to stand for the ankle-deep sludge that seems to be washing over our thresholds now. I think they are going to demand that someone sort through all that sewage and find the books worth reading. The buggy-whip makers who survived the automobile revolution were the ones who took their leather-working skills and put them to work making car seats, and the publishers who will survive this revolution are the ones who will take their production and marketing skills and use them to create services that bring together readers who demand merit in what they read and authors who who demand it in what they create.

    Levi

    Comment by levimontgomery — March 4, 2010 @ 4:37 pm | Reply

  2. You are a reader who is literate enough to notice the poor spelling and grammar that you describe. My not-very-well-thought-out view on this is that there are many readers whose standard of literacy is similar to those of the self-published authors that you describe. These people will therefore be unlikely to notice that there is anything wrong and will probably enjoy what they’re reading without being deeply irritated by the errors.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that there is a market out there for poorly-edited books (you seem to have demonstrated that yourself, by paying for some of them!). Publishers pride themselves on producing a quality product (although I’m finding I pick up errors in ‘properly’ published books, too). That is important for a lot of readers, but I’d argue that there are yet more on whom a lot of that editing work is wasted.

    I wouldn’t pay anything for an ebook unless I have had a chance to read a sample and make some assessment of its quality and readability, or unless I had a strong recommendation from someone I trust. The old publishing model is clearly broken: I know of many excellent books which are not being published in the conventional way because it is impossible for their authors to attract the attention of an agent.

    There needs to be a middle way for publishers and authors: a means for publishers of taking the self-published books that have garnered a high readership (even if they are of low literary quality) and then using their editorial resources to polish them into products upon which they are willing to put their quality mark. I think this follows on partly from what Levi is saying. If unpublished authors initially make their work freely available and it is picked up by many readers, then the publishers should be able to pay attention to that and be in a position to skim off the cream of new writing as it rises to the top.

    The HarperCollins’s Authonomy site is a partial step in the direction I’m thinking of but is too focused on writers (and too easily gamed). Something similar aimed at more squarely at readers but still under the aegis of a publisher would seem to be required.

    Comment by Amanda — March 5, 2010 @ 12:11 am | Reply

    • Amanda, I want to correct a misperception. I am not a market for for poorly-edited books. The problem is that too often I do not discover how poorly edited a book is until after I have bought it, when there is nothing I can do about it. This has its own consequences, namely, I am unwilling to spend much money on ebooks. This has the ripple effect of hurting those authors who do spend their resources to have professional editing done. eBooks, unlike prbooks, are currently unreturnable. The reasons are understandable, but that makes buying an ebook a sucker’s game. In contrast, a poorly edited pbook (assuming I discover it soon enough) is returnable, making it a better investment and able to command from me a higher price.

      You are correct that some of these authors are good storytellers. But that is insufficient, to my way of thinking, to justify the bad spelling and grammar.

      I also agree that there is a group of readers who will not recognize the errors, but I’ve never thought that dumbing down was a great idea. Instead we should be striving to elevate the literacy of people.

      Comment by americaneditor — March 5, 2010 @ 1:35 pm | Reply

      • I wasn’t suggesting that you deliberately seek out poorly-edited books to buy, just that in (inadvertently) buying them, you are giving them a market. I feel it’s impractical to expect self-published authors to fork out money to get their work professionally edited (how can they afford to?), but that it can (and should) be done retrospectively if the work has proven itself to have merit.

        Comment by Amanda — March 5, 2010 @ 10:14 am | Reply

  3. I can’t add anything to this post except “hear, hear!”

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — March 5, 2010 @ 5:58 pm | Reply

  4. I’ve just found your blog, and I love this post. Once or twice now I’ve read an ebook that is nigh on un-finish-able because of the poor editing and style. I wonder if the author has ever actally READ a good book, and if so, how can he or she possibly imagine that the work he or she produced is comparable. I agree with the comments that there is a sort of market for these poorly edited books, since I hardly hear anyone complaining (except myself!).

    Comment by Archelle — March 7, 2010 @ 10:24 am | Reply

  5. But Amanda, some self-published authors can afford to “fork out money to get their work professionally edited.” I’m one of the many editors who work both with publishers and directly with authors. The authors who pay me consider my fee an investment in their career. True, many of them are physician-researchers who have written articles that they want to submit to medical journals, but some are authors of novels or of nonfiction.

    Comment by Katharine — March 8, 2010 @ 9:36 am | Reply

    • Katharine,

      I believe in hiring professional editors whenever it is feasible. Having said that, not everyone can afford to, and I would rather employ a really good, proven beta reader in exchange for favors than outsource and lower the average price of an editor below already rock-bottom minimum wages. What if I’m publishing a novel via ebook because I know that the market for it is hot right now and I don’t want to wait five years in order to save up enough disposable income to hire a pro? In case you were wondering, the first fiction examples that came to mind were the Jane Austen remixes and vampire novels, but I’m sure others could come up with other popular trends.

      While broadband internet access at home is still largely a perk of middle class America, public wifi access is slowly changing that, and now people of all social classes have come to rely more heavily on the web as a part of daily life. Some of those people will want publish books. I’m not going to tell someone to spend seven grand on self-publishing if they don’t have it.

      Comment by Persephone Green — March 8, 2010 @ 12:28 pm | Reply

  6. This topic is very hot for me, having just had my first novel published as an e-book. I agree with what everyone has said so far in this thread — but it makes me cringe and turn purple.

    I am both a professional writer and a professional editor. My manuscript was incredibly clean — so much so that my publisher (1) made no changes (other than typos she introduced when converting U.S. spelling to Canadian spelling!), (2) commented with many exclamation points about how fabulous it was to not have to overhaul half an author’s text, and (3) wished she could afford to hire me.

    I would be happy to help the growing e-book market meet or exceed traditional print publishing’s standards if any e-publishers were willing/able to hire me at a living wage. Instead, I’m fortunate that I have the ability to edit my own writing with reasonable competence. But I’m unfortunate in that there’s no way that a potential reader can know in advance that my book is better than average.

    Perhaps the disgruntled editing community can band together and host a Clean Manuscript Contest? !

    Comment by Carolyn — March 16, 2010 @ 4:52 pm | Reply

  7. [...] the writing style even if there were a lot of significant annoyances (see for some examples, On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) — but I wouldn’t name a single one as great [...]

    Pingback by Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? « An American Editor — April 22, 2010 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  8. [...] as poor grammar and spelling are commonly seen in ebooks (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), so those ebooks reinforce already poor grammar and spelling skills of readers (readers with good [...]

    Pingback by eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round III « An American Editor — April 29, 2010 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  9. [...] these poor ebooks the norm and the expected. Once it is accepted that misspelling (e.g., making brake and break synonymous) and bad grammar do not matter as long as the book is priced right and can be waddled [...]

    Pingback by Thinking About Pay: Is a New Model Needed? | The Digital Reader — May 6, 2010 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

  10. [...] readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive [...]

    Pingback by Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks « An American Editor — May 7, 2010 @ 7:32 am | Reply

  11. [...] readily overlooked by ebookers. Even though I am an editor and find amateurish errors annoying (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!), I am more forgiving of them in a $1.99 ebook than in a $14.99 ebook, where I won’t forgive [...]

    Pingback by Smashwords is the Real Threat to Agency Pricing of eBooks | The Digital Reader — May 7, 2010 @ 8:56 am | Reply

  12. [...] well and paying attention to their grammar and spelling. Rich Adin’s An American Editor post from a couple of months ago is a prime example. He doesn’t say that all self-published ebooks [...]

    Pingback by Self-publishing and poor editing « Inside Hawley Lodge — May 26, 2010 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  13. [...] We already know that too much TV time, too much video game playing, too much texting are changing our society — and not necessarily for the better. Those of us who professionally edit for a living see the poor writing that seems to be the result of too little emphasis on literacy fundamentals and too little attention paid to creativity skills. (For one example, see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) [...]

    Pingback by Are Multifunction Devices a Threat to Young Readers? « An American Editor — June 4, 2010 @ 8:05 am | Reply

  14. [...] has found them for me, and with much more style than I probably would have used. In his blog post On Words & eBooks – Give Me a Brake! he notes several errors he’s seen in eBooks – errors that no software could catch [...]

    Pingback by Editors and eBooks | All things editing — June 23, 2010 @ 10:39 am | Reply

  15. [...] be a quality read. At worst professional services might eliminate embarrassing mistakes (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed); at best the work would greatly [...]

    Pingback by Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers « An American Editor — June 24, 2010 @ 8:21 am | Reply

  16. [...] know whether, for example, brake or break, seam or seem, scene or seen is correct? (See, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) The author’s question then was, “but if the editor finds no errors or only a few very [...]

    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

  17. [...] I have to admit that part of the problem is the poor quality of so many ebook offerings. I want to hedge my bets and make sure I have plenty of choices because of every 10 ebooks I acquire, I am certain that 8 or 9 will be trashcanned within the first 30 pages of reading. (In case you wonder why, take a look at some past articles that can be found under the tag Professional Editor, such as On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) [...]

    Pingback by Aquiring Books for the TBR Pile: The Special Problem of eBooks « An American Editor — July 15, 2010 @ 5:40 am | Reply

  18. [...] via On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! « An American Editor [...]

    Pingback by On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! « An American Editor « Mike Cane's xBlog — August 19, 2010 @ 6:36 am | Reply

  19. [...] reading, assuming, of course, that the book itself isn’t one of those that falls into the Give Me a Brake! or Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important category, which, sadly, an [...]

    Pingback by The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha! « An American Editor — September 10, 2010 @ 4:38 am | Reply

  20. [...] not only is it not riddled with the types of errors that show an uncaring, amateur job (see, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) but that items like illustrations are recreated to fit the parameters of ereading devices. I [...]

    Pingback by The Problem Is: Publisher’s Don’t Read eBooks! — September 15, 2010 @ 9:52 am | Reply

  21. [...] 1: blog post at An American Editor on the prevalence of typos in ebook editions of books, particularly at the lower end of the cost [...]

    Pingback by Ebook thoughts | Sophistick — September 29, 2010 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

  22. [...] choice of words, but the Age of eBooks has made it much too common to find the wrong word used (see On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! for some examples and On Words: Is the Correct Word Important? for why word choice is [...]

    Pingback by Authors and eBook Problems: Expanding The Net of Responsibility « An American Editor — October 13, 2010 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  23. [...] (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or [...]

    Pingback by On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take? | The Digital Reader — April 11, 2011 @ 5:38 am | Reply

  24. [...] have discussed the problems of self-editing in several earlier articles. Two examples are On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud. For one author’s perspective, see The Editor: A [...]

    Pingback by Is There a Future in Editing? « An American Editor — August 11, 2011 @ 6:44 am | Reply

  25. I wholeheartedly agree with your opinions on poor and non-existent editing, as I am reading my third ebook with the problems you describe. Also notable for these books is odd word usage — it appears that in some cases the author, instead of using a commonly understood word, picked up a thesaurus and chose the most obscure word they could find. Fortunately for me, the books I have so far have been free, but I would have purchased more by these authors had they been better edited.

    Comment by Janelle Z. — April 11, 2012 @ 12:03 am | Reply


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