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…

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