An American Editor

March 28, 2012

eBooks: Is it the Editor in Me?

Filed under: Books & eBooks,On Books — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Anyone who has looked at my On Today’s Bookshelf posts will see that I buy a lot of ebooks. And as I noted in the last On Today’s Bookshelf, my to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing, now numbering more than 500.

But that doesn’t mean I am not reading ebooks; rather, it means that even though I am reading ebooks as fast as I can, I am replenishing my stock faster than I can read. This would concern me if, in fact, I was reading every word of every ebook; but I’m not.

One of the “talents” I have developed over my 28+ years of professional editing is the ability to tell within a few sentences whether a manuscript is going to be particularly troublesome; whether the author has done a basically good job in writing and preparing the manuscript or is a terrible writer, prone to amateurish mistakes, and uncaring about how the manuscript is presented.

This “talent” doesn’t seem to be laid aside when I read an ebook for pleasure, which means that it doesn’t take many pages to decide whether to keep reading or hit the delete button, and much too often, I hit the delete button.

First, I need to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the idea that the more a book costs, the better it will be. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

From ebook purchases I have made, it is clear that price is not an indicator of quality, especially not of editorial quality, as we have discussed on An American Editor any number of times.

Yet I have also discovered in discussions with other ebookers that quality has no universal meaning. eBooks that I have deleted after a dozen pages because of runon sentences, homonym miscues, and other annoying editorial matters, ebookers without the editorial eye have praised. It is not that they didn’t notice many of the same errors; they did. Rather, it is that they were more tolerant of the errors; they were able to look beyond the editorial problems to the story itself.

So this makes me wonder if I am not missing out some real gems — not necessarily literary masterpieces, just good storytelling — because of the editor in me. It also makes me wonder whether we will eventually devolve into two reading publics: one that cares greatly about the editorial quality of a ebook and so is unwilling to spend much money to buy an ebook and a second that cares little about the mistaking of hear for here and is focused on the story itself and thus willing to pay a higher price for a book as long as the story is interesting.

I also wonder whether American English is changing so rapidly that what editors today would declare error will tomorrow be declared acceptable or correct.

In any event, the problem for me is how to control my editing tendencies so that I can relax and enjoy the underlying story. How do I put aside my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?

The problem was less acute before ebooks. Before ebooks, traditional publishers took some pride in the quality of what they released, although the pride seemed to be diminishing in recent years. But once ebooks made the reading market open to all, the scramble publish pushed aside the need to ensure editorial quality. Part of this is the economics of ebooks; it is hard to justify spending $2000 on an editor for a book that will be sold for 99¢ or less.

Even recognizing the financial considerations, I struggle to read a book that makes me pause every few sentences to say: “The author meant whom not who” or “The author meant your, not you’re.” My neighbor says I’m too fussy. Am I really? Is it too much to ask that at least the basics of grammar and spelling be applied by an author?

What should an ebooker expect from an author, regardless of whether the author gives the book away for free or charges $9.99? Do not most readers have certain basic expectations? Or has the Age of Twitter hardened readers to accept anything goes?

I suspect that I will never be able to set aside my editorial hat when reading a book and so my delete button will continue to get a workout. Are you able to set aside your editorial hat?



  1. Hi,

    I understand and value the skill of quickly assessing the quality of a manuscript or other writing. Frequently an experienced editor can reach useful conclusions and decide about a course of action after a brief review.

    Still, I remember the most useful CompLit course I took in grad school. The title was The Nineteenth-century French Novel. We expected a huge reading list but were astonished when on the first day of class Prof Lilian Furst told us we were reading only _Madame Bovary_ and _Le rouge et le noir._ Lilian told us to read each novel _twice_ before the next class, and she threatened to fail any student who mentioned a critic before week 3.

    Needless to say, we delved into the novels in exquisite detail, and I learned more about reading than I had absorbed since grade school.

    By the end of the semester, we were feeling pretty cocky and thought we understood the novels pretty well. Lilian completely humbled us during the final seminar when she read a list — a very long list — of topics we had not discussed at all during the course.

    Lilian’s conclusion, which we endorsed, is that Flaubert took 5 years to write the Bovary, and he was completely right to expect readers to spend at least 5 years reading it.


    Stefan Schuber, PhD, ELS
    Oregon, 1976


    Comment by Stefan Schuber — March 28, 2012 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  2. “my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?”… Yes I do… sometimes you have to read between the lines… 28 years is something to be respected for as an editor. Your focus only on grammar or editorial mistakes is kind of over the top. I feel too that there is a place for professional editors like you who could help people like me. Yes I am one of those writers who have a manuscript and it needs work. By what I read above you might just scare me off with you superiority on the subject… I’d say engage more, criticize less and you may do much better…A humility hat is a start… I do love your Blog and I am learning a lot…
    Hudley Flipside


    Comment by hudleyflipside — March 28, 2012 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

  3. I can sympathise with your problem, one that professionals in a number of fields suffer from. For many years I was a theatre technician, stage lighting and sound being my main areas, and for years going to the theatre as a member of the audience was always spoilt for me by my inability to avoid seeing the many and regular mistakes that occur in any live theatre show.
    It is only now, some three years since I stopped doing that work, that I can relax a bit in a theatre and simply enjoy the show, and not find the mistakes jarring me.

    It is the same with ebooks, I react in the same way that you do, and I suspect that many readers have the same problems. Using “who” instead of “whom” might not bother me, as to be honest, I am not sure which one I should use in which situation, but there are many errors that really bother me, and bring me back to earth with a bump, and thus spoil the whole reading experience. And I am sure I am far from alone in this feeling.

    It seems to me that anyone who wants to be a writer should feel it incumbent on them to ensure that they possess the basic tools of their trade, as with any other tradesman. In the case of a plumber it is a matter of understanding how water behaves, and using the various tools required to make it all function properly In the case of a writer, it is surely basic that a working knowledge of grammar and syntax would be a sine qua non?


    Comment by ebookano — March 28, 2012 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  4. I’m not an editor, but I find myself hitting the delete as soon as it’s apparent that not a lot of pride or effort has gone into the finished product. I love being sucked into stories, but if I’m having to mentally correct punctuation or grammar as I go, I’m pulled up short.

    I’ve found since I starting writing in earnest that I’ve lost a lot of the pleasure that I used to get from reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading. But these days I often find myself analysing why something works or why it doesn’t, instead of just enjoying the story.

    I’ve read a couple of ebooks from “Big 6” publishers lately that had more typos in them than some of the Indie books I’ve read. For example in Have Gun, Will Play, I only stumbled across one typo (an extra word), which is an impressive stat compared to most books, even the well-edited ones.


    Comment by Vicki — March 29, 2012 @ 12:08 am | Reply

  5. No, I can’t separate the editor from the reader. But as a fiction editor, I am more lenient in my mechanical copyediting than I am as a nonfiction editor. If a sentence is unclear, it’s unclear. If a plot point is confusing, it’s confusing. Spelling and some grammar/usage points (e.g., who vs. whom) usually don’t mess up comprehension, but punctuation can make a big difference, and slopping writing set readers chasing their tails. Really sloppy writing interferes with story telling.

    I feel that published work should be clean and coherent. Some bloopers must always be allowed, because we are all human, and market forces are putting intense pressures on production. But when I’m in the judge’s seat — book buyer, reviewer, or contest judge — I penalize for sloppiness past a certain point.

    When editing work in progress, though, I focus on clarity and let authors have their style and voice in many more areas than other editors might.


    Comment by documania2 — March 29, 2012 @ 10:55 am | Reply

  6. Of course, sloppy comments make for poor comprehension, too! I meant to write “sloppy writing” instead of “slopping writing.” : )


    Comment by documania2 — March 29, 2012 @ 10:57 am | Reply

  7. It is impossible for an editor to disregard the grammatical errors one finds in a book, and just “concentrate on the story.” You are not wrong to keep hitting the “delete” button.Any author, any person who even just types up a flyer, should use correct grammar.


    Comment by Dr. Mary-Anne Pops — March 29, 2012 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

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