An American Editor

July 30, 2014

Books, Buying, & Editing

The trouble with books is that there are too many of them that interest me. If I see a book advertised that interests me, I tend to buy it. I don’t wait to see if it will be reviewed in one of my magazines because I know the odds of that happening are very long and even should the book be reviewed, who knows when the review will appear. Even though my to-be-read pile is enormous and I could wait before buying another book, I can’t bring myself to do so.

I mention this because in recent weeks six of the books I have bought have been reviewed in at least one of the magazines I trust for reviews. Had I read the reviews first, I probably would not have bought the books. In the case of a seventh book, I haven’t yet bought it and am debating whether to do so.

In the case of the book I have yet to buy and of one that I did buy, The Economist reviewed the books. The books are “World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II” by Hugh Thomas (the book I have not yet bought) (The Economist, July 12, 2014, p. 75) and “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert O’Connell (which I had already bought) (The Economist, July 26, 2014, p. 69).

In both cases, The Economist‘s reviewer praised the book then damned it. In the case of “World Without End,” the reviewer wrote:

“World Without End” would have benefited from better editing. Two of the chapters on the Yucatán are reprised from an earlier volume of the trilogy and refer to events that took place well before Philip became king in 1556. Several of the epigraphs that introduce chapters are irrelevant or misplaced. A dizzying cast of minor officials confuses rather than enlightens. (p. 76)

As to “Fierce Patriot,” the reviewer wrote:

The book would also have benefited from better editing. It is oddly organized, with later parts doubling back chronologically on already-trodden ground. (p. 69)

Several of the other books that I bought received negative reviews in the New York Review of Books, but the editing was not specifically noted.

The better editing comments are directed at better developmental editing, not at better copyediting, but if the developmental editing is bad or nonexistent, I wonder about the copyediting.

There is an interesting factoid about these two books: they are both published by the same megapublisher, Penguin Random House, although by different imprints, Allen Lane (“World Without End”) and Random House (“Fierce Patriot”). This worries me.

As an editor, I know that many publishers, especially the megapublishers, have spent years cutting back. If they haven’t eliminated an author service, they have sought to minimize the service’s financial impact by limiting budgets for items that produce “hidden” value, such as editing. It is rare that a review takes a book to task for poor editing, but it is even rarer for reviews doing so to be so close together in time and to be of books from the same publishing house.

That these two books are from the same megapublisher but from different imprints bodes ill for imprint independence. It also makes me wonder what impact, if any, reviews noting the editorial flaws will have on future behavior of the megapublisher. Because the complaints are about developmental editing issues, my suspicion is that there was no developmental editing and poorly paid copyediting. I also suspect that the reviews will dent sales but that the wrong lesson will be taken from the dented sales.

That sales are low or lower than expected will be taken as justification for editorial cost cutting rather than seen as a result of ill-advised cost cutting.

I wondered what university presses were thinking when they set such high pricing for print-on-demand hardcover books (see What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction). Now I wonder what the megapublishers are thinking as they limit editorial budgets. Clearly, the university presses see the audience as being so limited that the audience will either pay the high price or buy the paperback, doing either without complaint. The megapublisher also sees the audience for these books as limited and doubts a negative review will have much of an effect on sales when the review’s negativity is editorial quality not content-quality based.

In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed. Few readers (and I am beginning to think reviewers) have either the skills or the interest or the knowledge to notice poor editing — whether developmental editing or copyediting — and thus fail to note it as a flaw.

Is it not interesting that The Economist reviewers spoke of “better editing” without distinguishing between developmental editing (which is what they meant) and copyediting? Or does that distinction not matter?

To me it matters greatly. Had the reviewers said that the books were badly copyedited — misspellings, wrong word choices, bad grammar, etc. — there is no doubt that I would not have bought the books and I would have returned those that I had bought (assuming I could do so; if I couldn’t, they would be relegated forever to the very bottom of my TBR pile and read only in desperation); but that is not true of poor developmental editing. Books that are poorly developmental edited are in somewhat of a limbo land with me.

“World Without End” will not be bought (and had I already ordered it, I would have tried to return it). What ails that book, according to the reviewer, is significant enough to prevent me from buying; what is wrong goes to the heart of the book. The problems with “Fierce Patriot” do not seem so terrible in comparison, especially as I already own the book. They will be annoying and will reflect poorly on the publisher and the author, but they are developmental editing problems that I can suffer with; they are not of such caliber that I feel compelled to try to return the book. Had I known of the problems beforehand, I would not have bought the book.

What is your reaction to these reviews?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 29, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 2

Below are the second round Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. These are all the nominees I have received since posting Hall of Shame Nominees 1. If you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1. Star Trek (movie tie-in) by Alan Dean Foster

  • Format: print
  • Problem: poor editing
  • Samples of errors: Captain Kirk’s father, under attack, discovers he’s restricted to “manuel control.” This is right after the word “manual” has been spelled properly.
  • Solved: No, the current run of this best-seller still contains the error.

2. The Poison King, Adrienne Mayor

  • Format: print (Princeton University Press)
  • Problems: poor copyediting and proofreading
  • Samples of errors: (1) inconsistent spelling: Sea of Azov/Asov, Damogoras/Damagoras [in the same paragraph!], Lucullus/Luculus [same paragraph], Heniochoi/Heniochi; (2) typos or misspellings: ensuring [ensuing] months, unable to chose [choose], tassled [tasseled], seige [siege], Bibliotheque National [Nationale, several times], artemesia [artemisia], ro [to] become invincible, vistory [victory], putrify [putrefy], Mithrdates [Mithradates], A.E. Houseman [Housman]; (3) faulty past tense: everyone … spit [spat] on the memory; (4) missing word: caused it [to] fill; (5) wrong word: staunched [stanched] the flow of blood, enormity [enormous size, vastness] of the land and sky; (6) faulty punctuation: Mithradates’ died
  • Frequency of errors: occasional
  • Overall quality: neutral

February 13, 2010

Hall of Shame Nominees 1

Below are the first Hall of Shame nominees received from readers. Remember that if you want to participate, send your nominations to hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com and be sure to follow the format shown in these entries.

1.  Permed to Death (Bad Hair Day Mystery 1) by Nancy J. Cohen. 

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: E-Reads. 
  • Problem: Poor editing
  • Samples of error(s): Character named Marla written as Maria or Mar1a, incorrect punctuation (e.g. question marks instead of quote marks), incorrect words given context
  • Frequency of error(s): Often
  • Overall Quality: Poor

2. Flatlander: The Collected Tales of Gil “The Arm” Hamilton by Larry Niven

  • Format: eReader ebook
  • Publisher: Del Rey
  • Problem: Poor OCR/Formatting
  • Samples of error(s): “of Ms skull” instead of “of his skull”; No Table of Contents; Misplaced and repeated chapters.
  • Frequency of error(s): Often
  • Reported: To Fictionwise in March and November 2009; To Del Rey in November 2009
  • Solved: Yes. Fixed sometime between November 2009 and February 2010.

3. Who Does What & Why in Book Publishing/Writers, Editors, and Money Men, by Clarkson Potter.

  • Format: Printed book
  • Publisher: Birch Lane Press, 1990. ISBN 1-55972-056-5
  • Problems: Very bad manuscript editing and layout production
  • Samples of error(s): Design and production: The title page is page 1 (i.e., there are no l.c. roman FM page numbers). Many loose lines. Paragraphs ending with the last word hyphenated on two lines (i.e., the last line contained only part of a word). A paragraph that ends with the verbal phrase “take up” broken onto two lines, i.e., the last line contains only two letters and a period. A page that begins with an ellipsis that ends a quotation from the preceding page.
  • Poor editing: “To try and thank the many people …” “To try”? Should be “To thank the many people…”; “The first was a large group of mostly seniors… together with a few graduate students … who were both attending Brown University.” Both is more readily construed to mean individuals, not groups. Cf. this mistake:”This book…centers on the authors, the editors and the publishers themselves. Together, these three people make…” Three “people”? Three groups. Many many errors of punctuation, such as putting a comma between two parts of a compound predicate; not closing a non-restrictive appositive or putting the comma in the wrong place; ending a sentence with a quote that ends with an ellipsis with only three periods (should be four). Repeating unusual words in close proximity, such as “ostensibly” and “ostensible” within three paragraphs. “…Thirty years ago, the ratio…was about fifty-fifty, whereas now it’s likely to be two or three to one.” Use one form of comparison or the other. Writing large numbers in words, not numerals, e.g., “…in excess of forty-five thousand new book titles…” (And then later he writes “… is approaching the multiple 100,000 mark”).
  • Frequency: Often on every page
  • Overall Quality: Very low

February 8, 2010

Hall of Shame: An Introduction

A major complaint readers have is the declining quality of books. As publishers of all stripes hope to maintain or increase pricing, especially with ebooks, there is the constant friction between pricing and quality — they are in disequilibrium.

To help both readers and publishers, I have decided to start the Hall of Shame, a place where readers and publishers can both come to see what books have quality problems and readers are complaining about. Let me say upfront that this is not a place to

  • review a book,
  • say that the author is a great or poor storyteller,
  • complain about availability, or
  • argue the merits of pricing by dissing a book because you do not like the price.

Rather, it is a place to point out where editorial and production quality has fallen down, creating a disequilibrium between price and quality.

The format will be as follows:

Book title, book author, edition (that is, print or ebook), publisher of the edition.
          Problem: e.g., poor editing, poor formatting, or both
          Samples of error(s): (if appropriate)
          Frequency of error(s): e.g., occasional, often, very often
         Overall Quality: e.g., very poor, poor, neutral, good, very
                                              good

Here is the first nominee for the Hall of Shame to illustrate the process.

Look to the Sky, Margaret D. Van Tine, ebook, Live Oak House
          Problem: poor editing
          Sample of error(s): (1) wrong word use, e.g.: “You don’t call Paw ‘Reverend,’…”; (2) improper and inconsistent use of double and single quote marks; (3) failure to capitalize sentence beginning, e.g.: “I was shouted down! on a vital issue.”; (4) misuse of punctuation marks, including random punctuation marks in the midst of sentences.
           Frequency of error(s): often
            Overall Quality: poor

By spreading the word about poor editing and formatting, readers will become knowledgable consumers and speak with their wallets, declining to purchase inferior quality books, thereby shaming publishers into fixing them. Should a publisher undertake to fix a book’s problems, that, too, will be noted, assuming the publisher lets us know.

To participate in the Hall of Shame, please send the requested information via e-mail to: hallofshame[at]anamericaneditor.com.

If you have suggestions regarding information that should be included (or excluded) let me know. Remember that this is a part-time blog so Hall of Shame entries won’t necessarily go up immediately.

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