Monday, February 11, 2008

Books have gone from bad to wurst

Have you noticed lately that the books you buy—I mean books from major publishing houses—are full of typos and editing gaffes? I see this complaint often. I make this complaint myself from time to time.

There was a time in living memory (mine, anyway—maybe not yours) when it was unusual to find more than a couple of errors in a book of several hundred pages. Publishers took pride in putting out good books because they thought this built brand loyalty for their imprint.

But publishing, like other traditional craft-based manufacturing industries, was taken over by vulture capitalists, who replaced the old managers with cost-cutting MBAs.

Nowadays, publishers—even those with a well-polished reputation for producing high-quality books—are not in the literature business; they’re in the sausage business. They buy carcasses, pay meatcutters and wurstmakers, and crank out the sausage, hoping that the customers will buy based on the packaging and reputation for quality (but not take too close a look at the ingredients list) and then cook and eat the sausage without dissecting the raw product to look for peculiar bits.

Mostly, there isn’t much you and I can do about this, other than producing books outside the mainstream publishing industry and building up an appreciation for high-quality books.

There is one category where individuals can make a difference, though. If you teach a course—especially at the college level—and you are unhappy with the quality of the course textbook, say something.

Complaining to a publisher that their wurstmakers fell down on the job isn’t going to change the publisher’s process or business model; it will just lead to hiring different wurstmakers. But suggesting to the buyer that you switch to a different brand of sausage will catch the publisher’s attention. I guarantee it. Write a letter to whoever was responsible for choosing that textbook. Explain the problem with the quality, and suggest that a competing book from a different publisher be selected for the following year’s students. Send a copy of the letter to the president of the publishing company. Hit where it hurts—in the wallet.


Anonymous said...

There were three typos in my book that any editor should have caught.

Aside from switching to a different brand of sausage, is there any advice you'd give authors who have to deal with publishers who might be a little too eager to run a book through the sausage mill?

Dick Margulis said...

Hi Abel,

Thanks for stopping by the blog.

Three typos? That's not really too bad. Editors are human, and perfection is largely unattainable. I can't recall ever reading a book that was completely error-free.

That's different from the state of affairs today, though, in which I typically find three typos before I'm past the author's preface.

Now if you mean there were three glaring errors that jumped out at you the moment you cracked the book open and there are probably dozens more if you read carefully, that's a different matter altogether.

What I'd suggest is that authors, first of all, think about this issue when they're negotiating the contract. Build in the right to check and approve the proofs yourself before releasing the book to the printer, even if this results in a publication delay. (It's the author's name on the cover and the author who will be blamed for serious errors.)

Before you even get to that stage, go to the bookstore and examine recent books from the same publisher, preferably from the same managing editor at the publishing company (ask for a list). That will tell you what you need to know about their quality standards.

And tell the publisher you're a professional writer who can accept aggressive editing—that your feelings won't be hurt if an editor corrects something you got wrong. Setting that expectation will help the publisher assign the right editor to the book.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the feedback. It was very helpful. Overall they did a pretty good job in editing my book. There was just a couple of obvious typos and probably a handful of others that I didn't catch. It didn't expect the book to be perfect, but the obvious ones were really annoying.

I'm trying to finish up my second book this summer and know that my first publisher would probably take it. If they are interested, I'll get a few more editing details worked into the final contract.

Thanks again for your help.