Saturday, August 25, 2007

Are publishers cheap?

The Rap Sheet and other blogs have weighed in on publishers’ penny-pinching use of stock photos for book covers and the inevitable result: that a lot of covers wind up looking suspiciously similar.

The miserliness may show up between covers, too. In a review headlined “The lost art of the editor,” Crime Scraps discusses a novel whose ludicrous errors include this discussion of a super-light handgun:

"For you I'd recommend a Walther TPH. It's a seven round weapon, .25 calibre, remarkably accurate for up to 100 yards and light as a feather at three kilograms."
As Mr. Scraps points out, 6.6 pounds is pretty damned heavy for a handgun. Unlike the copy editor that the publisher apparently failed to pay for, Scraps did his research and found that the Walther TPH weighs 325 grams, not three kilograms.

In my own recent reading, I’ve run into an official briefing about an impending visit of political dignitaries that includes this on one page:

“ … in exactly twenty-seven days’ time, Air Force One, with the American President on board, will be landing at Gardemoen Airport, Oslo”
and this on the next:

“I don’t need to tell you how short a time two months is, but it means what we’re going to need daily coordination meetings … ."
Elsewhere, I’ve run across a book that confused want and wont and a memorable volume that spelled one character’s name three ways in three consecutive uses on two consecutive pages.

I raise these examples because it’s my understanding that publishers often farm out their copy editing to free-lancers. If that’s the case, one can understand the benefit to publishers: They avoid the necessity of having to pay health and other benefits. But I expect that such a practice would also eliminate copy editors’ chances of feeling that they have a stake in a book’s success.

I invite readers to submit their own examples of such errors. Perhaps we can shame publishers into taking steps to eliminate them. I especially welcome comments from anyone in publishing, whether they are victims of such practices, perpetrators, or merely knowledgeable observers.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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10 Comments:

Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

You have to ask Barry Eisler about the first printing of The Last Assassin. After he'd signed off on the book, an overzealous person thought they spotted an error and changed the name Dov to Dox (without talking to Barry). Unfortunately, Dov and Dox were two different people, and I was a little confused, but at least Dov wasn't mentioned much.

I think everyone in publishing is overworked. And that's part of the problem. It's probably an enormous help if you have a stable list of authors you work with, who understand your system and are as efficient as possible. Authors should give thought to what they feel would be a good cover for their book, so that if their editor asks for input, they have something useful to contribute. The thing with the covers boils down to a limited amount of time and a lot of work. If nobody has a compelling idea for the cover, it may end up being pretty generic, just because of time constraints. This past week I saw a catalogue draft for Spring/Summer 2008. Stuff happens months in advance, and then the window closes. And a cover design that might even seem very original today may end up having a fraternal twin hit the shelves before the book is even out.

August 25, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Publishers' reliance on stock photography has an uncomfortable parallel in my field: As newspapers, mine especially, close bureaus to save money, they wind up relying on smaller pools of wire-service reporters.

Too many people in newspapers are overworked, too, which leads inevitably to errors. Perhaps the want/wont mistake I cited happened because some harried editor ran spell-check instead of reading the chapter thoroughly just one more time. Trouble is, in newspapers, no matter how bad a mistake we make, we can publish a correction the next day. Book publishers lack that option.

Do authors normally have input into the choice of a cover? I can imagine that even if they did, the problem would not go away. An author might suggest a photo of a certain subject or one that conveys a certain mood, and all the appropriate editors might agree, but a budget-constrained art director might still turn to a stock-photography catalogue.

I suspect that the rise of the trade paperback has driven book production costs up faster than the rate of inflation since the early 1980s. I think that was when imprints like Vintage Contemporaries started issuing slim paperbacks by authors like Richard Ford at, I don't know, $9.95 at a time when a paperback sold for maybe $4.95 and a hardcover for $16.95. The covers were typically on heavier stock and featured distinctive designs in pastel colo(u)rs. That had to have raised the cost ante for publishers. Readers probably began to expect more elaborate, better-quality, covers.

That, I suspect, raised the pressure to cut costs in other areas of production, hence the incentive to dig into a stock-photo catalogue rather than hire a photographer or an artist. But all this is just a guess.

August 25, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

You know where it's really egregious? When publishers re-issue books their high-flying authors wrote "back when," before they hit it big (e.g., Nora Roberts).

I see homonym errors all the time in books of that nature. I suppose the publisher figures it's got copy-ready material that was put out once, so how could anything be wrong?

August 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I suspect you might be right, Linkmeister. That three-way spelling of a character's name that I mentioned occurs in a reissue of a novel first published in the early 1960s.

I don't know the technology and economics of publishing, especially as related to books published before the widespread use of computers. I assume that everything is stored on computers these days, which would seem to make errors less excusable than ever. For reprints of older books, though, do publishers have to hope they can find old printing plates? Do they scan or photograph old copies of the book? Either might make corrections more difficult.

Or maybe you're right: Reissuers figure, "Why bother checking? How could anything be wrong?" Well, something always can be wrong.

August 26, 2007  
Anonymous the chasing iamb said...

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August 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the compliment and the comment. That novel could be a good source for several meals, I think.

And it's interesting that monsoons permit the peace and quiet necessary for good reading.

August 26, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

What can also happen in the editing phase is what I refer to as situational blindness. When I worked with children with speech delays one of the most critical components of correcting that was getting them to hear that what they said was wrong, was different from how I said it (or anyone else). But their brain was tuned to translating the incorrect way they said words themselves and in their head they heard it right. You have to reprogram the path.

It's the same with editing the written word. We writers get to know what's supposed to be there. Hell, churn out enough quick articles that follow a standard format and you can mentally predict what should come next. I've written something, put it aside for several months, gone back to it and been reciting it word for word before my eyes process what's actually typed. That's the problem in crunch edits. You go over and over and over stuff and you know what should be there. Your mind compensates for what IS on the page and registers what you know is supposed to be there. Printing off drafts in different fonts is one way of giving a visual change to help your eye actually read the text - most people read words by shape, not letter to letter as well. Another reason editing is painstaking work. And I find it almost impossible to edit on screen.

Most authors I know that I've discussed this with fall in two camps. They have had some level of input on their cover. They don't have final say, but they get asked and are able to offer suggestions. I've known a few debut authors who've been extremely involved in the process.

Then there's another camp, we'll call clueless, who just get handed a cover. An author told me when they saw their first cover they just thought, "My name's on a book" instead of "What an awful cover and what does this have to do with my story?"

The publishing world isn't perfect. I'm certainly not saying that. But it's very easy to point fingers and cite problems. What we actually need to do is find some working solutions. Bad, repetitious, boring covers? Throw up your hands and moan about how cheap publishers are or give it a thougth when your manuscript is being shopped and try to have a constructive suggestion? I can gripe as good as the next guy, but I don't think that's going to change anything.

August 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Reading a sentence backwards is another suggestion I have seen for proofreading texts. This is obviously impractical for manuscripts of any length, but anyone who has ever edited a piece of text, his or her own or that of others, will understand the problem. It's why even the best editor will let a there slip through instead of a their from time to time.

It's good to hear that authors have input into their covers. I think, by the way, that the discussion of this issue on blogs has reflected puzzlement or amusement rather than anger at publishers.

I'm accustomed to editing with deadlines measured in minutes, so when I see sloppy mistakes in material published with deadlines I assume are months long, I'll naturally look for explanations, if not scapegoats. I'd say two questions are relevant: Have publishers changed their copy-editing practices (and have such changes hurt the quality of their books?), and, as you suggest with covers, have they taken practical steps to find workable as opposed to optimal solutions? Have they done all they can, in other words, to avoid saying a super-light handgun weighs 6.6 pounds?

August 26, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

My very detailed and comprehensive research on the Walther TPH took all of 2 minutes with a broadband connection, and a change of spectacles. I need now to convince my doctor that when I lose 325 grams in weight I have in fact lost 3 kilograms.

August 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah, it's difficult to assign fault for any given error other than to say that it should not have found its way into the book. Was the copy editor in this case a numbskull? In that case, who hired the copy editor? Was the copy editor overworked or poorly paid? Does this publisher not give books the editing they should get? Do books these days have more errors than they once did? Are readers' expectations higher?

It's those latter questions about which I was speculating when I posted my comment. Publishers ought to be interested in them as well.

August 27, 2007  

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