Monday, April 19, 2010

Publisher attacks readers who complain about sloppy editing

You may well have heard of the Australian cookbook that called for "salt and freshly ground black people" — instead of black pepper — to be added to one recipe.

Penguin Group Australia had to recall 7,000 copies of the Pasta Bible because of the error, according to news reports, and publishing head Bob Sessions was not pleased. His target was not what one might expect, though.

"We're mortified that this has become an issue of any kind and why anyone would be offended, we don't know," he said, according to The Age newspaper of Melbourne. "We've said to bookstores that if anyone is small-minded enough to complain about this ... silly mistake, we will happily replace [the book] for them."

Has recession eaten into editing budgets?

Mr. Sessions is half-right. Trouble is, he may also be hiding something. The error was a silly mistake, and I suspect that it was unintentional and indicates no racism on anyone's part. But before I absolve him, I want to know how much time and money Penguin Australia devotes to editing now, and how much it devoted five, ten and twenty years ago.
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(Mr. Sessions received kid-glove treatment from several media outlets that edited out or paraphrased his insult that complainers are small-minded. Read one such example on the BBC News Web site.)

The BBC is even more protective of Mr. Sessions than I realized. As of this writing, the photo caption on the site to which I link immediately above reads: Penguin said it was "mortified" over the "silly" mistake in its pasta cook-book. In fact, as Mr. Sessions' statement makes clear, Penguin is mortified not by the mistake, but rather that the mistake has become an issue.

That's a subtle though importance difference, and I trust the BBC will correct its honest but silly mistake.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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45 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

I like the part where they forgive themselves by saying that 'proofreading is an extremely difficult task'.

Uh, right. That's why you pay people who are good at it to do it.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's it. Sessions' defense of the proofreader seems like an admirable defense of an employee (or contract worker without benefits). In fact, it may be a salve to his own conscience over failure to pay for adequate editing.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

No. Freaking. Way.

I mean, the error is bad enough on its own, but to then act all high and mighty about making it is ridiculous. That just burns even more of the publisher's credibility.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right, but a publisher will never admit it. I especially like Mr. Sessions' juxtaposition of small-minded and happy.

I suspect that Mr. Sessions is under orders from his corporate superiors to slash the editorial budget and not ever to admit that this will have an effect. Still, I hope Australian satirists and comedians are giving him the treatment he deserves.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's why you pay people who are good at it to do it.

Or used to pay people who were good at it, anyway.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

It's interesting that when you walk into any Borders now in Australia the first thing you see are the rows and rows of cook books. I suppose its the sign of an affluent society but intellectually unchallenged society, but be that is it may, I have a feeling that cook books are the only thing that make money nowadays for publishing houses.

BTW not two miles from where I write this there is a toy shop called the Golliwog Shop which cheerfully sells golliwog dolls.

Australia is quite a good bit from being a post racial society.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, what exactly does that link mean by "Similar businesses nearby"?

April 18, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

It's funny, but here in the U.S, cookbooks wouldn't be our loss leader. We really only sell a huge amount of them around the December holidays, and I suppose their is some spike around Mother's Day. America may be post-racial--though I doubt it--but it is definitely not post stereotype.

I looked up golliwog, because that is definitely not one I want to do on my blog.

April 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Such an entry on your blog would make for an interesting bit of social history, at any rate, most of which would have been new to me. (I just looked up "golliwog.")

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yeah, I don't know. Catamites and golliwogs--where does it all end?

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's raining catamites and golliwogs!

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I think it might be raining here tomorrow, but hopefully just H2O.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, back to cookbooks. A B&N near here has all kinds of displays on its ground floor, generally arranged by theme or price category. I've noticed no special emphasis on cookbooks. There often is a table of crime fiction, though.

April 19, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I notice sloppy editing, copyediting and/or proofreading all of the time. Sometimes I get so aggravated I correct a spelling mistake or a word error in a book I'm reading before I pass it on.

But this is an atrocious mistake. Did anyone edit or proofread the book at all? Were they unconscious or high on something?

This is inexcusable. I'm glad they had to recall copies, reprint and re-send the books out.

That they defended themselves and criticized the public is outrageous. Can't they take responsibility for their own mistakes?

Wow--this was a big one.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suspect that a certain bluntness of Australian manners may be responsible for the shocking effect of Sessions' comments.

Unconscious or high? Not necessarily. Anyone can make any mistake at any time. A capable and conscientious proofreader may be distracted precisely at the moment he or she is reading a given word or running a spell-check program. I am more apt to consider the possibility that the problam is institutional; hence Mr. Sessions' defensiveness.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Before bowing out of this discussion for the night, I'll just say that paying 20.000 for a single typo, which I read somewhere was the loss they foresee whether in American dollars, Australian dollars or British pounds is actually small potatoes for a publisher like Penguin. Big hit for a small publisher, yes, but Penguin is not a small publisher. And besides, I doubt that they will end up paying out very much on that.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read that figure, too. I wonder where the reporter got the figure. Perhaps Penguin supplied it without, however, providing the context that you did.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Side note: Creedence Clearwater Revival called itself The Golliwogs before taking its final name.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creedence_Clearwater_Revival#History

April 19, 2010  
Anonymous Ernest said...

I reckon it's about the cheapest advertising Penguin's ever done. This story is being carried everywhere. People will be paying big bucks for the elusive "ground black people" copies. I'm off to Ebay.

April 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Careful, diligent proofreading and copy editing notwithstanding, printing errors (although perhaps not this one) are increasingly common now that text/type is not set manually but scanned by computer.

When our annual printed A&I product went online we were told to expect up to 5% data migration errors. There were plenty of these and 4 years later we're still running across them. I found "100m" instead of "loom" today, for example.

I also wonder if the outrage would have been quite so vociferous and the backpedaling response so feeble if the error had read "salt and freshly ground white people"? White pepper is sometimes preferred by chefs for dishes where a mild pepper is called for and when the chef does not want the pepper to be quite so visible, say, in an omelet.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Maybe maybe not. My local bookshop in St Kilda has had four copies of the supposedly pulped "The Last Train From Hiroshima" languishing on the shelf for a month now.

In any case this story is over because late yesterday Australia's most famous criminal Carl "Baby Face" Williams was beaten to death in prison. In a society that was founded by criminals, which has as its biggest icon a criminal (Ned Kelly) and an official National Anthem about a criminal (Waltzing Matilda) this is huge news.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I did like Peter Carey's The True Adventures of Ned Kelly, though. I can understand why he became an icon.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I don't know the nature of the outrage, since the news stories I read did not say who was doing the complaining. For all I know, the mistake may have aroused malicious amusement rather than anger. It had occurred to me that ambitious black politicians might try to make a name for themselves out of this, but I'd have been tempted to say that that would serve Penguin right for scrimping on editing. From the admittedly skimpy accounts I have read, the only thing approaching rage came from Penguin.

As for data migration errors, I eagerly await the first concession from a publisher of any kind that cutbacks on editing and increased reliance on technology will result in a decrease in quality and an increase in errors. I also await followers for my thesis that these measures are helping to make ours a less literate culture. Will this retreat from literacy be the first in Europe and the cultures derived from it since the Dark Ages?

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I guess the term was thought less offensive in the ealry '60s, when CCR was starting out.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, one suspects that if Penguin were all that concerned, it would have insisted that all copies be returned. On the other hand, such insistence would no doubt have driven copies into the hands of, er, black marketeers with their eyes on the main chance.

... and an official National Anthem about a criminal (Waltzing Matilda) this is huge news.

I had thought "Waltzing Matilda" was an unofficial anthem. In any case, though I had not thought about the matter before, I guess the jolly swagman was a sheep rustler, wasn't he?

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I have not read Peter Carey's book, but I did come across and was quite taken with a exhibtion of Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings a few years ago. I wrote about them here, where you'll find a sample and a link to more information and illustrations.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I've seen that image somewhere, maybe even here. I like it--or if not exactly like it, think it's very good.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your equivocal reaction is appropriate. That particular painting is whimsical and gruesome at the same time, not an easy combination to pull off.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Actually, there's a weird ad on TV right now, which I'd kind of forgotten about, but which just came on again. It's advertising the Volkswagen SUV and consists of people seeing a car--unseen by us-- go past and then hitting the person next to them in the arm and saying "Black one". It seems like a very ill advised ad campaign, especially when this white working class hard hat guy does this to his black coworker. It comes across as an address, and would probably result in a clout in the nose before it was sorted out in real life. Don't they do audience testing anymore?

April 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I saw that ad the other night. I think it's aimed at people who have passed beyond the need for anything that makes apparent sense. I couldn't figure out what the point was, except to revive memories of that obnoxious childhood game of punching your neighbor on the shoulder for some stupid reason or other.

April 19, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Whether it should be neutral or not, "the black one" was ill-considered. Especially since they presumably make this car in a variety of less charged colors.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not even sure I remember the line "the black one." I may have seen the commercial in a bar, in which case the sound might have been off or barely audible. But the ad does appear to have got under your skin and mine, and maybe that's what its creators wanted.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, maybe they did, but more fools they if they think that means I'm going to go out and buy an SUV.

Of course, if it's an accident it's funny. If it's intentional, it's something else again.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There would be little or no way of proving this, but I wonder how often a prospective customer will decide against buying a given product based on an ad for it.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Yup meant UNofficial. The rather dull Advance Australia Fair is the official anthem. Not sure which is worse: AAF, O Canada or God Save The Queen.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, it's true that I wasn't hurrying off to buy an SUV in any case, so I'm probably not the best test case.

What I wonder is, how many people wake up one morning and look out the window at their new black Volkswagen SUV with a certain feeling of incomprehension about exactly how it all came about. And wondering, too, about all those bruises on their arm...

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or wonder, with some embarrassment, and the stupid ad that made them go out and buy that SUV.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I think I have greater tolerance for national anthems than you do. I liked the tune of the old Soviet anthem, which I heard during U.S.S.R.-Canada hockey games.

Hmm, I guess nationalism has lost some of the luster it once enjoyed.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

You're kidding right? The old Soviet Anthem was brilliant. When you hear it you instantly think of parades in Red Square or submarines disappearing into the murky waters of the Baltic Sea.

April 20, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Going back to copyediting and proofreading for a monent, this is exactly why more than one proofreader is needed and more than one readover.

I've seen so many printed documents corrected and reprinted from errors not as bad as this one. This is grossly offensive to millions of people.

Penguin should just bite the bullet, take the responsibility, fix the error and reprint--and they should publicly apologize for all of it. No reason not to.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, Adrian, what did an innocent child know of such things? Now, of course, I shift uncomfortably in my chair when my once having liked that anthem comes up. I guess the novelty of hearing something other than the U.S. or Canadian anthems before games struck me.

April 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, of course Penguin should do just as you suggest. With my limited knowledge of the situation, I am shocked less by the mistake than by Mr. Sessions's public reaction.

April 20, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Mr. Sessions's public reaction is outrageous. And the BBC's siding with him is the same.

May 02, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, I cut the BBC a break on this. I suspect it's less a mistake than a case of the caption writer being not quite as precise as he or she could have been.

May 02, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

But the BBC is taking a side on this and didn't have to do that. It's a mistake that could have happened accidentally but one, like many like this, can cause a lot of hurt.

So, I'd say, take the high road and say it was a mistake which warranted a public apology and reprint. That isn't a big deal, would have shown the BBC has more of an overview on these issues.

May 02, 2010  

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