Book Business

When Editorial Errors Matter

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

  • The simplicity of “cut and paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original places because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately.
  • Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters.
  • There are too many details to keep straight, so the writer overlooks the inconsequential, trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidentally brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book, and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

There is much talk about the ease of self-publishing and that traditional publishing is going to die the slow death of the dinosaur. But at the same time, we read of complaints about poor editing in the plethora of self-published books.

Recently, someone showed me a minor mistake in a recently self-published book by a well-known author who was diving into the indie world of publishing in addition to their traditional publishing efforts.

It is a simple error, not an egregious one. Early in the book a character has possession of a piece of jewelry that was apparently purchased at Target. Less than fifty pages later, the same piece of jewelry is described as being purchased from Walmart.

“Who cares? Really, Steve, you shouldn’t be pointing out something so trivial.” That was the conversation in my head. But I bring it up anyway as a reminder to all writers and editors. We make mistakes. (And I would not like it if all my editorial and writing errors were exposed. It hurts enough to have my grammar corrected in the comment section below!) But when we do make mistakes, the reader is pulled out of the story; and the nature of the reading experience has been changed. The reader who found the above inconsistency did not come to me extolling the virtues of the story or its fine packaging or its literary style. Instead, the conversation was about editorial errors and author errors.

The author missed it. The substantive editor missed it. I hope there was a copy editor who missed it. And I hope there was at least one, if not more, proofreaders who missed it. If so? Okay. It happens and we fix the file, so future editions will be corrected; and we move on. Most publishers have a correction file on every book, so when it comes up for reprint the errors can be fixed. In today’s digital world the ebook file can be corrected rapidly and uploaded with relative ease. (It is not “easy” due to all the various outlets and file formats, but it is relatively easy.)

But if this self-published author did not run it past multiple editors with a variety of skill sets (substantive, copyedit, and proofreading), then we may have a problem. And one that is showing up with more frequency as we cut editorial corners, both in the indie community and the traditional publishing houses.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Yes, and I apologize for the poke in the ribs. It is done to make a point about the need for excellence in all things. Our readers demand it. They are a relentless group of people who deserve our best. They find typos and are annoyed. They find errors like the example above and make that a topic of conversation. And after a while they stop trusting us to provide them with information and entertainment that exhibits the finest we can produce. Yes, we all make errors; and it isn’t always a big deal. Let’s just make sure we have worked our very best to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Your Turn:
What errors have you found in a book recently that made you sigh with exasperation?

[A version of this post ran in early 2013, and I’ve left all the comments intact as readers provided a robust conversation. Please chime in to add your thoughts to this discussion! By the way, you’ll note that people found typos in my original post! Because I tend to have too many mistakes in my blog writing, I hire a proofreader to look them over before they post. Now I can blame someone else! HAH!]

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To Comma or Not to Comma?

by Steve Laube

I came across this entry in the Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation (although based on British English usage it is still a great book). Read the story below and then answer the questions in the comment section.

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically aded a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant?

What other ambiguities with commas have you seen or written with your own hand?

Why should it matter? It is just punctuation.

Is punctuation important in book contracts?

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Ancient Wisdom from an Ancient Editor

by Steve Laube

I came across a remarkable section in a book written around 124 B.C. The editor of the book wrote the following preface to help the reader understand his methodology and purpose. It shows the concern a good editor has for the ultimate reader. His job was to abridge a massive five volume work into an abbreviated 16,00 word document. Can anyone tell me where this comes from and the name of the editor? (Without googling the text!) I’ll reveal the answer in the comments later in the day.

The number of details and the bulk of material can be overwhelming for anyone who wants to read an account of the events. But I have attempted to simplify it for all readers; those who read for sheer pleasure will find enjoyment and those who want to memorize the facts will not find it difficult.

Writing such a summary is a difficult task, demanding hard work and sleepless nights. It is as difficult as preparing a banquet that people of different tastes will enjoy. But I am happy to undergo this hardship in order to please my readers. I will leave the matter of details to the original author and attempt to give only a summary of the events.

I am not the builder of a new house who is concerned with every detail of the structure, but simply a painter whose only concern is to make the house look attractive. The historian must master his subject, examine every detail, and then explain it carefully, but whoever is merely writing a summary should be permitted to give a brief account without going into a detailed discussion. So then, without any further comment, I will begin my story. It would be foolish to write such a long introduction that the story itself would have to be cut short.

Note a few pearls of eternal wisdom from this ancient editor:

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When Your Proposal Doesn’t Sell

by Steve Laube

It happens. Despite all efforts and good intentions not every proposal we shop will end up being contracted by a major publisher. Of course our agency tries our best to keep that from happening. We carefully choose which projects and authors we represent. And our success rate is extremely high.

But that success rate is not 100%.

Here are a few examples of projects that I represented in past years that did not sell to a major publisher.

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Bookstore Economics 101

by Steve Laube

Understanding the economics of your local brick-and-mortar bookstore should help you understand the upheaval that is happening in our industry. So put on your math cap and let’s take a ride.

This article focuses on the bookstore not the publisher or the writer. I spent over a decade in the Christian bookstore business, and while that was a long time ago the economic principles are the same.

Let’s start with a $10 book (retail price). I’m using $10 because it will make the math a little easier to follow.

The bookstore buys the book for $6 (or 40% discount off the retail price) from the publisher (who calls that $6 the net price). Note that this discount varies between 40% and 50%.

When the books sells to a customer the store then makes a $4 profit ($10 – $6 = $4).

If the store discounts the book during a 20% off promotion they have to sell two copies to make that same $4 profit. But often a 20% off sale is not enough to double the sales volume. Why? Because a high-volume operation like Amazon.com is happy to sell that $10 book for $6.50 (35% off). They can do this because they plan on selling 10 copies at the discounted price and clear $5 in profit. This pricing strategy has a chilling effect on the ability of the local store to compete.

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When the Outlook Is Bleak

by Steve Laube

In the constant ebb and flow of this industry we have authors celebrating and authors in tears. Ask any agent and you will hear the same. For every author excited about their new contract there is another experiencing bitter disappointment.

And I wish I could fix it.

To hear the anguish is difficult, but to be the one who delivers the bad news is heart-wrenching. Why is it that they seem to come in bunches? So what do you do when you run into the inevitable disappointments the writing experience throws at you?

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Age Is Just a Number

by Steve Laube

Last Friday in the comments Dr. Richard Mabry wrote, “Tired after doing a few household chores that never used to leave me dragging. Now I’m ready to be up and dancing. Age is just a number, isn’t it?”

Then on Saturday I spoke at the Christian Writes of the West mini-conference where one of the writers asked “Do older writers have a chance? Especially if agents and publishers are looking for a long career investment?”

It is a great question. Does it matter how old you are? No it doesn’t. When your proposal lands on our desk or on an editor’s desk it is the words on the page that speak to us. I rarely even think about the writer’s age, ethnicity, economic status, or any other non-writing ability classification while I’m reading the sample chapters. Of course there are exceptions. A few times I could tell the author was very young by the way they were writing a romance scene…they simply had not yet “fallen in love” and couldn’t quite express it in a full way.

We have a number of clients who are in their 20s we also have a number who are in their 70s. What matters is whether they’ve written a great book and have a platform (for non-fiction) to sell it from.

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Am I on a Deadline?

Many authors submit book proposals to agents and editors with the thought, If this doesn’t work, I’ll self-publish. That plan is reasonable. However, when strategizing your career, consider the timeline. As an agency, we set a time frame to respond to author queries. Often, we miss our stated deadline. In …

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Welcome Back, Dan Balow!

by Steve Laube

I am very excited to announce that Dan Balow has joined our agency as the Director of Publishing Development and Literary Agent. This gives us four members of our team, me, Tamela Hancock Murray, Karen Ball, and Dan.

I’ve been looking for ways to increase the services our agency provides to current and potential clients. I have known Dan for 15 years and by adding him to our agency we can expand our role in helping to maximize our client’s sales, work with ministries and organizations to develop their publishing efforts, and expand our reach internationally. Dan’s strengths are his understanding of book marketing, what it takes to be successful in the current publishing environment and how all the pieces of the publishing “puzzle” fit together. Our team has expertise in all facets of the industry, writer, bookseller, editor, marketer, agent, executive management, and publisher.

Dan is a 30 year veteran of the Christian publishing industry. He was the director of marketing for Tyndale House Publishers working with authors Francine Rivers, James Dobson, Josh McDowell, Charles Colson and many others.

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