Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Rant: mistakes in printed books

This actually raises a very good question: When is it okay to point out mistakes? I have an orchestration book that looks as though it was self-published and got very little or no proofreading or editing before it was printed. Typos all over the place. Plus, many sentences are garbled and don't make a lot of sense. I get a sense of what the author is trying to say, but it isn't very clear. As a user of the book, do you think it would be rude for me to write to them and point out the errors? It's a useful book otherwise, for someone in my field (film composing).

Get a group of authors together, pour a few beers into 'em and they'll tell you what they think about "correction letters." They hate 'em. A lot.

You have the best of intentions: helping someone fix errors.

The key piece of the civility connection though, is this: by and large, once it's in print, it can't be fixed. If there is a second edition, MAYBE it can be, but second printings ARE NOT second editions. Second printings reprint the first edition, lock stock and typo. And authors have almost zero control over this. I've been very fortunate to have the one publisher who found an egregious mistake agree to fix it with zero guff. But then, that's why I like working with her..she really cares about the books on her list, and she's the decision maker about that stuff. Frequently editors at larger houses are not, and they're not real happy about mistakes either and there is nothing they can do about it.

The other connection you're missing is that most likely the author has already seen the mistakes and is a quivering heap of crushed word hoard on his/her agent's carpet, clutching the snake and whimpering "what did they do to my book?" Pointing out the errors when you see them is usually about two months after the author has and all it does is send them back to that whimpering thing. Trust me, that's not a pretty sight.

If you really feel the need to discuss rampant errors in a book, write a blog post about it. Link to the book on Amazon if you'd like. Trumpet your concerns about the failure of modern writers/copy editors/editors/agents to the world. Just don't write to them, or me, about it. We've already seen it and wept bitter tears.

And if you don't think this happens on EVERY SINGLE BOOK, think again.


kitty said...

Not writing the author, that I can understand. But what about the publisher if the mistake is really bad?


freddie said...

Ah. Well, I'm glad I refrained from writing him, then.

Thanks for answering my question, Janet.

Mags said...

Pointing out the errors when you see them is usually about two months after the author has and all it does is send them back to that whimpering thing. Trust me, that's not a pretty sight.

Yes. The salient point.

JES said...

kitty -- I've written a handful of tech books. The problem there, at any rate, is that technology moves too fast: a general reference book is often outdated within a few weeks of publication (sometimes earlier, just too late to stop the train).

Some tech-book publishers have Web pages which list errata pointed out by readers or even the author. And some authors' Web sites list corrections as well. (If it's a really big book, there might even be a wiki to which people can contribute freely.)

But it's a tough call. Unless the publisher has specifically set up some mechanism to handle corrections -- like an errata page, or a, umm, a readers' ombudsman or something -- it's hard to locate someone who both cares enough about it and is in a position to do something. (And if the book never goes to a second printing -- or more likely, a second edition -- pretty much no correction will ever be made to the text.)

Inability to get it right, enduringly right, is one reason why I no longer am interested in writing tech books. :)

H. L. Dyer said...

This all comes down to the same basic rule of etiquette my mother preached: You only point out a problem if you can do so discretely, and only if the problem can be fixed.

So... someone's fly is open, or they've tucked their skirt into their pantyhose... absolutely you pull them aside and let them know.

They're wearing two different colored shoes? Their wedding picture highlights the false eyelashes glued to her forehead? Can't be undone... you pretend not to notice. ;)

Eric said...

There are times when, as an author, I appreciate someone pointing out a factual error that has slipped by. (Grammar and typos, not so much.) In my first book, Wrong Side of the Wall, a biography, I got a small fact wrong. Since the book was a biography of a baseball player, there were all sorts of fanatics out there to point out the error of my ways. I have now corrected that detail in the manuscript, so that a paperback will be perfect. Yeah, right.

Also, an intelligent, critical review can be helpful. One of the reviews of my first novel, The Living Room of the Dead, complained that an important plot element relied too strongly on a remarkable coincidence. The reviewer was right - the problem being that in real life - which the story was based on - it wasn't much of a coincidence at all and I was familiar enough with the story that I took that for granted. So, in the paperback edition I was able to add a few extra sentences to better establish that it wasn't an unlikely coincidence. That helped the book.

Ithaca said...

I think it might depend on the foreign rights sales. If the publisher only has North American rights, and the UK rights are sold later, the UK publisher might well be happy to fix mistakes. If translation rights are sold later on, the foreign publishers will probably be happy to fix mistakes.

When a book goes into print, the production process both generates mistakes and gets in the way of spotting mistakes already in the text. An author may well receive comments on the book from many sources - so a sentence that made perfect sense in Draft 3.1 may be baffling in Draft 7.23, when a previous section has been removed at editor's request. The copy-editor and typesetter may introduce hundreds of errors which the author must try to spot.

The best plan is undoubtedly to set up a Wiki, so all corrections are pubicly available in one place. If I haven't had time to do this, I don't mind getting letters with corrections from readers.

Jay said...

I work for a computer database service and we receive lots of messages where medical books have erroneous drug dosages printed. Part of my job is to make available the correct information to those searching our databases. But kind of scary if those docs don't have access or don't use our service.

I hate typos. Trust me, if a novel of mind ever sees the light of print, I will probably be the first to find them and groan.

Jay said...

*novel of MINE*

Geez, can't even spell properly in my own posts!!!