The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A recent story, which was picked up by many blogs, demonstrates that cutting corners isn't always the smartest move. The story, where the Nook version of War and Peace turns the word 'kindled' into 'Nookd', is an editorial classic.If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn't do in the article was discuss the problems of indiscriminate Find & Replace, under the assumption that professional editors, authors, and publishers innately understood that indiscriminate use of Find & Replace can lead to all kinds of disasters. The Nookd article indicates that perhaps I was wrong.

Our reliance on computers and macros makes us vulnerable to silly mistakes. Computers and macros have greatly reduced the number of errors, and the costs associated with them, that occur in printed materials -- when properly applied by professional editors. Unfortunately, the bean-counter quest to squeeze as much savings as possible out of the editorial budget because what editors do is largely invisible to both the bean counter and the reader, can easily lead to the kind of disaster the befell War and Peace.

Unfortunately, the Nooking of War and Peace is representative of what happens when self-publishing authors forego hiring professional editors. Perhaps it isn't the obvious disaster of changing of Kindle to Nook, but it is the using of you're for your, which indicates a lack of quality and professionalism. I suppose one could argue that there is a difference in that "It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern" is nonsensical and the vast majority of readers would stumble on Nookd, wondering what is meant, whereas substituting your for you're is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it's? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?

It is one thing to compose Jabberwocky, another to assume that jabberwockian grammar and language is the standard against which all writing is to be judged. And this is the result of the demise in our education system of the teaching of such fundamental things as spelling and grammar. Because spelling is no longer part of the testing that determines a school's and a teacher's passing or failing, it is bypassed to emphasize those things that are tested. The result is that we graduate students who lack these skills and who become teachers of the next generation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one neither knows nor understands.

Yet this is a free-market problem as well, if not primarily. In the rush to increase quarterly profits, rather than think long-term strategy, publishers are deemphasizing the skills that separate a poorly prepared book from a professionally prepared book. Professional editors are skilled in spelling and grammar and know the limitations of automation. It is not yet possible to automate detection of the misuse of your and you're; human intervention is required and human decision making is required.

The pressure to reduce costs and pricing of a book exacts a penalty. If there is not enough margin, services have to be skipped. The services that are skipped tend to be those that are invisible, and editing is invisible until it glares, as in the Nooking of War and Peace. As this demonstrates, being cheap isn't always the wisest course to follow.

Unfortunately, this error will become a hall of shame error that readers, editors, publishers, and authors will all point to, but which will not result in the alteration of current practices. Each publisher and author will take the stance that it can't/won't happen to their books, only to someone else's books. The ultimate losers are readers and society. Readers because they are taught by example that what is wrong is acceptable so that no effort needs be made to do things correctly, and society because imprecision becomes acceptable and skills are downplayed and lost.

Additionally, as professional editors are financially squeezed, they, too, will make choices about what services they can provide for the reduced fee they are offered. Conversations with colleagues indicate that reduced fees have resulted in a reduction in what they can and will do as part of the editing process. Combined with tighter schedules, it appears that the high standards of editing of previous decades may not be standard in coming decades. The consequences of making cost the determining factor are only now beginning to be seen in the marketplace, but I think we will all rue the day costs became king. We are likely to see more Nookd books than fewer.

image by greeblie

3 Comments on The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

  1. Here, here! (um… hear… hear…?)

  2. “whereas substituting your for you’re is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it’s? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?”

    Languages are for communication; the only measure that counts is understandability.

    If the author’s text is understood by the reader in the way the author intended, done, end of story. You can bemoan the state of grammar education until the cows come home, but despite what punch Webster, the MLA, and “professional” writers might want us to swallow, they don’t own the languages they use. They can surely give tips on what words and grammatical structures are mostly likely to be understood, but they’re guidelines, not laws.

    Languages are sticky, fluid, evolving messes, but as long as the intended audience understands what you’re trying to say, can we all drop the Grammar Nazi routine?

    P.S. Sorry about the financial cuts to professional editing, but if the market doesn’t see a value in the service, then that’s the way it is. Middlemen come and middlemen go.

    • “Languages are for communication; the only measure that counts is understandability.”

      Um….. no.

      Sure, if your text is peppered with grammar and spelling mistakes, it may still be understandable (though not always; if you don’t KNOW correct grammar and spelling, you will sometimes make mistakes that confuse your meaning). But you will also be “communicating” something else to your readers: You will be telling them that you’re a semi-literate, uneducated ignoramus who doesn’t know the language.

      And to many readers — most of them, if your errors are bad enough — that “subtext” will overwhelm and overrule whatever it is you wanted to communicate in the first place.

      Yes, languages are for communication. And if you want to communicate, you have to know and follow (most of) the rules.

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