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Aug. 11th, 2009

The lack of professional pride evident in some finished products never fails to surprise (and bother) me.

This is something the website I worked on today made me think about. I've seen much worse code, but this looked as if it had been developed by someone who learned some basic HTML skills—enough to be dangerous—five years ago and then focused on back-end technologies. Back-end coders always think they can do front-end code, because front-end code is technically easier. And they almost always produce rubbish code, because they don't keep up on standards and best practices and couldn't care less, as long as the site displays properly, about all the issues I'm paid to care about. Whether the developers who crank out bad code are back-end developers or just bad/lazy front-end developers, they share a common trait: an apathy towards achieving a certain standard of work.

I react similarly when I encounter a poorly edited book. Most authors put a great deal of time and thought into their writing, and I think it's borderline criminal and extremely lazy when typographical errors creep into published works. I can appreciate that copy editors have to screen a lot of material. That does not excuse failure to do their job. There is altogether too much reliance on spellcheckers and an inexcusable prevalence of ignorance about style, grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. The occasional typesetting mistake—do printers still use set type?—is understandable, although I would think somebody would eventually catch and fix the mistake in subsequent printings. But when books published by major publishing companies are riddled with the sorts of mistakes that wouldn't pass muster in a remedial English class, it infuriates me.

This sort of thing can turn me against a product or line of products. If I know a website is apathetic about accessibility, usability, semantics, page weights, etc., I'm less likely to seek products or services through that site. And if I notice gross negligence in copy editing, I will cease to buy books from a certain publisher. Such has happened with the Oxford University Press: the recent Oxford World's Classics book I read was not the first example of an abysmally edited title from that publisher, and the numerous errors were distracting to the point that I began to think as much about the copy editing as I did about the story. In the bookstore today I was looking at a certain title with interest until I noticed the publisher was Oxford University Press and immediately put the book down. I can't do anything about the other books I already own from that publishing house—there are a few in my collection—but I doubt very much I'll be inclined to buy any more in the future.

On the flip side, there are certain publishing houses that will always rate very highly in my estimation, because their attention to detail and the thought they put into every aspect of their catalogues is impressive. I was comparing two different translations of a certain French novel today and knew nothing about the merits of either one. When I discovered they were priced the same, the decision was made for me: I trust Penguin. I am continuously impressed by the high quality of editing that goes into their titles, especially in their Classics and Modern Classics lines. Similarly, all else being equal I will lean towards something in the Norton Critical Editions line. I'm also quite impressed with Macmillan (especially the Picador and Faber & Faber imprints) and Random House (especially the Vintage imprint). This isn't an exhaustive list, of course, and I'm always happy to read something published by the little guys—aren't many of them left, are there?

Ultimately, it's got to be about putting each title's best foot forward and removing any obstructions preventing the flow of ideas between author and reader. Bad editing throws up unnecessary road blocks, and I won't be a willing party to such desecration of books (or websites).


Aug. 12th, 2009 04:12 am (UTC)
Think what it is like to be that author, who put so much work into that text, only to see a copy editor introduce more errors than they remove.

For better or worse, expectations regarding paper published works has dropped to the point that nobody expects high quality in published books nowadays.

Aug. 13th, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
That is strange. I belong to a Kindle discussion group, one with very strict posting rules, and we've had several discussions on formatting and grammatical correctness of electronic books. The group gives high marks to books that are readable, well formatted and use good grammar; they come down on books that fail in these categories.

Kindle readers in this particular group expect high quality even in free or inexpensive books, whether electronic or dead tree.
Aug. 13th, 2009 09:12 am (UTC)
Re: Expectations
While readability, format, and grammar are things a copy editor needs to scan for, I'm also talking about mistakes that were introduced in the typesetting stage, needless typos like the omission of a character or the replacement of one character with another. These are less likely to be found in electronic publications.

And BTW, for frame of reference, pinkfish is a published author in at least two languages, and I know he wouldn't complain about his own work being formatted poorly or being ungrammatical. It's the copy editors who mess things up.
Aug. 13th, 2009 03:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
One reader of my book commented (both to me personally, and in his amazon review) that he had to buy my book twice. Once on Kindle (his preferred format), and again in paper, because the process of transferring the book to Kindle was so poor. In particular, nobody bothered to see if the figures (which were all re-done by the publisher) would be readable on the Kindle; they just put it out there, and let the consumer find the glitches.

He is remarkably calm about the situation. But not so calm as to keep quiet; his amazon review praises my book, but warns against buying it on Kindle.
Aug. 13th, 2009 04:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
It is not Amazon that makes the conversion to Kindle format, it is the publisher. The conversion is usually from HTML to AZW, and some HTML is badly formed. The KindleKorner discussion group suggests contacting Customer Service when a badly formatted AZW file is found, so that Amazon can request the publisher fix the problem. The publisher doesn't always do so.

The AZW format is a variation of Mobipocket's MOBI format with DRM added. At the time Amazon sells a Kindle book, they add a unique identifier to the file so that only the purchaser's Kindle device can read it. The Kindle will natively read MOBI files or TXT files. There are several conversion programs available that allow a user to convert from RTF, HTML or PDF formats that are free of DRM to the MOBI format: Mobipocket Creator on Windows, or Calibre on Windows and Mac. I've done a number of conversions, most of which have come out clean, as expected. I've also had some conversions completely, unreadably screwed up.

The output of the conversion process has to be checked.

Some publishers were not aware of this at first. Things are improving, partly because customers bring such errors to the attention of the seller.
Aug. 13th, 2009 04:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
This is very helpful information - I didn't know who the "they" in my story referred to. I am not surprised to find that it is the publisher - it would be about par for the course with the amount of attention they have paid to QA in the process of producing the book.

Now that the book is selling well, their interest in making it look good has increased - they have even assigned me a new production rep. I wonder if he can go through the process of transforming the book again, so that the Kindle version will be readable (and in the meantime, I think that the fellow who complained should be given a complimentary copy of the new version).

I would like to copy your response here in its entirety to my publisher - do you have any objections to this? Do you want any recognition (for all I know, you might be a professional publishing consultant, and I have just asked for free consulting)?

Thanks for this insight - one of the things I have learned in this process is that I, the author, have to take responsibility for the quality of the published book.

Aug. 13th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
You have my permission to send my response to your publisher. After all, it is out there for the whole world to see.

A subtle problem to watch out for is that the resulting converted file has the correct title and author information. This is controlled by the META data in the original file. You might want to include this caveat when writing your publisher.

Do I want any recognition? For the works I have written, stories and novels, yes, certainly ... when I publish them. For adding to the awareness of a fellow writer, not especially. I feel my comments are more on the order of conversation than anything that required the effort that goes into writing a story.

As for my profession, I am retired and spend part of my time recording my dreams in the form of stories of various lengths and complexities. One story line I had to abandon when it became too complex for me; it was a tale covering six billion years of activity (after an initial gap of about fifty billion years) that had already reached two volumes before I became mired in detail.

And yes, Amazon's usual practice is to refund the customer's purchase price and to notify the customer when a corrected version becomes available. I guess they consider it a manufacturing defect.

And yes again, the author is responsible for the quality of the finished product. That is why he is sent galley proofs and asked to sign off on them. Or have they stopped doing that now?
Aug. 13th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
Thanks for your help - I am forwarding the relevant parts of this comment and the last one to my new, pro-active publisher rep. We'll see what happens.

Aug. 13th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
And yes again, the author is responsible for the quality of the finished product

That's fine and dandy if the author is alive. However, with the book I just finished that was butchered by Oxford World's Classic, I don't think there's much Beaumarchais could have done.
Aug. 13th, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
Tempus fugit. Time marches on, technologies change, authors are impermanent.

Live authors, while active in their trade, owe it to themselves not to allow some third party, human or otherwise, to sully their product and, by extension, their reputations.

There are old books, printed on cheap paper in strange fonts, that are nearly impossible to render accurately from a scan. That is why Project Gutenberg has their Distributed Proofreaders, volunteers who compare the converted text to its scanned image and correct any errors they find. Each scan is about half a page and errors are common, if not frequent. The corrected text is then reviewed and corrected by a second volunteer before all the pages are stitched together and the package turned over to the advanced, experienced proofreaders. There are several more steps involved before the material is converted to the formats in which it will be published, whether TXT or HTML or whatever. Then readers continue to report errors which continue to be fixed. It is an elaborate process. Project Gutenberg manages to convert about thirty books or magazines per day, a gigantic effort.

Some publishers don't give a damn. They send a work off to India or elsewhere, then try to sell whatever comes back to them. The work is done by indifferent workers being paid poorly and expected to produce large volumes of output. These are not workers for whom English is their primary language. The result is not a quality product.

I've done conversions that resulted in scrambled sentences, abrupt changes in margin or spacing, paragraphs moved or duplicated (or lost) and other errors. I've had to review both the added mark-up and the original text in order to determine the source of the errors and eliminate them. It is a tedious process that improves slowly as the technology improves. Consider, though, that Internet Explorer 6, one of the Internet's most screwed up browsers, is still being used by a large segment of the world's computer-using population. Having new technology available solves nothing if the old technology continues to wreak havoc.

I, of course, convert from a completed RTF file to a MOBI file, the MOBI format being used on handheld devices other than the Kindle as well as on desktop computers. I used MOBI on my various Palm PDFs long before the Kindle or electronic ink were devised. I've tried converting from HTML, an invitation to disaster, and from PDF, an almost guaranteed disaster. But remember that the RTF format was devised by Microsoft so long ago that Microsoft no longer takes credit for it and would be happy to see it disappear. The only format more basic is TXT. Conversion software has been known to screw up even simple files in basic RTF. It is no wonder that additional mark-up causes problems.

There now is nothing that Beaumarchais can do. You, as a customer, should insist on quality products: you should scream long and loud to the publisher and any other audience you can find.
Aug. 13th, 2009 07:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
Some publishers don't give a damn.

That was exactly the point of my post. But they give a damn about sales, which is why, as you suggest I do in your last paragraph, I am screaming loud in an unprotected post that I will no longer purchase Oxford University Press books due to their lax editing standards. Whatever the cause (and Beaumarchais certainly isn't so old or oscure that one has to rely on bad scans), it's ultimately the responsibility of the editor to publish something that is faithful to the author's intent and does not throw up needless barriers to communication and understanding.
Aug. 13th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Expectations
The scans were good, not bad. The originals were bad. The scans improved readability but the conversion to text was often doubtful.

I mentioned Project Gutenberg as an example of how it can be done right. Amplification by comparison. You scream, I echo and amplify.

Our little group has threatened to boycott several authors and publishers. Some have responded in a positive and graceful manner. Others remain clueless and continue to spout their tired arguments. In the best of all possible worlds, the clueless ones would vanish from the marketplace and the good ones would remain.

But screaming helps.

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