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Declining Quality in Publishing – A Rant

May 29, 2013

Books iconLet me begin by saying I was one of those kids who competed and did well in the annual school spelling bee (I still have a couple of trophies), and I loved diagramming sentences in the seventh grade. When I went to grad school to get my MA in Creative Writing, I took Professional Editing as an elective so that I could get even better at a natural ability.

So suffice it to say that I notice errors in the written word.

When self-publishing became the means for anyone to put their thoughts and stories out in the world, the biggest cry against the horde was that the work was often poorly edited. Many times people posted reviews on a work saying that the reviewer couldn't even finish because the spelling or grammar was so bad (line editing or copy editing). Other times, the work was attacked for not making sense, or not providing a smooth transition from one scene or idea to another, or not tying up all the pieces of the story by the end (structural editing).

The quality has improved dramatically among those self-publishers who are serious about a writing career. Many self-published authors, myself included, have hired professional editors to go over their work before it is published. Even so, I found errors in the ebook version of my first book that had to be fixed before the print version came out.

At the same time, “traditional publishing” (the author sends their work, usually via an agent, to a publishing house that is often in New York and nearly one hundred years old) is still touted as “real” publishing. And yet I am finding increasingly poor editing in the traditionally published books I read.

As with so many industries in the last few decades, some of the work at publishing houses is outsourced. It is cheaper to send a book to be edited by a freelancer than it is to pay a person a salary with benefits. This has put some very good editors into the freelance pool, but it has also opened the gates to anyone who can create a business card.

When searching for a freelance editor, there are hundreds of options from really cheap to “holy smokes!” But unlike some industries, quality does not appear to be related to price. A definite breakdown in our supply and demand capitalist marketplace.

Why am I on a rant about this today? (If you read my blog regularly, you know I rarely rant.) Because yesterday I posted a review for my friend's very first published novel, and I decided to leave one bit out: the editing sucked!

Laura did “all the right things” to stay on the road that leads to a traditional publishing contract. She worked hard for sixteen years and she didn't give up. Nearly two years ago, an editor at a traditional publishing house read one of her books and liked it enough to offer Laura a contract. Her first book was published yesterday in the way most of us once dreamed – in print, available in bookstores, with a company marketing this book and buying the next book, which would also then be printed and sent to bookstores.

Oh, the joy! I know she is beside herself, and I am so happy for her!

But I'm the kind of person who notices errors in the written word. I was disappointed to find the first error on page four. A wrong word was typed in the sentence. Bummer, but not the end of the world. No one is perfect.

The next time I noticed an error was in the middle of the book. I remember frowning over it, but reminding myself that it's difficult to get 300-400 pages out with no errors, especially in this fast-paced world where most workers have less time to do more work than they had ten years ago.

But something changed in the second half of the book. There was another error, and another one, and another! What happened? Did the publisher send out the advanced reading copies (an ARC, the copy I read) before the final line edits came in? I would love to be embarrassed for posting this rant after finding out that the print books in the bookstores, and the ebooks now available, are all perfectly edited.

But as a reviewer reading an ARC for the purposes of writing a review to tell readers if they should spend their time and money on this book, I can't ignore that many errors. I have no basis on which to assume the book you buy today is free of the errors I found.

If self-publishers like myself are likely to get blasted for having too many editing errors, if we're called unprofessional when the book isn't perfect, then it's only fair that the rest of publishing continue to be held to the same high standard.

But it's more than that. Laura went the traditional route in part so that she would have a team of professionals working with her to create the best possible product. She gave up the lion's share of the profits to essentially pay other people to make sure her book met the highest quality standards.

I'm the kind of person who usually looks for the excuse as to why someone didn't do their job. You don't know that Susie's mom just found out she has cancer and Susie can't focus on her freelance editing work right now. Or maybe John is getting divorced and is dealing with finding a place to live and comforting his kids while still trying to make his freelance editing deadlines.

But the fact remains that someone in the Forever imprint at Grand Central Publishing, owned by Hachette Book Group, didn't do the job they were paid for. And no one noticed.

If Laura's book goes into a second printing – and it's very good, so that could happen – I hope she insists on a new line edit. I hope her editor – and all publishing house editors – find a method to check the quality of the line editing, whether by freelancers or in-house, for every single book.

The book world has suddenly gotten much more competitive, and for the best players to survive, we can't let the constraints of time and money destroy the only thing that keeps us in the game – a quality book.


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