Are you really sure?

One of the most frequent comments you’ll hear when you ask someone why they want to sign a traditional publishing contract has to do with the “services” they get from a publisher. Next to distribution to bookstores, probably the most often quoted reason authors want a publisher is so they have an editor. They trust the publisher to make sure their book goes through not only content editing but also copy editing and proofreading. Because of that, they don’t worry as much about turning in a publication ready manuscript as they would if they were going the indie route.

It doesn’t matter if they are talking about a small press, mid-sized press or one of the Big 5. Too many authors believe the hype publishers try to sell – that they will get the kind of attention you see the Castles or other fictional authors receiving. Unfortunately, just as they won’t get the sort of promotion and push they see in fictional settings, they also aren’t guaranteed the level of editing they believe they’re going to get.

I’ll admit, I once believed publishers, as a whole, delivered when it came to promises of quality editing, copy editing and proofreading. Then, six or seven years ago, I had a conversation with a traditionally published author that opened my eyes. This author, who was a New York Times best seller, talked with a group of us about how they never sent anything to their publisher without first having their own editor go over the manuscript. It wasn’t because they were worried the publisher would be upset or disappointed with the quality of the manuscript. It was much more basic than that. The author had learned the hard way that the publisher didn’t always edit their work.

Oh, it might get a read-through for content editing but copy editing and proofreading were hit and miss at best. So the author would pay out-of-pocket for editing before sending the book in. It was their way of guaranteeing the book was the best possible before it went to press.

This wasn’t an isolated conversation. As publishers began feeling the financial pinch more and more, they began laying off their editorial staff. That impacted their authors and the quality of edits those authors received. At RWA, I heard stories of how publishers were hiring college interns to handle their proofreading and, in some cases, copy editing duties. Content editors were let go, orphaning many authors and their books.

Fast forward to last month. Those of you who are regulars here know I am primarily an author. However, from time to time, I take on editorial jobs for indie and traditionally published authors to supplement my income. Last month, a client asked me to check page proofs they had received. Part of my process in doing this is to ask an author to send me any editorial letter they received from their publisher and their response to any proposed edits. That way, I can see if any edits had been made, etc.

So imagine my surprise when, on the legal page of the page proofs, I found not just one but several mistakes. The copyright information was wrong. There was a spacing error. On the list of titles by the author, one of the titles had been misspelled. This was all on the publisher because the author hadn’t submitted the information as part of their manuscript. And, had we not caught the problem at the proof level, the book would have been printed with the errors in place.

Never before had I found that many mistakes in the front matter, so I started looking even more closely at the actual novel text. With each page I read, with each edit I looked for, my anger rose. Within an hour of starting the project, I was calling my client to voice not only my concern but my indignation with the publisher.


Because not a single edit, copy edit, or proofreading correction had been made. Not. A. Single. One.

I could forgive the lack of content editing because the book was solid. I’d read it and made suggestions before it first went to the publisher. But there were copy edits that should have been made before the book went to proofs. As for proofreading – oh hell, this author was screwed. Misspellings. Comma faults. Split infinitives. Dangling modifiers. Missing words. Wrong words. Holy hell, what the frack was the publisher thinking?

If I didn’t know better, I’d assume the publisher was trying to sabotage the author. Except that is foolish. By sabotaging the author, the publisher sabotages itself. So, what the hell?

That’s one answer I don’t have. This isn’t a new publisher. It is one that’s been around for what seems like forever. No, I won’t name names other than to say the author is a mystery author I have worked with before. But I did something this time I have never done before – and it is something that will end up costing me money because I wouldn’t feel right charging the author for my time. I told the author to ask the publisher to send them the corrected proof pages. If they do, I will then compare the new proof pages against my notes, the previous proof pages and the original manuscript. If they don’t send the new proof pages, I will do the same with the final published product.

In the meantime, I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that the author is screwed. I have visions of the book coming out without the edits having been put in. The readers won’t care the publisher dropped the ball. They will leave the negative reviews and blame the author. This is a no-win situation: for the reader, for the author and for the publisher.

I hope to hell I’m wrong. I will find out mid-summer when the book comes out. If my fears prove to be true, I’ve already discussed possible courses of action with the author. It starts with making sure the head of the division knows now that they aren’t happy with how the book has been handled. It ends with going public, complete with screen shots of the original manuscript, the editorial letter, the page proofs and the final, published product.

If it comes to that, things will get ugly. Why? Because I have a feeling once my client goes public, if they should decide to, more will come out of the woodwork with similar stories. That is not the sort of publicity a publisher wants. Even if the average reader never hears what happened, other authors will. That is the sort of story The Passive Voice will pick up. It is the sort of story that will go wild on social media. It is also the sort of story other authors will blog about and share.

I hope I’m wrong. But I have seen this sort of thing before. Not to this degree of negligence – if not malice – but books released without proper copy editing or proofing. It is time authors understand one truth about the business. No one is going to look out for you if you don’t look out for yourself. Whether you are publishing indie or with a traditional publisher, you need to make sure your book is edited, copy edited and proofread before you sent it in.

In fact, if you look at realities, there’s only one thing a publisher does for you – makes it easier to get into a bookstore. Everything else, an author can do on their own, often better than the publisher does.

64 thoughts on “Are you really sure?

  1. This is a story that’s been building under the radar for awhile. Even with my interest in the past year I have been hearing small rumblings about the whole editing process, or lack there of. As to getting books into bookstores, well that’s difficult not impossible though. Besides would you really trust a big box book store like B&N to really sell your dead tree edition?

    1. It’s been a problem for at least the last five years. At least that’s been my experience as a freelance editor and copy editor. I have always expected it with smaller presses, especially with the influx of new presses over the last five plus years. But I am seeing it more and more with mid-sized to the Big 5.

      As for trusting my print books with B&N, no. That’s especially true considering some of the stories I’m hearing after the layoffs of the last week or so. One of them is especially troubling. Apparently, B&N has a policy in place where if you order a book online that book isn’t sent out from some central warehouse. Instead, it is pulled from the stock of a bookstore and sent from there. The justification is that it will speed up delivery time because that book will come from the store nearest you. The reality, according to the stories I’ve been seeing, is that’s not always the case. Worse — both from the point of view of store management and from an author’s point of view — that store doesn’t get credit for the sale, even though it comes from its stock. That is a concern because it is costing the individual store because they are having to use manpower and supplies to pull, package and mail the book without getting credit for it. From and author’s point of view, it is problematical because of the way that sale might not be tracked for Bookscan numbers. We all know Bookscan has a lot of handwavium involved. This adds one more level of confusion in the accounting process, especially since Bookscan numbers are supposed to be point of sale numbers. So, where is the point of sale? Who reports it? Does it get reported? So, nope, I wouldn’t trust BN with it at all.

    2. We have an adorable little local bookstore that has a separate room for locally published authors. Neat place – refurbished office that was a refurbished house, with lots of nooks and crannies. They closed up the porch and turned it into a coffeeshop. I am buying all my deadtree from them now and going in for coffee twice a week, because I badly want them to succeed. (Good coffee. Sacrifices must be made. Yup.)

      1. That sounds great. I love the fact we are starting to get more locally owned bookstores. Most of them around here are niche stores, but that’s okay. At least you know the booksellers will be familiar with their stock and be able to make recommendations. Also, as you noted, they are more friendly to local indie authors and that’s important.

        1. There’s a small chain of bookstores around here, with three large locations spaced out along about a hundred-mile corridor, plus a bunch of tiny stores at hospitals spread out even farther. It is always busy, usually busier than the busiest remaining B&N in the area, and that’s without taking a thriving cafe into account. I hope they can keep it going – there are like a tenth the bookstores in the area was when I arrived here half a lifetime ago.

          1. I miss the ginormous used bookstore that I more-or-less grew up in. Mom would drop me off there while she did her errands and drag me out again three or four hours later. By the time I had my driver’s license a few years later and could come in whenever I wanted (insert heavenly-choir noises here) the proprieter had pretty much adopted me.

  2. That’s just wrong. And more than a little nauseating. Authors put their work in the hands of these people with a certain expectation that things will get done and their book will be better for it. I feel bad for your friend. I feel bad for all the authors who’ve been screwed and have had to be silent about it because they’re afraid if they speak up, they’ll be ostracized.

    And i’m even more glad that I self-publish. If something is messed up, it’s on me, so I try very hard to make sure nothing is messed up. On the off chance it is, though, I can also fix it quick and upload a corrected version. Those poor people don’t even have that option. =o(

    1. My client was not amused and is now wondering if they need to go back and buy print versions — and digital — of their books already out to check them. Unfortunately, I can’t advise because I didn’t do edits on the previous books from this publisher.

      And, yes, it is a breach of trust, in my opinion, for this to have happened. An author has certain expectations, based on history as well as contract and experience, about what a publisher is supposed to do for them. Editing is high up there on what’s expected. I keep telling myself this was an isolated incident — except I’m hearing of more and more such incidents happening with publishers across the board.

    2. Same here. And if I find a goof in one of my books that has been overlooked – well, the fix is easy enough, especially for ebooks. Print – the expense of submitting a new file to LSI.
      This situation, with the known author and trad press – agreed, this could be very bad.

      1. Yep. I do my best to make sure I put out the best book I can but mistakes to slip by from time to time. I like knowing I can take care of them without having to rely on someone else to do so.

  3. If your contract says there will be editing and they don’t do it, that’s breach and you can take them to court.

    Sadly that is a no win situation. You come away with nothing from that exercise. Which is why they’re doing it. They know no author will pursue them.

    1. Well, see, this is where a REAL authors association could be useful, by filing on behalf of all its’ members as a class action, and obtaining a standard of editing, say “more than three errors and the publisher can re-print at their expense and make sure the purchasers get the replacements.”

      Unfortunately, SFWA isn’t a real writers association….

      1. Is there something for mystery or romance authors? Amanda mentions this is a mystery writer, and they might have something a little closer to useful.

        1. Not heavily involved in either, but from a casual association it appears to me that both MWA and RWA are much more helpful and responsive to their members than is SFWA.

          1. RWA will take on publishers — if they feel it is in not only their members’ best interest but the organization’s as a whole. It’s a high bar to clear.

      2. The problem with a class action suit is you have to have enough plaintiffs with the same/similar grievance to make the class. Then the class has to be certified by the courts to go forward. Then, even if you managed to do that, you run into the situation where the publisher would settle and there would be a non-disclose clause which would prevent any of the parties from discussing the case or the settlement. In other words, no real deterrent for the publisher.

        1. “there would be a non-disclose clause”

          Not if you won’t settle if there is one. That’s where the whole “fight for your rights” gets down to.

    2. The problem is that most authors are still operating under the impression that if they do something like that, they will be blackballed by all the other publishers. Plus you have the problem of how a court would interpret “edit”. Add in the fact that it becomes a he said-she said situation about who was supposed to do what and if the author responded in a timely fashion, etc, and it does become no-win situation for the author and the readers.

      1. You know what would be useful here? A ratings system. Authors rate publishers on a number of set criteria, such as quality of editing as delivered, and the results are published on a web site.

        Lou Antonelli is attempting to set up a proper Science Fiction/ Fantasy writer’s association/group/what have you, he might be interested in doing something like that.

  4. As a reader, I’ve been noticing this since the late 1990s. Not just inexplicable scene jumps or dangling bits or story, but occasional patches of word salad (bad edits? grammar checker?), and of course the everyday favorite, homonym errors that clearly came from a spall Czecher.

    I also noticed that the “bigger” an author was, the more likely I was to see such problems. That was about the time one of those authors was bragging no editor would dare mess with any of his work…

    1. I’ve been seeing the same thing. I also remember at least one best seller saying that. Sorry, but every author needs an editor or at the very least a copy editor and proofreader.

    2. There are a number of ‘big’ authors I stopped reading in later years because it became increasingly evident that they had no editor willing to rein them in, and the quality of their books suffered as a result.

      Look, I don’t care if you’re the best writer who ever lived, you’re still not perfect, and you still need a good editor–not a sycophantic yes-man, which is what I suspect some of these big names ended up with.

      1. I suspect the same, when I began to flag down, reading Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. The early ones were briskly-paced, pared down, straight-forward reads, but after about the middle of the alphabet, they got terribly bloated. There were whole subplots which could have been pared down, and I got rather tired of the main character’s personal life.

      2. For me it was Anne McCaffrey and RA Salvatore. Though I realize with McCaffrey, it might have been more my changing tastes as I got older. But Salvatore’s earlier Forgotten Realms books were tightly written and fun, and fast. Later ones were slogging, full of far too much boring philosophizing, and generally blah.

        And although I was never a Tom Clancy fan, one could SEE the problem as his books on the bookstore shelves kept getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger…I picked up one once and opened it at random, and immediately put it down, since it appeared to be page after page of boring technical descriptions…

        (Hell, much as I love the Harry Potter series beginning to end, there are still large chunks of the latter books that I wish an editor had stepped in and said “Look, we need to pare this down…” Or had told her “Break your rule about only one POV, because frankly, what’s going on with the student rebellion at Hogwarts would be WAY more interesting than pages and pages of aimless wandering/camping by Harry and co.”)

        1. Some of it was Anne McCaffrey’s writing changing as she got older. There was one later book of hers that I was enjoying right up until the end, when I finished and realized there was no large plot to hang onto—she’d written well, and engagingly, but there wasn’t a plot large enough to hang a novelette on, let alone a novel. IOW, it was short story pacing, which flowed well, but there was no point to it.

  5. Just when I thought maybe opinion of publishers couldn’t sink much lower…

    If you don’t mind me doing a bit of market research, I’d love to ask everyone here what some of their favorite short stories in the public domain are.
    I’m starting on a project and I need material to desecr… adapt.
    (Sure, I’ve got my favorites. But I’m learning two suites of software, each comprised of several programs, that aren’t integrated especially well. On top of that, I’m learning the Linux OS, and working on several skills. I’m sure I’ll absolutely *hate* the first story by the time I get it bashed into shape. Besides, it’s good to have a backlog, and there’s a good chance to get new reading material.)

    1. Luke, I don’t mind you asking, but let’s have any discussion of it done via email or text right now so as not to clutter the comments and get this discussion derailed. Thanks!

      1. No problem.
        (Except, we have an email list and text forum?)

        I was going to include an explicit “feel free to delete if intrusive”, but thought it was implied strongly enough that to belabor the point would approach grovelling.
        I also figured that I’ve been around long enough for it to be evident that I’m not going to deliberately treat the comment section like a chicken playing chess. (To be clear, you didn’t come across as accusing me of that.)

  6. I wish I could be more surprised, I really do. But with everything else I’ve learned about publishing lately, I can’t even muster one of Sarah’s shocked faces.

  7. And then you have the “digital edition included” that translates “we’ll scan a print copy but won’t check it for scanning problems.” And then they charge print price or more for a quasi-unreadable book… And congratulate themselves on the demise of e-books.

    I think we do need to separate “bad publisher moves” from “great author shouldn’t be edited” moves, though. There’s not editing because publisher is too cheap and hurried, and then there seems to be a sense that Best Selling Authors (TM) can’t be edited lest they take offense. Which leads to some at best awkward things and at worst entire duplicated chapters, and chunks of text that really hamper story flow but no one dared object.

      1. Agreed the copy editor isn’t always to blame but it still falls in the publisher’s lap — not that many publishers seem to care.

  8. It’s as if modern businesses were being run by people who have no idea of how to run businesses.

  9. Wish I was surprised, but I got involved not so long ago in a case where a well known author started getting editorial comments on his submissions that were incoherent, bordering on bizarre, getting character names wrong and disputing all sorts of factual data. The suspicion was, as the editor held a second job as a college writing professor, that he was farming his edits out to students then never checking their work.
    But we have to cut the major publishers some slack. After all in these tough times they’ve moved to cheaper offices, cut their executive salaries, and tightened the corporate belts with a host of cost saving measures. Oh wait, never mind.

  10. So I’m left with the same question I’ve been left with every time I read a story like this:

    If the author is responsible for writing the book, editing the book, and publicizing the book, what precisely is the publisher doing that justifies taking the lion’s share of the profits from the book?

    1. Setting up the background for a noir future history that starts with “Mommy… what’s a bookstore?”

    2. Because they are the gatekeeper. Okay, there are still some good publishers but they are becoming more and more rare and that’s unfortunate.

  11. Amanda, was proofing/copy-editing guaranteed in the contract the writer signed with the publisher? If not, I don’t think there’s a heck of a lot that a group like SFWA (or anyone else) could do about it. If it was, then the publisher would be in breech of contract.

    SFWA does have sample contracts for members to look at, and it has a grievance committee that helps members deal with contract disputes.

  12. I’m reminded of people who walk into grand Casinos to gamble. Those Casinos are paid for out of the pockets of losing gamblers. Yes, a few gamblers will come out ahead – in the short run.

    At best, a big 5 publishing house will provide the services you expected, at the quality you expected, in the timeframe you expected. And those services will be paid for out of the pockets of you and your fellow authors. A few authors will come out ahead – in the short run.

    1. The thing to keep in mind about casino gambling is that the casinos don’t have to cheat. The rules of the game always give the advantage to the house over the long run.
      As for the major publishers, unless you are a star author and a real cash cow for the house you can no longer expect the suite of services that were the rule for any author they agreed to take on. Sure, big ticket stars got the promo tours and full page ads in the trades, but back in the day even the lowliest newbie could rightly expect their manuscript to be turned into a finished product with proper editing, a solid cover, and have it shopped around to all the standard book selling outlets. Sadly, this is no longer the case for midlist and below, at least according to a great many sources.

  13. Currently reading a major award-winning series from an imprint of a major publishing house… and have concluded that its editor should be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and the proofreader should be summarily shot.

    Actually, I don’t think it’s had any of either.

  14. O.o that does not bode well.

    Anyway, most of the kids they are hiring are wannabe writers who can’t write. keep that in mind.

  15. I am reminded of a writing group. And a member who could not write at the sixth grade level, and was convinced that he/ did not need to, because she/he/it/they would have an editor for such things.

  16. Of course, the editors aren’t actually editing — most of them are too busy screwing with SF-Awards-Voting.

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