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.