How bad is shipping a book with errors?
February 5, 2010 6:57 AM   Subscribe

A book I edited shipped with significant errors because of my negligence. How bad is it?

Some colleagues of mine authored a (niche, academic) reference work. I was tasked with updating it for the new edition. I believe most of it was properly updated. Now that it has gone to press and is on shelves, it has come out that a (major) section that I assumed did not need revision actually did and that a (minor) section that I assumed was correct in the prior version was actually in error.

There's a web page for the book where the errata will be posted, but the hard copies are, of course, all wrong. I have already accepted responsibility for the errors and assured my colleagues that I will prepare corrected versions immediately. This is my first experience with commercial publishing, so I don't have a good sense for how common or bad this is.

Here are my questions: How much shit am I in, apart from the obvious damage to my colleagues' reputations? What's the worst case? That the publisher refunds everyone's money? How likely is that? How much of a loss are we talking about, supposing the book would ordinarily sell (I'm guessing) a few thousand copies? Is this the sort of thing that ends academic jobs? Ends academic careers?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It won't end the careers of the contributors (in the worst case, they could simply refuse to include it on their publication lists); the damage done to them depends on the extent to which they are relying on the success of the book for tenure, etc. "A few thousand copies" isn't actually a bad print run for a "niche academic" text, so your shit quotient depends on several variables (prestige of the publisher, proportion of the text that's in error, availability of full text online, etc.)
posted by gene_machine at 7:10 AM on February 5, 2010

[This is a followup from the asker.]
To follow-up to gene_machine's questions:

1. The colleagues are both tenured.
2. It's a major publisher in the field.
3. Section-wise about 5% of the book is affected. Page-wise probably only about 1% or less.
4. The full text of the affected sections will be online, not just the corrections.
posted by cortex at 7:31 AM on February 5, 2010

I don't know much about academic publishing, but in general trade publishing, books are published with errors all the time. Publishers generally have a system for correcting those errors in subsequent printings. Very occasionally, when errors are so extensive as to threaten the integrity of the work, a publisher might recall and pulp the books in the initial printing and reprint and reship corrected books. This generally only happens when the errors are catastrophic.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:56 AM on February 5, 2010

The fallout really depends on the nature of the error.

ocherdraco's right about trade publishing.

I was an editor at a small publisher and learned to dread those days when the books came back from the printer. Errors we spent hours and hours trying to trap through various stages of production and somehow missed shone like lighthouse beacons when we finally got a look at the printed book.

What you do about the errors now is important. It sounds like you have a pretty good handle on that part of it with the web page for errata. Are there more? Better make sure.

Look at your process and try to understand how the mistake got through, then fix that part of the process. But don't stop there. Was the shortcoming a minor one and the fix simple ("need to add **** to my checklist") or was the shortcoming a major one and the fix complicated ("communication with contributors is munged")?
posted by notyou at 8:04 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

this is no big deal, especially for a small niche market. the publisher is pissed, the author is pissed, and some readers are going to be confused until the look up the errata (if they're smart enough to do that). if you were hired by the publisher, you will not be hired by them again.

if the book sells enough copies to need a reprint, this will be fixed in reprint. if it doesn't, it won't ever get fixed in the print edition.

(used to work at small niche-market publisher.)
posted by misanthropicsarah at 8:04 AM on February 5, 2010

I'm in the middle of writing my first book at this very moment. At every stage, I'm surprised by the number of errors that are introduced. First, I create many errors as I write the thing. Then, my editor creates many errors as she edits. (She improves the readability, but she also sometimes alters meaning.) The copy-editor didn't actually create any errors, but she let lots of typos through. And just yesterday I received the proofs after the publisher had laid the book out. So many new errors! It's as if the whole process of producing a book is an exercise in error smashing. It's like whack-a-mole...

Yes, I know this doesn't answer the question.
posted by jdroth at 8:37 AM on February 5, 2010

I work in trade publishing and agree with what some others said above. First, it is very common for books to be published with errors in them. Even though everyone is careful and pages are slugged repeatedly and sent to professional copyeditors/proofers, things just slip through. There's just sooo much material and so many places where errors can be introduced.

In this case, it sounds like the errors are factual in nature, not simply typesetting/typographical problems. I would consider that worse than a bunch of typos, unfortunately, but in all honesty 1% of the pages being affected doesn't sound that terrible. I think the severity of the problem really depends on how big the errors themselves are, and how integral they are to the integrity of the work. (And, in some ways, what the work is about -- if it's a medical handbook, for instance, wherein errors could result in liabilities to the publisher, or some sort of nonfiction work where a sue-happy corporation is clearly libeled, I would consider that more likely as a candidate for ocherdraco's comment about recalling and pulping. But the profit margins on books are THIN, and s/he's also right that recalling, pulping, and reprinting almost never happens because it just doesn't make fiscal sense for anybody.)

The publisher won't refund anyone's money, so no need to worry about that. If the book ever comes up for reprint, the errors will be fixed then. In the meantime you've done the right thing by putting together errata sheets and making them available. Make sure your contacts at the publishing house also have them on hand as PDFs (or whatever) so that if customers call their CSRs, they can be forwarded the errata as well.

The contributors will probably be peeved, but not permanently harmed. But I'd agree that I wouldn't count on being hired by this company again.
posted by alleycat01 at 8:57 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's as if the whole process of producing a book is an exercise in error smashing. (jdroth)

That's precisely what it is. :) And still you get people sending letters from Peoria (or from the Upper West Side of Manhattan) impugning your ability as an editor because they found two typos in their edition of A Very Spanky Christmas, and how on earth could a professional produce such a book?! And you just think to yourself, "If only you'd seen how many errors we caught."

Alleycat01's right about the reasons that things might be pulped; and I should clarify that yours doesn't sound like that kind of case to me. Most of the instances of actual pulping that I've witnessed have actually happened because of production errors (illegible printing or somesuch) rather than errors in the text. It sounds like you're doing everything right, and that you should chalk this up to a learning experience, and move on.

If you're worried about being asked to edit things like this again in the future, while these particular colleagues and their particular publisher might not hire you again, that doesn't mean others won't. I have a colleague who, on his first book as an editorial assistant, didn't realize that permissions needed to be cleared for the paperback edition for art included in the book (and this book was full of lots of very expensive art) causing an expenditure of several thousand dollars at the time of paperback publication. He gets teased about it all the time ("remember when you cost Papa Publisher all that money?"), but people understood that it was his first time dealing with it, and he's now a respected editor in his own right.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:45 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Only slightly related, but you should be careful with words like 'negligence' which have a very specific legal meaning - my company is always warning against using them just in case there's a subsequent court case with discovery of relevant emails and docs.
posted by StephenF at 10:12 AM on February 5, 2010

The best, though, is when the letters end with phrases like "... please send me $xx.xx" or "20 copies of books X, Y, and Z for the editorial services I have performed for you." OH YES. I've received those letters: handwritten, and on purple stationary, no less.

I hope I didn't sound too disheartening overall though; I agree that you're doing everything right and I don't think you should worry too much. (I myself have cost Papa Publisher a distressing amount of money due once or twice, due to stuff that shouldn't have made it past my eyes or the eyes of those whose work I technically oversee ... it happens, and nobody's fired me yet.)

I guess I was thinking of your work in a freelance capacity. I contract out to a lot of freelancer copyeds and proofers, and because there are just so many of them (everybody's getting laid off :[) I'm less likely to re-use someone who has turned in work I'm unhappy with. However, I think your case seems a little different as it sounds like you have a non-publishing relationship with your colleagues, and expertise in whatever field/topic the book was on. In your case I think the best damage control is owning up and doing your best to fix the problem, as you're obviously already doing, and notyou's point about figuring out what went wrong. (Like, when you "assumed" the sections didn't need updating, is that because someone told you so erroneously, or is it that you just didn't check thoroughly enough, how will you avoid it in the future, etc.)

But overall, don't sweat it.
posted by alleycat01 at 10:32 AM on February 5, 2010

It happens: pretty much every book ever published contains errors. When I worked for an academic book publisher, two things would happen when boxes of new books arrived from the printers. First, everyone would open the books and smell them. Second, there would be a race to find the first error. (And the second, and the third.) Discovery of the errors would of course elicit loud groans of rueful, amused, anguish but everyone knew there would be some; the only mystery was which ones, and how many. Don't sweat it
posted by hot soup girl at 2:18 PM on February 5, 2010

First, everyone would open the books and smell them. (hot soup girl)

Oh my god the smell of books fresh from the bindery is amazing.

posted by ocherdraco at 3:48 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Basically, you made the assumption that your colleagues did a good job to begin with, only not so much. And you assumed, they being tenured and all that the parts that didn't need updating were OK to begin with.

You can flog yourself for assuming. Someone else can flog you for assuming. But if I understand this, these folks put this out some time ago and knew you were updating it, and never mentioned to you, "Oh, by the way, we didn't get much sleep the night before we did chapter eight and had drunk a bunch of illegally imported Mexican cough medicine and did a mess of acid.". It's hard to see this getting your head on any kind of chopping block when the tenured duo has had four chances to not drop the ball twice on this material (2 printings x 2 individuals).

That's not to say someone couldn't cite this as the reason why you're head is on the chopping block when the real reason is they want to dump you and replace you with their niece or some such.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:18 AM on February 6, 2010

A book I read a couple of years ago, Cop in the Hood, was "recalled" by the publisher (supposedly an unprecedented move for them). It did indeed have an astounding number of serious typos, so they pulled it off the shelves and reprinted the book. I have the original, error-riddled version, which was rendered an un-book - the new edition was given a brand-new ISBN, and the old one basically disappeared from the likes of Amazon. So now I feel like I have something like the Inverted Jenny on my hands! You can tell your friends and colleagues that the first printing is now going to be a collector's item. :)

P.S. Cop in the Hood is a good book, esp. for fans of The Wire!
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:31 AM on February 6, 2010

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