Break Out the Red Pen
April 7, 2007 8:41 AM   Subscribe

If you spot misspellings in a book, should you notify the author or the publisher? Or will it not even matter?
posted by dr_dank to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Most books never go through the second printing that would be required to correct the errors. The edition you're reading is likely the only edition that will ever exist.

And if they didn't care enough to proofread it well the first time, why would they care about your feedback now?
posted by jellicle at 8:47 AM on April 7, 2007

A biology professor told my class that he'd sent so many corrections to our textbook publisher that they offered to let him proof the next edition. It's unclear whether it would have been paid or pro bono, though.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:54 AM on April 7, 2007

The book I have in mind involves the area I grew up in and butchered the names of a few places that I'm familiar with that could detract from the message of an investigative piece such as this.

But as Jellicle puts it, if they don't care enough to factcheck the first time out, why bother?
posted by dr_dank at 9:00 AM on April 7, 2007

To answer the basic question -- do not contact the author, but rather the publisher. They may correct these errors in the next printing (if there is one). As long as you don't write a ranting letter accusing "the editor" of "not editing" due to the five typesetting errors you might have noticed in a 500 page book, they won't fall to their knees to beg forgiveness, but they won't toss your note in the trash either.

Regarding jellicle's comment -- publishers do proofread, and typically the author has a chance to go over the proofs as well. However, it is actually impossible to typeset a book without any typos. I've been on a tour of a large printer before, and their comment was that 1 in 20 pages was the lowest error rate possible. The errors are produced when the text is initially typeset at the printer, and though the proofs are usually reviewed at least once if not 3-4 times, I doubt you'll ever encounter a book without a single typo.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:06 AM on April 7, 2007

Should have previewed -- if the error is a factual one, rather than a simple typo (the wrong place name, rather than a mistyping of that name), then nothing I've said really applies. In that case the author made the error, and the publisher's copy editor was down on the job (or the book was rushed into production and may have even skipped copyediting).
posted by tigerbelly at 9:09 AM on April 7, 2007

Tigerbelly, that intrigues me. How is it impossible to have no typos?
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2007

Dirtynumbangelboy: by "impossible", I think tigerbelly means "highly improbable" in the same sense that it is impossible for me, a non-physicist, to come up with the Grand Unified Theory of Everything. A small novel (maybe a large novella) contains 50,000 words; there are books that are much longer. The human brain tends to correct for errors ("Paris in the the spring"), and computers aren't perfect with grammar and spilling, [sic] so ... getting the error rate down to zero is *very* *very* hard.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:31 AM on April 7, 2007

Apparently tigerbelly has never toured a printer who typeset, oh say, bibles.
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:33 AM on April 7, 2007

I used to be an editor for a small publisher. We used a freelance copy-editor for the heavy proof reading, but we also used me at various stages of production to proof read (beyond other editorial reading duties), and of course we gave the author a look before we sent page proofs off to the printer. If we found any typoes while reviewing the printer's proofs (after typesetting, before the print run), we'd think long and hard about correcting them since corrections are pricey at that stage. Egregious ones got fixed. The others got fixed if I could convince the publisher (my boss) it was worthwhile.

When a book came back from the printer, I'd leaf through it to see how it came out. Nine times out of ten, I'd spot an error of some sort on the first or second page I read. Drove me nuts.

It's hard to catch them all. It costs time and money. From your description of the book, it seems as though the publisher here is probably kinda small. So go ahead and send your letter. But since the editor there is probably as irked by the errors as you are (or more!), try to make it polite.
posted by notyou at 9:34 AM on April 7, 2007

It is of course possible to have zero typos, but the cost of perfection outweighs the benefits. If you don't expend the resources to achieve perfection, than it is unlikely, although not beyond the realm of possibility, that you will achieve it.
posted by found missing at 9:37 AM on April 7, 2007

(please ignore the typos in that sentence)
posted by found missing at 9:39 AM on April 7, 2007

Well, the text is input by humans -- and that is the absolute best they can do. Publishing is still a very paper-based business, and there are literally people looking at a paper manuscript and entering the text onscreen to create the file that will be used to make the huge sheets that are used to print.

In copyediting, the author answers queries from the copyeditor, makes final corrections on the text, etc. -- all of this is done in pencil or pen on a hard copy of the manuscript. The book is set after copyediting, and all of the changes that have been made on the hard copy of the manuscript itself during that stage must be entered in -- these changes are obviously not in the author's electronic file of the text, and someone has to look at them and decipher them and input the text from that final stage.

Imagine that you're going through and reading two or three people's handwriting in various different colors all over the manuscript -- the author may have added new words or sentences, the copyeditor might have deleted some things or written in a correction, and the typesetter has to interpret it and put in the final "correct" version of the text. There's no way to do that flawlessly.
posted by tigerbelly at 9:41 AM on April 7, 2007

spaceman_spiff is indeed correct. That's exactly how I mean "impossible," and how it was presented to me.

vanoakenfold, you're correct that I haven't toured a facility that printed bibles -- on the other hand, it's not as if the bible has to be copyedited and re-typeset from the hard copy of a wholly original manuscript every time it's printed, is it?
posted by tigerbelly at 9:44 AM on April 7, 2007

I work at a small press. We make mistakes, and I don't know that we've had a single book that hasn't had a mistake or thirty. It's easy to proofread a three- or four-page report in college. Proofreading a 300-page book is a good deal harder. Add in typesetting quirks, and it makes it that much more difficult. All of this to say: Expecting perfection is nice, but unrealistic.

To answer the question at hand: If the author is easily contactable, contact her. If the publishing house is easily contactable, contact them. If you can easily e-mail both, go for it. The worst that can happen is that they say "thanks for contacting us about that; someone already notified us of that one, but we appreciate your getting in touch about it."

What's especially irksome to us is when a parent contacts us (we publish children's books) and says "my seven-year-old found this error that your editors missed! ha ha!"

But yeah, shoot them an e-mail. Either author or publisher, or both.
posted by Alt F4 at 10:16 AM on April 7, 2007

Photocopy the page, circle the error, and send it to the publisher with a letter explaining the error. If you're right, they'll do their best to change it in reprints. This happens all the time. They have people who handle this exact type of thing.

All this talk about Bibles and whether they care enough the first time or the next time or whether it's possible or cost effective to get a book perfect is irrelevant to the question. I have no earthly idea what touring a printer could possibly have to do with it.

The answer to your question is: yes, send the error to the publisher. Assuming your letter gets to the right person, it will be fixed when and if it reprints.
posted by lampoil at 10:26 AM on April 7, 2007

If you spot misspellings in a book, should you notify the author or the publisher? Or will it not even matter?

Yes, it's always worth it. Lots of people who've answered so far have tried to excuse typos, but the fact is they're inexcusable. If you notify the publisher, they can correct in the next reprint. If they decide not to correct then they will at least realize that their quality control methods need improving.

I've noticed that a lot of modern books have typos, usually small grammar glitches (and not judgement calls, either—full-on mistakes obvious to anybody). I even spotted one bang on the front page of a novel I was reading the other day, which almost made me want to put the damn thing down there and then. I think this is a mixture of increased computerization (quicker isn't always better), along with falling academic standards. In short, we just don't teach grammar (or hold in high regard) the way we used to.

By way of contrast, I buy a lot of second hand books, and they're much better. True, the human eye glosses over some errors, but I've yet to spot an error in a text produced before, say, 1980. It seems that, in the days when type was actually set by hand, quality levels were much higher.
posted by humblepigeon at 10:26 AM on April 7, 2007

(On not-preview, to add to what Alt F4 said, I work in children's, too. I get letters from kids who catch errors all the time. I forward them to the reprints department and they fix them! A kid can do it--you can too! Believe it or not, we want our books to be correct. Shocking, I know).
posted by lampoil at 10:30 AM on April 7, 2007

I think that was a sarcastic reference to the Wicked Bible (et al.) however (relatively) modern bibles DO contain typos too, search for modern here and here is another discussion (note that while typos have been removed from the KJV, they've been added [accidentally] as well).

And an answer to the question: While the author can't do anything about it directly, if they've got a website mentioned in the blurb on the book (or not mentioned but they seem pretty active on their website) then you might mail them a note mentioning how keen it would be if they had an errata section on their website, as well as noting the publisher so it can be corrected in future printings.
posted by anaelith at 10:33 AM on April 7, 2007

but I've yet to spot an error in a text produced before, say, 1980

I have. I have seen typos even in classics by Hemingway and such, that have been through hundreds of printings. The fact is, proofreading/typesetting a novel to 100% absolute accuracy is nigh on impossible. Try proofreading your own work sometime- you'll be surprised what slips through, no matter how careful you are.

So yeah, tell the publisher, why not?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:43 AM on April 7, 2007

In short, we just don't teach grammar (or hold in high regard) the way we used to.

Thank god. English classes based around forced rote memorization of grammatical "rules" kill the joy of reading, and end who-knows-how-many potential writing careers before they even get started.

The idea that good writing means following a set of memorizable rules is an awful awful thing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:51 AM on April 7, 2007

By way of contrast, I buy a lot of second hand books, and they're much better. True, the human eye glosses over some errors, but I've yet to spot an error in a text produced before, say, 1980. It seems that, in the days when type was actually set by hand, quality levels were much higher.

Confirmation bias, perhaps? I see typos in older books all the time.
posted by desuetude at 11:28 AM on April 7, 2007

(not literally all the time, of course. I only obsess over accuracy part-time.)
posted by desuetude at 11:29 AM on April 7, 2007

humblepigeon: Lots of people who've answered so far have tried to excuse typos, but the fact is they're inexcusable.

Bullshit. No one is excusing typos, we are explaining why they're (unfortunately) inevitable, even in the most diligently proofread book. I'm an absolute stickler when I copy edit and proof my books -- I read proofs till I see double, plus I simultaneously hire a professional proofreader and have authors go over the proofs. Still, out of all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of letters and punctuation marks, a stray comma or transposed letter almost inevitably sneaks in. (And I assure you, the same thing happened on books produced before 1980.)

Your examples of glaring errors of grammar or other issues of copy editing, however, are different.

I even spotted one bang on the front page of a novel I was reading the other day, which almost made me want to put the damn thing down there and then.

Sure, it could be that the editor doesn't actually know grammar (though I think that's a remote possibility, even in this age of computerized spell/grammar check); but wouldn't that mean that the novelist didn't know grammar either, and submitted a manuscript to a publisher without even checking his/her own work?

Such mistakes are often the result of last-minute changes at the blueline stage or on press -- an act which almost GUARANTEES howling mistakes (which is why, in addition to the associated expense, any editor worth his or her salt will do just about anything to avoid it; it's usually done at the behest of an author or third party who insists on an eleventh hour change of some sort -- usually one that could have easily been made months earlier, had they met their own deadlines or carefully read the early stage proofs in the first place). Could be that the editor (and/or the proofreader) was never given sufficient time or a complete manuscript to work from -- unfortunately the most common of all three of these scenarios, in my experience (for example, I'm currently freelancing on an 800-page book that I'm only going to have a week to proofread, despite my having explained repeatedly that I'd need a month, minimum).

The point being: I hate seeing errors in any book I publish, and I'm dismayed when I see them in other books, too, though I understand the real-world publishing scenarios that make them part of the business. Books with repeated errors of type, grammar, fact, etc. are certainly poorly edited (and are almost invariably published by tiny, amateurish presses), but they are really the exception, not the rule. I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of books published by a reputable publisher have a 99.99% error-free rate. If you really think you could consistently hit 100% as a proofreader, humblepigeon, I welcome you to try.
posted by scody at 11:42 AM on April 7, 2007

Misspelled proper names, yes, author and publisher, if there's likely to be furhter editions. Ditto dates and confirmable factual errors (or even those of personal experience if very relatvant). Footnotes not a bad idea.

Other stuff- not so much.

COuch it nicely, as in, you care about the subject as much as the author/editor did and therefore want only the truth to reflect on their fine work.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:53 AM on April 7, 2007

Hope no one checks my comments or posts.

I work for a publisher and we don't find a lot after publishing and almost always correct them upon subsequent printings. If we're notified. With so much publishing being done Print on Demand (one-off digital printing) you can correct it almost immediately and for very little cost. Fix the PDF and upload it.
posted by Toekneesan at 2:54 PM on April 7, 2007

Last year, I started reading an excellent popular history book about Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain. In the first five pages I found three serious errors. Grant's name was listed two different ways and he was given two different birthdates. I forget the third one now but it was of that caliber.

I wrote a nice letter to the publishing company about the errors. I received a friendly letter from the VP thanking me but saying these were pretty common sorts of errors and that's life.

I do put some of the blame for these on the author; he should have checked the proofs more carefully. Still, when errors are so obvious, I wonder about the publishing company's editors. (I'm a freelance book editor and know how hard it can be. But honestly...)
posted by bryon at 7:02 PM on April 7, 2007

Not a bad idea to somebody know (although I usually don't myself).

Not that I'm perfect, but I've written a book for hire, and edited one. I'd sure as hell like to know about any typos/mistakes.

The book I "wrote" was partially dictated using voice recognition software (OK, I was driving around on various road trips to be honest...) and had some errors. I tried to correct everything, and I got a copy of the final draft (supposedly edited by their editors) from the publisher before printing, but I'm sure there are still some mistakes. Some of the mistakes in the final draft weren't even mine! The point is, as an author I'd want to know what typos there are, just in case I have the opportunity to correct them.

Whether it'll matter -- who knows? However, I think somebody will care if you point them out. Ideally they'd already know about it because hundreds (or millions?) of people before you would have pointed it out, but the reality is that you're probably one of few people who noticed and thought to inform somebody.

Google the author and send a quick email. As long as you don't say "hey idiot, you got this wrong" it will be greatly appreciated.
posted by powpow at 10:47 PM on April 7, 2007

I'd politely email the author, & possibly post it on a wiki or, say, Book Errata.
posted by Pronoiac at 5:46 PM on April 8, 2007

I concur with spaceman_spiff. It's flat-out shocking what the eye will skip over. I'm a part-time editor for an academic journal, and even with three editors, two proofreaders, and two senior editors looking over every article, mistakes get made.

But my favourite is when an author with half a dozen degrees INSISTS on a "mistake" being used.
posted by sarahkeebs at 5:04 AM on April 9, 2007

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