Friday, January 27, 2012

What is the Difference? Part 1

By BigAl

Books and Pals had just passed its one-month anniversary when I noticed a spurt of traffic coming from one particular site. I tracked the link back to an internet forum where current and wannabe authors, primarily Indies, hung out. In that discussion, an author had linked to a review of one of his books. He was mostly pleased (he’d spun a good yarn and the review was largely positive), but he wasn’t happy with the portion of the review that indicated his book had “a small number of typos and proofing errors.” I should hasten to add that he didn’t question whether they existed; only that he was disappointed he hadn’t eradicated all of them before publishing.

One of the other posters wondered why my reviews had this section and initially thought the intent was anti-Indie. Others made the point (or claim) that few books are error free, including traditionally published books. Someone else said that, “Big 6 books have errors too, but nowhere close to a random sample of indie books. I say this as a fan – we need to improve our proofreading, it’s hurting everyone.”

The Answer

My intent when defining the format for our reviews was to tackle one of the legitimate gripes about Indie books head-on, that they receive insufficient editing and proofing. My experience to that point had been that this problem existed; however, it was not as widespread as those who brought it up claimed (an explanation I gave to those who were wondering why our reviews addressed that issue).

I set arbitrary and somewhat lenient thresholds. If I spotted up to seven errors in a novel length work, I would indicate “no significant issues.” I’d seen numbers between five and ten bandied about as what a publisher would consider an acceptable number of errors in a book. I didn’t have any hard evidence that this was fact, although it felt about right based on what I’d seen in traditionally published books. More than that and less than twenty errors, I would say “a small number of errors,” but it would not influence the review rating. This acknowledges that there is an issue, but I didn’t feel that an error every ten pages, on average, should be enough of an irritant to most readers to be a problem. Twenty or more errors, I would indicate in this section that the book had a large number of errors, possibly indicate the nature of the kind of problems it had either as part of that section or in the analysis section, and in most cases it would influence the ranking.

If this were a novel, I’d complain that the author did an info dump with too much back-story in the first scenes. However, I think the history is necessary background for the rest of this two-part post where I’ll discuss three things: why I think this matters, how those books we’ve reviewed have stacked up when compared to the error thresholds I established, and last, in part two, I’ll look at traditionally published books: how do they compare to the Indies and the error thresholds?

I’ll give my opinion and plenty of data, but I’m interested in hearing what you think, too. Readers, how much do typos, missing words, incorrect word usage, homonyms, and other proofing issues effect your reading enjoyment? What kind of errors are the worst? How do you think Indies compare, on average, to traditionally published works? How about those who are authors: what do you think on these same questions? Does being an author make you more sensitive to these issues?

Why does it Matter?

While I think readers vary in their tolerance for these mistakes, every time they trip over a sentence or have to interpret meaning, the reader is jolted out of the story. Too many of these take what should be an experience as smooth as cruising down the highway and turn it into an off-road adventure of the worst kind. An author who neglects adequately polishing their book prior to publication is doing a disservice to the reader. They are also doing a disservice to their fellow authors and to their own book.

I’ve seen some authors argue, “What do people expect for less than three bucks?” My answer is that the cost of a book is a very small part of a reader’s investment. The biggest part is their time. If your book isn’t up to snuff, it doesn’t matter what the purchase price was; the reader is going to feel ripped off. Although the correlation is far from perfect, I also think authors who don’t do all they can to account for this part of the process while readying their book for publication are more likely to have other significant issues in their writing.

How have Indies Stacked Up?

Before I discuss the numbers, a disclaimer is in order. My sense has been that the books I’ve received for review are better in every respect, on average, than a random cross-section of Indie books. I’ve attributed this to two reasons. The first: that the author who has invested the time and effort to make their book as good as it can be is more likely to put forth more promotional effort, including submitting review copies to blogs such as this. The large deluge of submissions in the wake of The Greek Seaman fiasco, which dominate the books reviewed, has probably caused what insurance companies call self-selection. An author not confident about the quality of their book is much less likely to have submitted it for review.

Looking at reviews either published or slated for publication at the time of this writing and excluding those not evaluated for typos and proofing errors (beta or pre-release versions), we have evaluated 195 books. Of these, 71% met the highest standard of “no significant issues.” Only 10% were in the worst category with the remaining 19% falling in the middle with “a small number of issues.”

Sometime next week I’ll address traditionally published books, how they compare, and give some closing thoughts.

<Click to go to part 2>


Karen Wojcik Berner said...

That is an interesting statistic, Al. I am glad to see the indies rate so highly. Can't wait for the traditionally published book numbers.

Andrew Ives said...

I couldn't agree more, and I love the highway/off-road analogy. I've always considered reading numerous typos in Kindle books to be like listening to a record with a scratch on it - you're always waiting for the next one to come along. The very worst Kindle book I ever saw was Jules Verne's "The Blockade Runners" which had various characters, such as quotation marks, apostrophes etc replaced throughout with other junk. It drove me mad in no time. Otherwise, indie writers most annoy me when they don't pick up 'easy' typos such as missing words, missing letters, Kindle-isation or font problems and homonyms, which could all be resolved with a little care and proofreading. That just exudes sloppiness rather than genuine (forgivable) mistakes.

Joansz said...

As an Indie Author, I was adamant about producing as professional a product as I could. To that end, I hired a freelance editor (that I used only after the manuscript was extensively edited to minimize cost). I was also very fussy as to the physical composition and appearance of my book. I researched the large press books in my library, and based the overall appearance of the print version on a Simon & Schuster book that was appealing to me. For example, I think the text should be justified. and that white space is just as important as the font choice.

However, the same considerations may not hold for the electronic versions (except possibly for PDF files). I'm still fiddling with the electronic format. Some fonts don't translate well to ebooks, justification may not look right on a screen, especially if a large font is used, and the ereaders don't provide white space in the form of margins that one finds in traditional print.

The overall format is an important factor in the reader experience. I have yet to find an ebook (indie or large publisher) that stands out, and one that I'd use as a model.

Walter Knight said...

Yes, I can understand how an author would be more careful now about submitting their book for review, not wanting to be splattered all over your blog like Greek Seaman.

Congratulations on the success of this blog. Kindle sales indicate a nice future for indie authors and small publishers.

Morgan Mandel said...

I feel the same way about taking care while publishing as an indie. I also hired an editor because it's been way too long since I took grammar classes!

Morgan Mandel

Project Savior said...

Some people are sensitive about typos. Those are people that a starting author, who can't spend $500 to have it professionally edited, don't want reading their books unless they are good enough to earn a good living as an editor.
I don't mind a few typos per page, grew up on pulp novels. So I think having it in the review helps screen out the people who are sensitive (and loud) about typos and let's an author sell to the majority that aren't sensitive.

Lyn Horner said...

Al, I support your decision to include editing and proofing in your reviews. You do us all, both readers and authors, a favor by reporting on this issue.

My pet peeve when reading a book is when the same homonym error is repeated throughout the whole book. One time, even two is excusable, but not over and over again. I'm also a stickler about formatting. If I can take time to format my books so they look good on an e-reader, I expect other authors to do likewise.

Paul Callaghan said...

I think your desire for indie books to be at least as professional as traditionally published ones is to be commended. I recently downloaded a free kindle book on how to self publish. There were so many typos and errors in the first few pages that I wanted my money back. I didn't finish reading the book and deleted it off my kindle. I do the same with any book I pay for that has numerous errors. There are still writers who believe that "content is king," rather than realising that "quality content is king."
I'm delighted that so many of your reviews have shown that there are a majority of indie writers who care about every aspect of their work. Keep up the good work, Al.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for the comments so far.

It appears (if I'm guessing right on those I'm not sure about) that of eight comments, seven are authors and only one, Andrew Ives, appears to be a non-author reader. I'm interested in hearing from others.

Project Savior says that most readers are okay with typos and only the most sensitive (who are also the most vocal) care. I'm curious is that is true or not. I could name a few of the regulars who follow this blog who I know fit that category (of being very easygoing about proofing and typo issues), so I know they exist. I also know from people I've seen on forums that there are a lot of people who claim to very bothered by them and are, as Project Savior says, very vocal. In fact, many of them refuse to buy Indie books because they've been burned too often by bad or non-existent copy-editing. My guess is people are at different places on a wide spectrum. I be interested in readers weighing in on what their personal tolerance for these kind of issues are.

Vicki said...

Another author here, sorry. :)

I think your "Why does it Matter?" is the real crux here. It's all about reader (myself included) expectations.

BooksAndPals said...

No reason to be sorry, Vicki. You read a ton of books too and I always appreciate your comments. :)

Beth said...

I'm an author, but a reader too. I think my reading is split about 50-50 between traditionally published and indie published books.

More often than not the problems I see in the traditionally pubbed books are mostly formatting errors with only a few spelling/grammatical errors (on average 1 to 3 per book, or maybe there are more and I just don't see them).

With the indie pubbed books it's the opposite. The formatting is usually fine but I'll find more typos/grammatical errors. But not a huge amount. Maybe 3 to 5 per book. Again, these are the ones I'm catching, maybe there are more. Although one is always more likely to see the mistakes in others' work than their own.

In both cases, those aren't the kinds errors that will pull me out of a story. Or at least there aren't enough of them to pull me out of the story.

I'm much more likely to set down a book and never finish it (this is rare for me, by the way; I usually stick with it in the hopes that it will get better) because I'm not enjoying the story. When I'm not, it's usually because of some combination of content and style.

BooksAndPals said...

Beth: I hesitate to comment for fear of stealing my own thunder for part 2 of this post next week. :)

Bradley Convissar said...

Two quick things... for me, my biggest bugaboo with Indie books is comma usage. being a writer, maybe I'm more sensitive to the issue, but I have had to put down 3 "highly-rated" books because of too much comma usage or incorrect comma usage that just kills the flow of the book. For me, story is not enough. i can get by with some spelling errors because a lot of the time the brain reads it correctly. But when people start throwing commas EVERYWHERE, I just can not read it, and it happens a lot. Even books that are "edited" by a freelance editor can have series grammar issues. Again, I've seen it. A lot.

As for what I do, after two beta readers go through a book... I get a Createspace proof and edit that. I catch many more mistakes thumbing through an actual book than reading a computer screen or even printed pages. Don't know why, just the way it is.

Dave Cornford said...

As a reader, I hate typos and formatting errors. They interrupt the flow. It probably won't stop me reading the book, though.

As an author, I was horrified, though not surprized, when some of the first people to buy my book (friends and family of course) emailed me with glee: "There's a typo in the second story." I think there were 4 all up, and I uploaded corrected versions of the book immediately.

Meanwhile, I can only dream of seeing the magical words "No significant issues" in a review of my book on this page!

Cryselle said...

I have had the figure 5% lobbed at me as an acceptable error rate for NY published books, but without explanation. I *think* but can't verify that this is pages with an error/total pages.

Anne Mini (an agent whose blog is devoted to helping authors polish mss and approach agents) harps on authors printing out the mss and reading it aloud, every word, to find the errors. My own beta tells me to read from the bottom up for proofing, because that bounces you out of the story and you see what's there, not what you expect to see. I do catch a lot of booboos that way.

Most of my ebooks are PDF and I read on the computer, and most of them are Times New Roman or Book Antiqua fonts. But I would haunt the catalogue of anyone who used Georgia, because that font was meant for computer screens and it's very restful to read.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for the comment, Cryselle. I'm a fan of the reading aloud method of shaking out errors in writing. There was a time when I did that all the time with anything I wrote and hoped to make error free. I should get back to that. Another technique I know some Kindle-owning authors swear by is putting their preliminary draft on the Kindle and using its text to speech function. Listening can work much like reading does.

If 5% is considered an acceptable error rate I can't believe anything except pages with errors makes sense. It couldn't be 5% of the words or lines. (I hope no book is that bad. If one is, I would never make it through.) That works out to 10-20 pages with errors in a book of typical size on the high side. Seems about right.

Toni Dwiggins said...

Another Indie author here--and reader:

Most Indie books I've read (somewhere around 15 over the past half year) have had very few formatting errors or typos.

In two cases, there were ongoing formatting errors:
1. no paragraph indicators...big block of run-on text. Although I was interested in the story, I finally gave up. Too hard to follow.
2. Midway through the book, the font switched to all-italics. Took me a few pages to adjust, but I barely paused because the story was so involving and the writing was so good. I notified the author, who thanked me for the info and fixed the problem.

Jay Barry said...

I'm mostly okay with a few errors as I still find them in the big 6 (as you've stated) as well as in indie books. I'm more concerned if the story I'm reading is pointless and (as you said so well) if I'm wasting my time. Having said that I cringe when I, or someone else, finds those wee little typos in my book and I set about to fixing them right away.
What bugs me is when authors don't even try, dumping adverbs all over a story (The Long Walk, by Stephen Kings), or use laziness by just repeating "he said" "she said" ad nauseum (The Quality of Life report by I Don't Even Care to Remember).
Indie writing is still the pariah of the industry, but we're gaining ground in plausibility, so I figure it's only a matter of time before we're either on par with agented authors, or they're no longer stealing our lunch money at recess.

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for the comments Jay.

Peter Spenser said...

A couple of things:

The commenter named Joansz is, she admits, “still fiddling with the electronic format.” Her inexperience (and I mean this with no disrespect) became obvious when the three things that she mentioned—fonts, justification, and white space—are (except for PDF books) almost always completely out of the control of the author/formatter and vary depending upon which reading device is used to read the book. So there is no use worrying about them.

Spelling, grammar, and punctuation, on the other hand, definitely are under the control of the author, and should be treated seriously. Author and blogger Andrew Hickey said:

“Let me put this as simply as I can: If you are charging for your work, you have an obligation to be professional. This is particularly true in the case of publishing. When you put your book up for sale on Amazon, you’re in direct competition with every other work of literature ever published, near enough. That means you have to be that good.”

That’s it in a nutshell. However, for people who want more than a nutshell, here’s some more from me:

I saw this posted on Twitter once: “I hate when people give your book a 3-star review because they don’t like the digital formatting. Was it a good book or not?”

Hey, Buddy! If you expect us to care about your words, you have to care about our total reading experience, and that includes the formatting!

The strongest and most lasting appeal of any story arises directly from only one source: the unified effect of the totality of the words. Distractions from that story, however, can come from several individual but interrelated sources, that also, interestingly enough, have to do with the words:

• bad spelling
• bad grammar
• incorrect punctuation
• inappropriate word usage
• incorrect information
• anachronisms
• bad storytelling involving…
— character development
— setting
— plot

Any of these can jolt the reader out of the story and into the “here and now” and, as a writer, that’s the very last thing that you want to happen. My teen-aged daughter, Hope Edwards (herself an author), will even stop reading a book in disgust if there are too many misspelled words.

If you—as the producer of the words, as the creator of the story—if you do not understand that fact, if you think that we who speak of the importance of spelling and punctuation and grammar are “nit picking” or are being “too fussy,” in short, if you just “don’t get it”… then no, you are not a good writer and, no, yours was not a good book.

As for the whiners who keep saying (to everything): “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion…” and “All opinions are valid, because you can’t argue with subjectivity.”

No, not everyone is entitled, and no, not all opinions are valid.

Everyone is allowed his or her feelings and beliefs. Opinions, on the other hand, need to be informed, well reasoned, and stated intelligently. If they are not, they are less than useless, they are harmful, and shouldn’t even be given a forum in which to be expressed, much less listened to and taken to heart.

BooksAndPals said...

Excellent comments, Peter.