Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What is the Difference? Part 2

by BigAl

Last week, in part 1 of this post, I looked at the issue of copy editing and proofing in Indie books, both the perception and the reality of what I’ve found. Today I compare this to traditionally published books and give some final thoughts.

How do Traditionally Published Books Compare?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve read eight traditionally published books. These were a combination of Christmas gifts (thanks again, everyone), purchases, and two books from the Kindle Lending library. There is a slant towards non-fiction; however, most had dialogue and a narrative (not unlike a fictional story) rather than a recitation of facts, so I feel it is a fair comparison. I’ll leave it to you to decide if the sample size is large enough to draw conclusions or not.

While reading, I kept track of the same kind of errors I would with a book I was reading for review. This should be an apples to apples comparison. I’m not a professional copy editor or proofreader, nor do I try to be. Some things I’m good at noticing, others I’m not. Comma misuse is one example of something I know is a weakness where I’ll only catch the most flagrant errors.

One issue that needs mentioning before giving the results is what I call “ghost hyphens.” These are hyphens inserted in words for the print edition of a book incorrectly left in the electronic version. This is a common issue, even in Indie books, and I’ll typically count these as a formatting issue rather than a typo. This issue is much more prevalent in traditionally published books. I’ve mentioned those with this issue in the detail on each book evaluated at the end of the post.

What I found is that of the eight books, all but one fell into my “no significant issues” classification (seven or less problems found). Only one was in the next worst classification of “a small number of errors,” and barely missed the better category. None of these would have prompted mention of a serious editing problem were I reviewing them, with the majority being in the three to four issues spotted range.

The phases of editing.

Before giving my final thoughts or conclusions, I thought a quick explanation of my understanding of the different kinds of editing would be a good idea. My understanding may have some holes or misconceptions. If so, at least you’ll know what I meant when I used the word (which means what I meant for it to mean).

Although different publishers and authors may vary their process, including repeating phases, and overlaps in between functions, I picture editing as having three major phases: content editing, copy editing, and proofing.

Content editing looks at the big picture. In traditional publishing, this could happen from the initial pitch to a rewrite after acceptance of the initial manuscript and continue until deemed ready for copy-editing. It is an ongoing process. Although primarily “big picture,” this phase can actually get very detailed, questioning the purpose of a specific scene (with deletion or reworking so the scene works) or even fixing of a single line of dialogue that doesn’t ring true.

Copy-editing and proofing, while different, tend to overlap in function, at least in my mind. Both functions aim to eradicate errors at the line level, looking at each line for proper word usage, grammar, punctuation, etc. However, copy-editing is slightly higher level. It will look at whether what is said makes sense, while proofing is more focused on catching typos. Problems in both of these areas are what we evaluate in the format/typo section of our reviews.

Final Thoughts

An Indie author who expects serious consideration should aim for a book that is indistinguishable from a traditionally published one for the majority of readers. That means a good story, a professional looking cover (not having one will drive many potential readers away while browsing their favorite on-line book retailer), and making sure all phases of editing are done in some way. The author is virtually never going to be able to do the editing functions without help.

I believe that content editing can be done using critique partners and/or Beta readers if the people on an author’s team are the right combination. No single person is likely to have the insight of a good editor, but by using enough people with different strengths and weaknesses, it might be enough, if the author is open to their advice. My feeling is that this area is also one where whatever changes are proposed can often be a matter of taste rather than being clearly right or wrong.

Copy-editing and proofing is much more clear-cut. While some things might vary based on preference or style, an error in this area is usually clearly an error. While the right team of Beta readers might shake out most remaining issues, I think this is an area where most authors should invest in a professional.

It seems the thresholds we use are slightly lenient, as suspected, but reasonable. Classification as having “no significant issues” should be an indication that in the area of copy-editing and proofing, a book met a high standard. That 70% of the books we’ve reviewed meet that standard is both encouraging (the claim that “all” Indie books are deficient in this area is clearly not reality). However, I can understand someone who stumbles on several of the books in the remaining 30% being leery of trying others.

I’ll leave you with this quote I found on the blog of an Indie author. While the slant of this post is different than his post, the conclusion is still fitting.

The only books that are truly trash, in my opinion, are books that have been carelessly written or carelessly edited. They are full of misspellings or typographical errors or errors in usage.

Detailed evaluations

For those interested in the traditionally published books evaluated, here are the details about each.

States of Confusion by Paul Jury. Publisher, Adams Media.

(Although not a Big 6 imprint and not a publisher I am familiar with, this book was available through the Kindle Lending Library prior to when Amazon opened this option up to self-published authors and small presses that published for Kindle via KDP. It seems appropriate to consider this a traditionally published book.)

Evaluation: Three typos or proofing errors. Additionally there were multiple instances of ghost hyphens. I also spotted errors of fact which I believe are the kind of thing that should have been caught in one of the editing processes and I would mention in a review. (Specifically these were errors in geography, for example saying he “turned east” at Tallahassee, Florida to go to Pensacola.)

Grade: No significant issues

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Evaluation: Three typos or proofing errors. One instance of a ghost hyphen.

Grade: No significant issues

On Writing by Stephen King. Publisher, Publisher, Simon & Schuster.

Evaluation: Four typo or proofing errors although these were all instances that might be artifacts from the conversion and formatting process. Each was a case of a missing character, three of them were missing spaces where two words were displayed as a single word and the fourth a missing hyphen. This book also had some issues with ghost hyphens.

Grade: No significant issues

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. Publisher, Anchor (a Random House imprint).

Evaluation: Three typo or proofing errors. Additionally there were six instances where the word “I” was clearly missing from the sentence. Although possibly an artifact from an OCR conversion, I am considering them typo or proofing errors for a total of nine.

Grade: A small number of typo and proofing errors

Me, the Mob, and the Music by Tommy James and Martin Fitzpatrick. Publisher, Scribner (a Simon & Schuster imprint).

Evaluation: No issues found

Grade: No significant issues

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Eagan. Publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Evaluation: Three typo or proofing errors.

Grade: No significant issues.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. Publisher, W. W. Norton. 

Evaluation: One typo, plus ghost hyphens. 

Grade: No significant issues 

The Litigators by John Grisham. Publisher, Doubleday.

Evaluation: One typo

Grade: No significant issues


BooksAndPals said...

Her is a link to an article from the Huffington Post from last night that is pertinent to this discussion.


Andrew Ives said...

Your work is very commendable, but I think you are being overly kind towards indie authors. It could be that the books sent to you for review are the creme de la creme of indies, but if you chose a handful of indies at random on Amazon, I think you would find vastly more errors than you seem to be seeing in either your indies or professional books. I'm currently reading "GODS" by Justin Dillon-Shallard, and although it's by no means one of the worst offenders, and has justifiably good reviews, I have found about 100 small errors of all varieties in the first 30%. I have read some indies with almost zero mistakes as you say, but I'd estimate that only 5-10% of indies are that thoroughly proofread.

BooksAndPals said...


I think I mentioned in part #1 that I suspected the books I was seeing might be better than a cross section of all the self-published books available. There are a few reasons I think this is the case.

There is almost certainly a self selection process that happens in the books submitted to me for review. A large percentage of the books I've reviewed were received in the immediate aftermath of the Jacqueline Howett fiasco. An author who realizes they've given copy editing short shrift is much less likely to have submitted a book. I also think an author who cut corners is more likely to have not expended the seek out book blogs for reviews.

There are thousands of self-published books on Amazon that are nothing more than a collection of Wikipedia articles. (I'm planning on having a post on this sometime soon.) If your 5-10% number is based on the full universe of self-published books, these would be included, and I have serious doubts they meet a high standard in this area.

I know there are problem areas I'm not likely to catch problems in. Comma usage is the example I give where I know I'm lacking. I know a professional copy-editor who looked at a book would find things I didn't, not only because of superior skills, but because that would be their primary purpose for reviewing the book and it isn't mine.

Despite all of this, I *think* I'm pretty good at spotting mistakes as I'm reading. For all the reasons above, the percentages I'm seeing are probably better than the a cross-section of all Indie authors, excluding the scam artists. However, I have serious doubts the percentage of books with acceptable copy-editing and proofing is as low as 5-10% by any reasonable standard of what is acceptable.

Leah Petersen said...


I love these two posts and I'm so glad you've shared your method and insights. I admit, I've had a tough time with indie books lately. A run of bad luck, maybe, but still. You help me restore faith.

That said, I can't agree that even excellent beta readers and critique partners can replace a content editor. I've been blessed with both excellent crit partners and readers (including an author whose debut was a Publisher's Weekly top pick of 2011) and an excellent editor. The thing is, while the other authors and readers had great insights, they were all looking at it from the same angle I was, as an author and reader. An editor brings a different set of skills and (with experience) industry knowledge that's just a different animal than the pure creative part of writing.

I think this is the #1 biggest challenge for an indie because it represents money out of pocket, period. But I don't think you can compare trad & indie as apples to apples unless they've both had the service of a GOOD editor.

(I just saw an example of this the other day, an indie book that did great on Amazon, thousands of books sold in the first year. Enough that it attracted a publisher who signed them. The editor with that publisher then went on to work with the author on an updated, revised edition that ended up being 60 PAGES shorter. I'd read the book myself and that was one of my biggest problems with it, that it dragged and was repetitious. She spoke on her blog about fellow authors who had been beta readers and crit partners and yet those problems remained until an editor got involved.)


BooksAndPals said...

Thanks for the comments Leah.

Regarding content editors, my opinion on this is constantly changing. I've had some authors share the feedback they've received from content editors and I agree that this can be valuable and will usually make a book better. A good editor will spot things that a critique partner or beta reader might does see or is unable to articulate what the problem is. However, it also seems like much of what I've seen is a question of taste with no obviously correct answer. Ideally an author would use every type of editor: content, copy-editor, and proofreader. The reason I'm emphasize the last two is that by not doing so is almost guaranteed to result in errors that are clearly errors.

Leah Petersen said...

Oh yes, that's the other reason it sucks to need an editor as an indie because it's too easy to get a bad one. And the best ones are more expensive.

I agree with you, I've seen the work of bad editors too and you're absolutely right. A really good one should have references and even provide a small sample on the author's own work, both for the author to evaluate their feedback and for the editor to determine if it's a manuscript they feel they can work well with.

But I've heard of authors who got an editor from their publisher who was all wrong for them too. The key is a GOOD editor and the RIGHT one. Which can be a crapshoot sometimes. :(

BooksAndPals said...

My comments need a good proofing. :)

I agree, Leah. There are good and bad editors out there and even a good one might not be the right one.

Kae said...

I review books and read indie as well as traditionally published titles. I have gotten several of my traditionally published titles from netgalley, and those are mostly ARCs--in a stage of production where the copy editing and proofing aren't final. That leaves me to read through formatting glitches, and more, and I often wonder if the final title will retain some of this.

In some ways, I consider a lot of indie books as ARCs, and I'm a bit forgiving of copy-edited miscues. I am always hopeful that the author will notice or be told about these and correct them (so easy to do with the ebook publishing). Bad formatting, however, really rubs me the wrong way. I format books for people, both print and ebooks, and it isn't that hard to get it right.

I've also read traditionally published books that are quite obviously proofed by an electronic editor, not a human one. So a perfectly-legal word such as "there" is used where "their" should have been. I grimace and read on.

Content malfunction is what upsets me most (turning east... to go to Pensacola...) and stories that just don't hold together. This seems a problem even with traditionally published books--at least the ones I've recently read.

BooksAndPals said...

Kae, With books that truly are ARCs I explicitly say in my review that I can't judge proofing and formatting and in some cases will pass any errors I spot on to the author so they'll have a chance to fix it prior to publication. I know those who review traditionally published books routinely receive ARCs for review purposes so that the timing of review publication will align with release of the book. There is an assumption there, I'm sure not always true, that those kind of problems will be fixed in the final product.

In the case of Indies, when I receive what should be the same product as what they are expecting people to be paying for, I'm not sure considering them the same as ARCs makes sense. Indie authors, at least those I talk to, want to be considered to be as good as traditionally published authors. For that to happen. As the article I posted above says, for that to happen they have to (among other things) reach the level of copy-editing and proofing.

Bradley Convissar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bradley Convissar said...

As a writer and a reader, I am much more critical of what i read than the average reader. You're right... readers tend to notice typos and poor grammar more than content errors because, in reality, is there such thing as a content error? Content... the need for a scene or not, the need for a certain description or not, is clearly at the discretion of the author, though in trad publishing, there is much more pressure to remove something if an editor wants it gone. As movie watchers, with DVDs and cut scenes, how often do we watch a scene and say "Why was that cut, it was awesome?" A lot. Sometimes it's a time issue, sometimes it's a director understanding the type of movie goer who will be watching their movie. Content is subjective, and though editors may want to cut certain things for flow reasons, these are not always things that readers care about. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but unless the content error is blatant, the writer should keep true to their vision. More important in my mind that grammar, comma and spelling errors are minimized because those are actual errors. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, we as writers who want to "hit it big", need to appeal to the masses, and the masses generally don't nitpick about little concept and theme errors here and there. Look at the show LOST. Has anyone here watched it? The dialogue was awful. No one EVER asked the simple questions that would have unraveled the mysteries in season one. No one ever asked WHY? Why not? To keep suspense up. But viewers loved LOST despite the plot holes and the poor dialogue and tons of unnecessary content because they loved the story. Write a good story and a little questionable content won;t bother the masses. Will they bother people like you and me who read with a much more critical eyes? Maybe. But we are not writing for other writers; we write to appear to the common people. I recently tried to read a very well-reviewed Indie book chock full of bogged down description and horrendous comma usage. Turned me off completely. But people keep buying it and keep giving it good reviews. Because if they like the story, they'll ignore the little holes. That's how the masses are these days. Content editing? Not as important in my mind as proofing and copy editing because people will forgive too much word decoration if the story is good enough. And I make no apologies for poor grammar and spelling errors in this comment- I'm in a rush

BooksAndPals said...

Excellent points, Brad. This goes to my waffling on content editing. I know, with the right editor, many books could be better (probably) and different (almost certainly). But for most readers the story is king. As another comment on part #1 of this post said tonight, anything that is going to throw a reader out of the story is bad. But the typical reader isn't going to notice some things that an author working at perfecting their own writing is going to notice. That difference is also a partial explanation of why I Andrew, who commented above, things the percent of Indie books that have received a through proofing is so much lower than what I think it is.

Joansz said...

You brought up an excellent point about the cover--a good cover attracts reader to sample the book, if not ultimately buy it. I would like to see your take on the cover in addition to the other evaluation points. Granted, it can be a matter of taste, but just like typos and formatting, you could point out whether it looks professional or not.

BooksAndPals said...

Joan, Generally speaking, I see the cover as a marketing issue rather than pertaining to the quality of the book. I also don't think I have the skills to judge covers other than at a very high level. However, there have been two times I can think of when I have specifically mentioned the cover because the message I got from it was out of sync with what I found inside. If you're interested, those were "Mason-Dixon Despot," by Christopher Jones and "Wrecker" by Dave Conifer.

Joansz said...

After re-reading "Mason-Dixon Despot," I remembered your comments about the cover and I agreed. I also agree with your reluctance to pass judgment on the cover unless something about it leaps out at you. Fair enough. Thanks for your explanation.

Kris Bock said...

Thanks for doing these posts. I think it's great that your reviews include commentary on typos. I imagine a lot of readers are hesitant to read indie books because they've heard of, or experienced, poorly-proofed books. Letting your blog followers know which books are "safe" is a benefit to both readers and writers.

I'm both a reader and a writer. As a reader, I do notice errors. I'll tolerate a few, but they distract from the story. (I think the worst e-book I read was a Jane Austen freebie, probably scan from print.)

As an indie author, I've arranged professional exchanges to get proofreading. But I hired someone to do the electronic formatting of my first indie book, and he actually introduced a couple of errors.

I was previously published traditionally, and I got very little editing from some of my publishers, though I learned a lot from a few of them.

Thanks for all you do on this blog!

BooksAndPals said...

Thanks, Kris.

Badly converted books from OCR scans are the worst, whether public domain or trad published. Even a book that was perfect going into the scan isn't going to be without a round of proofs after.

I think some publishers are much better at all of the editing processes than others. I think the traditionally published books I read for my sample might be representative of the average, but I'm sure they aren't of the range. I know there are some out there that are full of errors. It just isn't nearly as common. I think the publishers also got smart quickly about not sending the output from OCR straight to eBook before proofing.

Sharon L Reddy said...

"content editing, copy editing, and proofing."

Very nice description of the functions.

I don't send my work to reviewers. It wouldn't be fair to them. I try very hard to get readers to sample before they buy. My style is researched and university and target audience tested, the most radical avant garde experiment you can download, designed specifically for 21st Century electronic reading devices.

One has to know the rules very well, to break them consistently to a purpose.