A crate-load of a new title arrived from a mainstream publisher. The author and I admired the cover, checked the spelling of the author’s name and then—despite my #1 rule to “never open a finished book”—we flipped through the pages. The author was, after all, getting ready for a launch party and speaking tour.
The error she found was not a small one: the lines she had marked for deletion were in fact deleted, but the insert she had noted in the margin was not there. The line simply ended mid sentence, jamming into the next line without punctuation or a capital letter. It was gibberish.
Hugely embarrassed, she called the publisher. They finally agreed to insert an errata page in all copies. Though the error was clearly the publisher’s fault—they had approved the “corrected” pages without letting her see them—the cost of reprinting was prohibitive.
What about the publisher’s reputation!? What about the author’s!?
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, a few typos never hurt a novel’s sales!” seasoned Toronto-area editor Riça Night was once told by an executive.
Pass the smelling salts.
“Margins are really tight with the increased price of printing,” counsels Heather Down, an independent Canadian publisher. “It would have to be a big, big, problem [for a major house] to re-print.”
But how big? What is the threshold?
Publishing professionals aim for ideals: “Missing lines would call for reprint. Duplicate pages ditto. Incorrect captions, yes probably,” says Ralph Lawrence, a designer and sub-editor from Australia.
Speaking to smaller publishers such as Down, it seems they are the ones in the position to achieve this ideal. Small and on-demand print runs make the cost of fixing errors easy to absorb: “I tend to print very small quantities,” Down explains. “If an error is noticed right away, it is changed immediately.”
“I am pretty strict with the number of errors in a book,” says Demetra Turnbull, another independent publisher in the Canadian and US educational markets. “I will reprint a book if there is one spelling error. When it comes to math, if there are three mistakes in the answers, I will reprint.”
But a glimpse through store shelves shows that all publishers do not adhere to such standards. One publisher ended up with a wrong phone number repeated on nearly every third page in a travel guide. When I spoke to them about the error, they sounded devastated; but beyond compensating the lady who was getting all the calls, there was no attempt to correct the error.
“Pulping a book or adding errata sheets is very rare, generally reserved for cases where legal action is likely if the text is not swiftly revised,” said a manager at a major international publishing house who wished to remain anonymous. “Some authors, particularly cookbook authors, post errata lists on their websites, since inaccuracies in cookbooks can have distressing consequences. This is why I recommend that all cookbooks be proofread at least twice.”
As a publishing professional yourself, I’m sure you have your own list of errors spotted: missing images, lingering editorial mark-up, transposed paragraphs, captions that don’t match images … Somewhere, each possible error has been immortalized in print.
“My feeling is that deciding whether to reprint or not is something like a car company deciding whether to recall a defective car or not,” said Pete Considine, a production editor at a largely academic packager in the US. “It’s all a cost-benefit analysis: what will it cost to fix an error versus what it may cost if it isn’t fixed.”
“Twenty years ago, I bought a copy of The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage that came with [a card apologizing] for poor ink quality,” reported Carla Douglas, a writer and editor at Beyond Paper Editing. The note reasoned that “destroying many copies for this reason would be a bad environmental choice.”
With all these aspects to consider, what’s your threshold?