Wednesday, December 11, 2013
On the impunity of publishers and their editors
By OFW Member:
Carlos J. Cortes
Published: March 19, 2014
Eons ago, in another re-incarnation, I considered buying four cheap clocks and attach them to my cork board to display different time zones—and save me the hassle of keeping tabs on sunrises and sunsets around the globe.
A dear woman spotted a curious contraption at an upmarket gift shop: a square clock that would display a different time zone if set down on any of its four sides. The artefact was cute, with a minimalist design. I played with it, turning it on its sides so the display would change say from Coordinated Universal Time to Pacific Standard Time. Problem is the damn thing was badly programmed. With UTC set at noon, PST would display five hours earlier, when it should have been eight. Since there was no way to adjust it, I returned it. The attendant asked what was wrong with the clock, to which I replied that the object wasn’t such a thing. It did tell the time, there could be no mistake about it, but it was useless for timekeeping, which is the ethos, the
of a clock.
In Europe, we have consumer laws similar to those in the United States of America and elsewhere in developed countries. Though the number of regulations can be overwhelming, one is universal: a product must be fit for its purpose.
Fit for purpose means that a TV set must be receive and display images or that a clock should tell the time. But there’s more. Not only should a clock sold as such tell the time,
but it must do so accurately
or at least with the degree of accuracy suggested by industry standards and common sense.
What has this to do with publishing and editing? Fitness for purpose or the lack of it. A book,
any book offered for sale
, should have the text set on such a way as to guarantee that a reader,
can read it from cover to cover without having to suffer editorial shoddiness. Then, he or she can determine if the book was good, passable or downright bad.
When a book hits the shelves and sells a zillion copies—often to the bafflement of the writer and the very industry that spawned it—many readers succumb to the temptation of buying it, often to discover firsthand what the fuss is all about.
Different books have different target readerships. We may buy a book and like it or dislike it for reasons as varied as our idiosyncratic characters; tense, plot, genre, theme, atmosphere, POV, characterization or dialogue may be contrary to what we understand as a good read. Nothing wrong here. If we don’t like the content of a book, we take a mental note never to read another example of a particular writer’s prose and carry on with our reading habits. This is part of the ongoing process of learning. I love Murakami and other readers are indifferent to his work, others still hate his prose. Wonderful! If everybody shared the same literary tastes the world we live in would be even worse.
The problem arises when a product on sale (the book) is substandard.
When publishers release a title riddled with repetitions, tautologies, continuity flaws, syntax aberrations, dodgy grammar, or slapdash timelines, they are guilty of endorsing a product that is unfit for its purpose.
Average readers often complain about “being thrown out of the story” by POV slips, repetitions, or shoddy grammar. If professional editing could have prevented such flaws, and yet the book has been marketed “as is,” the publisher should be held responsible for marketing a defective product with full knowledge of its failings. Yes, “being thrown out of the story” causes anguish, misery and despair soon replaced by anger and curses to the editor’s progeny. To market a book susceptible of causing psychological discomfort to its owner should be punishable by law, and it amazes me that in a country where litigation is a national sport, no one has taken publishers to Court.
Furthermore, publishers and their staff should be held responsible for flawed digital conversions, deficient digital formatting and anything which a professional editor could have reasonably fixed.
I have the greatest respect for good editors; their art is irreplaceable to clean up narrative by redacting the bits littering every manuscript. And here’s the sting: Every decent publisher has a staff of editors, some brilliant and others less so, but they are professionals who understand the difference between good and substandard prose.
Fifty Shades of Grey
is not my cup of tea. I wouldn’t buy the book because I’m not interested in the genre or the kind of story in it. But consumers paying through the nose for a text are entitled to the
A reader named DS from California listed on an Amazon review the repetitions he or she had discovered using the search feature of Kindle:
Ana says “Jeez” 81 times and “oh my” 72 times.
She “blushes” or “flushes” 125 times, including 13 that are “scarlet,” 6 that are “crimson,” and one that is “stars and stripes red.” (I can't even imagine.)
Ana “peeks up” at Christian 13 times, and there are 9 references to Christian's “hooded eyes,” 7 to his “long index finger,” and 25 to how “hot” he is (including four recurrences of the epic declarative sentence “He's so freaking hot.”).
Christian's “mouth presses into a hard line” 10 times. Characters “murmur” 199 times, “mutter” 49 times, and “whisper” 195 times (doesn't anyone just talk?), “clamber” on/in/out of things 21 times, and “smirk” 34 times.
Christian and Ana also “gasp” 46 times and experience 18 “breath hitches,” suggesting a need for prompt intervention by paramedics. Finally, in a remarkable bit of symmetry, our hero and heroine exchange 124 “grins” and 124 “frowns”... which, by the way, seems an awful lot of frowning for a woman who experiences “intense,” “body-shattering,” “delicious,” “violent,” “all-consuming,” “turbulent,” “agonizing” and “exhausting” orgasms on just about every page.
Leaving aside the literary merits of the author—or the taste of her readers—it should be inexcusable for a publisher to market a book with such editorial deficiencies. Yes, to highlight word repetition is one of the basic tasks of a decent editor. I still remember shaking my head in wonder when an editor wrote on the margin that I had repeated “fathomed”
, on a four-hundred-page manuscript.
Furthermore, if an editor has been involved, his or her name should be listed in the credits—if only to warn consumers about the horrors likely to be found under such a by-line. Just as the law demands that books incorporate data identifying the author, the cover artist, the publisher, and the printer—the teams involved in the book’s production—it should be compulsory to name the editor or editors responsible for the final shape of the text consumers buy.
I’m not suggesting that publishers should teach writers how to write, or instruct their editors to ghost-write what often can only be described as junk. No. I contend that after publishers buy a manuscript and splurge in marketing—to propel a title to the dizzying heights of the bestselling lists—they should edit the material so consumers can read in peace instead of curse.
And if the writer refuses the editorial clean-up, it should be stated in a publisher’s disclaimer set prominently in the front matter.
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