Since When Do Readers Care About Editing?

Actually, readers have always cared about editing. A well-edited, typo free book is a pleasure to read, and an error-riddled book is not. The real question is, why are readers talking about it now? I’ve never read a book that was 100% error free. Even my beloved old Webster’s 9th has a typo.

It’s not because of self-published books. The books on my Kindle right now are about a 50/50 mix of trad published and self-published. Overall, the self-published books tend to be better produced. When established writers reissue their back lists and are working off scanned conversions or unedited source files, their error rates are about the same as for indie writers starting fresh. Traditional publishers are the worst offenders when it comes to being sloppy.

The only thing new is that readers are actually talking about the editing. I’ve published 17 novels and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve had readers point out errors with my research, but never typos or formatting errors, and trust me, my fair share of those appear in my printed books. Since I’ve put out three ebooks, I’ve had helpful readers point out typos. I’ve always been a freakishly picky reader. Just one of my many quirks. These are normal readers contacting me.

What in the world is going on?

Over on The Passive Voice blog, PG posted an excerpt from an article about the Kindle as “the new medium.” The article by John Dvorak is interesting. The discussion going on in the comments is even more interesting, and that’s where it hit me:

I read differently on a Kindle.
Other readers are reading differently, too.

Last week I tried an experiment. I know I’m fussier when I read on a Kindle, so I used it to proofread a manuscript. Turned out it was just as effective as proofing printed copy and it was easier on my eyes and it went faster.

The Kindle offers a distraction free reading experience.

Think about it. With a printed book all the design elements work to enhance (or if poorly done, detract from) the reading experience. Even the size of the book affects how the book is read. When reading on a computer or even a tablet, the lighting, the colors, the bells and whistles, the knowledge that one is just a click away from a game or a website or a chat with friends are distractions. On the Kindle, with its grey-scale screen, uniform typography, and simple layout, nothing stands between the reader and the words.

I’d been looking at the Kindle’s simplicity as a problem. Now I wonder if it is a strength to exploit and actually enhance the reading experience. It’s something I’m working on.

In the meantime, what does this mean for writers and publishers? It means we need to get on the ball and step up our game. We don’t have fancy papers or layouts or shiny things to hide the goofs. Readers are noticing. Some are complaining–and they should. We owe readers the best product we are capable of producing. What they are buying is the total package–writing, editing, production–and the total package needs to be worth the price they pay and the time they take to read.

If you get an email from a reader who points out typos (or a reviewer complains) just wipe that pouty look off your face, say thank you and fix the problem. We can do that with ebooks. It doesn’t take long at all. If the book in question has been released by a trad publisher, writers, you need to complain. Or better yet, dig up an email address so the reader can complain directly to the person who can and should do something about it.

UPDATE: William shared a link: the People Formerly Known As The Audience. Well worth reading.

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37 thoughts on “Since When Do Readers Care About Editing?

  1. I cannot Like this post more, although I tried to. ;p And that’s not because I’m starting a freelance editing venture to subsidize my writing, but because I also see both sides of the effect of editing. You’ve expressed a lot of what I’ve been thinking. Cheers!

      • I really like your comment that as writers, if someone finds an editing gaff that we shouldn’t pout. We should just thank them, fix it, and move on!

      • Proofreading is tough. You go over and over copy and still errors slip through. Even with multiple proofreaders errors slip through. But that’s not the readers’ problem. Tough or not, we writers and publishers have to do our best. With ebooks, our best has to get better.

  2. That’s the great thing about ebooks, you can correct the mistakes, unlike a printed book which holds on to that mistake forever. Of course, if the complaining gets to be too much, tweak the story and kill off a character….lol.

  3. There is another factor at play here as well. The development of the web has conditioned people to talk back to formerly unreachable institutions. Jay Rosen calls this “The People Formerly Known as the Audience”. http://archive.pressthink.org/2006/06/27/ppl_frmr.html

    Many people will expect to be rewarded (at least psychically) for pointing out your errors. This is the correct view, in my opinion. Feedback is important for continuous improvement.

    • To quote from Homer (Simpson, that is): “I’m really glad you corrected me, Lisa. People are always really glad when they’re corrected” 🙂

      To quote Jaye: “Now I wonder if it is a strength to exploit and actually enhance the reading experience. It’s something I’m working on.”- I’ve no doubt you are, Jaye. I’ve no doubt you are.

      Anyway, I find this fascinating. I’ve always been hypersensitive to errors, but I always just figured it was because I was a writer and an English teacher. I think it’s interesting that you are linking it to the reading medium. I can see that.

      Paul D. Dail
      http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

      • I always thought it was just me, too, Paul. Usually my pickiness was an indicator of how engaged I was with the book. Now I read on the Kindle the same way I read manuscript copy. It’s an interesting phenomenon, that’s for sure.

  4. Ditto what William said. I think that has more to do with it. Publishers, editors, and writers are *accessible* now. Not true in the past. Plus, as you know, writers are talking to each other more too – it seems. Maybe I’m wrong, but that is what I’ve gleamed from online discussions. But there is that: I read on an iPhone. And I have the font set to its largest setting. That means I only get a few lines of text at a time. I see *all* the details.

  5. Personally, I don’t feel that I’m reading any differently, but the ability to enlarge type to a comfortable size certainly does make it easier to spot typos. I haven’t yet proofread my own work in my desktop Kindle app (don’t own a Kindle), but I think that’s going to be my next step.

    • I am guessing you will find there is a difference between reading on the desktop and on the actual device. It’s hard to explain, but the difference is definitely there. I see things on my Kindle that I do not see when I’m reading on the computer, even with the same layout and screen size. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

      • You’re probably right. If nothing else, the lighting would make a difference, But there may be enough difference between reading on the app and in my word processor to make it useful.

    • When I edit (which I do on the computer, not on an ereader), I’ll blow the manuscript up to about 200%. It absolutely helps me focus on the words, the spacing, the punctuation that I might not see at a smaller size.
      (Oh, and like Jenn, I’m another freelance indie editor)

  6. Meant to add that I’ll never be able to test the difference between the desktop app and the device because I have no plans to buy a Kindle. We make do with what we have.

  7. Don’t lynch me, but I do think that editing has gotten a bit sloppier in recent years in traditional publishing. My mother, who is not a writer, started complaining about it about 10 years ago. (I noticed it, too, but don’t have as long of a reading history as she does.) As has been said, maybe people are just more willing to be vocal about it, now.

    • No lynching here, Marie. Traditional publishers have downsized their editorial staffs. Plus, in the late 90s ago it became standard practice to edit off writer-provided digital files. As any writer knows, it’s just as easy to introduce errors into a digital file as it is to take them out.

      Achieving a squeaky clean piece of writing is difficult. Always has been, always will be. But it’s our job, so we have to do it.

  8. You know, it’s true. Until he got a Kindle my husband never pointed out a single typo in any book he read. Not a one. Once he got a Kindle, he began pointing out typos right and left, most associated with books released by traditional publishers.
    My deal? With my self-pubbed works I can fix them. If a reader points out a typo, I can look at the text and make a repair. It’s almost impossible to publish an error-free book – even if several eyes have proofed before publication so I’m grateful if a reader brings an error to my attention.
    The story is entirely different with my epubs. One epub is very gracious about fixing typos. One ignores me entirely when I make a request. One, which I am no longer associated with told me – “Readers don’t notice typos.”
    Excuse me? The hell they don’t!

    • Ooh, that publisher is making a mistake. When delight with the gadget wears off and the ereader becomes just another tool, readers become more demanding of quality, not less. I do hope the Big 6 publishers are paying attention. Their shoddy productions shout disrespect for the ebook format and that is disrespectful to the readers, too. When a reader pays a premium price for a second-rate product, you can be sure they notice the brand. Negative branding isn’t something anyone needs.

    • One of my favorite authors, Barry Eisler, maintains errata pages for his traditionally published books. These go beyond typos to include technical mistakes (stuff like “that silencer that John Rain used wouldn’t work with that rifle model”) and character errors (“a Marine would never say that, that’s an Army thing”). He credits the readers who spotted the error and tries to get them changed for future editions. Of course, that’s a struggle and probably one reason he’s with Thomas and Mercer now.

      This is what technically savvy readers expect. It’s the whole “wisdom of the crowd” thing. While I think that the wisdom of the crowd is more often embodied by a handful of very committed individuals, authors in all genres will benefit from engaging their fans.

  9. There’s a connection between this post and your last few posts that may not be apparent. One of the similarities between the changes in the book industry and the news business is the changing power relationships between various parties. The negative way of looking at this is to see it as a loss. Publishers losing control of pricing, book designers losing the ability to choose fonts and page designs, and readers losing the physical experience of curling up with a good book. Those losses are real, but they arise from technological changes that no one group can control and there are overall gains that far outweigh the losses. These gains and losses are shifting the balance of power in the industry. Mourning those losses may be psychologically necessary in the short-term, but trying wrestle with a raging river of technological change in the midst of the flood is foolish and self-destructive (see DoJ v. Apple, et. al.). As Machiavelli pointed out nearly 500 years ago, the prudent ruler of a city next to a river prone to flood builds dams and levees between flood seasons.

    Publishers lose control of prices and consumers gain. The sight-impaired readers gain tremendously from the same technological changes that give the typographers grief. There are fewer print books to curl up with, but I can take my entire library with me on a business trip next week. Publishers will have to changes their business practices or go out of business (I’m betting on the out of business). Ebooks open up entirely new opportunities for building books differently, which requires a new set of skills. In a myriad of ways, readers have opportunities to become part of the industry in a creative way, not just as consumers. Sure, it will be a tiny percentage of readers, but they’ll still outnumber the rest of the people in the industry. Figuring out how to make that a positive experience will take experimentation and the willingness to reconsider everything we know about “the way things are”.

    I’m afraid I’m starting to sound like an internet triumphalist (you know, “THE INTERNET CHANGES EVERYTHING!”), but the reality is that technology has altered the fabric of reality in the book industry. We’re starting to understand the changes in the economic sense, but we’re still stumbling rather blindly in understanding the social changes that are occurring.

  10. Barry Eisler’s errata page is gutsy stuff. What a great way to connect with readers and letting them know how much you value and respect their opinion.

    As for the rest, yeah, what you said. I’m a person who doesn’t particularly like gadgets. They aren’t toys to me, they’re tools, and i don’t ask that they dazzle me, just do whatever job it is I want them to do. Which is actually one of the reasons I like the Kindle so much–it’s dedicated. It’s not clunked up with a bunch of other stuff I don’t want.

    As a writer, I’m a bit unnerved by the “power” readers now have over their reading material. As a reader, I’m delighted. What is writing but thought given form to be passed on to another? What’s happening right now with ebooks and the internet is practically mental telepathy. Being aware that readers are reading more closely and connecting more deeply with the writing suggests, to me, that we might soon see the emergence of new forms and new methods of telling stories. What looks like on the surface a downside to ebooks might actually prove to be a springboard to explosions in creativity.

    In the meantime, writers still need to get better at the nuts and bolts of editing, proofreading and production.

  11. How fascinating. I had not thought of ebooks as a kind of naked reading–that is, nothing between you and the words of the story–but I can see how it easily could be.

    I’m curious if you think editing on your Kindle can completely replace using a paper copy for you? I am giving the skank eye to the idea of paying $40-50 to print off a copy of the novel for a paper edit (since I don’t have a printer). Even though I don’t have an ereader device (just use smartphone), my thinking is…if the hardware could replace paper it’s a one-time expense versus and every time expense (since even if I bought a printer I’m still using a ream of paper and probably an entire drum of ink to print 400+ pages) then it would pay for itself in 2 uses. So, in your opinion, is it really just a useful tool as an additional editing pass or can it really eliminate the mess and waste of paper?

    • Lily, I am finding the Kindle (basic model, not a Fire) very useful for proofreading. I read on it word by word, anyway, and the uniformity of type and layout make mistakes jump off the “page.” Plus, it has a highlight/note feature. If I find a mistake, I highlight it. If I have a question, I make a note. Then all I do is go to the note feature and everything pops up in order with enough text as reference to easily find the questioned text in the word processor. Then make corrections, and if I feel a need, send the fresh copy to the Kindle for a second look.

      Plus, there is the time factor. It takes only a few minutes to set up a file, a few minutes to retrieve it on the Kindle. No printing, no driving to the copy shop to have it printed. So, paper cost savings, ink savings, and in some cases car expenses. Time is money, so savings there, too. AND take the cost of the Kindle off your taxes as a business expense.

      Plus it’s portable and nobody steals your pen and the cats don’t sleep on your manuscript pages.

  12. Of course there is the question of Twitter and Blogging here as well, particularly with Indie Authors. Most Indie authors as we have all discussed here and in other posts are;
    Full time Non Writers
    Part time writers
    Part time publicists
    Part time editors
    Part time graphic artist
    Part time sales person
    etc, etc

    and they engage with their readers and through that engagement a type of familiarity is engendered and the reader through the medium of blog and tweet feels a closeness to the indie author that they would never have felt for the traditionally published author, and so, I think find it easier to point out errors in something they have read.

    Most who then communicate errors to the author, aren’t doing it, to begin with, out of a sense of complaint, but rather from a sense of engagement and friendliness that the authors are asking for through their tweets and blogs. But as you say, Jaye, on many occasions, some e-books are littered with mistakes and errors, that sometimes it just becomes a chore.

    Many are correct also when stating that ‘published’ books from ‘established’ authors can also contain errors and not just books. I noticed a tweet with an accompanying blog post yesterday with a photograph of a School District in the USA who had issued a certificate to students that contained a spelling error that no one in the school system picked up on, until after the certificates started to be issued, so, shit happens…..

    It is also true that before the e-reader, and coming across a spelling or grammatical error in a ‘book’, few of us would be moved to complain, too much trouble, nothing would be done about it anyway – and what could be done – would the publisher and the author pay for a complete recall, would we enter our local book store and find a notice stating that so and so’s book recently published had a spelling error,or two and that you should return the book to the book store that you purchased it from for a full refund or replacement book, once the errors had been corrected – like they do for auto safety recalls, I doubt it!

    But e-books are easier, or I imagine that they are easier to fix. It is also true that there is something about the words in an e-book, they do seem to stand out more and therefore errors do seem more easily identifiable to the reader. Yes, you can change the font size (thank goodness) to larger or smaller to suit your eyes, or is it just that, as much as we all complain about the laziness of our education systems, wherever we are (it seems) in the world, that the reader is becoming more erudite and therefore more critical of sloppiness and you the authors have made it more easy for us to complain?

    Now, what the hell was this post about anyway, had enough, got a book to read and so far I have only noticed seven spelling/grammatical errors that I shall send to the author …….

    • Good points all, Tom. So it’s not just the Kindle, but the digital reading experience as a whole. It really is about HOW we read and not just what or on what device. Perhaps, the fluidity of the medium allows for more ownership, too, or at least a sense of it. Or maybe readers are waking up to the reality of their role in the writer/reader partnership, and here is an opportunity to have more say in the process. Interesting.

      I suspect every writer has a “lofty” place, a throne in the clouds that says ARTIST written in gold across the back. From the high place the artist wants no interference, no outside influence, no natter or noise or anyone telling her what to do or how to do it. Trouble is, it’s a lonely place and isolated, and a lot of time is spent twiddling one’s thumbs and wondering if anyone is going to drop in, bringing cookies. I wonder if we create our lofty places because they are necessary or because of the mystique? If the latter, perhaps it is time to let it go.

      • In my opinion, mystique. I don’t have a place like that. I don’t feel like an artist. I have been too self-conscious of my thought process when it comes to creating stories and cultivating ideas, for too long–almost since I started doing it in junior high–to feel some mysterious creative force at play. In fact I feel really uncreative most of the time, just someone who has spent a lot of time practicing writing and thinking through ideas to see if they would make a good story. I feel like a con when anyone tells me I’m “so creative” because…I don’t feel like that. I just feel like I put the work in to LOOK like it.

        But, as all writing discussions inevitably come with: the caveat is OF COURSE THIS IS JUST ME. And maybe like Billy Joel I’m just crazy 🙂

  13. I’m intrigued by the idea of doing my final revision on the Kindle. Not only can I see your point about the absolute clarity that comes with the simplicity, but I’ll also be able to note any hiccups in formatting at the same time. Thank you for the suggestion, Jaye!

    • Hi, Aniko. It really is turning out to be an asset in editing. I think I should do a tips and tricks post and get people to share what they’ve learned.

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