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On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take?

April 11th, 2011 by · 11 Comments · opinion

In past articles, I have spoken of the need for indie authors to use professional editors (see, e.g., On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Alas, there is always an excuse for not using them. A little more than a year ago, in On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! I talked about the problems that readers often face when confronted with an unedited or nonprofessionally edited book. This topic has been repeatedly discussed in numerous blogs and on numerous forums — almost discussed to death.

Yet, here we go again.

A few days ago, I was looking at what new-release ebooks were available at Smashwords. I found a couple of doozies. Try this one, first: So Your Afraid of Dieing by LaVall McIvor, for which the author wants $4.99, and which the author describes as follows:

Everyone dies, what happens after we die. Is that the end of who and what we are? I have had two NDE’s and I can tell you there is more to ‘us’ than just the physical life we live on this world. I only lay out my experiences, what you believe to be true concerning an afterlife is up to you to decide.

Setting aside the “your” problem, does “dieing” mean dying as in death or dyeing as in coloring? OK, I get the gist and realize death is meant, but why should I have to guess or assume?

So I checked the sample to see if the title was an anomaly. Here is the first paragraph of the book:

Probably the single most commonality of all of us, is knowing that someday in the future this physical life will end. But what happens when we die, are we just consumed by the elements, is that the end of it? If you are a religious person, you have been ‘taught’ that if you live a good life doing no evil, you (your soul) will be rewarded with eternal life in ‘Heaven’. If you are an atheist, you may believe there is no ‘afterlife’, that when your body dies, that is the end of who and what you are. I was of the latter persuasion until I had two NDE’s (Near Death Experiences).

Then, as I was reeling from the title, the author’s description of the book, and the first paragraph, I came across A Crown of Thorns by Andrew Cook, for which the author wants $2. Cook describes his book as follows:

When the Spencer’s arrive at Millbridge, Virginia meets Rector Byrnes, beginning an emotionally charged and passionate relationship. Rev Byrnes is in a vulnerable position struggling with his wife’s inner demons, and his own loss of faith, and with no one to confide. Virginia is consumed with hatred towards God but they find comfort in each other’s weakness with dramatic consequences.

Tell me: Is the location Millbridge, Virginia or is it Virginia who arrives at Millbridge? No matter because within the first few paragraphs of the book, we find this:

The reason I am writing this is because I want to remember all my thoughts this morning, for it is remarkable to me that it should be this morning that I was again allowing myself the shameful thoughts of death, my own death in fact, while appreciating at the same time the pleasure and beauty of life. The green rolling hills that overlooked the cemetery and continued for miles, the bright blue sky as though painted that morning by an artist, devoid of cloud, the flowers dancing in the breeze celebrating the arrival of spring. It was a day to celebrate life, not to contemplate death. But perhaps I was not considering death in the physical sense. There are many types of death. This morning I once again felt as though my soul had died and I had paled once again into insignificance. If one died emotionally, what would be left? Without love people wither like flowers starved of water.

I am afraid to venture further into either book.

Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published? Would you willingly pay $4.99 or $2 for either ebook?

What these two ebooks vividly demonstrate is that the combination of the Internet Age and easy self-publishing — without any gatekeeping (i.e., vetting of the manuscript, which is the role agents and traditional publishers have played) — has turned everyone who wants to be an author into a published author. Yet too many of these wanna-to-be-published authors are unwilling to accept the responsibilities that accompany publishing, particularly the hiring of a professional editor.

Sadly, I expect both of these authors to sell copies of their ebooks. Even more sadly, I expect that those who buy their ebooks won’t (and don’t) recognize the grammar and spelling problems that are in the ebooks, nor that the ebooks have not been edited — professionally or otherwise — by someone with at least minimal competency.

Companies like Smashwords have done a great favor to both readers and wanna-be authors. They make distribution to the normal book-buying channels possible. Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

I realize that we are early in the evolution of ebooks, but the time to address basic issues is now, not later when the problems become so entrenched that they are insurmountable. Although the distributors need to share in the blame for permitting this drivel to see daylight, those of us who are professional editors also have a responsibility to reach out and educate authors. In this endeavor, we are failing as evidenced by these two ebooks and by the overall decrease in grammar and spelling skills in younger generations (see The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills).

Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process).

reposted with permission from An American Editor

image by Smeerch

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Common Sense

    I have to strongly agree. Just because you’re self-published, doesn’t mean you don’t have to edit your book, or at least proof-read it.

    I’ve read a number of books that people raved about, only to find numerous glaring errors and typos, it really distracts from the story.

    I’ve gotten to where I won’t get a book if it has no reviews and I always read through the reviews to check for mention of formatting and editing errors.

    There are a couple of authors I love anyway, even though the formatting, usually bad OCR conversions, is atrocious. But most aren’t good enough to get away with it. If I were paying more than a buck or two, I would feel cheated.

  • Moriah Jovan

    Yet, at the same time, they fail both readers and wanna-be authors because they do no vetting of manuscripts at all. These distribution platforms do us no service when they reinforce illiteracy, which is the effect of making such drivel widely available.

    Their raison d’etre is to open up the playing field, not to scout the players. They do NO disservice to readers OR authors. They have no obligation to either except to provide the service they’re touting, which they do.

    My whole philosophy is this: So what?

    So what if they’re badly edited? So what if people buy them anyway? So what if they doan know no bettah?

    It is not a moral failing to put a substandard product out on the market using tools that are there for that purpose. It only takes a reader a second to decide whether to pass on or not. It’s the same thing one does in a bookstore.

    So. What.

    • Rich Adin

      The so what, in my view, is that it becomes acceptable. When it becomes acceptable, communication will become gobbledygook. I would be mighty scared if the instructions I received from a physician were as intelligible as these writings.

      I also think it is a reflection on how well our society is doing as a whole. Is this the skill level you want your children to have as adults?

      • Moriah Jovan

        I also think it is a reflection on how well our society is doing as a whole. Is this the skill level you want your children to have as adults?

        If you’re speaking specifically of MY children, that won’t happen. And, as a matter of pragmatism, MY children will have a competitive advantage over all the other people out there.

        That said:

        a) The unwashed masses are a lot smarter than you’re giving them credit for, and

        b) The bourgeois will sift through it for themselves and find what they want, and

        c) Your trash is another hoi polloi’s treasure.

        Editing is not an obligatory exercise for the practice of artistic expression.

        Though I do believe that being edited is the first rule of self-publishing, I will defend to the death any author’s right to hang his bare arse out in public.

  • Michael Allen

    My first book was published in 1963, and I have run two publishing companies and done endless editing and proofreading. So I understand the feelings of those who are deeply offended by the errors in much recently published digital work.

    However, it seems to me that it must always be borne in mind that the purpose of fiction is to create emotion in the reader. And there have always been a certain number of readers (at least since the introduction of compulsory education) who do not themselves have any secure grasp of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and are therefore not too fussed when authors also lack these skills, so long as they can follow the story.

    We sophisticates may play the game of Ain’t It Awful, but in the meantime some writers are happily achieving their ambition of being published, and they are managing to find readers who think their work is wonderful, for all its faults.

    Is that really such a terrible thing?

    If you want an example of another author who has (from a pedant’s point of view) limited writing skills, but who can craft stories which generate repeat sales, try Vianka van Bokkem. She sold over 2,500 copies in December last year alone.

    • Rich Adin

      “However, it seems to me that it must always be borne in mind that the purpose of fiction is to create emotion in the reader. And there have always been a certain number of readers (at least since the introduction of compulsory education) who do not themselves have any secure grasp of spelling, grammar and punctuation, and are therefore not too fussed when authors also lack these skills, so long as they can follow the story.”

      What you say is true but I think it misses the point, or at least my point (which means I am inarticulate in making my point). The reason for grammar rules — aside from the political powerplays that seem to always accompany rulemaking — is to aid reader in understanding writer. We subconsciously apply grammar rules, at least to the extent of our familiarity with them, to everything we read. Grammar rules are less important with speech because speech also gives visual cues, but even then we are applying social rules we have learned.

      If the writing is so befuddled that our grammar rules cannot clarify the meaning, then we either don’t understand at all and the writer’s message, which may be an earth-shattering message (imagine if we had been unable to understand, for example, 2000 years later, Jesus’ messages because his grammar was confused), simply passes us by, or we apply our understanding and learn the wrong message (Jesus’ message was not love thy neighbor but hate thy neighbor — what a different world such a mixup would have caused).

      Grammar is the glue that binds social discourse together because it ensures that we understand the message correctly. A misunderstood message could be the difference between weapons of mass destruction and no weapons of mass destruction.

      Consequently, I think it is not a matter of sophisticates vs. nonsophisticates; rather it is a matter of acceptable vs. unacceptable. That a writer with few, if any, grammar skills can craft stories that sell should not be the yardstick against which we measure. The yardstick should be correct communication vs. miscommunication.

  • Laura

    It appears that you’ve been looking at these unedited Smashword ebooks too long. Let me fix the stray apostrophe that got into your post:

    “Tell me, what does it take to convince authors that there is a reason why professional editors exist and why they are hired to go over a manuscript before it is published?”

    • Rich Adin

      Thank you, Laura. I saw the error after publishing the article and fixed it. I have no control over fixing errors that appear on blogs other than my own.

      I do appreciate that you and several others noticed the error and brought it to my attention. However, my argument is not one of perfection. That is, I recognize that no matter how many people read a book for errors, there will always be errors to find. It is the walking down the road toward perfection that matters and I think there is a significant difference between my missed apostrophe, and the numerous errors in the books noted in the article.

      I have never claimed, nor would I claim, that professional editors do not need professional editors for their own writings. My experience has been that one can find several errors in any book, no matter how many editors edited it. The issues are the types of errors found and their number.

      • Lorraine

        When I mentioned errors and formatting, I mean egregious errors and formatting issues, not the occasional misplaced or forgotten word.

        For example, one book that I read had 75% of the book in italics. Another had every OCR error you can think of on every occurrence of the words as well as line break errors.

        These are things that one pass through for proofreading would have caught.

        I should also emphasize that the indie author or publisher should be responsible for editing and proofreading, NOT the retailer. Amazon doesn’t provide that service for physical books so they shouldn’t provide that service for ebooks either.

  • Richard Denning

    Hi there.
    I entirely agree that Self Published authors NEED editors. I first self published my own titles about 18 months ago and to be frank they were not professionally edited. Fortunately a published author read one of my books and gave me an honest appraisal. “This is pretty good actually BUT you need an editor.” Now, I could have gone on in a sulk but I sat back and thought about it and realised she was right. The end result is that her editor is now mine, I am still self publishing BUT now I am getting decent reviews.

    Actually editing is NOT about only commas and full stops and spelling errors. It is far more than that. A good editor can help pick up on where authors commit crimes with point of view, authors voice and other aspects of the skill of writing.

  • curiosity killed the..

    I can’t believe i missed this article.
    I’ll admit right now my grammar punctuation and possibly word placements are almost never grammatically correct but i enjoy expressing my opinions on things to the point that i have accepted to just write it out and be happy people are replying back. I’ve had several book ideas through the years but even i know i would never consider sending my internet accepted writing skills out into a physical book form without professional help on the editing.
    As long at the point i am trying to get across to the readers is the same if not better with the help of an editors experience i don’t mind words snipped here and there, sentences asked to be rewritten to better make a point etc.
    Its a small price to pay for the security that what i send out into the world for anyone to pick up at anytime in the future wont be scoffing at its errors more than praising the story for its plot.
    My 2 cents.

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