Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Edits Ahoy! Are You Onboard?

By Kimberly Hitchens (Hitch), founder of Booknook.biz
For those of you who've missed the latest, Amazon initially yanked and wirelessly replaced, and then removed entirely from sale, a book (Neal Stephenson's Reamde) after a reader posted a scathing, virulent review of the errors she found in the book. Her review, calling for a 75% price refund, said in part: 
“This level of carelessness is inexcusable on economic grounds. I’d expect to find format errors and mangled content in a pirated ebook, not in a $17 Kindle edition. When I purchase an ebook at a price point so close to the print version, the publisher rakes in far more profit than from a print title. To then turn around and offer shoddy, incomplete text in that pricey Kindle title shows an arrogant disregard for economics, the reader, and the distribution channel.”
Click here to read the entire review, which is worth reading, in my opinion. The Awl reports that Amazon had, as of Thursday morning, gone so far as to remove the title, which was #36 in books overall, #6 in SciFi on Kindle and #4 in print/audio. Clearly, a significant financial decision by HarperCollins.
Now, normally, I'd just report this as an odd bit of news, and not dwell on it; but two other things have happened this month that are related to this. Which makes me think that this shan't be an isolated incident, and we in the biz need to pay closer attention to what we write, publish and produce. The two events are:
  • First, one of our top authors received a letter from Amazon, informing him/her that "During a quality assurance review of your title, we have found the following issue(s): Typo/formatting issues exist that may have been caused by an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) problem. An example is mentioned below:
    "Don't forger that" should be ""Don't forget that"
    Whereupon Amazon then advised him or her to: "Please look for the same kind of errors throughout and make the necessary corrections to the title before republishing it." (Italic emphasis added). The interesting part is that this book wasn’t scanned, nor OCR’d; and it was professionally edited more than once. Amazon only provided the one instance of an “error.”
  • Another client, having crafted some rather unique content, had deliberately written scenes that were incoherent, to represent a protagonist in a comatose state. Amazon flatly yanked the title after customer complaints about the unreadability of the text.
What this tells me is that Amazon, having purged innumerable over-represented PD (Public Domain) titles, and every PLR (so-called, "Private Label Rights") book they could find, have decided that they are going to tackle the issue that everyone's been talking about: 
Which means one thing: Real Editing. Not Word's built-in spellchecker; not your Mom; real editors with real experience. Here at Booknook, we like the Twin Lizzies; Elisabeth Hallett and Elizabeth Lyon. Elisabeth Hallett, (Email here) specializes in line editing, as well as proofing and copyediting; Elizabeth Lyon (website here) is a freelance editor with more than 60 books under her belt, and can assist you with revisions and developmental editing, in addition to line editing services.
I know that this has been a long (and NOT funny!) first column for me (originally appearing on September 30th, 2011, in our Booknook.biz newsletter), but the import of these events should not be overlooked. Lastly: learn to use Track Changes (if you use Word), or its equivalent in WordPerfect or Open Office. I am really surprised at how many authors don't know how to use it, or mistake tracked changes for Word's built-in spellchecker, but it's a simple tool, and one that can help you work competently with an Editor. A good editor can work faster in track changes than without it; if you know how to use it, it will save you money, not only in editing hours and in the number of revisions you'll end up paying for, post-production, in ebooks that you create, but also in keeping your book from being nuked by Amazon and badly reviewed, which will cost you sales.


  1. The idea that Amazon is sending letters to authors over one error is a little intimidating. Few manuscripts make it to publication in perfect condition. Still, it's good that Amazon is paying attention to quality. It makes the fiction market more realistic.

    As information, Hitch runs an e-book production service and does excellent work. I also recommend our in-house editor Jodie Renner.

  2. I had a book removed because it had "Chapter Forty-Two" listed twice. It was an easy fix and only lost a day or two of sales, but they do check these things. Luckily I control my own content--I don't know know what kind of nightmare it would be to go through multiple handlers for a minor fix.

    The truly alarming thing is I've seen abuse of this by customers, or a single customer, who clearly are just trying to get a refund--some of the "errors" are actually editorial and stylistic choices in language by the author. Should one customer have the power to force the rewrite of a book? This goes beyond simple grammar errors and goes to moral, philosophical, and ideologic differences. Supporse you didn't like Rick Perry and wanted his book removed? One email might do it. Unfortunately or not, the customer is always right.

  3. This has come up before, on the Kindle Boards. I remain concerned that we're going to see increased amounts of this -- and I'm also quite concerned about the movement to have Kindle books formatted a certain way, and that it won't be enough for a direct-to-reader author to merely upload a Word file in .pdf format any longer.

    Interestingly, a discussion of this new (what I hope isn't a) trend led to the Pink Snowbunnies e-book anthology. The anthology has nothing to do with Big Brother Amazon, however. It's just fun.

    And,LJ, I've also returned to taking on editing, as well. Funny how we writers tend to gravitate toward helping our peers improve, isn't it?

  4. I understand Amazon's desire to provide a certain "quality" of product but some of these examples go a bit overboard. I have seen countless "errors" in NYT best sellers and I wonder if Amazon would send such a letter to one of those blockbuster authors with millions of books sold. We should all be concerned with content but authors should also be given the freedom to choose their own style. That's how a free market is supposed to work.

  5. Excellent article, Hitch. You bring up some very good points. I'm all for striving for high quality in published books, whether on paper or digital, but I hope Amazon isn't getting carried away here, and that common sense will prevail! Deleting a book that shows a different level of language to represent thoughts in a comatose state is just plain ridiculous. However, offering a refund if there's actual content missing makes more sense. And I'm in favor of a wrist-slap of some kind for a book that receives a lot of complaints for spelling and grammatical errors, as most of those should really have been cleared up by the publishing stage, whether self-publishing or not, just to keep standards high for the rest of the conscientious writers.

    And yes, I use Track Changes and the comments in the margin in my freelance editing (100% on-screen and online) of novels, and it's not a big learning curve for the writer to figure it out, and is absolutely necessary these days for working with an editor. And it makes the editing and revisions process so much easier!

    P.S. Welcome to CFC, Hitch!

  6. With the glut of self-published novels reaching epic proportion, I understand the heat Amazon is feeling to create some sort of quality control. After all, would they allow a defective toaster to continue being sold there? I also understand that there's no way for humans to examine every book that crosses their threshold. Having said that, if they're going to employ this Optical Character Recognition as a tool, they should probably refine it to where they can avoid making decisions based on inaccurate data. If that's not possible, then they should do the same as they normally would with any other defective item: Use customer complaints as their gauge.

  7. I do think this is going to extreme to threaten to pull a book because a period was missing. This is not the same quality control issue that involves safety. Although I did like your comparison, Andrew. LOL

    And I can see using the OCR tool creating a lot of problems for writers who write in fragments or intentionally do something very different for effect. For example, how does the OCR know that a question mark was purposely left off because the speaker didn't mean it as a question even thought it is written as one.

    If Amazon really wants to address the problem of readers complaining, why don't they simply put a disclaimer up on the site that says that the books that come to them may contain a few typos as nobody is perfect. Would save a lot of time and headaches for them and for authors.

  8. Disclaimer: I'm a wanna-be published writer who believes (perhaps with a certain amount of naiveté) that I can produce a quality reading experience when my time comes—which includes formatting and editing). I have not gone through the process.

    However, I am raising the flag in favor of REAL EDITING.

    The letter pointing out the "forger/forget" issue would be one most welcome to me.

    The book that was removed? Maybe the author should have suggested the incoherent state rather than writing "scenes" that were incoherent. I'm just suggestin'.

    Readers deserve a quality book in front of them, regardless of how it got there. And right now? I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than many of our traditionally published counterparts.

    As long as Amazon doesn't start charging to catch these errors, I'm a reader/wanna-be author who says,

  9. Oh, and Hitch . . . love having you here!

  10. Absolutely critical post, Hitch! Thanks for reminding ALL of us!

  11. Hi, Peg:

    And it's great, although a bit scary, to be here. I actually concur about the incoherent scene, and I tried, unsuccessfully, to discuss it with the author pre-production, but he didn't want to hear it. The other? One word? Not so much.

    I concur about "real" editing; but I wish, for the sake of my clients and their pocketbooks, that it would be done before we at Booknook.biz get it, which is why I wrote the post in the first place. I live for the day when we get books in for production that don't get copyedited in the epub (review) stage! Thanks for your note.

    And thanks to all of you for the warm welcome, and particularly LJ, who held my hand through my opening-night jitters, and even let me use my way-cool new avatar designed for me by Jenn St-Onge.

    Oh! And LJ: I'm sure Ms. Renner does a great job, but somehow, "Twin Lizzies + Jodie" just doesn't have the same ring to it... {evil grin}.

  12. It's long past due for self-publishers to have to commit to clean text. "Nobody is perfect" is an excuse for shoddy text. Good for Amazon - especially since they are joined at the hip with BookSurge who is one of the worst offenders.

  13. Hitch,

    I know I would be in esteemed company among your two Lizzies. I meant to mention that I have two of Elizabeth Lyon's books, both of which I've recommended to my fiction writing clients.

    But please check out my website if you have a minute sometime, in case you're looking for a freelance editor to refer some of your author clients to. It's www.JodieRennerEditing.com.

    And thanks, LJ!

  14. This is an amazing and shocking post. I've written a blog about how publishers have intentionally put out poorly edited and formatted ebooks to create the impression that ebooks are inferior, but now that Amazon is stepping in to legislate, it may just create more problems. Yes, books should be edited by a professional (mine is: http://www.strangelandediting.com),but if they start pulling books because of a few small errors a lot of "innocent" books may be penalized. We've all read stories that are intentionally written to be grammatically incorrect.

  15. So glad to have you with us, Hitch. I was delighted with the work you did formatting my books.

    I'm fascinated/pleased that Amazon is getting into quality control. It can only help all of us.

    From the examples you gave it does not appear that Amazon is confining its scrutiny to self-published work. Amazon may find that more "traditional" publishers have errors than self-publishers.

  16. This is a very intriguing post. I'm not surprised Amazon is doing this. I'm a freelance editor, and I urge my clients--especially the first-time self-publishers--not to hurry the e-publishing process or to skip steps. I've seen too many authors' reputations get damaged with reviews that note errors in e-books. Now it seems the Amazon Quality Police may get invovled. It's just not worth the risk.


  17. I would like to point out that the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology mentioned in the quoted email from Amazon is not used by them in vetting ebooks, but is used when scanning a printed book in order to republish it in digital format.
    In other words, the OCR technology itself creates these mistakes, it does not find them.

  18. I'm nervous about Amazon's level of control, although I suppose they are serving in a way as publisher, and clearly those kinds of errors have no place in a finished book.

    The comatose patient, though--that seems to stray into artistic meddling and even censorship.

    I think this is a great post--and am very glad to see you here!

  19. I can not think of a single book by any one author that I have not found 1 or more editorial mistakes. That include NYT best sellers as well as indie published or self published.

    Harsh standards perhaps. But I Use Gateway Editorial Services for an editor. I even use him Prior to posting on my blog. you can email me if you are interested in any further information. (and no the editor is not me)

  20. Peg..in reference to your wanna be author comment....I've seen books in both print and ebook format from HUGE pub companies that have spelling errors, punctuation errors and grammatical errors. These were not self-published writers--and this is from someone who used to review around 300 books a year.

    I would NEVER ask for my money back based on that. We are human. Humans do make errors. I still may or may not have enjoyed the book. But my reviews and thoughts are based on the content...not the typing.

  21. Kharisma,I also usually find at least a few typos or other small errors in most bestsellers I read, and agree that we are all human, and that humans - even editors - can get so caught up in a riveting story that they miss small typos.

    I wouldn't ask for a refund for a few small typos, but as a fiction editor myself, I can't enjoy a book that is full of errors -- I find them annoying, and it definitely takes away from my enjoyment of the story and characters.

    Careless writing distracts me and takes me out of the story world, to the point where I'll reject the book in frustration. So in those cases, the lack of a decent editing job definitely detracts from what could have been a good story -- and will also reduce sales, of course. And, if it's an e-book, an unpolished, sloppy manuscript generates all kinds of bad reviews on Amazon and other sites, which can seriously harm the author's reputation. Just not worth it.

  22. Very good post, Hitch. I'm a retired journalist who did a stint or two on the copy desk and I can say that even using the AP stylebook, editors differ in what should or should not go into copy. Some are strict about words like "gonna" in dialogue, subbing "going to" despite the speaker's dialect. That said, every writer and every editor who writes needs an editor. You can't find all the mistakes in your copy. They don't jump out like those in another writer's copy.
    Ask Hitch, she's seen it all.
    Gerrie Ferris Finger

  23. Donald Tunnicliff RiceOctober 6, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    Hitch wrote, "Which makes me think that this shan't be an isolated incident, and we in the biz need to pay closer attention to what we write, publish and produce." I've always believed that "will" is the proper form to use for the simple future in the third person -- unless intention or determination is being expressed, which obviously isn't true in this case; however, her use of "shan't" does emphasize the importance of what she has written in the last half of the sentence: " . . . we in the biz need to pay closer attention to what we write, publish and produce.”

  24. This is a really interesting post. I emailed my work-in-progress novel to my kindle so I could look through it while travelling. I was shocked to find that there were a huge number of glitches - typos, repeated words, strange mis-spellings. I had turned off the 'review changes' and 'mark up' before sending the file.

    Strangely, none of these errors show up on my computer screen or when printed out. But interestingly, some were 'remnants' of earlier versions of sentences, long since deleted.

    I'm not sure what the reason is - maybe some kind of kindle/doc glitch?

  25. Kate, it could be that you mailed a "Final view" version of your manuscript that was still in Track Changes markup mode, and when it arrived, it had switched to "Final: Show Markup" view.

    Open up your doc in MS Word and click on "Save As", then click on "Accept All Changes", then save this new version as your "Final." It should be a clean, black copy with all your changes accepted, and will not change back to a former version.

  26. Thanks! I'll try that.


  27. Someone commented that we need to make sure we turn out a quality product, but I believe everyone reading this blog already tries to do that.

    You can have a manuscript professionally edited and read by a dozen people and errors will still crop up. It's unavoidable and Amazon is foolish to use such stringent criteria.

    I would also hate to see Amazon use this to censor offensive material because it contains certain words.

  28. It's worth clarifying that the complaints about the Reamde version that Amazon apparently pulled apply to the KINDLE version, not the print version. I just received my pre-ordered hard copy and was alarmed!

  29. Dennis Tunnicliff Rice wrote:

    "I've always believed that "will" is the proper form to use for the simple future in the third person -- unless intention or determination is being expressed, which obviously isn't true in this case; however, her use of "shan't" does emphasize the importance of what she has written in the last half of the sentence: " . . . we in the biz need to pay closer attention to what we write, publish and produce.”

    Fortuitously, Dennis, I don't have any pretense to being an author myself, merely a smokin' ebook producer. I see my job as keeping authors apprised of latest events, and, when requested, assisting them in finding other professional assistance, e.g., cover designers, editors, etc. I shouldn't be presumptuous enough to run around and correct their grammar. ;-) Personally, I thought "shan't" was predictive, as in "shall not," but clearly, you read it differently. I would hate to think that those unreliable miscreants at the OED have misled me again!

    A good deal of what comes across my desk is--frankly--execrable. I have, with trepidation, suggested editing for a prospective client when I felt the material was in dire need. Some wish they had professional editing, but cannot afford it; some are resistant for creative reasons (the aforementioned coma patient author); some are deeply offended. I've learned that my opinions are best kept to myself, in the individual instance; generic discussions are far more useful, as in this blog post.

  30. I go through an insane and extended process to make my books error free - or as close as possible. I'm all for Amazon maintaining a higher quality standard. Poorly edited books reflect negatively on their business as well as the author. However, I am concerned by the decision to pull books based on style or supposed grammatical errors. As a self-published author, I do not have a lot of retail options open to me. I would hate to write while constantly wondering if my book was
    "gonna" be pulled because Amazon didn't approve of my choice of words.

  31. I can't help thinking everyone is overreacting and that common sense will prevail at Amazon - at least I hope so! I don't think readers or authors will stand for a "Big Brother" heavy-handed kind of censuring process from Amazon.

    Hopefully a common-sense approach will result in just those generally sloppy, careless, thrown-together books being bumped off or asked to clean up, which wouldn't be a bad thing.

    But then again, what about books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and has weird sentences and randomly leaves out apostrophes in words like "didnt" and "cant". That can be annoying for a copy editor like me, who's trained to find all those little errors, but if you can look past that, I'm sure it's a wonderful story! (I still have to read it, as the grammar put me off the first time I picked it up.)

  32. I'm glad Amazon is cracking down. I only hope THEIR "editors" are good!

    I'm leery now, having been "burned," to purchase a self-published book without first reading a substantial sample, especially if it's by an author I haven't read.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror, A Memoir of Shattered Secrets

  33. I hope their filters are smart enough to recognise British spelling ...

  34. Yes-I agree with all the above. There were some interesting comments.

    Simon, maybe you should check that point. Would it be too much to change it into American?

    It looks like I have some home-work then, with Track-changes.

    Plenty of Editors here. So I shall look forward to approaching some of you- hopefully soon.

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