Updated: Aug 4, 2020
Last night I came across an article in the Guardian, which our very own Hobeck author Robert Daws had posted on Twitter. It is an article about errors. The article claims that many of the works of Ernest Hemmingway were littered with errors when they were first published. Should we be shocked? Yes. Does this reflect on the quality of his work? No.
Times have changed since the 1930s. Editors are much more meticulous about errors now than they used to be. In addition, they have technology on their side. They are aided by spelling and grammar checks and the joy that is 'auto-correct'. Ernest Hemmingway's editors didn't have that as part of their weaponry against typos.
Publishers and editors are now more than ever obsessed with errors. We are obsessed with words. We are obsessed with grammar. We are obsessed with semi-colons. We love em rules. We love en rules. Brackets? Adore them.
Despite being obsessed, and despite having lots of technology to help us, errors still get through. Most published books will have been read by the author (obviously), the publisher (yes, we do read the books we publish), a structural or development editor, a copyeditor and at least one proofreader. In addition, the book might also have been read by bloggers, reviewers, beta-readers, alpha-readers, lambda readers, the author's mum, the author's spouse, the author's best friend, and the author's neighbour's best friend's dog's uncle and that is before the book is released to the hungry public. Yet, believe it or not, errors still get through. Sometimes this might be only a missing full stop (not such a biggie maybe). Other times it could be a complete howler such as the author's name spelt incorrectly (sounds bonkers but it can happen).
I could argue and act defensively on the part of the publishers and editors of the world and say that nothing is ever perfect and that the odd error adds charm to a book. If I am honest, I believe it does. I'm not talking about factual errors, have you read the latest Liza Jewell? I’m talking about the odd stumbling grammatical mishap. There is something charming about a first imprint with a ‘can you spot it?’-type error. When such happens, publishers will keep everything crossed, pray to the god of lazy readers, and hope the dreaded letter from Mrs S. Higglebottom from Staines does not arrive.
The letter will arrive, I assure you. It always does. Someone will spot that one error. This is no bad thing though. At least it gives editorial assistants a role and a reason to engage with the public: 'Thank you for your detailed letter pointing out that there was a comma missing from Chapter 3, page 34, line 4, 6th word along. We will endeavour to correct this at our earliest convenience.' When I started in publishing, I wrote a few such letters (including one to Patrick Leigh Farmer). It is those little, seemingly unimportant, jobs that actually make a difference: engaging with the public, realising that there are readers out there and that they do care, all makes the job of book making worthwhile.
Errors happen. We try very hard to avoid them. We dread them. We scream if we see them. But we editors and publishers are humans, albeit pedantic ones, not machines so errors do, inevitably, get through. My first boss at OUP was a huge inspiration to me. She was an editor extraordinaire. She had more dignity than anyone I have ever met. She was colourful yet she had grace. She was, and still is albeit in retirement, a legend. She taught me many, many things about the book business. But one of the most important things she taught me was to recognise and acknowledge my humanity and never, ever deny that errors happen. More important than having the perfect publication, she told me, is the way you conduct yourself as an editor. You need to be a person, a human and you need to care very deeply. Show that you care (and you do care) then errors will be forgiven.
In conclusion, I have a 'did you know'. Did you know that full stops in printed books are not in fact round? They aren't actually full stops. They are full blobs. They can be full squares. They are things of beauty, viewed up close.