Mr Stink and the Curse of Editing…
Being able to buy a new book without leaving my son’s bedroom is one way in which our lives have changed over the twelve months. That’s not the only change, though. In the past year my career has changed; now I write books, do freelance editing and typesetting, and run a publishing business. I do all of the above with print books, but my main revenue comes from eBooks. I find I can’t look at an eBook any longer without a professional assessment.
I have become afflicted by the Curse of Editing.
So when it came to my turn to read a chapter of this new book, Mr. Stink, here’s what I found.
The first thing very apparent was that the Kindle edition at £4.99 sells for more than the paperback at £4.30. It’s not an outrageous price, but for the eBook to cost more is simply disgraceful. HarperCollins will make a far higher margin out of the eBook than the print book, at least twice as much in my estimation. And don’t let anyone fob you off with the excuse that eBooks are subject to VAT. They are, but Amazon Europe is domiciled in Luxemburg, not the UK, and I can tell you that the VAT on the £4.99 book is only 15 pence. So, shame on you, HarperCollins, for not giving your eBook customers a fair deal.
The second thing I noticed was that the Kindle book had been produced nicely. Result! It kept the illustrations from the print book (from Quentin Blake, no less!), it didn’t have spurious hyphens and broken-up words. It even had ersatz drop caps and chapter navigation. It might sound strange, but this is the first time I’ve bought a book from a major publisher where they’ve actually bothered to format the book to the same kind of standard I can produce for my own books. It’s a strange, and I’m sure, temporary phenomenon, but the standard of eBooks from major publishers is often mediocre and sometimes woeful, far worse than most self-publishers, despite their much higher prices. It’s just like when CDs first became popular and record labels rushed to reissue their back catalogue onto CD, often using vinyl copies as their source, rather than going back to the original master tapes.
With major book publishers, problems often stem from scanning in paper books and leaving in all the justification (which makes no sense at all for eBooks, leading to strange hyphens and broken words) or converting from PDFs or electronic files laid out for printing paper books (which can have the same problems, especially if there is any fiddling with hard- or optional-hyphens, which never translate well to Kindles).
You can see this for yourself if you ever buy a Kindle edition of a newspaper. I do this myself all the time; it’s a great idea. But you will see some broken words and spurious hyphens. That’s because the newspapers take their electronic files set up for the paper edition and convert automatically to Kindle format, same as the worst book publishers. Now, I don’t mind that with newspapers because time is precious with a daily paper. I do mind with book publishers. There’s no excuse. All they need to do is pay (*ahem*) someone like me to do a proper formatting job. Not that I’m biased, you understand.
The third thing I noticed — and with a sinking feeling, because I realised I’m never going to lose this curse — were all the grammatical errors in Mr. Stink. On the first couple of pages, I spotted a ‘was’ that should have been a ‘were’ (subjunctive mood) and incorrect capitalization of ‘mother’. As I often tell authors whom I’m editing: if you aren’t sure how to capitalize a word, at least be consistent. Not only was Walliams inconsistent in his capitalization but he was inconsistent on the same page, which is the kind of thing readers sometimes spot. Mr Walliams writes fabulous stories; that’s his (second) job. I’m not disappointed with him, but the copy editor must have been asleep that day.
Does any of this grammatical correctness matter? I find it does to me when I’m reading a book from a major publisher, but that’s a curse from having done so much editing — it’s something I find I can no longer turn off. I still enjoy reading the story (if it’s good) but in the back of my mind is the thought: should have done better. But does correct grammar matter commercially?
I look sometimes at other independent publishers and self-published authors to benchmark myself against my peers. I looked inside a science fiction Kindle book yesterday that’s doing really well. It’s a 2012 re-issue of a book first published in 2009. In the preface the author explains that there were grammatical errors in the first edition, but now they’ve been sorted out and his wife has proof-read. I turned to the first chapter; there’s a grammatical error in the very first sentence.
I wish the author well; I don’t wish him success because I don’t need to: he’s already successful, and good for him. But incorrect grammar clearly hasn’t been an obstacle to that success. That much is clear. What I sometimes wonder is whether correct grammar is an obstacle to commercial success.
With the books I publish, I ask proof-readers to raise anything that they think might be a problem. I’d rather get false positives than miss genuine errors because a proof-reader was unsure. And I get a lot of false positives. Subjunctive mood is probably the most common. Most people don’t understand what the subjunctive is let alone how to use it. Not surprising, since there are disagreements about some uses, and it isn’t simple. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry. Confused? I was.
Here’s a famous line from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man, daidle deedle daidle, daidle daidle deedle daidle dum.”
If I can draw your attention from the deedle-dums to the bit at the beginning, it says if I were a rich man, not if I was. That’s correct use of the subjunctive. Sometimes this type of subjunctive is called counterfactual. In other words, the singer is a poor man, not a rich one. When you talk about something that isn’t true, you’re using the subjunctive mood.
It was one of these counterfactual subjunctives that Walliams (or Walliams’ copyeditor) missed in Mr Stink. But then I got thinking… what if that particular grammatical error had been deliberately introduced? After all, publishers aren’t in the business of being grammatically correct, they’re in the business of selling books to make a profit.
Thinking about it, I estimate that the number of people who would notice and object to getting the subjunctive wrong, is smaller than the number of people who would notice and (mistakenly) object to getting the subjunctive right. The implication is that I should deliberately introduce errors into my books. It’s not something I’m prepared to do just yet, but the idea has lodged. Oh, dear!
But then, thinking about it a little more, that’s what I do already with the word ‘data’. Yes, it’s a plural, but most people think it sounds wrong when you write ‘these data’ rather than ‘the data’. So when I see data used as a singular, I will make a note to the author I’m editing, check it’s used consistently in the manuscript, and leave in the ‘error’. Hey, English is a living language. It changes. Deal with it!
The fourth and (thankfully) the most important thing I learned about reading Mr Stink was that David Walliams can write really good children’s books.
Who would have thought? Celebrities who use the power of their name to write books, or have books ghost-written for them, are usually dire. But then, why on Earth am I surprised? Walliams made his name by writing and starring in comedy sketch shows. That’s all about telling a story, and both inventing and portraying memorable characters.