Why Does That Happen? by Mysti Berry
When I was a baby crime writer, literally following writers like Gigi Pandian, Juliet Blackwell, and Sophie Littlefield around, absorbing everything I could from them and from conferences and SinC or MWA meetings, I would often wonder “why does that even happen?” Things like:
- A manuscript turned in on time doesn’t launch for 12 or 18 months. What takes so long?
- Typos introduced into a manuscript, even at places in the text not ever touched by editors or copyeditors. In my day job of software technical writing, content is written once and published many places without alteration. So how do these typos happen?
- Changes from an author that get missed by the publisher.
- Errors in the title for heaven’s sake!
- Editors changing dialog for grammatical correctness.
Now that I’ve published two short story collections, one containing 12 writers’ stories and another containing 22, I can tell you—it’s a miracle any book makes print at all. It’s an ugly, manual, error-prone process with poor quality controls at every stage, despite everyone’s best attempts to be perfect and avoid error.
In other words, book production is still more art than commerce, even at the big publishing houses. And when the book is a collection of short stories, the opportunities for error increase with every story added. I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned after two charity anthologies about why things happen that really shouldn’t.
Ancient and Unintegrated Tools
As a technical writer, I refused to take any job that used Word as the authoring tool. It’s self-corrupting. Inconsistent. It’s based on a proprietary language, which means it’s not really plain text, it’s garbage in there and it doesn’t play well with others.
I’m used to tools like a developer’s IDE and text that can travel from place to place completely unaltered. Also, the look of the text is completely separated from the content. You can be sure that if you push the button that says “make all straight quotes and apostrophes into curly ones,” it’ll make that happen. Without error. Not so with Word in my experience.
For example, you may well email a perfect Word file to your editor or publisher, but there is no guarantee what they open is exactly what you sent. There’s no source control, just track changes—but if the underlying software occasionally just randomly changes content, track changes won’t help you. If the author accidentally makes changes with it turned off, there’s no way to discover that. Track changes is the weak sister of source control tools that will tell you about every single change: when it changed and who changed it. Track changes just pretends to do that.
A publisher receives your file, sends it through multiple rounds of reviews and revisions between you, an editor, a copyeditor, and who-all else knows who. At every transfer the likelihood of a small or large error is high. Without plain text and real source control, you’ll never catch the little things that happen every time a file is opened or closed. The only way to know how different your initial manuscript is from the printed book is to compare it, by hand, letter by letter. Nobody does that.
Now, I could have used my technical writing tools to write my own manuscripts, but then they would have been in formats no one else could read:
(WendyCodesStuff, thank you for this example.) This system (git, markdown) is far more error-proof than Word and its track changes.
Imagine a world where, instead of everyone emailing easily corruptible files to each other, you just sent a link: “Hey, world famous author, your galley is ready!” or “Hey, fabulous editor of Big Five Publishing House, here are my edits,” and the whole record of every single change is visible to all.
We should have that world now, but we don’t. Instead, we have authors writing in Scrivener or Vellum, exporting to Word (ubiquitous as it is untrustworthy), maybe re-importing if you really have that kind of time, or giving up and continuing on in Word, leaving directories of unfinished content, and, if you are lucky, the final version in a hard-to-find email somewhere.
Almost nobody uses a modern tool. (Some do! Ask Ray Daniel about “markdown” at the next writer’s conference.) Nobody separates content from format sufficiently, and nobody does adequate source control. I suspect that the learning curve for these tools is so steep that you couldn’t both underpay people AND ask them to learn this kind of stuff.
Here is a list of problems that I found in my latest book, and fixed just in time:
- A quotation mark disappeared from the beginning of a dialog line. The line was a bit complicated, so the missing quote would have confused every reader at first. I still don’t know how it got deleted, so I can’t fix my process to prevent that error in future.
- Formats were not applied to a single title page of 22 story title pages. The story was shorter than the rest, and the software I was using required me to apply a special font by hand to every title page (long story). I only noticed it because that error produced another error farther down the production line.
- When I saw a last-minute error (my own typo), I tried to fix it in the PDF before sending out an ARC. Clicking into the block of text changed the font in the whole paragraph, and there was no putting it back. (Yeah, I like Acrobat just two chinchilla whiskers more than Word.)
- Because there is no intelligent reuse in fiction publishing, I had one ISBN number on the cover, and a different one in the copyright page. In technical writing, you can create variables, place them wherever you want, and the right value shows up in each place. Handy when you do something to offend the Amazon gods and you have “republish” your book with a new ISBN before it was every really published in the first place.
It’s nerve-wracking to send a book out into the world with absolutely no way to verify 100% that everything is right. It kills me. And there are definitely things I could do to improve my process. But I’m a human being. I cannot be perfect, I can only perfect my quality controls. And without proper tools, I can’t even do that.
Not Following the Process
There is a process for going from manuscript to published paperback:
- Writer sends in manuscript.
- Editor reads, marks up, send manuscript back for writer edits/acceptance.
- Writer sends in that same file, with changes accepted, new changes highlighted with change tracking.
- Editor accepts all changes, hands the file off to the book production folks (which, in my case, is just me with an extra cup of coffee and a swear jar).
If, as often happens with the best and most creative writers, a brainstorm/sudden urge occurs to review the work out of this cycle, errors can occur. The writer might email a whole file with the new changes highlighted—but then the publisher has to remember that the email exists, reconcile it with all other inflight-changes, and not make a mistake doing so. I am fairly certain I let down two of my very most favorite writers with mistakes like these—changes that they emailed me about, but which I failed to implement. That kind of error keeps me up at night.
The writer wants their best work published. The editor and publisher do, too! But it is very easy to miss any change that happens outside the regular cycle. When you are working with a dozen or two authors, it might be a week between the time a writer alerts the editor to a desired change and the time the editor or production person sits down to work on the story—a week filled with so many fires to put out or catastrophes to avoid that the editor straight up forgets.
Again, if the editor is a more organized person than me, with more time, he or she could double-check every email from every writer and never miss a thing, including reconciling multiple copies of the same story with different changes in it (and an email with “one more thing.”) However, this is still a hard thing to get perfectly right every single time.
No, Seriously. How Could You Mess Up the Title?
This one is something I learned in technical writing, where there are lots of titles: topic titles, heading titles, side-heads, all manner of special, short phrases that help the reader orient to what they are about to read. Here’s the thing: we glaze over titles first. We’ve seen them so many times, and we think we know what they say, so we miss big mistakes sometimes. I learned somewhere that people actually read in phrase-sized hunks, and we just see the whole hunk we expect to see instead of the one that’s actually there.
My story in AHMM last year was meant to be called “My Yorkshire Ripper.” Somewhere along the line, and probably by my own hand, the “My” was dropped. I looked at that title at least a dozen times from first submission to final approval. I never noticed the “My” was gone. So now, that story is simply “Yorkshire Ripper.”
Change blindness like this can be fought with a robust checklist. Check the titles, the author name, proper names, anything that should be capitalized, after every round of changes. Or read your story backwards to find errors that are otherwise hidden by your over-familiarity with the content. But know that the editors and production folks have the same problem you have, and give them all a little compassion. Being perfect in your day job is impossible, but these folks try to be exactly that, perfect.
Why Does It Take So Long?
As a technical writer, I could write and publish about three pages of content a day. Most of that time was spent writing, very little of it was lost to the mechanics of publishing. So how can it take 18 months for a book to get to print? Basically, it’s a many-step process and every step needs lead time. Unless you are publishing a hot tell-all, you need to have a book close to complete a good six months before the launch date. Reviewers need months to get a review into their queue. Marketing events have long lead times. Authors need time to consider edits and complete them. Most of this stuff can’t be done at the same time.
The first publisher who uses modern writing tools and source control can cut this time in half. Until then, just know that when your editor or publisher doesn’t speak to you for months, they have not gone to Hawaii. They are scheduling like mad, executing like crazy—and they really do care about you and your story. They just have a lot of other people’s schedules to coordinate with.
Weird Things with Dialog
This is the one issue I do not have a fancy explanation for. I was horrified the first time I heard about a copyeditor changing all the dialog of a character to make it grammatically complete.
People don’t talk the way they write. They do not always (or even often) speak in complete sentences. Spoken language changes faster than written language because the latter is weighed down by dictionaries and prescriptive grammarians. Spoken language, on the other hand, lets its freak-flag fly. Great, character-specific dialog is a gift to the reader in any story, and why any editor would touch it is beyond me. If you have any insight into this mystery, please drop me a clue!
Bad things happen for good reasons, and it’s a shame. I recently bought a new writer’s first story collection, excited to take the trip her wonderful voice was guaranteed to send me on. But the editor had produced an error-ridden first chapter—word substitutions that were clearly copy-edit foul ups, not the writer’s word choice. It put me off the whole collection, despite my being a fan of this writer. While it is tempting to assume someone along the way is not good at their job, I strongly suspect this is simply one manifestation of people working hard and fast with inadequate tools and change management. Easy to describe, wicked difficult to fix.
I really hope the publishing industry finds the incentives it needs to get a wee bit more tech savvy, and change-control conscious. Every author deserves to be heard with the story they wrote.
Mysti Berry ©2020
An active member of MWA, Sisters in Crime, ITW, and the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA), Mysti has served on the board of her local MWA and Sisters in Crime chapters (NorCal!) and on the board of the PSWA. She is once again polishing her financial fraud murder mystery to keep up with real life changes in how people steal millions of dollars without getting caught. She speaks at writers conferences, teaches workshops, and tweets far too often for her own mental health.
With an MFA in Writing from University of San Francisco and a BA in Linguistics from UC Santa Cruz, Mysti loves to talk with people about story structure, language, film noir, and the resistance, not always in that order. She was really fond of Dalwhinnie scotch until a Scotsman told her it is a “lady’s whiskey.”
If you see her at a writer’s conference or book festival, please do say hello.