The following is guest post by Senior Editor Bob Nirkind reflecting on errors in books.
Regardless of best intentions, errors are unavoidable. While we strive for perfection, it’s a frustratingly high bar to achieve. Whether mistakes in a book are typographical or factual, readers are understandably no happier stumbling across them than they are finding a bug in their breakfast cereal. We, of course, are naturally no happier learning of them than they are finding them. A lot of professional pride goes into every project. Yet for all our diligence, caring, and commitment, errors are inevitable.
Having worked in both educational and trade publishing, I’ve fielded my share of complaints. When working on texts for the high school, two-year college, and voc-ed markets, I once got a call from a teacher who was outraged a typo had been discovered in one of our books. She couldn’t understand how this could have been allowed to happen. I apologized, and then explained that, in an effort to catch every error, many pairs of eyes scrutinize a project before it’s published. Her indignation was unshaken, however. She found my explanation indefensible. If this was the case, she responded, there shouldn’t be any errors at all. In a perfect world, yes; in our world, if only.
Typos happen. When we’re told about them, they’re corrected in the book’s next printing. At the risk of sounding cavalier, my feeling is that if you can understand what the word is—that “teh” was meant to be “the”—it’s not a problem that should be keeping anyone up at night. Irritating for us, definitely; obstacle to an understanding of the sentence, unlikely. (A dropped line of type in a paragraph, that’s a problem.)
Factual errors, or “errors,” are a different story. When I acquired and developed books on the arts and published a biography of band leader and arranger extraordinaire, Nelson Riddle, I got a call from a gentleman upset that we’d gotten the date of one of Riddle’s recording sessions with Frank Sinatra “wrong.” Since the author had done exhaustive research, including interviewing musicians who had worked with Riddle, now well along in years, I asked the reader how he knew the date was incorrect. He had not, it turned out, been there himself the day of the session. My question to him was whether this was an inadvertent error of fact or whether, in fact, it may not have been an error at all.
I asked that he consider where an error of fact might come from—assuming it’s not the result of sloppy research or reportage or a deliberate attempt to sidestep the truth—and how a reader might know that it is, in fact, truly an error. What constitutes a factual “error”? Is it something that differs from what we have read or heard elsewhere and, if so, how do we know that this “fact” isn’t itself erroneous? Without dismissing his contention, I asked him to consider that an error could result from a first-person account by an individual or individuals whose recall might be flawed because the event or incident was many years past and our memories are often less reliable with the passing of time, and mentioned that, once an error sees the light of day, inadvertently appearing in a book, article, journal entry, or the like, it’s then perpetuated when accepted as fact by other writers and researchers. The real issue here was what constitutes a factual “error.” Is it something that differs from what we’ve read or heard elsewhere? And if so, how do we know that “fact” wasn’t itself erroneous?
Though I doubt I changed the reader’s mind, it was a rare and welcome opportunity to discuss a book’s relative pros and cons with someone passionate about the subject, and an occasion to share thoughts over the most unexpected of topics: an error.
Bob Nirkind is a Senior Editor at AMACOM Books. He specializes in acquiring titles in sales, customer service, project management, and finance. Prior to joining AMACOM, Bob worked as Executive Editor at Watson-Guptill Publications and Senior Development Editor at St. Martin’s Press. You visit our website for freelance development, copyediting, and proofreading opportunities.