January 27, 2005

Publishers are good; really!

Publishers are nice, honest, friendly, capable, and valuable people, and all of us who work with them to produce published works find that our lives are enriched by their good sense, kindness, enterprise, intelligence, and love. I want that clearly understood.

Indeed, ultimately I would very much like to reach the nirvana point of actually believing it myself. I certainly try very diligently. But people keep sending me links to one specific story of vile, utter evil, which doesn't help. And then there are the many sins of those who mess with our prose after the writing stage — yes, including those copy editors who [change to whom? —Ed.] publishers employ to change things that never needed to be changed. In one recent article of mine I found that every though had been changed to although (a real baffler, that), and since was regularly to because; and then after the final proofs, right there in the printed book as I finally received it, several new garblings were introduced by the printers, a couple of sentences lost their initial capitals, and all the arrows in formulae turned into the figure 6. Yet that was a luxuriously trouble-free experience compared to what happened to a colleague at another institution after he delivered the typescript of an accepted book to his publisher.

The book was delivered in Dec 2002, both in hard copy and electronically. (We do that these days, we authors, so that The Process Of Production Will Be Trouble Free. Ha! Ha! Read on. Unless you're an author, in which case don't, it will tie your stomach in knots.) The author received acknowledgment of both the typescript and the CD ROM. The graphics for the volume had been professionally drawn at the author's expense, and were delivered separately, both on paper and in CD-ROM form, in March 2003. Again the publisher acknowledged receipt.

Then in summer 2003 the publishers reported that their printer was complaining: the CD-ROM did not have the text, and where was it, please? It eventually emerged that the publishers had deleted their only copy of the text of the book, without realizing that they had done so, and without keeping any records. Luckily the author was able to resupply.

Months passed, and then the publishers suddenly got in touch again, to ask what had happened about the plan to supply professionally-drawn graphics. They had lost that material too, CD ROM and all. This time the author did not have other copies of the material. But luckily the graphic artist was a personal friend and supplied a new copy without extra charge.

Many months passed with no apparent movement towards getting the book out. Then in the fall of 2003 the publishers once more got in touch out of the blue to announce that proofs would arrive on 20 December. This was a terrible date for the author, the beginning of a heavy period of teaching and administration after a long period of relative leisure, so he asked if they could possibly make it a month earlier. They said no, so he made strenuous efforts to make a space in late December for work on this long and complex book, over 500 large-format, small-type pages. The time was reserved, but the proofs didn't come. December came and went with nothing from the publisher at all. When the author got in touch they said they had changed their schedule and the proofs would arrive in mid January. It was actually early February when they came. And that was when the story started to get bad (yes, up to now was the good bit).

The publisher's editor had been rather snippy about the fact that it was not permissible to make changes in the text, only to correct what were clearly typos. But when the proofs arrived the author discovered to his astonishment that there had been a copy-editing process that he had not at any point been told about. And it had made fairly significant changes to some aspects of the text. In certain cases they were more than just significant. One whole chapter was about the weird and wonderful distortions of normal English orthographic and stylistic conventions devised by kids using Internet Relay Chat. With an idiocy that may seem almost incredible, the many examples of this had been carefully copy-edited to make them conform to the usual conventions of printed academic prose, ruining their whole point.

(I say this may seem incredible, but I have heard very similar stories elsewhere: for example, an anthropological monograph by a UCSC colleague that was loaded with transcripts of spoken testimony by uneducated peasants, on which full academic English correction of all the language in the transcripts had been perpetrated by a copy editor whose work had to be undone in its entirety at the proof stage.)

When the author had originally sent in the typescript, he had also sent notes on various problematic aspects, including the fact that there were many quoted extracts from computer files which needed to be in a fixed-width, typewriter-like font. He had even mentioned this in the original proposal, remembering that with an earlier book the same publishers had ignored this problem (though they did fix it when it was pointed it out). However, these proofs again ignored the fixed-width/proportional-type distinction in the typescript, and set the computer material in the ordinary book face, adding many distinctions that are meaningless in terms of ASCII characters, such as a contrast between wide and narrow angle brackets.

Then the author noticed that the graphics in the proofs were in many cases different and much inferior to the ones he had paid to have produced, and in some cases contained plain errors. When he asked what that was about, he was told that the typesetter needed the graphic files to conform to some special technical specifications that had never been mentioned earlier, and since the ones he had supplied didn't comply, the printer had simply improvised replacements...

And so it went on, and on. I cannot reveal the name of the publisher, still less the long-suffering author, unless supplied with an enjoyable dinner and a full bottle of a good zinfandel.

But just remember, if sometimes we academics seem to be a bit testy about our experiences during the copy-editing and proofing processes for our articles and books, there are reasons.

[Added early morning, January 28: Ah, but now, in the encouraging light of the very next dawn after posting this I see I have email from England, and Kate, our lovely commissioning editor at Cambridge University Press, has received the first copy of the new textbook by Huddleston and me, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, and copies are being mailed to us today, and because the first adopter actually wants to use it in a course that has already started, copies are being efficiently air-freighted direct to him in San Diego. It's all going like a dream. And I just know that when I see my copy it will not spell my name as "Pullman" on the cover. Because publishers really are good, they really are...]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 27, 2005 11:24 PM