The Tyranny of the Typo

The Higher Education Division of UTP is quickly approaching its fifth anniversary, and in advance of this hallmark, we will be contributing monthly blog postings on the purpose and various functions of our division. Our first five years have been set amidst a background of rapidly changing technologies and shifts in the needs of teachers and scholars, and we would like to contribute our voices to the wider conversation. To carry on the discussion, our Production Editor, Beate Schwirtlich, discusses the age-old tyranny of the typo and the impact of digital technology on the search for the perfect book.

As Production Editor for the Higher Education Division of the press, the work that I facilitate begins where the author’s much greater task ends, in that space between finished manuscript and finished book. A lot can happen in that space; many errors are eliminated, but paradoxically, correcting the former raises the possibility that new errors will be introduced. It’s as innocent as a slip of the fingers on a keyboard, but when we’re talking about printed books and not, say, a text message, the implications are greater. And that’s why I consider “typo hunting” to be my most important task as production editor, even though I am not—officially—a proofreader.

“Rushing to publish and overlooking glaring typos may have become part of the new economics of traditional publishing,” writes Virginia Heffernan in a 2011 opinion piece, “What Typos Mean to Book Publishing,” in the New York Times. She spoke to editors who, she writes, “confirmed my guesses. Before digital technology unsettled both the economics and the routines of book publishing, they explained, most publishers employed battalions of full-time copy editors and proofreaders to filter out an author’s mistakes. Now, they are gone.”

A quick web search and you will find blog posts, articles, and comments bemoaning the lack of editorial rigour in modern publishing, but my professional experience at this press and with two other publishers does not provide evidence to back up that statement: freelance proofreaders and copyeditors pored over the text of every manuscript destined for print publication. We here try very hard to represent the work of our authors in the best way possible, and that means doing all we can to avoid the dreaded typo, which risks undermining the author’s authority. Many times, the work of proofreading is also shared, for good measure, among many others: perhaps the executive editor and that editor’s assistant read the proofs and catch some corrections, or the marketing manager proofs the cover copy, along with the author, the production editor, the acquiring editor, intern(s) . . . people who care very much about the books that their house publishes, and who want to get it right.

Yes, this does impact the bottom line for publishers, but I would argue that editing and proofreading services are one of the strongest assets that traditional publishing has to offer to its authors. Our authors may be experts in medieval history, anthropology, or Canadian politics (as many of them are) but that doesn’t mean that they know, or should have to know, how to properly divide words that fall at the end of typeset lines, how wide a text block can be before becoming a chore to read (between 40 and 80 characters is ideal by the way), how to correctly hyphenate URLs, how to spell Colombia, or any other of the thousands of little things that publishers make their business so that authors can focus on their writing and content.

Though “typo” is commonly used to describe any error in printed material, there are distinctions to be made: strictly, the definition excludes errors of ignorance such as spelling mistakes. While authors’ errors are known as corrigendum, errors introduced during production are called erratum. Before there were typeset books, the equivalent to the typo was the “copyist’s mistake” or “scribal error.”

Along the way, there are pitfalls. Consider the “Wicked Bible” of 1631 and the seventh commandment as printed: it reads “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery.” Some long-dead proofreader failed to notice the missing “Not” before that famous version of the bible was printed, and some long-dead production editor (or whatever they were called then) approved the printing. Whoever they were, they have my sympathy and my respect, despite missing that rather obvious typo.

-Beate Schwirtlich, Production Editor


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