Problems with the author-publisher disconnect

Another issue with the use of diacritical marks in books, as raised in recent posts, has nothing to do with their use per se. The issue is wider and impacts on the use of all kinds of special material. That issue is the disconnect between the specialist knowledge of the author and the quite different specialist knowledge of the people involved in publishing the author’s book.

What on earth has this got to do with diacritics? A lot, actually.

Ideal vs real editors

In an ideal world, a press will have commissioning editors who know quite intimately the field(s) in which they are publishing. They will be familiar with the literature, the key people in the field, and have a good sense where each discourse is developing.

Maybe. It’s a nice ideal, anyway.

It is just as likely (and probably normal) that a commissioning editor is stressed, has a work load far greater than she can efficiently cope with (‘she’ because most editors are women), and must commission in more fields than she can possibly be truly familiar with. On the other hand, as a general rule, editors are well educated, read widely and have a breadth of vision that many authors lack, so focused are they in their particular field. As such, a good symbiotic relationship between author and editor can produce a great book. Sadly, all too often both are far to busy for this to be perfectly achieved.

In earlier days, it was common for commissioning editors to undertake the substantive editing of a work (i.e. editing of content for structure, meaning, etc). At the same time they would copyedit the text (correct the spelling, grammar, logic, factual errors, etc.). However, it is rare these days for a commissioning editor to actually ‘get her hands dirty’ at all with the manuscript and, except in small publishing houses, she is most unlikely to typeset the work. Instead, presses rely on the peer review process and the conscientiousness of the author to fix any scholarly concerns. As for the process of transforming the raw, delivered manuscript into a printed book, all stages are carried out by people with publishing skills and knowledge. Almost certainly they do not have any of the specialist knowledge of the author, nor are they likely to be interested in acquiring this.

Outsourcing publishing work

Add globalization to this author-publisher disconnect. Pressure for cost cutting and quite a bit of fashionable hype has encouraged more and more European publishers to shift their production work, including typesetting, offshore. India is the hot destination. American publishers are slightly more parochial here though for decades I know that in my own area – Asian Studies – many US presses have outsourced typesetting of books involving Chinese script to Hong Kong.

(Such global outsourcing is not new. I remember back in the early 1990s hearing how – in the days before authors delivered their manuscripts on disk – the keying in of the manuscript text was commonly done by thousands of low-paid women in Mauritania. Why Mauritania? I don’t know, maybe because the labour was not only cheap but also of a high quality. And, then, an even cheaper source of skilled labour was found: Greater Los Angeles! In the same way, the hi-tech development of Silicon Valley was made possible by the proximity of cheap labour next door in San Jose.)

The results have been mixed, one might say. It doesn’t help here that Indian outsourcers have been too successful. There are only so many skilled staff available (and the Indian job market is notoriously volatile; a better job offer is always of interest). As a result, one hears rumours and scuttlebutt of uncles and cousins with no skills (but lots of loyalty to the firm) being hired to help out. No one, of course, knows the true situation. Time and again I read about the triumph of this publisher’s outsourcing strategy but, let’s face it, there is little likelihood of any production manager admitting that his firing of most of his local staff and relocating all production work to India was a disastrous mistake.

It was no surprise, then when recently a colleague of mine working with Chinese script (not diacritics, but the moral of the story is the same) had a few problems getting his book typeset. It went through eight proofs before the eminent university press publishing his book hired a Chinese expert to stand over the Indian typesetter and ensure that the correct text was being keyed (rather than any old Chinese-looking character inserted, as before). The problem here was that the typesetter had problems with the font and – not understanding a word of Chinese – was unable to make an informed decision. Bad guesses were made instead. This isn’t all that unusual.

And the result is …

This is where the author-publisher disconnect starts to bite. OK, so the typesetter may make mistakes but surely these will be picked up in the proofing? Well, not necessarily. Normal errors should be discovered (though one hears all the time of photos being reproduced upside down or inverted – something any attentive author should have picked up). Last-minute discoveries of spelling mistakes are commonplace at proofing. But errors in special material? No, it is unlikely that the publisher’s proof reader will be able to pick up a missing dot under that ‘s’, an accented hat over that ‘o’, or whatever. The onus is on the author, a situation not always with a happy ending.

I raise an issue here, something for authors to be aware of. I am not suggesting that the only solution to problems in the proofing and correction of typesetting errors for diacritical marks, non-Latin text and other special material is that these should be excluded from books – not at all.

But there is an issue, and it’s one that needs addressing.

2 Responses to Problems with the author-publisher disconnect

  1. Wow. You hit the nail on the head.

    I’m an editor for a recently started publishing house. We’ve made the choice to keep a small portfolio of authors just so we can do in depth editing. Every book gets substantively edited, but we even go so far as developmental editing.

    This is a really controversial topic in the publishing world, but it’s amazing how many good books can become great books with a little help. It’s unfortunate that most editors lack enough time to bring books to their full potential.

  2. […] outsourced much of its book production to India. This is something i have discussed often before (here for instance) but, briefly, although there are numerous printers in Western Europe and North […]

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