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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


The Pudding Is in the Proof

One question that often comes up is why, in this age of blogs and tweets and instant digital communication of all kinds, it still takes so long to publish a book. I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but mainly it's for a very refreshing reason: Publishers, editors, and writers want to make the book as perfect as possible, despite their recognition that in a work than spans hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words and hundreds of thousands of bits of punctuation, perfection is next to impossible to achieve no matter how hard one tries. But one has to try.

The most painstaking phase comes when the manuscript is set in "type" for the first time and the first proofs of the book are printed. These initial copies are called first-pass proofs or galleys.

For a writer, this is a very exciting, and slightly terrifying, moment, because for the first time this thing that he has spent years working on suddenly looks like an actual book. A designer has chosen type styles and heading configurations and how to indicate text breaks and a host of other teensy details. Each page looks the way it will look in the finished book. There are page numbers and clean margins and scores of errors, some subtle, some major, some ridiculous, all fully to be expected but now all to be hunted down and corrected.There are page numbers and clean margins — and scores of errors, some subtle, some major, some ridiculous, all fully to be expected but now all to be hunted down and corrected. In one sentence an "r" had been dropped so that the phrase "Jewish friends" became "Jewish fiends."

It is a strange thing: What once read so well in the double-spaced New Times Roman font of a computer print-out suddenly doesn't read well at all. Errors of fact and thought suddenly appear, sprouting like toadstools afer a rainstorm. The writer marks the changes he wants to make, while a proofreader also goes through the galley, checking it page-by-page against the manuscript. Once all these changes are identified, a second-pass proof is made and this too gets sent to the author and the proofreader, and the process begins anew.

You would think that surely these "second-pass" proofs would be clean and ready to publish. But no. Never. It's amazing, in fact, how things you missed while reading the first pass suddenly become apparent in the second. It is as though poltergeists climb in at night and make little changes of their own just to confound you.

And so, the writer, proofreader, and editor all go through the book again, word by word, line by line.

At this point, everyone wants to scream.

And yet, for In the Garden of Beasts, my new book, my publisher took the step of producing yet another galley, the third-pass proof. Even here we found things we needed to correct.

That, in part, is why books take so long, even today. Because we all want to get it right, and, lord help us, we almost never do. But we get it right enough, and everybody cares, and it's so lovely to see that first hardcover book arrive in the mail.

Nothing quite like it, actually.

÷ ÷ ÷

Erik Larson is the bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award-winning The Devil in the White City. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and a dog named Molly.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Devil in the White City: Murder,...
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  2. In the Garden of Beasts: Love,...
    Used Hardcover $11.95

Erik Larson is the author of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

6 Responses to "The Pudding Is in the Proof"

    TechByter May 18th, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    What is "NEW TIMES ROMAN"? Did you mean "TIMES NEW ROMAN"?

    Elaine Kehoe May 18th, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I am a professional copyeditor and sometime proofreader, and, as much as I like to believe a manuscript is "perfect" when I return it to the publisher, I'm sure there are many things I miss, though not from lack of effort. At the same time, I notice errors in printed material and get exasperated with them. Too often I blame the publisher, assuming they didn't bother to have it copyedited professionally, so it's good to have your perspective as an author who's there for the second and third proofs and understands that we're all imperfect humans doing the best we can. It's just reassuring to know that all the people involved really do care about producing the best books possible under often difficult circumstances.

    The Red Pen May 19th, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I'm a proofreader -- and you know something, a good copyeditor shouldn't be letting that many errors slip through. Honestly. It all comes down to the copyeditor. I always appreciate a good one, because bad ones make my job awfully hard.

    Joanna May 29th, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I just finished a wonderful book that was just rife with errors. Among others, there was a cat in the story who changed genders so many times the poor thing would not know what to do. Sometimes Cat would be referred to as him and her on the same page. Surely someone should have caught this.

    frogprof May 31st, 2011 at 8:49 am

    @The Red Pen: And then there's the author who can't write to begin with [notthatI'mtalkingaboutmybossoranything], and who refuses to understand that the copyeditor [moi] might actually have a better grasp of grammar, spelling, and usage than he does. And who WILL NOT let any edits be made no matter what. I'm ready to quit my current job [at a small, medical-safety-consulting company where I'm the voice crying in the wilderness that my job is just as important as -- if not more than -- that of the programmers, since my work is what actually makes it -- or should -- to our website] because of people's resistance to using the English language properly.

    ssh June 9th, 2011 at 9:08 am

    There is also waaaaay too much reliance on spellcheck to "catch" everything.

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