Under my byline

Spelling trouble

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 1 April 2009

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca 1570OVERLEAF 23

My first full-time job was at a social sciences publishing house in Delhi. As a production editor, I had to do or supervise everything that turned a typescript into an actual, printed book, from copyediting to proofreading to writing up seemly little puff paras for the marketing people downstairs.

The first book assigned to me was a survey of “mass communication” by a senior university professor. It was dreadful. All the history was either wrong or badly compressed, and the language…! One freelance copyeditor had taken it on, and been defeated. It took me three months to divine the author’s intentions line by line, and accordingly clean up the book. The venerable professor was very pleased.

I was allowed to devote so much time to one book only because it was my first project. In this case, clearly the author was most at fault, because he handed in a sub-standard work. The first editor merely applied cosmetics. And between the two, the commissioning team had acquired and passed on a mediocre book without standing fast for quality.

But why did they take the book? Well, because the same author’s earlier volumes on the same subject, from the same publisher, had sold well. Why interfere with a sure thing?

If I had been less fussy, or my boss less forgiving, the book could have been out two months earlier. And almost certainly it would have done just as well in the market.

There’s the rub: despite generally low standards in everything from editing to design, Indian books still find buyers. People in publishing, even if they themselves are sticklers for quality, will say that “Very few people notice,” and “Readers don’t demand better,” or “People have low expectations.” All ultimately settle on the apt and comfortable “Chalta hai”, which seems to be a universal diagnosis.

There’s another disincentive. Without comprehensive market data, nobody quite knows how many copies of a particular book they can expect to sell. So publishers print a number close to their low estimate, and warehouse a chunk of that for future sales. With this weak confidence level, books are automatically priced higher, and sales and marketing people don’t push as hard as they might. This is especially true of social sciences books.

Since profits are unpredictable and usually slim, publishers have only a limited appetite for investing extra resources to ensure their books are well-produced. The exception is a bestseller — a textbook, or a trade book by a big-name author. With its huge volumes, the textbook market is fiercely competitive, and publishers are willing to put in a little more for a better turned-out product. And the big-name author gets special attention and top priority all the way down the production line; the publisher may supervise the project himself.

Another possible new reason for low standards is the change in publishing in recent years. Small publishing houses with small book lists have been gobbled up by global players. The Indian market has also grown. Now the buzzwords are “more” and “faster”. It used to take a year to turn a typescript into a book. No longer! It’s half that now — and for the swelling genre of books pegged to current events (terrorism, elections, Olympics…), it could be a whole lot less.

These wrenching schedules put great pressure on conscientious workers. “There aren’t many good editors around,” says one publisher sadly, and hiring is generally acknowledged to be a problem. Unlike in the West, there are few vocational or university programmes in publishing here, and the few that exist, such as at the National Book Trust, are not particularly good. Even editors with master’s degrees are hamstrung by weak language skills. Still, the requirement is efficiency, not quality.

So, outsourcing. Editing, typesetting, proofreading, indexing, all are contracted out. The advantage is time and cost: but lower is rarely better. A contractee can divide the proofs of a book between 30 workers with limited skills; if each does, say, 10 pages, the book can be proofed in a day. It won’t be perfect, but compare that to 10 days in-house with one dedicated proofreader.

Finally, it’s possible that multiple checks impede quality. Author, commissioning editor, copyeditor, production editor, typesetter and proofreader (twice) check the pages, and computerisation makes corrections easier. There’s always another stage at which to sort out final fit and finish. So it never gets done right.

There’s rarely sufficient time, as a production editor, to do a job well enough to take pride in it — even if you’re lucky and the book’s worth the effort. You end up as a checkpoint through which the various process tasks and their results pass, this way and that. This means you can handle more books at a time for your employer, but it also undercuts the very reason you entered publishing in the first place — not the money, for sure, but the joy of craftsmanship.

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One Response

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  1. Thinking Cramps said, on 6 April 2009 at 5:10 pm

    This one made so much sense.


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