A couple of days ago, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times wrote a blog essay that made its rounds amongst the editorial folks in my social media circles. Entitled, “The Price of Typos,” the browser title is revealed to be something slightly different — “What Typos Mean to Book Publishing.” In fact, scanning the available metadata in the page source shows this article was categorized into many book-related silos on its way to publication. The significance of this I’ll get to.
While acknowledging that it’s OK if authors can’t spell — “Bad spellers are a breed apart from good ones. A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters — straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure” — Heffernan also talks about how new ways of publishing books are leading to more typos, something that she equates to low quality because it’s wrong, but which I normally relate to low quality because it breaks the spell of reading (and makes you aware of the book as an object and type as a system of letters). More books are being published faster by lean staffs under financial pressures to cut corners, which has led to elimination of discrete steps of correction, review, and consolidation.
Yet, in the midst of this concern over how the book form is now subject to a seeming explosion of typos, Heffernan also notes that publishing in digital media creates a heightened awareness of the need for good spelling:
While the idea that sloppy spelling can sink whole businesses seems far-fetched, even casual bloggers recognize the imperative to spell well online. This is because search engines look for strings of characters in sequence, and if your site has misspellings, Google is less likely to list it at the top of search results. With misspellings, according to the tech site Geekosystem, “You aren’t going to get nearly as many hits as you deserve.” The imperative to spell correctly on the Web, and attract Google attention, means that even the lowliest content farmer will know that it’s i-before-e in “Bieber.”
This seems like a major clue that book publishers could be taking — within digital native publishing systems like blogs is a system with new and effective boundaries on errors, real repercussions for stupid mistakes, and a self-reinforcing quality measure based on rapid reader response.
Instead, book publishers continue to cling to their traditional workflows, which include making the physical book first. When it comes to digital editions, they’re viewed as downstream, so OCR from print introduces errors, editors aren’t put in place for that level of QA and correction, and a workflow tacked on to the end of print becomes the scapegoat.
On a separate note about spelling, I wish she had also talked about variants in English spelling, but perhaps the forced humour of the word “typou” as a British variant would have been deemed a misspelling. Oh well.
Ultimately, while there were no “typous” in Heffernan’s essay, the overarching error in the piece is that it remains focused on print book publishing and doesn’t close the connection that lies enticingly at its heart — a blog post noting that blogs induce discipline she’s despairing can no longer be sustained in traditional workflows. It’s not news that print book publishing is a diminishing business, morphing into something a bit more like slow blogging, with the ability to correct files and repost them with comparative ease. And therein, I believe, lies a clue to how to make books (e-books, print books) have fewer typos.
The workflow of blogging, in the right hands, leads to few errors, quick and easy correction of errors that sneak through, and a new way of achieving quality. Perhaps as a blogger, Heffernan might want to look at the tools and workflow she’s using for solutions to the problems she’s describing.
(Note to New York Times bloggers — When you change a headline on a story, you can edit the Permalink in WordPress just by clicking “Edit” and doing some typing. Nick Bilton missed this as well the other day, when his story about Aaron Swartz initially suggested Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit, a fact that was later corrected by the actual founders of Reddit. While the headline of the post changed, the URL remained “http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/reddit-co-founder-charged-with-data-theft/”.)