On Mistakes

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

I’ve been following the comments on Roger Sutton’s recent post, “We ARE here to judge, but . . .” with great interest. When is a mistake or factual error in a book (whether nonfiction or fiction) significant enough to warrant pointing it out in a review? And whose fault is it when a mistake appears in a book?

To address the first question, in the comments Roger says that they won’t mention a very minor mistake. But if a book contains a series of mistakes (e.g. many distracting typos) or an error central to the book’s topic (e.g. a measurement error in a book about measurement), the review will mention it. And that makes perfect sense to me.

Speaking of perfect, I’m a perfectionist, so it’s been tough for me to accept the fact that in book publishing (as in life), mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable. That’s not to say that all books contain mistakes or that we shouldn’t do our best to make books as error-free as humanly possible. But we are all human, and from time to time, something will slip past all the many people who review a book before it goes to the printer (author, illustrator, editor, editorial director, designer, copyeditor, etc.). We do at least have a good system for making corrections in reprints and paperback editions. (And with the advent of e-books, there may be a way to correct any errors right away.)

I don’t think there’s often a simple answer when placing blame. If an author made an error, and an editor didn’t catch it while fact-checking, don’t they share a bit of that blame? If the typesetter’s finger slipped and the proofreader, editor, and author all failed to notice a typo, don’t they share a little bit of that blame? If one person involved with a book is consistently making a lot of mistakes, something needs to change. But even the most accurate person in the world is going to miss something now and then. Placing blame can feel satisfying on one level (“It wasn’t my fault!”), but it doesn’t really change anything. The more important thing is to have a system in place that allows us to catch as many errors as possible while still getting the books done efficiently.

P.S. I’ve proofread this post several times, but by taking on the subject of errors, I just know that somewhere there’s probably a mistake. Five points to anyone who points out an error. (No, those points aren’t redeemable for anything other than personal satisfaction!)

2 thoughts on “On Mistakes

  1. Laurie S. Sutton

    I've been a professional editor, proofreader, copyeditor, and author, and I've suffered a few gaffs in my long career. It's bound to happen. We're human. But sometimes even the spellcheck on my computer is wrong. Infallible machine? No — a human has input the data.

  2. Carol Hinz

    Laurie, I've also noticed that my computer's spellcheck doesn't always agree with Merriam Webster's 11th Edition. The first example that comes to mind is bloodred. (I was quite surprised to find it as one word in Webster's!)

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