An Open Letter to Publishing Houses Small and Large

Dear Publishers Small and Large,

I love reading books. I really appreciate what you do. I love the fact that you can take a novel and find an audience for it. I love that you provide services — good, necessary services — to your authors.

I love that I'm your audience.

I love that you made me, when I was young, start to read good books. I love that I can go to book stores or online, and look for a trusted brand of publisher, and find a book I'll enjoy. I might not love the book, but that's okay. I'll enjoy the book, and that's what's most important to me.

We've been friends a long time, Publishers. Sure, you might not know me, but you know my money. I've certainly spent enough of it over the years. Remember that one order at where I spent almost $1,000 on books in one order? Yeah. That was me.

You're welcome.

But lately, it feels like we've been getting distant, Publishers. There are a lot more of you out there, now. I love this. That means there is more variety! There are more books out there for me to enjoy. With you, I don't have to search as hard to find a really good book. A great book, in fact. I can find great books with your help. When I want excellence, I search for you, trusted Publisher.

But something has changed. These small fries — and some of you large ones — seem to have forgotten something really important. You're still releasing good books, and I get that. Really, I do. I keep throwing my money at you, after all, don't I?

I haven't forgotten about you. There's more competition, though. I just don't feel like I can trust you as much as I once could. This hurts me. It hurts me a lot.

I love the memories of going to the library and browsing the shelves, putting faith in the fact my trusted, beloved Publishers were producing books that are good. I might not like them for various reasons, but they're still good books.

They didn't have noticeable errors. If they did, I could count them on one hand. They had the major elements of good books. They, even if I didn't like the specific book or a character, were strong, solid stories.

What went wrong, Publishers?

Why am I buying books by Publishers Small and Large with so many errors?

Your job is to produce strong, solid stories that are free from errors. I shouldn't find missing words from sentences — or a sentence cut off midway through. I shouldn't find excessive formatting errors. I shouldn't see exclamation points coupled unnecessarily to commas. I shouldn't see spelling errors.

Every book has flaws — I understand this! Even the best proofer will miss something. It happens. I get that. Believe me, I get that. I don't pay much notice to these errors at all — not when they're just a little handful. A little handful is fine. A handful, for those of you who are curious, is five. 

But, in the back of my head, I'm counting. I'm counting the number of words you butchered, the number of errors within, and the number of times you failed your authors.

If I reach ten, I get this sinking, unhappy feeling in my stomach. I start turning pages looking for the errors. I start fearing them.

They take away from the story. They make me wince. They aren't enjoyable. They ruin good books. They make what might have been a great book into a good book.

It motivates me to make sure my books are even better in the future, though. So thanks for that, it's appreciated.

But, seriously. Sit down. Let's talk about this, Publishers.

You are supposed to be an example for all of us. You charge more for your books than indie authors. You boast having editorial staff to help your authors produce the best novels possible. You pay your authors less in exchange for editorial services, advertising services, cover art, and so on.

You expect readers to pay a premium because your books are supposed to be better than the rest.

I don't care if you're large or if you're small, Publishers. Don't let scale be an excuse. Where are the really good books I trust you to provide me?

Why am I picking up novels with more than five noticeable errors in them? Why am I finding many books produced by you, Publishers Small and Large, with more than ten errors?

Errors happen. But there should be limits to how many errors there are in a single novel. I can understand just not liking a plot as much as some others. I'm a picky, picky reader. I love new, exciting things. I like characters who grab me by the throat and don't let go until they've taken everything they can from me.

You often provide me with this sense of wonder and discovery.

But you've lost your magic touch, Publishers Small and Large. Why?

Why should I lower my expectations for really good books just because the market isn't as kind as gentle to you as it once was? I understand — good staff is hard to find on a budget. Authors have more burden on them to do their own proofing. I understand.

But when I look at a book on the shelf, where you have smeared your brand, your name, and your logo on the cover, the onus is on you to make sure that book shines.

The author has to play by your rules for so many things.

The burden is yours to make sure all of the errors are gone from these novels before they're published. I shouldn't be acquiring books by you — no matter what your size — that is full of editorial errors. I shouldn't be picking up novels with formatting errors. I shouldn't be picking up novels with sentences cut off halfway through them.

I trust you to hook me up with good books.

Your books just aren't as good as they used to be. There are a few of you who are the Dark Knights of the Publishing World. Every recent title I've picked up by you has been error free or far within the five-error threshold I have. For that, I thank you.

But, as for the rest of you — the real reason you're struggling in the modern world of novel publication isn't because of the self-publishing competition. It isn't because Amazon is scalping you. It isn't because you have many more other people to fight against for consumers.

It's because your books just aren't as good as they used to be.

If they were, readers would trust you to still provide them with the best books. They wouldn't feel the need to explore the indie novel market to get the good books they once trusted you to produce.

Independents are charging less for comparable works. Some indies are growing the courage to charge the same for their comparable works.

Don't blame Amazon for your struggles.

Don't blame independent authors for your struggles.

Don't blame your authors for your struggles.

Don't blame your agents for your struggles.

Don't blame anyone but yourself. You have a job, Publishers Small and Large. That is to create good, error-free novels. When you started letting those errors creep in one by one, when you started relying on unpaid interns who know they won't have a real chance to get into your house as an editor, when you started underpaying your proofing editors, when you started trusting your authors to provide you with proof-perfect (despite knowing an author can't 100% proof their own books) novels, you failed. You failed your authors.

You failed your readers.

You failed me.

So, what are you going to do about it, Publishers Small and Large? The burden certainly isn't on me to fix your mess. You made the bed, you made a mess on the sheets. Get out from under the covers and fix what you're screwing up.

Don't act so shocked and surprised that you're crumbling at the foundations — because the foundation of your business has always been the quality of the books you produce and select.

Readers can tell the difference between a sparkling diamond and a stinking pile of refuse. We're not stupid. Sometimes we like mindless drivel. We want to rot our brains on novels with no literary merit. You cater to us when you find the best of that type and bring it to us, your audience.

But you fail us with each and every editorial error you allow to slip into your novels.

There is no reason — no excuse — for a multi-person team of novel producers to allow such things to happen.

You have the edge on independent authors. You have resources. You usually have funding. You have reviewers who would be happy to point out errors in a novel if you, as some publishing companies do, put a notice in the ARC with simple, easy directions on who to report an error to.

As a reviewer, if I see such a notice, I will gladly mention any errors I find in an ARC. But a lot of you Publishers Small and Large have too much pride. You don't include those notices.

And the Publishers Small and Large who do include those notices often don't have errors in their novels — even in the pre-release ARCs. What does that tell me? Some publishers still care.

So why don't you?

Independent authors get skewered if there are editorial errors in their novels. We're expected to be up to your level. But your level is a sinking ship.

Independent authors aren't destroying the publishing industry.

Amazon isn't destroying the publishing industry.

Reviewers aren't destroying the publishing industry.

You are destroying your industry, all because you don't have the same qualities of standards you once did.

You have let people understand they can get equivalent novels from independent authors for the same price or cheaper. People are branching out. People are starting to — or have already lost — your trust.

Do you want to be the top dog again? The prime example of what novel production should be?

Act like it. Fire whatever incompetent proofers you currently have. Hire new ones. Pay them reasonable amounts per book. Make them care about the quality of the manuscript being released from the wilds. Draw on your wide pool of reviewers to catch the things you missed — because reviewers love books, and if you ask nicely, most of us would be happy to help you produce even better novels.

We want novels that shine.

You've heard this before. It's been smeared all over the internet for years. Usually by dissenting independent authors who will no longer buy your books because they don't believe in you.

How do I differ from them? I still believe.

I want you to succeed. I want your authors, your books, and your industry to do well. I want my industry to do well. We're in this same ship together.

Most of all, I love good books.

By releasing novels with so many errors, all you're saying is that you've forgotten that — that in the effort to make money as quickly as possible — you no longer love those books.

Go ahead, get offended. I know a lot of editors and agents who work many long, hard hours on their projects, trying to ensure the careers of authors. But, by allowing basic errors — you do know the difference between there, they're, and their, right? — you are sending a message:

You no longer care.

And with that message, you sink your own ship. You turn an empire into ruins. You ruin the hopes of your readership. You lose your audience.

Publishers, I still love you. You're not broken. Sure, you're a little bent right now, but you can be fixed.

Start with your proofing department. Let the flaws in a novel be with the characters — and let those flaws be with the opinion of the reader. Let the flaws in novel be with the plot — and let those flaws be with the opinion of the reader.

Don't ruin great books. Stop ruining great books.

You are an example for all of us. Start acting like it.

Those independents you so fear won't hold back. Amazon will continue to grow. You could use amazon as a great tool to connect with readers. You already do it. You could be so much more than you are now.

But, until you fix the problem with your editorial staff and your proofing staff, your house is burning down around your ears and you paid the firemen to go on vacation to Antarctica.

Independent authors have learned this lesson already. Freelance editorial is surging, because independents want to be as good as you. But, there is another problem.

They aren't just striving to be as good as you.

They want to be better.

Your hull is leaking, and it isn't because of independents, because of amazon, or because of the crumbling brick and mortar book stores. It's because of you.

Sit down, Publishers. You can get your panties in a bunch later. Right now, you're being reviewed by those who love books more than they love you.

You have a huge problem, Publishers, and it isn't with your readers, independent authors, or amazon. I trust you see where I'm going with that, right?

You, unlike many independent authors, have budgets. If an independent author can afford good proofing editors, why can't you?

Why am I finding independent novels with the same professional — or better professionalism — that you are supposed to be the trophy, showcase example of?

I'm patient, Publishers Small and Large, but my patience wears thin. My attention wanders — I check even your samples now for quality. I didn't feel like I had to before.

What are you going to do about it?

P.S.: I still love you, but we all have to grow up at some point. Give me a reason to believe in you as I always have.

Leave a Comment:

Christina Marie says January 25, 2014

Nobody seems to care about quality anymore. Too much in a hurry to beat the competition. Thanks for sharing!

Michael says January 26, 2014

Wow, great article. Thank you for sharing it.

You offer valid points. Though I cannot confirm them since I do not buy many books from publishers in English (only from indie authors) – the translated versions usually go through an additional editorial and proofing process, so I do not know if they were bad in the first place.

PS: Do you mind if I point out some points I stumbled about while reading?

– you do know the difference between *there*, they’re, and *there*, right? => one of the *there*s should be *their*

– Independent authors have learned this less already. => *less* should be *lesson*

– I didn’t used to feel like I had to. => I stumbled over this sentence – something does not feel right here (it might be because I am no native speaker) – the *didn’t used* seems wrong to me: maybe *I didn’t use* or *I wasn’t used* sound better to me…

    RJBlain says January 26, 2014

    I don’t mind at all. 🙂

    Fixed what you mentioned. 🙂

    TBH, I did have some purposefully seeded errors in there to demonstrate the point, but since my subtle nature wasn’t coming through as an example of the unpleasantness of what was going on, I fixed them. 🙂

    And yes, I had done there, they’re, there on purpose… I was being sarcastic in my own special way. 🙂

    Thank you for your comment!

Lily says May 18, 2015

Wholehearted thanks for this. I read enormously, and have noticed with increasing disgust that even legendary American publishing houses are skipping all forms of editing. We, the readers really trying to find something written with grace and skill, get tossed out of book after book by massive overwriting and repetition that turn highly-praised new books into slogs, and by repeated instances of horrors like “snuck” and “lay” and whole-word errors that make the author seem, well, ignorant. I may go through a whole stack of books, tossing each one aside after 30-50 pages, or finally giving up halfway into a 500-pager that really needed to be 350 tops, and then I have nothing to read, and it makes me really cranky. I’ve been looking online to try to find some forum where I could at least get the relief of pointing out the errors I find to someone who can appreciate their ruinous effect. Life is short and getting shorter, and I am getting more and more angry when a publisher wastes my time. I do note that these problems don’t yet exist with the British houses. There I can settle in and go with the flow, knowing I’m not going to crash into a boulder and capsize my precious little boat.

    RJBlain says May 18, 2015

    It’s a funny thing. I know quite a few people who are with traditional publishers, and there is a mentality among some of them that they don’t have to do the proofing work; their editors will handle it for them.

    Since I am on my own as an indie, I’ve learned that no matter how good my editor is, things escape. I’ve had three proofers go over my novels and things still get through.

    Those who work with American Publishers seem to have one overall editor (acquisitions) and one line/proofing editor. The author gets one (and only) one chance to sweep for any other errors.

    Since I’ve had experiences with my editorial not being as strong as I’ve wanted, I’ve started taking a new approach to how I edit, all because I don’t want errors in my books.

    But I, at times, feel a lot for the traditionally published author: they often don’t get a choice in how many editorial sweeps they get.

    It’s falling more and more on the author to self-edit, whether indie or traditional, and I think that does do some harm to the overall quality of books.

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