Do word choices matter? Do word choices misspelled matter? Is there a difference between break and brake? Not if you read some of the ebook novels I have read recently!

Yes, I’m complaining about authors who don’t see the value in hiring a professional editor, authors who think they can both write a compelling story and either self-edit it or hire the next door neighbor to give it the editorial once over, and the publishers that encourage this type of thinking. Professional editors do serve a purpose and the more I read fiction ebooks, the more concerned I become about what will happen to readability, understanding, and literacy in the Age of eBooks.I do not intend to rehash the difference between types of editing (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) or the difference between an amateur and a professional editor (see Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1) and Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)). Nor do I intend to rehash the link between declining publishing standards and declining literacy (see Parallel Decline: Publishers & Educators). You can revisit those posts if you want.

Instead I want to focus on the unfounded assumption by many ebookers that authors can do it all themselves — writing, designing, editing, marketing, selling, and whatever other “ing” is needed — in the ebook world, thereby doing away with publishers and other middlemen, yet increasing quality and decreasing cost and price.

Let me be clear: It is not that the author cannot do all these tasks; rather, it is that few authors can do each task well and few authors either have the financial resources to hire these services directly or, if they do have the resources, the willingness to gamble their own money on the success of their book. And it is the unwillingness to front these costs that is leading to the concurrent decline in ebook quality and refusal of ebookers to pay more than a few dollars (if even that much) for an ebook.

I refuse to pay more than a few dollars for an ebook because the likelihood is that the ebook is poorly edited, a phenomenon I see with increasing frequency and which I don’t discover until after I’ve made a nonrefundable purchase and am 30+ pages into the story. I am tired of reading sentences like these (the errors are in italics):

* She seamed to be a woman with…
* The sheers were used to cut the cloth.
* I no what you are thinking.
* I oppose you on principal.
* The cloth was died purple, the royal color.
* Johan’s piers were surprised at his dismissal.
* Calista was badly beeten by the saber’s blunt edge.
* In the passed, guardsmen were not…
* Watch out for the sole catcher; he will try to steel your sole.
* The roll Danvers played was that of a night.

The list goes on and on and on and on — Give me a brake (or is that break?)! One author had his lead character go through an “emotional ringer.” I wondered what melody the ringer was playing.

Everyone makes mistakes. That’s not the problem. The problem is that these mistakes don’t occur once; they occur repeatedly, which indicates that it wasn’t an isolated mistake. Rather, the ebook was either poorly edited or not edited at all. In either case, it means that the author or the publisher, although to be fair, I suspect that most of these books are self-published, didn’t think enough of their own work to spend the money to hire a professional editor.

Question: If the author thinks so little of his or her work, why should I, the ebook consumer, be willing to spend even $1 on the book? Shouldn’t I have the same disdain for the author and the ebook as the author has for me and the ebook?

Correct spelling is important. Incorrect spelling changes the message. For example, the end of the brief case and the end of the briefcase have distinctly different meanings and thus convey distinctly different messages. Similarly, Is that the boarder? asks a much different question than Is that the border? Failure to communicate means failure as a writer. When a character yells, “Brake!” but is riding a horse, what does the author mean?

Imagine visiting your doctor and being told to “take 5 every day.” Does it matter whether the doctor means 5 capsules, 5 grams, 5 liters, or 5 milligrams?

The best authors are those whose descriptions are clearly and readily understood. They communicate with their audience. The idea of a book — e or p, fiction or nonfiction — is that the message is understood readily and clearly by every reader. Thus it makes a difference whether the character asks “Is that the border?” or “Is that the boarder?”, especially if either is appropriate in the situation.

Readers should not have to guess what something means. Nor should a reader be distracted from the story by wondering whether brake or break is correct.

Based on what I see being made available for ereading, the loss of publishers and the reliance on self-publishing will be a tragedy. Although far from perfect, established publishers insulate readers from the worst of the abuses. Words do matter and incorrectly spelled words convey incorrect meaning. Dumbing down is not an award-winning strategy for the future.

Not all self-published books are as bad as the ones I recently have read. There are some good, careful authors who self-publish and do not cut corners. They are serious authors and the exception. But the general trend appears to be that if “I have a word processor and an Internet connection, I, too, can be an author and I need not invest any money to make money.” Unfortunately, this trend is exacerbated by the ease of ebooks and fueled by ebookers telling authors that they do not need publishers and other professionals — they can do it all themselves and keep all the money. Dream a little dream…

Editor’s Note: Rich Adin is an editor and owner of Freelance Editorial Services, a provider of editorial and production services to publishers and authors. This is reprinted, with permission, from his An American Editor blog. PB


  1. Watch out for the sole catcher; he will try to steel your sole.

    Are you sure the author wasn’t talking about boku-maru and got confused?

    In all seriousness, though, having been a professional writer in the business world, many people believe some of those usages are correct because they have become reliant on spell checkers. People are aghast when the first thing I do is turn off all of Word’s “helpful” tools.

    As you know, certain types of writing call for the breaking of certain grammatical and stylistic rules. People only remember the rules that were beaten into them and quickly forget any other rules that might be missed if they rely on their spell checker.

  2. Everyone wonders why publishers want to charge more than a couple of dollars for ebooks. THIS IS WHY. THEY DO COST SOMETHING TO PRODUCE, especially if you want a readable book.

    Even if a book is proofed for print, it needs to be proofed separately for electronic. I don’t trust electronic conversions, especially if OCR is involved, but anything that uses an algorithm to convert a text can introduce some kind of error. I used to QA this type of text for a living, and I know.

  3. @Mags – Sure books cost money. But there are several interesting points to discuss about costs:

    1. Having purchased about 5000 pbacks over the years and close to 400 ebooks, I have found NO correlation between price and editing/proofing. In fact, many of the most expensive ebooks I have bought were the worst in editing and proofing. Most publishers don’t care about making sure there ebooks are of the same quality as pbacks and yet they want to charge higher costs.

    2. Funny thing about electronic conversions is that publishers seem to have big issues with them. It seems confusing to me because almost all books are submitted to publishers in an electronic form so all the editing occurs in the electronic form previous to publication in HC or mmpb. So I don’t know why the e-book is routinely messed up with errors. Again, I think it is simple laziness on the publishers part which unfortunately, decreases my opinion of them.

  4. I cringed at the blog title…
    until I read the first paragraph 😉

    One or two of these errors in a book are more than acceptable. This is the quality that should come after editing. I don’t know what quality publishers expect from their authors, but it would amaze me if a book riddled with such errors would be accepted. (Again, I have ZERO experience). I thought editors had more work fixxing commas, awkward phrasing, tense issues, etc. Perhaps this is why some indie authors never get published?

  5. I would expect an author to know how to spell without the help of an editor – most of them graduated from high-school, right? Funny, I always thought editors make high-level decisions in regards to fonts, graphics and page layouts, not spelling and grammar!

  6. Let me disabuse folks of the notion that editors don’t fix grammar and spelling. Well, actually, it isn’t the editors, it is the copy editors who do that. Most authors have weaknesses that get in the way of good storytelling. Things like a propensity for run-on sentences (my own bugaboo), homonyms and homophones occur rather easily when you have been writing for hours on end. Also, when trying to read one’s own writing – at least too soon after writing it – the writer often reads what was meant on the page rather than what was written in actuality.

    Writing is hard work. Editing and copy editing are hard work. Most folks don’t really understand how hard it is to write well and keep track of all the rules for the type of writing that is being done at any given time. These are skills that need to be honed over time and, once upon a time, publishing houses would mentor new writers in order for them to increase their skill. Some never learn, or get so big that they no longer let their editors call them out. (No, I won’t mention names, I think we all know who they are.)

  7. @ Mags
    “Everyone wonders why publishers want to charge more than a couple of dollars for ebooks. THIS IS WHY. THEY DO COST SOMETHING TO PRODUCE, especially if you want a readable book.”

    You got it backwards, Mags. No one wonders why publishers want to charge more. What we wonder is why should we pay hardcover prices for the poorly edited and proofread ebooks they offer. If they want me to pay as much as 14.99 for an ebook (and I wouldn’t mind, for an author i can’t wait to read) I expect them to give me a decent product in return. If they want me to pay the the same as people who buy paper books I expect to be treated the same way these people are, not as some lesser customer, which is how publishers have been treating ebook readers so far.

  8. For some reason the article isn’t showing at the moment. But from the comments, one part confuses me, is that all of these errors that keep on cropping up in ebooks. I can’t imagine that the paperback editions that are being edited exist only in paper and are never digital. For most processes, there shouldn’t need to be a physical print till near the end of the process. There should be a fully edited electronic version of the paperback copy with all the corrections that exists some where for the printers to then print out. Why are these not being used as a foundation for the ebook version with the formatting being adjusted if needed for the ebook version. If they are having to edit the text twice, this is terribly inefficient cost and time wise.

  9. Erik, Teleread is having a problem with the display of the article. If you would like ot read it, go to

    FWIW, the problems that are being discussed here in the comments are really a little off target from the gist of the blog post. My concern in the blog post is with the idea that self-publishing authors can do everything capably themselves, which is the mantra of many ebookers: do it yourself, reap all the proceeds, and avoid the publishers.

    Most of the problems that occur in ebooks from the big publishers are conversion problems. The problem is particularly acute with Amazon’s conversion process. Even if the publisher provides a pristine digital file in ePub, Amazon’s conversion process introduces errors and Amazon doesn’t proofread.

  10. The books quoted in the article are self-published books, correct, not books that were published by professional publishers in print and then turned into ebooks?

    Self-published books are 95% ‘problematic’. Just like 95% of the slush pile sent to professional publishers is ‘problematic’ (and 4.9% not profitable and less than 1% accepted). Working out, from the self-published throng, which is the 95% and which is the 4.9% which were of an ‘acceptable’ quality but not for whatever reason accepted by a publisher is going to be one of the biggest barriers to self-published ebooks. No-one wants to sort the wheat from the chaff (and even when the publisher sorts out the wheat, they still need to do a solid amount of fixing, which is why they hire copy-editors).

    The 95% is why I’m not keen to see publishers going away – I want those gatekeepers.

    HOWEVER, publishers are doing themselves no favours allowing unproofread scanned ebooks with numerous scanning/conversion errors to fill the ebook market. They are simply lowering the reputation of ebooks by not treating them as a quality product.

    Particularly problematic is the relationship of Amazon to all this. Amazon wants to see itself as a publisher of ebooks, not a distributor. It not only has its self-publishing division, but most Kindle editions of print books are on some level ‘produced/published’ by Amazon, not by the print publishers. [That is part of what this big argument about the agency model was – Amazon wanting to be seen as the ebook’s publisher rather than its distributor.]

    And Amazon patently doesn’t give a damn about the quality of the Kindle product.

  11. I think, in someways even more than an editor, people who self publish, or major houses who convert print to digital books, should hire copy editors and proof readers! I think these people are the unsung pivotal element to getting a book “well” published. (Disclosure: I’m an author, not a proof reader nor copy editor.)

  12. @illukar — None of the quotes are from books published by publishers known to me. They seem to be all self-published but it is not really possible to know. I can say that none of the well-known traditional publishers imprints were on these books.

    @Deran — the term “editor” is an inclusive term. Developmental editors and copyeditors are part of the term. Many of these errors should also be caught by a developmental editor. Presumably, a good developmental editor, although not focused on spelling and grammar, would catch the more egregious errors; they should. And after the developmental editor and the author are satisfied with the manuscript, the manuscript should be read for the copyeditor whose focus is spelling, grammar, syntax, and rules compliance (in contrast, the developmental editor has much broader perspective, looking at, e.g., organization and flow). Then after the book is “typeset,” which is after the author has accepted or rejected the copyeditor’s suggestions and corrections, a third look should be had by a proofreader.

  13. ” * * * the ebook is poorly edited, * * * which I don’t discover until after I’ve made a nonrefundable purchase and am 30+ pages into the story.”

    I understand the frustration with poorly edited books, but don’t see why anyone is stuck with a nonrefundable purchase. Even if using the sample feature at places like Amazon and Smashwords doesn’t turn up these problems, I know Amazon will refund purchase money for pretty much any reason in the first 7 days. Do most other sellers give no sample and no refund to dissatisfied customers?

    Indie books, which let’s face it we are all assuming are the problem being discussed, usually have good sample sizes. It’s the traditional publishers who fill so much of the front of the ebook with all their boasting and other unnecessary pages that there is no sample of the book. And their books are the ones full of OCR errors, different but just as aggravating, not to mention how many times I’ve seen “supercede” in supposedly professionally edited books lately.

  14. I’ve paid good money for poorly proofed hardcovers, too.

    Adin once again takes three pages to make a point he made perfectly adequately in the first two paragraphs. Maybe he needs to hire himself an editor.

    Oh, wait. . .

  15. My first exposure to e-books was books from Baen. I rarely found more than 3 errors per book. Then I bought a book from Amazon that was a mystery by Mary Higgins Clark and it had more than 3 errors per Kindle page at the #5 font setting. They were obviously OCR errors. I thought, “Why were those books run through a scanner?” It seems the producers don’t keep an electronic copy, which in my opinion was extremely short sighted. What happens on a reprint? Do they start from scratch? No wonder they are in trouble!

    What is also amusing is all the errors in the comments in this blog.

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