The Imperfect Art of Book Publishing
Becoming an author is a long and wending road for many. It’s challenging just to write a book — for reasons of time constraints, raging inner critics, the act of learning craft. The journey to publication is a whole other struggle, often accompanied by disappointment and rejection by traditional publishers. The decision to independently publish may follow, and while that’s often a relief for writers who now have a path forward, what lies ahead is a massive learning curve and a whole new universe to unpack and try to understand. And then there’s the trifecta of author platform, marketing, and publicity to figure out. Even for someone who loves a good challenge, it’s a lot to take on. And a lot to get right. And nearly impossible to get perfect.
As a book publisher, I strive for perfection, even though I’m in the business of making art. Book publishing is a bold and frustrating undertaking, because every single page presents an opportunity for a mistake. You can comb over your own book 20 times and still miss something. Formatting errors get introduced at late stages in the production cycle. You may have had a developmental editor, a copyeditor, and a proofreader, and as soon as you have your final book in hand, Murphy’s Law has its way and you’re sure to open the book and turn to the one page with a typo.
I have plenty of war stories from my time in traditional publishing. Early in my career I worked on a book in which we misspelled the word “foreword” on the front cover as “forward.” Seven people had looked at the proof and we all missed it. At Seal Press we had to destroy an entire print run because we misjudged a PMS color for the interior of a two-color book. What we thought would be a nice deep rusty red came back Halloween orange. I once let a book go to print without an author bio. An omission like that is more painful than a typo. Every single one of those mistakes was like a dagger. I still get heart pain when I think about that destroyed print run.
My first book was the very first book to be published on my own press, She Writes Press, in 2012. I knew a lot about publishing, but I’d never managed the process from start to finish before, and I’d never been the final stamp of approval for the design team. My interior file looked good to me when I opened it up on my desktop. I approved it all online, but when the printed books arrived at my office, I was horrified by the clunky interior design. That was a rough lesson, but as a result, we’re known today for our gorgeous interiors. I now have a second book coming out in June, and I ordered a small advanced print run for some spring events. I was shocked to see the typo on the back cover when I opened the first box. I’d read that thing over 10 times, and I’d had three proofreaders look at it. I am grateful it’s not too late to fix it, but it was yet another lesson in humility, and reminded me just how precarious a job it is to publish a book.
One of my publishing mentors likes to say that typos are evidence that books are made by humans and not gods, and anyone who’s worked in publishing will tell you that most books have typos. That said, as an author advocate and publisher of a nontraditional press, I always tell indie authors they have to be better than the best. But even the best aren’t perfect, which it’s a hard paradox to hold.
I believe in the importance, the fundamental value, of publishing standards. High ones. The biggest lesson the self-publishing community still needs to learn is centered here. What makes traditional publishing the gold standard is the high editorial quality, the impeccable design, and the overall packaging of books. And yet, mistakes happen — in any industry and in any job, but especially in book publishing. With 80,000-plus words to string together, and a manual that’s bigger than the Bible to adhere to for design and style, the publication of a single book is a monumental undertaking, and nearly impossible to get perfect.
When my authors find typos in their final books, which they invariably do, I feel their pain, and I also summon my mentor’s sage words. An author’s book is an extension of them, and those little imperfections feel like a blemish, and depending on our personalities, those blemishes can feel downright shameful. We may brace ourselves to hear back from our readers, but unless your book is riddled with typos (which is not the level of error I’m writing about in this post), your harshest critic is going to be you.
Those who succeed as authors have to cultivate internal resources and a deep sense of worthiness that their work matters — no matter how well received their books might be, and despite flaws that critics point out, and regardless of an error here or there. Successful authors have their own war stories, and they learn from their experiences rather than wallowing. If there’s a big mistake on your final book, like an overt typo on your cover, or a duplicated chapter (I’ve seen this many times), then you need to reprint. But where the small stuff is concerned, a single typo or formatting error in the interior, or even a misplaced running head, you’re best off forging ahead. How we handle mistakes says a lot about our resilience, and this business will show you a thing or two about landing on your feet. As a result of my own mistakes, I’m more compassionate, more humble, and also more committed each day to do better. The mistakes we’ve made as a publisher have always resulted in higher quality and better experiences for our authors. Admitting to mistakes is the hardest thing to do, but it’s also cathartic, and mistakes make all of us better authors, better leaders, and better human beings in their simple offering, which is a lifelong opportunity to keep learning and to recommit to our passions in the face of flaws.