Book Publishing and False Economies

The North American book publishing industry has been disrupted in the last couple of years. Publishers’ revenues are dropping for a number of reasons:  different publishing formats, the increased ease of self-publishing, and upheavals in distribution and sales channels. And in any business, when revenues decrease, one of the first strategic responses is usually to reduce production costs. For book publishers, that can mean reducing the costs of editing or proofreading in the book production process. But cutbacks in those areas can be a false economy, if those cutbacks significantly affect the quality of the finished product. And this week I received a review copy of a book that perfectly illustrates that dilemma.

I won’t name the book, its authors, or its publisher (other than to say that it’s not the publisher of my own book). It’s not clear who’s responsible for this book’s problems, and I don’t want to point blame in the wrong direction. I will say that the book is about a type of behavior that’s a problem in many workplaces – and the book presents some clear, thoughtful strategies to address that behavior. The book’s authors have a great deal of academic and practial experience around the book’s topic. The sources of important information in the book are referenced in endnotes at the end of each chapter. The book is written for both practitioners and academics; this is difficult to do well because those are two very different audiences, but this is definitely one of the better attempts that I’ve seen.

I was really looking forward to reading this book. But when I started reading it, I noticed a few grammatical and typing errors in the first chapter. That annoyed me a bit, but even the sharpest editorial eyes can miss things here and there – so I kept reading. But the more I read, the more errors I found. If anything, the number of errors increased as the text progressed. There were comma splices (commas instead of periods in between sentences); incomplete sentences; inconsistently formatted endnotes; changes from past to present tense (sometimes within the same sentence); grammar errors in headings and sub-headings; incomplete sets of brackets; misspelled names; and incorrect word usage (e.g. “affect” instead of “effect”). And the quality of the writing also declined quite noticeably as the book progressed.

I tried to give this book a chance. I really did. But what made me finally crack and give up was the reference that was cited for a key topic in the authors’ discussion. This topic has been very thoroughly researched and is the subject of many academic and business-press articles. But the source cited for the information on the topic was a sample essay posted online by a service that anonymously writes students’ assignments for them – in other words, possibly one of the least credible or unreliable sources for information about anything.

This rather unfortunate example of careless editing appeared in - and was quickly withdrawn from - the academic journal Ethology in 2014. (credit:

This rather unfortunate example of careless editing appeared in – and was quickly withdrawn from – the academic journal Ethology in 2014. (credit:

Now I fully admit that as an author I am probably a lot pickier about grammar, accuracy and clarity than many other readers. Because of that, I may get more easily annoyed when I encounter these types of problems. But let me give you some examples of why the multiple errors in the book were problems for bigger reasons.

  • Many of the odd phrasings and misused words were in sentences that conveyed the key points the authors were making. So that important information was not accurately or clearly communicated to the reader.
  • The inconsistent formatting of the endnotes – sometimes three different formats within a single set of notes – not only looked messy, but also left out information that someone would need to locate the original source. This would be very frustrating for a reader if they wanted to learn more about the ideas discussed in the book.
  • The increasingly awkward writing might make readers give up on the book if they found it difficult or confusing or frustrating to read. They then might miss learning something that could have been very useful to them.

The publisher of this book is a long-established company that doesn’t have a reputation for publishing poor quality work. So I looked at the book’s copyright page to see who was credited for the various steps in the book’s production process. The copy editing, proofreading, and indexing are all credited to a third-party “publishing services” company. Again, not knowing specifically how this particular book was produced, I don’t know if the errors came from the authors, the copy editors, or the proofreaders  – but the production process apparently didn’t include a thorough, comprehensive review of the book’s content. And there were enough errors in the text that the need for such a review should have been very apparent.

For what it’s worth, I also looked at the Amazon site for the book. There are nearly two dozen customer reviews of the book, and all of them are five-star reviews. I honestly don’t know what to make of this, because even top-selling, well-reviewed books usually have a couple of Amazon ratings lower than five stars. Some reviewers of this book clearly got a lot out of reading it despite the errors (even if only one reviewer is a ‘verified purchaser’), but I really don’t have any explanation for why all the reviews are so uniformly positive.

If the book had been put together more carefully, I would have recommended it to others, and I might have assigned it as a text for some of my classes. But because the book is so flawed, I won’t be doing either of those things. So those errors have now directly resulted in lost sales, which means less revenue for the book’s authors and its publishers.  And this is why cutting back on production costs in book publishing is a false economy. Paying less for editing or proofreading might save book publishers money in the short term, but it also has the potential to lose money – a lot of money – in the long term.


  1. It’s the first time I hear of a publishing house – I assume of a certain size – outsourcing and proofreading to a third party. Where? In India? And how much did the book cost? If I can be forgiving when buying a .99c Amazon self published book, I certainly could not for a $15.00 paperback. Sloppiness is mostly inexcusable but even more so when the expectations, set by precedents, are higher.

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