This Be The Worst

When I read a self-published book, especially on a Kindle, I cut the author a great deal of slack. I know how difficult it can be to successfully format for Kindle — trust me, epub is way easier. So if I’m reading for review, I’ll concentrate on plot structure, character development, and plain old-fashioned enjoyment. Typos and weird paragraphing, non-working chapter links, even font size changes: I try to rise above it all. If it’s really bad and I know the author, I might send them a private email. But normally I won’t beat them up in a review. I’m not a professional reviewer; I have no obligation to fix the world.

Also, copy editors and formatters don’t work for free, and there are a lot of scam artists out there. So an independent author can spend a lot of money for services and get junk in return. She may not even realize it’s junk until her book is up there on amazon in front of the world. So I flinch, but I understand. And I should say, here and now, my books contain errors; I know this, and I am determined to do better next time.

What I don’t understand and have no mercy on are commercial publishers who foist their trash on the buying and reading public. These people are fair game for hostile and pointed comments on their incompetence and their sheer nerve; they ought to be called to account. Commercial publishers, as all independent authors are constantly reminded, hold themselves to a higher standard of production and editorial rigor. Their authors have successfully passed through some daunting barricades to achieve a contract: these authors have agents, they have editors who pass on story and plot, they have line and copy editors to assure a quality publication, and they have paid professional formatters who take the print manuscript and craft it for Kindle and epub. So when I see a commercially published ebook (after I have paid money for it) with egregious errors, I am outraged.

Doesn’t anyone at a publishers take the time to download and scan the finished product? Before they pay the formatter (not to mention the copy editors) do they even look at the damn text?

Last year I downloaded part four of a very popular series (whose title and author I won’t mention) and found every single line of dialog — THAT’S EVERY SINGLE LINE OF DIALOG — was missing a period. So instead of text saying “Come in and close the door.” you read “Come in and close the door” and I am not ending that sentence after the close quote so you can plainly see the awfulness. Lines of dialog that ended in question marks or other punctuation were unaffected. Obviously, the publisher had tossed the manuscript into an auto-formatter and gotten hamburger out the other end. Just as obviously, no one at the publisher noticed. The author noticed. He cancelled his contract with the publisher and although his blog was mute on the details I fear lawyers were involved. He is now self-publishing and who can blame him?

Which brings me to The Deaths of Tao, by Wesley Chu. This is book two of a series, and I picked up book one, The Lives of Tao, in paperback at Barnes and Noble. I thought the cover was neat, which it is, and I enjoyed the premise and the story. Roen Tan, the hero, is a fat underachieving geek who is taken over by an alien called Tao, who has had many human hosts and who specializes in covert operations and assasination in the pursuit of getting home again. I loved the familiar tropes and the twists on them, Tao is snarky and fun, and the book is competently written. I wish I’d written it, but I recommend it highly anyway.

After finishing book one I was happy to discover I was late to the party and book two had just been released. Since I was about 35 miles away from the nearest B&N at that moment, I downloaded The Deaths of Tao to my kindle reader.

Oh boy.

With book one being such a success, the publisher had rushed book two into print a mere six months later. I would hazard hard money, let alone several guesses, that Wesley Chu didn’t have much control over either the editorial flow or the copy editing for book two. I am not sure there was any editorial process at all. Here are two sample sentences, word for word:

We did not come all this way for you to could dim sum your way to obesity again. When all this is over, you are going back on the regiment.

Those sentences fly right through Microsoft Word’s grammar and spellchecker like shit through a pig. Where was the editor? Any editor? Were there galley proofs? Remember, this is a commercial publisher who only accepts agented manuscripts. By the way, those sentences are part of a dialog, and the speaker is Tao the alien. In book one, his mental speech to Roen is in italics, although Roen’s responses are plain text without dialog quotes because he also is speaking inside his head. The italics were a great help to the reader, especially when Roen is talking to other humans and Tao is providing a running commentary.

In book two, no one bothered with italics, at least in the kindle version. My local bookseller doesn’t have book two in paperback so I can’t check it. I plan to, since if they left them out of both versions, it’s the editorial staff and if they omitted them from the kindle version, it’s the formatter. Because there are no italics, no quotation marks for the mental comments, and the primary point-of-view is Roen’s third person limited, every time Tao speaks the reader is confused. When Roen and his alien are in a conversation with Roen’s wife and her alien it is a frightening and annoying mish-mash of conflicting mental and spoken dialog without attribution to a speaker.

If commercial publishers no longer provide editorial or editing support, and are expecting authors to do more of the marketing of their own books, what are they providing? Well, distribution and perhaps advertising. The panache of being a commercially published author? How much panache do you take away when your book is sold to your readers as a sloppy mess?

Author Terri Bruce sued Damnation Press over typos and unauthorized changes in her published books, including dropping italics. She said the final publisher’s version made her sound like an illiterate git. The court agreed. Wesley Chu should consider this as an option.