Is Academic Book Publishing Struggling?

Like I suppose everyone else, I have seen many articles describing the decline of old line media, including the hollowing out of copy editing and research departments. As a result of these changes, even outstanding papers such as The New York Times often have spelling and grammatical errors in their articles, or get simple facts (like people’s names) wrong. What I am curious about is whether academic publishing is going through similar travails.

My question is prompted by a recently published book about Hollywood that I just read. The author did an excellent job, but whoever at the university press was responsible for copy editing really blew it.

In the very first paragraph of the book was the phrase “and most of important of all”, and later a scene in a movie is described as being filmed “without no dialogue”.

Gardening is described as exercising control over “you own domain”, we are informed that an actor “love this period” with his wife, Donna Reed’s name is spelled correctly in one paragraph and then spelled as Reid in the next.

A photo from a famous war movie is captioned as a Corporal taking over a platoon after a Private has a mental breakdown. Corporals outrank Privates, so this makes no sense. In the movie, both men are Sergeants.

As for the index, I only tried to use it once which isn’t a good quality check. But FWIW, one actor was mentioned twice in the book playing similar roles and when I went to the index later to find the linked roles, he was only listed once and I had to page through to find his other mention.

Does anyone in the business know if academic publishers are cutting staff (and corners) like the newspapers, or, was this just a case of an unusually badly copy edited book from a university press?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

38 thoughts on “Is Academic Book Publishing Struggling?”

  1. What I see in recently published books is artifacts of find/replace and spell checkers, etc. But, then, I also see errors, like a word repeated, that Microsoft Word or other word processors should have found.

    1. I have not published with an academic press but I suspect they are subject to many of the same pressures as the commercial part of the business.

      For example: my last published commercial book (by a large and well-known house) was pretty well copy edited–because the acquisition editor and I decided it needed a workover that it would not get at the publishing house–by an outside editor on the West Coast whose work was paid for by the kindly author, yours truly. The house was just not willing to pay for the line editing. And, apparently, line editing is a disappearing/disappeared procedure.

      The editors at my big New York Publishers explained that line editors had been “girls” from Vassar and Holyoke who worked for less than enough to live on in Manhattan but got help from their rich families for the honor of working in publishing. But the supply was drying up as living costs on the island went through the roof due (according to them) to the booming finance industry and as other opportunities opening up in law and business for the “girls.”

      Meanwhile, profits on mid-list books were down–so, cut line editing there.

      As to academic publishing–I wonder if the idea that everything is, or soon will be, on-line contributes to the lowering of standards off-line.

  2. The next phase of English will be marked by the disappearance of “standard” English and a fluidity of grammatical, syntactic, and orthographic practice similar to the emergence of Middle English. This will result from the establishment of a new equilibrium between what has hitherto been “standard” Anglo-American English and all of the geographically dispersed Englishes. A normative body of practice may re-emerge in a century or so, not as consistent or prescriptive as the practices of the 18th — 20th Centuries; or English may become the new Latin, spalling off a set of new languages that are not mutually intelligible, while the “standard” language is preserved within a small community

    Institutions that are not respected cannot enforce standards. (Note carefully that this statement is independent of whether any particular institution *deserves* respect.)

    1. I agree that spelling will soon be a lost art, and soon the idea of prescriptive spelling itself will be a mere historical hiccough. But search engines can guess with remarkable accuracy what my typos were supposed to mean. Somewhere out there, a database programmer is defining Donna Reed and Donna Reid as two instantiations of the class “”. I suspect our computers will keep all those idiosyncrasies nicely bound into a single language.

      1. I’d guess otherwise. Granted, search algorithms are good at figuring out typos, but computer search does make precision at least somewhat important, and computer search is a pretty important tool of research of any kind.

        On the other hand, as wealth inequality grows and we continue our split into Morlocks and Eloi*, maybe there will be high and low English.

        *I didn’t know how to spell “Morlocks” – I had guessed no “c”. Google figured it out for me.

    2. What’s different about Modern English from either of the historical models you gave — Middle English and the Vulgar Latin that gave rise to the Romance languages — is a highly literate population. Almost all native English speakers all over the world over the age of 15 can read and write. This is a situation that has not occurred until very recent times.

      The Romance languages developed from various forms of Vulgar Latin, which in turn came from Classical Latin, which was the language that books were written in. Vulgar Latin, as its name suggests, was the language of the common people who could not read or write. All this time, there was a rather small community who continued to write books in Classical Latin. After a while, writings began to be made in the vernacular, rendering the sounds of the spoken language into the Latin alphabet, giving us French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese.

      Not only do we have almost universal literacy, we have a worldwide community of English users, which includes many for whom it is a second or third language. Not only do we have books, magazines, and newspapers, we also have countless examples of recorded speech in movies, TV, and uploaded videos. Language standards are not enforced by prescriptivist grammarians, but by communities who wish to communicate with one another.

      For this reason, I don’t think English is likely to break up into a bunch of mutually unintelligible dialects. If anything, the varieties of English are likely to converge.

      1. = = = rachelrachel @ 3:42: Not only do we have almost universal literacy, we have a worldwide community of English users, which includes many for whom it is a second or third language. = = =

        I’m not entirely sure that the people using (in particular writing, but speaking as well) ‘the’ language taught to them by English, Scots, Australians, USians, and native-of-the-Indian-subcontinent teachers are actually using the same language.


        1. Using the common criterion of mutual intelligibility, all of these forms of written English are variations the same language, and not very divergent ones either. Thanks to the Internet, I — or anybody else who can read English — can read publications from all these places and read them without difficulty. The differences in vocabulary, spelling, and grammar are numerous but minor.

      2. “… various forms of Vulgar Latin, which in turn came from Classical Latin…”

        This is not my area of expertise, but I do not believe that this is correct. My understanding is that it was more the other way around: that Classical Latin was a tidied-up upper class version of the Latin of the streets. To put it another way, it wasn’t that the proles were trying to talk like Cicero wrote but couldn’t get it right. Rather, Cicero and the like were carefully writing in a manner that set themselves apart from the mob.

        1. Not my area of expertise, either, but here’s what says about it:

          Vulgar Latin, spoken form of non-Classical Latin from which originated the Romance group of languages. Vulgar Latin was primarily the speech of the middle classes in Rome and the Roman provinces; it is derived from Classical Latin but varied across Roman-occupied areas according to the extent of education of the population, communication with Rome, and the original languages of the local populations.

          I would guess that both the Britannica and what you have are oversimplifications. Also, there’s not much documentation on Vulgar Latin, because it wasn’t written down very often.

    3. If you want to be an optimist, this kind of fluidity might finally reform English orthography: the scandal of the civilized world. In most other languages, modern spelling is a reasonably good guide to modern pronunciation–or vice-versa. In English, spelling is only a reliable guide to etymology, and an unreliable guide to ancient pronunciation. The literate denizens of this blog might miss the etymological hints (I certainly would!), but the hundreds of millions of people learning English as a second language would be grateful.

  3. As a faculty member on the Senate committee that works with our press: yes, they are feeling pressures, and cutting staff in response. The pressures come in the form of: (1) ever-rising salary costs (benefits, led by health care); (2) tougher pricing policy by buyers (notably the one in Seattle); (3) less support from the university itself; and (4) the incredible uncertainty of what the future will bring as digital content becomes more important. For the last, there may be a lot of opportunity in terms of adding additional features, but this will require significant, and risky, investments. It’s not as bad as being a newspaper, but it is challenging.

    Most of the errors you show seem like authorial blunders (eg switching from “without dialogue” to “with no dialogue” and forgetting to delete the “out”). How anyone can think a Private leads anything is beyond me.

    I assume “control control” in your post was an inadvertent illustration, not an ironic one.

    1. Thanks DCA, interetsing to get this inside (if discouraging) perspective.

      Thanks also for “control control” — profits at RBC were down 36% this year, which is painful for me because I own 35% of the company (minus my agent’s take). As a result we laid off our copyediting department and decided instead to “crowdsource” it. You will not be paid for your efforts, but if you catch 10 more errors this year we will enter you in a raffle in a which you could win a chance at obtaining an RBC T-Shirt, if and when the budget situation makes it possible for us to produce one.

    2. I’m intrigued by your comment, in particular by your stressing the price pressure from Amazon and other booksellers. It had long been my impression that academic presses don’t really try to compete much on price, and indeed that many academic-press books benefited either from:

      1) Uniqueness. There are uncountably many great novels, histories, and biographies to choose from if you’re simply looking for something to read, and even on a specific topic you’ve usually got a variety of terrific options – but once you’re at a certain level of quality of scholarship or at a certain level of specificity of topic, a particular book can’t really be replaced by another high-quality closely related book or by an equally good book on a different topic: you want the book on this topic, and you want this book on this topic, and so you’re in a poor position to apply price pressure. Take for example Cold Spring Harbor Press’s definitive introduction to Drosophila, which I’ve picked because I’m familiar with the totemic role of similar books in slightly different fields: the price is an affront to decency (the more so as I suspect the authors don’t make much off of it), but if you’re going to work in flies professionally or even to dabble in flies, you probably have no choice but to read this particular book: familiarity with its contents is expected of you. So you – or your grant, or your department – will pay the price asked of it.

      2) A captive market. Yes, for the popular market the booksellers are critical, and Amazon the most feared of all. But for many academic press books, what proportion of copies are actually sold to individual readers? My impression and/or prejudice would be that many of these books have a negligible direct readership and are mainly published for sale to institutions: libraries, university departments, and perhaps government and non-governmental agencies. I could be very wrong about this: certainly, I’ve bought university-press books, and I’ve noticed the full-page ads from university presses in Harper’s and the like. But many of the university-press books I’ve seen have little obvious market beyond the hope they’ll sell to a couple thousand institutional buyers.

      1. At least in the social sciences and humanities, the institutional buyers usually number more like a couple of hundred (university and a few governmental libraries, most of which are also trimming their book purchase budgets, plus a few specialists with research grants). Yes, some university presses decide to preserve quality at the expense of very high prices that only institutions are likely to pay–Cambridge is famous for this when it comes to its hardcovers–but others are desperately chasing a course-adoption market that has become quite price-sensitive now that students have efficient alternatives (e-books, plus an efficient secondhand market). From a student perspective this is a good thing, but something’s got to give.

        For whatever reason, it’s the case that most university publishers, with the exception of a few of the most prestigious, by now do *no* in-house copy-editing at all. If the copy is clean, the author has either been very careful with proofs or hired a copy editor out of his or her own pocket. I take this to be a reversion to what used to be the case in all times and places before the last half of the twentieth century–an abnormally flush, and unlikely to be repeated, time for higher education and academic pubishing.

  4. As someone who writes for the New York Times, I have to say that the copy editors often save me from myself. In my column today they caught a stupid mistake that got past my primary editor that would have embarrassed me. They may not catch everything, but they do a good job.

    1. @Bruce Bartlett: I have had good copyediting there and with other major papers in the print edition, the errors seem mainly to be in breaking news that is first covered on line.

      1. To wit, here is a sentence from David Brooks’ column today:

        His structures are brilliant, but they far too complex for most of us

    2. My experience from the handful of occasions my writing has been professionally edited is that about 25% of the changes are genuine improvements: running from preventing embarrassing mistakes from getting through, to improving the felicity of the writing, to catching minor spelling and punctuation errors. For these changes I am grateful. At the other end, a small but vital number of the changes are potentially disastrous: instances where the editor incorrectly thinks he knows what I actually meant and changes the text to reflect his misunderstanding. For these changes, I keep a watchful eye. The rest (which is to say, the majority) of the changes are so much spinning in circles: adding or deleting an Oxford comma because the editor or the house manual likes or dislikes them; imposing a demonstrably baseless fantasy about the difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’; and so forth. These I am bemused by, but otherwise ignore because they don’t matter one way or the other.

      There is positive value in the first category. The second category is the unavoidable price we pay for the first: if it is the editor’s job to try to figure out what the author meant, some mistakes are inevitable. What I don’t understand is the third category. I have been reading for years about publishers eliminating copy editing to save costs. Would not a sensible intermediate ground be to have copy editors, but to instruct them not to waste their time spinning in circles?

      1. There is positive value in the first category. The second category is the unavoidable price we pay for the first: if it is the editor’s job to try to figure out what the author meant, some mistakes are inevitable. What I don’t understand is the third category. I have been reading for years about publishers eliminating copy editing to save costs. Would not a sensible intermediate ground be to have copy editors, but to instruct them not to waste their time spinning in circles?

        Very well said indeed.

      2. Of course they’d have to recognize when they are spinning in circles, and they presumably don’t, and their seniors and possibly betters don’t spend the time to oversee their work or instruct them on it (for want of time and money – da capo al fine.)

  5. FWIW, I have a cousin who was an editor (20+ years) at Rand until very recently. Standards are suffering; everyone must do more in less time. Or else.

  6. I suspect that a good part of it is the increased move towards doing copyediting on a computer. Using a computer instead of a printout for the proofreading aspect of copyediting may negatively affect quality of proofreading (PDF) because of potentially lower accuracy, comprehension, reading speed, and increased eyestrain/fatigue.

    On the other hand, there is a potential for productivity increases when using a computer for other aspects of copyediting (because searching the document is easier, annotating the text with comments for the author is less of a hassle, use of dictionaries and other tools becomes more convenient, etc.). My understanding is that best practices in copyediting call for a mix of both techniques, with a printout being used for at least one final proofreading pass. Of course, this requires additional effort that a publisher may not be able to afford.

    Relatedly, it may also be the case that more errors are likely to creep in during the writing process; this is because most authors these days will do some rewriting and wordsmithing on screen, and this adds numerous ways for additional errors to creep in (such as when trying to move a phrase to a different place in a sentence, you forgot to delete the original, or other partial restructuring). Ad-hoc editing is generally a more localized affair that often does not consider an entire sentence or paragraph, but only a fragment (because our cognitive functions have limited bandwidth). Forcing yourself to completely reread a sentence or paragraph after you’ve edited it is good practice, but it’s also probably often forgotten [1]. A copyeditor can catch that, but the copyeditor’s accuracy has to go up to compensate for a higher incidence of such mistakes.

    [1] Which is why I always print the papers I’m working on and do proofreading passes on the printout. Alas, I am not as diligent when writing online comments. 🙂

    1. I find that checking a post or especially comments on the screen before publishing fails to catch all errors. I have to correct my own comments with embarrassing frequency. I suppose all writers tend to see what the meant to write, not what they actually did write.

    2. As a long-time copy editor (but not of academic press books), I’m not entirely sure the studies referenced in the cited paper are fully applicable to copyediting per se. But that aside, in my experience the final proofreading pass is done on typeset proofs and is rarely skipped; it’s also done by a person who specializes in proofreading rather than copyediting. The skills involved overlap to some extent, but many are specific to one or the other; some, but not all, workers are competent in both. A final proofreading pass is done on the corrected proofs, which usually includes changes made by the author. Last-minute changes sent in by the author after this final pass has been done often aren’t checked as carefully. I agree with DCA’s comment above that the errors Keith noticed are probably due to the author making late revisions, introducing brand-new mistakes that weren’t caught because of production schedule pressures. It’s possible they were never either copyedited or proofread, or if they were, only cursorily–perhaps only by the typesetter. It’s not easy in many cases to make an author understand that the time is past for making changes.

      As to Richard Hershberger’s comment, I suggest that “spinning in circles” is to some extent in the eye of the beholder. It’s not so simple as it might seem to determine what constitutes “spinning” for a given book, nor would it save all that much time to eschew it. And pity the poor copy editor who has to work from different standards from one book to another!

      Finally, one of the most important copyediting skills is to know when to query the author about a change. One doesn’t want to bury the author in queries, but on the other hand one should have a high degree of skepticism as to whether one has correctly understood what the author wanted to say.

  7. Errors are an expected part of publishing, and I have insufficient data on the frequency of misprints in the pre-computer era to make any comparisons with today’s data.

    However, I have often been peeved at something for which there is no excuse in the age of the internet. Each book by a reputable publisher has its own URL enabling it to be purchased. Each URL should have a link to a page for corrections of misprints and a mechanism for readers to report these errors. This is seldom done. For example, I bought Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise soon after its publication. It is a fine book, but there were some glaring errors which ended up in the book due to the oversights that inevitably happen during composition and editing. These errors, one of which involved the headers in a table early in the book, had the potential to confuse a reader who has no background in statistics. Penguin Press, unfortunately, had and still has no place on its website to post the corrections to these errors.

    Has anyone else had these frustrations? Why can publishers not do this very simple thing?

    Also, for those who use e-readers: do e-books make corrections to errors which otherwise would have to await a second printing?

    1. Every once in a while I get an email from Amazon saying there’s a new corrected version of some Kindle book that I ordered, and giving instructions on how to get the new version. Most of these books are books long in print whose errors can be traced to bad OCR scans: Card’s *Ender’s Game*, and the JPS Tanakh. Most of these errors would not appear in the printed versions of these books.

      Also, on the bottom of the product info screen for a Kindle book, there’s a place where I can report typos.

      1. Why in the world would there be an OCR scan of a modern publication? The publisher who produced the paper version will certainly have had a digital copy of the final text – does this mean they discarded that file? That they refused to use that file for the creation of the electronic version? Or is it because the publisher responsible for the paper version might not be the publisher of the electronic version? And in this last case, shouldn’t the author (or the author’s agent) still be providing a digital file of the final text?

        1. That’s what I thought, too. However, the errors are characteristic of an OCR error.

          I bought *Ender’s Game*, an old favorite, as soon as it came out in ebook. The word “rules” appeared often, and sometimes appeared as “mles,” the “ru” being replaced by the single letter “m.” The tally was this:

          rules 26 times
          mles 7 times

          This is the sort of thing that they could have caught with spell-check, had they used it.

          From what people have told me, typesetting has been done from an electronic file for quite a few years, but sometimes they don’t have the file and sometimes the file is in a weird format that they don’t know how to convert. The typesetting, printing, and conversion to ebook form are all farmed out. Today, everything is done with electronic files and authors are required to provide electronic copies. But with older books, sometimes the easiest way is to do an OCR conversion.

          Converting from a current book is easy, and the vast majority of ebooks from trade publishers are released at the same time as the print version. In the early days of the Kindle store, I would sometimes read books with stray hyphens in the middle of a line:

          It looks really stu- pid to see the hyphens in the middle.

          The publishers were doing some trial and error, looking for a good process to create the ebooks without too many errors and without costing too much. The kinds of errors I’ve described I don’t see very often in newly released books.

          1. In principle (but probably in principle only), digital files for many books have been available since 1900, at least for those set using the Monotype system, which communicated between keyboard and caster using a punched paper tape. I don’t know of anyone actually using these; the only case I know of where it was considered is described in Ben Ross Schneider (1974) Travels in Computerland: or, Incompatibilities and Interfaces (New York, Addison-Wesley): a very entertaining account, around the end of the punchcard era, of creating a database of information about the London theater in the 18th century by digitizing a multivolume set of books. He ended up doing OCR, but first making the text more OCR-friendly by having it all retyped in Hong Kong.

            Bonus fact: the spell checker for comments here knows “punchcard” but not “multivolume”.

          2. There is no local spell-checker; the spell-checker you’re using is in your browser (or, on a smartphone or tablet, in your keyboard app – probably either iOS or Swype or whatever other option you’re using within Android).

    1. We are soon to launch an upgrade to the site, which we will hope will work better than our last effort earlier in 2013.

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