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Author & Publisher Strategies The Reading World

The myth of the perfect copy and the future of publishing

There’s a powerful myth in publishing: A copy of a book can be perfect every time. The transition from scribal reproduction to printed books, for example, is supposed to mark a break in the history of knowledge, when “perfect copies” became ensured each time a book went to print. However, it turns out that print […]

There’s a powerful myth in publishing: A copy of a book can be perfect every time. The transition from scribal reproduction to printed books, for example, is supposed to mark a break in the history of knowledge, when “perfect copies” became ensured each time a book went to print. However, it turns out that print compositors, the people (both men and women were active as compositors even in the 16th century) who laid out type, made mistakes or “corrections” to the author’s text quite frequently—at approximately the same rate scribes introduced changes into their texts. Not only from edition to edition, but within editions, because proofing went on while printing continued. The same “book” from one copy to the next, might have different versions of the text because error-correction got out of synch with printing and pagination.

In that context, the ongoing discussion of poorly edited copy and lousy, lazy layouts in e-books takes on a new, but familiar, cast: One of the ways publishers will eventually find a reliable business is by solving the problem of “authority,” the standard on which printed book publishing emerged from the “pyratical practices” of the early print era, when pages were badly copied or simply stolen from the printers by employees and assembled into cheap and usually corrupted editions.

By authority, I do not mean what most of the amateur vs. professional journalism debaters mean: The power or right to declare reality is as they see it. Rather, I mean it in the sense of “speaking with authority,” building a reputation for reliability and accuracy, for service to the reader and authors, in order to make the product you sell—a book—the desirable first choice by a potential buyer. In the 1500s, publishers did this by adding their “mark,” the most famous of which is Aldus Manutius’ anchor-and-dolphin mark, to the frontispiece of their editions.

Unfortunately, marks were easy to copy and discerning buyers had to learn to recognize the quality of a work based on everything from the quality of the paper and binding to the choices in typeface and design that they had come to expect. Those more nuanced details of a book were hard to counterfeit. Ultimately, a combination of guild-enforced “self-regulation” (the true meaning of “self-regulation” that free marketers mean when speaking of the virtues of industries that police themselves—they ensure business conditions are nominal) and persistent dedication to improving the quality of printed works yielded a recognizable set of expectations among readers. We’re now living through a renegotiation of the same magnitude.

Books have always been products judged by quality, consistency, binding, informativeness and the enjoyment provided. Any book manipulated by someone to hide, obscure or falsify its provenance is a less-than-perfect copy, even in digital publishing.

Unfortunately, badly converted texts have become the standard in e-books, because the only variable any talks about today is price. I agree with Joe Wikert, writing at TeleRead, that as long as readers view e-books as only cheap copies of printed books, the problem will continue.

The answer? Better editing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for publishing success. The simple answer: Invest in something that makes the book more useful than the print edition. Pagination mapping, for example, so that e-books could be used for academic and scholarly citations, would be a good first step. Shoot for making the book a conduit for communication, not just a channel for distribution.

Authority will reassert itself when it has been earned. As long as just putting a different version (one of more than 70 currently) of Pride and Prejudice up on Amazon is considered “publishing an e-book,” readers are doomed to download some really bad copies.

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