>We ARE here to judge, but . . .

> . . . not lay blame. Editorial Anonymous has a letter from a reader asking why reviewers don’t ever blame the publisher for “inept design and production decisions” that “ruin” a book. While the letter-writer seems to have a particular if unspoken agenda for his or her comment, I was rather more taken aback by some of the comments which expressed concern that an author might be “hurt” by critical comments about aspects of the book over which the author had no control–a bad cover illustration, say.

Reviewers really can’t work that way. If the type is too small, if the cover is ugly and/or inaccurate, if there are mispellings, we have to call it like we see it, literally. It can’t matter to us who made the mistake. This goes beyond design problems: I remember reading elaborate theories about J.K. Rowling’s excessive adverbiage, with people speculating that her editor was “afraid” or indifferent, or that “Jo” was too powerful or out of control. Who knows? Who cares?

What’s tricky about pointing out a design or typesetting problem is deciding when it’s enough of a problem to mention in a 300-word review. Do we point out that a YA novel has one misspelled word or typo? What about a picture book with a brief text? (I hasten to add that if we have any plans to mention a mistake in a review we always call the publisher, in case there is time to fix it, or we wait for a finished copy to see if they really intended to put that easy reader in 8-point type.) We always go on a case by case basis (a missed hte is one thing, Artic for Arctic in a book about the same is another) but never on the grounds of who is to blame.

And anybody who reviews withe idea of either sparing or flattering authors and/or publishers can’t really do the job properly. I know this is an old problem but these days I blame Facebook.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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  1. Monica Edinger says:

    >Not a response to your post here, but just had to pull out this from one of EA post's comments. "A big design flaw in the form of a horrendous mismatch of illustration to text: the brilliant Norton Juster's warm picture book of grandparental love, with nightmare-inducing pictures. I'm thinking the editor has grandparent issues."

  2. Roger Sutton says:

    >Blog commenters can be insane. present company excepted, of course.

  3. Roger Sutton says:

    >And someone just pointed out a typo in my post. Karma bites again!

  4. >Martha P. commented to me a few weeks ago (at CLNE) that the experience of seeing firsthand how many errors were introduced during the editorial/production process for your joint book had completely changed her longtime views on this subject.

  5. Moira Manion says:

    >What maddens me is, as you mention, an apparently intentional deviation between the text and the book's cover illustration. Often the characters depicted don't fit the way the author describes them. I remember a YA paperback from the 80s, where the author wrote that the female protagonist had shoulder length black hair, but on the cover she had a blonde Farrah 'do. I assume some suits in Marketing and Promotion figured the makeover might sell the book better, and that readers wouldn't be annoyed by the discrepancy, if they noticed it at all. But it sure annoyed me. (And there’s the many times Ged of A Wizard of Earthsea has had his skin lightened, for god knows what reasons.)

    The author shouldn’t be criticized by a reviewer for that, but the publisher certainly should be.

  6. Alex Flinn says:

    >Of course you can't ignore it. If it makes it a waste to buy the book, it must be mentioned because libraries have no budgets for books their clients won't read. But just FYI (I'm sure you must know this), problems with art, typesetting, even sometimes the title are NEVER the author's fault. There's no "who made the mistake" about it. Writers spend hours and hours whining to one-another about this and trying to figure out whether it is possible to get the publisher to change whatever it is (It usually isn't).

    That said, if a book is really good DESPITE a horrible cover, good enough that the librarian should buy it and read it and "hand sell" it, that could be mentioned too. We'd all thank you.

  7. Roger Sutton says:

    >While I agree with you, Alex, that the things you point out aren't the author's fault, it's not always easy to know what is. Not to get personal, but, getting personal, didn't you have a high school opera singer emitting a "c above high c" in a book once? That's an impossible note even for high note specialists like Natalie Dessay or Kathy Battle. But is it your fault? Your editor's for not catching it? The copyeditor? (And if I'm remembering wrong, please forgive me!) But therein also is the reviewer's dilemma–should we have mentioned that error (or at least high unlikeliness), or would it be unfair to give it mention in a short review?

    Nancy, it's true that errors get inadvertently introduced in copyediting, but errors get fixed there as well. Rather than trying to divine who's responsible, reviewers should only judge what's on the page in front of them. It makes zero difference to a reader who is at fault for any mistake in a book.

  8. Hope Vestergaard says:

    >Alex, I guess you're on the naughty list! [Insert sympathetic grins at everyone here.] Roger, I wouldn't have registered any impropriety about a "c above high c" as a reader. I would expect a review to note an error if it were a fact on which the book's entire premise rested, or if it was an untruth that would somehow harm the reader or the subject were it to go uncorrected, as in the case with some errors in non-fiction books. While it's regrettable that there are errors in realistic fiction, it seems forgiveable and somewhat beside the point: I don't read fiction for facts, but for characters and story. This isn't a license for playing fast and loose, but it's an argument not to downgrade an otherwise great read. I understand that it can be hard for reviewers and readers to know who introduced some kinds of flaws. Most of the writers I know recognize that. What's hard to swallow, though, is when such errors are weighed out of proportion to the rest of the book's positives…assuming there are some ;^).

  9. Moira Manion says:

    >I would expect a review to note an error if it were a fact on which the book's entire premise rested, or if it was an untruth that would somehow harm the reader or the subject were it to go uncorrected, as in the case with some errors in non-fiction books. While it's regrettable that there are errors in realistic fiction, it seems forgiveable and somewhat beside the point: I don't read fiction for facts, but for characters and story.

    Hope, I have to vehemently disagree on this. Getting facts, facts mind you, right is never beside the point. Should all facts in fiction be allowed a slip, because, well, it's simply fiction? What about, say, facts about the Holocaust, or whether spilling battery acid on yourself is safe, or whether there are lemon groves in Minnesota?

    I'm spending a lot of time and effort researching facts for a middle-grade fiction novel. Should I just try my best with my present knowledge, and shrug if in the future some reviewer points out that I obviously didn't know what the heck I was talking about, or that I was a lazy writer?

    When I read fiction, I want to believe that the writer is accurate about factual things in which I may know nothing. If an author tells me how a combustible engine works (because the character wants to be a mechanic when she grows up), or the date when the Trail of Years began, I don't want to wonder whether I should double-check that information. I appreciate it when a reviewer notices such mistakes and points them out to me, because I don't want to start a conversation by saying, "Yeah, the Trail of Tears was in 1910," and have people stare at me and shake their head in pity.

    Even in fantasy, I want the writer to establish the "facts" of that world, and to be consistent. (J.K. Rowling, I'm lookin' at you, dear.)

    I want the reviewer to tell me whatever she or he believes is revelant. I'll decide whether I trust the reviewer's judgement or not. Often I disagree (still not liking When You Reach Me). But taste, unlike facts, are matters of opinion.

  10. Moira Manion says:

    >But taste, unlike facts, are matters of opinion.

    I meant, "But taste, unlike facts, is a matter of opinion." Really, I did! i is ah writter!

    I can't blame a publisher. Can I blame exhaustion from working my retail wage-slave job?

  11. Hope Vestergaard says:

    >Oh, Moira. You truly do misread my comment. I don't know how you made the leap from me not caring about facts on the scale of "high c above c" and go straight to Holocaust denial.

    I said:…note an error if it were a fact on which the book's entire premise rested, or if it was an untruth that would somehow harm the reader or the subject were it to go uncorrected

    See the part where I mention untruths that harm the reader or the subject? Holocaust denial would be a good example of both things. I specifically said writing fiction is not a license to play fast and loose with the facts. Even diligent researching writers make mistakes, and they can happen in the editing and production process. I merely suggested that emphasis of errors should be proportionate to the offense.

  12. Moira Manion says:

    >Hope, I didn't misread While it's regrettable that there are errors in realistic fiction, it seems forgiveable and somewhat beside the point: I don't read fiction for facts, but for characters and story.

    How can you say on one hand that one shouldn't "play fast and loose" with the facts, and on the other say it's forgiveable and beside the point? The impression is that some factual errors are acceptable as long as the misinformation doesn't endanger the reader, but others are to be shrugged off if the writer has written an otherwise acceptable story.

    And I repeat, factual errors are not "forgiveable" or "beside the point," whether about the Holocaust or how to grow strawberries. You don't get factual errors in the editing and production process, unless the editor decides to rewrite the facts. Even if this is the case, a reviewer should point out the error, no matter whose fault it is.
    You wrote This isn't a license for playing fast and loose, but it's an argument not to downgrade an otherwise great read.

    I say that if a writer has gotten facts wrong, it's not a "great read." A writer should get the facts right, all and every fact. It's not difficult. To not get them right is laziness and sloppiness.

    You also wrote What's hard to swallow, though, is when such errors are weighed out of proportion to the rest of the book's positives…assuming there are some ;^). I don't respect a writer who won't put forth the effort, and neither should a reviewer.

    If you "don't read fiction for facts," what do you read it for? I don't believe you can write quality fiction if factual accuracy isn't very important. Not bothering to get facts right, in fiction or nonfiction, whatever the fact may be, is ignorance.

  13. Moira Manion says:
  14. Hope Vestergaard says:

    >Moira, I was responding to the high c above c example and you went straight to errors about the Holocaust. Strawman argument. The only edit I would make to my statement is to add the word minor: it's regrettable that minor errors exist…

    I never suggested that it's not important to get things right in fiction, merely that some mistakes are more meaningful to a book's believability than others. In response to a discussion about when a review should call attention to errors, I said they should be noted when the error affects the book's very premise, or when the error affects the reader and/or the subject negatively.

    I never said accuracy is not important, and I never implied that I don't expect the realistic fiction I read to be realistic. Your passion for veracity is admirable; your umbrage at things I didn't say is just silly.

    As for why I read fiction? For entertainment. Is it possible to be entertained in spite of minor errors? Sure. Do I make assumptions about an author's ignorance or sloppiness simply because a mistake exists? No. As stated in the comments here and on EA's original post, some mistakes are introduced in the production process, others are original to the author, but it's hard to know which is which.

  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >There is also a difference in facts that are wrong and facts that are mistakes. In the Flinn book I cited above, that c-above-high-c becomes a regular (and equally commendable) high c on the next page. In Mitali Perkins's new book, a boy is wearing one thing on one page and something different a few pages later without having had time to change his clothes. These are the kinds of errors that can get introduced or overlooked at several points in a manuscript's transition to a book, and they can be made or caught by various people along the way. And even while the Horn Book fact-checks everything we print (a luxury not afforded to all publishers) we still miss mistakes or commit them, changing something that was just fine to something that is incorrect. The question is when does a mistake matter enough to call attention to? We noted neither of the errors I mention above in the Horn Book reviews, because they didn't seem important enough. We did note a stream of what looked like typesetting errors in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon because there were many and they were distracting. The same went for Ken Robbins' recent For Good Measure because of a mistake in measurement terminology. All of these errors are the kinds of things that, when spotted, get fixed in the next printing or edition. (Of course, new errors can creep in, as in a paperback edition of Scruples I have that is crawling with typos that weren't in the hardcover.) Publishers would of course prefer that we never mention such errors, pointing out the planned fix, but why should the 6,000 to 30,000 purchasers of the first edition not know what they are getting?

  16. Anonymous says:

    >Back to the OP, it seems that the person at Ed Anon is just asking you for what you already claim to do–make specific judgements about what is good and bad in a book. She doesn't need you to say whose fault a poor design is, she just wants you to point out that the design undermines a good text, or a good concept. If all you say that you don't recommend the book, then the author doesn't get another contract. Whereas, if you say that writing was excellent, but the ten point type and the absence of illustrations is not going to go over with the intended audience of four year olds, then maybe the author has some hope that she won't be blamed for the poor sales. (the author is of course, grasping at straws, but please, give her a straw.)

    People want their good work recognized, even when it's on a pretty shitty final product. Of course, there's no room in a review to mention that that one illustration on page 29 was actually quite nice, but it seems to me that the Horn Book does try to influence future decisions by publishers by pointing our pretty specifically what you like or don't like in a book.

  17. Alex Flinn says:

    >Roger, if it said C, then it was a typo. You're referring, I think, to The Phantom of the Opera, and the high note is, I believe, a screechy high E-flat or D-sharp, not a C (Don't have sheet music handy; We're moving). She says in the next sentence that she's working on an E, so that makes sense. Fwiw, I could sing that note in high school (in Glitter and Be Gay). It sounded better a few years later, but I was pleased at the time.

    I've had books messed up in editing and fixed in editing. I just got a copy-edited ms today that caught some little stuff I was willing to change (though no fact problems). A reader recently wrote to me to say that the dress on the cover of A Kiss in Time was the wrong era. I think it's CLOSE, though I agree that the dresses in the time of Louis XIV usually had more texture than that one. But I had no say in the cover, and I don't think it would be a book-ruining problem in any case (and neither, presumably, did HB, since they reviewed it favorably).

    And maybe that's the test, whether it's a book-ruining problem. If so, it should be mentioned.

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