Few writers have been around and working for as long as I have. Same is true of computer specialists. Endurance doesn’t mean I do great work, but it does give me some perspective on the quality of work that is being done.
For instance, Apple claims there are over 200,000 apps (applications) for the new iPad, rather shocking to an old guy who once knew about pretty much every application in the world back in 1956. What’s most shocking about this enormous figure is that there must be at least 50,000 programmers behind it–and probably more than 100,000. My impression is that they can’t all be doing a quality job–or can they?
Something similar is happening with writing, or perhaps I should say “publishing.” Bowker reports that about 300,000 books are published annually in the USA. Others report more than 600,000, but no need to argue about the numbers. In either case, there are a lot of “writers” out there. My impression is that they can’t all be doing a quality job–or can they?
How can we answer the quality question? Well, some people measure quality (or, rather, lack of quality) by the number of errors they find in a book or website (or bugs in a program). That’s not the only measure, but it’s perhaps the easiest one to get our hands around. Easiest, but not necessarily easy.
Rather than ask the questions in general, let me take the risk of asking them about myself. I have records and memories of how well I did 50+ years ago, and how well I’m doing now. For example, the first person who read the published version of my latest novel, Earth’s Endless Effort, liked the book but sent me a list of 19 typos. Here’s the first item on the list:
Page 6. She thought her only damage was soiled jean, until she grabbed a small tree and pulled herself upright.
Did you see the typo? A missing plural s. Clearly an error that slipped by five first readers.
Okay, here’s the next one:
page 8. She remained standing and cautiously and limped ahead.
Did you see this one? An extra “and.” Again, missed by five readers (and me).
Before continuing in this vein, let’s define “quality”: Quality is value to some person.
So, you be the person. You’ve seen these two clear errors. Have they reduced the value of the book to you?
I know that for me, I’m bothered by typos. If I read a published book and find two typos on the first 8 pages, I’d be rather wary about the quality of the book. Typos on 25% of the pages? Not so good.
But my suspicions weren’t confirmed. Earth’s Endless Effort is 324 pages long, so 19 typos on 324 pages means typos on 19/324. That’s typos on less than 6% of the pages. So, if I kept reading, I would have stopped worrying about the typos. (Of course, as author, I worried about them immensely, and immediately set about repairing them.)
My first thought upon receiving this list was, “I didn’t make this many errors in the old days.” But I was wrong. I did make this many errors, and always have. But in the old days, I had the services of a professional copy editor on each of my books–in addition to five or more first readers. So, I serious asked myself, “Do I need to hire a professional copy editor for each new book?”
To answer that question, I had to ask myself what was the value of this extra stop in the publishing process? What was the cost? I investigated the cost and found a fine copy editor conveniently here in town (Albuquerque) who would edit the book for $10 per page for copy editing fiction. A little web research showed me that charging per page is not typical. The majority of copy editors seem to charge by the hour, ranging from about $25 to $120 per hour.
So how fast do they edit? A typical figure was 6 to 8 pages per hour. Using the lower figure, I get rates between $4+/page and $20/page. So, the quote I received was somewhere in the middle, and for 324x$10 = $3,240, I could have had a professional copy-edit of Earth’s Endless Effort. So, assuming my editor caught all 19 of these typos (and maybe a few more), would it be worth it?
Since I earn about $4 for each book sold, either in paperback or eBook, I’d have to sell over 800 books just to pay the copy editor. Well, would my readers would pay, say, one dollar more for a book without these 19 typos? Would you? Some would, but most wouldn’t. As it is, I’m not likely to sell 800 copies of Earth’s Endless Effort unless it somehow takes off through viral marketing. Not in a year or two, at least.
Every one of my 40 non-fiction books has sold more than 800 copies (more than 8,000, actually), and some have sold more than 250,000 copies. At that sales figure, my copy-editing cost would amount to about a penny a page–well worth the cost to me, just to maintain my reputation as a careful author.
But even those carefully copy-edited non-fiction books still contained errors in their published versions. Because of its top, in The Psychology of Computer Programming I kept track of the typos as they were reported to me. Even after professional copy-editing, more than 19 errors turned up. And even after 35 years, a reader informed me of a typo that nobody else among more than 250,000 readers had ever reported.
The fact is that in 50 years, no reader has ever asked me for their money back because of a typo–or a gaggle of typos (is gaggle the plural word for typos, or is this yet another typo?) The fact seems to be that as long as the number is kept low enough (which differs a bit for each reader), most books of fiction don’t lose value from typographical errors–especially when it’s obvious what the sentence really says. (It’s different for poetry, of course. As Oscar Wilde said, “A poet can survive anything but a misprint.”)
Oh, by the way, not all the 19 typos were in fact errors–only 16, by my count. For instance, at one point, a character calls skunks “polecats,” which in certain regions of the USA is slang for “skunks.” My reader is German, so probably didn’t know that, but in a way, though it’s not a typo, it may have been more bothersome than a “real” typo because it stopped my reader in his tracks. I know that often happens to me as reader. In fact, the fewer the typos I find in a book, the more actual typos I do find bother me–because I wonder if perhaps I’m wrong about them. So, for me, quality actually worsens if the copy-editing is too good. (It’s never perfect, believe me.)
With the coming of the web with its hundreds of thousands of “programmers,” the question of what’s “good enough” quality has arisen in the computer programming field. But that’s nothing new, because 50 years ago, in the space program, we had to consider the question with extreme care. Those of us who had John Glenn’s life in our hands knew that “a few bugs” wasn’t good enough, so we spent literally millions of dollars to ensure that each potential bug was tracked down and removed. (And yet we still missed a few, though luckily nobody died because of these bugs that got away.)
So what about those 200,000 apps for the iPad? I checked with Apple’s website and found the page featuring some of the best of those apps. They were the following: Popular Sciene Magazine; a “Real Racing” driving game; the periodic table of the elements; an alphabet game to teach children their letters; a singing coach called Glee; a real-estate search app; the Weather Channel; a to-do list; Marvel Comics; The Wall Street Journal; 25,000 recipes; a baseball watcher; real-time stock quotes; another car racing game; Scrabble; a car race watching app; and a labyrinth game.
It’s hard to see how anybody’s life will be endangered by a bug in one of these apps. (Maybe their virtual life while car racing.) Well, maybe somebody would lose money because of a wrong stock quote, but that’s about the worst I can imagine. And, after one or two errors like that, most users would simply stop using that app. I’d guess there are at least a hundred stock quote apps to choose from in the collection.
So, given the different meaning of “quality” to most iPad users, those “programmers” are still doing a quality job. And so are those authors who self-publish books containing 16 typos.
There’s a movement in the computer community today called “good enough software.” (Some people have blamed/credited me with starting this movement. I don’t think it’s important who gets the credit–or blame.) <http://www.laputan.org/pub/sag/Good-Enough-Software.pdf> We are learning to accept what us old-timers would call “lower quality.”
We old-timer writers whose works are being posting on the web will also have to learn to accept what we would call “lower quality.” Book View Café is attempting to be a publisher that maintains those old values, but that objective is fundamentally in opposition to some of the other things we value—freedom from artistic interference; speed from writer’s brain to reader’s eyes; access to our literature at the lowest cost; and probably others.
So, I believe that we need to learn how to be “Good Enough.” According to the computer pundits, “to claim that any given thing is Good Enough is to agree with all of the following propositions:
- It has sufficient benefits.
- It has no critical problems.
- The benefits sufficiently outweigh the problems.
- In the present situation, and all things considered, further improvement would be more harmful than helpful.
Are we “good enough” to do all this?
Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and hopes to blog here regularly. His science fiction “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See” by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized on the front page rotation.
For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC:
Or his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com