A friend, who knows I have been self-publishing my books since 1990, handed me a short article from Die Zeit. This is a German weekly, normally too heavy to lift with one hand – perhaps equivalent to The Observer, except it appears Thursdays for some obscure reason. The article was by Harald Martenstein, senior editor at the Tagespiegel. He is an author, with 17 titles to his name, through four publishers. I regret I have never read anything by him, apart from the two-column article of about 600 words. Here is the gist of his crie de coeur, (not a translation).
Book number one, he made a novice’s mistake. Stressed by other things, he assumed the proofs of his forthcoming book, wouldn’t need reading. Surely, an editor from the publishing house had done that. When he received his copies of the book, he discovered 350 errors (put in by the typesetter, or whatever the digital equivalent is). 120 errors were so serious they couldn’t be ignored, and the book was only 200 pages.
He accepts it was his fault and waited to be put to the sword by the critics. He shouldn’t have worried. As the 19th century critic Sydney Smith put it, ‘I never prejudice my opinion of a book by actually reading it.’ Harald’s critics only checked to see if the book reinforced their opinion. If he writes something the critcs disagree with, there is hell to pay. Nothing else is worth mentioning. This is why I stopped paying attention to critics years ago, the day I read Sydney Smith’s honest declaration. Then I learned that a long forgotten contemporary of Mendelssohn, wrote of the incidental music to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, ‘Second rate music for a third rate play.’ I once saw the play with the music in Hull City Hall. The audience was mainly pupils, dragged along by masochistic English teachers. The kids got the hang and began to treat it like panto. The actors skillfully played up to the audience interpretation and the City Hall soon had a football-match atmosphere with cheering, jeering, booing and much appreciation. The hole in the wall scene reduced the actors to giggling. We had a fantastic evening. Thanks to Shakespeare and Mendelssohn, the actors, pupils and musicians and no thanks to the critics.
Thus, Harald discovered that a spelling mistake would be interpreted by critics as avant-garde. Nevertheless, he spent days studying the proofs of his second book. All OK, except when the printed copies arrived, he thought them a bit thin, and indeed the last 40 pages were missing. Surely, someone checks all the pages are present. Not so. I have taken a print run back to the printer, because a section had the pages upside down. The printer told me he didn’t bind and so he would reclaim from the binder. The point is, as a self-publisher, I did check before anything went to a bookshop.
On one occasion, Martenstein felt the cover wasn’t right. He realised his name missing. It was a huge print run. He has not divulged the publisher. The senior editor is advanced in years and still threatens a coronary when reminded.
His next book was pretty good – just 5 lines missing in the middle. That was corrected by inserting an addendum note in the book at the offending page, with the intended text. So far so good, until he noticed that the page numbering was random. The run was pulped. The second effort seemed in order, the missing 5 lines were now there, except the apology/correction note had been inserted, although there was no longer a mistake. Harald asssumes someone was looking for a task for a work-experience candidate. At least that was easy to correct and created another job.
His final run-in with professionals occurred when he did his first audio CD. The producer liked to make comments during the reading and these can be heard when playing the CD. One hears things like, ‘Harald, your T sounds a bit like a D to me,’ or ‘You are mumbling. You can do that better’. One also gets to know when the producer decided a coffee break was needed.
Harald summarised. ‘If the defence industry worked like publishers, we would never get a living soldier back from Afghanistan.’ Wrong again Harald. A defence industry engineer once told me, ‘the only secret in the defence industry is how much money is wasted’. I have forgotten his name, which is just as well as he probably contravened the official secrets act with that moment of honesty.
Self-publishers are more careful, because they are fooling with their own money. Knock Amazon, CreateSpace, Blurb, Smashwords etc. all you like, but remember, they have made our hobby affordable and fun. I have nothing but praise for the unselfish way Socciones and CreateSpace helped me through my most recent publication, The Last Stop – A Berlin Story. It’s doing OK! Except…. A Polish friend has read it through, with a view to doing a Polish translation (the super heroine is Polish), and has spotted about 5 serious mistakes. This is despite two professional edits, and several done by friends in the UK. I could leave them. One error might be spotted by an observant English reader, although it hasn’t happened yet. The rest will only annoy Poles and if the translation goes ahead, my friend will correct the offences. Nevertheless, next week I start with the corrections. If he corrects and I don’t, and a critic spots the difference, he will be named as a bad translator. And why not get it right? Thanks to POD, I shan’t have to pulp anything. Self publish folks! It is easier on the nerves.
Original article still available at zeit.de
Image – Christoph Niemann’s illustration for Die Zeit.