Avoiding the Deadly Scourge of Author’s Alterations

by Joel Friedlander on September 21, 2010 · 25 comments

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Author’s alterations: Just the words carry a certain dread and weight. Galleys or proofs marked up with AA in the margins meant $$ chargeable changes. When it comes time to produce your book, you will become familiar with the idea of Author’s Alterations.

For most people, writing a book is a challenging task. The mental discipline to keep it straight, the ability to span hundreds of pages of material to ensure consistency, are special skills. Authors get well-earned respect for turning out competent, useful or entertaining books.

What might take an author years to produce, we read in a few days. We naturally compress the story into a short time, especially if it grabs our interest. We want to keep reading, or get to the next lesson.

So the time it takes for a reader to get from the first chapter to the last is very short compared to how long it took to write them. Or to edit and rewrite them. This magnifies any inconsistencies in the book. They are just a lot more obvious.

The Book Designer

As a book designer I’m at the end of the writing, editing and rewriting process. The book may have gone through many revisions. It might have been worked on by several friends or editors.

But all of a sudden, the manuscript you’ve worked on all these months or years is going to be turned into a book. A real, live book, with typesetting and chapter openers, with a proper copyright page.

And it’s my job, in the typesetting of your book, to warn authors about Author’s Alterations.

What Exactly Is An Author’s Alteration and What Isn’t?

To get this exactly, look at how a book project unfolds:

  1. After being contracted, I get a sample of the manuscript from the author that shows most or all of the formatting that will be needed in the book.
  2. I use this sample to develop several page designs that are appropriate and meet the author/publisher’s criteria.
  3. We collaborate as necessary to get to a final design, and the client signs off on it.
  4. I request from the author the final manuscript, the one she is ready to go to press with. I remind her that this is what we’ll use to typeset her book, and that she might want to check it over one more time.
  5. When the author gives me the final manuscript we marry it with the page design and produce a complete page proof.

The book is now fully paginated. If there were no corrections we can use the proof for proofreading and indexing, and we would be ready to go to press.

But no.

It just never happens. Particularly with self-publishers, most of whom are creating their first book, something else can happen. You see your manuscript now in book pages. The subheads are set in different type. The lines are hyphenated and justified. It looks different.

Because you’re seeing your work in a whole new way, inevitably you see things you never saw before. You see changes you could make, or a better way to say something. You notice the date you meant to check, but forgot about 2 months ago.

You are now in the AA Zone. You are about to change the final manuscript the typesetter has already laid out into book pages. And when you start to make changes,

One change can change the ending of a line…

which can change the length of the paragraph…

which can change the ending of the page…

which can change the number of pages in the book and the pagination of the rest of the section where the change occurred…

which can change the indexing, the table of contents, the lists of figures or tables.

You now have to pay the typesetter to go back and make the changes in the book, because it’s a file on the book designer’s computer in a page layout program. And if there are anchored graphics in your book, tables, charts, graphics or text boxes, they may all have to be adjusted, too.

Author’s Alterations are not to be confused with Printer’s Errors (PEs) which are corrections to mistakes by the typesetter or layout artist. There is no charge for correcting PEs.

Nobody Likes AAs

Flowing a text file, even a long one, into a page layout is a pretty smooth and efficient process. Going back over a 300 page book finding mispellings on the 7th line of the 2nd paragraph from the bottom on page 117 is an excrutiating and time-consuming process. One or two corrections can easily take as much time as it took to lay out the whole chapter.

Every book is going to need changes—it’s like a law of nature—so I try to account for them into my agreements. “Two hours of author’s alterations are included in this estimate…” is common. Four hours on larger projects. Why?

I’m like you. If I budget for a certain job, I want to know it’s going to cost that much at the end. But time and again it happens, and the AAs start to pile up. All of a sudden you’re two weeks behind schedule and going back into layout. Everyone has to adjust.

Last year I had a client who, against my advice, continued to change, correct, alter, adjust, tweak and experiment with his page proofs. By the time we reached proof #12, the cost of his project had exactly doubled.

Even though there was twice the income from the project, I wasn’t happy about it. No one wants to do the same thing over and over again, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Some authors say it’s just the price they pay for being “spontaneous” or that they are “visual” and have to see the book on the page before they finish editing.

But I say: Avoid the scourge of Author’s Alterations: make sure what you think is “final” really is final. Your book will sail through production and you’ll be a happy publisher.

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    { 22 comments… read them below or add one }

    Michael N. Marcus September 21, 2010 at 2:49 am

    There is a strong human urge to “do the best I can” which conflicts with advice to “leave well enough alone.”

    By my left elbow is what was supposed to be the final proof of a book that was supposed to go on sale on 9/1, and then on 9/15.

    I discovered one sentence that printed in gray instead of black. I did not spot this on my monitor. I did not want the book to be sold this way, so I decided to delay publication, again.

    As long as I was making one repair, I went thrrough the book again, and found 22 items on 366 pages that, while good enough, could be better–so I fixed them.

    While doing the revisions, always-helpful publishing maven Joel Friedlander suggested that since I will soon have five or six books about publishing, I should identify them as a series. Joel was right, and I was stupid not to have thought of this myself.

    So…I took time to develop a series tag line, and asked my cover artist to make a series logo which has to work well on covers of three books that have already been designed.

    My cover artist is just now starting a new career teaching art, so I have to wait for her to find time for me, which delays publication even more.

    If I was willing to live with a little bit of text that should have been black instead of gray, none of this would have happened. Few readers would have noticed. Probably none would complain.

    The book would have been “good enough” — but not the best I could make it.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    – Independent Self-Publishers Alliance, http://www.independentselfpublishers.org
    – “Become a Real Self-Publisher: Don’t be a Victim of a Vanity Press,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661742
    – “Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book,” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661777
    – “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),” http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

    Reply

    Marcus September 21, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Nothing wrong with doing the best you can. I think what Joel was getting at is that it should be the best it can be before it goes to the designer in the first place, rather than continuing to revise after that time.

    Things do happen, and if you’re willing to deal with the delay and cost of making more changes, that’s definitely your right. But in the long run it will make everyone’s job easier and cheaper to hammer out everything beforehand. I know this is easier said than done, and I don’t mean to sound angry. I’ve done book design, editing, copyediting, proofreading, and writing for years, so I’ve seen most of the sides of the business.

    This might require having more than one editor or proofreader, or perhaps going to your local print & copy shop and having them print a copy of the book’s interior for you so you can see it in its proper size and physicality. You’d be amazed what a lot of independent P&C shops can and will do for you for a few bucks.

    There’s also a difference here between self-publishing and traditional publishing. If you’re doing the self-pub thing, you’ve got a lot more leeway and many fewer people you’re accountable to, time-wise. Working with a traditional publisher you’ve got to be more on the ball, because book release dates and events are set way in advance. I’ve always built into the schedule at least three to four weeks of leeway that I don’t tell the author about, just because things like this inevitably come up. Because I’ve been there, too.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Marcus, you obviously speak from experience, and the idea of the “three to four weeks of leeway” that you keep “in your back pocket” is a perfect way to make sure new or “tweaky” authors don’t act against their best interest. Thanks for your comment.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus September 21, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    >>going to your local print & copy shop and having them print a copy of the book’s interior<<

    I did, I did. [grin]

    This particular book had FIVE generations of proofs printed at the UPS Store, before the first of four generations printed by Lightning Source.

    Unfortunately every correction or "improvement" can induce errors that have to be corrected.

    Reply

    Marcus September 22, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Ah, how true that is. It’s just one of the inevitable fun parts of publishing. Every fix can create something that not only has to be fixed, but first must be found. And that’s the time-consuming part that designers are always trying to avoid.

    Does the UPS store print & bind for cheap? It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one. I’ve always found local print shops to be helpful; some even have glue-binding machines, and will print your book in 6×9 (or whatever), bind with a blank cover, and trim it up. Though just getting it coil-bound is usually enough to be able to see it as a book rather than sheets of paper. And that helps tremendously in the proofreading process for authors, I’ve found, because they’re so used to seeing it on screen or on 8.5×11 pages that their brains have become numb to it. (Sometimes helpful for editors, too!)

    Cheers,

    M

    Reply

    Deb Dorchak September 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Marcus,

    When I have proofs printed out I go to http://fedex.com/us/office/ and have FedEx print it out with a spiral bind (just go to Manuals and choose the cheapest, econo option). They do it in under 24 hours and you can go right to the nearest location to pick it up. Very convenient for me since the nearest location is only five minutes away.

    They’re also open 24/7 and I’ve had a few times when I’ve sent them a manuscript at 3 am and gotten it back within a couple hours.

    Joel Friedlander September 22, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Hey Deb, I do the same for my clients. It’s super convenient because they are scattered and I can get on the Fedex network and just send the job to a FedexOffice near them. It makes so much more sense to let the electrons travel and keep the paper local. Thanks for that!

    Michael N. Marcus September 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

    >>Does the UPS store print & bind for cheap? It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one.<>.. will print your book in 6×9…<<

    I find it useful to have my 6X9 pages enlarged to fit the 8.5X11 UPS sheets of paper. It's easier to spot errors, and the margins have more room to make notes.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series: http://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing.html

    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

    Michael, I applaud your willingness to keep improving your books. Since you are your own book designer, the only downside is the money and time spent on new proofs. Deciding when it’s worthwhile to “keep on tweaking” and when it’s time to let it go is completely up to you. In my article the clients end up getting penalized for not finalizing their manuscript before submission. Different.

    Reply

    Michael N. Marcus September 21, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    >>I try to account for them into my agreements. “Two hours of author’s alterations are included in this estimate…”<<

    That's another interesting parallel with my former business installing phone systems. Our proposals typically included "two follow-up visits for additional programming or user instruction."

    This gave us a perceived advantage over competitors who did not include the follow-up visits, and also limited our liability if someone wanted too many return visits.

    We could say that the contract he signed included two visits, and we've already provided three at no extra charge, but from now on there wil be a charge…

    Reply

    Deb Dorchak September 21, 2010 at 7:42 am

    All I can say is THANK YOU! This should be required reading for all authors. Nothing is worse for a designer than to have sweated out getting all the text to fit only to have the author say “Hmm…let’s add this…”

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2010 at 10:53 am

    LoL Deb, we’ve been there! Hey, what’s so hard to understand about the word “final”? Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

    Christy Pinheiro September 21, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Oh, Joel, the scourge of book designers– the self-publisher! The worst part of this story is that I have been there! And on my latest project, there were at least 5 rounds of edits with competent editors; and I still found issues. At some point, though, you just have to cut the beast loose.

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Christy, even in traditional publishing there comes a time when your editor or production editor has to gently pry your fingers from the proofs, and assure you that everything will be okay. Something about the commitment to print paralyzes many people right at the end of the process. Yes, turn that beast loose!

    Reply

    Abhaya Agarwal September 21, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Great post! Something we deal with everyday! Experience has taught us to budget for a minimum amount of changes right up-front just like you mentioned.

    And so many authors who do not understand the difference between a word processor and a layout program, keep asking for an editable version of their manuscripts which they can change themselves. Some have even demanded that we give them an editable PDF!

    Abhaya

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 21, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Abhaya, thanks for your comment. This is part of dealing with self-publishers: education. Even though an author might be highly skilled at her occupation, she may know nothing about books or publishing processes. You are wise to include time for changes in your estimates, and when you find the editable PDF please send me a copy.

    Reply

    Marcus September 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Yeah, still using hard-copy proofs here. For one thing, it’s easier to see changes the author makes (I demand they use a colored pen/pencil, and no software’s track changes feature is perfect), and for another it limits the amount of markup the author does, generally. They might see more small edits & changes, but they’re much less likely to rewrite entire paragraphs or (gasp) chapters.

    Of course, not everyone’s lucky enough to be able to print hard copy proofs or galleys on a whim (we’ve invested in a production class printer here, which actually allows us to do small-scale print runs if need be), but like I suggested to Michael up above, establishing a relationship with a local printer can do wonders for you. Of course not everyone has one of those close by, too. Oh well. We make do. One of the first books I ever edited I did almost entirely by hand and then lead the author through inputting the changes.

    Sometimes I’m glad my freelancing days are mostly behind me…

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander September 22, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I’m finding electronic proofs gradually replacing the big stacks of printouts that have been common. There are editors I work with now who only work on electronic documents and will not accept a job “on paper.” And there are many advantages to marking up PDFs rather than shipping pounds of paper back and forth. Of course, I don’t get to dictate how the corrections are done, so they come in as they come and we deal with it. Thanks for your expert commentary.

    Reply

    Bonnie October 1, 2010 at 9:35 am

    An interesting look at a segment of book publishing that most of us probably know little about. I see a small portion of this in magazine publishing–but doing last-minute alterations on a 32-page magazine is much less of a hassle than doing them on a 332-page novel. Thanks for explaining the process and sharing advice!

    Reply

    Joel Friedlander October 1, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Hi Bonnie,

    Sometimes authors just get such a different perspective on their manuscript once it’s set in type that the urge to get out the blue pencil is just overwhelming. And truly, one of the advantages of doing your own publishing is that you have the opportunity, if you choose to take it, to continue to improve your book as look as you like. Authors just have to understand the consequences. Thanks for stopping by!

    Reply

    Marla Markman June 22, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Joel, As usual, this is a great article I can use to instruct authors on this part of publishing process. Thanks!
    And Deb, great idea on using FedEx to print out and deliver proofs to your local office. I’ll definitely be using that idea.
    Also, I agree, sometimes you just have to let go! I have some writers who also just keep revising and revising, even after their book has been proofed–and that is what causes all the AAs.

    Reply

    Deb Dorchak June 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

    Thanks Marla! FedEx is great…especially when you’re co-authoring with someone over 2K miles away! I can have my writing partner’s ‘script delivered within a short driving distance from her home.

    Reply

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