Digital Typesetter Makes Headlines . . . Oops!

by | Oct 8, 2010

Did you see the story the other day about Jonathan Franzen, the novelist whose latest book, Freedom, has made quite a splash?

Franzen was off to England to promote the release of the book there, when there was a glitch. As reported in the Telegraph UK,

Book firm apologises to Jonathan Franzen for publishing wrong version of novel

It seems that there was a mixup in the typesetting department. Not surprisingly, the last proof of the book had over 50 typographical and other errors. That’s not really that many for a 576-page book.

Apparently the typesetter made all the corrections, saved his file, and then, somehow in the heat of production, sent the uncorrected file to print.

The printer, having no way of knowing he had a file full of errors, dutifully printed and bound the whole press run, and the truckers dutifully distributed them around the realm in anticipation of publication day.

A spokesman for HarperCollins UK, the publisher, said, ”We are doing everything in our power to reprint the book over the weekend and rush it out into the shops early next week.” The print run was 80,000 copies, of which 8,000 had already been sold.

(It didn’t get any better for Mr. Franzen after he got to Britain, either. At a reception in his honor a lunatic ran up and snatched his trademark thick frame glasses off his face and jumped in a lake. It took a local contingent of police to recover his glasses.)

Typesetters Shouldn’t Make This Kind of News

When you’re dealing with a lot of books, and each book is a complex and long project, inevitably mistakes creep in. I had a lot of compassion for the poor typesetter who cost his publisher a fortune due to an inadvertent error.

We create systems to try to avoid errors like this. But systems are only as good as the people operating them.

Over the years I’ve made some pretty creative errors of my own:

  • There was the time I finished a book ready for press, and went to write the final files. Except somehow I had a 5.5″ x 8.5″ 300-page book block (interior) with a 6″ x 9″ cover. How did that happen?
  • One client received a proof of his 276-page nonfiction book right on schedule. The problem was only 70% of the pages had been formatted. You would think this would be noticed, wouldn’t you?
  • A set of lovely page designs went out to a client. I had slaved over the typography, tweaking like mad. When I got the client’s response back, it included a request to fix the typo in a chapter title that appeared 15 times in the sample’s running heads. Ouch, now I see it!

Mistakes like these happen, and despite being careful and having good systems, there are times mistakes that seem impossible slip through the cracks.

But that’s not what matters. What matters is what happens next. Rising to the challenge to overcome a mistake, or finding a creative way to adapt to a circumstance that’s changed, that’s what matters.

Being nimble is valuable. Being creative. Looking for the unexpected solution to a problem that should never have occurred.

A few years ago I was having sets of lectures copied at a local copy shop. They called and asked me to come down, they had a problem.

When I arrived I saw huge stacks of my lectures filling boxes. “The operator misread the job ticket, Mr. Friedlander. Instead of 10 copies he’s produced 100 copies of each lecture.”

We looked at each other. I knew he had to sell them to me at a very low price, if he could. Otherwise they were trash. We quickly reached an agreement and we were able to offer special “sale” pricing on collected sets of lectures for months afterward.

But I guess there’s nothing creative to be done with the 80,000 copies of Franzen’s book: it’s pulping for sure, and that’s a shame.

Photo by David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Emma Newman

    I wanted to say thanks for writing this post as I am currently reading the ARC of my soon to be published novel and I’ve been shocked by the number of errors. Your words here have put it into perspective and reassured me that this is normal!

    My publisher is a small press, so I’m grateful that he gave me the chance to check the ARCs before going to print (he appreciates what a perfectionist I am!) and I am so glad he did. I know he’ll be checking it too, but I don’t know how many times I polished it, then it went through editing, copy editing, proofing by two people in the publishers and then to this stage and those errors still got through!

    The brain only sees what it wants to I guess. One of the things that struck me though was how seeing it in book form, in a completely different font to my manuscript really helped me to see it with fresh eyes.

    Publishing… takes years of your life if you’re an author, publisher or anyone to do with it!

    • Michael N. Marcus

      >>seeing it in book form, in a completely different font to my manuscript really helped me to see it with fresh eyes.<<

      That's a very important realization, Emma.

      Different errors will be noticed while viewing an MS Word doc on-screen, reading a PDF on-screen, reading proof pages prepared by a UPS store, and reading a bound book.

      It may seem that the bound book is best for making an evaluation, but 200% magnification on a PC screen is much better for detecting multiple periods, commas that should be periods, straight quotes that should be curly quotes, accidental italics and bolds, apostrophes that curl in the wrong direction, and text in an improper-but-similar font. Serif and decorative fonts can hide errors that are visible in simple sans serif fonts.

      The bound book is important for detecting inconsistencies that may not be obvious when seeing a separate cover and interior, like different subtitles, or "ten years in the making" on the back cover and "nine years" in the introduction.

      Like border guards, we must be forever vigilant (but we'll never be 100% sucessful).

      On Friday I uploaded a much-delayed book file for printing. A few hours later I noticed four minor errors that probably no one else would notice.

      I decided to fix them and re-submit the file tomorrow. I can live with errors I didn't catch, but I can't accept errors I knew about and did not fix.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Traditional publishing practice is to issue ARCs as “uncorrected page proofs” and you are exactly right to take the opportunity to proof them carefully. There is no replacement for a really good, professional proofreader although it seems that more and more publishers and authors seem to be forgoing this essential step in the publishing process.

      I just signed up for your short story club. What a great idea! Thanks for stopping by.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Hey, Michael, aren’t those the same errors you decided to leave alone? Or is this one of your other projects?

        I think it’s possible to produce books that are perfect or close to it. But to do it by yourself is probably impossible. Most books I work on that are properly organized need no more than 3 proofs. I sense that your creative approach to “proofing” your books is also tied into the way that you continue to revise and improve them, so you might not be able to make use of professionals to help out. Thanks for the detail!

        • Michael N. Marcus

          I was going to let them go, but I realized I could fix them easily, and the book won’t be delayed due to a file being uploaded this morning to replace one uploaded on Friday.

          All of my books but one “quick & dirty CreateSpace” book have had two stages of professional editing, but I invariably find things I want to change after the “final” editing.

          It’s a curse, but I like the power.

      • Emma Newman

        Thanks for joining! I hope you like it, I love running it :)

        All of the corrections have been sent to publisher now, so I’m back to waiting for news of the next step. I doubt I will have any fingernails left by the time we get to launch!

        Em x

  2. maggie

    Mistakes happen because Murphy’s Law doesn’t care if you publish with Random House or Randomly House. But, with Franzen’s current glitch, you can be sure that, despite errors and his publisher scrambling to pulp books, this particular author will succeed.

    Sadly, his publisher’s typesetter won’t.

    Which is a shame because that typesetter is probably a good one.

    • Joel Friedlander

      It seems like there used to be more checks on production, with a production editor in between the typesetter and the printer. With electronic workflow, it wouldn’t be surprising if more of these kinds of errors didn’t occur. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Sally Collings

    I love hearing about other peoples’ publishing mistakes … makes me feel so much better about my own! Thanks, Joel.
    I recently blogged on the immutable law of publishing: that there is no such think as a perfect book. The art lies in distinguishing between ‘that’s a shame’ flaws and ‘OMG’ flaws.

    • Michael N. Marcus

      This morning, I finally uploaded a file of a book that’s six weeks behind schedule, and has had at least 1,000 corrections and changes through 13 proofs.

      I was finally satisfied that it was good enough, and I have four other books to work on.

      A few minutes ago, I found a comma in it that should be a period, and a text box rule that’s a quarter of a point too thick.

      I decided to leve the errors alone. If I made a perfect book, I might be assassinated for my hubris.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Michael, something about your story makes me glad you do your own typesetting. It seems like, similar to some authors I’ve worked with, you prefer to edit on the page proofs, so it’s good you’ve got control of your process. I think.

        • Michael N. Marcus

          After being disappointed by several trade puiblishers, I doubt that I could work with one again.

          My workflow for non-fiction books may be unusual compared to most writers.

          When I start, I have a tentative page count and cover price in mind. I start writing _a book_ from the very beginning, formatting pages as spreads, killing widows and orphans, inserting and adjusting artwork, and being aware of chapter sequences.

          After 40-plus years of non-fiction, I recently started a novel, and it’s a very different experience.

          I’m telling a story — not presenting information. I don’t know how long it wil be, what characters may show up and what they’ll do, or even how the book will end. It’s stream-of-consciousness, free association, almost a word dump from brain to monitor. I’m almost unaware of the keyboard as I’m writing this book and don’t pause to fix typos.

          With this book I write with my mind more than with my fingers. It’s like when I’ve been in a really good dream that I don’t want to end and the conscious-me tries to manipulate the subconscious-me to keep the story rolling as dawn is approaching.

          When I finish telling this story, _then_ I’ll deal with making a book out of it.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sally, you are funny. Yes, the search for the “perfect” book is rather futile. Knowing how to allow for only small errors is the art.

  4. bettymingliu

    thanks for this post. sobering. if things like this can happen to a hot writer at the top of his game, what hope is there for us little guys in dealing with major publishers? yet another reason to self-publish…

    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Betty,
      Yes, it wasn’t a good week for Franzen, but he can’t really complain, can he? Luckily these kinds of mistakes are pretty rare. But when you get ready to self-publish, let me know!

    • Marcus

      I don’t think there’s any correlation between the talent/marketability of a writer and this happening. The typesetter could just have easily messed up on a 200-page collection of short stories by an unknown writer. Typesetters don’t single out lesser-known writers to make their mistakes on. It just happens every once in a while.

      And the way I see it, this is a reason not to self-publish. If a publisher makes this sort of mistake, they’ll “do everything in their power” to make it right. If you make the mistake when you’re self-publishing, well, you’re out the cost of another print run.

      But yeah, if it can happen to Franzen’s new book, it can happen to anyone. But it’s a non-discriminatory mistake, I think.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Marcus, I totally agree. It could have been any book, just bad luck that it was a book with an 80,000 copy printing rather than a more common small print run.

        I’m not sure that self-publishers are at a disadvantage when it comes to errors like this, though. They are much more involved in the process, and check proofs all along the publication path. And since they are using free lance help, I find there’s a lot more “ownership” of the work than you might find in a huge corporation.

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    >>somehow I had a 5.5″ x 8.5″ 300-page book block (interior) with a 6″ x 9″ cover. How did that happen?<<

    A while ago I ordered a copy of a book I had written and published from one of the weirdo sellers on Amazon with suspiciously low prices. They were charging $2.99 for a "new" copy my $17.95 book. I was curious.

    I received my 6 x 9 cover wrapped around another publisher's 6 x 9 pages. There was no similarily in title, ISBN, sublect or publisher's name.

    However, my cover was designed for about 100 pages more than the other publisher's book, so part of the spine wrapped around onto the back of the book, and the left side of the back cover was just sliced off to make it fit.

    I don't know how Lightning Source produced this monstrosity, or how it was allowed to leave their building, or why the problem wasn't noticed when it was received by, and later shipped by, the bookseller.

    I received a refund from the seller, and apologies from both the seller and LS. The book now has a place of honor in my museum, right near Duo, the two-headed dog, and Wanda, the bearded lady.

    Michael N. Marcus
    Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:

    • Joel Friedlander

      Great story, Michael. Sounds like quite a museum you have there. Thanks.



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