How to Save Money on Your Book Proof Corrections

by | Jul 26, 2011

I’ve been dealing with quite a few book proofs recently. Almost all of these proofs are in the form of PDFs, Adobe’s supremely useful cross-platform file format.

These proofs are better looking than the books that will eventually be printed from the same PDF files. In a way, you could say that the PDF is the original expression of the layout file, and the printed version is a second-generation reproduction of the file.

But philosophy aside, books need to get to press. And the big challenge for every author is to get rid of the bugs.

Typographical errors are the biggest problem, they tend to sneak into your book over time, hiding cleverly in the long grass of the tens of thousands of words that make up your manuscript. But they are not alone.

There are missing words, incorrect cross-references, inconsistencies in naming or descriptions, continuity problems in the narrative, and every other error you could think of. And probably some you couldn’t have imagined.

(By the way, this is one of the reasons I have such affection for professional proofreaders. Certainly one of the least-heralded, yet most crucial positions in the publishing chain. They have saved me—and my books—numerous times.)

The PDF Rules

The proofs circulate from designer to author, to editors, to proofreaders, back to the authors, off to peer reviewers, eventually making their way back to the book designer.

At this point all the corrections are collected on one copy of the proof, but here there’s often a disconnect. How, after all, are you going to communicate the hundreds of corrections to the designer so they can be made in the book file?

There are three common choices, and it pays to take a look at your options and the consequences of each.

  1. Annotated PDF—This is by far the best way to send corrections back. You can clearly annotate the PDF with a variety of paid or free PDF annotation tools. You can add longer corrections in the form of text notes. This allows the person doing the book layout to copy and paste the text into the appropriate spot, eliminating errors that creep in during re-typing. It’s easy to make copies of the file, you can bookmark your place to come back to after lunch, you can store the document in a cloud server for safety. But the biggest advantage is that the PDF and all the corrections can be seen on the page, as if you were looking at a paper manuscript.
  2. Marked up paper manuscript—The long-time standard in the publishing process, I still have thick stacks of paper proofs in my office, their large rubber bands slowly drying out. Once you have the proof, it’s pretty easy to work with. Corrections are clearly marked and you can locate the spot that needs fixing instantly because it’s visual. The problems with paper proofs are all the complications of shipping big wads of paper across the country and back. It takes time, it’s expensive, shipments can get lost or delayed, pages shift out of order or get left out.
  3. Page/paragraph/line reference—Every once in a while corrections come in a different form. An editor or client will send an email or a word processor document that looks something like this:

    page 252, 6th paragraph, 2nd line, add comma after her, should read … as he turned to her, …
    page 254, 2nd paragraph, last line, change last comma to colon
    page 254, 4th paragraph, 3rd line, Times should be in italic, but not New York

    This is the typographer’s nightmare. I’ve seen lists like this that went on, single spaced, for pages and pages. There is nothing that will so sap the spirit of a designer, a layout person, more than having to wade through this swamp of mind-numbing detail, hour after hour. Painstakingly, you read the first correction, go to the page, start to hunt for what needs to be changed.

Do Corrections Visually—Please

If you only have five or ten corrections to send your typesetter, go ahead and write them out, nobody will mind. But if you have a whole proof full of corrections, save yourself a lot of money and do them visually. I can tell you from experience that the page/paragraph/line method of doing corrections will take your book designer about three times as long to get done, and you will pay for it.

For those who can’t work out the PDF annotation software, print out the proof and mark it up clearly with a red pen, then send the manuscript off. At least you’ll have the satisfaction of having saved the sanity of your trusted book designer. And that’s a good thing.

Photo by With Associates

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Liz Broomfield

    “By the way, this is one of the reasons I have such affection for professional proofreaders. Certainly one of the least-heralded, yet most crucial positions in the publishing chain. They have saved me—and my books—numerous times.”
    — Thank you! Also thank you for pointing out that there is a difference between editing and proof-reading – I spend my life pointing this out (actually I just ended up writing a blog post about it, to which I direct people!).

    I use pdf-Xchange which I’ve found great for annotating proofs of the magazines I edit and proof – you can do little speech bubbles or call out boxes. If there’s a lot to change, I annotate the proof with reference numbers, then provide a Word document along with the PDF with the text for those bits for the client to copy and paste.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks for the tip about pdf-Xchange, Liz, I’ll check it out.

  2. Richard Sutton

    Thanks for this great post, Joel. As an old marker-pen and Haberule designer, I’m still amazed every time the world thinks it need to re-invent the wheel. Visual proofreader’s marks and galley/pdf markup are so immediately understood by most industry professionals, that the time-consuming page/line/paragraph tomes on a line-for line seem a ridiculous second choice. I may have given up moveable type headlines, but some things have been gotten right by those who plied the trade before us.

  3. bowerbird

    joel said:
    > I agree it makes sense to
    > keep manuscripts in a writing environment
    > until they are truly final, and
    > only then release them for typesetting.

    grandpa, tell us again about this “typesetting”…
    please? we love it when you tell us your stories! ;+)


  4. Dave Bricker

    Apart from my book clients, I have anywhere from six to a dozen Master’s thesis papers on my virtual desk at any one time. Though it’s impossible to catch 100% of the errors before typesetting, it makes sense to use Word or an equivalent like Pages or Open Office to add comments and suggest changes. When changes are approved, they are literally added into the document whereas with a PDF, the source document can be annotated but not modified. That’s an important difference.

    In reality, there are many errors that just won’t become visible until the manuscript starts to look like a book; that’s just the nature of the beast. Sometimes, it’s worth changing a line or two to control orphaned text, etc. I do have a few clients who have invested in Adobe InDesign so they can be involved in the entire process, but for most, I keep the document in Word format as late in the editing process as possible and only then move to annotated PDFs.

    I expect that the move to cloud-based computing will ultimately result in more and more sophisticated ways to share documents (a la Google Docs). An online PDF (or even better, an InDesign document) editable by those granted privileges to do so would be an enormous blessing.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Yes, I think a fully-editable PDF is a kind of holy grail of the portable document sect. I agree it makes sense to keep manuscripts in a writing environment until they are truly final, and only then release them for typesetting. This is one of the easiest ways for self-publishers to save money on their book production, too. Of course, the proofs I’m referring to in the article are typeset page proofs and, so far, PDF is the easiest format for proofing and distribution.

  5. Carolyn

    I meant to say “…using key words from the edit to locate the spot.”

  6. Carolyn

    I still prefer marked up paper proofs, although it’s rarely done these days and depends on the publisher and schedule. It’s the easiest method to move through quickly. My next preference is #3, since the list can be imported and formated with the book’s text style in InDesign, then cut and pasted into the book file, staying in one software program. (I can do a quick Find using key words form the to locate the spot.) In theory, PDF corrections make sense, but in practice they are the least efficient. They seem to require much more mouse-clicking (maybe 4 to 8 times as much), which leaves my hand, arm, and shoulder crippled by the end of the day. If clients do use PDF for edits, it’s best when they use precise tools (insert, cross-out, and highlight tools) rather than the note tool (which can obscure the correction spot) and send only one edited PDF per round of corrections.

    • Joel Friedlander


      Thanks for your sound and experienced advice. Although some of the annotations in PDFs are a pain to deal with, I also use the copy and paste method whenever possible from added notes and use the “match formatting” commands to paste them into the book file. I think I would rather scan-and-click than do all the mental work of figuring out where the corrections are, but it’s purely a personal preference.

  7. Lauren @ Pure Text

    Yes the page/paragraph/line reference method is a nightmare. I edit in Word (or OpenOffice) as Michael’s editor does, as the program has a handy tool for editors called Track Changes. I prefer it over marking up a physical manuscript because I like to go over my edits and sometimes edit an edit (ha), so it’s nice to be able to simply delete it or move it rather than having to cross it out and make a mess.

  8. Eddy Hagen

    Please be sure to use the right tools when checking a PDF proof: earlier this year we at VIGC checked over 20 different PDF viewing tools and only Adobe Acrobat (v9 and up) and Adobe Reader (v9 and up) were reliable in showing a PDF proof correctly. *All* others that we’ve tested (including Foxit, Mac OS/X Preview) failed in showing parts of the PDF (e.g. ‘overprinting’ which is quite common in prepress PDFs). You can see some examples here:

    • Joel Friedlander

      Eddy, thanks for the link to your study. Transparency, overprinting, reversed-out type and color fidelity are all problems that can appear with PDF viewers or different platforms. In this article, and for the vast majority of authors, all we’re dealing with here are book interiors which are almost all straight text. So for the purposes of marking up book proofs (unless your book is full color and heavily illustrated) I think most of the tools will do just fine.

  9. Michael N. Marcus

    Sheila M. Clark — my hawkeyed editor — works on my MS Word docs before we get to ther PDF stage. She makes her comments and corrections on her PC, not by hand, in red type, and emails the manuscript back to me.

    After I incorporate or reject her corrections, she goes over the next-generation Word doc, and then the PDF, and then a printed proof.


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