Books are a chance to gather with friends, a refuge from the world, an answer to a problem that felt impossible, a connection to distant people, a lifetime of inspiration. They get to you after hundreds, even thousands of hours, of work by authors, editors, copy editors, and booksellers and they stay with you, in one form or another, for your whole life. We asked local authors, booksellers, and other book industry people to reflect on their experiences writing and publishing books, the importance of books in their lives, the role of independent bookstores in our society, and why books are so much more than just words on paper.
Below is a piece by Josh Cook about the importance of copy editors.
I was going through the copy edits of my book: the last round of significant work I would do on it before I had to let it go forever and turn to the task of helping convince people to buy it. I suspect most people outside of publishing when they think of “copy editing” (if they ever think of copy editing), think about proofreading, about the last stage in the process before they would turn in school assignments. Copy editing has a lot of proofreading in it, of course, a lot of catching typos, a lot of fixing grammar, a lot of finding that one last time the two hyphens hadn’t auto-corrected into an m-dash, but a copy editor can do a lot more than that.
Amidst the typos and comma splices and wrong uses of “too,” there was a note from my copy editor explaining that the time frame listed for one of the characters to jog a certain distance was way too slow for her to be considered a “fast runner.” I don’t know how I came up with the original time. Maybe I was roughly extrapolating from how I run (which is “only in the context of a team sport”), maybe I was just making an educated guess, maybe I just inserted a time frame that seemed plausible and promised to fix it at some undetermined later date. Whatever I did, the mistake made it to my copy editor who either is a jogger and so knew the number was wrong and/or did the math to be completely thorough.
How many people would have actually noticed this mistake? How many people would have done the math? How many joggers would have shaken their heads? Maybe none. But even one would be a disaster, because everything I asked that reader to believe as they read my weird-ass detective story would collapse because they could no longer trust I knew what I was talking about. Once that trust is lost, nothing will get it back.
Copy editors don’t just correct the grammar and typos, they correct the book’s relationship with reality. They ensure the book, no matter how weird it is, is internally consistent. They make sure the author knows what she’s talking about. They make sure nothing breaks the reader out of the world of the book. They help bring a book as close to perfection as possible.
When you buy a book (especially when you buy it at full price at an independent bookstore), you’re not just supporting that bookstore or that author, you’re supporting that copy editor, you’re supporting the custodian at the publisher, you’re supporting the delivery driver, you’re supporting the dozens of people who have helped get the book out of the writer’s head and into your hands, both in thanks for the work it’s already done and to make sure they has the resources to do more. When you buy a book, you’re not just acquiring a bound array of pages with words printed on them, you’re buying a village that is trying to add something valuable to our world.
JOSH COOK is the author of postmodern detective novel An Exaggerated Murder. He is also a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Somerville, Massachusetts. His fiction, criticism, and poetry have appeared in numerous leading literary publications, including The Rumpus, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.