November 13th, 2007

Not so long ago I launched a scathing attack on reviewers who blame editors for bad books. Alright, not an attack, I just said I thought it was a bit weird, when you’ve no idea what the editor did or didn’t do. I made the point that, ultimately, an author has the right of refusal on changes and has to be responsible for the finished work. Poor proof-reading as a criticism I gave similarly short shrift. The author reads the proofs too, you know – they should be checking for errors, and again have the ultimate responsibility for the blah, blah, blah.

Then this lot arrived:

Not the tea, the page proofs. For those unfamiliar, when these turn up from the publisher it is the final chance to catch errors. The manuscript has been edited and desk-edited. Now the author, plus a paid proof-reader, sit down and examine the proofs which are, in theory, the final setting of the book, just on loose-leaf A4 rather than in a bound hardback, paperback, or whatever. There should hopefully be very few changes to make at this point. A spelling error or two. The odd double ‘the’, stuff like that. No re-writing of any significance, certainly. In fact, the author is supposed to pay for any changes made at this point (though my dark masters at Gollancz, being nice folks as dark masters go, have let me off so far).

It’s hugely exciting when you see page proofs of your work for the first time (at least for me, I don’t get out much). Even in this age of word-processors and desktop publishing, there’s still something about seeing a book properly typeset. It gives the work extra authority. It seems suddenly something more than that nonsense you dreamed up alone in a dark room.

Unfortunately, the novelty does somewhat wane with time. Especially when you see page proofs of a book for the second or third time – for a mass-market or a foreign edition, say. There’s also a strange effect that seems to happen after a book has been out for a while. All that stuff you thought you went over so carefully, that stuff you combed, and straightened, and flicked at until it was all perfect, suddenly some of it doesn’t seem quite right anymore. You start to see clumsy constructions, words repeated too close together, and above all, the dreaded things you’d do differently now.

You squint at the page thinking, “bloody hell, can this really be the same version I proof read last time? This can’t be right!” You drag an old edition down from the shelf (I do, as it happens, keep a shelf-full of my own books to hand, don’t hate me) and you leaf through til you find the spot and, “bloody hell it is the right version! How did I never notice how rubbish that is?” For some reason, sequences you always thought were great at the time are particularly prone to this – perhaps, having written them and thought they were good you mentally put them to one side, then pay less attention in the edit, while re-writing, polishing and improving the weaker parts to the point where they’re actually better.

Then, of course, there’s that strange feeling of shiftless panic you get when it’s actually time to hand the proofs back and let go of your work. Ever have it when you’re posting a letter? You raise it to the slot in the postbox then suddenly you think – hold on, this is the right letter, isn’t it? The envelope’s got something in it, right? I put a stamp on it, didn’t I? Then there’s this odd sensation of horror as you finally drop the thing in the box and can’t retrieve it any longer. The button is pushed. Multiply that by a thousand and that’s the feeling of finishing the proofs, for me at least. No big moment of wey-hey! Now I can have the one cigarette a year I allow myself only when I finish a book like James Caan in Misery! Just a long, slow moment of – Shit. What did I get wrong?

March is going to be a big month for me. And perhaps for you too, if you’re a reader of me, who knows? Before They are Hanged is coming out in the US, then in the UK in mass-market paperback, then Last Argument of Kings in the UK in hardcover and trade paperback. Great. The downside is that all three sets of proofs have turned up to read at once. Now the Last Argument of Kings I don’t mind so much. Firstly, it’s a brilliant, brilliant book (ha ha). Secondly, I haven’t yet been able to just sit down and read it right through in a set form. Thirdly, I’m sure I’ll find quite a few little corrections I want to make.

But I also have two very slightly different versions of Before They are Hanged to read. Better yet, I read it already a couple of months ago when I read the entire series back to back looking for howling plot-holes, and sudden changes of character hair-colour and the like. I read proofs of the UK trade editions before it was published last year. Furthermore, of course, I’ve read and re-read the entire thing while copy-editing and editing, I’ve read every chapter while writing, I’ve gone over and over, cutting down and refining, cutting down and refining, until I know it like God Save our Gracious Queen, just without the misty-eyed nostalgia.

I mean, Before They Are Hanged, it’s a brilliant, brilliant book (ha ha). Of course it is. But please, just for a year or two…

Can I not read it again?

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on November 13th, 2007.

12 comments so far

  • Juan Ruiz says:

    Dear Joe:
    If anything, your blog serves to educate about all the working of the editorial process that I didn´t know til now.
    Proof reading is what has kept me from writing, just the first time I re-read something I have written was enough to throw everything trough the window.
    I have no doubt Last Arguments will be a great book (ha ha), It cannot be difficult to make better than the other two… (hahaha).
    (PD: you pay someone to be proof reader??????, I can think of at least five poeple in this blog that would do it for free!!!! (Well if beer and tea are included…)

  • Bob Lock says:

    Although I’m a minnow compared to the whale shark that you are all that you’ve stated rings so true with what I experienced myself with my dark-fantasy book. I’d read it so many times I was finally sick of the damn thing. Had friends and relatives read it and then I corrected typos and errors. At last it went to my publisher and editor and three drafts later (after further corrected mistakes) it went to print. It’s the part of the writing process I hate the most, but probably the most important part of all, no good having a great idea if you can’t get it onto the page as a legible and understandable final product.

    BTW the damn thing still had some typos in it when it went to print, but by then it was too late, however, nobody’s brought them up yet, so I’m not going to mention where they are, hehe…

    ps why two versions of Before They Are Hanged?

  • Juan,
    The writing is more about the reading than the writing, in the end, at least for me. I understand that Steve Erikson basically writes a first draft, goes over it the next morning, and that’s it done. Not so for me. Over, and over, and over again. Refine, refine, refine.

    Yeah, I’m finding little errors even on the third proof-read. Two versions of BTAH – the UK Mass-Market edition (which has smaller pages then the trade, and therefore is re-set) and the US trade paperback (The Pyr edition has the exact same content, but they set it differently, necessitating another check for errors…)

  • Juan Ruiz says:

    No question why Erikson does that, if he has to re-read all his back-breaking books, correct and re-correct… well he will never be finished…
    Also I understand why the time between editions takes so much, with all the correcting… and yet you are not in a signing tour, Joe, then we’ll have to wait a George RR martin time.
    So please, don’t get too famous…

  • Bob Lock says:

    Bloody hell, I wouldn’t have thought you’d be roped into proof reading various copies just because they’d been type-set differently, what a pain in the arse. I can understand the need for the orginals to be scrutinised thoroughly but would have thought it was the editors/printers responsability for any change in layout and therefore down to them to make sure it was ok… hmm…
    How the heck do you manage with foreign adaptations then?

  • Juan,
    Indeed, there is a lot to do other than the writing, and even at my level you quickly realise the more successful you become the more bits and pieces you end up having to do. I’m surprised George RR manages to get a book done every five years.

    I suppose you could leave it, but do you want the book going out with an error or two? And when something’s entirely re-set there’s a possibly of a balls-up of some kind that no-one else might notice? Plus some aspect of the book might be set in a manner you don’t particularly like, and would want to change. A lot of this is the editors/setters/printers responsibility too, sure, but it’s your name on the book at the end of the day.

    It’s a different matter with foreign language editions. I’ve had some contact with my French editor, who’s a very nice guy (hey Thibaud, if you’re out there). And my german translator has clarified a few points with me on occasion, but otherwise the first I’ve seen of any aspect of those editions – cover, blurb, setting – is when my copies of the finished books arrive.

  • Juan Ruiz says:

    Why is it that Last Argument (as your previous books) are in Hardback and Trade paperback at the same time at first? I thought that books in England were usually published first in hardback, and then in trade and mass paperback…
    For me better as I don’t usually like Hardbacks, except when I cannot wait.

  • It’s usually famous authors who get a hardcover, then the trade six months later and then the mmpb six months after that (like GRRM), whilst some skip trade altogether (like Pratchett and Jordan). It’s more normal for newer authors to start off in trade and go to paperback 6 or 12 months later, and it’s fairly common for hardcovers and trades to come out at the same time.

    There are no set rules, though. Each publisher does things differently for motivations that are inscrutable (but usually related to money).

  • Wert,
    I simply can’t believe you’ve brazenly appeared and as good as told everyone that I’m not famous. But he’s right. It varies hugely between publishers and markets. Gollancz tend to release a hardcover alone if they think they’re going to sell a decent amount, in other words for their bigger, more estblished authors like Steven Donaldson or Richard Morgan. For newer folks like Scott Lynch, Tom Lloyd, or me, they deem it most effective to do a small hardcover run for the collectors, and simultaneously a trade paperback run (which are after all the exact same pages in a different binding) to try and get the largest possible sales and spread the readership. They then follow later with the mass-market paperback, in my case just before the next book comes out in trade formats, so a year later in general. In Scott’s case they seem to be releasing hardback and trade paperback together, then the mass-market six months or so later. Not sure why the difference in approach there. Other publishers do things totally differently, even in the UK – Orbit went with a full-on hardcover release for Brian Ruckley, for example, but straight to mass-market paperback for Karen Miller. Horses for courses, I guess, and it depends who they’re pitching the books to – more hardcore fans or more general readers, perhaps?

  • Hello. Love the blog – I read it while at work, and it helps make my day so much sunnier.

    Anyway, I was wondering – where are your books available in Harback? I have never seen such a thing! I’ve got books 1 & 2, but they were only available in large paperback.

    Excellent books. Intimidatingly so, for someone who wants to be an author later in life.

  • Whoops, never mind – just realised that’s what everyone else has asked.


  • Stefan,
    Gollancz release the hardback and trade paperbacks together, with the hardbacks really aimed more at the hardcore fantasy fan and collectors market, so the runs aren’t that long and don’t necessarily find their way into bookshops that widely. Plus for these markets only the 1st/1st is of any real interest, so they don’t reprint. The result is that you might find it difficult to get hardbacks these days. You can certainly get them on e-bay at vastly inflated prices, or you could give forbidden planet a go.

Add Your Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *