Book Editing Meets Beethoven

Many music-lovers believe that Beethoven’s music and those composers who followed during the great Romantic Era  would not have existed without destiny’s timely intervention, in the form of the iron sounding board added to the wooden piano forte frame.

The famous piano-maker Broadwoods made their last harpischord in 1793 and in 1808 introduced bracing bars of metal to support the wooden frame. Other engineering improvements followed and the art of the piano and musical composition was forever changed.

This interplay of new technology and artistic development is a fascinating one and I believe we are living in a similar time for books. These watershed time periods present many challenges and opportunities for the authors and composers and I would like to share some of what I have learned so far while editing manuscripts for my company Publerati.

This challenge is especially difficult for publishers originating content headed for print and ebook formats simultaneously. The author and publisher maintain control over their work in print because the reader cannot adjust font sizes, for example. The print text is not flowable. I witnessed a similar challenge when working for a map publisher, who had many exciting new user-experiences heading out the door digitally, while still needing to update and publish static paper atlases. For those managing this giant layered map data soup, aspirin and vodka were always on hand.

Because I can enlarge the type on ebooks, I am much more aware of punctuation. Punctuation, like a good waiter, should work efficiently in the background. (Hey: how’s everything tasting Mister!)  Full colons shout and wave at you in 24-point size in a novel.  Em-dashes, given their larger size, work better if a connecting mechanism is truly needed but sometimes all this “punctuation intrusion” into the uninterrupted dream of reading is an indication further rewriting is needed.

Another example is the difficulty ebook conversion processes have with certain combinations of punctuation.  “Everything was going well until my bi-polar wife Audrey screamed at the neighbor’s son ‘Get out of here or I’ll gut you like a pig’!”  That ending ‘!” trifecta is likely to set off machine-driven havoc on e-readers. So I would rework the sentence, probably getting rid of the exclamation mark as the first easiest solution. And the author might want to bump off Audrey.

So what to do? I think any editor working on a manuscript heading for simultanous print and ebook production needs to be sure to pay attention to what happens on the ebook, which means looking long and hard at the use of punctuation. This in turn, could lead to better writing via rewrites, which is a desirable outcome for the work in all formats.

Related to the above is to be sure to proof the book on ereaders in EPUB and mobi formats before simply releasing to the public unchecked. Assume those reading on ebooks will enlarge the fonts. Acknowledge you are giving up some control so write and edit to that new user experience where possible while taking care of print readers as well. I have found that when I go from “final” manuscript to first ebook proof I notice further edits that I cannot believe we all missed. I attribute this to the challenge of “state-specific memory,” the reason you can recall your wife’s phone number on your work phone but not on the phone in the next office.

Being able to change the context of the editing experience after staring at the same pages for so long and over so much time, (oftentimes sitting at the same desk staring at the same screen or printout), simply by injecting an ereader proof as a pre-publication tool, is a great development for book editing.  Quite possibly similar to how a modern composer can play his work on a computer and revise before hearing for the first time at a live performance, which is what the 19th-century composers had to do, so they made their changes oftentimes in horror after that first embarrassing performance. Edward MacDowell once said he much preferred writing piano sonatas to symphonies because he could hear them right away fully under his control, literally at his fingertips.

I think the ebook proof is a better next proofing stage than the bound galley, which does bring the work closer to a print book but does not allow for the full editing power available on an ereader. For instance, once the proof is on the ereader, you can select any word to make sure it is spelled correctly or jump to the Internet by highlighting an historical character’s name spelling, and in the process discover other fact-checking errors you and the author missed by being able to dive deeper.

Back to Beethoven. Instrument evolution for books will surely cause the artform to evolve as well. Some will gladly continue playing their piano fortes and harpischords for a welcoming audience. Others will head out onto the bleeding edge and quite possibly replace many forms of books with something completely new. Maybe Facebook and Google have already done so. The information we once got from books is quickly being replaced by the Internet, which is making life so difficult for education and non-fiction publishing.

I happen to believe the novel will survive as a sustainable art form, similar to the sonata. Personally, I am interested in fiction and the challenges of writing and editing fiction, which is why I started a company that only publishes this genre. But I also figure I am being near-sighted and fiction will change in unforeseen ways in the future. Especially when read by our relatives, the Borgs. (Not Bjorn. His grandson Cy.)

— Caleb Mason


7 thoughts on “Book Editing Meets Beethoven

  1. Wow! Beethoven and editing. Where did that come from? Congrats as this is a really interesting post on a topic I know virtually nothing about. The music that is, not sure about the editing challenges yet as I am new to my production position.

  2. Hi Caleb. One of the things I like about you is how you mix up your metaphors to elucidate. The digital map metaphor is also a great one for those of us who were there driving those big early inventions in digital mapping back in the 1990s. Those were some great times, aspirin and vodka aside. And yes even smarter newer ideas came along quickly as they always do. Some smarter than others.

  3. Just a quick shout out. I read Normal Family frankly not expecting much and was very pleasantly surprised. The writing was terrific and I do not recall noticing the waiter so assume the editing was also good. I am reading An American Gospel now and also enjoying it tremendously. Next time I see a piano I will think more deeply about book editing. Not!

  4. Your comments about punctuation “shouting and waving at you” when enlarged on an ereader is something I have noticed as well. As a vain female (I know myself well enough to say that!) I feel it is a bit like when you stay at a hotel and that dreadful enlargement mirror is taunting you in the bathroom to dare to take a closer look and see all your flaws. The flaws are indeed there, but not seen under most “normal” viewing conditions. But you raise a valid point. If more and more people are going to actually read in magnified format then the authors and editors need to take a closer look themselves. I was taught to use punctuation sparingly, especially for creative writing. I do get annoyed when it gets in the way of a good story. To carry your dining metaphor further, it is like eating at a fabulous four-star restaurant where the food is outstanding but the service not so. The wait-staff needs more training is usually the reason. They are just tossed into the job and cause a lot of reputation damage.

  5. Barbara! This one slays me. I know that hotel bathroom mirror too well as a vain man who tries to avoid mirrors at all costs. Plus those bright lights reveal it all. Thanks for your comment and thanks to the others as well.

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