This week, the galley pages of The Book of Lost Things arrived. The galleys, or page proofs, represent the final stage of preparation for a book before it goes into production. Essentially, each galley page resembles the page of a finished book, and the galleys represent the author’s last chance to check for errors in the text.
Actually, what I’m supposed to be doing is checking for errors in the typesetting rather than making final changes to the text, but in practice most authors do a bit of both, I think, although I’ve heard tales of writers who simply don’t bother to read their galley proofs, assuming that their editors or someone else will do it for them. (In fact, I’ve heard tales of authors who don’t even bother to finish their own first drafts, but that may be a topic for another day.) This explains why readers are sometimes presented with finished books containing howlers in typography and punctuation. It’s less the fault of lazy editing than of lazy writers who think their time is too valuable to spend checking the finished text for errors.
To be honest, checking galley proofs can be a bit of a chore. It’s slow, painstaking work, at least if it’s done properly. It’s really only possible to do a chapter or two at a time before you start paying less attention to detail than you should. The eye is tempted to skim over the page, taking in the sense of the words rather than the individual letters of which they are composed. For example, so far, in just over 120 pages, the only errors I’ve found the are the word “barely” instead of “barley” and a “that” repeated twice in a row. I’ve also made a few changes to punctuation, and I’ve tried to catch the odd repetition of a word in the same paragraph or, rather more rarely, in the same sentence, but it’s been the work of hours. It makes my head hurt.
There is also the temptation to make significant changes to the text, but this is frowned upon by publishers. In fact, my American publishers usually accompany the proofs with a dire warning about the cost of making changes, implying that my house may be held as security to cover the sums involved if I lose the run of myself and decide to rewrite entire chapters. Basically, it costs about one dollar a time to reset a sentence, if memory serves me correctly. Therefore, if I decide to change the word “that”, say, to “this”, then that costs a dollar. “That” has the same number of characters as “this” and they take up more or less the same space on a page, so only the line in question needs to be changed.
Now, suppose I decide that I can’t find a synonym that has exactly the same number of letters as the word I want to change. Worse, suppose an entire sentence has to be changed. That has a knock on effect for the paragraph, so suddenly the cost of making the alteration has gone up to perhaps ten dollars. It may even affect the page, bringing the total up to thirty dollars, or the chapter, which brings us into the hundreds. So I spend time counting the letters in the words I want to change, and then I try to come up with a perfect combination of alternative words using a similar number of letters and spaces in order not to increase the cost of the alterations. In practice, I always end up costing my publishers a little at proof stage, but I imagine the total is probably less than a hundred dollars.
Again if memory serves me correctly, the publisher will usually cover the cost of altering about ten per cent of the book. After that, the writer picks up the tab, although the mind boggles at the crisis of confidence that would make an author change so much of a book at such a late stage.
The fact that the text has been set is one of the reasons why reading the galleys is both easier and more frustrating than tackling the proof read version (the copy of my original manuscript that has been marked for the printer and checked for most errors, which then forms the basis for the galleys) . On one hand, there really is a limit to what I can change at this point, whereas I can make as many alterations as I choose to my own manuscript so I tend to agonise over it more. On the other hand, it is as close as I will ever come to reading the finished novel in the form that the reader will see it, and I now have to live with what I’ve done. The book has taken shape. It is like cement that has already begun to dry in a building that is nearing completion. Now is not the time for the architect to begin fretting about the size of the windows. It’s a little late for that.
Still, there may be parts that I might wish to rewrite although, to be honest, the book is probably as good as I can make it at this point. In six months, when I’m reading the galleys again for the paperback version, I may be inclined to look at it more critically, but for now I am reasonably content to let the book go.
In a sense, this book has been getting more and more distant from me with each stage in the movement towards publication. When I am working on a book, I don’t print it off until the day before it’s due to go to my editors and my agent. For me, it’s still a fluid entity when it exists only on the computer screen. I can change it, cut it, extend it, rework it. It is still unfinished, still in the process of construction. When I eventually print it off, it is as if I have committed to the book in that form, and after that changes get harder and harder to make. I will usually move on almost immediately to the writing of the next book, and part of my brain will already be thinking about the novel that will follow that one. This book is done. There are new books to come.
So checking the galleys is arduous, but necessary if I am to try to keep the inevitable errors to a minimum. And errors, as I have mentioned before, are the bane of an author’s life. Perhaps that is the most difficult thing about reviewing the galleys: the knowledge that this represents the final opportunity to catch mistakes, combined with the certainty that some, despite my best efforts, will inevitably slip through and make it into the finished book. As John Updike once wrote: “The moment when a finished book or, better yet, a tightly packed carton of finished books arrives on my doorstep is the moment of truth, of culmination; its bliss lasts as much as five minutes, until the first typographical error or production flaw is noticed.”
At least it’s not just me.
And I’ll bet John Updike reads his galleys too.
This week John read
magazines and newspapers (it was one of those weeks)
and listened to
Swagger by The Blue Aeroplanes
Boulevard De L’Independence by Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra
and went to see
Morrissey live in Dublin.