Facts, Errors, and eBooks

Errors are a part of publishing, and if we’re critical yet realistic about things, perfection is always going to be more of the goal than the standard of acceptability. And yet, the facility with which words can now be published inevitably means a tradeoff in the form of errors and typos (question: are they still called ‘typos’ if there’s no type and ink?).

Here’s a good discussion by Anthony Gottlieb, at Intelligent Life magazine: “Facts, Errors, and the Kindle”:

“Nietzsche famously said that there are no such things as facts, only interpretations. Be that as it may, every writer knows that there are certainly such things as factual mistakes … mistakes in the printed word that are perhaps the most pernicious. Once a “fact” has been pressed onto paper, it becomes a trusted source, and misinformation will multiply.”

The authority of the printed word is something we can’t really help but take for granted (and, I don’t really mean that whole if-it’s-on-the-internet-it-must-be-true meme). Gottlieb in particular is focused upon those kinds of factual errors that are part of the occupational hazards of periodicals and publishing: “more serious bloopers, it seems, are seldom corrected. A study of ten metropolitan daily newspapers in America, published in 2007 by Scott Maier, a professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, found that less than 2% of factually flawed articles were the subject of corrections.”

In terms of ebooks at least, one line of thinking could be that digital writing and publishing could make the mechanics of error-finding and correcting that much more efficient and inexpensive. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been a demonstrably coherent set of practices, other than the occasional Amazon recall.

And I can’t help but wonder — why not? As a reader of ebooks, I know I’d be quite pleased to be sent corrected versions of ebooks as they are amended. Even better of course, is if I had a simple way to report on those ebook typos as I see them, and send them along to our publisher friends for them to fix for all copies of that ebook. Better to have many sets of eyes as potential proofreaders, than just one. Right?

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And on a somewhat related note, from that same Gottlieb article, one of my favorite pet topics: misquotations —

“For a salutary reminder of how easy it is for well-known “facts” to be no such thing, even when they are often repeated in print, consider some of the entries in “They Never Said It”, a compendium of misquotations published in 1989. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” (or anything like it). “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver” is a line from a play, not a quote from Hermann Goering. “Let them eat cake” began life in Rousseau’s “Confessions”, not the mouth of Marie-Antoinette. Voltaire never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And there is no reason to think Abraham Lincoln ever said “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time” — though it is evidently true that you can fool a lot of people for a long time with the aid of books. The quip “Too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story” has long been attributed to an American newspaper magnate, Roy Howard; needless to say, it appears to be an invention.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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