Backslash backlash: In Carpe Diem, an e-book markup error also affects print editions
May 15, 2012 | 12:57 am
We’ve all encountered e-book scanning and markup errors , but most of these errors only affect the e-books themselves. It’s a rare error that actually feeds back into the print editions of the books, too! However, I recently came across just such an error.
I was working on the TVTropes page for Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden Universe stories (warning: TVTropes links may be hazardous to your free time) when I got into an argument with another troper over the applicability of a particular trope to the series. Over the course of the argument, it came out that we were reading different versions of the same text.
In the third book (by publication order) in the series, Carpe Diem, two of the characters send others a note warning of the machinations of the Department of the Interior and including instructions on how to access an information file about the Department. This is how it appears in the Meisha Merlin omnibus edition of the first three books, their last print publication before Meisha Merlin went bankrupt and the Liaden series moved to Baen:
And here’s the version of it from the Embiid e-book edition which was released at the same time, as well as all of the subsequent Baen e-book and printed-book versions:
We’re okay. Clan Korval in danger. Don’t talk to Interior Department. Go to Edger if things get bad. Ship coil-blown—world restricted. Tell Shan: Access Grid seven-aught-three Repeat: Access Grid 703 Love to all.
You’ll notice something right away: both instances of “\Trimex:Veldrad.” are completely missing—including the periods that end their sentences.
(What is a “Trimex” exactly? It’s not really clear, though I would guess from the backslash that it’s meant to be a subdirectory or node address of some kind: “In Grid 703, go to such-and-such a location.”)
It turns out that the Embiid e-book editions were the source of the text for all the Baen editions of the stories—both e-book and print. (It makes sense, given that they were probably the only extant electronic versions of the earlier books in the series, written before publishing took on a more electronic emphasis. Since they’d already been transcribed and proofed by Embiid, why reinvent the wheel?) The culprit is probably the backslash, which might have been taken as a formatting command by Embiid’s e-book markup software. (Embiid’s reader was an emphasis-added modification of PalmDoc reader CSpotRun. Another modification of PalmDoc, Peanut Reader, also used backslashes for formatting commands.)
So, thanks to this error slipping by over ten years ago when the Embiid e-editions came out, “Grid 703” is the whole of the address in all current editions of Carpe Diem. By and large, not a whole lot was lost, though it is a little sad that the additional specificity of the sub-grid address went away as a simple “Grid” address seems sadly generic. And the alien nature of the words added a little depth to the setting (like all the other Liaden words that pop up frequently in the books). I wonder if they’ll be put back into future editions now that people know they’re missing?
On the bright side, the e-books don’t have any “arroz con polio”-style typos, so if the only obvious error involved in precisely four words being lost, and took over ten years to be noticed, then they really did pretty well.
In a larger sense, it’s an important reminder of how often unexpected formatting factors can affect the way an e-book comes together. Back when the book was written, a backslash was just how you denoted a subdirectory in the most widely-used personal computer operating system—a notation that anyone who had used a DOS or Windows computer would have recognized and understood. I highly doubt that the authors could have had any idea that using it would consign the words right after it to electronic oblivion.
And it should also remind formatters of e-books that they need to be aware of the potential for edge cases like this that could be caused by the use of any special characters. Just as the backslash disappeared words back then, in the era of HTML and XML anything with a less-than or greater-than sign could potentially cause text to vanish now.