Anyone who has looked at my On Today’s Bookshelf posts will see that I buy a lot of ebooks. And as I noted in the last On Today’s Bookshelf, my to-be-read pile of ebooks keeps growing, now numbering more than 500.

But that doesn’t mean I am not reading ebooks; rather, it means that even though I am reading ebooks as fast as I can, I am replenishing my stock faster than I can read. This would concern me if, in fact, I was reading every word of every ebook; but I’m not.

One of the “talents” I have developed over my 28+ years of professional editing is the ability to tell within a few sentences whether a manuscript is going to be particularly troublesome; whether the author has done a basically good job in writing and preparing the manuscript or is a terrible writer, prone to amateurish mistakes, and uncaring about how the manuscript is presented.

This “talent” doesn’t seem to be laid aside when I read an ebook for pleasure, which means that it doesn’t take many pages to decide whether to keep reading or hit the delete button, and much too often, I hit the delete button.

First, I need to dismiss, with a wave of the hand, the idea that the more a book costs, the better it will be. “It ain’t necessarily so!”

From ebook purchases I have made, it is clear that price is not an indicator of quality, especially not of editorial quality, as we have discussed on An American Editor any number of times.

Yet I have also discovered in discussions with other ebookers that quality has no universal meaning. eBooks that I have deleted after a dozen pages because of runon sentences, homonym miscues, and other annoying editorial matters, ebookers without the editorial eye have praised. It is not that they didn’t notice many of the same errors; they did. Rather, it is that they were more tolerant of the errors; they were able to look beyond the editorial problems to the story itself.

So this makes me wonder if I am not missing out some real gems — not necessarily literary masterpieces, just good storytelling — because of the editor in me. It also makes me wonder whether we will eventually devolve into two reading publics: one that cares greatly about the editorial quality of a ebook and so is unwilling to spend much money to buy an ebook and a second that cares little about the mistaking of hear for here and is focused on the story itself and thus willing to pay a higher price for a book as long as the story is interesting.

I also wonder whether American English is changing so rapidly that what editors today would declare error will tomorrow be declared acceptable or correct.

In any event, the problem for me is how to control my editing tendencies so that I can relax and enjoy the underlying story. How do I put aside my editorial hat for the reader’s hat? Should I do so?

The problem was less acute before ebooks. Before ebooks, traditional publishers took some pride in the quality of what they released, although the pride seemed to be diminishing in recent years. But once ebooks made the reading market open to all, the scramble publish pushed aside the need to ensure editorial quality. Part of this is the economics of ebooks; it is hard to justify spending $2000 on an editor for a book that will be sold for 99¢ or less.

Even recognizing the financial considerations, I struggle to read a book that makes me pause every few sentences to say: “The author meant whom not who” or “The author meant your, not you’re.” My neighbor says I’m too fussy. Am I really? Is it too much to ask that at least the basics of grammar and spelling be applied by an author?

What should an ebooker expect from an author, regardless of whether the author gives the book away for free or charges $9.99? Do not most readers have certain basic expectations? Or has the Age of Twitter hardened readers to accept anything goes?

I suspect that I will never be able to set aside my editorial hat when reading a book and so my delete button will continue to get a workout. Are you able to set aside your editorial hat?

(Via An American Editor.)


  1. If you listen to some gurus they’ll tell you that you don’t need to edit eBooks. Hey, you just write them up and stick them on the web and they sell. Don’t they? It’s child’s play according to them. You don’t need writing skill. You don’t even need the ability to spell or to use good grammar.

  2. I come at reading with three major “editor hats” working. My 2 1/2 college degrees are in literary analysis, I teach writing and have judged many amateur and professional writing contests, and I’m a professional writer.

    I’ve learned how to allow my editorial self to sit on my shoulder while I read for enjoyment, and she stays pretty quiet most of the time, but she’s busy scribbling notes particularly when she sees problems. She notices the bad grammar and spelling, but it’s the bad writing and structure problems that really interest her.

    I, too, can tell within a few pages whether the author knows what she is doing, but I rarely put the book down because the teacher in me wants to figure out why everything is going wrong, and it usually ends up at a writing article.

    And, Rich, you really need to start reading the sample chapter or chapters of a book before you buy it to save yourself some cash. If the sample isn’t available where you buy your ebooks, do a search for the author’s website. If there aren’t sample chapters, don’t buy the book.

  3. Rich’s challenge is common to professionals in most fields I imagine. Increased expertise results in increased sensitivity to flaws and inadequacies. We are human and often cannot just put aside those sensitivities on demand. His friends may not know what a runon sentence, homonym miscue, or other annoying editorial matters even mean … I probably wouldn’t either and so they wouldn’t necessarily annoy me 🙂

    His experience regarding quality and editing mirrors my own experience. Price and publisher names don’t parallel quality.

    I do value and believe that minimum standards are important. But I guess my minimum, the guy next door’s minimum, my son’s teacher’s minimum and Rich’s minimum will all be different.

  4. I can’t tolerate too many grammatical errors; they distract me too much from the story for me to enjoy it. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that books (paper or e-book, $0.99 or $9.99) be edited well. I don’t expect perfection, but more than a few errors and I feel ripped off, like buying a shirt with holes in it.

    Being a grammar snob is probably why I can’t stand texting or Twitter…

  5. My grammar/spelling is not the best, so I have a high tolerance but when I start noticing the problem I often hit delete. I usually will just pass on books that have reviews complaining of bad editing. My other trigger for the delete key is what I call the dark and stormy night problem. Usually a problem with new authors that try to hard using to many words to describe the action. I probably delete about half the full length books I start and about 75% of short stories.

  6. I can ignore a few punctuation, grammatic or spelling errors, but it takes energy I’d rather put into reading the ebook. Each time an error breaks the flow of the story for me, I have to reinsert myself in the story and become re-engaged. There is certainly a limit to how many times I can do this, and this limit is moderated by the strength and flow of the story.

    So, where a brief weakness in the story or flow would normally be tolerated by me (I’m far enough “under” the story’s influence to accommodate the difference), every spelling, syntactic or formatting error jerks me further out of the story. It’s a bit like calculating how many blisters you can have on your feet and still keep walking.

    For a great story, I’ll keep walking. However, I question why best-selling ebooks at paperback-new prices can’t afford a decent editor. I find as many errors in the expensive Agency 6 ebooks as I do in the 99c ebooks… often more.

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