High standards in publishing

Here’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), which imagines a world in which managers and engineers run the world.  A woman is explaining why she has become a prostitute.  Turns out her husband is an unsuccessful novelist.  In this world, all novels are reviewed by the National Council of Arts and Letters.

“Anyway,” said the girl, “my husband’s book was rejected by the Council.”

“Badly written,”  said Halyard primly.  “The standards are high.”

“Beautifully written,” she said patiently.  “But it was 27 pages longer than the maximum length, its readability quotient was 26.3, and–”

“No club will touch anything with an R.Q. above 17,” explained Halyard.

“And,” the girl continued, “it had an antimachine theme.”

Halyard’s eyebrows arched high.  “Well!  I should hope they wouldn’t print it!  What on earth does he think he’s doing?  Good lord, he’s lucky if he isn’t behind bars, inciting to advocate the commission of sabotage like that…”

The writer is ordered to go into public relations rather than fiction-writing, and he refuses.

“This husband of yours, he’d rather have his wife a– Rather, have her–” Halyard cleared his throat “–than go into public relations?”

“I’m proud to say,” said the girl, “that he’s one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left.”

This comes to mind when reading this story, about Amazon removing a novel from sale because it had too many hyphens:

“When they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000-word novel contained that dreaded little line,” he says. “This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result, ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.’”

Reynolds complained, pointing out “that the use of a hyphen to join two words together was perfectly valid in the English language”, and says he was told by Amazon: “As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected … Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.”

This article treats the issue humorously, but it does play into the doomsday predictions of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin that Amazon is aiming to control who and what we can read. After all, if they can control the number of hyphens in a novel, can’t they control its readability quotient?

Well, sure. But the difference between our world and Vonnegut’s is that Amazon has competition (at least, so far) and will respond to a public outcry (again, so far).  I can imagine a world where this would be different, but that dystopian future is not here yet.

(By the way, I found Player Piano much less compelling than it was when I first read it.  Vonnegut hadn’t quite found his voice yet.)

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2 thoughts on “High standards in publishing

  1. I’ve always loved Vonnegut but, as an engineer and manager, I’m not sure that I agree with his blanket characterization of both. We’re not all idiots. 🙂

    Just to express my displeasure at the censorship, I bought “High Moor” and “High Moor 2.” I don’t know where Mr. Reynold’s sales were before Amazon pulled the book, but right now the book is sitting at about 38,000 in sales rank. The first book in the series is at 17,000 and both have very respectable numbers in the sub-genres. Even when my book was selling at its best, it seldom broke the top 100,000. I think I need to put more hyphens in the next one.

    The odd thing to me is that Amazon pulled his book for a very subjective perceived quality problem. I few years ago I bought Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” from Amazon. When I started reading it, I found hundreds of errors caused by poor OCR conversion. They truly did make the book unreadable. Just to see if it was Amazon or or something that Penguin did when they did the conversion, I bought the same book at B&N. All the errors were there too. I complained to both retailers, asking them to issue a corrected version. The best that either would do was give me refund. Since I couldn’t enjoyably read the book as it was, I took the refunds. I’m pretty sure that they never pulled the book from sale because I checked several times in the following weeks. Of course, they may have simply slipped in the corrections on the fly. I suppose that I should buy it again to find out. I really would like to have that book on my tablet.

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    • Hi, Jerry. Happy Holidays!

      On Vonnegut: He was satirizing what I assume he perceived to be troubling trends in centralization and replacement of human workers by machines. Fair enough. Sixty years on, there’s still some truth there. But he hadn’t quite developed his distinctive voice, and the plot and characters are uninteresting.

      On Amazon: Some other site made the same point you make; if Amazon really cared about quality, they’d pull all those backlist ebooks with bad OCR. It’s baffling to me that publishers don’t have enough self-respect to hire some lowly English major to proofread their stuff.

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