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Monday, January 8, 2018

In Defense of Michael Wolff: On the Ubiquity of Little Errors in Publication

I just saw Katy Tur grill Michael Wolff on the errors in his book, Fire and Fury.

Wolff correctly replied that there's no such thing as perfection in journalism.  I agree, and I would add there's no such thing as perfection in publishing, either.  No matter how carefully and studiously you try to avoid them, little errors crop up in all books.

I learned this a long time ago, as I pored over page proofs for my first book, an anthology of essays I had edited and published.  That was In Pursuit of Truth: Essays on the Philosophy of Karl Popper on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, published by Humanities Press in the U. S. and Harvester Press in the U. K., in 1982.

Going over those page proofs - the last step before publication - I was determined that this book would have no errors, including no typos or misspellings.  In the last round of this work - I had gone through three sets of page proofs already, and had corrected errors in all of three - I found a single misspelling: the German word für - meaning "for" - was spelled fur, or without the umlaut over the u.
This might seem like a minor error, but in German, the lack of the umlaut back then was a flat-out misspelling.  (These days, the word is often spelled fuer, with the e taking the place the umlaut.)

So I sent this final correction back to the publisher.  I received the final corrected page proofs a few days later.  When I looked at the correction, I saw that rather than changing the fur to für, the fur had been changed to "for" (the English translation).  I of course immediately returned the page proofs so this new error could be corrected.  Well ... I went another three rounds, and each time I sent the page proofs back, they were returned with new errors, including one time with the umlaut above the o in for.

At this point, I realized I had found a fundamental source of error or noise in the universe:  in publications of any length, especially books, it's impossible to get perfection.  An irreducible amount of error is intrinsically part of the publication process.

And, indeed, that's held true for all of my books, including, for example, first edition of New New Media in 2009, where I corrected an error on the final set of page proofs, on the first page, only to see that the publisher in correcting that error inserted another error (left out a closing quote) on the same page.   If you have that first edition, you can see it.  The error was finally corrected in the second edition.

What all of this means for Michael Wolff and the press:  don't expect perfection in his book.  Expect truthfulness and accuracy to the best of his ability, and the ability of the publisher, which as far as I can see and tell is just fine.

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