Beware Mutations

written as by Rowland Tappen

Between delivery and printing, many strange and wondrous changes will come over a piece of writing. Someone from the editorial staff will perhaps consult the author and perform some loving surgery to increase accuracy, literacy and suchlike qualities sometimes not 100% present in writers; later, the vile printers will do what they can to remove these qualities altogether, adding a generous fistful of random changes which affect the book rather as gamma radiation affects the chromosomes. The editor, however, you can argue with; the printer you can correct at the mere sacrifice of your eyesight, patience and leisure time while swathed in great winding-sheets of galley proofs. Another entity, however, may thrust its horrid fingers into your meisterwerk; this is usually a junior copyeditor, often one moderately innocent of style or literacy, but who is nevertheless trusted to enforce a rigorous code making Napoleon's resemble the soft-headed indulgence of your favourite granny. In a word, your, publisher may have a house style.

Take Publisher A. Publisher A would prefer that certain uniform conventions be observed in its books ... for example, it prefers the 'ize' rather than the 'ise1 endings of verbs, and wherever you say 'the Second World War' or even 'the 1939 to 1945 war', you will be tenderly corrected until the text reads 'World War II'. (Anyone who writes, say, 'World War 2' probably needs a publisher's house style to save him or her from ruin.) Unless you're a fanatic about verb endings, this species of correction is not liable to result in bloodshed more than one time in a hundred ... and what's more, Publisher A sends out a handy booklet of preferred usages, so that you know where you stand and can fight, sometimes successfully, on points of peculiar importance to you. Of course nobody is perfect, and Publisher A has a few odd things in the booklet, for example the implication that either metric or imperial units will be fine for the technical bits: personally I felt that imperial might mean more to the ever-loving public, gave notice that I would be using said units, and in due course was delighted to find the junior copyeditor had done a painstaking job of translation ... 'about a yard long' becoming 'about 0.9144 metres long', etc. A sillier instance came when the question of a bibliography arose: Publisher A was suffering slightly from company chauvinism when compiling the house style booklet, and demanded that citations of sources should not include mentions of publishers (i.e. other publishers). Agonized phone call from editor: 'You haven't bloody put in the publishers of these books!'

Myself: 'Well, your house style booklet says –'

Editor: 'Oh my god, does it? I've never read the stupid thing myself ...'

Publisher A, as it turned out, didn't take its own house style too seriously. The booklet was intended as a set of guidelines rather than a straitjacket, and you could argue successfully about it. Now we come to Publisher B.

Publisher B apparently did not have a house style, since I knew a friend had passed through their toils unscathed. Mind you, they'd insisted on changing the dedication of my friend's book, which is a very unusual and high-handed thing to do; but they seemed liberal enough as regards the words you used. With a high heart I set out to scribble some words of my own for Publisher B.

Approximately a month before I delivered the MS, Publisher B acquired a house style. Publisher B didn't actually see fit to mention the guidelines in advance; but when the MS finally arrived, a horde of illiterate copy-editors fell on it with cries of glee. This new house style was a beaut. Consider:

Publisher B likes verb-endings in 'ize'. Thus the copyeditor conscientiously altered the MS to generate words like 'advertize', 'advize', 'lazer' ... (Oh all right, they changed this back when asked – just thought I'd mention it.)

Dots were out. Did I want to end a sentence with three dots in order to leave a witty line hanging in the air, or to introduce a quotation? Naughty author! The copyeditor changed such things to full stops.

Contractions were out. Did I want to say don't, can't, I'm or isn't? Naughty author – that's colloquial. The copyeditor expanded them to 'do not', 'can not' etc., making sentence after sentence indescribably leaden. (I should mention at this point that Publisher B doesn't, or does not, handle fiction. To impose these restrictions on fiction would be wholly intolerable rather than, well, mostly intolerable.)

In large part, jokes were out. The book was supposed to be a humorous one, but Publisher B felt that, you know, actually making jokes would detract from the tone. Certain passages which might be considered unflattering to clergymen and to W.H.Smith, Booksellers, were also removed, with no appeal allowed.

Oh ... and the dedication was 'wholly unacceptable'.

Oh ... and some months earlier the publisher had changed the title – to, incidentally, a bad and derivative-sounding one which bears the stamp of 'instant remainder' all over it. The subtle process of consultation with the author was performed by letting me find out when U.S. rights were well into negotiations – 'so we can't possibly change the title now'. Meaning, we can't change it back.

After several weeks of very arduous struggle some slight compromise was reached – one or two token contractions allowed back in, one or two items of punctuation allowed to stand as in the MS. The dedication, however ... I suggested that if Publisher B felt it was so terrible (it contained a j*ke, you see) that millions of sales would be lost, then Publisher B should do what many other publishers do when they don't like or don't have a spare page for a dedication – which is to bury it in small print on the copyright page. Oh no, they said then. We couldn't possibly do that. We think it would be a great disservice to the author to have his dedication treated in such a cavalier fashion.....

About much of this, there was little to do short of pulling out of the book altogether. On the other hand, I do know that one Huge Name Author recently had no trouble in opposing a similar blanket decision on style from Publisher B – it wasn't so much his cogent arguments, of course, as his Huge Name. The moral is, I think, to ask for a copy of the house style guidelines whenever writing a work of non-fiction on commission. As hinted above, they may very well change before you actually deliver -but that's your hard luck. The evil of the house style is that too often, in the hands of unintelligent copyeditors, it becomes not so much Publisher A's guide to consistent usage of a few terms as Publisher B's determined attack on the least originality of expression – even when such originality is well within the bounds of English syntax and intelligibility.

The name at the head of this piece does not appear on the writer's birth certificate or books. There is a reason for this. When recently the Society of Authors magazine published a poll, taken among their members, of how authors felt publishers treated them (a poll in which one of those mentioned above scored incredibly low, the other not being listed), there was much outcry from – you guessed it – publishers. One suggestion which came up was that just as authors have apparently produced a blacklist of troublesome publishers via this poll, so publishers should maintain a blacklist of troublesome authors.

This troublesome author is a coward.