Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2010

No, Penguin, it’s not ‘forgivable’

I read in the paper today that the head of publishing at Penguin Books, Bob Sessions, thinks that typos in his books are ‘forgivable’.

One of his books has a somewhat offensive ‘typo’ and so 7000 copies had to be pulped.  He thinks that anyone objecting to the error in the remaining stock is ‘small-minded.’

“In one particular recipe [a] misprint occurs which obviously came from a spell checker. When it comes to the proofreader, of course they should have picked it up, but proofreading a cookbook is an extremely difficult task. I find that quite forgivable.

“We’ve said to bookstores that if anyone is small minded enough to complain about this very … silly mistake then we will happily replace [the book] for them.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17.4.2010)

Clearly, Mr Sessions doesn’t think that a publisher has any responsibility to produce books, cookbooks or otherwise, that are error-free.  Silly me, I thought that proof-readers were paid to find each and every error in the text, but no, apparently not at Penguin.  His proof-readers have carte-blanche to be as sloppy as they like, and not only will Penguin’s head of publishing fail to apologise to any readers who complain about it, they can expect to be labelled small-minded for expecting a text to be professionally published!

No wonder there are so many spelling and grammatical errors in the books the hapless consumer pays top-dollar for, when the head of the company has an attitude like that…

Update 19.4.10

As you might expect, there’s a bit of schadenfreude from other publishers …


  1. Now, Lisa, tell us what you really feel! ;-)

    But I do agree with you. I edit a 28-page newspaper every week, and each page is read/subbed/proofed by three different sets of eyes. Errors do, occasionally sneak through, we’re all human after all and we’ve got rolling deadlines to meet. But I don’t think we’ve ever printed a clunker like the one in the Penguin story… my goodness, that’s a TERRIBLE error to make and for the head honcho to describe it as “silly” is a little under-stating it, me feels.

    I also love how he says if anyone is “small minded enough” they’ll replace it, thereby shifting the blame onto the purchaser for being offended instead of accepting responsibility for the fact that an error of this nature has the potential to cause offense. I take it he probably doesn’t know any black people.

  2. That’s pretty unforgiveable – the attitude more than the error! As a retired librarian I know only too well the pressures on quality control these days. I suspect that what has been happening in our non-commercial world is happening in the commercial world – though it’s less forgiveable in the commercial world where we are paying for the product. But, that attitude is pretty unbelievable isn’t it? Fancy speaking of your customers like that. I wonder what his spin doctors think?

    • Well, exactly, talk about treating your customers with contempt!

  3. One of the more significant errors that took place during my newspaper career was a recipe error. The recipe for what was supposed to be a Christmas cake (involving about $100 worth of ingredients) omitted a rather important ingredient, so the result was in fact a version of Christmas cake soup. You can imagine the phone calls that resulted. While I can understand that typos will inevitably slip by, the attitude is deplorable.

  4. Well, I suppose this is a manifestation of the *txt* generation, but it’s a sad reflection on a once-prestigious publisher. Alan Lane would be turning in his grave . . . “he conceived of paperback editions of literature of proven quality”.

    Wikipedia says

    “Proofreading is considered a specific skill that must be learned because it is in the nature of the mind to correct errors automatically. Someone not trained in proofreading may not see errors such as missing words or improper usage because their mind is showing them what it is trained to recognize as correct”.

    I wonder if some publishing houses now use software proof-reading? Or even work-experience kids?

    Could you sometime change your blogroll link to me please? I’ve dropped the .uk bit and it’s now Thanks.

  5. The story has made the front page of the BBC website:

  6. Oh, Kevin, *shaking with laughter* no wonder your Christmas cooks were livid!
    But seriously, I think everyone understands that expectations are a bit different for newspapers – they’re produced under pressure to a deadline, and they’re ephemeral – even the best of writing mostly ends up in the recycling bin. A book is different. I remember taking to task the publisher of the first edition of Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – an expensive book that unsurprisingly was shortlisted for the Booker and had careless mistakes in it – at least the publisher had the grace to offer a replacement. Not long ago I reviewed a book on this blog that should have been shortlisted for a major prize but had its introductory paragraph ruined by a risible mistake and a poor standard of editing which could not be overooked. The hapless author was devastated.
    I’ve got dozens and dozens of books on my shelves that were proofread in the days before computers, and not one of them has a mistake of any kind. However I don’t think it’s the technology, I think it’s a generational change of attitude and now we see that it comes from Head Office. Near enough is good enough, mistakes are inevitable rather than a challenge to be overcome and the customer, merely the end product of The Market, is treated with contempt.
    Tom, I’ve changed the link address – thanks for remininding me about this. I’d changed my RSS sub address etc, but had forgotten this one because I don’t need it, my computer remembers your web address because I visit it so often!
    Hey Kim, Sessions may come to rue his words, eh?

  7. I’m imagining Penguin’s marketing team with their faces buried in their hands. What a completely asinine thing to say! I think he is probably correct in believing that most readers would be willing to forgive the occasional typos, but if that’s what you’re hoping for then it helps to at least act apologetic.

  8. I wouldn’t mind being a fly on the wall in the Board Room…

  9. Lisa, I think this trend in poor standards is apparent in all facets of writing/editing/publishing.

    Over the past decade I have seen journalistic standards slip to the point of almost no return. I’m constantly railing against lazy reporting (did you check this? have you corroborated this? are you sure that’s his job title? did you pilfer this story from the internet? why is this press release even news?) and half the time I wonder if I’m the only one who really cares, because, my goodness, it doesn’t seem like anyone else does.

    In fact, you wouldn’t believe the number of CVs riddled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes that come across my desk from would-be reporters and sub-editors. I mean, if you’re so lazy as to send me a CV filled with errors why on earth do you think I would give you a job? I especially like the ones who claim to be eagle-eyed and pedantic about grammar but have neglected to apply those skills to their own resume !!

    I do fear I am turning into a grumpy old woman! LOL.

    • Ah well, this leads onto that whole issue of how we can access/pay for quality journalism in the age of the internet. I’m not making excuses for poor standards when I acknowledge that newspapers and magazines are under pressure to reduce staff because people aren’t buying as much print because so much of it is free online – and that reduces advertising revenue which impacts of course on staffing. Of course if there’s not enough staff, that means too much work for the ones that are left, which impacts on standards. But you’re right about the sloppiness of CVs and you’re also right about journalists regurgitating press releases instead of analysing news as they used to. I often wonder what real news I’m missing… Lisa PS Aren’t you too young to be a GOW just yet?

  10. Thanks for changing the link!

  11. Hi, here’s the official Penguin response

  12. Thanks, Dan – I find it interesting that the official response is to point out that the proof-reader is concentrating on the quantities rather than the words – and that they only proof-read twice. It seems to me that they might well reconsider their procedures!

  13. The misprint made me laugh. I can’t help but think that a mischievous (who’s obviously bored with their job) put that in deliberately.

  14. Hi Mae, I used to have a principal who did this – writing naughty thoughts in stuff – just to see if anybody read ’em LOL!

  15. I feel a bit sorry for the proofreader! I was once in a Chinese restaurant in Genoa, Italy and the menu was written in Italian and English- ‘Melanzane in salso di fagioli neri piccante’ was translated into ‘aborigines in hot black bean sauce’. They must have missed their spot in the dictionary and read ‘aborigines’ instead of ‘aubergines’. I wish I had stolen a copy.


%d bloggers like this: