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Comedy or errors - or tragedy?

4 October 2010

It's been a gift for the media. 'A comedy of errors for author of The Corrections(The Times) 'Jonathan Franzen's 'book of the century' pulped over error.' (the Guardian) ' Franzen's new novel recalled to be pulped.' (Evening Standard)

So what really happened to Jonathan Franzen's highly-anticipated new novel, Freedom, and why did the UK edition have scores of errors, which were so serious that the publisher has reprinted the corrected version and asked buyers to return their copies to be pulped? This was a very big book, after all, it's not many American authors who get a print-run of 80,000 copies in the UK. Franzen himself even asked readers to wait for the new version.

The printers and the typesetters have both been blamed, but these explanations ring less than true. What might well have happened is that the British publisher, HarperCollins, would have taken the book as a computer file of the American version, since Franzen's primary publisher is the American publisher (not HarperCollins US but the small literary house Farrar Straus).

It's very unlikely that the novel would have been separately edited in the UK, although there might have been late changes incorporating corrections to the text sent over by the American publisher. In the States, where the book was published slightly earlier, the author would have corrected the proofs and they would also probably have been checked by an editor in the American publishing house. But then the file would have been sent to the UK, so it's hard to see exactly how the UK version could have used an uncorrected file, which is clearly what happened here.

Actually quite a number of people could have sent the wrong file. Although it might have been the printers or typesetters, it's hard to see why they would have had the uncorrected proofs, although these might well have been sent over to the British publisher before the final version was available. They would only have been used internally for people who needed to read the book to work on it, though, and would not normally have been sent to the printers.

So the fault could lie with the American publisher, who sent over the earlier, uncorrected file. Or it could have been the editorial department at HarperCollins, or even the production department, which sent the wrong file to the printers. Someone was on automatic pilot. What is interesting but not surprising was that no-one checked anything and no-one therefore noticed until the book had been published, even though on a big book like this copies would have been available well before publication.

And readers, did they notice? Perhaps they just thought it was par for the course, since so many published books now contain an astonishing number of errors. The days when in-house desk editing departments carried out copy editing, and often proof-reading too, have now passed into history, but there are many who would mourn their passing.