Book Packagers' Dos and Don'ts
A suggested checklist for
Editors, Publishers, & Publicists

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson


April 2009

Judging a book by its cover

Of course all thoughtful readers are grateful, or should be, to the hard-working folks who bring us the literally invaluable riches of the printed word. I use book packagers to generally encompass all those involved in bringing books to the public: editors, publishers, proofreaders, binders, publicists, and so forth. Of course this also applies to magazine editors and their colleagues.

Nevertheless I have some pet peeves about book production, as well as a few major criticisms. Since Johannes Gutenberg (c1400-1468) there have been one or two little boo-boos in the preparation of texts, the composition of type, and the physical binding of our printed medium. The notorious class of Bibles with embarrassing counter-Scriptural typographical errors over the centuries may, from a safe distance, amuse us; but when we have a selected and purchased book in hand, with no extraordinary ambitions but simply to have a pleasant reading experience — well, it can be disappointing when the book physically doesn't match up somehow.

I do not collect such examples. These are just a few for which I happen to have a copy, or otherwise stick in my memory, mostly science fiction. The examples given are by no means exhaustive, even of books or magazines I possess or remember. Often books' later editions or corrected printings clear up the little mistakes. Sometimes not.

I have a little list —
  1. Spell the author's name correctly on the cover and the spine as well as inside.
    1. Walter Kaufmann's name has two Ns: truncated to a single N on the spine of Basic Writings of Nietzsche from Modern Library; corrected in later printings.
    2. A. E. van Vogt's initials are A before E.: transposed on the cover of Astounding Science Fiction, April 1947.
    3. Fredric Brown's posthumous collection The Best of Fredric Brown is warmly introduced by Robert Bloch, saying that the author was a stickler for spelling accuracy so "I hope they don't misspell his name." Despite or because of this nudge, Doubleday in rattled enthusiasm prints Bloch's name on the spine and on the running page-heads: every page throughout the text. But where they do have Fredric Brown's name, they spell it right, so that's good.
  2. Place the definitive title, presumably as rendered on the title page, also on the cover and (abbreviating if necessary) on the spine.
    1. Eric Frank Russell's novel is Sentinels of Space on its cover (a pretty layout but wrong title); contrast Sentinels from Space on the spine (the correct title); more than one edition from Ace Books.
    2. The collection Major Ingredients: The Selected Short Stories of Eric Frank Russell (the title page omits the word Short), from NESFA Press.
    3. General readers may not pay attention to such niceties, but scholars and bibliophiles as well as those who just want the best or most faithful edition owe a great deal to assiduous bibliographers. Let's not make their task harder.
  3. Do not betray, on the book cover or dust jacket, any plot details beyond the 20% mark or so. Please leave surprises to the reader in context.
    1. There are way too many such blurb-writers' plot-spoilers.
    2. I do not especially wish to draw them to your attention.
  4. On the other hand, if there is a Contents page, do list all the contents there; do not surprise the reader partway through the book.
    1. H. Beam Piper's The Complete Paratime from Ace Books.
  5. Proofread the book. This is a dying craft. Using a spell-checker program is fine, but not sufficient; also allow time to have the book leisurely close-read by several literate proofreaders. I'm not asking for perfection, but please try.
    1. There seems to be an increasing percentage of under-proofread books, even scholarly volumes from university presses.
    2. (Note, January 2019: In fact, I estimate that this percentage is now approaching totality: virtually no volumes today, new or reprinted, are thoroughly proofread.)
    3. One book which I sorrowfully take to the woodshed is the Eric Frank Russell collection Entities from NESFA Press.
  6. If an author prominently displays some text, perhaps containing a joke or double meaning or a slightly uncommon word, pay that passage extra attention when proofreading.
    1. NOTICE.
      Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
      Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance.
      Mark Twain
      Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
      This is a dedicatory favorite of mine since my own youth, so an error in a modern edition jumped out at me. The putative signer is misspelled as the meaningless Chief of Ordance in the omnibus volume Mississippi Writings from Library of America, a generally careful handler of texts; corrected in later printings but still propagating on the Web. By the way, The Annotated Huckleberry Finn speculates that "G. G." most likely is a nod to Twain's friend General Grant, although never actually himself a Chief of Ordnance.
  7. Resist changing or dumbing down the author's title, particularly when the original is appropriate or famous or proverbial — even if you think you have a more descriptive phrase.
    1. Poul Anderson's The Man Who Counts as serialized in Astounding, to War of the Wing-Men from Ace Books.
    2. Isaac Asimov's Foundation from Gnome Press, to The 1,000-Year Plan from Ace Books (abridged too).
    3. Robert A. Heinlein's collection The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag from Gnome Press, to 6 by H from Pyramid Books.
    4. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in Britain, to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America.
    5. James H. Schmitz's A Tale of Two Clocks from Torquil, to Legacy from Ace Books and Baen Books (the latter abridged too).
    6. There are way too many title changes. My uncle Donald L. Franson (with Michael Viggiano) compiled back in 1965 a 47-page pamphlet just of Science Fiction Title Changes with 1600 entries.
  8. Be wary of presuming that a master author needs abridging, censoring for current political correctness, and/or editing solely to flatten his style.
    1. Such behind-the-scenes improvements are more frequent than we realize.
    2. I discuss one author rather speculatively in Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers.
  9. That an author is dead does not excuse abridging his works, censoring for current political correctness, and/or flattening his style.
    1. Ross Lockridge's Raintree County from Dell Books, abridged. Read the Houghton Mifflin hardcover or an explicitly unabridged paperback edition.
    2. James H. Schmitz's Federation of the Hub series and Telzey Amberdon series, in collections from Baen Books, are varyingly abridged and/or edited. Read earlier versions when available, particularly for A Tale of Two Clocks.
    3. There are too many such improved editions, and not always clearly so indicated.
  10. Avoid foisting book-binding errors on the public. I suppose these mostly are hiccups of the book-binding machinery: not usually harming a complete press run like textual errors, but more likely destructive to the copies affected.
    1. Omitting the last half-dozen pages: Frank Herbert's Dune from Ace Books. (I was in a place and time where I could not get a replacement copy easily; but luckily I already had read the complete serial in Analog, and remembered the ending well enough.)
    2. Binding in a quire from another book altogether (not a teaser): John W. Campbell's Analog II from Doubleday.
    3. Leaving out an entire quire or two at the bindery. I haven't kept any of these.
    4. Gluing the pages so poorly that a paperback entirely disintegrates during its first reading: Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal from Bantam.
    5. Binding the text upside-down within the covers: G. E. M. de Ste. Croix's The Origins of the Peloponnesian War from Cornell University Press.


With a look to the future, electronic publishing and e-texts transform the packaging but will not eliminate all problems of presentation. Similarly, while correcting simple errors is vastly easier with e-texts, the challenges of initial textual quality and editorial accuracy remain. On the other hand, we are vastly increasing the likelihood of accidental, well-meaning, "authorized", "official", and/or malicious textual corruption, placing at immense risk the textual integrity that is vital to a free culture: texts of history and analysis, vision and protest; which, even in the print era, dictatorships have been keen to manage for us.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson


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