Sad. Disappointed. Embarrassed.
Those are the feelings I had after reading Larry McMurtry’s new book about George Armstrong Custer. I’m a huge fan of Lonesome Dove and anticipated a similar caliber work on Custer but it was a great disappointment. Besides that, I was sad and embarrassed that McMurtry’s name was on this book.
If you’re thinking of purchasing this work you would be well served by reading the reviews on Amazon. Many reviewers have pointed out its shortcomings so I won’t repeat what’s already been said. I will, however, mention that if you’re a novice concerning the life and career of Custer this book is bad history, so start with some of the older classics on Custer such as Robert Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin, Edward I. Stewart’s Custer’s Luck, Jay Monaghan’s Custer, and include some recent titles such as James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory, or Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand.
That said I’d like to point out a few things about the publishing industry that might account for some of the problems with this book – I’m taking the author’s side here. First, for any one-hundred-thousand-word book (McMurtry’s doesn’t have close to that), especially nonfiction, there literally have to be approximately one million things done correctly.
Because there are an average of five letters per word in the English language it means that at least a half a million letters in the correct place and sequence. Add to that the correct placement of words in a sentence. If the average sentence is ten words long, then there are at least ten thousand sentences with a chance of at least one word misplaced that would affect the other nine words – a multiple of ten – or a hundred thousand chances for error.
Don’t forget the capitalization and punctuation. Remember the references in a nonfiction which can be exhaustive and which have to be exact. Images and captions also must be flawlessly presented and documented.
I think you get the picture.
Now, what are the odds that the author will submit the MS (manuscript) without a single mistake? Slim and none so that’s why there are editors and proofreaders at the publishing houses, or at least there used to be “back in the day” when everything was done in-house. Now much of the work required to transform a MS into a book is done by outside contract workers. These editors, proofreaders, and designers may have a good background in the subject of the MS they are working on. In some cases they probably don’t and can do more harm than good to the author’s work. And, because the work is done outside of the publisher’s offices, there is no guarantee the contractor isn’t drunk, stoned, or just finished having a fight with his or her significant other and therefore simply doesn’t give a damn. That makes getting and keeping the one million pieces of a MS in perfect order difficult if not impossible.
Add to that the fact that some houses, to reduce costs, have eliminated some of the steps once done in the publishing process. This process used to include an editor reading the MS and making corrections and suggestions which was then sent back to the author for his approval or discussion. Next the MS was converted to galley proofs, i.e., the words were set in columns as would be in the printed book. This then went back to the editor and author for another reading and any correction needed.
Next it was set in page proofs which was the exact layout as would appear in the finished book. Once again these were reviewed by the editor and author. Depending on the house, at some point a proofreader would also become involved.
After the page proofs were read and approved by all parties, the next step was to pull printer’s proofs from the actual press plates which would print the book. Again these proofs made the rounds to editor, author, and proofreader before the decision was given to roll the presses for anywhere from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand copies.
Back when good houses had good people, the books were as good as it was humanly possible to produce. Unfortunately the good old days are gone and some of the steps are being eliminated with utter disregard for the quality of the book. It saves money to only review the MS after it’s in the page proof stage and at this point any changes equate to considerable dollars per change. If the changes are too many or too extensive the decision may be made to just let it go to press as is.
It used to be that a good editor could make the decision to buy a MS without someone looking over his shoulder. I understand that now the bean counters make most of the decisions. So, if the author turns in a manuscript as per the contract the bean counters may decide to alter it just a bit. Instead of a hundred thousand words they want fewer words for a smaller format so some editor is given the job of revising the work down to perhaps eighty thousand words. It takes a very skilled editor to do this seamlessly; an unskilled editor can mutilate an otherwise fine MS. And, a thought that I don’t even want to entertain: perhaps the editor is in another country such as India or China!
McMurtry’s Custer has all the hallmarks of this type of ignorant and unskilled editing because no respectable editor would have let this go to press. Therefore, until I learn otherwise, I maintain my belief that Larry McMurtry is NOT ultimately responsible for this miscarriage of publishing.