Proofing and Quality: Part 1

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


The editorial stage of publishing production includes two steps designed to find and fix errors: copyediting and proofing. Historically, proofing meant reading typeset pages against an approved manuscript to find discrepancies between the two; nowadays, proofreaders read the proof pages without literally checking them against the manuscript. Whichever way one does proofing, there are flaws in the process, which raises the issue of quality.

Quality assurance and quality control are two parts of a single system aimed at producing exactly what you want as efficiently as possible. Quality assurance focuses on the process used to ensure that projects are performed on time, to specification, within tolerances, and to the client’s expectations. This is usually accomplished through feedback loops, quantifiable measurement, proper communication, and documentation, which result in procedural adjustments based on the project’s needs. Quality control monitors the output of these processes. Ideally, quality control merely confirms that work is being performed correctly. During quality control, problems are fixed. But quality assurance requires that there be a process in place to avoid future instances of the same mistake. In other words, you don’t just fix the same type of errors repeatedly; you work to ensure they do not reoccur.

Viewed from a quality assurance perspective, proofing improves neither the quality nor the efficiency of the publishing process, for several reasons. Errors discovered by proofreaders are fixed in a process that is removed from the person(s) who allowed, or even created, the error. In addition, proofreaders often employ standards that differ from those of the original copyeditor or author. The goal of proofing might be an error-free book, but proofreading itself does not result in improved processes. Obviously, the time required to make one or more rounds of corrections, whether applied to a single book or across titles, results in additional costs.

This problem can be exacerbated when publishers use freelancers or outside companies. Those outside the publishing house often don’t know the publisher’s process, and you don’t have the time to train them. Though you might have style sheets and guidelines, those who work in a vacuum are not always aware of the subtle decisions made by others. It is hard for outside help to know what went on before the pages arrived in their in-box or mailbox. Because guidelines allow flexibility, a copyeditor may choose to allow an “incorrect” phrase to stand because it reads well or is used consistently and frequently by the author (we recently had this with if/then statements in a monograph). A proofreader, lacking a connection with the copyeditor, might decide to make the phrase conform to standard rules of grammar. In this case, the work performed by the proofreader will be undone by the in-house editor; if not, then the typesetter will enter the change, which reverses what the copyeditor originally did. Regardless, disconnected workers increase time and cost. In other cases, outside vendors either benefit from your errors (e.g., when you pay typesetters for corrections) or have no interest in helping you to improve your process; their interest in profits may be at odds with your interest in quality and the resulting cost control.

Further, proofing can ignore the true cause of errors and thus miss opportunities for improvement in the process. Recently, one of our typesetters missed a number of handwritten corrections. In the next step, the proofreader caught and “fixed” the errors. On closer examination, we discovered that the typesetter made errors due to a lack of clarity in the original copyeditor’s handwritten notes. True, the error was the typesetter’s; however, a simple procedural change could have avoided the problem in the first place.

If publishers are looking to improve on their low margins, one fruitful area is the publishing process. Publishers could improve efficiency and their publishing processes by creating a system in which information is shared between all those in the publishing chain (in-house staff and outside vendors), in which feedback and open communication take place, and in which the goal of improvement is shared by all. This would mean changing the relationship among departments within the publishing house, as well as between the publisher and its freelancers and vendors. But the resulting quality assurance could significantly improve the industry, and each publisher’s bottom line.