The makers of Persian rugs, so legend has it, would deliberately insert a mistake into the weave before it was completed. The reason for this was that their work was of such a high standard that they were concerned that anything so perfect might cause offence to God. This is not, unfortunately, the reason why you will find errors in published books.
The reality is that in a book of 80,000 words, the amount of moving parts and the scope for error is immense. Even with a careful author, a talented copy-editor and a diligent proofreader, it is next to impossible to avoid every mistake. We once heard of a publisher of the old school in London who had a clock in his office that had two number sevens on the face. He had this made as a constant reminder that no matter how hard you try, sometimes things will just go wrong.
One of the curses of being an editor is that you can’t help noticing errors in every book you read, from the Harry Potters and Da Vinci Codes of this world, that have gone through multiple editions, to privately published memoirs that have been carefully nurtured through every stage.
Traditionally, the most common point at which errors were fixed was at the point of a new edition going to press. Each new printing gives a window for corrections that good publishers will take. Unfortunately there can sometimes be months or even years between these printings, and there is often little that can be done until this time comes.
The advent of the ebook, however, has given authors, editors and publishers a new tool in this respect. In recent days we have seen this play out with the book Clinton Cash, by Peter Schweizer. This is a big book, published by Harper, and, as of the time of writing, ranked at 27 on Amazon.com. It was announced that a correction was to be made, relating to some factual issues it contained. This was, it is likely, less a case of a typo and possibly more a case of a lawyer turning an unhealthy hue. However, the process for correction remains the same.
The book wasn’t pulped or withdrawn. It was the ebook edition that was updated, and the newly revised edition became available overnight. Presumably the same revisions will be included in the next printed edition too, but the long dark wait would no longer be such a problem.
This facility, for the ebook edition to be amended without the cost and horror of withdrawing a print edition (for the publisher) or the enraging wait (for the enraged) seems, to our eyes, one of the excellent compromises that the simultaneous digital edition of books affords us all.
This should not ever give license for authors or editors not to be careful, exactly the opposite. The care and the hard work and the final checks need to happen; this is the least that we all owe to the readers. And the harder we work, the rarer these mistakes will always be.