Regarding Arrogance

While beginning to grow my freelance editing… (well, “practice” isn’t the right word, but it’s pretty close)…practice, I had an opportunity to be a dick.

This is a situation that I think we’re all pretty familiar with.

Specifically, I read a book a while ago that actively distracted me with its thoroughly crappy editing. Even though the book was popular and well-regarded, I struggled to enjoy the content of said book beneath the miasma of your and you’re, hyphens instead of en dashes, and sloppy placement of the serial comma. Non-editor types, welcome to the minutia that editors pay attention to. (After two years up to my neck in the Chicago Manual of Style, it actually pains me to write a series list without using the comma that we were all warned against in school.)

ANYWAY, even though any normal human would not notice this crap, I noticed it. I noticed it hard. I noticed it so hard, in fact, that I formulated a plan.

  1. Buy a copy of the book
  2. Edit the crap out of it there on the page for maximum humiliation
  3. Mail edited book to the publisher with a short note and a business card
  4. Profit

Yes, mine is an evil laugh.

The book would be to rub their noses in it (“That’s a naughty publisher, that’s a bad, bad publisher!”), the note would be so I could explain the error of their ways (since they are clearly far too stupid to understand what a book full of red pen means), and the business card would be so they could send me work, thanking me for calling them morons.

I think it’s fairly obvious that the logic breaks down somewhere around “thanking me for calling them morons.”

Oh, I was ready to do it, too. I photocopied (I had decided not to mail the book) and edited all of chapter 2 and I got my scanner good and warmed up so I could slam out a little PDF of pain and include it in my opening e-mail to the publisher. Then…I stopped. I realized that, for all my righteous nerd rage, I was about to be a massive dick to someone. Was I not running afoul of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory? Was I not being a dick just because I faced no immediate social ramifications, no glare across the room, no angered roid-monkey coming to kick my ass? Certainly the publisher needed an editor; this is simply based on easily-provable facts.

But the difference between the delivery of an atomic “go fuck yourself; now pay me” e-mail and a polite inquiry is staggering. It’s quite the same as the difference between offering to help an overweight friend take up jogging and a somewhat more aggressive approach:

Indeed, face, etc.

The funny thing about this situation is that numerous friends and family endorsed my plan. The worst that could happen, we all agreed, was the publisher get offended and not offer me work, thereby retaining the status quo. But opening a conversation with a salvo of such animosity is skipping the foreplay. It’s punching a guy before asking him to move. Any observer can only wave their hands vaguely and say “Dude, you skipped a step.”

I contacted the publisher with my standard query letter, and I got positive feedback as a result. We’ll likely work on some books in the near-to-immediate future. Success, and no bullshit necessary.

What really bothered me about the Defcon 1 approach was the arrogance. It’s OK to know something. It’s even better if you know you know something. But it quickly becomes arrogance when you assume that you are the only person with that information. How am I to know that they haven’t already seen the errors? How am I to know that an editor wasn’t already fired for the debacle (it’s certainly possible – it was that bad)? What kind of ass would show up six months after such a mess played itself out with an e-mail to the effect of “You guys are too stupid to know this, but this book is full of errors”?

Arrogance does not sit well on the shoulders of a young man, and, even though both of my knees popped this morning when I got up, make no mistake that I am young and comparatively inexperienced. I know I’ll make professional mistakes down the line, but at least I avoided this one.