O copy editor, where art thou?

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you'll find in books.

For example: during a recent voyage-of-the-damned style long-haul overnight air trip, from Bangalore to Shanghai via Kuala Lumpur, I decided to read a book about aviation.

(Actually, the flights were very nice, on Malaysian Airlines, one of the many Asian carriers that are incomparably more elegant than domestic U.S. airlines. I’m grumpy only because it was a red-eye, and because of the truly abandon-all-hope chaos of the airport at Bangalore.)

The book I read had appeared recently in the U.S., and I was both surprised and happy to find it in the Bangalore airport book shop. It’s an insightful and funny book, whose praises I will sing and whose name I will give another time. But it is also a book that says, on page 190:

More people in India, it turns out, were traveling on the railways in a single day than they were by air in a year.

In case I had forgotten that in the 45 seconds it took me to read that page and p 191 and flip to p 192, there it helpfully informed me:

The number of Indians traveling by air in a year – 15 million – is the same number estimated to go by train in a day.

Actually, this is new information. Two pages earlier, there were more people on the trains; now the numbers are the same.

Similarly: one interviewee is introduced as “one of the aircraft industry’s most highly respected analysts,” and then introduced again as “among the most respected industry analysts.” In case we haven’t gotten the point, he is also a “prominent American aviation industry analyst.” I actually know the guy being talked about, and I like and respect him too. But please! One thing’s sure: he is a mensch. In his own blog, the respected-analyst describes the book in question as “the best thing you’ll read in 2007.”

The repetitions and similar touches in the book are small infelicities; my point is, you won’t see their like in good magazines. At least not as frequently.

Who was the publisher that apparently went low-ball on copy-editing costs for a very good book? It was, alas, Alfred A. Knopf. Maybe it's dealing with the on-line revolution by assuming that book manuscripts require the same amount of editing as blogs? It's a possibility.