October 3, 2014

Anthony Horowitz to copyeditor: “I’M NOT CHANGING THIS.”


Portrait of the author via Shutterstock.

Portrait of the author via Shutterstock.

Nobody wants his conversation with a copyeditor made public, but there’s a galley floating around from Harper at the moment that contains some accidental gems. Anthony Horowitz, author of a new Sherlock Holmes novel and the next James Bond novel, had a conversation in the margins of Moriarty that mistakenly made it into the advanced reader’s copies.

Sarah Lyall‘s report in The New York Times gives you a sense of her own reading experience as well as the dialogue between author and copyeditor. What’s so brilliant about her telling is the way she manages to rationalize the notes at first, as some sort of meta-commentary:

“Moriarty’s” narrator, an American detective named Frederick Chase, is laying out the background to the story – how Holmes and Moriarty came to be at Reichenbach Falls and what is believed to have happened next. All of a sudden he switches to capitals. “NO NEED TO COMPLICATE THINGS HERE, I THINK,” the text announces. “WHAT I’VE WRITTEN IS BROADLY TRUE.”

Can the narrator be offering some meta-commentary on his own text? At first it seems so. But then it happens again. In a spot where Chase and a Scotland Yard inspector have found an important clue that seems to be an excerpt from a previous Holmes story written by Dr. Watson, things suddenly veer off-piste again. “IT MAKES NO SENSE FOR FREDERICK CHASE TO HAVE READ THE SIGN OF FOUR,” the text declares.

Of the six annotations, the highlight is one firm line from Horowitz: “I’M NOT CHANGING THIS.”

So what happened? The good people at Orion sent a PDF to the U.S. publisher without realizing it contained Horowitz’s notes.

Tina Andreadis, senior vice president of publicity at Harper, told the Times, “When files come from other publishers our production department scans them for any obvious problems, but does not read page by page…. In this case, the interjected phrases escaped their attention.”

That’s standard practice. Fortunately, the notes aren’t outrageous or ill-tempered. (Though the liberal use of caps lock does give us the sense they’re yelling at once another over the roar of the story. But aside from the yelling….)

Digital files are a constant work hazard. Fear of exactly this error keeps editors and production editors up at night, that drives us to check each document, double-check, and check one last time before we click “send.” The trail of metadata on a Microsoft Word document is easily revealed if you’re not careful to run and rerun the document inspector. God forbid you approve blues of an old draft, or you could be pulping Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom (UK edition) all over again.

There’s some mix of recognition, catharsis, and humor in seeing a small error in print. (We’re about to put out a work of fiction that will give you the same sort of feeling.)


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.