Monday, 4 October 2010

Silverlight 4 Books - Whatever happened to Proof-Reading?

I read a lot of books, and at one point, unhappy with the lack of good technical book reviews available, I was going to review each new Silverlight 4 book as it became available on this blog. However I was getting so much flack about my 'negativity' on Twitter I abandoned the idea when I found each new book I intended to review was just not worth the money I'd paid for it.

About this time last year, one book author asked me via a private message on Twitter for an 'honest' opinion on his book, which at the time had received two or three five star reviews on Amazon USA.

So I gave my honest opinion! I pointed out that the book was out-of-date with even the public beta version of the software it was claiming to exhaustively cover. I also pointed out that the back cover jacket sales blurb mentioned stuff that wasn't even included in the book, and that the book's biggest chapter was irrelevant because it was all about the WPF version of something, NOT the Silverlight version, when this was supposed to be a Silverlight-specific book (and so was clearly written for the convenience of the author, not the audience being asked to pay good money for this irrelevant nonsense). I concluded by pointing out that two adjacent chapters had whole paragraphs of identical text, indicating both bad cut-and-paste writing and that no proof-reading at all had been done on the book.

To say the author wasn't happy with the 'honest' feedback he'd asked for is putting it mildly. I got the usual 'hero justification' about how many hours the author put into supporting the book, answering all his readers emails to correct things and help them, producing supporting screencasts and even downloadable extra chapters, speaking to community etc as if that were justification for selling a book that didn't meet its basic remit and which people were expected to pay a hefty fee for.

Apparently I was just a 'hater' for answering his direct question honestly instead of behaving like a shill and saying 'Your book's faaaabuloous, dahling'. The sad thing is that I actually think the author has talent, and could have produced a stunning book, if only his publishing company had bothered to get someone to do a bit of technical editing and proof-reading instead of trying to gouge the market by rushing a title to print before it was ready.

Accused of being alone in my opinions, I directed the author to the average Amazon UK review of just two stars (which contrasted wildly with that five star average on Amazon USA - hmmm! I wonder why!) I was accused of having written the three Amazon UK reviews which resulted in this average rating, along with the accompanying justifications from named readers, myself! Yeah, right (rolls eyes)!

When the author had had a few days to simmer down and deliberate on my feedback he came back to me and asked if I'd like to make the next book, intended to cover Silverlight 4, better by co-authoring it. I began to feel better about having given 'brutal, but honest' feedback. But I had to explain that I just didn't have the time. I know that technical book writing is a LOT of hard work. It pays peanuts and is really only recommended for those who want to boost their profile as a trainer or conference speaker, or help towards getting an MVP - I have no interest in either of these things! However I said that as a favour I'd be more than happy to help with technically reviewing the book, and doing some much-needed proof-reading on it.

Unfortunately the author didn't take me up on the offer.

The latest version of his book is now out, and as a simple exercise I decided to select a page at random (page 51) and critique it the way I would if I WERE a proof-reader. I think the results below speak volumes with regard to the current state of proof-reading in the technical book industry:

A page from a published book that I've just proof-read

It's probably unfair to pick on this particular book, because I've seen much, much worse (and initial impressions are that the book is a HUGE improvement on the Silverlight 2 and Silverlight 3 versions, with the author actually having a very natural writing style)! If I'd tried the same exercise on a page from the Silverlight 4 User Cookbook (from Packt Publishing) for example, the snapshot of a page chosen would have made the original text unreadable for a sea of red corrections all over it, even if I ignored the fact the contents really didn't live up to the title at all and just concentrated on the appalling English.

The point I want to make is this: I really cannot understand why publishers spend so much time and expense in printing and marketing such titles without getting a native English speaker to at least proof-read the wretched thing before going to press, even if they can't technically evaluate it. Heck, I'll even do it for free if it stops some of the over-priced, incorrect dreck I've seen getting out into bookstores where it can do a lot of harm and just rips off punters who rightly expect far better value for money than they're getting.

I said about a year ago, I was going to stop making negative posts on this blog (which is why you've seen no comment on this blog about the whole Silverlight 4 vs HTML 5 fiasco that Microsoft have stirred up), but there comes a point where you just have to ask why we as an industry put up with this crap.

Last night I started reading seven 'alpha' chapters from an Apress book dedicated exclusively to MVVM and which I had to pay £26 for to get in electronic form - and it's crap, clearly written by someone who doesn't care about his subject, doesn't have the depth of technical knowledge required, and hasn't got the writing skills necessary to produce something that educates his readers.

What I will say, to try and end on a positive note, is that I've recently read two Silverlight 4 books that, whilst still containing the sort of proof-reading errors I dislike intensely, are well worth the asking price for the technical information they contain and the obvious passion the authors have had about writing a good book that genuinely educates and even entertains. Those books are Silverlight 4 in Action by Pete Brown from Manning Publications, and Pro Business Applications with Silverlight 4 by Chris Anderson from Apress.

So far as I'm concerned, anything else with the word Silverlight in the title is pretty much an 'Avoid' and 'Don't waste your money on this' right now. No wonder illegal free pdf downloads are the first thing you see when you do a search on a Silverlight book title these days! :-(


Pete said...

Thanks for the recommendation at the end, but you mentioned that Silverlight 4 in Action has a bunch of the same types of proof-reading errors.

Are you going by the printed edition, or the early access (MEAP)edition? If the former, please let me know and I'll get them fixed for the next printing. If the latter, MEAP editions are released with no real proof-reading (that's why they are "early access").

Pete Brown

Ian said...

I was going on what I thought was the "Final" (RTM) ebook. Nothing technical, just odd sentences that screamed "that wasn't proof-read" at me. If I get time this weekend will send you a list. I started doing something similar on a few of the books I was intending to review but it quickly became too onerous for unpaid work! In the case of your book (and the one from Chris) they're not a big deal compared with the good job that's been done on the real content, and attempting to educate the reader in a way that isn't too dry.

Pete said...

Thanks Ian

To give you an idea of the process, even for Sl4iA (which was sped up considerably) works at Manning:

- I write a draft of the chapter
- My content editor reviews it, and makes suggestions for correction
- I fix
- Tech editors review content for any technical issues
- I fix. That version goes out in MEAP

Once the majority of the book is done, chapters start going through copy edit
- The first copy editor reviews and makes tons of corrections.
- I review and approve
- Sometimes, a second pass is made
- The chapter then goes into production
- The copy editor in production reviews and makes additional corrections.
- I review and approve
- The chapter is typeset
- I review the typeset version and approve
- That chapter gets printed

So, there were TONS of reviews by people with a strong command of the en-US language. Errors do make it in, but hopefully nothing huge.

By the end, I had looked at my chapters so much, it was completely impossible for me to look at the words and actually read them :)


Vince Bullinger said...

"... which I had to pay £26 for ..."

I believe you meant to say "for which I had to pay £26."

/Grammar Nazi from America

Ian said...


And I'm not sure there should be a hyphen inbetween "Proof" and "Reader" in the blog post title either.

But then you didn't pay for this content so I'm not going to feel too bad about it ;-)

Pete said...

Hi Ian

Given some of the errors you sent me, looks like you're reviewing the MEAP (early access) edition, not the final. As you recall from my earlier post, the MEAP edition is sent out without any copy editing at all; what you're see is raw from my keyboard.

I won't say the final edition is error-free (that would be asking for trouble), but the errors you've mentioned to me are fixed there.


Chris Anderson said...

Hi Ian

Glad my book made the cut :). Ultimately, the onus tends to be on the author (rightly or wrongly) to ensure that the content is readable and accurate. As Pete says though, proof-reading your own work isn't easy. There is a copy editor on the book, who *should* be catching these things, but when the books get to them it's just before the book goes to press, and if there's major issues in the writing then there's only so much they can do I guess. The publisher's primary concern really is that the book is out on time so they can make money from it. With each Silverlight version coming at such a rapid pace, the books only have a short lifespan in the market. Therefore, getting them out as soon after release is essential for them, placing a lot of strain on the authors. Like testing in a software project, proof-reading tends to be the first thing to be chucked out the window when a deadline looms :). That said, I took the quality of my work incredibly seriously, and tried not to skimp (which inevitably led to me running late). However, what helped me greatly was that I had someone (Greg Harris) who volunteered his time (and quite a considerable amount of it too) to proof read my book, and more importantly (IMO) check it for understandability (I don't think that's a word, but I'm not writing a book here :). That led to huge improvements in the book (catching a lot of things that I didn't see myself), because someone actually "tested" the book before it went to printing. I call this the "peer review" process, and I believe someone should do this on every book, as I describe in my post here (as Tip #12): Without this, would I have made the cut? The passion and content would have still been there, but the peer review might have made the defining difference.


Ian said...

Thanks Pete. You are correct. What happened is that Manning retitled the book for the final edition from "Silverlight in Action, Revised Edition" during the MEAP process to "Silverlight 4 in Action" and it was the latest "Revised Edition" I was looking at, not the very last edition issued. Doh!

I will re-review the correct version over the weekend (and delete the old "Revised Edition").


Paul said...

I'm sorry to say that I have to agree, although I try not to be too harsh on authors for what is really an editors job (I know from first hand experience how difficult it is to proof read your own writing, especially grammar).