In the age of instant publishing we have cut out the middleman. Publishing houses are routinely avoided and replaced with the process of self-publishing. Agents and editors are left standing aside, and while quick earnings of self published authors caused a sensation at first, an old problem is coming to the fore again: the typo.

A Brief History Of The Typo From Scribes To Lolcats

Historically, the term typo refers to mistakes in manual type-setting. And yet, even before the printing press, the typo was well known in the form of the “copyist’s mistake” or “scribal error”. As Wikipedia notes: “the term includes errors due to mechanical failure or slips of the hand or finger but excludes errors of ignorance, such as spelling errors.”

In the Internet age the typo has gained new meanings and functions. Besides the common usage of voluntary typos in LOLCat speak, such as “teh”, “pwned”, etc. people have found ways to exploit the typo for profit, for example in online auctions such as eBay.

When someone submits a pair of Nike shoes, for example, and a typo slips into his product description, such as “Nkie” or “Niek” not many people will find these auctions by searching for “Nike“, except those that have specialized on browsing auctions with typos in order to decrease their bidding competition.

Another phenomenon is “typosquatting”, in which a well-known domain name is registered with a common typo in order to scrape off traffic, i.e. registering “facebool.com”, etc.

Beta-Readers and Bugs

Apart from the above examples in which typos are intentionally exploited, in most cases typos are simply a nuisance and battled wherever we find written text. In the age of the type-writer correction fluid was used to cover the typo, nowadays we quickly correct typos in instant messages by sending another message containing the correct spelling. Due to modern technology we can fix typos almost as quickly as we make them.

In the field of digital self publishing where authors often don’t have the luxury of professional editors or proof-readers, there is a new tendency to recruit “beta-readers” on blogs and Social Media. The term “beta-readers” is a term borrowed from the language of the software release life cycle. A “beta-tester” is a person who tests new software.

Software in the beta phase will generally have many more bugs in it than completed software, as well as speed/performance issues and may still cause crashes or data loss. wiki

It’s not surprising that authors borrowed the term “beta-reader” from the field of programming, since books themselves are increasingly released like software. An ebook is nothing but a very simple piece of software, built to run on a certain set of hardware. And just like the beta-tester, the beta-reader’s role is to find and report bugs in order to improve usability. These kind of “bugs” might be found in erroneous formatting or missing links, but the most common bug is still the typo.

Irreversibility And Instant Updates

Decades of using software has taught us that bugs are an annoying but unavoidable ingredient of computing. There is no software that doesn’t need to be updated. Even big companies like Microsoft continue to fight bugs in the ever-sprawling code of Windows.

However, it seems to me — and I might be wrong — that the typo is still considered a much graver “sin” than its younger brother, the bug. The Guardian, for example, has a long tradition of being ridiculed for its typos in the print-era, earning it the mock name The Grauniad. And when I see the vehemence with which commenters attack authors of online newspapers over typos, I wonder what makes the typo so much worse than a bug?

One reason might be that we have been conditioned to think of the typo as irreversible, because once a typo was discovered in a printed book there was often nothing one could do. On top of that, writing is personal. Everyone of us has been in a situation of being reprimanded in school for bad spelling. Typos seem to be connected to a sense of incompetence and shame.

We have come to accept bugs in our software because we know they can be easily fixed. If there is a problem in an app, we just need to wait for the update and download it. Developers sometimes take a risk of releasing something quickly, and even if there are bugs in it, they can still be fixed later.

Will we eventually reach a similar attitude in book design and publishing, or is there something fundamentally different about the nature of the written word that leads us to demand perfection right from the start?

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