I’m thinking about queries today, and the way they end up affecting the finished book. I’m given to understand, from some of the authors who request me and appreciate the habit, that I query more than the typical copyeditor. Some of it is etiquette: if the author has used the same word twice in a particular sentence, I think it’s more polite to let the author choose another word (or decide whether to keep the repetition) rather than choose one for the author. Some of it is because I’m particularly adept at catching plot holes and inconsistencies in description or timeline: again, it is the author’s choice how to fix those. Sometimes I make a query not because it’s my job as a copyeditor to do so, but because I really, truly believe that the problem is serious enough to affect the public’s perception of the book. But regardless of what queries I make, I seldom know how or whether they’re answered because I’ve never read a finished book I’ve copyedited.
The reason I’m thinking about queries is that I was trying to decide today what the most important query I’ve ever made was. I finally settled on one I’d made to a nonfiction title a number of years ago, and I looked up the book on Amazon to see whether the authors had altered anything based on the query. Nope. No change at all. The book was an encyclopedia of sorts detailing the work of more than a hundred artists–both modern and “vintage”–who had succeeded in both of two specific kinds of artistry. (I would be more detailed, but it might give away the book; for the sake of professionalism, I won’t do that.) The best, most prominent modern-day example I could think of for someone who fit both those categories was an African-American whose name everyone would recognize and who was not included at all. I queried the lack extensively and even noted it on the letter I sent back.
But no. I looked at the TOC, and I did a Search Inside the book. The man is still not included, and it is a real pity. If I could describe the categories to you more clearly and tell you the name, you would all be shocked.
But as a freelancer, I don’t get to know what happens to a book after it leaves my hands. Perhaps the authors never got my query. Perhaps there are permissions issues of which I’m unaware. Maybe the authors decided the change was unnecessary or too much work–or perhaps the editor decided that. Maybe the authors just don’t like the guy for some reason, or maybe they don’t consider his art to be “artistic” enough. I have absolutely no way of knowing, though that doesn’t keep it from bugging the hell out of me.
But this ties in with a common misconception I’ve seen: that you can tell what kind of job a copyeditor did by looking at the finished book. Frankly, you can’t–and it isn’t just because of disregarded queries, either. When the queries are answered, for instance, the copyeditor never sees the rewritten text that results. I sent back a book one time with around a thousand queries on it. (And no, that is not at all typical; yes, it truly needed them; and no, don’t ask. The editor was very happy with my work, though.) When the author is rewriting to answer queries, all kinds of errors or inconsistencies can creep in.
And of course the author can always stet anything the copyeditor did, whether it’s right or not, and the author may not understand why the change was made in the first place. (I try to head this off by noting in the margin why I’m changing something, and giving a page number to a reference or to a page elsewhere in the manuscript if necessary.) Then you get past that into the galley or page-proof stage and all the problems I talked about in my proofreading post: text that’s reset instead of being set from the electronic file, text that’s reset because it’s new, and proofreaders who are overworked or who may not actually proofread. The copyeditor queries and the answers (or lack of answers) to them are just the beginning.
For all I know, though–except when I search through a book on Amazon to see if the author paid attention to my “most important query,” or when I see a review that specifically mentions an issue I know I queried or fixed–all the books I copyedit come out perfect on the other end. I know it’s a silly thing to pretend, given everything that can happen at each stage of the process, but I do enjoy thinking it.