When there’s a typo on the cover of your debut novel
some piercing offhand obsvervations [sic]
Today, two days before The Portrait of a Mirror paperback lands in bookstores (!), I’m sharing something I wrote around this time last year, but decided not to publish in advance of the hardcover launch. With a little distance and in honor of the new, pristine edition, this particular Sunday seemed like the right time.
It is a nightmare so quintessential as to veer into the realm of cliché, along the lines of showing up to a social function naked, or sleeping through a final exam: the finished copies of your debut novel arrive, and—after years of working in monastic obscurity on a project that you and maybe three other people truly believed in, after cold querying and waiting and full requests and rejections and somehow landing an amazing agent, after revising and preparing the manuscript for submission to editors, after surviving the actual psychological torture of being “on sub” and an editor buying your book, after waiting and edits and waiting and first and second and third pass proofs, after galleys and blurb requests and marketing and publicity plans, after, all told, seven years of fastidious effort and fifteen since its general conception—there’s a typo on the cover of your book. A typo on the cover of your book. You go back and check the proofs, but they’re clean. When, then—how? You text your agent; you text your editor. And then you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief. It was just a dream.
The thing is, when I woke up this morning, the typo was still there.
An extra “v”—ironically, in the word “observation.” Obsvervation. “Sly and sharp, densely witty and full of piercing offhand observation,” my friend Jia kindly wrote of The Portrait of a Mirror in the blurb my publisher chose for its cover. But not piercing enough, I’m afraid, for me to immediately see the error. My publisher specializes in art books, and, typo aside, the production quality is gorgeous. Portrait is a modern reinterpretation of the myth of Narcissus, and Caravaggio’s painting of him gazing lovingly at his own image is a showstopper on the cover. The title and social icons gleam as you move the book in the light, and there’s even an image appendix with stunning full-color plates of the visual art referenced in the novel. I wasn’t looking at the details, too glamoured by the overall effect. Neither, it turns out, was my agent, or my editor, or the eight or nine of her colleagues—all publishing professionals—to whom she’d sent copies. My husband didn’t notice it either, though he did capture a charming video of our toddler helping me open the box, which I posted, as one does, to social media, along with a slew of close-up photos of the finished copies.
Since yesterday, these pictures have been seen and re-shared and seen by at least hundreds if not thousands of people online—and not one, to my knowledge, has caught the typo yet. Almost hilariously, the cover design makes it look like even Narcissus himself has missed it, oblivious in his self-absorption. Maybe you can guess the one person who did notice, the person who, from the first, has followed my every accomplishment and typo with rapture; who has unconditionally read the fine print of my life with verve and gusto: my mom.
She texted me within minutes of receiving the photos to ask if I’d seen the error (nope!) and demand that they print new covers—which sounds like an obvious solution, but unfortunately isn’t, my agent was explaining in response to my furious texts; many copies would have, by now, already left the printer; they were likely already on trucks destined for warehouses and bookstores. But it was what my mom sent next that perhaps mattered most, even more than catching the error, which I would have noticed eventually:
But it occurs to me, may I have one of those books? You know, the first edition copy with the typo on the dust jacket!
She wanted one of the imperfect ones. I remembered a line I wrote in Portrait: “only unwritten novels are perfect.” You can only have a typo on the cover of your debut novel if you’re getting published. As far as problems go, it is almost definitionally a good one. And if the novel were to sell well over time with lots of re-printings, my mother’s right in thinking the typo could even become a desired feature. By the time my editor texted me again at five the next morning, having not slept the entire night in her distress, worried I must have lost confidence in her as an editor, that this would ruin the experience of my book being published, I was almost in a position to reassure her. It is easier to let go of perfection once you are a mom. I shared with her that my son had minor surgery just a few days earlier, and, as devastating as the typo is, I’m far more relieved that he’s doing great—that he was back to himself within twenty-four hours of surgery, that the incision on his face is healing beautifully. The thing I will remember about opening the finished copies of my novel, above all else, is sharing the excitement with him, our echoing mouths agape in delight.
I don’t want to give the impression I’m being some zenmaster about this—I’m frustrated and embarrassed by the error. (“How embarrassing,” I write in the novel, “to be caught off guard in the Internet Age.”) I’m not sure yet whether they’ll reprint the cover; whether, either way, many people will read the book, and I’m anxious on both counts. Dealing with imperfection is actually something I have a history of struggling with; it’s a topic that I discuss with my therapist frequently. But no, I’m not going to let a stray “v” ruin the experience of publishing my debut novel. I wanted this book to reflect our human foibles, to render them as art—in a way, the subtlest error in the most obvious place is a better meta-textual echo than I could have intentionally orchestrated. For who among us doesn’t have a stray “v” somewhere, some subtle error hidden in plain sight? Who doesn’t have a blind spot in the center of the mirror?
Mom—thank you for illuminating mine, for loving me not in spite, but because of my imperfections. I love you, too. Happy Mother’s Day.
As a little postscript, over the past year only two other readers and one book club have (told me they) spotted the typo aside from my mom. About half of the hardcover editions had already shipped by the time she caught the error, while the other half either had their dust jackets reprinted or were printed correctly from the start. The typo-cover version is indeed the true first edition.
Thanks for reading,