6 famous publishing errors: Susie Dent, 'Harry Potter' and the dictionary

Sometimes these typos even become collectors’ items

Early copies of JK Rowling's 'Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone' have an error that made the book a collector's item. Getty Images
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British lexicographer Susie Dent has been left red-faced after discovering the first batch of her new book, Word Perfect, is strewn with errors.

This must be especially galling for Dent, whose work is being marketed as a "brilliant linguistic almanac". As a lexicographer, her craft is to compile dictionaries.

Publisher John Murray is now in the process of reprinting new versions, while recalling existing copies for replacement. A "gutted" Dent revealed the news on Twitter on October 1, stating that Word Perfect was published using an older version of the text.

"I’m so sorry about this,” she said. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I can with details on how we’re going to fix it.”

In an interview with The Times, she said she knew something was wrong almost immediately. "I just opened it up and saw there was something wrong in the acknowledgments," she said. "And then I had to close it because I felt a bit sick. There are quite a few errors. I haven't counted them and I don't really want to."

While Dent has every right to feel aggrieved, she can take some comfort in the fact she's in good company.

Besides, isn't any publicity good publicity? The publishing world is full of examples of the incorrect version of books being released that are full of typos and grammatical errors. In some cases, such works have gone on to become a lucrative collector’s item.

Here are five examples of books that could have used an extra pair of eyes:

1. ‘Webster’s New International Dictionary’ (1934)

If the revered Webster's dictionary can't get it right, what chance do the rest of us have? As a result of an editor mix-up, the non-word "dord" was printed as a word in 1934. This happened because an editor had sent in a note saying, "d or D", referring to the fact that density is a word that can be abbreviated to d or D.

The non-word wasn't corrected until 1939, when an editor noticed the entry didn't have any etymology and so investigated.

2. ‘Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone’ by JK Rowling (1997)

Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. Courtesy Bloomsbury
'Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone' by JK Rowling. Courtesy Bloomsbury

The first print run of the 1997 debut novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which consisted of only a few hundred copies, had an error on page 53 which meant "1st wand" was printed twice under the list of Potter's school supplies. And, on an uncorrected proof of the novel (normally sent to early readers for review), they spelt her name as JA Rowling. But even these are now lauded: both versions are highly sought after by Potter fans, with the latter sold for £10,000 ($12,900) in 2017.

3. ‘The Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen (2001)

book cover for The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
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'The Corrections' by Jonathan Franzen. Courtesy Farrar Straus & Giroux

Billed as “the book of the century”, the US author's blockbuster novel received acclaim but also some notoriety. The latter was due to publishing giants HarperCollins recalling 8,000 copies over what a spokeswoman described as "typesetting errors".

"They are minor corrections, things like typos and punctuation errors," she told the BBC, "But, obviously, if you're Jonathan and you have spent 10 years working on a novel, you want the finished product to go out."

4. ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain (1856)

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain published by Charles L. Webster And Company. NO CREDIT
'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain.

The first edition of Mark Twain's classic is full of errors: from a typo on page 57 (“with the was” should have been “with the saw”) to a confusing order of content due to a mix-up at the binders, copies of both versions are extremely valuable and can now reportedly fetch the owner more than $18,000.

5. ‘An American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser (1925)

Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," two volumes, published by Boni & Liveright. Courtesy New York Public LIbrary Digital Collection
Theodore Dreiser's 'An American Tragedy.' Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection

Do potatoes have rhythm? This is what a printing error suggests in the first edition of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Describing a gleeful scene featuring two characters, the passage described them "harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music – like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea". While it's obviously supposed to be "ships", the idea of chips surrendering to music is oddly pleasing.


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