The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Proofs positive


I sent a book manuscript out into the world, and it came back defaced and different. Marginal comments in blue, deletes and edits tracked in green, strange symbols and odd codes — all of these mark the process through which Prince of Tricksters has been copy-edited.

A new name is now matched by some new words and formatting.

I like getting proofs. There is something exciting about watching a book slowly take shape. As a manuscript is disaggregated into its component parts you begin to get a sense of how it might look when it grows up. It takes form as a frontispiece, copyright page, and table of contents, as running heads and individual chapters. You have to squint a bit — it’s still contained within the familiar form of a Word document, after all — but it is worth the effort to enjoy the pleasures of imagining what might be.

Getting proofs, reading proofs, returning proofs: another stage in the process through which a manuscript becomes a book ticked off. Not that I am at all impatient to see Prince of Tricksters make its way into the world, you understand.

Copy-edited proofs come back with exotic markings and alien symbols which betray the journey they have undertaken. Annotated recto and verso give a manuscript shape and form. They also bespeak a language I do not understand; a knowledge and expertize I do not possess. </ep> and </ept>, <ctfm> and </ah>, <pf> and <paft> — the perversely alluring language of romance.

The tropes of Orientalism, encoded as copy-edits.


Getting proofs is also a freighted moment. Historians are precious creatures, so deeply invested in the words and phrases and ideas we struggle to put down on screen. The manuscript we send out is bound up in our sense of self. Ideas and writing, arguments and expression, carry the burden of our professional and intellectual identity. Little wonder the prospect of them being tampered with has us tetchy and touchy.

What will the copyeditor have done to our wonderful prose? What mistakes have we made — now cruelly exposed for only us to see?

In this sense, copyediting can feel intrusive. The green and blue highlights might look like evidence of destruction and damage to a (supposedly) hitherto pristine manuscript. All of us have heard the horror stories: perfect prose irrevocably destroyed by an overzealous editor, an original and distinctive voice now mangled by an unsympathetic stranger.

There might be some truth in tales like this — I’ve heard it from friends and could tell my own version about working on an edited collection many years ago. Yet the horror stories say more about the insecurities of the historian than they do about the realities of producing a book. Think of them as allegories, in which intrusive edits and insensitive editors point towards the nature of writing as an emotional and psychological activity (hat tip to Mike Roper there).

Houlbrook’s First Rule of Working with Publishers: the professionals always know best when it comes to how a book sounds and looks. Stop being precious, ditch the hubris, listen and follow.

I have been lucky with Prince of Tricksters (as with Queer London in the past): Sue Cohan has been meticulous and sensitive, intelligent and creative, in the ways in which she has given my manuscript shape and form.  This seems as good an opportunity as any to say thank you.

If I can get this excited about a marked up Word document, just think what will happen when the typesetters and book designers have done their work and the PDF page proofs arrive.


3 comments on “Proofs positive

  1. brittabottle
    July 28, 2015

    Oh…the process of bringing a book to life. Sounds like an absolutely wonderful process to observe and be a part of!

  2. TallTalesandTrue
    July 28, 2015

    Thanks for sharing images of the editing – I was still imagining that the editors went through with a pen scratching away on paper.

  3. Pingback: Page proofed and indexed out | The Trickster Prince

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