It's Saturday afternoon and you've got a lovely pile of fabric, all washed and pressed, sitting on your work table and a few hours of time to yourself. It's time to crack open that new craft book and sew the adorable tote bag on page 33.
As you start cutting and sewing the pieces together you can see that the strap is too short, much shorter than the strap on the bag in photo. You double check your measurements, but you followed the instructions exactly.
This can only mean one thing: there is a mistake in the book.
Has this happened to you? Maybe you've found two errors in that same book, or maybe more? And you start to wonder how did this book get published with so many mistakes?
I began to think more carefully about this question yesterday after reading a blog post by my friend Rashida. Several bloggers got together and organized a very successful sewalong for her second book, Zakka Style. 24 different bloggers participated and they sewed every single project in the book! Ambitious? Yes. And fantastic publicity.
I think we can agree that book reviews have become a dime a dozen on craft blogs. I've reviewed my fair share here, and my own book enjoyed a blog tour, too, like they all do. The best kind of reviews are by people who actually make the projects from the book, so a sewalong of this scope is really amazing.
It is rare (if ever?) that a craft book gets a critical review on a blog. I once asked a publicist what I should do if I didn't like a book she sent me. She told me to hold off on reviewing it and kindly donate it to my public library and I do that all the time now. What it means, though, when we don't share real, critical reviews with one another is that we miss out on hearing from trusted people with expertise their real opinion on the books they see.
On craft blogs in general we share praise, and celebration, and I'm really glad we do. It's a lot of work to write a book, and the print book arm of the publishing industry is struggling. We should promote one another for sure. At the same time, it is undeniably helpful to know an expert's opinion of a book's real strengths and weaknesses before we decide to buy it.
Amazon is a place where more critical reviews live. The anonymity of Amazon allows people the freedom to write a critical review, but the problem there is that we don't know the reviewers. Do they have expertise in that craft or are they just angry and need a place to vent or inexperienced and thought the book would be one thing when it's really another?
A critical review from a trusted person with knowledge and expertise is the most valuable kind of review for readers.
The Zakka Style sewalong organizers put together a Flickr group where everyone could post pictures of what they made. A discussion arose there about the mistakes in the book. Rashida did an excellent job engaging in the discussion, explaining how she tried to prevent any mistakes from occurring and relaying the information to C&T, the publisher of the book.
Zakka Style is a collaborative book. In it, Rashida asked various contributors to create different projects. Each project was written by a different author and her task was to edit their instructions and create a cohesive book. Not easy by any means.
One particular comment in the Flickr group discussion caught my attention. It was made by The Crafters Apprentice and she says:
I know mistakes might creep in, but they shouldn't. Why haven't the patterns been tested before being printed?
What a great question.
Are patterns in craft books tested before the books go to press?
When I signed the contract to write The Artful Bird I was a brand new author. I spent eight solid months sewing birds and writing patterns for the book and my publisher spent the next five month editing, illustrating, proofreading and designing the book. And then it went to press. Although I had made many birds leading up to the book deal, and then during the creation of the projects for the book, nobody else but me had ever sewn one. This got me crazy nervous so I gave my wren pattern to a good friend who is a terrific seamstress and she sewed it up and gave me some feedback.
But you know what? That was it. A single project of the 16 included in the book was tested by someone other than me, and only because I sought that out. My editor didn't encourage pattern testing, much less demand it. And I don't want you to think that my book is an outlier in this. I'm going to make the radical statement that almost none of the patterns in the majority of craft-based sewing books are tested.
Why is this? The primary reason is money. When a book is acquired by a publisher a budget is set for that book. The budget has to cover everything that book will need to be published: the author's advance, the total number of pages, the fee for a professional photographer or illustrator if needed, the binding, the cover, the pattern templates, technical editing, design. Everything has to be squeezed into this budget in order for the book to be profitable. And the budget, at least for craft books, doesn't cover pattern testing.
Rashida mentions in the Flickr discussion that for her first book, I Love Patchwork, a technical editor sewed every pattern. In my experience that is very unusual. Rashida and I shared the same publisher for our first books. Although my editor said she was going to make an owl she never got around to it and she didn't have to. It wasn't expected of her.
Don't get me wrong, the text in craft books is edited, hopefully very carefully, but if you've ever written a sewing pattern you know that it is very easy to accidentally skip a step or jot down dimensions wrong and these are the sorts of things that can only be caught by someone who tries to make each project following your instructions exactly.
When my second book was acquired one of the first things I asked about was pattern testers. I was told what I expected to hear, that there was no budget to pay anyone to test the patterns, but if I wanted to find some volunteers to do it, I could go ahead and do it on my own. Gosh, yes, I certainly did want to!
So a year ago, via Twitter, I rounded up dozens of awesome sewists who sewed the patterns for each chapter as I finished them. I am so very grateful to them for all of their hard work and detailed feedback, especially since they all did it voluntarily.
In my opinion, craft publishers should at the very least ask their authors to find volunteer pattern testers. I've found that there are many generous, highly skilled people out there who are willing to help you make your book as good as it can possibly be.
So how can you know if the patterns in a book you are considering buying have been tested? Some authors will thank their pattern testers in the acknowledgements. But other than that, there is no way to know. Publishers do post Errata for their books on their websites, and you can check there if you are having difficulty with a pattern and suspect a mistake in a book.
A book full of accurate information and well-tested patterns that work every time builds trust between the reader and the author, and between the reader and the publisher. Pattern testing should become a routine and required step in the publication of craft books.
If you are a craft book author, I'd like to know how you handled this issue when you wrote your book. Did your publisher ask for it? Demand it? Help fund it? Did you insist upon it? Are the patterns in your book tested? And I want to hear how you think publishers should handle pattern testing going forward.
And if you are someone who purchases and uses craft books, do you assume that the patterns were tested before publication? Have you found errors? Do you think pattern testing should be part of the publication process? I'd like to hear your thoughts on this issue.