The Extreme Cost of Typos

by • January 30, 2014

Guest post from Zack Crockett

For rare book collectors, a 1926 first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is drool-worthy. When a well-kept copy hits the market, it usually commands around $2,500. However, in several known instances, on page 181, line 26, there is a misprint: the word “stopped” is printed with three p’s. Find a copy with this typo and you’ll be $60,000 richer. This is not uncommon: misprints often skyrocket a rare book’s desirability and value.

But typos can also have a devastating financial impact on the publishers, companies, and people who make them.

In 2010, an Australian book publisher released The Pasta Bible, a comprehensive recipe book. One of the dishes, a spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto, called for black pepper. Instead, the ingredient was listed as “freshly ground black people.” This sparked an international outrage; ultimately, the publisher lost $20,000 and recalled thousands of copies of the cookbook from stores across the country. Bob Sessions, the book’s publisher, acknowledged that it was a “silly mistake,” that could have been avoided with more meticulous proofreading.

Costly typos are not exclusive to book publishers; last year, New York City’s Transportation Authority printed 80,000 subway posters with the wrong fare information. The committee’s intention was to alert riders of a fare increase from $4.50 to $5; instead, they printed the new fee as “$4.50.” This lone misprint ended up costing the NYCTA nearly $250,000 in printing fees, and countless more in employee hours spent tracking down the distributed posters.

A simple oversight in the 1980s ended up costing The Yellow Pages big-time. Banner Travel Services, a small agency specializing in “exotic vacations,” decided to run an ad in the phonebook for $230 per month. The Yellow Pages ended up advertising Banner’s forte in “erotic vacations” instead, and the travel agency wasn’t thrilled about it. They sued, and subsequently won $10 million, nearly putting The Yellow Pages out of business. Of course, Banner was also refunded its $230.

Mariner 1, NASA, typo, writing, grammar, punctuation, mistakesOne of the most infamous (and notoriously expensive) typos in history was made by the last company you’d ever expect: NASA. In 1962, the space institution attempted to launch Mariner 1, with the intention of probing Venus. But after a decade of meticulous planning, construction, and calculation, a single hyphen brought the craft to its imminent demise less than two minutes after takeoff. The omission of the hyphen, part of a code that set trajectory speed, led to an explosion that set NASA back $80 million. Arthur C. Clarke, author of  2001: A Space Odyssey, called it “the most expensive hyphen in history.”

When all is said and done, the costliest typos may be our own. A team of researchers at Harvard University has found that Google earns $497 million every year from people mistyping website URLs. So, when you attempt to access your favorite webpage and spell it incorrectly, you’ll end up at a “typosquatter” domain, rife with paid Google ads that rake in tremendous revenues from your error.

But the cost of typos extends beyond mere dollars and cents. An omitted hyphen meant the difference between reaching Venus and never leaving the ground. Similarly, grammar errors are often the determining factors in whether or not you are hired by a company: one highly qualified applicant was rejected for confusing “here” and “hear” in her cover letter. Even The New York Times has been called out for unprofessionalism in the aftermath of glaring headline misprints.

Ultimately, your writing is an outward expression of who are you as a person, and grammatical errors, no matter how small, don’t go unnoticed. Take the time to proofread your work, and to seek out the necessary tools and resources to do so, because in the end, Google is likely the only company that will ever appreciate your typos.

Zack Crockett is a San Francisco-based storyteller with extensive experience in traditional publishing and new media/journalism. In addition to being an avid grammarian, he spent a year in South America tracking traditional artisans, organized a Guinness World Record flashmob, and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Sacramento Bee, and Priceonomics. He’s also a musician and mountaineer, and has hiked through the Sierras and Patagonia with an array of stringed instruments strapped to his pack.

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