The reading public has no time for badly edited, error-ridden books.
That’s true in the traditional publishing world, of course—but it’s even more relevant for indie authors. Sloppy work tars everyone.
Every time a badly edited book is published, it chips away at the reputation of the self-published writers who aren’t producing rubbish,” says Gary Smailes, cofounder of BubbleCow, a U.K.-based company that provides editing and proofreading services to indie authors around the world. “But readers are more forgiving of self-published writers if they appear to have taken a real effort.”
Indeed, a book with no errors is a rare thing. Mistakes frequently even make their way into the thoroughly vetted books that come out of big, traditional publishing houses, where professional editors and proofreaders rake manuscripts with the finest of fine-tooth combs. And that’s despite the fact that most manuscripts go through an intensive editing process before they’re even accepted by a literary agent and shopped around.
“Self-published writers have to work harder to make it to that point,” Smailes says. “Readers are taking a gamble on them because they’re not vouched for by a publisher.”
The fact is, slipups are probably going to end up in the final product, but you’ve got to make an effort. The writer’s primary task is to create work that is as compelling and error-free as possible. A great book cover, a marketing plan, and a cool author website are all important, but if an author hasn’t spent the time and money for a solid editing job, it’s all just wasted effort.
Step 1: Nomenclature
Getting the terms straight will help an author get the most out of the editing process. At a high level, there’s substantive or structural editing, which drills down deeply into things like character development, readability, and plot. And then there’s copyediting and proofreading, which are more about the nuts and bolts.
“Before you get started with an editor, learn what’s available and think about what you’ll need, whether it’s proofreading, copyediting, or substantive analysis,” says freelance book editor J.P. Hansen, a self-published author himself. “If you know what the differences are, you’ll know what to ask for.”
In most cases, it makes the best sense to start out with an in-depth structural edit before looking at the nitty-gritty of sentence structure or spelling. In other words, there’s no point in putting on your lipstick if you haven’t even showered yet.
A substantive edit focuses on the content in its entirety. Is the writer building tension? Is the writer telling rather than showing? Is the dialogue successful? Does the story flow from beginning to end? In a sense, submitting your manuscript for a substantive edit is a bit like going to the doctor for a diagnosis. If a story is inconsistent or confusing, your editor will be able to recognize any structural issues and offer potential solutions. A doctor will remove a mole; your editor will let you know if a section of your book needs to be excised.
“We try and help writers pinpoint the problem; we point it out and explain why it’s wrong and what they should be doing, which makes it more of an educational process,” Smailes says. “It’s often about what a writer doesn’t know, and what they don’t know, they can’t do anything about until it’s pointed out to them.”
Take dialogue, for example. Good dialogue is snappy, believable, and makes sense from a character standpoint. In fiction, dialogue needs to move quickly and with a certain intensity. If the dialogue isn’t working, then the story could fall flat. A substantive editor will flag unsuccessful dialogue and share advice on how it can better move the story along.
“The bottom line is very simple: in a good book, stuff happens,” says Hillel Black, a freelance book editor responsible for putting the shine on more than 20 New York Times bestsellers. “If stuff isn’t happening in a novel, a story is not being told.”
Once a writer is satisfied that her book has a solid story, a convincing plot, and a workable structure, it’s time to move on to the more technical aspects of editing.
Traditionally, the next step is the copyediting stage, the point at which an editor goes through a manuscript sentence by sentence to make suggestions on sentence structure and word choice, and to correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Having moved through the copyediting phase, a proofreader takes a final look at a typeset book after it’s been laid out, including headings, page numbers, captions, and spacing. Part of the proofreader’s job is also to make sure that all of the copy editor’s accepted changes and suggestions were translated into the final product.
Copyediting and proofreading aren’t the same thing, but in the self-publishing world, the two services have largely conflated. It’s a resource/time issue.
“In the traditional world, a book might go through multiple copy edits and proofreaders, but you’ll probably find with self-published writers that there’s not the budget to pay for that,” Smailes says. “We often urge self-published writers to use their friends and family, and to get as many people as possible to read their manuscript before proofreading. The more eyes there are, the less room there is for error.”
Of course, feedback from your buddies or your spouse should be taken with a grain of salt.
“The key thing with feedback is that if three or four people say the same thing, then, okay, it’s clearly a problem that needs fixing, but you should always think twice before blindly implementing every suggestion,” Smailes says. “But I’ve never come across a book that hasn’t been improved by an edit.”
Step 2: Finding the Right Editors
Before starting a search for the perfect editors, an author needs to be sure that her manuscript is ready. If a book needs a little more time in the oven, an author should redraft before reaching out. “Go through as many drafts as possible before coming to an editor, and make sure it’s as clean and complete as possible,” Hansen says. “Don’t send a first or a second draft because that’s just going to be a waste of money.”
Once an author feels confident that her manuscript is ready for professional editing, she can either hire freelance book editors or sign up with an editorial services company like BubbleCow, AuthorHouse, or Lulu, to name a few. But in either case, as ever, it’s vital for an author to do some research. The editor/writer relationship is a personal one, and an author needs to make sure she’s on the same page as her editors.
“The first thing you really want to know is what experience they’ve had and who they’ve edited,” Black says. “But the most important thing of all is to talk to the editors. Have a conversation and feel them out.”
There are numerous professional editor organizations and groups a click away online: the Professional Editors Association, the Consulting Editors Alliance, or the Editorial Freelancers Association. The difficulty isn’t in finding editors, but in finding the right editors. And it never hurts to see what fellow writers have to say before moving forward.
“You don’t want any alarm bells ringing. A simple Google search will soon reveal if there are any potential problems,” Smailes says. “Writers like to write, so you know they’re going to go into forums and share their opinions if they’ve had a bad experience.”
It’s also extremely important to make sure editors are communicative and willing to keep in touch throughout the process. An author also needs to make sure editors are aware of the project’s time frame. If an author has a launch date or a promotional plan in her head, she should share that information. It might also be a good idea to include the time frame for completion in the contract. But build lead time into the schedule. An author can’t assume editors will be able to edit and proof the book in a week. BubbleCow, for example, has a policy that all books are returned to authors within 28 days, although it often turns out to take less time.
Step 3: Budgeting
Pricing can often depend on what it is an author is looking for. Some editors, like Hansen, charge by page count (based on the industry standard of roughly 250 words per page), while others charge by word count. Black, on the other hand, charges about $175 an hour for substantive editing. The total cost will vary depending on the size of your manuscript, but Hansen advises budgeting for at least between $500 and $700 to get the job done.
Editors, especially those who cater to indie writers, will commonly offer different package deals. At BubbleCow, writers can get what Smailes refers to as a “substantive line edit,” basically a combination between a structural editing job and a copy editing report. When a writer contracts with Hansen for a substantive editing job, copyediting and proofreading are included, although proofreading is also available as a separate service.
Although some editors, like Black, refuse on principle to provide potential customers with samples of their work as an enticement, others, like Hansen, will offers clients $50 worth of copyediting up front so the writer can see what his work is like before committing to the full price.
With a good editor, an indie author’s book has a chance of standing out from the Amazon clutter—but it does help to have a thick skin. There might be thousands of changes in a manuscript after editing, though an author doesn’t have to accept them all.
“I often joke that our tagline should be, ‘We’re not mean, we’re honest,’” Smailes says. “We want stories to be as good as they can be, because if self-publishing is going to work, writers need to be as conscientious as possible to produce the best possible work. ■
Allison Schiff is a writer living in New York City.