Writers believe that all editors are created equal. They also seem to believe that all editors are gods. Greek or Roman gods, gods of myth, gods who are spectacular one day and horrible the next. Not Coyote, necessarily, but Athena one day and Ares a day later. One day brilliant, the next trying to start a war.
Editors are none of those things.
Editors are human beings, with all the greatness and weakness that goes with that appellation.
Realize that no place offers a school for editors. Yeah, I know. There are publishing courses offered through a handful of universities, including one very large and famous course that some publishing houses make all of their senior editors take.
I’ve looked at curriculums, I’ve talked to graduates of the courses, I’ve interviewed the instructors.
None of those courses teach editing. In fact, most of those courses (with the exception of two big famous ones) have professors teach the class, not established editors. So someone who has never edited will teach a beginner how to edit. Makes no sense to me.
Most editors in traditional publishing graduate from an Important University—one of the Ivys, maybe, or one of the Seven Sisters (likely)—and then apply for a publishing job in New York. The traditional entry level position—editorial assistant—is a fancy name for a secretary. It is, however, the position from which the talented and ambitious will rise all the way to Publisher (although never Vice-President or President; generally speaking, you must go through sales to get that high in the company).
When large publishers clean house, the first positions axed are editorial assistants, assistant editors, managing editors, and plain old editors. In the bad old days of publishing, most of these people went on to become agents.
In modern publishing, most of these people hang out a shingle as editor for hire.
If you read between the lines, you’ll note that not everyone I mentioned was actually a hands-on editor, dealing with manuscripts. In the very bottom position—editorial assistant—the person with “editor” in her title was actually a secretary, with no editing experience whatsoever.
Yet now, all of these people are on the web, clamoring for you to hire their “expertise” to “improve” your manuscript.
Are they by definition bad at what they do? Heavens, no. Many of them—even the secretaries with the fancy titles—might be good editors. And many of the people whose title was simply “editor” might be terrible editors.
There’s no real way for you to know.
Last week, I wrote about how to deal with editorial revisions from your traditional publisher. I also defined the types of editors who deal with manuscripts (as opposed to other editorial duties) within a publishing house.
This week, I promised to deal with editors you hire yourself. In order for this week’s post to make sense, please read last week’s, particularly the part defining the different editorial jobs.
For the purposes of this week’s blog, I’m going to use the term “self-published writer” instead of “indie-writer.” In this instance, “self-published” is clearer.
This week, we’re going to discuss what kind of editor or editors a self-published writer needs before placing her book on the market for sale.
First, I must state something for those of you who want to remain in traditional publishing only. Do not hire an editor before you submit your book to a traditional editor. Do not. That will cause more problems than it will solve.
Secondly, in case you’re not clear on what I mean, do not hire a so-called book doctor. There are very good book doctors in the world. You can’t afford them. Traditional publishers hire them to repair a celebrity book or to revise a messy manuscript from an ill or dying bestselling writer. Book doctors that you writers can find on the web are not the book doctors of legend.
The book doctor you can afford is an editor who believes that he offers something “more.” Generally, he doesn’t, and he’ll charge way too much money. So submit your manuscript while you write your next manuscript and forget about editing until you have an editor in a traditional publishing company.
And another sidebar—your agent is not an editor. She’s someone you’ve hired to sell your manuscript and to help manage your business. If she continually makes you rewrite your manuscript to make it “saleable,” then she doesn’t understand her job—and was probably one of those laid-off editors in a previous life. Fire her, hire someone who will sell your manuscript as is, or better yet, stay away from agents altogether. There really is no point to the job in the modern market.
Last week, I listed four types of editors who touch a manuscript in a publishing house. They are acquiring editor, content editor, line editor, and copyeditor. Then there’s the proofreader, who is also important, but in a different context. The context becomes very important for the self-published writer.
You don’t need an acquiring editor because you have decided to publish your own work. In other words, you are your own acquiring editor.
Now, it’s time to remove your writer hat and put on a publisher hat. You must decide from a business standpoint what kind of editing you need.
Let me help.
You need a copyeditor. We all need copyeditors. As I reread my blog post from last week, I discovered several missing hyphens, an errant “either” and many other tiny mistakes. Rather than fixing them after the reread, I’m leaving them in to prove my point.
Copyeditors will go over the copy for misspellings, missing words, grammar, and other nit-picky but oh-so-important details. They work off the finished manuscript. So you better have all your other editing ducks in a row before hiring your copyeditor.
If you don’t hire a copyeditor, your work will be subpar. I can guarantee it.
Good copyeditors are really easy to find. You don’t need to search the web and you don’t need to spend $5,000 to hire someone who also works in traditional publishing.
You can go to a menu-service like Lucky Bat Books, and hire a copyeditor. Nothing else. The nice thing about menu-services like Lucky Bat and other companies that offer work for a flat fee is that they’ve already vetted the copyeditors. Terrible ones get fired and good ones get more work than they can finish in ten years.
But, you can also go to your local newspaper, and ask who copyedits for them. Generally, they have two or three people who copyedit. Sometimes those people are on staff, but most often they’re freelancers who will charge you a flat fee for their services.
If you live in a large city, you have a lot of choices. You will also have local business magazines that hire copyediting services. University presses have copyeditors. Some television stations do as well. Ask, interview, and here’s the most important part:
Before you hire someone to copyedit your oh-so-precious book manuscript, give them three or four pages as a sample. You pay them for this, of course. But make sure those three or four pages are representative of the work.
For example, if you’re writing a dialogue-heavy novel, and your characters don’t speak in complete sentences, give the copyeditor a few pages of that. If the copyeditor rewrites every sentence into a grammatical and perfect gem, then do not hire that copyeditor. That person doesn’t understand fiction.
Just because they’re good at spelling or nits or understand the difference between “lay” and “lie” (which I can never remember) doesn’t mean they understand how paragraphs improve or impede pacing, or the difference between the “sound” of a dash and the “sound” of an ellipsis. Get samples, then hire.
But hire someone. Please. Please, please, please.
You might also see if the copyeditor is a good line editor. Line editors look for consistency in the actual words and structure of the book—making sure that your character, who started the book in a yellow blouse, doesn’t start wearing an orange blouse without first taking off the yellow blouse and replacing it with the orange.
Since you’re going to be on a limited budget, you can probably rely on the copyeditor to do this. If you have a bigger budget, however, hire a separate line editor. They should do their job before a copyeditor ever gets near a manuscript.
Again, every writer needs someone to read for consistency. It might be an anal friend. It might be the copyeditor. But writers get lost in their stories and often forget what they have and haven’t done.
For example, I wrote my novel Façade in one month-long burst, without going back and looking at any of it once I started. In the beginning of the book, my protagonist falls down a cliff and breaks his right leg. By the middle of the book, I remembered that he had a broken leg, but for some reason, I thought he had broken both legs, and I couldn’t figure out why he had an easy time getting around in the front of the book.
By the last third of the book, I remembered that he had broken only one leg, but I thought it the left leg.
I thought I corrected all the leg references when I turned in my manuscript. The book got published, edited, and proofed by two different traditional book companies. They found many more instances of right/left/both leg inconsistencies.
I thought the issue solved until WMG Publishing reissued the book. The copyeditor WMG hired worked off the final copyedited manuscript from one publisher and compared that to the published book, and still found examples of right/left/both leg inconsistencies.
Not because the traditional publishers’ copyeditors and line editors had done a bad job, but because these things happen. There are always mistakes.
And more mistakes get added when previous mistakes get fixed.
If you expect your manuscript to be perfect when it goes out, you have an unrealistic expectation.
With line editing, it becomes important to have someone who understands your genre do the work. As Isaac Asimov once said, the sentence “he turned on his left side” has two meanings in science fiction. In contemporary fiction, it only has one.
Keep that in mind.
Hire a separate line editor if you can, otherwise ask your copyeditor to do this very important job. Again, you can’t do it on your own, and your friendly first readers have another job. I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
Most self-published writers don’t think they need copyeditors and do believe they need content editors. As I said in last week’s piece, there are very few great content editors in the world and many good ones. But not all editors who work(ed) in traditional publishing are any good at content editing. In fact, many are not.
If you asked for a percentage from me on the good content editors I’ve worked with on my novels, I would say that fifty-percent or less of the editors I worked with in traditional publishing were good content editors. That’s book publishing.
If you were to ask the question only about fiction magazine editors, I would say that 95% of the ones I’ve worked with are good content editors. Career anthology editors (those who make a living editing anthologies) are generally like magazine editors. The one-shot anthology editors usually aren’t all that good at content editing.
If traditional publishing doesn’t create good content editors, then it follows that hiring someone with traditional publishing novel editing experience is probably not worth the price tag.
Note that I said novel editing. Non-fiction book content editing has other requirements, including an awareness of legal matters as it pertains to the subject, and that’s a whole different ball of wax. If you’re writing non-fiction, you will need someone to vet your content if only for an eye to legalities such as whether or not you can say something negative about Really Big Company without getting sued.
So, should a self-published fiction writer have a content editor on their novel? Not necessarily. Here’s the biggest secret in all of traditional publishing: Most fiction books have never had a true content edit.
From Big Name’s fifteenth bestseller, which the acquiring editor (read company president) is afraid to touch for fear of losing Big Name to another company, to Sweet Young Thing’s first novel, which no one has the time (or the budget) to edit, most fiction books get little more than a line edit followed by a copyedit.
I would wager 95% of what you read has never had a content edit. Decades ago, writers started complaining that editors didn’t “edit” any more, and by that, writers meant that they never got a content edit.
“Never” is a harsh word, and not a very accurate one. I would say that, of the more than 100 books I’ve published traditionally, about 25% had any type of content edit. Those editors who bothered with a content edit were generally good, and as I said last week, one editor was (and is) freakin’ brilliant.
But the rest? Most didn’t even pretend. I had an sf editor for five novels whom I’m convinced scanned books instead of reading them. I had one romance editor whom I’m convinced never read the finished manuscript at all—even writing back cover copy on one novel getting the plot and the city in which the story was set wrong.
The worst was an editor who made her assistants read the books she was supposed to edit, and making them write what was essentially a book report, which she then cobbled together to make it seem like she had done a content edit. Turns out she never read any book she’d published. When all of this came to light, the publishing company she worked for didn’t fire her, but they did demote her and take away her assistants. Those assistants weren’t doing content editing either. They were just factually reporting what they had read. It was a mess.
So, the one type of editor you can skip is the content editor. And frankly, because content is so subjective, it’s probably best to skip this step. Yet it’s the one self-published writers believe they need—at the expense of the line edit and copyedit.
If you aren’t confident enough in your own work to send it out into the world without someone vetting the content, then hire a content editor. Pay someone whom you trust to read the book and comment on it.
Does that someone need to be a professional content editor? No. In fact, if you hire a professional, you’ll shell out anywhere from $500 to $5000 for advice you might have to ignore. Remember what I said last week: “Editing, like writing, is a subjective job. So an editor whom I consider great might be—in your opinion—a total idiot.”
Sometimes two different editors might be wrapped in the same person. A great content editor for science fiction might be clueless when it comes to cozy mystery. Dean Wesley Smith is my first reader on most books and he’s wonderful. He knows what I’m trying to do and helps me more than I can say. But if I ever write that Regency romance I’ve been threatening to write for years now, I’ll need a different first reader. Dean simply does not understand Regency—and he doesn’t want to.
In other words, he’s brilliant at most things, and awful at this particular one. Me, I’m fine on most genres, except post-human idea-based hard science fiction. It bores me. I’m certainly not going to be able to help anyone improve those stories.
The best way to get a great content edit is to cultivate some marvelous first readers. We all know people whose tastes mirror ours, who are insightful and smart, and seem to know instinctively what works and what doesn’t. Those are the people you want to read your book.
Then you’ll need to learn how to listen to their comments. They’re not going to give you fixes to the problems they find. That’s not their job. They will point out what’s good and what’s bad about what you’re doing.
Don’t ask them for their critique. Ask them for their reaction to the book when it’s done—the good and the bad. Listen to them as if they’re describing a movie or a book written by someone else. Think about whether or not you’d enjoy the product they’re describing.
Let me explain what I mean by this. Comments will go something like this:
Comment One: I tried to read the book a couple times, then one afternoon I had a few hours and I focused on it. I got going and really loved it.
Translation: The opening is difficult and off-putting. The book gets better in the middle, and I loved the ending.
Before you fix it, though, make sure your other two or three first readers had the same reaction. Because if they didn’t, first reader number one may have just had a busy few days and really needed to focus before reading the book.
Fix: Figure out what’s wrong with the opening. Did you start in the wrong place? Do the first fifteen pages need to be cut off entirely? Leave the rest of the book alone.
Comment Two: This book made me mad.
Translation: I don’t have one yet. You’d need to query the reader. Was it the content that made her mad? Did you intend to make your reader mad? A lot of issue-driven fiction is designed to anger the reader. If that’s the case, you succeeded.
The most important question you ask here is Would you read another book like it? If the answer is an enthusiastic yes, then don’t worry about the anger. You pushed your reader’s buttons, and that’s a good thing.
Comment Three: I never did finish, sorry. I liked the beginning though.
Translation: Your book is boring. The reader couldn’t find the story. The pacing is probably off.
Fix—if the other readers agree: A completely new draft. Start over from scratch. This is one you can’t fix by changing a few words here and there.
It’s better to have more than one first reader so you can compare. I’ve written books that pissed off men and made women happy. I’ve written books that women thought trite and made men cry. I’ve written books that I thought sucked and my first readers loved.
Go with your first readers’ consensus. If they don’t agree, go with your gut.
Oh, and never have them give you their responses in a group. Group comments lead to group think. This is something done one-on-one.
Have different first readers for different genres, and sometimes for different series. Keep a second group of readers in your pocket if you need to do a redraft (start fresh).
You don’t need English majors or professional writers for this part at all. In fact, my best first readers for one of my series are a retired teacher and an appellate court judge. They may not have English degrees, but they’ve found things that no professional content editor ever saw.
Finally, the other person you really do need is a proofreader. You really need a proofer if you’re doing a print-on-demand edition of your book. Proofers don’t just look for typos and misspellings. In fact, that’s the least important part of their job.
They need to figure out if your final manuscript matches the printed manuscript. They look at layout. They see if the corrections made from the copyedit introduce new errors. They make sure your name and title are spelled correctly in the running headers. They make sure you have running headers. And page numbers. And accurate page numbers in your table of contents. And so on.
Again, go to your local newspaper or a regional press and hire whomever they use. Or find an online flat fee menu service and hire a proofreader. You’ll be very glad you did.
The most important thing to remember here, though, is that as a self-published writer, you are hiring these people. If the content editor you paid five figures to hates your book, then you don’t have to take his advice.
If the copyeditor you hired rewrote every sentence, pay the s.o.b, then hire a new copyeditor—giving the new copyeditor the original (uncopyedited) manuscript—and never ever hire the first copyeditor again. Chalk it up to experience.
You don’t have to do what any of these people tell you. You will publish the book anyway. All of the choices are yours. All of the decisions are yours.
That’s the great thing about self-publishing. And the scary thing. You’re hiring these people to act as your safety net, but you can decide not to have a net at all. Or to pull the net if it gets in the way.
It’s all up to you.
I write these blogs too fast to have a copyeditor go over them. Sometimes I push the deadline. Because this is a blog, I know my readers will understand. But when I decide to put these posts in book form, I hire all of the types of editors listed above to make sure the book is the best it can be.
I am striving to make the blog the best it can be for what it is. It’s a weekly snapshot of the industry. If you are getting any value from the blog at all, please leave a tip on the way out.
Thanks! And thanks for all the comments, links, donations, e-mails, and forwards. I greatly appreciate them.
“The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors” copyright 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.