The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors

Business Rusch logo webWriters 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.

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“The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors” copyright 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




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56 Comments

  1. “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.”

    Every editor I have approached offered to edit a 1000-word (4-page) sample for free.

    One editor, a Hugo and Nebula nominee, gave comments that changed the voice of the work. Too much editing. Did not get hired.

    For science fiction, I use the Slush thread at Baen’s Bar . My experience with it has been good. Edith Maor, a Baen slushreader, gave comments that improved my manuscript so much that I dedicated the book to her.

    Reply
    • Antares, if they offer a free sample to see if you’re compatible, then by all means, use it. If the 4-page sample is your idea, pay them to do it. Pretty simple.

      And as to your experience with the Hugo & Nebula nominee, yeah, that happens a lot. There are people who believe there is only one way to write and it’s their way. Often they’ve had some validation in their profession, such as awards or award nominations. I say this as an award-winning editor who occasionally trots out that fact to prove a point to her writer husband. :-) (Also an award-winning editor, btw.)

      When you find someone who works well for you or a system that works well, then keep at it. Sounds like the Slush thread works for you.

      Reply
  2. “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.”

    That. Exactly that. First readers do get better with time and books. They have to have the qualities you listed.

    I have to confess, as a self-publisher I do not pay my first readers (I find my money is better spent in covers for my most important works, for printing and for travels). They are one of my best friends and my wife.

    I don’t either hire a copyeditor or a line editor or a proofreader. Specialization and separation of tasks may be the better way to work, but it doesn’t really apply for my first readers.

    They are mostly content editors and that’s I’ve told them, but if they want to bring to my attention a typo, or a line editor issue, I would not mind. Sounds amateurish ? That’s because it is.

    As you may know, I’m a slow writer. When writing, every time I have a doubt, I do a research. It might be a simple research on the spelling of a character, or a cohesion issue for instance. The trick is to spot what could cause an issue when you are writing (it’s about things you are writing which are related to things you have already written). Yes, I’m an “anal writer”, and I’m line editing my work all the way.

    I’m not copyediting my work on the way. I don’t want to copyedit if one entire chapter has to disappear after content editing.

    So, copyediting is the thing I do at the end, just before proofreading. I use a powerful spellchecker, which allow me not only to correct grammar, orthography and syntax, but to go deeper into the text.

    Does all of that impede my speed ? Yes it does. Impede my creativity ? It might, but it doesn’t seem to me, and I’m OK with it. It’s like in a contract : I have to be clear on what I can sacrifice and what I won’t.

    Reply
    • Alan, I’m sorry, but no matter how careful you are, you cannot copyedit for yourself. You will miss things, things you don’t know, skipped words, and the like. You’ll need a good copyeditor. You seem to be under the misperception that you must do everything the copyeditor says. You can ignore their advice completely if you want or only take half of it. But get someone with a good eye for detail to look over your manuscript. Your readers will appreciate it.

      Using friends/family to content edit is often a very good idea. Yes, they can’t copyedit well, but that’s not what they’re reading for. Sounds like you have marvelous content readers.

      Reply
  3. I just hired a editor for my gay erotic romance. She’s charging me $300. for this job. I had to borrow this out of savings so this book will have to sale 75 e-books to pay the money back and will have to sale another 75 e-books to pay for another edit for another book.
    We’ve only gone through chapter one. I think she has so far done a good job but I want to be able to put out more projects than just one book a year or however long it takes to make money to pay for another edit. This is where I would just like to find someone to do a copyedit and let it go. The newspaper idea was good. We have two local papers that I could try.
    Thanks again for a great post.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Vera. See Mary A’s point about reading the paper first to make sure they actually have copyeditors. :-)

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this post, Kris. I’m now faced with making some decisions about hiring my own copyeditor. Didn’t occur to me that I would need to hire a proofer on top of that. I’ve been all over the net looking at services (including Lucky Bat), pricing things out and whatnot, and have been left more confused than ever. This post has helped clear up some questions.

    I do wonder if you have an opinion on what is a fair price for copyediting? Some are charging up to $2000 for an average sized manuscript (~80,000 words). Others give an hourly rate (Lucky Bat does this), but I’m not sure what a reasonable amount of hours would go into an average manuscript. So I really have no idea what I would expect to pay for a single book. It does look like it’ll be way more than I have available as an out-of-work-turned-to-freelancing fella. :) (Especially knowing I’ll have to pony up more cash for a proofer if I’m going to start doing print versions.)

    Reply
    • You can forgo the proofer if you have to, Rob. That’s why I stress for POD books. There’s a lot more in the paper to look for than in the e-book. If you’re doing e-only, then you can just have a copy editor. Or you can combine the copyedit/proof into one job, and do it on the proof copy you get from Createspace. Just a few ideas….

      Reply
      • Thanks, Kris. I definitely want to move into POD. Right now, I think, I’m just suffering from a bit of “sticker shock.” The quotes I’m getting from some places for copyediting are a lot higher than I ever would have guessed. It’s the one thing that might drive me back toward seeking out a traditional publishing deal. (Heresy, I know.) :)

        Reply
        • Rob, try Arran at Editing 720 – he has good experience, is fast, and quite reasonable. He’ll do first 5 pages as a sample, free. editing720.blogspot.com

          Kris, if this is too much info, feel free to snip the direct link. Folks can find Arran by Googling him pretty easily. :)

          Reply
    • It would be hard to try and estimate how many hours would go into an “average” manuscript. Books vary so much in length, especially from one genre to another. Also, the amount of time will also be heavily affected by how many mistakes they have to correct. A clean manuscript goes through faster than a dirty one. So if you know you produce fairly clean copy, an hourly rate might be faster. If you know there are a lot of mistakes, a per-page or per-word might be better.

      And put together a style sheet. A style sheet will help cut down on time and confusion a lot.

      Also, culitvate one or two language geek friends to serve as “first proofers.” They can often be bought cheaply for dinner/booze/favors.

      Reply
      • “An hourly rate might be faster”

        I meant cheaper. Oi. Friday.

        Reply
      • Thanks, Mercy. That was very helpful.

        Reply
    • Speaking as someone who has done freelance copyediting and proofreading for a few of the big six publishers, this is what I got paid:

      Copyediting, the rate is $20-$25/hr; each house has their own rate. When copyediting, you are supposed to go through 6-9 manuscript pages an hour. So that puts your average book in the $1,000-$2,000 range. When traditional publishers hire a copyeditor, they say how many pages they should do in an hour, effectively capping what they’re going to pay. So you could say 12 pages/hour, but that means they will have to be less thorough. They also specify if it should be a light (just fix obvious errors) or heavy (rewrite unfelicitously written sentences) copyedit. If you also want the copyeditor to do a line edit, that takes time as well.

      A copyedit will also cost more the more problems there are in the manuscript, or the more dense or technical the manuscript is. Heavy sf with lots of made-up terminology will take longer than contemporary romance. Keep in mind, too, that a good copyedit goes through the entire manuscript *twice*–the 6-9 pages/hour averages that in. This is because some issues of continuity or style only become clear to the copyeditor in the middle of the book, so they do a second pass to make sure it is consistent throughout.

      It’s an extremely time consuming task (~40 hours or more) that requires a specialised skill. It’s going to cost.

      Proofreading, the rates are $18-$20/hour, averaging 15-20 pages/hour, so for a proofread I usually bill in the $300-$400 range. Again, the more errors, the longer it takes, the more I bill.

      Copyeditors usually get at least a month with the book; proofreaders at least two weeks. If you want it faster than that, then there are rush rates, which can be as much as $35-$40/hr.

      I’m sure there are people who bill less than this, but just so you know what the people who do it for the big companies are getting paid. And as someone who has lived off of copyediting/proofreading, it is still not very much money for the time and effort put in.

      Reply
      • Thanks, awaskyc. I appreciate the breakdown, both in pricing and the descriptions of the work.

        Folks, these are corporate prices, paid by major corporations. If you can pay those rates, fine, but if you can’t, there are many, many, many excellent copyeditors who work for smaller companies or have gone freelance outside of New York who charge significantly less. I’ve also worked with copyeditors who work for major NY houses who also have a different rate for individuals.

        So please don’t think you have to pay rates this high. You can, if you’re more comfortable hiring someone who has done this work exclusively for traditional publishers, but you can find good, experienced people who do charge less.

        And let me second awaskyc. This is time-consuming work, so you must give your copyeditor time to do it right. The jobs are different–proofing, line editing, copyediting–so be clear in what you’re asking for. Being specific will save you time and money as well.

        Reply
  5. Great stuff here, Kris. Finding good editors is a tough assignment for new, self-publishing authors who don’t have experience in the traditional industry. This post is most helpful in that regard.

    Gathering a good set of first readers is a years-long assignment, but when you get good ones they are gold. I suggest nurturing them with some sort of gift (or gift card) for their time. And place their names in the acknowledgments.

    Reply
    • Great idea, James. Many friends don’t want payment, but they’ll be happy to get chocolate or flowers or beer or a gift card.

      Reply
    • A long-time close friend is one of my first readers. She’s fabulous! I regularly mail her books by Bujold and by Hambly and by McKinley (she enjoys them) as thank you’s for all she does for my stories.
      (My husband is my other first reader – also fabulous! Of course.) Hi, honey! (He reads the Business Rusch, and thus will see this!)

      Reply
  6. Kris wrote: “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.”

    Since the most casual perusal still shows us daily that the internet is chock full of people saying (a) you MUST have a literary agent to sell to publishers and (b)”editing your work for submission is part of what a good agent does,” I wanted to echo my agreement with Kris about her two above points.

    As I’ve been saying over and over in public for years (and, yet, people who’ve never sold to a major house insist this cannot be so), I’ve been making my full-time, self-supporting living as a writer for over 20 years, most of my book sales have been to major houses, and I made more than 3/4 of those sales WITHOUT an agent, including my first 9 book sales (and roughly my most-recent 10 book sales). I also get much better contracts by hiring a literary lawyer to negotiate for me than I ever got on the few deals that agents handled for me.

    Moreover, just within the past 18 months, two experienced New York editors have commented to me irritably that over the past decade, agents have bizarrely decided they’re also editors, and since they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re really making a mess of submissions, and writers are being damaged by this kind of incompetent interference in their submitted work.

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    • I have heard the same thing, repeatedly. And don’t get me started on the stupid writers whose book was purchased on proposal, who then submit their finished book to the agent to have the agent edit the book first.

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      • “don’t get me started on the stupid writers whose book was purchased on proposal, who then submit their finished book to the agent to have the agent edit the book first.”

        And editors certainly have PLENTY to say about writers who do that and, in particular, about agents who ENCOURAGE writers to do that.

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  7. RE the task of self-published writers finding editors, please see my Writers Resources Page, where I include a list of personally-recommended freelance editors.

    http://sff.net/people/laresnick/About%20Writing/Writers%20Resource.htm#Editors

    The list is not comprehensive, but everyone on that list is someone I can recommend confidently.

    Some of them are editors whom I know, others have been recommended to me by people whom I know. Nobody gets on this list just because they have an editorial service or contact me and ask me to recommend them. I have to know their reputation myself, or I have to know personally someone I consider credible who vouches for them as editors.

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    • Thanks, that’s really helpful!

      One thing I discovered is that someone might do an amazing job on their four page sample, only to do a cursory job on the book. Some of the problems I didn’t even realize until much later.

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      • One of the things you can do for a proof or line editor is to knowingly introduce some errors in order to check they are doing a good job.

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    • Thank you, Laura, for that list. It’s a great place for me to start looking.

      And thank you, Kris, for bringing this up today. I finished my first full length novel (after uploading novellas and novelettes) a few days ago, ahead of my schedule. :-) Now I’m starting the first of my 3 or so edits after the first draft, always remembering not to edit the heck out of it, like Dean says – I want to keep my voice in it!

      I always learn a lot reading Dean’s and your blogs – and that learning continues in the comments. :-)

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  8. I’d just like to add this: read your local newspaper carefully before you use it to find yourself an editor. I’ve seen mistakes in major newspapers that would make my high school English teachers weep, curse, or fire off furious denunciations to said newspapers — or all of the above.

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    • Good point. One of our local papers decided to get rid of editorial standards years ago. The other has great people working for it. So do check before you inquire.

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    • That was going to be my point. I worked as a proofreader for a suburban newspaper chain for several years thirty years ago, but I proofread the ads, which were what paid the bills (newspaper subscriptions are sort of the icing on the cake — ads are the meat and potatoes money). Nobody proofread the articles. Ever.

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  9. I totally agree on the copyeditor; I copyedited my first novel myself and my brain had turned to mush by the end. Even then, I still found mistakes after uploading it, including an embarrassing one on the very first page (how the heck did I ever write ‘window’ when I meant ‘wind’?)

    It’s definitely the first person I would pay for on future books. I suspect most writers have completely the wrong mind-set for that kind of work, particularly on their own stories.

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    • I suspect you’re right, Edward. And it’s amazing what the mind sees as opposed to what’s actually on the page.

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    • Also you know what you meant to say, which can keep you from seeing what you did say. I professionally copyedit and miss errors in my own writing all the time.

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  10. One point I want to make regarding your comment about schools that teach editing: I actually took a course in Editorial Principles and Practices and a course in Book Editing when I earned my Certificate in Publishing from Boston University, and both courses were taught by working editors, not professors. So it does happen. (And both courses taught me a lot.)

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  11. I really wanted to learn editing in college. I wanted to learn what they knew so I could make my writing better. You are right about the lack of (effective) courses. I wanted to get a job working for a fiction magazine so I could “apprentice”, but I couldn’t find one to work for in Denver and I found I wouldn’t have been able to support myself and my daughter on what I would have made. Too, bad. I still think I want to learn. But now, I don’t think I can find a situation that fits where I’m at in my life. I think I will just hire a good one and watch what they do. Given enough books, I might be able to learn a thing or two. Thanks for this blog. Verra helpful!

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    • I’m right there with you, Thea. The magazine industry in Denver is food, travel, and animals almost exclusively, and a p.i.t.a. to get into. I ended up reading slush as an intern for a small publisher I knew (and still love!)after college and I learned a lot from her. I was just starting to take over the digital publishing part of the business when my day job offered me a promotion. It was pursue my dream or feed my family at that point and I went with the day job. 5 years later, I’m back to pursuing the dream. I’m doing it all myself and trading editing services with another writer. We don’t read each other’s genres so we’re more focused on internal consistency, spelling and punctuation. It seems to be working out so far. No glaring issues yet . . . not even any small ones, actually. At least, none that have been brought to our attention.

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  12. All of my books are self-published. For my first seven books, I did my own copyediting. I didn’t think I could afford to pay an editor. Instead, I paid in the form of bad reviews because of the typos. Over time, I fixed the more glaring errors, but I’m sure there are still a few typos and missing words in those books–although I haven’t had any more complaints. ;)

    For my latest book, the first one under the pen name Arby Robbins, I hired a professional copyeditor. She also did line editing. What a difference! I paid her approx. $375 to edit my 37,000 word book ($35 per hour). She did an excellent job.

    My wife and her parents are my content editors. I ask them to read for pleasure, and write down any inconsistencies they find, and anything that causes confusion or just doesn’t make sense. They always come back with a list of things. And, of course, they tell me how they liked the story. Yes, they could lie to spare my feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d know if they did.

    You are absolutely correct, Kris. Every book needs a professional copyedit and line edit. I wish I had realized it six years ago when I published my first novel. And if anybody wants the name of a excellent editor, I highly recommend my editor, Dawn Herring – http://www.alwayswrite.us. The book she edited for me is Dream Tunnel.

    Arby Robbins, aka Robert Burton Robinson

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  13. I hired a style and copy editor for my book, because I wanted to start out on the right foot with readers. Among other recommendations, the editor pointed out that while certain things are necessary for stand-alone pieces, when you put them into a collection, those things become terribly tedious. It was one of those slap forehead “duh” moments. And the copy editing caught lots of things that I literally could not see on the screen. I strongly second Kris’s recommendation on the need for a copy editor.

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  14. Someday I’m going to figure out how to attract and retain those magical “first readers.” I had one really excellent one, but she’s got health issues now, and she’s the only one I’ve ever been able to hang onto. I’d give my eyeteeth to learn how to snag more of them.

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    • Join a few book clubs? You know those people love to read.

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      • Unfortunately that’s not been a good resource, no.

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  15. I want to make a sideways comment on this that discloses that my publishing background is different from Our Gracious Hostess’s — my editorial experience is primarily with what is often termed “serious nonfiction.”

    In the world of “serious nonfiction”, every level of editing (even work done by the EAs) is expected to object to sense issues, such as a passage that says it’s about seven items but adds up to eight items. The primary person who catches about 85% of these items is actually the copyeditor; in the serious nonfiction work, what Our Gracious Hostess calls “line editing” is a part of the job of the Developmental Editor.

    But that’s just a sideways and roundabout way of reinforcing the point that Our Gracious Hostess made: Proper editing is actually a team effort. The author must, of course, be involved in self-editing. However, there should also, for book-length works, be at least two other editors who each go through the entire manuscript at different times. One of them is going to do “developmental” work; one of them is going to do “proofing” work; and the area between is going to overlap. A lot.

    Now, an aside on pricing. The one continuing excuse for the so-called “standard manuscript format” is that it makes it really easy for lazy beancounters to budget for the edit: 250 words (or, more contemporarily, 1300 characters including spaces and punctuation), or one “page”, costs $x for an A-level edit, $y for a B-level edit, and so on. Similar reasoning goes into the freelance payrates for proofreaders… and dissimilar, but analogous, reasoning goes into the pay for freelance indexers (and anybody who says a keyword-in-context “index” generated by a computer is better than a drunk monkey’s first draft shouldn’t even consider publishing a nonfiction book).

    Last, one thing that I cannot stress enough: For series and related works (including later revised editions), everyone in the editorial process must have read all of the preceding works in the form in which they were published before starting their editorial roles. {Egregious examples of failure to do so for bestsellers omitted to protect the guilty.} This can be a real pain in the posterior, but it cuts down tremendously on continuity errors… and on reinventing the wheel, but that’s far enough off track that I’ll stop here.

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  16. I noticed something that hasn’t been mentioned in any comment (yet).

    “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.”

    Though you don’t use the word “genre”, it’s there, underlying. I just want to point it out because genre is a notion that I took a long time to grasp ; not that it’s rocket science, but new writers have all sort of funny ideas and miss completely obvious and very important concepts. Or at least I do.

    Genre does matter a lot. It doesn’t need to be consciously in the mind of the writer while writing, but when the time comes to try and sell the novel, it becomes very necessary to get it right.

    Understanding genre also made me more tolerant, helped me look past my likes and dislikes and try to perceive the appeal of genres, the promise genre fiction makes to readers (romance promises an HEA, cosy mystery promises a light atmosphere and cleverness, and so on). I also understand the notion of “with strong [genre] elements”, as in “High Fantasy with strong romance elements”.

    Funny fact is, I only recently realized I was reading in genre. Not so long ago when you asked me what kind of books I like, I wouldn’t even have used a single word that describes a genre. I probably would have named authors, in fact. My first contact with the word genre was abstract and I kind of dismissed the idea offhand, “Why do you need to put a label on it anyways ?”.

    Well, I had no notion what I was doing. The first voice that helped me understand professional writing was Dean Wesley Smith. Now I not only read in genre but write in genre as well, and I understand enough to take several pen names accordingly.

    I guess I just needed to point out, perhaps only to bore others commentators, the depth there is in these few lines about getting the right editor – for the right genre.

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  17. My editor just caught that I had a character I killed on page 127 being very active in the story on page 156 and I don’t write zombie-apocalypse stories. You really can’t do without one, but I have found that finding one who is really good isn’t necessarily quite as easy as you make it sound.

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  18. Thank you for writing this. I have great first readers, and a wonderful copy editor (who sometimes finds line edit types of mistakes!) (The wonderful copy editor is worth every penny. I have horror stories about the copy editor I had for my traditionally published work, so working with someone who is this good is such a treat. )

    But I did keep wondering if I needed a content editor. I didn’t think I did, but maybe I was missing out on something useful…However, I do trust my first readers. They will continue to be good enough.

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  19. My advice for finding a really good copy/line editor: marry someone with Asperger’s. That’s what I did. ;)

    Actually, I only noted what a good copy/line editor my husband will make for me after I wanted him to read some of my first draft material and he found it literally impossible to not point out all the typos, grammatical issues and inconsistencies. So I think I’m set in that area. Now if I could only get him to actually comment on story issues instead of just getting caught up in prose issues. (He is actually an avid reader with a good sense of story and we have the same taste in stories so, he would make a good first reader for me if he ever said anything other than “It’s good, but there’s a misspelling in this paragraph and I don’t think this word means what you think it means…”)

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  20. I rely on my writers’ group for most of my content/substantive editing. We have even named some of our types of comments after members of the group. For example, the Kathy Rule is that giving a walk-on character a name suggests to the reader that that character is important enough to remember, so don’t do it unless it’s too awkward not to. The Sharon Rule is very similar to Asimov’s comment above; I once had a character in a far future SF novel “fly across the room” on page 3 or so. She pointed out that, especially that early in the story, some readers might interpret the phrase to mean he could actually fly.

    I am lucky enough to be blessed with a friend who is pretty good at copyediting and works for food. If a writer is not similarly blessed and absolutely can’t afford to hire anyone, one thing that catches SOME kinds of typos is to get software to read the book aloud (or sending the file to most Kindles works, too). I can read a sentence until I have blurred vision and not see the missing word or the extra word, but when I hear that sentence read aloud, that kind of mistake pops out at me. Read aloud software also catches some kinds of spelling errors like breath instead of breathe and vice versa.

    Great post!

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  21. Good proofreaders are an amazing thing. I worked for a couple of years doing document prep on reports going to regulators and clients for an environmental company. We did a lot of formatting, and a mix of proofreading and content checking. It was a great learning experience, and really helped my eye for detail. A lot of the work was formatting, but we did check for grammar issues, spelling problems that wouldn’t be caught by the spell checker, missing references, paragraphs referred the reader to non-existent sections, and so forth. It really brought home the point that editing was a team effort. I’d go through the report, think I’d fixed everything, and then hand it off to the senior document person. My goal was to someday give her one that she found nothing more to fix in. It never happened.

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  22. Kris,
    Quite valuable and just what I was looking for last week. Many thanks to you, Laura and the other comments with thoughts and references.
    Mark

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  23. Hints and quibbles and all that:

    There are a couple of professional copyeditor hangouts in LinkedIn that I have found very helpful both for my book-doctoring clients and for myself.

    Many good copyeditors don’t want to do line editing (or at least don’t want it listed on their contractual duties) because part of how they do what they do involves a very tight, narrow focus on exactly what is in front of them, and line editing requires a somewhat broader view.

    Most good book doctors — and I’m one — don’t like private clients, i.e. writers paying for services prior to self-publication or submission to traditional markets. I have nearly always been happier with clients I got through agents or traditional publishing houses (which then wrote the check). The main exception to that ever was a client who had been in the sales division of major publishing houses for thirty years, was very well off, and essentially wanted to duplicate commercial publishing but with his own complete control. Many private clients don’t really want the truth, or they’re living in wannabee culture and they want to pay for a book doctor because it’s the equivalent of driving a Mercedes, biweekly sessions with a Freudian psychoanalyst, or doing a photo safari to Africa, i.e. they expect to get something out of it but a big part of that may be impressing others with how much they paid for it. So Kris is right; be very suspicious of any club that will have you as a member!

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    • Thank you so much, John, for seconding what I said. I hope you don’t regret outing yourself. :-) I know at least a dozen book doctors like John who do not take private clients for the reasons he names. These folks are spectacular at their job. I also know a lot of so-called book doctors who’ve never written a novel, think they know all there is to know about writing, and will rewrite the hell out of your work. I call these people names that aren’t printable here. (Well, they are printable. I just won’t do it.)

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  24. I want to thank Laura Resnick for her list of editors. It’s really helpful, especially for a newbie like me. It’s hard to know what is a “fair” price for something. A huge thing for me was feeling like there were only one or two places that I’ve seen people that I respect, and who know the industry, recommend. One was vastly out of my newbie indie writer price range, which left only one choice.

    I ended up hearing someone recommend elance, which turned out to be rather a gold mine. As part of my job offer I said that my top candidates would have to edit three to four pages of my work as a sample. Several sent other samples and two were weeded out because I didn’t like their style. I ended up with three people that I felt really good about. One was local to me and I figured if I end up having a major “oops” in setting she’ll be more likely to catch it as I created a fictional town near where I live.

    If I’m not totally thrilled with the way we end up working together on the total manuscript etc, I have two other names that I liked and I’ve kept them.

    I have a 65,000 word manuscript. I got bids as low as $92 for line editing and copy editing (which was specified in my job offer). I had one really eager girl who gave a low bid who did a decent job (not as good as others, but she wasn’t really bad and would be an improvement over me not having an editor at all) so I think that it’s possible to find an affordable editor even if all your free readers are pretty illiterate.

    I figure if I keep writing and publishing at the pace I have set for myself this year and next year, I should be able to break even on each book (it’s own sales) within two years even at the most minimal sale levels. I am hopeful that with this investment that I’ll actually have people who continue to come back and purchase more of my books-

    Reply
    • Thanks for the post and the links, Bonnie. This helps all of us. :-) And you’re right about the investment. It does pay off in readers.

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  25. I’ve been thinking about a content/developmental editor for that first book from long ago and someone pointed me to this article. You may have just saved me $2000+ dollars. It’s what everyone charged.

    I’ve used first readers for the first time for my fifth book. I’m seriously considering your advice. There’s no rush to shell out that money. I just have this pipe dream that someone’s going to help make the book more polished.

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    • You’re welcome, Sylvie. I hope it all works for you. And sometimes, you know, you must simply trust your process, trust that the book is good enough. (Of course, get a copy editor, but I said that already in the post. )

      Reply

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