What You Wanted To Know About Editing

But were afraid to ask.

I’ve discussed before the difference between editing, copy editing and proofing, but judging by the fact that someone over at ATH asked about how writers were going to get the excellent editing and other services that traditional publishers provide in the new indie publishing, I’m going to presume that I either haven’t gotten through or that I need a boomier amplifier.

This comes, btw, on the heels of my hearing an interview on one of the alphabet soup networks with some big wig at Hatchette talking about everything the big guys do for us ungrateful spongers, yes, even onto the lowliest of us, with our four thousand dollar advances.  (To be honest, I saw the interview too.  The woman looked like she’d been drinking formaldehyde for the last twenty years, though, so I’m trying to forget it.  It lends credence to Kate Paulk’s Con series and her contention they’re all demons, or at least the undead.)

She said that even the lowest of books are assigned a publicist and excellent cover artists and… — gags – yeah.  What I don’t understand is how in living h*ll it is possible for people to lie like that and not choke on their very own tongue or something.

Baen is an exception, partly because Baen is, as publisher Weisskopf put it in an interview sometime back “A mid-list house.”  By that she meant not that they don’t have bestsellers (I think Baen CREATES more bestsellers per capita of writers they publish than anyone else in the business, actually) but rather that they expect their mid listers to also pay, unlike the big houses where, at least theoretically, the mid listers are dead weight and what they do is publish a lot of them, because what they lose per writer, they make up per volume.  (I have other theories about what is actually happening there, but we will bite our tongues, shall we?)

So, at Baen, yep, every book they publish will get read by – usually – the acquiring editor, and sometimes by two or three of them.

At other houses…  Look, I know the innocent, the doomed and those who believe everything someone in authority tells them are not going to believe this, but it is true nonetheless.  I’ve sold books on proposal where NO ONE ever read the final product.

Outside of Baen I’ve never been asked to do any sort of structural rewrite (and Baen’s was relatively small, because, you know, I’m that good. 😉 Well, not really, but I usually don’t have major structural issues.  I’ve heard from colleagues who have to fix that…)  I did get asked at Bantam once, but the change they wanted was impossible by reason of the time period, etc.  (I did get asked to add sex.  Twice.)

It’s not just me.  One of my best friends who sold at the same time I did was talking to the editor about her book and was shocked to figure out the editor NEVER READ IT.  Worse, the undereditors never read it.  They read the proposal (and to be honest, from what I’ve figured talking to these people, probably the first two pages of the proposal.)

As for cover artists, if you’re lucky you’ll get assigned a good one, but what I’ve been seeing from major houses these days – okay, let me put it this way, in romance at least, I’ve seen A LOT of the no royalty art you can buy for $25 or so on the covers of the recent ones.  Some even have the lettering some services sell.  As for the other genres…  It varies.  There are excellent cover artists and some publishers give a d*mn.  And then there are a neverend of covers that look like the junior undereditor spent five minutes with photoshop and is worse than I about cleaning stray pixels.

Publicists…  If you’re publishing traditional you’re told pretty much on the outset you do your own publicity (usually out of your princely advance of 4 to 5k.)  And what I learned very early is that there is no point outstripping the publicity the house has allotted.  If you do, you don’t go very far, anyway, because – first musketeer book – they’ll take forever to reprint that book and let the orders die on the vine, anyway.

But Sarah, the houses have publicists.  Yes, they do.  For the two or three bestsellers that the house actually pushes.  That’s about it.  If you’re lucky, you’ll have an ad in Locus.  (Not always.  My first book I had to pay for it.)

So most of us who are going indie, aren’t exactly finding it hard to replace what the big houses “do for us.”  Including, yes, the quality control.

Yes, I know you’ve heard of legendary editors, like Campbell, who found and nurtured talent.  It was another world.  For years now the business has been running on as much as they can get for as little outlay as possible.  Yes, they say they’re doing it for the love.  (Rolls eyes.)  They might be, but it’s not the love of reading or writing or what readers want to read.  (Part of this is because the “good” writing has become “what agrees with me ideologically.”  But that’s also a different post.)

So – you’ve decided to go indie.  Does that mean no quality control?  Does it mean you don’t know if what you put out there is good?  Well, here are a few steps:


First – you have to figure out what’s “good.”  This is not as easy as it seems.  The DaVinci code would have gone against the wall with force if I were the one choosing to publish it or not.  It sold metric buttloads.  (Now, yeah, it had push, but all the same.)  Same with sprinkles on for Fifty Shades of Grey.

What we consider good or “Worthy” is another reader’s poison.  And there REALLY is no correlation between what I like and how many people like it.  I think the only bestsellers I read are Pratchett and F. Paul Wilson.

The good news is that you don’t need to be a bestseller in traditional terms to make a living in indie.  Heck, have 10k fans, and have them all buy your 6.99 book.  Mid-list figures but, particularly if you write two books a year, a very tidy living indeed.

The bad news is that you MIGHT feel you have to have a bottom to what you do.  What I mean by this is that you might object to doing the same plot everyone else has done, or having your plot make no sense, or having the middle be a muddle.

Now, in my experience people who even worry about this aren’t the people who should worry about this.  What I mean is, if you’re aware your stuff is less than perfect, you’re probably not BOTTOM bad.

BUT if you’re worried about it, find people you trust to beta your book.  Some caveats: other writers are often critiquing what they are having trouble with.  (What I mean is we project a lot.)  Some people do revenge critiques.  No matter how good your book is, someone is going to hate it.  So, it’s best to have six to ten betas, to have them be familiar with the field you’re writing in (if you give hard sf readers a fantasy you’re going to get back some VERY odd suggestions) and to know these people’s quirks.  Of course, this is not always possible to begin with, so you’ll have to train them.  This is why it’s good to have ten.  If only one person sees a problem, ignore them.  Pay attention if it’s three or more.  (And they don’t talk to each other.)

That should be your first step.  Assemble first readers.  You can often trade this service with other writers, with the obvious caveat.

Second – “Oh, but my plot is okay.  It’s just when I publish things, I get told I need an editor.”  When lay people say this, what they actually mean, nine times out of ten, is that you need a proofreader – someone who goes through and reads the whole thing line by line, and fixes your grammar and commas, and stuff.  Be aware that there isn’t – unlike what you’ve been told or the beliefs of Word – a specific book of rules that MUST be adhered to.  Instead there are what is called “manuals of style” (the most famous and my least favorite being The Chicago Manual of Style.)  Investigate, decide what you’re going to do, do it.  (Or decide what the copy editor is going to do.)  The goal is grammar that is invisible – i.e. the meaning is clear, and everything else is invisible, meaning you don’t pop the reader out.  (I think the going rate, depending on the size of your book and experience is between $100 and $200 for this service.)

Third – “No, no, my grammar is fine, but people say I still need an editor.  Too many weird sounding sentences and stuff.

Well, for that you need a copyeditor or line-editor.  The services of THESE vary widely and they can go as high as 1k for 100k words.

Generally at the bottom you pay from $250 up, and you get someone who circles your sentences and says things like “reword” or underlines similar sounding words, or puts in “Wrong word?  Checking” or makes sure your characters all have the right name (and Bob doesn’t become Joe in the next chapter) IN ADDITION to checking grammar.

At the top you get someone who rewords your sentences, keeping the style but making it better, checks your historical references, makes sure you don’t have scenes that sound too similar, keeps track of SERIES continuity, etc.  This is an art in itself, and your regular proofreader is more likely to mutilate your prose than to make it shine.  BEFORE you give anyone a boatload of money to do this, check their work on other books.  Some people just go with  Microsoft Word suggestions.

I know two people who can do this – one is a friend whom I can sometimes bribe to do it.  (I need to send him more liquor.  Yes, I pay him too.)  And the other is one of the best traditional editors I ever worked with, but she wants a percentage of interest in the books for the life of copyright, which I’m NOT willing to do.

Fourth – above that you get real editors – the ones who tell you at a glance you shouldn’t kill Bob.  If you kill Joe, instead, it will be a better book…  and be right.

These are insanely, insanely rare, and very few of them work for traditional houses, or if they do they are so frustrated they just give up.

My friend Kate can sometimes do this, but I have to whine at her long enough that she does.

My guess is that these will eventually come online in indie publishing and be worth their weight in gold.  For now…  We have to find them one by one.

The good news is that you don’t NEED one to make a living.

And at least you can ensure someone read the thing (beyond a proofreader) before it’s published.

So, how do we do what traditional publishing could do for us?  Easy enough.  Most of the time they weren’t doing much of anything.

In indie publishing, quality control is in your hands.  The truth is, it always was.


12 thoughts on “What You Wanted To Know About Editing

  1. I’m in the process of geting professional help with my stuff before I go onto the next stage. ie, I’ve got Kindle down pat. Now for POD and Kobo . . . But I want everything cleaned up and professional before it actually goes into print. I’m currently working with two different people, and I’ll see how they work out, before committing to more expenses.

    It’s Heck, trying to be professional. I need to contact them both and see what’s going on. Keep records. “So and so is good at this, the other stuff ought to be sent to X. Don’t send rush jobs to Y. Call Z every week, she’s forgetful. Or something.”

      1. Yeah. It gets to where it’s just so easy to say “Good enough, put it up and be done with it.” I really do have to work on my professionalism.

        1. There is of course that old truism that good is the enemy of perfect. Writers striving for perfection are seldom “professional” more probably clinical OCD and still waiting on their first publish for pay check.
          Periodically I get out the lecture on professional writing that grand master Heinlein gave years ago at Annapolis. Some details are dated, but all in all it is still the best game plan ever given for the budding pro, given by an author who was forced to be a professional out of necessity.

    1. Does anyone have any thoughts on CreateSpace’s editing offers? Last time I looked, which was a few months ago, it was a few hundred dollars for copyediting.

      1. I haven’t looked into them at all, yet. The Odds hereabouts need to pool experiences and recommendations, somewhere. And form beta reading exchanges.

        1. I was just thinking it’s been a long time since I raised guppies and mollies. I never really like betas — too much fighting, you know? But guppies were nice.

  2. “Another factor is that our business model is that of the midlist publisher. Yes, we have several New York Times bestsellers a year. But we don’t expect those books to finance all the rest. All our books are expected to pull their weight, and we rely a great deal on our backlist, the long chain of earlier books in series and so on, to act as a profit center.”


    …because it’s easier to footnote your quote than say something substantive. *crawls off in search of tea*

  3. Let’s put it this way. I can do anything that’s needed for a writer. Proofing is very easy. Copy-editing/line-editing isn’t as easy and deserves to be paid more, as you said. True editing where someone will take your word for it that you *do* know what you’re talking about — well, that implies a level of trust. And that’s why, Sarah, it works for you to have Kate tell you, “Does this work?” or not. (Though I’d trust Kate, too. I have, in fact. ;-))

    I think at the last part, the “you’d do better to kill Joe than Bob” stuff, you have to know the genre and know the writer. You also have to know what’s likely to happen when you make the comment — practical psychology, maybe, if you want to call it that.

    I do know that as an editor, no matter what I tell someone to do, he or she may not do it. (That’s just the nature of being human.) There are also country conventions that need to be taken into account; for example, the way some writers from the UK do attribution phrases (extra commas “What was that?” he asked, sharply — that sort of deal) — is it really worth it to me to tell ’em, “We don’t do that over here, so please don’t do it any more, ever?” Or should I say — as I generally do — “The convention in American English is not to put a comma there as it distracts the reader” — and be done with it?

    I usually notate the convention, point out that American English doesn’t do such a thing (whatever it is, as it’s certainly not just with regards to attribution phrases or variant spellings, which most readers will plain, flat ignore unless there’s something truly outré in there), and just get on. Because it’s not worth my time to get riled up over it; I’d rather save my energy to deal with the stuff that truly needs fixing, such as Bob getting killed over Joe. 0:-)

      1. I’m glad you understand what I’m talking about, but it’s a case in point that readers — even experienced ones like proofers and editors — are not worried about such things the way proofers and editors are taught to be. Because your writing has to be some of the most audience-pleasing and rousing stuff being written today, and goodness knows the oddly-placed comma (to American eyes) doesn’t seem to stick out at all. (That is, unless your editors are rooting them all out every time, which seems unlikely. Why waste the effort?)

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