Money flows toward the writer

A comment from an Indy writer on Twitter caught my attention. She had just got a quote for editing her book. $6500. Was this reasonable? I asked the question: did she have any real idea how much she was likely to earn from her book? (I was not being nasty and all of this was in polite conversation). Her response: she did not expect to realize anything like that. She had her own reasons for writing and financial reward wasn’t one of them. Fair enough. In that case, the reasonable cost of editing is what you’re prepared to pay — or need to pay, to make your book readable.

I operate under somewhat different constraints. I want my books read, and I want my books readable. I simply can’t afford to effectively pay to have my books read, and besides I am a firm believer in quality being measured by willing buyers ready to hand out their cash for it. While I am prepared to invest in paying for services that others do better than I can (and have done so), in the end, money must flow towards the writer. Sometimes… it’s a long-term investment, or a gamble. But I always plan on the book making me more than the cash outlay, or my labor is free, and worth what was paid for it.

That said: Trad publishers have been letting writers subsidize them for a long time – sometimes directly, always indirectly. If you’re getting paid so little for your book that survival means a second job/wealthy parents or a partner supporting you… well, that book is still making some of the editor’s salary. Other books may (or may not – the midlist actual often carried the darlings, and the midlister got peanuts -and certainly wouldn’t be there if there was realistically $6500 worth of the editor’s time needed to make their book saleable). Direct subsidy is where you invest in publicity – and you get a return on that, but your share is say 8% and publisher share is 48%, and bookseller’s the rest (all of these are gross, before expenses. You think publishers and booksellers have expenses… and authors don’t?)

Indy is at least to some extent — if you’re doing most of the publicity yourself, getting minimal editing and proofs and cover-expense anyway — disintermediation. But that brings you back to the calculation: how much is my book likely to earn, what is the best way of getting that figure up — and what is worth spending to do so, so cash STILL flows to the writer in the end. Now, as I said, some of this is a gamble, some of it is long term (I’m not doing ONE book, I want return customers, so to me while covers are important content is what gets return customers.)

No matter how brilliant you may think you are (or even actually are) a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes over your work will pick up problems you, as someone deeply involved in it, just don’t see. If you want hand raw crap over to someone else to make into a good — or at least readable — book, be prepared to pay for the service. And unless your publicity is excellent, or luck wonderful, money will NOT flow towards you. Seriously, the BETTER and LESS IN NEED OF EDITING… the less it can cost you. That means… extra work on your part. If you’re selling well enough and write fast enough that your time is worth more than editing will cost, go straight to someone who will do it. If you’re like me… 1)Put it aside as long as you can. 2)Read it aloud. 3)get your computer to read it aloud. 4) read from the end sentence by sentence. 5)look at your structure – does it orchestrate, do multiple points of view come up often enough to keep them clear and memory, as well as distinct? 6)look at each of your story threads. Are they complete and tied off? 7)Ask a trusted reader to read through it. When they’ve done, go to either an editor or if that is too rich for your blood, first readers. Editors, given a very clean, easy-to-read sample of the product… tend to modify their prices, because it takes them less time and is less like drawing teeth. A good one knows that they don’t have to show that they’re editing by doing a lot. Finally, unless you’re broker than broke, get someone to proof it. Put their name as the proof-reader along with the copyright and cover credits.

But if those putting a few hours or even days into your book are making more than you are for months of work… maybe you need to think about why you’re doing this, or how you can change that.

39 thoughts on “Money flows toward the writer

  1. I have yet to see an author’s work that can’t be improved by a good editor. A few decades ago after reading a book by a famous author, my thought was “that was a good first draft”. Then I found out that he had become such a big name that he had negotiated that his books would not be edited. That’s when he went from my “buy anything he writes list” to “ignore this guy”. Another writer who I am currently following has a bad habit of reusing certain phrases and dialog. A good editor would polish that.

    Another type of editor that writers need is a copy editor. Typos and punctuation errors jar me out of the story and back into the real world. It’s a very different job from editing the story.

    A third type of editing is graphic design. In these days of electronic books, some authors just pour their text into a print on demand system. I’ve been reading an entertaining series where the margins are too small, the headers and footers are in the same font and visually run into the story text because of this. Pages with only one or two words on them. Blank pages for no reason. A table on contents with no page numbers. All of these detract from the reading experience.

    And, a final rant. I recently read a book from a well known talented writer. For some strange reason there were font and size changes throughout the book. My theory is that the author marked sections or chapters as “to be edited” or “has been edited” so she could come back and review them. Where these changes happened seems to support this rather than just “the print on demand software screwed up”. Since I’m not an ereader person, I don’t know how obvious these were in the electronic version of the book.

    Obviously I am not a highly trained professional at writing or even a talented amateur, but I have read many thousands of books over the past 50+ years. I’m hoping this will be useful insight to a number of authors I follow.

    1. I have. I’ve seen a lot of work that isn’t going to be improved by an editor. That’s not just because there are a lot of bad editors. It’s because for a lot of writers an editor isn’t needed to tell a good story.

      If you’re getting an editor to clean up grammar, typos, and find continuity errors, that’s not exactly ‘improving the story’ that’s clean up. Line editing and proof reading are helpful, definitely.

      If you’re getting an editor to help with ‘improving the story’ by having them rework the plot, or change major parts of the story – then maybe you’re not ready to be publishing yet. Editors that charge $6500 are rarely worth the price (and I’m only saying rarely because I suspect that there are folks out there that need that much help). Most editors have an over-inflated opinion of their value and their worth. But hey, people will pay it so good for them.

      Now if they’re paying ME for the story, then yeah, I’ll listen and do as they want because the money is flowing my way.

    2. I have discovered Word likes to “help” with formatting.

      I’d been doing everything in rich text through a simple editor called jarte, but when I converted it to docx format, Word semi-randomly inserted all sorts of formatting changes. My “favorite” was the quote marks. Half of them were curved. Half were straight.

      And then it f’ed up the line spacing. Some paragraphs ended on even 1.0 spacing, while others were 1.5 spacing. 100 pages of this nonsense too.

      The only saving grace was, since it was going up on, I had to convert it back to raw text to upload it. That more or less nuked to the ground all of the “helping” Word did.

      And the Android version is somehow even worse…

      Well, if this WIP ever gets done, I’ll just have to remember to do a formatting nuke on it before the cleanup step. I’m sure their are classes somewhere on how to beat word into some semblance of submission, but I’ll burn that bridge when I get there.

      1. Struggling at work today with some of the new “helpful” features in MS Word, trying to find ways to turn them off or work around them. There’s a “tell us about your experience” button that I’d love to use, because I do have a few choice things to tell them…but it doesn’t work. Microsoft sucks.

    3. I’ve read a few of what I think of as F-you books, where the author became famous and successful and announced, “Now I can publish the REAL book, restoring all the good stuff the editor cut the first time!”

      Can’t remember a single case where the “real” book was actually better than the first, edited version.

      1. I was very happy to restore the original, extended ending to Morningstar/the Forlorn. I was never happy with the cut short version. I don’t know if it was better or not, but I was happier. Have had a few readers thank me.

    4. The problem in a way is that while fair copy-editors are a dime a dozen, STRUCTURAL editors who can do the job really well (I have been lucky enough to meet… one, who was employed as an editor) are rare. A good structural edit can take a mediocre book to being great – often with as little as, move this, insert that POV there, clarify this. They look at the entire book as a whole, and fix that. A copy editor, at best, can make it a little better by fixing little bits inside. The problem with all too many copy-editors is that they delude themselves that they are structural editors, or must try to be.

      1. I’ve seen that happen. One book I beta-read, I had to tell the author it didn’t read well. Couldn’t put my finger on why, but somehow the story just didn’t work.

        The changes the structural editor made were amazingly minimal, when I compared the two versions. A bare handful of scenes shifted about, a tiny bit of exposition added—and suddenly the book was readable and rereadable.

  2. Well I see that I obviously have been working too cheap. Guess I will have to double my editing fees.

  3. I’m willing to do everything myself, and can, except for the fundamental cover art (I do the type setting on the cover art and the variant edition layout arrangements). I’ll do my own (very few) short story covers myself, but because I write in series, I’m willing to pay real money (within reason) for full covers that I can usefully treat as fundamental marketing material. (Ad images I get elsewhere, free if at all possible). It takes me about 125 sales to break even on the cover art (I price so that I earn the same on ebook or paperback).

    Since I use a professional for cover art, I make sure to get some extras as part of the deal:
    1) series-level-internal-art (section/chapter/end-of-book dividers)
    2) extra bits (my current series has a windowed insert of a magic research lab notebook with object-under-investigation on the back cover for added amusement, a B&W version of which I use on the Title Page

    The series artist’s prices are reasonable, and reasonably stable, book to book, but the big risk is that he will become unavailable over the course of a long series, and I will have to adapt to a replacement (which might incur new covers up to that point, if merited).

    This is the one area where I think a very obvious professional’s touch is worth paying (some) money for in bringing in not just the first reader for the first book, but the first reader for the series, and for making your newest series entry immediately recognizable as such. A cluster of well-designed genre-signaling covers looks more and more professional the longer the array is. And while my percentage of paper versions sold is less than ebook, a good wraparound paperback cover (that can also be used for hardcover with my own skills) definitely gives a quality-plus impression. It keeps me from being labelled “indie” at first sight.

    Working Covers (no back text) here:

  4. Thanks for the advice on how to find mistakes! As a reader I have seen some very odd mistakes made in indie books, but if the story is good enough I ignore them … especially because I’ve seen some stupid mistakes in trad published books as well, so there’s something much more systemic involved than trad vs. indie.

    As a writer it suddenly became vividly clear how difficult it is to see your own mistakes, and how much you need separate eyes to look for them. I am overwhelmingly grateful to Margaret Ball for looking over my Dante book. She found, roughly, 200 comma mistakes. I can fix 180 of them myself next time, just by paying attention. But, honestly, I won’t find all of them. However, I’m not in a $6000 hole for a book that might make $50. Nor am I deep in that monetary hole for a learning experience.

    The amazing thing about indie publishing is that, if you are careful, the cost of the learning experience can be quite low. I think this especially in light of the statistic about how many trad published books sell just a few copies.

    1. Agreed, unless it is a tome a la _War and Peace_. Top of the line copy and style edits seem to run around $3000 US for a 180,000 word book, based on people I’ve worked with and talked to. By style I mean flagging things that are now inappropriate slang in the target market (I’m not going to run everything through the Urban Dictionary to see if it is a problem), archaic word that needs more definition today, repeats and tics that I missed (using the same adjective or adverb 8 times in four paragraphs on one page, or worse), that sort of problem or question.

      If you have a story guide and “in world dictionary” that makes editors much happier, and can lower rates in some cases.

      1. I have been cutting my editorial teeth on romances for a small publisher, who send out an outline of what they want, pay $MONEY to the author and $money to me, and get a serviceable book. I have been *amazed* by how helpful the outline is to the editing process, because I can see what themes/emotional beats the author is aiming for and enhance them early, rather than trying to fish them out of a sea of words.

        One thing I have noticed: I get notes from some authors saying that they don’t want to spoil me on their plotline. I am *editor*, not reader. I need ALL the spoilers so I can help make the finished product better. No idea if that’s helpful to anybody on this page, but there it is. 🙂

        1. When I do edit something, I tend to read once, cold (as if I was a reader, just buying the book) and then talk to the author. One of the single biggest problems authors have is KNOWING the plot, knowing the characters, and assuming that readers do the same – which they don’t.

          1. Same thing with code; the “second set of eyeballs” is the best debugging tool known.

          2. Yeppers, quite common for creative folks to see what they intended rather than what actually made it to the page.

            1. Shoving it on the backburner for a month can help with that.

              Though you want to fix all the errors you can catch on your own before burning your beta readers, who will never again get a chance to read it cold, you also don’t want to revise it until the thought of fixing errors the beta readers find makes you sick.

          3. That’s the great advantage of beta readers to me. They can tell me when I didn’t make something clear.

            And there is ALWAYS something.

            (BTW when something is unclear, guessing what it is is not always a help, for the beta readers among us. I once was in a group where a beta reader said “I can’t tell whether this dead civilization is human or alien.” and then wrote a lot of useless stuff because she assumed it was alien.)

  5. After not quite seven years as an indie author, I’m still just exploring genres and trying to figure out if there is a place where my tastes and Reading Public’s tastes meet. From this POV, paying for professional editing and artwork isn’t on the cards, although I did experiment with that back when I had more disposable income. I have experimented with advertising at different times, but never found a way to break even on it, so haven’t bothered with it lately.

  6. I would say it depends on the type of editing you need done. I can read and correct for spelling, grammar, and technical details pretty damn fast. I would say for one of Weber’s Safehold series, it would take about 40 hours. For a typical Louis L’Amour western, about 4 hours. If you need an editor to make your work readable, then that is a different skillset that would take longer and cost more. But to put it in monetary terms, if I were doing it for a living, I would think 2000 USD would be reasonable to edit Off Armageddon Reef for mistakes and typos, and perhaps 400 USD to edit Killoe for mistakes and typos. That is close to what I get paid for engineering work, and it is damned similar in a lot of ways. I have no idea what it would be worth to have someone like you or Sarah Hoyt or the like take a manuscript of a story and make it readable and enjoyable from a mess, but it would have to be at least double and probably triple those numbers?

    1. As you say, if the story is as big a mess as all that, the editor is starting to shade into co-writer territory, and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

          1. Heck, last year I ghost-wrote an entire novel for half of that. Yeah, I had the original writer’s sad MS to work with, but that project upheld my personal economy for all of last year.

    2. I won’t do more than look at the first 10 pages for anyone any more – and even that I avoid. I used to do a fair bit. It took me a long time, because I always tried to explain WHY I felt it necessary/good to change – often way longer than the original text. I never charged anyone anything for it, considering it help I wished I’d been given. That was probably a mistake as people tend to value what they pay for. I did get some structural help from Eric. I also got advice to use less passive voice from an author who was — by computer text analysis MUCH, MUCH worse than I was (5 times as much passive). For the record I analyzed text from 20 bestselling authors for passive voice use. Mine was 2nd lowest. Hers was highest by far. You don’t see your own problems 🙂

  7. $6500 bucks? Good lord.
    For that amount of money, I’d self-edit as much as I possibly could, get a good cover, and spend the rest of the $$ on advertising.

    I guess some people really do have too much money.

  8. Seems a bit pricy, to me, too – I’d always heard that the going rate for line editing was about 3 cents a word. I do substantive (that is, a general overview, looking for consistency, character development, plotting, pace, etc) for $400-600. But honestly, the charge for line editing honestly also depends on how clean the MS is, to start with. If it just needs checking on spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the right word for the purpose, I wouldn’t charge as much as something which needs to be rewritten, practically, in order to be readable. YMMV.

  9. Ouch, that is WAY out of my league… I do have an editor and do use a professional for my covers, but they are much more affordable. I also use alpha and beta readers BEFORE it ever goes to the editor. I am also going to work with a copy editor starting with my next book, as she likes my ‘style’ of storytelling.

  10. Sounds awful high to me. At $50.00 an hour, that works out to 3 1/2 weeks. Is that editor going to work exclusively on her book for 3 1/2 weeks? Is that editor worth $50.00 an hour?

    1. Only at the complete re-write level. Seriously if your normal length100K book is going to take more than three and a half solid working _days_ to edit – you’re not really ready for editorial work. Either the editor is a genius turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse – ghost writing de facto, or they value their services ludicrously highly.

  11. To let y’all in on my little inside joke with Dave, I do alpha, beta, and copy edits for several members of MGC along with research and subject matter advice in a few areas. The joke is that I do it pro bono so doubling my fee is…
    Since alpha is not as common a term, that is when I get sent a scene or chapter with a “hey, this just doesn’t feel right” query. I can usually read it and identify what I think the issue is. Beta reads same sort of, but for the entire work. Does the story sing to me as a reader or not.
    And copy edits are all about spelling, typo, and grammar bobbles of course.
    As for research I am quite adept at crafting a search string to lead me down all sorts of rabbit holes in search of a specific answer. I am that kid who used to get lost for hours in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or library card catalog.
    Subject matter, I have some hobbyist knowledge of firearms, edged weapons, and such. And 25 years of experience with human operations in space, particularly low Earth orbit.
    Note: I an NOT soliciting new clients. My plate is already quite full.
    And finally, that quote for editing that started all this is either a joke or an attempt to rip people off equal to the worst abuse by old style vanity publishers.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: