What To Look For (and Require) From Your Book Editor

A few days ago, on the Southern California Writers Conference’s Facebook community page, SCWC director Michael Steven Gregory posted about one of the most troubling challenges writers face today:

Gotta say, folks, I’ve recently been coming across way too many people bilking writers big time–from publicists & editors & book printers & conference organizers to you name it… Please do your due diligence before paying anybody a penny with regards to your work and dream. The big shift today is not about publishing your book; it’s about convincing you that “author services” will sell your book. (I know the SCWC’s been dealing with this for about a decade, but it’s gone really, horribly rampant as of late.) Just a heads up.

For the past three years, I’ve been a member of the SCWC faculty (FYI: the next conference is Feb. 15-18, 2013 at the Crowne Plaza Hanalei in San Diego). I’m also a freelance book editor who also, in some cases, writes book proposals and locates agents or publishers. I steer others toward a self-publishing route, whether through print books, e-books, or both.

Michael is right on the money: it’s getting tricky for anyone trying to write and publish a book. With the traditional publishing industry becoming more difficult and condensed every day, and the costs, potential profits and opportunities to self-publish more appealing than ever, an increasing number of writers are striking out on their own. The smart ones are finding qualified, distinguished professionals who can edit their books to a publish-quality shine, perhaps help them build their promotional platforms, and maybe even offer solid advice on the publishing process.

But here’s the rub: For every good, established professional, you’re going to find two or three who just aren’t qualified to provide the services they promote. Some among this latter group try hard, and mean well, but don’t have the skills or track record. The others, however, are shamelessly capitalizing on your dream of publishing a book. Like unscrupulous shysters in any industry, they promise the moon, take your money, prey on your hopes and aspirations, don’t edit well, and leave your book off worse than when you started. These are the people to which Michael Gregory alluded. When you’ve spent months, or years, pouring your heart, soul, time and money into a book, the last thing you need is to meet the proverbial robber on the road.

These people infuriate me. They infuriate all other hard-working, dedicated professional editors and author services experts who commit themselves, knowledge and skills into their clients’ works — their clients’ dreams.  I have personally witnessed authors’ dreams crushed by reputed agents and freelance editors who did nothing — or worse, touted their credentials and proved to have no track record at all.

Conversely, good editors and service professionals deeply care about your book. They pour their hearts  into your writing. None of us receive the lofty salaries New York-based editors earn (or at least used to earn). That’s OK: for us, the satisfaction comes in knowing we help authors fulfill their journey, and bring their stories, essays, memoirs and knowledge to your awaiting readership . We collaborate with our author-clients, help them reach down and find the very best expression of their feelings or subjects, and manifest it in their work. When you’re half of a great editor-author working relationship, it sometimes becomes transformative, like alchemy. Doesn’t matter which half, either.

This leads to a couple of questions: How do you distinguish between solid, qualified, professional editors, and those who are not? How can you tell when someone really cares about your work — cares enough to go over it, again and again, to make sure it’s the most polished and refined it can be? How do you know an editor really has helped other clients get published?

These are questions you should ask, whether it’s your first book or your tenth. Since self-publishing is not only a viable, but a preferred option in many cases, it is more important than ever that your book emerge as clean and mistake-free as possible. Therefore, you need to hold a prospective editor to a rather tough standard.

Here are my suggestions:

1)   Ask the editor what books s/he has edited within your genre. Believe it or not, many writers miss this, and then wonder why their manuscript hasn’t been properly edited. Editing a memoir is entirely different from editing a how-to book. “Listening” to make sure dialogue matches characters and situations within a novel is far different than polishing an explanatory thread in a history book. Mysteries differ from adventure romances. And so on.

2)   Ask what type of editing services are provided. If they say, “all editing,” or “everything you need,” dig deeper. Do they offer content editing? Line editing? Revising? Polish, or final, editing? Proofreading? The good ones do it all — and break down each phase with explanation, just like this.

3)   Ask which edited books have been published, and by whom. Do your due diligence. In nearly all cases, a quick visit to Amazon.com will suffice.

4)   If the editor’s previous works in your genre were self-published, that can also be a good thing. Go onto Amazon.com, and look at book reviews, ranking, how high up in category the listing shows, etc. That will give you an idea of how noteworthy the book is.

5)   Ask the editor to test-edit 3 to 5 pages of your manuscript. This will give you an idea of how much more refined s/he can make your work. Don’t ask them to edit more than that; be mindful that the editor is busy, too.

6)   Have a conversation with your editor on the phone or in person before hiring. It’s so easy to do everything via email, but at least hear the voice of the person you’re entrusting with your hard work.

7)   Be sure the editor does not alter your narrative voice. This has been my biggest pet peeve for years with editors both inside and outside publishing houses (and magazines and newspapers as well). A good editor recognizes or helps you develop your narrative voice, learns your working vocabulary and vernacular, and works to help you expand it.

8)   Set deadlines for performance, and pay according to those milestones. Most editors require some down payment (as I do), which is fine, but do not pay in full until you are completely satisfied with the final product. A good editor will set up installments – a sample schedule might be 25% down, 25% when half the manuscript is edited, and 50% at completion and acceptance. There are many variations, which are all good as long as you don’t pay in full until the job is complete.

9)   Does your editor have good contacts with agents or publishers? Or does s/he know how to help you write book proposals, synopses or market the book? This is not necessary to guarantee a good editing job. If so, however, that’s a huge plus. Some editors do have these credentials and contacts.

These questions will serve you well. They’ve served me well during the past 15 years and 130+ books, ebooks and numerous magazine titles that I’ve edited. Good, established editors will pass this test with flying colors.  For instance, when I work with a client, I always offer to test-edit a few pages. Some take me up on it; others just want to get started. If clients want to know my credentials, I rattle off a few finished titles in their particular genre. If I haven’t edited in their particular genre or sub-genre before, I tell them straightaway. They have a right to know. If writers want contact information for my former clients, I provide a couple of contacts. Since I also write book proposals and synopses, and occasionally work with agents and publishers directly, I let prospective clients know that as well. If they have specific questions about the publishing profession, I answer — or find the answer if I don’t know it, and get back to them.

My newest addition is a spreadsheet. When someone is considering me for their book, and want to know my background, I send them a spreadsheet with 20 recent titles I’ve edited, six books I’ve ghostwritten, and six author or client websites I’ve developed, including publisher’s name (or soon to be publisher) — and a URL to the publisher’s site, Amazon.com title link, or author’s site. Nothing verifies faster than seeing the physical proof. If you’re an editor, you may not yet have 20 books on your list — but you may have 200. Whatever you do have, give your prospective clients the opportunity to see what you’ve edited.

That’s what you want when seeking an editor. I wish we could all be in the trusting business — and it pains me to say this, because I’m an incredibly trusting person — but, you need to know who’s working on your book. And what makes them the right person to do so.

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2 Comments

Filed under Author Platform, Books, E-books, Editing, Featured Websites, Fiction, Journalism, literature, Marketing, Memoir, Promotion, Promotions, Reading, writers conferences, Writing, Writing Education

2 responses to “What To Look For (and Require) From Your Book Editor

  1. Great information Bob, thanx!

  2. Very good advice, Bob. I’ve worked with two editors, both of whom I knew by reputation. BTW, I worked with two because I had written two books of completely different genres and needed a specific pair of eyes for each. I had excellent experiences with both editors because I was clear about what I was expecting from each. I cannot stress that point enough – if you are paying for a service, know what you are paying for. Don’t pay for line editing if you don’t need it. If what you really need is review of your pacing, story arc, etc, say so. If an editor reads your stuff and begs to differ, well…

    And I have to add, for all those lovely self-publishers out there, if you can’t afford an editor, you can’t afford to self-publish. Sorry. I wish it were different, but without any professional eyes on your manuscript, you risk alienating readers with a bad book, or just not getting to your core audience because you have a lackluster one.

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