‘Here we go,’ I hear you say, ‘an editor telling us why we can’t do without editors.’ I would say that, wouldn’t I? Well, yes, I would. But I’m not only advocating for the editor here. Your readers deserve to get what they pay for, and your book deserves to be given a chance to compete successfully when you send it out to represent you in a crowded market. If you are considering self publishing hiring an editor to copy-edit your work is the bare minimum you can do to allow that to happen. Let’s examine some of the reasons authors decide to go it alone and hope for the best.
Lots of professionally edited books don’t sell. You’re right: having your book edited won’t guarantee you sales. There are thousands of professionally edited books published every year by traditional publishers that sell just a few hundred copies. A quick browse through any bookstore bargain basement will expose the truth that a book can be edited to within an inch of its life and still bomb. But that doesn’t change the fact that readers expect books to be edited in the same way that they expect cars to have wheels and beef burgers to have beef in them. It’s a basic requirement, not a selling point.
It’s not that readers spend much time thinking about the editorial process. They don’t, and that’s as it should be. The editing should be invisible, imperceptible. It’s only when it’s absent or shoddy that it becomes noticeable. And when readers notice it, they like to shout about it – just have a quick browse through a few of the gleeful ‘it was riddled with mistakes’ reviews that litter Amazon. When you open a book you have paid for and begin reading, you expect certain standards to be upheld, just as when you bite into a beef burger, you expect, well, beef. That’s what readers are used to, and they feel cheated when it clearly hasn’t been done.
But it’s expensive. Yes it is. You can reduce the amount of time an editor spends on your manuscript by sorting out as many issues as possible before you hire someone. This will help to keep the cost down. But editors are never going to be cheap, nor should they be. They offer a professional and often highly specialised service. Most editors have spent years studying and honing their skills, and they charge a fair fee based on their experience and expertise. When you get your marked-up manuscript back you’ll understand how much time, effort, and skill went into editing your work.
If you’re going to self-publish, you must, to some extent at least, act like a publisher. This means building the cost of editing, along with the other production costs, into the price of your book. Do you want a horse burger for 10¢ or a beef burger for €1? People do understand that higher standards cost more. Your book doesn’t have to be cheap, but it does have to represent value, and quality adds value to any product.
My friend read it, and she reads a lot. Great. Get as many friends as possible to read your book. Get your GP and your parish priest and Mary next door to read it. Every bit of feedback helps, and you should welcome it all and consider any suggestions your readers make. In particular, I think it’s worth joining a creative-writing group and having your work critiqued by your peers. But beware the nature of these relationships. People generally don’t want to criticise their friend’s work – they’d rather not offend. An editor will always take your feelings into consideration, but you are paying them to help you with your book and that will be the focus of your relationship. Even if your ego gets slightly bruised, your book will benefit, as will your readers.
Also, no matter how well versed your friends are in the rules of grammar, no matter how familiar they are with the vagaries of the English language, only an editor is likely to know and care enough about dangling modifiers, redundancies, hyphenation of compound adjectives, repetition, consistency of punctuation, presentation of numerals, elision, etc., to point them out and suggest appropriate corrections or amendments.
I can edit my own work. Certainly many authors can do a lot of structural editing without the help of an editor. Structural editing can be fun, creative, and rewarding for the author (if you are struggling a professional reader’s report can be extremely useful in highlighting areas that need attention); copy-editing, on the other hand, is essentially a technical task, more suited to those of us of a geekier persuasion. It is nigh on impossible to copy-edit your own work. You’re too close to it to pick up the tiny errors and the stuff that you don’t even know you don’t know. As an editor I have spent a lot of time studying obscure rules, semi-rules, and conventions-that-should-be-followed-unless-you-think-it’s-okay-to-break-them, yet I would never copy-edit my own work; I don’t know an editor in Christendom who would.
I want it to be all my own work. Naturally you want your work to sound like you wrote it. An editor is always conscious of the fact that it is your name that will be on the cover and that it is your work they are editing. They will intervene only as much as you ask them to. The editor’s aim is never to remove the author’s voice but to enhance it and allow it to shine by introducing structure and consistency, and by applying rules. It is when you get these things right that they become invisible to the reader, your message is amplified, and the quality of your writing is appreciated. Good times!
I always find mistakes in edited books. And you always will. Editors are not perfect, neither are proofreaders (the final part of the editing process before print). The job they do is difficult, and, unfortunately, things will always slip through unless the manuscript is exceptionally clean in the first instance. It’s always worth noting the number of errors that were caught before going crazy over the couple that weren’t. And remember that a copy-editor’s job is much broader than catching typos.
I’ll just download an editing program and use that. Go on, I dare you! These programs are so rubbish they make me want to cry. They might pick up a few typos but they consistently make odd suggestions on usage and, in my opinion, they serve only to confuse and delay.
Hiring an editor may or may not pay financial dividends: you will never know about the books you might not have sold or the bad reviews you didn’t receive. But the bottom line is that an editor will make your book better, no matter what point you’re starting from. Before you hire one, talk to a few and see who you’re most comfortable with. Ask them to prepare a short sample to give you an idea of what they can do for your manuscript and discuss the level of edit you feel would be appropriate. Ultimately, the author–editor relationship can be very rewarding for you, for the editor, and for your work.
(c) Robert Doran