last updated: 31 January 2019 (approximate reading time: 9 minutes; 1815 words)
One of the discussions that often arises when authors talk is editors.
Many authors approach working with editors from the wrong direction looking to the downsides rather than trying to take advantage of the benefits that a healthy partnership can bring. Some even question the need to involve an editor.
Perhaps I can suggest a different way to approach working with an editor.
This is post is for the authors out there. If you’re not an author, please feel free to keep reading, but you may find this post discusses some obscure aspects.
I’ve Been Quoted…
The conversation about editors often begins something like this: I’ve been quoted $x. Is that a reasonable amount?
Any editor is going to charge, but simply looking at an editor in terms of money is the wrong measure.
If you’re working with a publisher, then the publisher will meet the cost of the editor. But if you’re working on material without a contract—maybe you’re intending to submit or you’re looking to self publish—then you will need to pay the editor. And while one should never be reckless when spending money, to repeat, starting by looking at the expense is the wrong measure.
Instead of expense, when working with an editor, the better measure to consider is the benefit. Specifically: what benefit does working with an editor bring to me?
This is not to suggest that any author should simply pay whatever a prospective editor asks. Instead, the author should look to the process and the end product that will be achieved after working with the editor and place a value on that end state.
Talking about an end state is rather nebulous, so let me get a bit more specific about the elements of value that should be generated when working with an editor.
An editor will help create a saleable product. Typically, this product will be a book. When creating a saleable product, there are two factors:
- there is the product itself,
- but this product must be commercially viable.
The right editor will help you achieve both.
This is where the notion of the cost of an edit comes in. Let’s say you have a book that no one is interested in. While it may have great sentimental value to you, its value is close to zero. Now let’s assume that after working with an editor, you can sell the book for a $10,000 advance (and just to be clear—I’m picking numbers here for illustration; I’m not suggest you’ll get paid $10,000, nor am I making any comment about the equivalent hourly rate).
In one scenario, you earn nothing, and in the other—having worked with an editor—you earn $10,000, and that’s before we consider the benefits that will flow from a relationship with an agent and/or publisher, any future work that flows from this first piece, and royalties.
Maybe an editor will charge $1,000 or maybe $2,000. Perhaps they’ll charge $5,000. Whatever they charge, if the editor can take you to a place where your product is—in the example—capable of generating $10,000, then the fee the editor charges is less material.
Now clearly, if an editor isn’t going to get you to a place where you can earn more than they are charging, then you must question whether you want to incur those costs. Equally, costs are not the only factor in this equation. But simply looking at the costs in isolation is the wrong approach.
But there’s more to the issue of what an editor brings than a simple break-even analysis. You may pay more to an editor than you can earn back in the short-term…and that may be a good thing.
The second key benefit of working with an editor is learning. Working with an editor will improve your skills—you will learn how to be a better writer. So the project on which you work with an editor will be improved, but in addition, at the end of the process, you will know more.
Those additional skills—the new knowledge and the different approach that comes from this knowledge can then be applied to every future book you write. You may not make money from the book you work on with your first editor—but you may recover that investment many times over through your writing career.
Most significantly, working with an editor can help you recognize your errors and shortcomings which means that you won’t simply keep on repeating the same old mistakes.
Involving an editor—involving any outsider—will seemingly slow the process down.
Bringing in an editor will slow down the process of getting to a finished book—you’ll need to wait for their comments and then you’ll need to spend time contemplating those comments and changing your manuscript. You might even want a second (or third) round of editing.
However, when it comes to speed, it’s not the time an editor spends looking at your work that matters (although that is an important factor). What matters is:
How Do You Get To a Saleable Product Most Swiftly?
Clearly, avoiding an edit altogether will often be the fastest route to a finished manuscript.
However, if this finished product is then unsaleable, then there is no benefit to that speed. Working with an editor will usually be the fastest route to achieve the necessary quality of the end result.
What Process Minimizes Wasted Time?
As authors, all we have is time. Anything that saves wasted time is a benefit. Anything that gets your product (your book) into a saleable state, sooner, means you can start earning, sooner. Removing wasted time means you have more time for creating other work thereby potentially increasing your earnings.
Before I look at some of the factors in choosing an editor, there are a few more reasons to hire an editor that I’d briefly like to touch on.
- First, a well-polished manuscript will demonstrate your seriousness and help you stand out when you are approaching other partners (such as agents/publishers).
- A good book sells your other books. If people have a bad experience reading one of your books, then they will be less likely to seek out your other work. However, if your book brings them joy, they will actively seek out your other books.
- Fresh eyes can bring a different perspective.
And let’s not forget that an editor has the ability to save a huge amount of embarrassment.
The Right Person
Simply going through a process of engaging an editor and getting them to look at your work is not a guarantee of results—you need the right person doing the right job.
What You Need
Before you can find the right person, you need to understand what you require from the process. For instance, are you after a swift-ish line edit or would you be better suited for a full structural edit? Different editors have different strengths and different preferences. Calling on an editor to perform a task which is not their strength is less likely to lead to optimal results.
Your Level of Competence
Beyond understanding the task that is required, you need to understand your strengths, and more significantly, your lack of strength. As authors, we tend to overestimate or underestimate our abilities.
If you underestimate your abilities, the consequences are less significant: you’ll simply be giving an editor less work.
If you overestimate your abilities, you’re likely to increase the chances of misdiagnosing what is needed to help you and thereby increasing the chances of getting the wrong edit (so, for instance, you may get a copy edit when you really need a developmental editor to get involved).
If you get the wrong edit, then you may not achieve the results you want. So if we stay with our example of getting a copy edit when you really need a developmental editor, you may find your final manuscript is grammatically correct with the correct punctuation and the correct spelling. However, that edit won’t have uncovered any underlying flaws such as an incoherent story with a broken timeline which lacks both a protagonist and any stakes. If the flaws haven’t been uncovered, then you can’t fix them.
And yeah…it’s hard to assess one’s own competence. But as a general rule of thumb, lean toward underestimating your talent (particularly if you have fewer external validators of your competence).
What Does the Editor Do?
Having found the right editor who understands the task, the editor will then work with you.
The point of an editor is to help you achieve your vision. The intention is that the final product is the best version of your vision. The editor may like or may not like what you’re doing—their preferences are irrelevant. Their tastes are irrelevant. Their view of what the book should be are irrelevant.
The purpose of an editor is to point out issues. It is then for the author to decide whether to accept that suggestion or not. Whatever issues are highlighted, the decisions as to what is changed is for the author, and the author alone.
There is, of course, one minor caveat to that last statement. If someone else is paying for the work, then that person’s view trumps the author’s view.
The Right Person
Beyond finding someone who is right for the task and who fits with your level of development, it’s important to find someone who you can work with. If you can’t respect the person you are working with, then it becomes harder to listen to any comments they make. If trust breaks down or respect is lost, it is best to end the relationship at the earliest opportunity.
Many editors will undertake a some sort of “test” edit. As well as helping you to see their style of editing, this allows you a glimpse of whether you would work well together. As a side note, this test run also gives the editor an opportunity to see whether they want to work with you.
It’s not easy, but it is worth taking the time to find the right person. And even when you’ve found the right person, you still need to clearly set expectations.
Yeah, But How Much Is It Going to Cost Me?
Different editors charge different amounts based on a range of factors. If you’re looking for a guide, then the (UK) Society for Editors and Proofreaders suggested rates is one starting point.
While these rates answer the “how much” question, they are set on an hourly basis. The number of hours an editor will take is then highly variable.
An edit is not simply a process to go through—it’s not a box to tick on a checklist—but rather, it is something that should bring material benefit.
While costs need to be managed, don’t look to expense of an editor. Instead look to the benefit—look at what you can gain through improving the quality of your output.