Back at the start of the ebook revolution, self-publishing was still a “no-no” and only a handful of small and e-publishers existed for my genre. Since then, our choices for publication have exploded, from self-publishing becoming accepted to dozens of small and e-publishers hopping on the ebook train.
Before, we used to deal with whatever editor was assigned to us at the publisher and not think about what made one editor good and another bad. That’s not to say editing was perfect back then. Rumors circulated about how editors didn’t edit anymore, and horror stories existed for the unlucky few.
Now, outside of the biggest publishers, freelance editors reign. Self-published authors and small/e-publishers alike are pulling from the same pool of freelance editors, and we have more choices of who we wish to work with. So how do we decide?
Learn about Editing and Editors
A fantastic resource for learning about editing and editors is Marcy Kennedy’s free PDF, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Hiring a Freelance Editor…” Look for it in the sidebar of her site.
The first thing to know is that there are 4 types of editing and they have to happen in a certain order:
- Developmental/Content Editing (character arcs, theme development, etc.)
- Line Editing (paragraph and sentence flow, word choice, etc.)
- Copy Editing (grammar and punctuation, unnecessary words, etc.)
- Proofreading (typos, missed grammar and punctuation issues, etc.)
Usually, we’d want at least two editing passes from different editors. The second set of eyes is always helpful, and more importantly, the various types of editing require very different skill sets, so any one editor typically won’t be strong in all areas.
Questions to Ask a Potential Publisher
Understanding the types of editing can help us evaluate a potential publisher before we sign a contract. The editor who “owns” (and often acquires) our manuscript throughout the publishing process would typically act as our developmental editor. That means we can try ask them questions before accepting the offer:
- Will the publisher do multiple levels of editing?
A developmental edit and a line/copy edit should be the minimum.
- Does the publisher use different editors for the various phases?
Using two editors for the different types of edits would be ideal.
- What changes do they recommend?
Ensure their vision for the story matches ours. We can also get a sense of their qualifications by listening for key ideas that a developmental editor should be addressing:
- Do they speak of story structure, character arc, or turning points?
- Do they have suggestions for deepening character or theme development?
- Do they have feedback about pacing, goals, motivations, conflicts, or stakes?
Bad Editing Is a Risk at Publishers Too
If any of those answers are “no,” be wary. I know of far too many writers whose stories have passed through the publishing system without real editing. A dozen authors have complained to a publishing CEO about their common editor’s lack of any editing and been blown off with assurances that said editor is the publisher’s “best.”
More heartbreakingly, I know of writers whose stories have been ruined by poor editing. If a developmental/content/acquiring editor seems to know less than I do—with all of my story structure, theme, character development, etc. posts here on my blog—be extremely wary. A publisher’s editor broke a friend’s book by having her delete the scene of the hero’s turning point, erasing his motivation to change, all because the editor knows nothing about story structure.
Be especially wary if the publisher is smaller, newer, or an epublisher. These publishers are more likely to use the same hit-or-miss freelance editors that self-published authors do, rather than developing their own talent in-house.
When Bad Editing Might Be Worse than No Editing
Like I mentioned in my post last week, I don’t mean to pick on digital-first epublishers. However, many epublishers (and smaller/newer publishers) have a bad reputation for editing quality. Whether that reputation is deserved or not, we need to be aware so we can work to avoid negative consequences by association.
During a long, one-on-one chat with a senior editor* of a major publishing house, I had the opportunity to discuss various publishers’ quality reputations within the industry. The (paraphrased) conversation on this topic was very enlightening:
Editor: “I’d rather work with a debut author than one who came from a digital-first house.”
Me: “Why is that?”
Editor: “Epublishers’ editing is always crap, and that gives the author an inflated sense of their writing quality, making them difficult to work with.”
Me: “Excepting the digital-first imprint of your house, of course.”
Editor: “No, they’re crap too.”
* For obvious reasons, I’m hiding the identity of the editor and publisher, but yes, this was an interesting impromptu discussion, where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I want to repeat this line because this is the crux of the danger to us:
“Epublishers’ editing is always crap,
and that gives the author an inflated sense of their writing quality,
making them difficult to work with.”
Whether this editor’s opinion is accurate or not, we should be aware of that reputation among other editors (and agents). We can also prepare for the possibility that any editing we went through at a small publisher was less-than-stellar quality and be open to learning more from a better editor in the future.
Why Is It so Hard to Identify Good Editors? (Part One)
If we’re self-publishing, we have to find our own editors. Unfortunately, the advice on how to find good editors often lumps different types of editing together. “Ask for a sample edit” is a common tip.
But a free sample edit of the typical 3-10 pages won’t tell us diddly-squat for the quality of a developmental editor. They work in story arcs, beats, and the big picture stuff. Those issues can’t be seen in a few pages, so a sample edit won’t be useful.
On the other hand, sample edits could be useful for evaluating line or copy editors or proofreaders, but only if we know what to look for. The risk is: We don’t know what all we don’t know.
Sure, they marked up some issues, but did they miss any? How many? Were the issues they marked up right or wrong?
Without getting a second opinion, we simply don’t know when it comes to line or copy editors. And we can’t tell if a developmental editor is any good unless we fork over money for a longer (1-5 chapter) sample edit and maybe not even then. Yeah, this isn’t easy.
Why Is It so Hard to Identify Good Editors? (Part Two)
Other than the good author-editors, the only authors who can really tell good editors from bad are those who have been through a lot of edits with a lot of different editors. Think of the multi-published authors (over 10 books) with multiple publishing houses—they’ve seen all types and could probably tell a good editor from a bad one.
The rest of us? Not so much. If we’ve worked only with smaller publishers or one or two editors, we might not know what our previous editors have missed.
It’s tempting to try to save money by cutting out some of the editing steps or going with a cheaper editor. But I know some of those cheap editors, and I wouldn’t let them edit a letter to Santa Claus, much less my manuscript.
Many of those cheap editors have published a few books (often through an epublisher), and now that they’ve been through the editing process, they think they can do it themselves. After all, what their editor did for them looked easy. But that’s likely because their editor wasn’t very good.
What Can We Do to Find a Good Editor?
- Learn as much about writing craft as we can. The more we know about story structure, grammar, etc., the better we’ll know whether an editor’s suggestions are great or off-base.
- Learn about editing and the questions to ask (like from Marcy Kennedy’s PDF and from Angela James’s advice).
- See if the editor has a blog or website. Do they have articles about writing craft that are insightful and helpful? Do they “walk the walk”?
- Is the editor familiar and comfortable with our genre? Different genres have very different expectations about point of view, descriptions, etc.
- Get recommendations and/or references, and ask for specifics on the suggestions the editor made. Did a developmental editor go deep enough? Did a copy editor respect the author’s voice? Has the author worked with multiple publishers or editors? Or is this editor the only one they know so they have nothing to compare it to?
A good editor is worth the money. Every year the Romance Writers of America National Conference puts on a huge award show (think Oscars for the romance writing community) to honor the best books. And every year, the same handful of editors’ names appears next to many of the finalists.
To put that in perspective, that means about 3-5 editors across all romance imprints across all publishing houses are good enough to consistently produce award-worthy work, year after year, author after author. The remainder are more likely to be hit or miss quality.
So if the big publishers struggle with this issue, we’re going to struggle with it too. Good editors are hard to find. However, with a little education, we might be able to increase our chances for our own successful match. *smile*
What other editing-related questions might we try to ask of a potential publisher? What are other warning signs about editors? Have you heard of the bad reputation for editing quality at many smaller/e-publishers? Do you have other suggestions or insights on how to identify a good editor?
Full Disclosure: Yes, I do developmental editing, but I’m not even linking to my services page. This is simply a rant about how widespread bad editors are and the risks (short and long term) when working with one. *smile*Pin It