Self-publishing: when to get an editor

Editing is not a magic box

Since this month is my anniversary in the jungles of Smashwords and Amazon KDP, I’m posting a few things about what I’ve learnt. A few days ago, I wrote this post, and apparently, some of my thoughts are controversial. Hmmm, there are two key elements to my feelings about hiring help in self-publishing. One, that if you spend money, you have to be certain that what you get is beneficial, and is what your work needs, and two, that if you spend money, you have to make sure you’re doing so for the right reasons.

Editing falls squarely in those categories.

Now, I’d be the last person to argue that a skilled editor won’t improve your work, but, as I said in the post a few days ago, editing can enhance, but not save, your work.

In self-publishing-land, there are all sorts of claims about editors:
– That you must absolutely get one
– That they can be found for as little as $200
– That they magically fix everything that’s wrong with a book

All these claims, even the first, are false.

So… if a couple of independent people look at a book, and say that ‘it needs editing’, what they really mean, and what they’re far too polite to say is: this author needs to learn to write.

Such author ‘desperately in need of an editor’ cannot be saved by an editor, and any editor with half a sense of pride should refuse the job and tell the author kindly to go and do some writing courses and join a crit group, or some such.

But, this author finds a steal of an editor for $200, who goes through the manuscript and fixes typos and punctuation, and then claims the work has been ‘professionally edited’. And gets really angry when the ‘this needs editing’ claims don’t go away.

Think about it. You do not need any qualifications to call yourself an editor. There are degrees you can get that include editing. Large publishing houses choose editors with such degrees, or people who have a proven track record of experience, preferably both. These people are professionals, and they will not work for $200. You might be able to get a student for $200, but as soon as this person gets a reputation for being good, they’ll want to charge more. For $200, you can get a glorified crit from a fellow writer. Or from someone who will give the manuscript a cursory look, rubber-stamp it and collect the money.

If you pay peanuts, it is quite likely that you will get monkeys.

And moreover…

A well-written and well-plotted piece of fiction will likely be improved by editing, but will be both readable and enjoyable with a light proof-read from a nitpicky writerly friend. If you can afford a couple of thousand $$$ for a good editor, go for it, but because your work will be readable, there is no flying hurry to do this.

A poorly-written piece of fiction will not be saved no matter how much money you spend on editing.

I have invited a real professional editor to write a guest post on what to look out for when you choose an editor for your books.


Patty Jansen is a sometimes backyard editor with no editorial credentials except a handful of courses, six years of workshop experience and two issues of ASIM, and no greater editorial aspirations. She very much prefers to write fiction over editing.
Patty is a member of SFWA and has sold fiction to Redstone SF, the Grantville Gazette and was a winner of the Writers of the Future contest. She has a story forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.


17 comments on “Self-publishing: when to get an editor

    • There is an element in the self-publishing world that advocates ‘you must get an editor’ no matter what, and any editor is better than no editor, and they’ll accept anyone calling themselves an editor over a critical writing friend you use to swap for proofreads.

  1. I have to agree with you. I do plan to get an Editor to look over my work, after I’ve had beta readers tear it to shreds. Thankfully, I know some (brutally) honest people who I trust to let me know what’s working and what needs to be changed.

    • Make sure you get someone who is actually an editor and has proven skills as such, otherwise you might as well stick with your readers.

  2. I agree Patty. But I worry about how to choose someone to copy edit or proofread. So many think the have excellent grammar skills but cannot accommodate the nuances of style and where writers choose, consciously, to break the rules. I guess what it comes down to is ‘buyer beware’. Your reply to Ben says it all.

    • Yes, except… there are no rules, really. They’re guidelines for people who need some guidance when they start out. Writing is not a paint-by-numbers scheme. At one stage I also used to occupy that group of writers pointing to a published work and going: LOOK, ADVERBS! I think that’s a stage we all go through.
      There is a lot of taste, and opinion, and fashion involved, as well as some courage from the individual writer to develop a style.

      I’ve responded above how to find a good editor. I’ll have an editor guest post later.

  3. A good part of this argument would be settled if, as you suggested yesterday, people *learned to write.* I’ve read well-edited books that I couldn’t finish. The emphasis on “professional” editing seems to be leading too many people to believe that spelling, punctuation, and grammar are the whole ball of wax.

    • This is where taste comes in, and that was going to be another subject I’ll write about a bit later. Taste and skill do overlap a bit.

      There are horses for courses. There are many well-edited books I can’t finish either, but they sell well. I try to understand what those writers did right (because obviously they did, otherwise they wouldn’t sell) rather than gripe about why I didn’t like the books.

      It’s OK not to like something.

  4. “Make sure you get someone who is actually an editor and has proven skills as such, otherwise you might as well stick with your readers.”

    This. I’m in this boat right now and it’s scary. Any dumb nut will gladly take my thousand bucks and “edit” my book. Judging who is truly qualified is a set of skills I don’t have yet.

    • You get someone who has the credentials (in other words: someone who also freelances for big publishers and works with well-known authors within your genre), when you can afford it. If you have some writing skills, and have a few buddies who do, anything else is likely to be a waste of money.

      I’ve invited such an editor to write a guest post.

  5. Great post. However, i think you are lumping together content editing, line editing, and proofreaders. A lot of the self- pubbed authors i know have hired or found multiple people to cover the tasks. Before you hire an editor be sure you know what kind of editing you are getting. A proofreader isn’t going to comment on pacing or character inconsistencies. A content editor *can* help you take mediocre writing to the next level depending on the level of hard work you put in addressing the global concerns she notes. A content editor isn’t going to get nitty-gritty w commas. Think about the process print books go through– it’s usually three steps then decide how your revision will emmulate it whether or not money changes hands. I am not a self-pubbed author but I am a huge reader of ebooks. I can tell within the first 10 pages the type & rigor of editing that has been employed. And it’s not just self-pubbed. I can tell which tiny houses really skimp on editing. Poor editing = no sale.

    • This is entirely true, and types of editing is a subject for another post.

      However, my point is that there are circumstances where *any* paid editing is a waste of money, and the edits needed would be so extensive that even if the writer was willing to pay, the editor would end up being a co-author.

      This is a fluid definition, of course, but I think that in general, an author having completed their first book is much better off going to a writing course and learning the craft temselves rather than paying someone to do it. An editor is not the same thing as a ghostwriter.

  6. I think an editor is essential. Unless you are absolutely sure you’ve got quality proofreading, Patty. My experience has been that editing always improves my books and they always find things I didn’t find. Good editing IS expensive yes, but REAL editors know what to look for beyond copyediting. They edit content, story, prose, characters, feel, themes, etc. It’s invaluable if you don’t have and agent helping you in my opinion. And if you want to go anywhere as a writer you can’t afford to put out less than professional quality work. It can really hurt your career and reputation. So I’ll just take the other side and disagree that you don’t need one with this caveat. It’s a bad idea not to use one, in my opinion. You’re taking a risk with your career. I do understand the money issues and I do understand why some people don’t do it. But I wouldn’t dream of it.

    • My argument is more that if you use one, you should use a good one, with a track record, and otherwise you might as well trade manuscripts with a few nitpicky friends.

  7. I guess this is the statement that made me think differently: “if a couple of independent people look at a book, and say that ‘it needs editing’, what they really mean, and what they’re far too polite to say is: this author needs to learn to write.” To me, even good writers benefit from editors. Typos and missing words happen to all of us. To me, that quote sounded like you were implying that books needing editing were the result of immature writing.

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