Sunday, December 27, 2009

Yes, Virginia, you do need an editor

The chance of any wannabe writer being published by one of the major houses is very low indeed. About one of every hundred manuscripts sent to an imprint of, say, Harper Collins or Hachette Livre, will actually become a real book in a real bookshop for real people to buy.

The one in a hundred figure would include works from all authors, not just newbies, and would include both fiction and non-fiction. So the situation is far worse than I'd thought. Glenda Larke has pointed out that figures she read some years ago from one big publishing house indicated that two books are published from every 5,000 fiction manuscripts received from new writers, and that would include those sent by agents.

Seeing these odds (and they are getting worse, not better!) more and more discouraged writers are turning to self publishing or vanity publishing just to get their books out there. Many of these writers think their work does not need editing.

They are wrong. All books need editing.

The manuscript pictured at right (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons) is the original proof copy of À la recherche du temps perdu (known in English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust. Although this one is a galley proof, with Proust’s own notes on it, it looks pretty much as any manuscript looks after an editor has worked on it. Friends who are published by major houses have sometimes shown me their manuscripts when they come back from the first edit, and truly, that is how they look. And they will usually be accompanied by a dozen or more pages of notes.

Now, if your favourite author gets his or her manuscripts back looking like that, what do you think yours would look like if an editor had a go at it?

Robert Sprackland PhD, a colleague over at Linked In (you can find Robert at paraphrases Benjamin Franklin (himself an author of note) who once said, "A man who represents himself in a court of law has a fool for a lawyer and an idiot for a client." Robert suggests that Franklin’s words could be paraphrased as, "An author who does the final editing has a fool for an editor and an idiot for an author."

And he’s not wrong. Books need editors as crops need rain.

We grow too close to our own manuscripts to see their faults, and even though most writers – and published authors, too – have reading circles or critiquing groups, an editor brings a fresh pair of eyes to the work. A pair of eyes, moreover, that has seen many manuscripts and is familiar with current usage and style. It’s not just vocabulary, grammar, syntax and spelling, although their importance should not be under-estimated. Many agents and publishers simply won’t consider a manuscript that does not come up to scratch in all those areas. But editing is also about structure, about seeing where the high and low points of the plot occur and suggesting changes if they are in the wrong places. It’s about understanding point-of-view and character development. It’s about knowing where to prune and where to delve into the details.

Authors who are published by the major houses may moan and groan about the extra workload, but when a manuscript comes back from editing there’s nothing for it save knuckling down to make the necessary changes, which occasionally amount to major rewrites. Yet when the final edit is done, the author is almost always delighted with the result – and filled with gratitude for the editor.

A book that is published commercially will always be a joint effort, involving the author and at least one, and more often two, editors. That’s because the final copy edit is normally done by an editor who specialises in finessing the details. The copyeditor provides another fresh pair of eyes, because after several months of working with the author on a manuscript, the first editor may well have grown just as blind to its faults as the creator! And errors do creep in as changes are made during the first and second edits.

I have seen quite a few self-published books that were not edited, and I’ve also seen many that were supposed to have been edited and weren’t. Sadly, these have usually been subjected to the not-so-tender mercies of a vanity publisher.

Vanity publishing is certainly one way to get your book out there, especially if you only intend to share it with family and friends. You will need quite a few dollars in the bank, for the services of vanity presses are not cheap and they will charge you extra for editing. For a few hundred dollars, your manuscript will get at least a bit of attention – but usually not enough. I have seen some vanity-published books that the authors had paid good money to have edited come back from “editing” at a standard no higher than a serious author’s first draft, and oftentimes worse.

Your work deserves kinder treatment.

Personally, I think that rather than going to a vanity press, you are better served by learning how to be a real self publisher, which means registering a business name and then engaging your own editor, layout person and printing house, and paying them individually. If you shop around, it may be no more expensive than the average vanity press. You can find the names of experienced, trustworthy people through your state’s Society of Editors. Some editors are willing to act as Project Managers, finding graphic artists and printers for you and overseeing their work. Get quotes from several different people, and compare their offerings closely. The cheapest is not always the best, but nor is the dearest. Be prepared to learn as you go by listening to other people who have gone down this path before you.

It may be a long, slow, challenging job (allow at least six months, and a year is better) and it may be expensive, but you will have a better book at the end of it – and the satisfaction of knowing you did your very best to present your book as professionally as possible. Surely your precious manuscript deserves no less?
Links to Societies of Editors within Australia:
# Society of Editors ACT
# Society of Editors NSW
# Society of Editors QLD
# Society of Editors SA
# Society of Editors TAS
# Society of Editors VIC
# Society of Editors WA


  1. Satima, I think your figure of 1 in 100 is actually quite generous. Possibly it includes non-fiction and previously published authors from other publishers?

    The figures I read some years ago (and I suspect things have got much worse since then) from one big publishing house was 2 books published from every 5000 fiction manuscripts received from new writers, and remember that would include those sent by agents.

  2. Thanks, Glenda. I've corrected the post to reflect that rather discouraging lot of figures:-( Yes, I did base it on figures that included all authors and both fiction and non-fiction.

  3. I think you could be far more discouraging on the subject of vanity presses (including so-called "subsidy publishers", and to clearly distinguish these scam artists from the modest dignity of self-publishing, which are not the same thing. Vanity presses and their ilk are scumbags trading on false promises and false hope, all the while taking your money. No editing (other than, maybe, a pass through spellcheck), often no *binding* (that would be an extra charge), and certainly no marketing, and no copies in bookshops or in distributor databases--and also no editorial reviews in newspapers, respectable online mags, etc.

    As for editing: yes. My books have been vastly improved through the attentions of hardworking editors. As an author you don't want to go the way of, to pick one example, the novelist Anne Rice (she of the vampire books), who, according to her own words, refuses to let editors touch her golden and luminous prose stylings. She does any editing herself. This is specified in her contracts. One of her books was rather harshly reviewed on a few years ago, and she turned up in the comment thread, spitting venom, and poor typing, and informed the gathered multitudes of her lofty status as a post-editing author. She went on and on. It was breathtaking to see. Made no friends, nor earned any admirers. Such arrogance!

  4. I agree, Adrian. The vanities cynically separate the would-be author from their hard-earned cash at a level that is quite disproportional to the service. If they did a decent job of editing I could forgive them more, but generally speaking, they are just not worth the money. True self-publishing is a much more dignified, if more demanding, process.

    And as for Ms Rice...what can I say? She's published and I'm not, so I will refrain from commenting:-)

  5. Thank you for this 'ammunition'. When meeting new people they soon get around to asking the inevitable question: so, what do you do? My answer is always the same: I'm a freelance writer and editor and I'm studying toward a Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing. 'Oh, I'm writing a book' is there excited reply. And I think, here we go again. I'm often stunned by how many people a) believe their story is fascinating enough to fill a book, b) think they have the literary skills to write a book, c) assume they will be published and their book will magically appear on the shop shelves, and d) have no understanding of the competitive nature of publishing or the intricacies of the market place. However, to be polite, I generally feign great interest when friends or new acquaintaces begin to outline their 'plot' and tell me how intriguing the events in their lives have been. Remembering that all authors must start somewhere, I encourage them to 'just begin' (most haven't, of course, but they plan to 'when they have enough time'). I now think I'll just refer them to your blog!

    On another point, it would be most helpful if visitors to your blog could enlarge the image of the manuscript. Is there a way to do this? Am I missing something?

  6. I'm getting in before anyone else does! I didn't proof my comment (it's the holidays - that's my excuse). In the sixth line I typed 'there' instead of 'their' - how bloody embarrassing.

  7. Heh heh - don't worry, Chey - I've had to keep diving back into this post to correct my own typos. It doesn't matter how good an editor you are, you still need an editor yourself, I reckon.

    No, that pic won't enlarge much. You can see a slightly bigger version on Wikipedia at