Are book doctors really worth it? What do they do that agents and in-house editors might not? With all the help a writer can get on the journey from manuscript to published book, why hire an editor of one’s own?
Before the Age of the Independent Editor, literary agents and publishing staff were the first publishing insiders to read a proposal or manuscript. Today, however, the focus on business interests is so demanding and the volume of submissions so great—agents alone take in hundreds of query letters a month—that a writer’s work has to be white-hot before receiving serious consideration. In light of these developments, a writer may turn to an independent editor as the first expert reader in the world of publishing’s gatekeepers.
WHAT ELSE DO INDEPENDENT EDITORS DO, AND HOW MUCH DO
Services. Not every writer and project will call for the services of an independent editor. However, if you are looking for the kind of personalized and extensive professional guidance beyond that gained from workshops, fellow writers, online sources, magazines, and books, hiring an editor may well be worth the investment. An editor of your own can provide a professional assessment of whether or not your project is ready to submit, and to whom you should submit it; expert assistance to make your manuscript or book proposal as good as it should be; help with preparing a convincing submissions package; and an advocate’s voice and influence to guide you in your efforts toward publication.
Another key role an independent editor plays is to protect writers from querying their prospects before their material is irresistible. Premature submissions cause writers needless disappointment and frustration. Your editor can zero in on the thematic core, central idea, or story line that needs to be conveyed in a way that is most likely to attract an agent and a publisher. In short, an editor of your own can identify the most appealing, salable aspects of you and your work.
Rates. “Good editing is expensive,” our venerable colleague Jerry Gross prudently notes. What kind of editing is good editing and how expensive is it? The Internet and other sources quote a wide range of rates from a variety of editors. The numbers are not necessarily accurate or reliable. We’ve seen hourly rates ranging from about $25 to well above $200. Several factors account for this spread: the type of editing, the editor’s level of experience, and the publishing venue. For example, rates for copyediting are lower than those for substantive editing. Moreover, standards in book publishing are particularly rigorous because books are long, expensive to produce, made to last, and vulnerable to the long-term impact of reviewer criticism.
Process. Book editors are specialists. Every book project arrives on the desk of an independent editor at a certain level of readiness, and the first task is to determine what the project needs. A deep book edit is typically a painstaking, time-consuming process that may move at the pace of only three or four manuscript pages per hour—or, when less intensive, eight to twelve pages per hour. Occasionally a manuscript received by an independent is fully developed, needs only a light copyedit, and may well be ready to submit as is. In other cases, the editorial process may require one or more rounds of revisions. If you are hiring an editor to critique your work, you should be aware that reading the material takes considerably more time than writing the critique. Sometimes a flat fee, rather than an hourly rate, may be appropriate to the project. Sometimes, an editor will offer a brief initial consultation at no charge. A reputable independent book editor will be able to recommend a course of action that may or may not include one or more types of editorial services, and give you a reliable estimate of the time and fees involved.
BUT WON’T THE IN-HOUSE EDITOR FIX MY BOOK?
Sometimes. Maybe. To an extent. Independents and in-house editors are, in many ways, different creatures. For starters, in-house editors spend much of the day preparing for and going to meetings. Marketing meetings. Sales meetings. Editorial meetings. Production meetings. The mandate for most of these in-house editors is to acquire new book projects and to shepherd those that are already in the pipeline. With so many extended activities cutting into the business hours, the time for actually working on a manuscript can be short.
Many in-house editors have incoming manuscripts screened by an already overworked assistant. (The days of staff readers are long gone.) The only quiet time the editor has for reading might be evenings and weekends. We have known editors to take a week off from work just to edit a book and be accessible to their authors. These days, too, the acquiring editor may not do any substantive work on a book project under contract, leaving that task to a junior editor. There is also a distinct possibility the acquiring editor may leave the job before that book is published, and this can occur with the next editor, too, and the next, threatening the continuity of the project. All of which doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of hard-working people at the publishing house; it means that editors have more to do than ever before and must devote at least as much time to crunching numbers as to focusing on the writer and the book.
Independent editors, on the other hand, spend most of their business days working exclusively with authors and their texts. They typically handle only a few manuscripts at a time and are free from marketing and production obligations. An independent editor’s primary interest is in helping you to get your book polished and published. An editor of your own will see your project through—and often your next book, too.
WHAT DO AGENTS SAY ABOUT INDEPENDENT EDITORS?
“As the book market gets tougher for selling both fiction and nonfiction it is imperative that all submissions be polished, edited, almost ready for the printer. Like many other agents I do as much as possible to provide editorial input for the author but there are time constraints. So independent editors provide a very valuable service these days in getting the manuscript or proposal in the best shape possible to increase the chances of impressing an editor and getting a sale with the best possible terms.” —Bill Contardi
“Agents work diligently for our clients, but there are situations in which outside help is necessary. Perhaps a manuscript has been worked on so intensively that objectivity is lacking, or perhaps the particular skill required to do a job properly is not one of an agent’s strong suits. Maybe more time is required than an agent can offer. Fortunately, agents and authors are able to tap into the talent and experience of an outside editor. The outside editors I’ve worked with offer invaluable support during the editing process itself and for the duration of a project. Their involvement can make the difference between an author getting a publishing contract or having to put a project aside, or the difference between a less- or more-desirable contract.”
“The right editor or book doctor can make all the difference in whether a manuscript gets sold. A debut novelist, for example, may have a manuscript that is almost there, but not quite. With the input of a good editor, the novel can reach its full potential and be an attractive prospect to a potential publisher. Similarly, someone writing a memoir may have had a fascinating life but may not really have the God-given writing talent that will turn that life into a compelling and readable book. An editor can take that person’s rough-hewn words and thoughts and turn them into a memoir that really sings on the printed page.”
“Occasionally a novel will land on my desk that I feel has talent or a good concept behind it but for whatever reason (the writing, the pacing) needs an inordinate amount of work. Instead of just rejecting it flat out I may then refer the author to a freelance editor, someone who has the time and expertise to help the author further shape and perfect their work.” —Nina Collins
“I have had several occasions to use the help of freelance editors, and think they provide incalculable good service to the profession. In these competitive times, a manuscript has to be as polished and clean as possible to garner a good sale to a publisher. If it needs work, it simply provides an editor with a reason to turn it down. My job is to not give them any excuses. I do not have either the time or the ability to do the editorial work that may be required to make the manuscript salable. Paying a freelance professional to help shape a book into its most commercially viable form ultimately more than pays for itself.”
SO, HOW CAN I FIND THE RIGHT EDITOR?
You’ve searched online. You’ve looked in annual directories such as this one. You’ve asked around. A personal recommendation from a published writer-friend who has used an independent editor for his or her work may or may not do the trick. Every author has different needs, every author-editor dynamic a different chemistry.
Although sometimes an author and editor “click” very quickly, many editors offer free consultations, and it’s fine to contact more than one editor at this stage. A gratis consult may involve an editor’s short take, by phone or in writing, on sample material the editor asked you to send. But how to distinguish among the many independent editors?
Some editorial groups are huge, and they are open to all who designate themselves as editors; it might take some additional research to identify the members who are most reputable and best suited to your work. The smaller groups consist of editors who have been nominated, vetted, and elected, which ensures the high quality of the individual professionals. They meet with regularity, share referrals, and discuss industry developments. Your consultation, references offered, and the terms of any subsequent agreement can tell the rest.
Another way to find the right editor is to prepare your manuscript to its best advantage—structurally, stylistically, and mechanically. Jeff Herman’s annual guide, for example, is filled with directions on manuscript preparation, and it is a good idea to follow them. Asking the opinion of one or more impartial readers—that is, not limiting your initial reviewers to friends and relatives—is a great strategy as well. If you have the benefit of a disinterested reader, you may be able to make some significant changes before sending an excerpt to an independent editor. One more element to consider: editors often will take your own personality and initial written inquiry into account as carefully as they do your writing. Seasoned independents do not take on every project that appears on the desk; they can pick and choose—and, working solo, they must.
TALES FROM THE TRENCHES
We hope we’ve given you a sense of what an editor of your own can do for you and where we fit into the publishing picture. But next to firsthand experience, perhaps nothing communicates quite as sharply as an anecdote. Here are a few of ours:
“An in-house editor called me with an unusual problem. He had signed up an acclaimed author for a new book project. She had written a number of stories—nonfiction narratives about her life in an exotic land. The problem was this: some of the stories had already been published in book form in England, and that collection had its own integrity in terms of theme and chronology; now she had written another set of stories, plus a diary of her travels. How could the published stories and the new ones be made into one book?
“I decided to disregard the structure of the published book altogether. As I reexamined each story according to theme, emotional quality, geographical location, and people involved, I kept looking for ways in which they might relate to each other. Eventually, I sensed a new and logical way in which to arrange them. I touched not one word of the author’s prose. I did the same thing I always try to do when editing—imagine myself inside the skin of the writer. A prominent trade
book review had this to say about the result: ‘One story flows into the next….’ ” —Alice Rosengard
“A writer had hired me to help with his first book after his agent had sold it to a publisher because he wanted to expedite the revisions and final approval of his manuscript. As a result of our work together, the book came out sooner than anticipated; it also won an award and the author was interviewed on a major TV news program. The same author hired me a year later for his second book, purchased by a larger publisher, and this book, too, entailed some significant developmental editing. At that point we learned the in-house editor had left the publisher and a new one had come aboard. This editor not only objected strongly to one whole section of the book; she also gave the author a choice: revise the section in one week or put the project on hold for at least six more months.
“From halfway across the world, the writer called me on a Friday to explain his publishing crisis, which was also coinciding with a personal crisis, and asked if we could collaborate closely on the fifty pages in question over the weekend. I agreed, cancelled my weekend plans, and we camped out at each end of the telephone and e-mailboxes almost nonstop for three days. He resubmitted the book on Tuesday, the book received all requisite signatures in-house, and a month later it went into production. This hands-on and sometimes unpredictable kind of collaboration with writers helps illustrate the special nature of independent editing.” —Katharine Turok
“A writer with a truly astonishing story to tell received only rejections when he sent his query letter to agents. He had an informal proposal and assumed that his extraordinary experiences on the Amazon River would be enough to get him a book deal for his memoir. I could see right away that the query letter was confusing and didn’t present him or his story in a powerful enough light.
“I culled the most effective parts of his story and reworked the book proposal so that his enthusiasm and vivid tales dominated. We hammered out a succinct and compelling query letter. I offered the names of several agents I thought might be interested, and this time it worked. He signed with an agent who sold his manuscript to a major publisher.” —Linda Carbone
“My work on a book about a near-extinct species of birds was greatly enhanced when the author gave me a tour of a California estuary. Guided by his passion and on-site expertise, I was able to spot exquisite birds, hear bird-watching lingo, and see his high-end scope in action. Now I understood the thrill of what he was writing about, and was better able to help him communicate it.
“One of my most challenging assignments was to add action scenes to a memoir by an Olympic fencing champion. Here was a subject I knew nothing about. I tried to bone up in advance through reading, but my author had a better idea. Working his way across my living room floor, he sparred with an invisible opponent, demonstrating what he wished to describe in his book. I wrote down what I saw.
“As an independent editor, I have the time and freedom to work ‘outside the book,’ to literally enter the worlds my authors are writing about.”
“An author seeking help with her debut novel presented a specific challenge: a knockout story to tell along a recently well-trodden road. After several rounds that involved radically restructuring the point of view and making subtle style shifts, we produced an originally crafted, unique result that, to our mutual chagrin, could not be placed with an agent. (This often happens when a hot title kicks off a zeitgeist craze and the niche market is flooded.) Believing in the value of what we had, I encouraged my client—who was on the verge of giving up—to pursue an alternate route to publishing. Using an independent platform, not only did she manage to garner the coveted Kirkus star, but her novel went on to be named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Books of 2012.” —Michael Wilde
Original article copyright © 2007; 2014 revision copyright © by Marlene Adelstein, Linda Carbone, Ruth Greenstein, Alice Peck, Alice Rosengard, Katharine Turok, and Michael Wilde