Should I get the book I’m going to self-publish professionally edited, or can I rely on a well-read relative or friend to do the job for nothing?
This question is as perennial as daffodils, and deserves to be answered honestly, even if the answer isn’t what any particular interest group, be it authors or editors, wants to hear.
Many self-publishing authors decide to dispense with the professional editing stage because they view it as too expensive “for what it is”.
Why? Largely economics. The bitter truth is that many self-publishing authors won’t fully recoup the expense that a round of professional editing will entail.
To copyedit a reasonably well-written novel of an average length of 50,000 words might take a proficient fiction editor between 20-25 hours. Average minimum suggested rates for editors in Ireland are €35 an hour (source: AFEPI recommended minimum rates), so most editors would probably charge something in the region of €700-800. This is reflective of the time it takes to read a manuscript, correct the mechanical errors (punctuation, spelling, wrong word usage, homophones etc), assess other copy-editing problems like inappropriate language, factual errors, consistency faults, plot holes and so on. An editor has to annotate the manuscript appropriately, and probably provide some kind of editorial report at the end (what this report might include will vary from editor to editor). There’s a lot involved, and it takes skill and training to perform.
That’s still getting on for a grand, though. Why shouldn’t I use a well-read relative for free instead?
Absolutely. It’s a valid question. There are two aspects to my answer.
One is that even the most hard-nosed relative is unlikely to feel that they have a completely free hand in critiquing your book. They will be well aware that you’ve put a huge amount of effort into writing it; that you want it to be good; that you will be hoping that they like it. They will also be aware that they will probably meet you at Auntie Marjorie’s wedding next month, or little Sean’s Holy Communion next year, and they don’t want to be held up against the function room wall by the neck by an apoplectic author shouting, “How could you not feel Shelby’s inner pain?”. So the chances are that they will be “nice”, rather than editorially objective.
The second is that it takes editorial training, and experience, to critique someone else’s writing sensitively, appropriately, constructively and correctly. A professional editor is encouraged to participate in ongoing professional development (in some cases it’s a requirement to achieve accreditation). Such courses might include the art of giving constructive feedback; copy-editing and proofreading tests; using the review functions in Microsoft Word correctly; novel structure for fiction editors; fact-checking and indexing for non-fiction editors, and so on. Not everyone can do it.
What about peer review by other writers?
Writers’ groups and peer review websites, such as Amazon Kindle’s Writeon, are fantastic for developing writers, but they do suffer from two inherent drawbacks:
One is that the peer review system is critically biased towards the positive. Reviewers want to be positive and encouraging. Additionally, in the typical quid pro quo arrangement, they want you to be positive about their book, so are unlikely to be overly critical of yours.
Secondly, you have no guarantee that the person criticising your book is in any way qualified to do so. How can you judge whether to heed their criticisms or ignore them? English may not be their first language. They might have no experience with your genre, or empathy with the age group you’re writing for. They might completely contradict another member of the group. Who has more weight? The same goes for that well-read relative. It might turn out that “well-read” means that they studied classics at Oxford or Yale, and can recite large chunks of Herodotus while standing on one leg. What use is that in critiquing your Young Adult (YA) steampunk mermaid romance?
What happens in traditional publishing?
With the trad publishing model, you pay through the nose for editing. It certainly isn’t “free”, as some would have you believe. Your royalty rate might be as little as 7 per cent. The other 93 per cent of the retail price of your book is going to the retailer, the distributor, the graphic designer who designed your cover, the editors (commissioning, developmental, copy and proof) who fine-tuned your manuscript, the PR team, the marketing department and so on. And the more your book sells, the more you are in effect paying for that editing, even though they only edited the thing once. With self-publishing you determine which of these costs you can bear, and which you’ll do without, but you do pay a flat fee. Any revenue after that is all yours. Your book can sell 10 copies or a million, but your editor gets no more money either way.
But if I have limited resources, wouldn’t I be better advised to spend it on marketing and promotion?
I strongly believe that you should spend as much as you can on getting your “product”, the book, in the best shape it can be before worrying about all the rest of it. After all, it’s much easier marketing a really good, well-written and well-edited book than it is a shoddy, error-strewn, unedited one. And while I would contend that you can’t get your book properly edited for free, there are lots of ways to market your book for free.
However, in this scenario, there’s no getting away from the fact that the expenses for things like cover design and editing are coming out of your pocket before you’ve even sold a copy. That makes it a much bigger leap of faith. The beauty of the self-publishing model is that you do have the choice. It really depends on your ambitions for your work and your career as a writer.
If you are publishing almost as a vanity project, don’t expect many sales, are happy just to see your name on the cover of a “real” book, then perhaps don’t bother.
If you really want sales on a commercial scale, on e-book platforms, or Print on Demand hard copy, then the last thing you want is one of your early reviewers to be saying, “Obviously edited by their grandmother. How they missed the massive plot-fumble on page four is beyond belief.” They can be scathing, and one bad review early on in a book’s exposure online can really harm its chances of success.
Okay, are there any other benefits to hiring a professional editor that I should consider?
Most writers hire an editor solely because they want their current book to be better. In their enthusiasm and impatience to achieve the Holy Grail of being published, they’re not thinking about the bigger picture, which is becoming a better writer. This is unfortunate, because it’s over time that the long-term benefits of having a professional editor look over your work bear most fruit. A good editor highlights your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, educates in the professional editing process, will enable you to self-edit far more effectively and approach the entire craft of writing with a lot more clarity and knowledge (thus saving on future professional bills). Instead of thinking whether in money terms paying for an editor will be cost-effective for one particular manuscript, the true perspective is to be thinking of whether it is good value for your career as a writer. Again, this is a question for the individual. If you don’t see yourself as ever aspiring to have a career as a writer, then perhaps a professional isn’t worth it.
What have the mega-successful self-published authors done?
As you might expect, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
Amanda Hocking is one of the first YA self-published novelists to make over $2 million publishing only e-books. She self-published The Trylle Trilogy, among other novels. She says, “If you self-publish, the two things I would recommend spending the most money on are editors and cover artists.”
Hugh Howey wrote and self-published the hugely successful dystopian sci-fi Wool trilogy. He’s now published by Simon & Schuster and notably turned down a seven-figure deal in favour of a mid-six-figure sum (a problem all writers would like to have) in order to retain e-book rights to his books. He didn’t use an editor until one wrote to him and pointed out 160 errors in his already published novels. He’s used an editor ever since.
E L James used an editor. She wrote her original Fifty Shades opus as one long piece of Twilight fan-fiction, unpublishable in single book form. When it came to knocking the work into three books she hired an editor. However, she didn’t always listen to her, and there were all sorts of communication issues between them, blamed partly (by the editor) on being a UK author working with a US editor.
So there are three completely conflicting examples. One writer always used an editor and swears by them. One writer didn’t use an editor until the number of mistakes in his books that he thought were flawless was pointed out to him (but by then his financial circumstances had changed anyway). And one author employed an editor, but probably the wrong editor, didn’t listen anyway, and her writing has been pilloried in some corners as being “poorly written” as a result. Not, of course, that she cares too much.
So, in summary:
The bitter truth is that many self-published authors won’t recoup the full expense of professional editing. In a US survey published a few years ago, earnings for self-published authors averaged out at $10,000, but this figure was heavily skewed by the top 10 per cent and half of self-published authors made $500 or less. That might just be enough for a quick proofread, but little else.
But interestingly, in the same survey, those authors that did employ professional editors and cover designers made between 13 per cent and 34 per cent more than the average author. And of course, if a self-published book is a success, the amount paid for editing, which might after all have been critical to that success, is rendered entirely insignificant.
So splashing out on an editor would seem to be a calculated gamble. You might not entirely cover your costs, but if you don’t get your book professionally edited, or appoint a good cover designer, it seems to be clear that you are limiting its chances of being a commercial success. Also, by looking at the process using a very narrow definition of cost-benefit, you’re omitting to credit any value to the professional editing process for you as a writer in the future.
Lastly, of course, it’s worth pointing out that massive sales are not the only measure of what being an author is about. For all sorts of reasons, merely seeing your name on the cover of a book is enough of an achievement for many people. It might be a memoir that’s only ever going to be given to friends and family, a family heirloom, if you like. The editor in me can’t resist pointing out that you’ll only ever write that heirloom once. Why not make it something you can really be proud of, and get it edited!
Richard Bradburn is managing editor of editorial.ie, a full service literary consultancy based in west Cork