The Editor’s Fedora (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post
by David Antrobus
[This is part 1 of a 2 part post. See part two here.]

As an independent writer myself, and a passionate believer in the indie ethic, I also have to acknowledge one of its major downsides: a real or perceived shoddiness in the final product of self-published authors. Which is where I now switch hats and replace the bohemian beret of the writer with a more conservative form of headgear: the editor’s fedora, if you like. And no, I don’t actually wear hats; it’s a metaphor. Keep up.

But look. When it comes to editing, I have noticed a surprising amount of cluelessness out there in indie land. So, in the interests of demystifying it somewhat, I came up with this post. Let’s state some obvious stuff first.

1. You need to edit your book.

2. It will cost you money.

There is no getting around those two things. No writer has any business publishing work that’s not ready for the market; it’s unprofessional and insulting to both readers and your fellow writers. Plus, as I read somewhere recently: “It is better to know the boat has holes before the tide comes in.”

But now we hit the first big roadblock.

3. Most writers are dirt poor.

So, what can you do? Well, you can begin with a self-edit. But wait, isn’t the standard advice never to edit your own work? Uh, yes; yes, it is. But here’s an interesting grey area if you happen not to think in stark binaries. You are perfectly entitled to self-edit with the intention of polishing your manuscript (MS) before sending it to an editor. In fact I’d encourage it. Why? Well, most editors set their rates based on the type of editing required, which they usually determine via an initial sample. If they receive a MS with major issues and inconsistencies, they will recommend a developmental or substantive edit, generally the most expensive service outside a complete rewrite. If, however, the copy is relatively clean, they may settle on a proofread or a light copyedit, which will save you, the author, money.

Because I’m a nice guy, I’ll even suggest an incredible book about self-editing which will help you get that novel beautifully honed before you take the next step. It’s called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Okay, so now you have the MS nice and clean. What is the next step? How do you find an editor? This part isn’t hard, but it’s crucial you find someone who is right for your book. And there’s no substitute for research. Ask around. If you haven’t already done so, join writer’s groups on Facebook or LinkedIn and talk to editors. Many editors are also writers so they will be there and ready to answer your questions.

What should those questions entail? Here’s a short list for starters, each of which could serve as launch pads for another post:

1. What experience do you have editing novel manuscripts (MSS)?

2. What editing qualifications do you have?

3. How long have you been editing?

4. Can you provide examples of your work?

5. Do you have endorsements from other writers you’ve edited?

6. What genre(s) do you work in?

7. Can you provide a range for your rates (hourly, by the page, by the word)?

8. Do you offer a free sample edit and include a second pass in your price?

9. What is the turnaround time on an xx,xxx-word MS?

10. What types of English are you familiar with (US, UK, Canadian, etc.)?

11. What style manuals and dictionaries do you typically use for fiction?

12. Do you create a style sheet?

13. Do you offer an installment option for payments?

14. Do you draw up a contract?

I’m not saying editors need to answer in the affirmative for every single one of these, but their answers will give you a far better insight into their background and how they operate. Quick note: Some editors insist on a contract and it’s probably a good idea. I tend to use the honour system and cover all expectations in the initial emails, establishing a sense of mutual trust as I go through the initial preparations, but I still think a standard contract is good practice.

The reality is that in-house editors are becoming more scarce as the publishing industry continues to react to a changing landscape, so an increasing number of freelance editors are filling the vacuum which, as with the explosion of independent authors, can have its positive and its negative aspects. Freelancers tend to do a number of jobs that were once very much divided up. A proofreader performed a very different role from a copyeditor (or ha, copy editor or copy-editor), whereas many freelancers now do both. This has its risks; some types of editing are all about the forest, others all about the trees, and it can be very difficult to catch problems in one area when the brain is engaged with the other. That’s why it’s essential editors provide more than one pass of the manuscript.

Part 2 will go into the mechanics of determining costs.

David Antrobus is a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, and a graduate of the University of Manchester, England, with a B.A. (Honours) in English and Philosophy. He is an alumnus of Simon Fraser University’s certificate program in creative writing, The Writers Studio, in Canada.

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55 thoughts on “The Editor’s Fedora (Part 1 of 2)”

    1. I seem to remember there’s an aspect of Part 2 that might seem contradictory, and probably is, but yeah. Thanks, Lynne. The impetus for these posts came from a sense—gleaned from lurking suspiciously in numerous Facebook groups—that freelance (indie) writers and freelance editors are not completely understanding each other’s MOs, despite sharing much the same world. I hope it helps demystify.

    1. Amazingly—and I only just realised this—there’s a photo of me on Facebook, taken many, many years ago, wearing exactly that: a fedora! I was only borrowing it, though. 😉

  1. I cannot thank you enough for this post (and you know I have been looking forward to it!). After leaving my former publisher, I had no REAL information about editors, costs, what all editing entails…I only knew that I needed one.
    I also want to thank you for giving me advice and answering so many questions. This is valuable information for those like me who are now on their own and a bit unsure on how to go about getting an editor, especially when there are so many writers ‘posing’ as editors these days.

    1. Right! And while I don’t want to slam either side of this delicate equation, especially as I live on both sides of the border, so to speak, some editors are not editors: never were and never will be. Simply, as in any human activity, there are sharks and scammers out there. Even the well-meaning types who think that because they have “an eye for a typo,” they can jump straight into editing. Uh, no.

      Really, if I could impart anything, both to both new writers and those who are starting up as freelance editors, it would be: do your homework. Really, that will significantly reduce your chances of being exploited or ripped off.

  2. Brilliantly useful stuff, another post to print out and pin to the writing-room wall. And, great to be reading you again, David. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. Amen. I could say more, but you’ve said it all, or at least will have after part 2. I’m eagerly awaiting the letdown of part 2 now. 🙂

  4. Absolutely a fine post. I’m interested to see where you go with it. As someone who has edited professionally for longer years than I like to admit, it’s especially difficult to explain to writers that “one edit/ price does not fit all.” My goal is to help an author tell that story better; to actually get that manuscript into publishable form where it can actually compete with other books for attention. As someone with, shall we say, (as delicately as possible,) one hell of a lot more experience in this industry than an earnest young English major who has published their own work on Kindle, it really does help to do your homework. Renni Browne’s book is very good, but in many ways dated, Having come from that old school tradition myself, I have to say as well that it’s equally important to find an editor who doesn’t just have the skills, but is willing to keep up with the changing tastes of the reading audience.
    Key to the author/editor relationship is not just price point,but to find someone who really gets your book and is willing to develop a personal relationship with you to get your book to the point where you make that transition from “writer” to “‘author”. Heck, if there’s a book I’m really excited about, I’ll put so much effort into something that I wind up making about ten cents an hour!
    Maybe I should rethink my business plan…:)

    1. Excellent thoughts, Teresa, especially about the author/editor relationship aspect. I only had so many words to work with, of course, but given an unlimited number, this coulda been epic! And I think you will *mostly* enjoy and appreciate part 2.

  5. I think we are all keen for part 2, especially since prices do seem to vary significantly out there, and also because I want to feel like I am paying the professionals that I hire to help me a sufficient sum to ensure that they get paid a fair price for the work that they do and that they spend an appropriate amount of time on my manuscript. In particular I would be very curious as to the range of amounts per manuscript that traditional publishing companies pay their freelancers. I worked with a great editor and two proofreaders for my manuscript, but I always worried that perhaps I was paying them too little to give it the same attention that a manuscript would get in a small traditional press for example. Not that I could necessarily afford more 🙂 and I think the professionals I worked with did a great job. But it is always good to know because if indie writers are paying substantially less, it could translate into more effort that we have to put into self-editing, proofreading and being our own harshest critics.

    As to your post for today, the style sheet is very important, particularly if you are working with more than one editor/proofreader. I would add a question about whether the editor is willing to allow the writer input into the style sheet. I think it should be a document that the editor and writer develop together based on a mutually agreed style for the particular manuscript. There is tremendous value in having input into the style sheet – you learn more as a writer and you get to discuss esoteric grammar rules with someone (which is very fun). This is one of the great things about being an indie writer – having this level of input. Of course if the editor says something is an absolute rule, the writer should probably listen :-).

    1. And it’s a far more complex topic than I could do justice to in the word count given. And you’re right: the range out there is kind of ludicrous, to be honest, from a couple of hundred dollars to $5,000 for a MS. And yes, absolutely, the more effort an author puts into editing, the more they’ll save money by the time they hire an editor.

      Good point about the style sheet. I’ve only started using them fairly recently and now see how invaluable (why do valuable and invaluable mean the same thing?) they are and I always ask whether the author is comfortable with, say, Chicago or Merriam-Webster or the OED or whichever reference I happen to be using for the parameters of that particular project. And if someone, for example, hates the serial comma, I’ll make a note not to use it and mark that down as breaking from Chicago, because consistency is more important than adhering strictly and 100 percent to a style guide.

      Thanks for such a thoughtful reply, by the way. 🙂

  6. David – a fantastic post. I appreciate your sage advice, not only because I’ve read many of the books you’ve expertly edited for other authors, but also because I’ve been privileged to read your wonderful writing. You are an amazingly talented writer yourself. For me, having an editor who also writes is the very best combination.

    Absolutely wonderful to see your name here again and I’m looking forward to your second installment.

    1. Thanks, Jo. I truly appreciate your encouragement. See, now I’m back to being scared for the second part! There’s one glaring contradiction I noticed after submitting it. Although it’s perhaps not so much a contradiction as an anomaly, and one I can explain given the chance. 😉

  7. I wish someone had spelled things out so neatly when I first went searching for an editor. After two, near catastrophic false starts I found the perfect editor for me, but that was more by good luck than good management on my part. Great post.

  8. Cheers, David!

    An editor’s work is never done, as they say 🙂 Our aim is to make copy shine and work in partnership with the writer. Love points 1-14. It’s good to ask questions, just as you would when hiring a plumber or an electrician. 🙂


    1. Exactly, Vickie! Those of us who also write have that magic ingredient: empathy. And I know you have it in droves. And unlike plumbers, nobody sees our butt cracks, right?

  9. I thought Canadians all wore Toques. 😉

    You are a fantastic editor. I am very lucky to have found you and honored to call you my editor. Thank you for all of your hard work and putting up with all of my…you…know… 😉

    Every indie author needs to have these words ingrained into their very soul. I will endeavor to spread this around.

    1. Oh, I missed an opportunity there, didn’t I? The Editor’s Toque Part 1.

      Ha ha, it’s always a pleasure, my friend. Even the… you….know… 😉

      Thanks for the kind words.

  10. Adding to my comment before…yes, as an editor also, I know it’s important to for authors seeking editing to ask these questions. It’s your money and your project, and you should know what you’re getting. I’m REALLY looking forward to Part 2.

  11. Awesome post, David. Great to see you back here in the halls of Indies Unlimited. As you can see, the gruel hasn’t improved since you left.

    Looking forward to part two, what is your opinion on the bartering that is going on … I’ll edit for you if you format an ebook for me … type of stuff. I’m a little leery of that.

    1. Mmmmm….. gruel. 😉

      Yeah, I’ve not done that yet, and it’s hard to judge like for like. I suppose you could figure out an hourly rate to make such things comparable, but yeah. Leery too.

  12. First, leave the fedoras to me, G. 😉

    This is a great post. Sorry it took me til now to comment. FYI, all…Antrobus is a great editor. He edits my stuff and he is very good, easy to work with, and thorough. Even if he does hate italics. 😉

    If I might add, I think that sending your editor the MOST polished thing you can is important. I don’t send my stuff to Antrobus until I have edited it an absurd number of times. And then he finds a bunch of stuff I missed. But it’s a matter of respect. I would never send a rough draft and expect the editor to ‘fix’ it. But if you do, that’s gonna cost you. Self-editing is smart and thrifty.

    AND, the reason you edit my stuff is because you know how my mind works. If you can get that kind of relationship with an editor, it is pure gold. As the books pile up, your editor will get to know your quirks, your style, and your common mistakes.

    And, I must say, editors don’t get paid enough. Especially really good ones like Senor Antrobus.

    1. True, Dan rocks the fedora better than anyone. 🙂

      Ha ha, hate italics, love Italians, though.

      Thanks, brother. I love the close relationship editors and writers can forge. And I don’t mean that in a sexy way.

  13. Oops– a little late to the party, David, but I wanted to say thank you for this post. Editing is such an important (if not the most important) aspect of publishing.

    And, may I say, nice to see you here…I think Kat put extra ‘raisins’ in the gruel for you and Ogg 🙂

  14. Excellent post, David. You’re spot on with your observations: the biggest criticism of indie publishing is a lack of quality, so professional editing is the best way to combat this.

    Readers will usually preview a book before they buy it, so it’s crucial that the writing is smooth and error-free. And once someone has bought the book, they’re more likely to enjoy it if the writing is clear and flows well (incorrect grammar, typos, clunky or confusing writing are all barriers to the story). And the more the reader enjoys the book, the more likely they are to recommend it!

    In the end, a good edit will not only help the novel, the writer (as they learn from the editor’s comments) and the reputation of indie publishing, but a good edit is also a factor in generating sales.

    So, hopefully, the money spent on editing will be an INVESTMENT the writer can eventually earn back through sales.

    I wrote a blog post about working out a budget and potential earnings for self-publishers, which might be of interest:

    Looking forward to the next post!

  15. Great post David. I too share concerns about the quality of self-published books. However, I also love the opportunities that self-publishing provides for authors and writers. Budget constraints are always going to be a major factor but we need to find a balance between cost and quality.

  16. Actually, David, there are many ways of getting around spending money to get your book edited. Happens all the time.;

    I think editors should keep that in mind. All I ever see is the YOU HAVE TO stuff, and it’s not really true, is it?

    I like your recommendation of that book. Writers need to develop all the editing skills they can.

    1. The best method is probably going all Annie Wilkes on an unsuspecting editor, hobbling his ankles and forcing him to work on your manuscript for free if he values his life. 😉

  17. I’ve spent the past year developing the services I can offer as a freelance editor, but it gets disheartening when so many people are starting to call themselves editors and also charging rock-bottom prices. I’m also working on a novel, so I’ve been shopping around for potential editors. I came across one the other day who does two reads. I asked if the first read was for content edits and the second for a copy edit, and was told the first read for both both content and copy editing issues. The second read as to catch mistakes and read for flow. Needless to say, I was like WHAT? I then said thanks for letting me know and I would be looking somewhere else because content and copy editing are two entirely different tasks. I’ve come across too many “editors” who do tasks associated with copy editing before the author has revised the document for content. Plus, this editor offers such a service for $350 and has a long list of clients. I’ll be looking forward to the post on pricing. I try to go by rates listed for the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, but it’s seems a fruitless task at times to try to charge professional rates for professional work when it can be so hard for writers to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to picking an editor.

    1. Yes, I think with the gradual erosion of in-house editors and the resulting increase in freelancers I think the latter tend to take on the many roles that were previously be divided up (proofreading, copyediting, developmental/content editing, etc.) and are in danger of being spread too thinly. It’s absolutely true, though, that when you’re reading for forest, you’re going to miss individual trees, and vice versa.

      I also think there’s an element here of editors not wishing to scare off clients by outlining the true nature of the task required: if substantial content editing is needed, the cost will be higher, so I’ll just say it’s a copyedit and I won’t lose a client, that kind of thing. Which is partly why I wrote these posts, in an attempt to clear up misunderstandings on both sides and prevent such injustices.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Jeri.

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