elf-publishing can be a daunting and confusing process for writers. Even after your last word is written, you still have your work cut out for you. Editing is one of the most crucial components before you publish your book. A poorly edited book manuscript could be the kiss of marketing death when it comes time to selling your book.
The wisest investment a writer can make is to hire a professional editor. You could have the splashiest book cover design; but if your manuscript is riddled with typos and features one-dimensional characters and a stale plot, there is a good chance no one will buy your book. Or even worse, readers buy your book and write bad reviews based on your shoddy manuscript.
But all hope isn’t lost with the editing process, especially when armed with professional advice from seasoned editors, Susan Mary Malone and Karen S. Elliott.
Susan Mary Malone is a developmental book editor for fiction and nonfiction and works with both traditionally and self-published writers. Her professional background includes working as an editor, columnist, and reporter for newspapers and magazines.
Over forty books that Susan has edited have sold to traditional publishers. Her clients include New York Times bestselling author Mary B. Morrison and Essence bestselling author Naleighna Kai. Other notable edited books include: The Things I Could Tell You (Jeremy Woodson was nominated for an NAACP literary award), O’Brien’s Desk (a Publishers Weekly Spring Pick to Watch), and Ida Mae Tutweiler and the Traveling Tea Party (made into a Hallmark film).
Susan is an award-winning author and wrote the novel, By the Book, and co-authored three nonfiction books, including Five Keys for Understanding Men: A Woman’s Guide.
Karen S. Elliott was raised by a mother who wanted to be an English teacher and worked for Merriam-Webster as a proofreader, and an aunt who could complete the Sunday New York Times crossword in a day. Their favorite expression was: “Look it up!” Karen reads punctuation and grammar manuals for fun.
Karen is an editor, proofreader, blogger, and writer. She edits fiction and nonfiction including: sci-fi, fantasy, children’s, mystery, paranormal, western, horror, literary, historical, and journalism. Karen completed her writing coursework through UCLA and University of New Mexico and was the winner of the SouthWest Writers 2009 writing contest “The Best Hook.” Her short stories have been featured in The Rose & Thorn Journal, Every Child is Entitled to Innocence anthology, and WritingRaw.com. Karen is currently working on a collection of short stories and poetry.
WOW: Susan and Karen, thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedules to talk with me today. As you both know, there are a dime-a-dozen people out there who claim they are “editors” but don’t necessarily have the credentials to back up that title. For writers who want to self-publish, what skills and experience should they look for when hiring a professional editor?
Susan: You just hit on a true hot point to start! When I began freelance editing, only a few companies were doing so. Now there’s an editor on every virtual street corner. And it’s very tough for new writers to sift through! Plus, I have people contact me all the time wanting to “break into” editing, who have no credentials at all except they love to read. And that’s a lot of what’s out there.
The very best substantive editors can not only pinpoint the problems in all areas but most importantly, be able to show you how to fix those shortfalls. No writer wants an editor to rewrite his or her book; that’s not an editor’s job. An editor’s job is to help a writer to fashion the very best book—to bring out the gem from under whatever is burying its shine. And it takes a very fine touch to be able to accomplish this, while maintaining the integrity of the writer’s own voice. That’s what makes for a great editor for your book.
When looking for a good editor, here are some basic necessities:
- Background: Has he/she worked for a publisher in some capacity? Experience in the business is always a plus.
- Successes: Almost all “editors” out there list publishing successes on their websites. But 99.9 percent of those include self-published books. Even though we’re focusing on self-publishing, the key here is: Has she edited books that were sold to traditional houses? That’s absolutely huge. Because it means the editor’s work has been vetted by professionals within the industry, and not just by the writer. How have those books done in the market? And review wise?
- Testimonials and References: Again, you want to see testimonials from authors who have been traditionally published, rather than only self-published ones. And will the editor furnish you with references, so that you can speak to them?
- Wild Card: Has she written successfully herself? Especially in developmental editing, this is truly key. Because if she has done so, then she’ll know how to not only identify the problems (and teach you why they are problems), but also how to fix them (i.e., she’s been down the road herself). On an interesting note, almost all of my editor buddies at New York houses write on the side.
Karen: Don’t wait until your manuscript is finished to look for an editor. I’ve had numerous prospective clients come to me on a Monday, they want a full edit by Wednesday, and they want to publish on Kindle on Thursday. The search for an editor is not like looking for a pair of shoes. Chat with numerous editors, ask what sort of editing and proofreading they do, ask for a sample edit, look at their website, and review their blog. The search for the right editor should begin just after you start your manuscript. You want to develop a relationship with your editor.
Finding a competent editor is not an overnight Google search. And when I say competent editor, I don’t mean your Aunt Louise who has been a high school English teacher for thirty years or your best friend who reads a lot.
Does your editor tell you exactly how they will handle the manuscript—via Word doc, paper only, turnaround time? Does your editor offer and expect you to sign a contract? Does the editor include NDA (non-disclosure agreement)? Get a sample: do their comments make sense, and are the comments helpful in developing or enhancing your book? Are they looking for character development and plot, or are they simply correcting typos?
“Writing really is rocket science.”
WOW: Great advice, ladies! It sounds like serious writers who want to self-publish definitely need to hire a professional editor. You touched upon what makes a great editor, but why is the editing process such a crucial part of self-publishing?
Susan: All writers need good editors to bounce off of. What may be perfectly clear in your own mind might not translate to the page, and a good editor will help you to see that. I speak at a lot of literary conferences and often begin with, “Writing really is rocket science.” It’s tough to learn this craft, and a great editor works as a writing coach as well.
If you publish your book, and it’s not very good (of which there is a sea of those out there these days), no one will buy your second book—no matter how much money you spend in promotion.
True editing is a learning process, and not only helps you to make this book the best it can be, but a great editor will also teach you the skills that go into great writing. And then you’ll have those skills in your writing toolbox forever.
Karen: I have downloaded—and then quickly deleted—self-published books that have obviously not been edited or proofread. I feel that if a writer does not care about proofreading and editing, then they are not serious about their story either. You want your best work to go to your audience. That includes a thorough edit. On many self-published book reviews, you will see comments on “typos.” These comments can make or break you, your book, and your reputation as a professional.
WOW: As Susan pointed out, it’s not the editor’s job to “rewrite” the manuscript. Writers are often confused about what goes into editing and that it’s far more involved than just correcting grammar and typos. Can you explain the differences between a developmental book editor and a copyeditor?
Susan: The vast majority of freelance editors working today are copyeditors. But a good copyedit isn’t the first step in the process of bringing a manuscript to publication. Nor is it the second or third steps. Rather, a hard going over for grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., makes up the last step before going to print.
Long before that, manuscripts need in-depth, comprehensive, substantive editing—the kind that deals with the nuts and bolts of organization and structure, of plotting and pacing, of characterization, of voice and tone, along with all of the stylistic elements and overall substance that go into creating a great read. Whether fiction or nonfiction, every book needs the type of thorough going over that only a developmental editor can provide. Different genres require different pacing, and it helps to work with an editor who understands the market and the genre in which you’re writing.
So many elements make up a great book. And each of these needs hard attention. For example, are the characters real, flesh-and-bone, multi-sided people? Does one chapter flow into the next, building to a climax, making for a satisfying read?
A book is simply more than the sum of its parts. It’s its own entity—a new being that is formed by those parts and something more. To fashion a great book, one must make sure all of the individual elements work together in a synergy of words and emotions, painting pictures and evoking senses in order to put the reader smack dab into the story.
Karen: The differences between developmental and copyeditor vary within the industry—another good reason to ask these questions way ahead of your proposed publication date and another reason why you want to cultivate a relationship with an editor. Developmental is in-depth and detailed; it takes a look at the story. Are your characters three-dimensional? Does your story, timeline, plot make sense? Copyediting is formatting, style, and accuracy of the text.
“Self-publishing does not mean ‘alone.’”
WOW: Besides understanding the nuts and bolts of the editorial process, what “in-the-trenches” tips can you share with writers who want to self-publish, especially new writers?
Susan: Write, write, write, write, write. Read, read, read. Write some more. Again, this is a very difficult craft to learn. You have to write first and foremost, and then find a great editor to work with.
Karen: Self-publishing does not mean “alone.” Writing classes, good writing blogs, and books on writing can teach you how to craft a good story. A good critique group can work wonders. Check your ego at the door. I have returned critiques to writers who have disagreed with every comment or suggestion I gave them; I have had writers send me e-mails like: “I’m so insulted.”
WOW: Great points, Karen! Writers don’t have to do it alone, and they definitely need to have a thick skin. Besides peer critique groups, what else can writers do when they become stuck on their manuscript? Your best tips for writer’s block?
Susan: Write. I’m not meaning to sound flip, but this is a discipline thing. Decide on your writing schedule and stick to it. If you’re staring at the screen and nothing comes, keep staring—you still have to sit there for the appointed time or word count or whatever parameter you choose. And it does not matter whether what you’re writing is gibberish. It makes no difference. Some of my own very best stories have come from what I thought was drivel in the first place. You may or may not keep what you’ve written that day, and that’s freeing in itself.
Karen: I’ve flip-flopped on writer’s block over the years. What I used to call writer’s block (in me) was either laziness or lack of motivation. Each person has her own sort of “block.” If you are feeling blocked on a story, evaluate why you are feeling that way. Not interested in what you are writing, not happy with one of your characters, lagging plot? My best advice is step away from it and do something else that stimulates you. If you are fortunate enough to have writing pals or a critique group, do some brainstorming with them.
WOW: After the manuscript is edited, the next steps are to publish and then market the book. Trends play a huge role in the publishing industry, and writers sometimes jump on the bandwagon because a genre is “hot.” For example, Amanda Hocking tapped into the werewolf and vampire genre and made millions as a self-published author. Do you think a specific genre has a direct impact on the marketability of a book?
Susan: Oh, yes! Publishing, whether traditional or self-publishing, follows trends. The example of Amanda Hocking provides us with the perfect storm for success. Here was a young woman who had written prolifically, had a huge social media following, and found herself at just the right time in the absolute right place (vampires and werewolves).
Before this, urban lit led the pack. One of my most famous authors, New York Times bestselling author Mary B. Morrison, came to me when she had just self-published her first novel, Soul Mates Dissipate, and urban lit was rising. She knew her book wasn’t ready and wanted to bring it up a notch. After she got over the horror of all the blood dripping from the pages of my edit (her words!), she dug in, revised, and got a six-figure three-book deal from a major publisher. She’s inked a movie deal (now in production) as well. She, too, was in the right place at the right time.
It’s always been this way in publishing. Of course, the standard joke is to ask any New York editor what the next trend will be. His answer is always the same: “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Karen: Though I do see a recent flurry of interest in vampires, werewolves, and a certain archer-heroine, the marketability comes with a well-told story with meaningful characters. If your story is flat—and it happens to have a vampire in it—that doesn’t mean it will sell. Whether your story has a rabid St. Bernard, a handsome young wizard, or a foreign agent with a license to kill, it means nothing if your story is not well written. Do not write your story for a market; just write your story.
WOW: On a final note, where do you see the future of self-publishing and e-books headed? Your predictions?
Susan: The e-book revolution will definitely continue. It’s the wave of the now and the future. Traditional publishing has been reeling the last few years, but it’s starting to find its footing again—in a different landscape. Self-publishing will follow that as well, where fewer books come out via POD (print on demand) and more go straight to e-books.
Karen: At first it seemed to me that anyone who could write two hundred pages of words was self-publishing. Many of the books I read were disheartening—poorly written, boring stories, multiple typos, characters flat. More recently, I’ve seen a greater influx of good self-published stories. Perhaps this is in response to readers, other writers, or bad reviews on previous works. The industry? I could not possibly predict how it’s going to look next year or even next month! There is some new doodad every time I log on the Internet.
WOW: Thanks so much, Susan and Karen! These are fantastic “real-world” tips to help writers in their writing and self-publishing journey!
As Susan and Karen shared, if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, then it’s imperative that you hire a professional editor before you self-publish and market your book.
For more editorial insights, Susan and Karen share a wealth of information for writers on their blogs: Malone Editorial Tips and The Word Shark.
Therese Pope is a freelance writer based in northern California. With a BA degree in journalism, Therese has a background in the publishing and book industry. She has marketed both traditional and self-published authors. She was a health and fitness blogger for Prevention Health and was recently featured as a yoga writer on The American Cancer Society’s Choose You blog. Her writing specialties include: copywriting and article writing. As a die-hard foodie who loves good California red wine, she currently writes for the hospitality and restaurant industry. Visit Therese’s blog, www.zenfulcommunications.com.
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