Starting out as an indie author: Why editing is important — and who can skip the expense after all.

Starting out as an indie author

Why hire an editor?

Hiring an editor or proofreader for your manuscript before you publish is one of the costliest pre-publishing expenses you as an indie writer can incur. For a lot of us who aren’t selling thousands of copies of our books each month, the temptation might be great to skip booking any kind of editing services for our ebooks.

But the thing is, it’s very, very important to have (at least) a second set of eyes go over your manuscript. Yes, we all have spell-checking in our word processors these days, but what about those pesky typos that happen to be a word too (like “to” and “too”)? When the words came out of your own fingers, it’s often very difficult to see the mistakes. Someone with more distance to the writing and the story is also more likely to catch all those bloopers you and your beta readers missed. Who tend to be friends and fans, after all, and thus by definition might not have the necessary distance.

What exactly do I mean by “distance”? As I see it, distance in this respect means being able to judge your writing as a reader, and not as the author. We as writers tend to be invested in the words we write, the characters we create, and the stories we are telling, which can make it difficult to judge them objectively. But not only that, when we are still to close to what we’ve written, our brains have a greater tendency to translate an actual mistake on the screen or the page to what it is supposed to be. As an example, in one of my books, the word “lucking” for “luckily” went through nearly a dozen beta readers and critique partners before it was caught by the editor I hired.

Types of editing

Proofreading – Checking for spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes. This is the most superficial level editing which only looks for the most basic mistakes.

Copy editing or line editing – General proofreading plus checking for consistency and stylistic errors. Some editing services separate proofreading and copy editing, but I’m not quite sure how an editor would be able to correct only consistency and style and not spelling and grammar.

Content editing – All of the above, plus feedback on the structure of the story as a whole.

Developmental editing – Substantive feedback on the “big picture” elements of the work, including plot, character, style, and pacing. Editing of this sort should be done separately from copy editing or proofreading, since the whole point is for the editor to help the writer fix the story — and that in turn will require serious rewriting. Most writers with a completed manuscript will not be looking for developmental editing, which is very expensive. Rates for an 80,000 word novel start at about $500.

Here’s a list of editors from the Kboards site. As I implied above, there is some fluidity to the editing terms I listed. For example, some editing services refer to content and developmental editing as the same thing, while others differentiate between copy editing and line editing. When deciding on an editor, you also need to decide exactly what kind of work you think your manuscript needs and book accordingly. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, if you have never worked with an editor before, I would suggest first trying a few with good referrals or testimonials who offer free samples of their editing work.

When can you get away with not hiring an editor?

In “The Costs of Self-Publishing,” I listed editing and cover expenses (whether in stock art or hiring a cover designer) as the only two price points I think a writer starting out seriously needs to consider. Can you skip this price point? In my experience, it tends to be the biggest expense pre-publishing. As with all rules, there are exceptions. While I think most beginning indie writers should invest in an editor, there are a number of cases where the expense can safely be skipped, and several more where it’s a toss-up whether or not you really need to invest in an editor.

Your book / novella / short story has been previously published elsewhere, where it went through a professional editing pass

This one to me is a no-brainer. Most of my ebooks were previously published before I brought out my self-published editions, and I trust the editors of the magazines and publishing houses where they first appeared to have done their job. Of course, no one sees all the mistakes in a manuscript, and I’ve gotten “needs an editor” reviews for some of those works which very definitely did have an editor. But they are relatively rare.

So if you are publishing your backlist or anything else that has been previously published, you can safely skip hiring an editor or proofreader.

The book has been workshopped extensively and/or gone through several beta readers, at least one of whom took the time to also do line edits

While this was the case with Shadow of Stone, I hired an editor anyway because I wanted to make the book as good as I possibly could. At the time, however, my ebooks were selling quite well. With the sales I have now, my decision might have been different — but I believe the quality of the book would have suffered.

You have editing experience yourself and you are willing to lay the work aside for at least three months (preferably more) before doing a final editing pass

While I have not actually used this method yet on any of my own self-published works, I could imagine it would be effective in combination with critique partners or beta readers. I have a Ph.D. in English, I’ve taught both literature and grammar, and in my former life as an English professor, I helped edit a number of scholarly papers and collections. That, of course, is not the same thing as fiction (something painfully brought to my attention when I was at Clarion). But I do have the professional editing skill set.

I have often set fiction I’m working on aside for several months, and I am always astonished how, after such a break, I can see my own work with fresh eyes. What also helps me to see what I’ve written more critically is to print it out and read it with pen in hand. Mistakes I don’t catch on screen I might catch on paper.

You have a friend / critique partner with editing experience who writes in your genre and is willing to trade manuscript edits with you

This is also a method I have not yet tried, but it is something I’ve discussed with friends and can imagine would work — as long as both sides take the editing seriously, and neither one is too inclined to take edits personally — with the subsequent danger of ruining the friendship …

Possible alternative: read the book out loud

So what if none of the above applies and you absolutely do not have the money to hire and editor or proofreader? On a couple of blogs, I have seen a method the respective authors swear by: either read the book out loud to yourself, or have it read to you by text-to-speech software. I have never used this method, so I have no experience to relate, but by all means, read the blog posts I linked to and give the method a shot.

I would love to hear of any experiences you’ve had with professional editors — or any other editing methods you’ve tried — in the comments.

Other posts in this series:

Starting out as an indie author: preparing your manuscript for ebook retailers

Starting out as an indie author: Using distributors for getting into online bookstores

Starting out as an indie author: Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and Xinxii (Using distributors, part 2)

Starting out as an indie author: The costs of self-publishing

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