This is a guest post by Richard White

In all the time I’ve been a reader – which is as long as I can remember – I’ve always looked up to publishing companies. In my mind, these companies knew all there was to know about the English language – how to use punctuation, correct spelling, grammar, structure, and so on. When I graduated university, I undertook an internship in a publishing company to learn the ropes and better my own understanding, which I hoped to bring to the table in my job as a freelance writer and editor. My internship strengthened my respect of publishing companies, especially as it removed the glamorous sheen and showed me the day-to-day hard work that is involved when getting a book to market.

Times have changed a lot in recent years, though, and thanks to eReaders like the Kindle everyone thinks they’re an author and a publisher. This is fine to a degree; by taking control of our own work we can ensure it gets out there for people to read. The flipside of this is that people can jump into it headfirst and put out books that should frankly be considered a first draft.

I recently finished reading a book, the title of which I will keep to myself, in which the low level of quality detracted from the stellar content within. I learned years ago that every published book has flaws, such as the odd grammar error, spelling mistake or formatting issue. Sadly, the book in question took it to another level, filled with spelling mistakes, continuity problems (having one spelling on one page, and a different spelling on the next), spaces before commas, misspelt names, and so on. From start to finish it was an amateur production.

As an editor myself, I’m aware that I spot more mistakes in books than the average reader. That’s not a problem; in fact, it’s the sole reason editors exist in the first place. But this book was so littered with problems that I genuinely think it would ruin – to some extent at least – the reading experience for the majority of its readers.

This brings me back to my first point about publishing companies. This book was not released by Harper Collins or Random House; rather, it was published by a company I had never heard of. The book’s notes state that the author of the book started the company. Full credit goes to this author for not just releasing his book on the Kindle but being ambitious enough to start a publishing house. However, he hit a common and major trap: skimping on the editorial process. Nothing screams ‘unprofessional’ more than poor editing, and it’s an issue plagued most by independent authors and small publishing companies. Why? Largely because of cost restraints; I’ve lost track of the number of writers who have asked me for a quote to edit their manuscript and then told me they can’t afford a very modest and fair cost. So instead, many of these people turn to very cheap – and inexperienced – editors, or just do it themselves. The upshot of this is a clear decline in quality of published works, which really doesn’t help the reputation of independent authors whatsoever.

Small publishing companies are increasingly common nowadays too, with more and more people being inspired enough to try to change the industry. Great, I’m all for that. But the first and most important lesson for anyone involved in literature – authors or publishers –is not to overlook the editor. The editor is the person (or people) who will take your manuscript from a first draft to a professional standard fit for public consumption. While the question is often ‘can I afford an editor?’ the answer is ‘you can’t afford not to have an editor’. If you cut the initial cost of hiring an editor, you run the very real risk of alienating readers. No one wants to part with their hard-earned cash for something that is amateur. It will leave a bad taste in their mouth, and they may not buy your future offerings. A good reputation takes a long time to build, but not nearly as long as reversing a bad one.

 

About this post's author:

I am a (ghost)writer, editor and proofreader. I have been published in the Guardian, appeared on television and radio, including BBC 2's Jeremy Vine show. I am the author of Smoke Screens: The Truth About Tobacco, available on Amazon, and am currently ghostwriting two books, one fiction and one non-fiction. My website is www.wordedit.org and I am on Twitter as @richwhite08

About the Author

  1. While I agree with you that every writer should invest in a professional editor, I feel I should also play the devil’s advocate. Because many indie authors (especially if they are just starting out) really can’t afford to pay more or less $800 (often more) for a professional editor. And , if, somehow, they find that kind of money, they prefer to spend it on a really kick ass cover art.

    All the mistakes you mention from the book you’ve read could very easily be fixed by self-editing or sending it to a proofreader (a friend can do that sort of job for free).

    I guess what I’m saying is that while every book should be edited and proofread and edited again, it’s not exactly necessary to spend a fortune on an editor, especially if you’re just starting out.

  2. I’ve had five novels traditionally published, but I still hired a private editor for my third one. The publishers said it was “clean enough” not to require a full edit, but I disagreed. I spent £500 but it was well worth it for my peace of mind. I haven’t made that money back in royalties yet, but that’s OK, it’s worth it not to have something out there with my name on the cover and filled with mistakes.

    Of course not have self-published (yet) I don’t know what things like cover art cost, or the cost of self publishing itself. I can see that it might tighten the budget, especially if you don’t know whether you’ll ever make that money back.

  3. See, a typo just in that comment! (Should say “having”, not “have” in the first line of the second para.) Shows how important editing is.

    And how amazing that the icon the site chose to represent me looks so much like me. How did they know?

  4. Why does it make me angry. . .I hate folks who come off as pompous. . Sorry but it sounds as though he (and others) thinks you ought not to self publish if you can’t afford to hire an editor.
    All of my books have been edited by professionals while I was enrolled in a Masters Program (Professional Writing). So some of them were actually for real editors – some at very large publishing houses. But realistically now that I’m finished and on my own this is not a luxury I can easily afford. I have a professional editor working on something I’m in the middle of but I’m having to rob Peter to pay Paul in order to do it.
    I’d better stop here before I say something I shouldn’t.

  5. Some writers think the work of editing is simply polishing up the book to avoid embarrassing mistakes of spelling and punctuation. Wrong. Editing is part of the creative process. We all do it, even on the first draft. Punctuation helps create the rhythm of the story. It’s not a hood ornament.

    Furthermore, writers must realize their book is not the work of a solitary genius. Oh, the original story theme might be ours, but after that, the more people involved, the better the book.

    Spend the money. You can’t do it all.

  6. Honestly, I can’t understand why people spend months or even years writing a book, and then blow it at the last hurdle because they don’t get an editor and a proofreader involved.
    I know that many people will complain that they can’t afford it – but they should take a look at what they are spending their money on.
    How much goes on other hobbies? Video games? DVD’s and Blu Rays? Booze and Cigarettes?
    You get the idea.
    My novel was workshopped, chapter by chapter in a writing group, then I did two run through’s myself before I shipped it off to my beta readers. Then it went to a pro editor, and a pro proofreader after that.
    There were still enough errors pointed out to me after release that I had to put a second edition out a month later.
    No author can self edit properly. If Stephen King can’t do it, then people should accept that they aren’t going to be able to do it either.
    Crappy, amateurish ebooks are giving the self publishing industry a bad name, and all it takes to sort it out is a little planning and saving up to cover the cost of getting an editor involved.

  7. Jamie — I don’t think anyone is saying there’s a certain amount of money an author needs to spend, or that there aren’t reasonable solutions, but I don’t think it’s pompous to say you shouldn’t self publish without investing in the minimum requirements.

    Nobody says it’s pompous when someone wants a doctor who’s paid for medical school. And a licensing fee. And malpractice insurance. And the electric bill for her office.

    Nobody says it’s pompous when someone doesn’t take their child to a childcare provider who can’t afford to buy food to feed the kids lunch (and the food has to be there before the kids are — paid for in advance, just like editing).

    Teachers pay for college, licenses, tests, and continuing education.

    Store owners pay upfront for inventory, leasing their buildings, tax licenses … etc. etc.

    Even fast food workers generally have to fork over for a certain kind of clothes or shoes, dictated by a company policy.

    If you are publishing a book, and asking people to PAY MONEY for that, it’s a business. And there are upfront costs to doing business. For a writer, one of those costs, is editing, however they pay for it, in cash, trade, or whatever.

  8. Having the option to self-publish is a good thing, but in choosing it, one takes on *all* the roles and responsibilities that a publisher would otherwise carry.

    Not everyone is suited to become a self-publisher, and not everyone can afford to self-publish properly. If you can’t afford professional editing and proofreading and cover art, you might be a good candidate to partner with a small publisher who can bring those things to the table for you (and the same goes for authors who are unable or unwilling to do the grunt-work of self-promotion).

    It seems slightly unreasonable to want all the best bits of being a publisher (all the rights and rewards, that is) without accepting the associated costs and risks.

  9. Wonderful post and so true!

  10. I love this post, you are spot on. Editing is beyond important. I am astounded at how I was considered good in my creative writing class. I am not good, it is next to impossible to edit your own material. When my novels are ready for release I will definitely be shopping them to publishing houses, because I want an editor.

    However, even if I self-publish I will have editors, proofreaders, whatever it takes to have a polished and well-written work. There are no excuses and, really, no second chances.

    Thank you for this!

  11. Hi Richard,

    I’m happy to take issue on the big three (publishers) and editorial skills. As a book reviewer in my spare time I receive books straight from the publishers, admittedly, most are pre-publish proofs devoid of pictorial cover, which forces a reviewer into making exceptions for grammatical errors, typo hiccups and other niggling mishaps. Sadly, when one finally sits down to read the end product purely for enjoyment, there’s not only a glorious cover image there’s a glowing blurb alongside snippets taken from review write-ups! Now this is where the “hit” comes, for the mistakes seen in pre-publish copies are often as not still there in the published edition and no one noticed.

    I can pick books from my shelves published in the 1950-60- early 70s and demonstrate editorial skills at publishing houses as second to none. By the 80s editorial blips appear with frequency, by the 90s one wonders who edited what: if at all. By 2000, well, where did the editors receive their education? I don’t want to go into to great detail about changes in social patterns and how during the 80s cop-out art-farty subjects became in Vogue for uni degree status, but when shit hits a fan it spreads. Similarly recruitment levels dropped within publishing houses in the late 90s, in part accountable to cutbacks, mergers et., but the major factor being that of “incompetence reaches its own level”.

    Take several incidents of a mere secretary employed for her touch-typing skills yet finds her/himself promoted to submissions editor. Wow, and a couple of years thence to junior editor, proceeding to editor and finally, on “time-served” plus overt enthusiasm and abundance of confidence, Bingo the big jolly of Senior Editor/Editorial Director. In some cases, once declared an editor that once upon a time secretary seeks higher status elsewhere. The rudiments of editing having washed over her/him. After all, they are now what they are, aren’t they (?), a talented editor.

    Second hit: there are self-published Kindle novels/authors out there whom not only put many best-selling authors to shame on plot structuring, fabulous character profiling and good formatting, their editing skills are not half bad either and on a par if not better than many books coming out of the big three! 😉

    best
    F

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