On writing

Working with an editor can mean the difference between successful self-publishing and failure

Self-published novelists still make the same mistakes

Ten years ago, if you self-published your book people knew that you did it because you couldn’t get published any other way.

With the advent of ebooks, the internet*, print-on-demand, and the changing face of publishing in general, self-publishing doesn’t have the same stigma any more.

Even so, when someone tells me they have self-published their book, I smile and say, “That’s nice,” but in my mind I’m praying, “Please don’t ask me to read it.”


Because most self-published books are poorly edited.

Let me be blunt. You, as a writer—and by ‘you’ here I mean me, too, because I am a writer—cannot see problems in your own work. Yes, you can fix up most of it, and you should, because that’s where you need to be before you can even send it out to an agent, but once you have sold your book what happens?

First, it goes to a story editor, who picks holes in the plot and tells you things you didn’t want to hear. Like how the heroine you thought was so wonderful is a whiny, unlikeable creature, or that there was no way the hero could get from London to New York in fifteen minutes to save the day, and so on.

Okay, so I’m being a bit stupid here, but it’s amazing the obvious things you don’t pick up.

After you have fixed all of these, the copy editor comes in and red-pencils all your typos and grammar errors. Even after numerous edits it’s amazing what still needs to be fixed.

Thus most writers, even when they turn in what they consider to be a polished final draft, still have a lot of work to do once the book has been acquired.

Self-published authors don’t generally do this work.

I buy a lot of eBooks. For authors I don’t know, I read the excerpt provided and if I like it enough I buy it. Unfortunately, it’s got to the stage where if I know (or even suspect) that the author is self-published then I just won’t buy the book.

Why not?

Because they’re not polished. They’ve got plot-holes and typos and all the other problems I mentioned above. Because they’re amateur.

I don’t want to pay for half-finished work. I can get that from my online writing group, and at least I know what to expect from them.

Sometimes I think it’s because these authors are too close to their own work to see that their story isn’t finished. Sometimes I think they know it’s not but don’t care anyway. Occasionally they do care, but have calculated that what they will earn from new readers outweighs what they will lose because they don’t build up a following. This last happens a lot in niche markets where the reading audience is so eager for stories in their niche that they will buy anything, and works until the market becomes saturated.

The cost of editing

If you are determined to self-publish, then you should seriously consider working with an editor. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come cheap.

How much does it cost? You may as well ask how long is a piece of string.

Check out the suggested rates over at Think about how long it would take you to do a story edit, halve it (because they’re going to do it faster than you) and multiply the number of hours by the hourly rate. You’ll find it’s a lot.

I know of  a published writer who used to charge $2 per page (250 words) to do a story edit. Think about it. That’s $800 for a 100,000 words and you still need someone to do a copy edit as well.

I have no idea how much a good editor charges but I can tell you this much, based on my own experiences as a technical writer. Editing is different to tech writing, but the principles apply for both.

  • Good, experienced technical writers [and editors] charge more but they don’t take as long to do it, and their work is generally better
  • It always takes longer than you think it will
  • If I can’t make a living out of it, I’m not going to do it.

That last one is important. I have to live. I love my work but if it won’t pay my bills then I’ll find a job that does.  Editors have to live too.

Think about that when you consider the costs of getting a good editor.

One thing I am watching with interest is Dystel and Goderich’s (D&G) foray into ePublishing. See their announcement here, and Victoria Strauss, from Writer Beware‘s thoughts on it here. Read the comments, they’ll give an interesting insight.

In D&G’s model I don’t know what their 15% covers, or whether the author has to still fork out for editing costs. I expect they will. But some agents do fairly comprehensive edits on stories anyway. If you get a good agent who does that already, and if the agent is reputable (as D&G appear to be), you might get away with just the costs of a good copy-editor instead.

As I say, I don’t know their planned model, but it will be interesting to see what happens.

The other traps

It’s not just the cost of editing you have to think about.

Beware of rip-offs. The publishing industry is filled with scams. There are a lot of people out there who say they are editors and will take advantage of you.

You need a reputable editor.

Not only that, you need an editor compatible with your writing. There’s no pointing taking on an editor who loves literary and looks down on genre if you want them to edit your science fiction romance.

Respect your editor

Lastly, one thing that getting you book published through a commercial publishing company does is make you listen to the editor. You have to. There’s a book contract relying on it. You won’t agree with everything the editor says, but you’ll pick your fights.

When you’re self-publishing you don’t need to do that. If an editor makes a recommendation you don’t like you can ignore it. Sometimes you’ll ignore things you shouldn’t.

If you ignore too many recommendations, then it’s one of two things:

  • You’ve chosen the wrong editor for your book, or
  • You’re not ready to accept criticism.

Either way, you have wasted your money.

* Why the internet? A lot of bloggers, in particular, have developed a strong enough platform that they become known as an authority in their field. They then publish eBooks on their topic and sell them from their website and make some reasonable money from it.

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