April 26, 2011

What Self-Publishers Need from Editors: A Discussion in San Francisco

I recently attended a meeting of the Bay Area Editors’ Forum (BAEF) at which members of The Road to Self-Publication: A Working Group—which includes authors and other professionals with an interest in self-publishing—met with BAEF member editors for a discussion on the role of editors in self-publishing.

The forum, held in San Francisco on April 18, was titled Editors and Self-Publishers: A Match Made in Heaven. It was designed as an information exchange that would cover topics such as how self-publishing authors find editors, how authors can determine what editing a manuscript needs, and how prices for editing services are set.

The discussion contrasted the editorial needs of self-publishing authors, including those who may wish to attempt traditional publishing first, with the needs of authors following the traditional publishing route via agents and publishing houses.

For example, agents may wish to put authors in touch with editors to polish manuscripts before sending them to potential publishers, yet these agents have often already vetted the manuscripts in question to ensure they don’t need restructuring. This means that the type of editing these authors need is generally in the realm of copyediting (line editing to proofreading).

On the other hand, the self-publishers’ needs covered everything from manuscript assessment and substantive editing to formatting for multiple print-on-demand and ebook service providers, ranging from Lulu and Smashwords to Amazon.com’s CreateSpace.

The attendees from the self-publishing working group were very interested in quality and in ensuring a high reputation for self-published works. To paraphrase one attendee, they generally wanted an editor to “make my book the best it can be.” However, while some authors had strong feelings about what they wanted from an editor, most expressed difficulty in determining which services would benefit their manuscript. They were emphatically looking for guidance from an editor.

Several self-publishers stressed the desirability of having a single editor who could perform all tasks needed in handling their manuscript from final draft to published book. Yet many editors specialize in only one or a few of the services needed. Hearing the message that jacks-of-all-trades would have a big advantage in this niche, some editors said they would rethink their skills or strategies, and others said they’d look into building networks so they could act increasingly as managing editors, subcontracting tasks like formatting or cover design as needed.

Another frustration, whether the author planned to self-publish or to first attempt the traditional route, was widely different price quotes to edit the same work, even taking into account differences in the services offered. Because editors bid on different bases (for example, by project, word, or hour), the authors reported difficulty comparing quotes. They emphasized that a fixed project price was far preferable to an hourly fee.

Many of the editors attending stressed the importance of communicating expectations, such as extent of editing and project scope. Several strongly recommended seeing the work and returning a sample edit to start a discussion before finalizing a quote or agreement for the work.

Only touched on was the difficulty that authors have locating suitably qualified editors. Complicating their search, those who find their way to sites like the BAEF’s (www.editorsforum.org) are often faced with an array of terms describing editing services (like developmental editing and light copyediting), most of which came across to the working group as being defined on a traditional publishing model.

The discussion with the working group prompted a reassessment of some features of the BAEF website, which is linked to a searchable database of affiliated editors. One proposal was to welcome requests for quotes without a commitment to hiring an editor, and another was to improve searchability in order to identify editors with particular skills (for example, formatting expertise) relevant to self-publishing. 

A few observations with clear relevance for freelance developmental editors particularly struck me:
  • The strong preference authors had for working with a single editor to complete all tasks needed for a publication-ready manuscript
  • The preference authors had for project-based quotes
  • The need for editor websites to be more author friendly

Might any of these observations affect how you work or market your services? Do you currently work with authors who are self-publishing, and in what capacity? What feedback have you gotten from past clients or authors inquiring about your services? I think this is a conversation editors are going to continue to have, both in person and online, and I’m curious what other editors’ experiences have been.

—Marta Tanrikulu


  1. Marta, I'm really glad you posted this summary! What a great opportunity, to hear directly from self-publishing authors what they want and what has been difficult for them about editing.

    One thing I think is particularly different about the editing relationship for self-publishing vs traditional publishing -- and especially in early stages such as manuscript assessment and developmental editing -- has to do with money and decision-making authority.

    I went to a panel on "Editing the Novel" at Norwescon (SF convention) last weekend. The multiply published author on the panel (Shannon Butcher) talked about her publisher's developmental editing as iterative: she'd get a letter with suggestions, follow up, send her mss in again, receive another letter with suggestions, and so forth. The depth of the editorial suggestions and the number of iterations varied depending on her assigned editor and also on the particular manuscript.

    One thing Shannon did not have to think about was how many hours her editor was spending and how much that would cost. But this IS an important decision that self-publishing authors must make.

    According to the discussion summarized in this post, authors who self-publish, (a) want to make their book the best it can be, (b) want guidance from an editor, and (c) want a project rate -- because the number of iterations and the amount of time an editor spends on each review becomes not only a question of how good the book can become, but also a question of budget (how much is the book likely to bring in, how good is good enough, and how much money does the author have available to invest in up-front costs that may or may not be fully recouped).

    Reading your post clarified this issue for me. Authors who seem to be asking "What does my book need [editorially]?" are also asking "How much will it cost?" -- and authors who are self-publishing for the first time (which has been most of my clients) have the potential to be shocked by both answers, because they don't know, actually, what time and investment goes on behind the scenes at a publishing house. And because they personally have to make both the creative and financial decisions at the same time. Even if they want "guidance" from an editor, I can't make those decisions for them.

    Hmm. I'm going to have to think more about this, and about how to talk with potential author clients, to be as clear as I can.

  2. P.S. Marta's summary is ahead of the game, but both the Bay Area Editors Forum and the Northwest Independent Editors Guild have notes from past meetings available online:

    BAEF archives: http://www.editorsforum.org/forum_index.php
    NIEG archives: http://www.edsguild.org/archives.htm

  3. This was a great, thought-provoking post, Marta, and I'm glad of the information you shared from BAEF. Most of us who work with authors doing structural and developmental work on long manuscripts have encountered the issue of what to do when a writer mentions self-publishing. As Kyra said, most writers don't have much of a clue how much it will cost to do a paperback that looks professional and that can be sold without a great loss via a distributor (e-books are making the equation look a little different).

    What I notice is that the skills we need as editors, which are usually literary, and from my perspective, are an extension of my interest in literature and my career as a writer, are really different from the skills needed by a managing editor. I can see that an editor with both skills could be in high demand, but I wonder how it will work in practice.

    I found my own excursion into self-publishing through the Espresso Book Machine last fall really enlightening. It took a lot more time and money than I expected, for one thing! I was helped by friends in the trade, particularly by Marcia Barrentine, a trained book and web designer and friend who did the cover as a PDF that I could give the printer.

    I wonder if, in terms of advising on self-publishing, it might not be to our advantage as developmental editors to forge relationships with trained book designers in particular. The author potentially saves a lot in the long run by working with a professional at least to get a cover and PDFs of the pages, which can then be used either to create a conventional book or an e-book.

  4. I worked as proofreader for a self-publishing author and it was similar to working for someone who hasn't hired an editor or proofreader before, which I've done more of--for corporate communications, for instance.

    The first thing I found is that it's a lot more work—and that means I charge more. I’m sure many self-publishing clients would balk at getting charged a higher rate than publishers, but I think it’s because they have fundamental misunderstandings about the relationship. Publishers hire editors and proofreaders. Self-publishers hire consultants, and they often don’t even realize it.

    When I work with publishers, they provide the structure, the schedule, and often some guidance--at least the good ones do. And this can be quite valuable. It means I have an opportunity to learn from them about production processes and time lines; I have guidelines and clear expectations; I have someone to call with questions. It means I can get right to work—billable work.

    When I work with self-publishers, it’s the reverse. I have to provide the structure; I have to advise on the processes and time lines; I have to set reasonable expectations for both parties and explain them clearly to the client; I have to write up a (usually custom) contract; I have to be available to answer questions after I’ve turned in the work.

    Even as a proofreader, which many consider rather entry level when it comes to editorial work, I find myself taking a consultant role: explaining to the author what to ask the book designer, how to print out pages that can be proofed, what to do with those proofed pages, what steps to take after that, etc. I also end up doing some grammar coaching, explaining proofing marks and style guides, and providing tips and cheat sheets.

    In short, I have to teach the client AND do the editorial work. With publishers, I do the work and I often learn things. In fact, much of what I teach to self-publishing clients I’ve learned from traditional publishers.

    While I can sympathize with authors who want a project rate, I don’t think it’s realistic (unless the fee is huge, which defeats their aim in having a set fee).

    Some clients will need far more instruction and coaching than others, and I’ve yet to meet a self-publishing author (or first-timer hiring an editor in any setting) who didn’t expect that I would be available to answer questions—many, many questions.

    I’m sure that authors going the self-publishing route are frequently bewildered by the whole process, by style sheets, by the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, by how long it all takes. I think we editors can help make these things accessible to them. Client education and all that. I also think clients need to understand that customized training in how to be a publisher or all-in-one custom publishing services is really what they are asking for, and it stands to reason that it won’t be cheap.

    Good thing I can post anonymously since I sound like the Rodney Dangerfield of editing: “Can I get a little respect here?”