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Time to Get Real About Publishing. When Do You Need an Editor? How to Choose the Right One.

Updated: Feb 12

And how to get the best from them.

Many misconceptions exist regarding the role of editors in the publishing process – particularly their duties, various functions, and the advantages and value their expertise can offer a book. Most writers don't understand how many types of editors are involved in producing a novel, let alone what each of their roles plays. Even less understood is the importance of editorial support for self-publishing authors. To comprehend all this, it's helpful to have a basic knowledge of how different models of publishing work. I've already blogged about vanity presses, so I won't repeat that here. Today, I want to look at the two models of self-publishing vs traditional publishing, why it matters, how your chosen path to publication might shape your long-term goals, and how those choices inform you of who, what and when you need to search for outside help.

Traditional publishing: what is it, how does it work and what are the benefits or disadvantages?

What is it?

This is where you write your book, find an agent to represent it, and sell the MS to a publisher. The publisher prints your book, organises its launch and publicity. It also organises its distribution through bookshops, supermarkets and libraries. If your book is successful in your home market, they might also finance translated copies internationally.

How does it work?

An agent will negotiate your publishing contract. They will take a percentage of your advance and either a fee or a percentage of any other contracts, such as film rights and translated copies. Once you have sold your MS to a publisher and contracts have been signed, you will receive an advance. Advances vary from not much to megabucks. Megabucks advances are rare for new authors and have dwindled in the last few decades. Once your book is out on sale, it needs to 'earn out'. This means the sales of the book must cover the costs of producing it. This includes your advance, and any costs incurred: editing fees, printing, marketing, distribution, etc. So, your advance will reflect how well the publisher speculates your book will sell.

Once the book has 'earned out', you will then receive royalties for every copy sold thereafter. That is a percentage of the profits that you will also share with the publisher.

What are the benefits and disadvantages?

There have been great strides in self– publishing and many decent authors use that model. Still, it remains a fact that there are no kudos points as great in the world of writing as having your work published through a bone fide publisher. Especially if it's one of the big five.

Aside from credentials, publishers generally do the following: foot the bills – cover design, illustrations (where applicable), editing (#developmental (story development)), #copyediting (checking facts, house style, grammar/syntax, etc.), #proofreading (last check for typos and misplaced commas, ready for type facing etc., before going to the printer. Could be required more than once)); printing, marketing, distribution; organise PR – interviews on radio and TV, write press releases, organise launch events; get your book stocked in physical shops. Most bookshops work on a no–sale returns policy, which means publishers suck up the costs of unsold copies; finance and negotiate international sales and distribution of translated copies. They have a well-established global network; in some instances, have your book nominated for big awards only accessible to trad-published authors. One last area they will help with – something you’ll have to take care of yourself if you go Indy – is any legal minefields. Publishers should flag any potential problems such as trademark or copyright infringement, defamation risks, etc. They will advise you on what to do about them and/or purchase necessary permissions, etc.

All this sounds great, right? Yah. But there are downsides. An agent may be excited about your book, but the publisher chooses another book at auction. Maybe the agent will try elsewhere, but if the MS has already done the rounds and been passed over at auction, there might not be any takers; your book might flop, and you might be dropped from their list; you could be tied into a contract for several years, but the publisher might not want to publish your next book. Or, they might drop the series you thought you were contracted to write and ask for something else. If they hold the rights for those future works for a long period, you might find your babies in limbo and it’s not possible to get them published elsewhere; If you are unable to deliver your book in time, or not at all, they might ask you to return the advance, or in part; you do not have control over your work. The publishing house will choose your book cover and illustrator (if needed), plus the marketing strategy. Unless you are a professional designer or illustrator, don't expect to use your own; Being contractually tied to producing books at the pace suited to the publisher might affect your creative process. Look at the many bands whose albums dwindled in quality once they became famous. It's likely they produced sub-par work because they were pressured to meet deadlines, rather than allow creativity to take hold in its own good time under more relaxed conditions. Can you work with deadlines? Or do you prefer to write when you feel like it? One last thing to consider is this: notice how many novels of authors from decades ago are counted as classics now. Many of them have become huge franchises with TV and film deals. My point is, your success might come when you are eighty. Or maybe posthumously. Your kids and grandkids might reap the benefits of your labours and not you in your lifetime. As it stands at the moment, also notice how these are all trad-published novelists. Admittedly, self-publishing wasn’t a serious option back then, and maybe things will change in the future. Currently, those franchises and reprints are coming from the trad publishing arena, not KDP or Ingram Spark print-on-demand (POD). By publishing with the traditional crew, your work and potential legacy is in their archives, ready to be revitalised, relaunched and repackaged for future audiences. Who will carry it on when you’re gone if you self-publish?

**Publishers vary – size, budgets, staff, styles – and times change, so you'll not find the above fits with all trad publishing models exactly. Also, there's still some marketing you'll have to do yourself, like turn up to festivals and bookshop events, and some social media content, etc.

Ok, so let's now compare self-publishing. It's time to get real about it.

Self-publishing: getting real with it

What is it?

Again, I covered vanity presses elsewhere, and we are NOT referring to that model in this article. Self–publishing can also take many forms but, in general terms, this is where the author writes their book while also accomplishing all that a traditional publisher does. And this is where it's time to get real about it before we go any further.

Reality Check #1

Self–publishing means you are entering into a business, into entrepreneurship. Writers often view themselves only as thinkers and artists with something important to say (partly true!) The perception of business undermines creativity. That can be a valid viewpoint – the money side can take over. But once you enter into making a book a commercial enterprise (even with trad pubbing, too) – i.e. selling your art – you are starting your own business. That means a level of professionalism and planning – another thing to get real about. With traditional publishing you hand over the majority of the business side to other people. When going Indy, you have to deal with it yourself.

First thing you need to understand about launching a business is the budget. How will you finance your venture? How much will you need? With KDP and others offering easy-to-access POD, it appears on the surface that self-publishing is very cheap. Or even free in the instance of electronic books. This is a misconception if you want to be taken seriously as an author. Even if your editing or design skills are pretty good, if it takes you twice as long to edit the MS or design a cover than it does for a pro to do it, then it's costing you more for a less-than-professional outcome. You could be out earning money or fundraising in other ways to finance the services you need to self-publish your book to a professional standard. See this video clip on the psychology of opportunity costs.

Effectively, once you self-publish, you take on the role of not just author but publisher, too. Which includes marketing. Do you have a spare five or ten grand you can afford to risk if your book flops? I thought not. Of course, there will be outliers who didn't abide by all this – 50 Shades of Grey, for example – but they are outliers. The average self-pubbed book doesn't fare well. Changes in social media algorithms in accordance with advertising revenue don’t help, making it even harder than it once was to reach your target audience and go viral. Ok, so we've established the idea of running a business. What else can we expect when self–publishing?

Reality Check #2

In this model, the author wears all the hats, unless they delegate to other people whom they pay. This means having to write the book, then being responsible for everything else: book cover; editing (refer to trad pub model for the main types of editing); typesetting and printing (if applicable); distribution (delivery of physical books and downloadable versions online); retail (online sales portals, bookshops, libraries); marketing & PR (SM, blog tours, book signings, organising appearances at literary festivals, getting reviews and interviews, finding and connecting with your target readers).

Through which mediums you decide to self-publish dictates how much money you make in 'royalties'. These aren't technically royalties. This is a payment split between you and the retailer, be that Amazon, Google books, or whatever. Amazon KDP pays up to 70%, which is a higher rate than with the traditional publishing model.

Sounds great, right? Again, there are upsides and downsides.

What are the benefits and disadvantages?

Some authors do very well from self-publishing and make thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands. But in order to do so, there is the pressure to produce books at speed to keep your audience happy and hooked. The difference here from trad publishing is that you decide your own deadlines for your next book, and whether you want to cave to the pressure of your audience. The other thing about the money side is that it has its limits. You might make 40k on your book through Amazon in the short-term, let's say, because the 'royalties' appear higher than trad publishers. Yet, had you published with the traditional gang, a book with that number of sales would likely get further investment in it for translations and international sales across the globe. This could result in millions of copies sold instead of a few thousand. Okay, the royalties might seem lower per unit payment initially, but in the long run, that could work out to earn you far more than a smaller circulation self-published novel.

Reality Check #3

As a self-publisher without that kind of global network, your book isn't likely to enter that sphere. Same as getting your book into supermarkets, which is apparently one of the largest sales outlets. Supermarkets are not going to negotiate with a lone author. They negotiate shelf space for multiple stores across the nation with the big publishers. And bookshops? You might have more luck with your local bookshop, but, again, not nationwide. Also, if your books don't sell, each shop will want to return those copies to you at your expense, which is the arrangement they have with publishers.

So what about libraries? Libraries are a great place to have your book, if you can get them in there. They will pay you to stock it. And good money. There's a lot of legwork, though. You'll need to cold call each library, speak to the correct person who makes the decisions AND convince them your book is worth it. Have you ever done telesales before? I have, years ago, and it takes a certain skill to close the deal, which many people do not grasp without proper sales training. Aside from that, your phone bill might not make it worth your while. Plus, you have to get the copies to each library.

And the same goes for PR. Interviews on BBC radio 4 (or wherever) are unlikely for a self-published author. Appearances in prestigious conferences are unlikely. That might not be important to you, but you should be aware of the potential possibilities for your writing career and its limitations. Agents and publishers already have a well-established network for covering all these areas. As a self-publisher, you have no network, and you have to create one yourself.

UPDATE: With the rise of content creators on platforms such as YouTube, there are a lot of independent media channels becoming established, some of them working with ever-increasing budgets. These outlets might work well for indy authors, so it's worth researching any indy podcasters who review books and interview authors in the same way legacy media does. Still, it means networking. What will your approach be? Most self-publishing authors (or just authors) do not understand most of this. They don't understand sales, marketing, and general business practice. And why should they? They just wanted to write a book and have people read it. Like any creative industry, we don’t focus on the process, only the results. We don't pay much mind to what happens in the background when driving a project to success and running the money side of things. But self-publishers without a mid-to-long-term plan, without a team and without a Scooby (Doo = clue. UK rhyming slang) about the aforementioned tend to have books that flop.

Sounds pretty exhausting, doesn't it? When will you get time to write your next book? There's no getting away from the fact that, if you want your book to succeed, you're going to have to outsource some areas and come up with a plan. Think of it a bit like the A–Team, Hannibal!

Reality Check #4

There are some essential services you need to cost out. The two most important would be your book cover and your editing. Marketing could go in there, too, but of all the areas where you might be able to save some cash, this is one if you learn how to do it yourself, effectively.

The beauty of true self-publishing is that you get to choose your own team from a vast pool of freelancers. Each member is a cog in a larger machine. That means if one of them messes up, you can easily dispense with them and find another cog. Unlike when you sign a contract with a vanity press where you are beholden to them under contract for all the services while your book is held hostage.

Let's look at the main areas you'll want to centre your team around.

A cover designer. Don't scrimp if you don't know what you're doing. Your cover is your first sales tool and will do more for you than talking up your book. If it looks crap, it won't sell. Get it right! If you really must do it yourself, at least research how before you post your best efforts on Facebook, only to be crucified for doing it poorly. This includes getting your logline right, though you'll have to come up with that yourself, not your cover designer. They deal with graphics and fonts, not content. For examples, go to my homepage and read the loglines on the covers of my own stories..

Terrible DIY book covers

A developmental/structural editor to help ensure the story works as best it can. This will be big picture stuff – execution, pacing, plot twists, dramatic effects, character development, world building, etc. They might offer line editing, too, depending where you're at with the MS and what you have asked them to do, and maybe help with your cover blurb, logline, etc. Every editor is different and offers different skills.

A copyeditor. Checks grammar, style consistency, fact-checking, etc., They might offer formatting your work for POD and e-books as part of their service, but don’t count on it.

A proofreader. Fresh eyes on the MS to check for typos and silly errors. You don't want someone who is too familiar with the text to be your proofreader. They might also offer formatting services, depending.

A marketing/PR/sales person (if you do not have the savvy yourself). Someone who knows how to access your target audience, will make all the cold calls and emails to get you and your book in front of readers; will deal with SM; might be able to help with cover blurb – depends if they understand book marketing or not.

Now, I realise this sounds overwhelming, and depending on your own skills and how much spare time you have can affect how much you will lean on each service. For instance, can you cold-call bookshops and libraries and persuade them to stock your book? If not, find someone who can. Can you learn how to format an MS for an e-book, to save costs? Then do it. Can't afford all three levels of editing? Take a copyediting and proofreading course online and do those two jobs yourself (though, I'd still recommend getting a separate proofreader to pick up on what you might have missed). Spend out on a Prowritingaid license to cut down on costs in the long-term. If you're worried about budget, work out how much you can afford to spend from your salary each month and either pay-as-you-go, or start saving that amount now.

What you cannot learn in enough efficiency to make it worthwhile is developmental editing. That takes training, and/or years of experience. If you haven't been investing in learning your craft, studying it in some way, then you won't learn the editing skills you need to complete your book. When a reader reads a book, they are not thinking about how well it's edited. They assume that how they read it is how the writer originally wrote it and identify the end result entirely with the author. In reality, most drafts going from the author to the editors need work. They need alterations. They need strengthening in some areas and some areas need omitting or rewriting completely. That's just the way it is to get the best out of the story. You’d be hard pushed to find any global artists made it on their own efforts alone. Script writers work in teams. Musicians and producers work in teams. Film directors work in teams. The artist may be the raw talent at the centre, but to become a household name, they collaborate with other people. With a strong crew behind them to push their vision into a wider public sphere, it also produces a higher calibre result.

It's no different with books. Novels coming from trad publishing will have had a team of editors on them with suggestions and every effort made so they read cleanly and beautifully. There are exceptions to this, for varied reasons, but most books on my shelf from big publishers are beautifully put together. And that's because they have had a team of professional people working on it. At least three editors, usually, though up to five is also the norm. And because each editor has been trained or has experience in specific types of editing. The developmental editor will have a deep knowledge on storytelling and effective prose. The copy editor will be trained with an eagle eye for inconsitencies, grammar, style, and have a substantial general knowledge to enable them to flag potential factual errors or legalitites for the commissioning or lead editor to duble check and take back to the author, if necessary. The proofreader focuses on typos, punctuation, and anything the copy editor might have overlooked. In other words, there is a high standard that naturally derives from collaborating with other skillsets, and because the industry demands it.

With self-publishing, the gold standard lies soley with the you, the author, and each author might not have or understand the same level of quality than another. You won't have a commissioning editor pushing you to do better (and I mean that in a positive way - I'm not trying to suggest any kind of bullying culture). No one to nurture your talents into the appropriate level of career writing you might aspire towards.

Needless to say, editing is going to be your biggest outlay. For self-publishing, you need at least two rounds of edits. Unless you are super rich with money to burn, that's probably the most an average writer (who is in full-time employment) is going to afford or fairly justify. Developmental/structural edits for the major aspects, and copyediting or proofreading for the grammar and final draft.

I try and be truthful in my blog, even if it means telling people things they don't want to hear. Forewarned is forearmed, after all. The outlay is enormous to produce a decent book. The less money spent on it, the poorer the quality. The poorer the quality, the less likely it will sell. Vanity presses typically cost around 3–4k for their services. Customers often criticise the quality of not just the final version of the book, but of their marketing efforts, too. (There’s also those poor souls who do not recognise a poorly edited book and proudly tout their novel everywhere they go.) That's because 3–4k is an unrealistic amount of money to deliver all those services to the standard their customers expect. (And that their business model isn’t set up to provide the kind of marketing and editing one would expect.) You can spend the same amount – sometimes less – on a decent freelance editor that you have already tried and tested out who will do a better job. So, don't scrimp on the editing or book cover. They are so important.

And have a long-term plan.

Even if you spend out on making it as good as you can, your first book might not make big bucks. That's the market. It's a risk. It's a risk publishers take daily with no guarantees of success.

Ideally, the more books you write and publish, the snowball effect will kick in and the cumulative sales of all your books should eat up the costs of producing them. It's a long game. It's a long-term investment. On the bright side, the more books you write and have an editor work on, the more you will learn about editing itself, which could eventually reduce the costs.

But there's still the risk that even ten books might end up consigned to oblivion, with only five readers for each one on the reviews chart. Your story might not fit in with the current zeitgeist. It might contain subtexts and interpretations that you never intended and that don't resonate with people. And if you have relied solely on yourself to produce the book and haven't sought external feedback from someone who knows how to constructively deliver the truth, advise and support you to revisit the work, you might never realise it until it's too late. It might be an okay story, but under-ambitious in scope. It might be a stale concept that's been done already. That’s another big reason you need a good editor to go over it for you. They'll be able to give you a bigger picture view of your MS and its intended market. Maybe even push you to reach higher or explore avenues you hadn't previously considered that will make the book stand out in a crowd.

Both options can end up with huge success or dismal failure. Either way is a risk. It's for you to decide if that's an investment you want to make. How committed are you to yourself, maximising your self-publishing career and making your dream become a reality? Do you have what it takes to drive your product through to market?

If not, what do you need to learn or earn in order to do so?

Until then, friends.

In the meantime, tell me: how do you view your publishing path now? Do you have any experiences to share?

If you are in need of developmental, structural or line editing and would like to know more about what I can offer, please do get in touch! All initial consultations are free to help you decide your best foot forward.

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