The following is based on my response to questions I received from a potential client who had just finished writing her first manuscript and had a lot of questions about the editing process, as well as design, printing, and types of publishing. If you’re a first-timer, I hope you’ll find this overview helpful.
Thank you for your email asking me about the process for a writer hoping to self-publish (or possibly traditionally publish) a first manuscript.
Regarding a sample edit: the sample will provide an opportunity for the editor to suggest some aspects of editing your manuscript requires. Some authors already have specific ideas about what they want from an editor. For example, some want just overall comments, others simply want a proofread, while others want a line by line edit of everything the editor notices. Some writers have other guidance for the editor, such as explaining to the editor why a certain kind of dialect is being used. But even if a writer thinks they know what is needed, an editor can objectively pick up on things the author has missed. If there is anything, in particular, you want your editor to watch for, you should certainly explain that. But be prepared to discuss other editing options as well. You may even find that the editor you prefer does only certain aspects of editing and will recommend another editor for other aspects.
Can the editor do the book design as well? While there are a few editors who also do design, it is usually best to find a design specialist. After the work is edited, you will want to have someone with expertise in book design help you out with the layout of the book (the size of the pages, the width of margins, suitable fonts for titles, layout of the table of contents and other special parts of the book, illustrations, the back and front cover and spine design, etc.). Some book designers work with specific printers, others with small publishing companies, while still others will work with you independently to develop and set up a design you are happy with, and then you can choose a printer yourself.
If you prefer a “package deal,” you can of course work with a company like Amazon or Kobo, Createspace or Ingramspark, or a company that advertises self-publishing services. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to research them very carefully, so you understand exactly what they offer. Check reviews carefully, talk to people who have used them, and compare them carefully with other similar companies. Each company has its own requirements which are listed on its website, along with the rates, the packages they offer, etc.
Beware of deals that seem to be too good to be true–they probably are. Often after you pay the initial rate, you’ll find there are many “extras” you have to pay for; also realize that promises of wonderful marketing support usually don’t pan out. You would do well to really find out exactly how they intend to do that. I know that quite a lot of authors have been very disappointed to find the so-called marketing is very meager, and that if they are just posting your book on Amazon and/or similar companies, the book often seems to almost disappear into the sea of books these online bookstores sell. And generally, self-publishing companies do not have distribution deals with brick and mortar bookstores.
One good thing about using a self-publishing company is that there is coordination between all the steps, which can be helpful if you are nervous about being your own contractor. It is also wise to use a company in your own country, as you can otherwise run into problems with taxes and other issues.
What if I decide to try for traditional publishing instead? This is a whole other process than the self-publishing route, but one which some authors really prefer. It does usually take longer to get your book in print (generally up to two years after your book is accepted), and before that, you will likely end up sending out many queries, and probably get a lot of rejection slips, but that is part of the process. However, if you are interested in going that route, and since this is your first book, I’d suggest looking at smaller publishing companies that specialize in the type of book you are writing. Some writers think that an advantage of traditional publishing is that it won’t cost anything, as the traditional publisher will pay for everything. Well–in order to just get accepted by a traditional publisher (and/or a literary agent), you’ll still almost certainly need to have your manuscript well edited first, just to have it considered. Then you have to take the time and energy required to find that traditional publisher–and be very careful because there are a lot of companies that try to make you think they are a traditional publisher, but will then want to charge you. They are NOT true traditional publishers. Also, most traditional publishers now expect writers to do the vast majority of their own marketing, and many of them no longer provide advances; and remember, you won’t start getting paid until enough copies of your book have been sold to cover the company’s costs. Even after that, the percentage you receive is lower than you might get as in independent self-publisher.
What kind of marketing will I be expected to do? Will my editor or designer or self-publishing company help with that? You really need to be aware that in order to successfully market your book, YOU will be doing a lot of the work yourself – starting now, before your book is even in production, and carrying on until you have sold as many copies of you want to sell. This is true even with traditional publishers; in fact, many of them will not even look at your manuscript unless you already have started building a following. You should consider marketing online (with your own author’s website and/or blog; on social media sites like FaceBook, LinkedIn, etc.; by joining online writing groups as well as local face-to-face groups; by commenting on the sites of writers who have written similar books to what you are writing; and so on), as well as marketing in traditional ways (selling your books at fairs or at bookstores who will give you table space or even help you have a book launch (usually these will be local bookstores–generally indies); getting your book – and yourself – reviewed in local newspapers and magazines, and in periodicals like BC Bookworld; having active memberships in clubs or groups related to the topic of your book; sending out press-releases; holding wine and cheese events where you do a reading with groups of people who you think might be interested in your book; offering to go into school classrooms to share the book-writing experience with students; and much more). And note: you’ll almost certainly have to pay for this yourself; even traditional publishers today provide little or no funding for such marketing efforts.
What should I expect to pay for editing? Editing fees can vary quite widely and can be calculated in different ways such as “by the hour,” “per word,” or a flat contract rate. It also depends where your editor is located, your editor’s experience and qualifications, how much work your manuscript needs, what kind of manuscript you have (the more “technical” aspects, the more you can expect to pay), how many edit drafts it requires, and so on. Like many other editors, I have a minimum hourly fee, which may increase depending on what is required for the edit. I ask for a representative sample of 7 to 10 pages. I do a “full edit” of the sample, and then make an estimate (with both low-end and high-end estimated rates), based on the time it took to do the sample, what I have discovered the manuscript requires, and the length of the full manuscript. If I feel I cannot do what is required, or if another editor can do a better job, I will tell you. I encourage authors to look over my sample editing. The authors can then decide if they approve of my work, and if they want a “full edit” or if they feel they would like to first self-edit parts of it themselves, and only have me do certain aspects. Sometimes, for example, a writer might consistently be making 3 or 4 grammatical/punctuation type errors, or there may a plot hole or poor characterization, and once this is pointed out, the writer understands the problem and goes through the manuscript and fixes those problems. Then I as editor do not have to be marking all those errors, and so my process will go faster.
What about a contract? Once these aspects have been agreed upon, I will draw up a contract with the author, and the author has the right to agree or disagree with aspects of the contract before it is signed and the actual editing starts. It includes the right for the author (or editor) to pull out if major disagreements occur (though of course the editing done that far must be paid for), as well as information on agreed-upon rates, starting and finishing times, type of editing to be done, and so on. I also highly recommend that you have a written contract with the designer – and anyone else involved in the process as well — with everything laid out, so both of you know exactly what is expected, and don’t end up with surprises/disappointments. Book publishing, in my experience, is like renovating a house – estimate your costs and time needed, and then add at least 30% to your estimate on both counts! You may well end up with the original estimates, but won’t be devastated if things go a bit awry.
What happens once the editing starts? Then I will go ahead and do the editing. I prefer to keep in close contact with the writer, sending the edited work after each chapter or two, for the author to check over before I carry on. That way, both editor and author can stay in close contact and agreement as the process continues. After a first full edit, I encourage writers to do a thorough self-edit based on my advice and then have beta-readers critique the manuscript. After the beta-reads, do another self-edit taking their advice into consideration, before I as editor do another read-through to capture remaining issues. In some cases, this can be done quickly and for low cost; in other cases, more in-depth editing will be required, possibly with multiple drafts, but I always try to indicate that ahead of time if I see serious writing issues.
I also always advise the author to have a final proof-read done by a good proof-reader, after the designer’s work has been done, and before the book goes to the printer. During the design process, sometimes some odd little things happen in the typography. Some writers like to have a “fresh set of eyes” do one or both of these after-editing read-throughs/proof-reads.
What if I decide to make changes partway through? One author I worked with decided partway through to add a lot of dialogue to liven up the story, which meant basically rewriting and re-editing the entire part that had already been edited, as well as editing the rest in the same way. Another client decided, after the edit was completed, to change the point of view and this resulted in major changes for the entire manuscript. Both cases turned out to be good decisions which really did improve their books, but I was very honest with them about the extra costs that would be involved. Most contracts indicate that the original estimates will not be followed if the writer makes these kinds of decisions during the process. It is likely the editor will require a new contract if you make these kinds of decisions, or may even decide to withdraw from the editing process. Another thing that sometimes happens is that a potential client will submit a well-written sample chapter, and then the rest of the manuscript is poorly written, but the client expects the sample estimate to stand. This is not at all fair to the editor, and in fact, some editors will not start an edit, even after the sample, until they have been able to read through the entire manuscript (for which, of course, the editor will expect to be paid). In the end, this is actually a good thing, as the editor can then give the writer a really accurate estimate of the editing needed, how much self-editing the writer will have to do along the way, how many drafts may be needed, and any really major issues with the writing.
How quickly can you edit my book? How well do you want it edited? A rush job generally results in a less-than-stellar result. If you’ve already spent months or even years writing your manuscript, allowing a reasonable amount of time for the editing job will help to ensure that you end up with a great product. This is something a writer should plan for well ahead of time. And remember, you’ll need to also allow a reasonable amount of time for design work and printing. It often takes a traditional publishing company an average of 2 years to prepare a book for publishing, so when working with freelance editors and designers, or even with a quality self-publishing company, you should be realistic in your expectations of timing. Your sample edit will help the editor give you a reasonable time frame. But you should still allow some extra time in case of emergencies or unforeseen circumstances. Also, quality editors and designers usually have a good number of clients and may not be able to get to your manuscript immediately. Like most people, they have their working hours, and you can’t expect them to just drop everything and work late nights and weekends. Some editors will do a rush job but will charge overtime rates, usually between 35 to 50% more than the usual rate. Others simply will not do rush jobs.
I hope the information I have provided will give you a sense of what to expect. I do not wish to be a “grinch” or “bearer of bad news” but I feel it is best to be forewarned, so you can go into the process knowledgeably. I certainly encourage and congratulate you on this new adventure, and wish you the best.
Do send me your sample, and I will do it as described, then give you my estimate, and if you are happy with it, we can go on from there – or if you decide to take a different approach, that is fine, too. But of course, I do hope we can, as you said, “find grounds to work together.”