Monday, September 08, 2008

Hiring an Editor

I’ve been asked to give advice on hiring editors. As many of you know, there are a number of fabulous manuscript editors out there, many of them former editors at major publishing houses. For any of you who have ever done research into editors, you know that it is an incredibly costly venture, but is it worth it and do I have any warnings?

While I have had a few fiction authors use editors, most of the time I do that editing myself (if necessary). However, I have occasionally recommended editors to my nonfiction authors. Now, before everyone gets all riled up and reports me to Ann and Victoria, let me explain that I don’t recommend any one editor or editing service. Instead, I have a list of editors I know and trust and let the author make the decision about whether or not that would be the right path for her. Frequently, when representing nonfiction, you come across an author with an absolutely brilliant idea and incredible credentials, but not the time, ability, or inclination to write the book. In these cases an editor (or ghostwriter) can often be the author’s best bet. The two can work together to create a proposal that will sell.

One of the cautions I have given to authors using editors is that you might need to be prepared to pay that editor not only for helping you with this book but also for helping with your next books. An editor’s job is to polish and perfect your book. In a recent case where a client of mine used an editor to make her proposal shine, and sell at auction, she later talked to her new editor (the one at the publishing house) to ask the editor’s opinion on her raw material and whether or not she should consider continuing with the original editor. In this case the editor at the publishing house felt that they would work well together and the original editor would not be necessary. That’s not always the case though. In many cases, the publishing house editor will expect the entire manuscript to be delivered in the same shape as the proposal was, requiring that the editor continue to be hired.

In fiction things work a little differently. Your career is only as good as your last book, and if your hired editor was able to take your first book to a level that you aren’t sure you can do on your own, it’s very likely you’ll need to consider hiring that editor for each subsequent book. Hopefully not, but it's certainly possible. Now many of you will say that’s a small price to pay for publication, but is it really if it means paying out most of your advance to an editor? Certainly something you’ll probably need to consider.

I think my readers might have better advice on hiring editors than I do. My biggest piece of advice is do your research and make sure that the editor you’re hiring fully understands not only what you are looking for but also what the market might be looking for. And make sure it’s a reputable editor with good experience in the business.

Jessica

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, after a very kind and reputable AAR agent had read revisions of my ms and passed on representing it, in desperation, I asked her for the names of reputable editors, fearing if I chose one on my own I'd end up with a charlatan.

She gave me the name of an editor who had worked with some of her non-fiction writers. Long story short, I worked with the editor for almost a year, starting almost from scratch on the fiction ms the agent had passed on, writing something entirely different. Because I had only writtern non-fiction, mostly technical stuff, I realized after the process how much I didn't know about fiction writing.

Learning how to write is an ongoing process for me and my first ms is now nestled among the dust bunnies. But it was worth every penny working with the editor. Between what she taught me and what I've learned from agents who have taken the time to give me great notes, I'm a much better writer today - hopefully good enough to get published in the near future.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat, spend the money, work with an editor, but only if I were positive the editor was legit and a very good teacher.

Amy Nathan said...

I think the key point in your advice is that an editor helps you perfect and polish your own work. I know some non-fiction authors who work with ghost writers, and that's a bit different.

I think that for someone still working on a manuscript that's not quite ready to go to agents, classes, writing groups, critique partners are the first steps before hiring an editor. It is costly, and I would beware of gettiing a bargain, because you get what you pay for.

Again - if your work is at the its pinnacle - and you can take it no further yourself - an editor is a good idea. Otherwise I think there are more prudent options. I think also that hiring an editor has to be taken with a grain of salt -- no one can promise you your manuscript will sell except the publisher who buys it!

Julie Weathers said...

I thought about hiring an editor for my wip. I understand you only have one chance to make a good first impression with your manuscript so it's worth it to do whatever it takes to make it shine.

However, I'm just finishing Barbara Rogan's Next Level workshop now and I've changed my mind. The students in the class all have different strengths and we decided to stay together after the class is finished. I think this very strong crit group will make an editor unnecessary.

I joined the Compuserve Writer's Forum years ago and they have an excellent novels workshop. You pay for the critiques by critiquing other work.

The value of critiquing other works is you learn about things to look for in your own work by noticing it in others. Plus, you have one person who may be strong on grammar, while another is strong on some other aspect. By the time you get done, you've had several people looking at the work from different angles.

The bad part is, with an open forum like that, you have to learn which critiques to ignore. Some people try to fit you into their mold. You have to maintain your confidence in your voice.

If you can't find a strong crit group it might be worthwhile to hire a good editor. The problem, aside from the money, is many editors don't tell you why to make a change so you don't learn. If you don't understand, you will keep making he same mistakes.

It still boils down to making that good first impression. There is too much competition out there to make costly mistakes.

robb said...

On my first novel MS, after polishing as much as I could and getting lots of great feedback from my writers' group, I started querying. I had several requests for partials/fulls, but never could quite seal the deal.

One agent became very interested, said the writing, characters, plot, etc, was compelling, but felt there were some structural issues and the character arc needed more development. He suggested I work with an editor on revisions and he'd take another look. He provided a long list of reputable agents and said it was up to me if I wanted to choose one of them or someone else or not at all.

I spoke with 6 editors. One wanted me to completely change the book. One wanted only to give me line and copy edits. One requested a full MS, read it, loved it, gave me one page of general notes and his price for a full scale edit. We spoke several times, and it was clear he knew what he was doing and wanted to work with me to bring out the best in my story, not change it.

At $5 per MS page, no, it wasn't cheap. But I got a 25-page detailed report with specific ideas on how to restructure, which scenes he felt could go away, which scenes he felt needed to be strengthened or added and why. I felt like I got a master's level course in novel writing.

I revised the MS and sent it back to the agent. Unfortunately, he left the business right about the same time. Another agent at the same agency gave it a full read, and came back with extremely high compliments and feedback, but passed with the nicest rejection letter ever - 3 pages long (so close, yet so far).

Despite spending the money and still not landing the agent, I have no regrets, and immediately had another full MS request from a top agent.

I don't feel I'll need another editor like this in the future if I'm able to get this book published. I learned so much from the editor and realized the mistake I was making in my original MS.

This might not be for everyone, but in my case, I felt it was a great investment, and am confident it will pay off not just on the MS, but in the future as well.

beckylevine said...

I just had this discussion with some writers at the East of Eden conference. Here's my two cents. I really recommend going through most, if not all, of your own revision process before hiring an editor. I believe a (good) critique group is the best way to do this. The longer you work with your story and the more you think about it (which is what a good group gets you doing), the more you know your story inside and out. Then, when an editor talks to you about what you might need to work on/change, you have a solid context for those recommendations to fall into. I did freelance editing for a long time, and--while I tried to give the writer as much help in one shot as I could (since a lot of writers just have money for one editing pass), it was always tricky not to overwhelm a writer who hadn't gone through enough of the revision/critique process before contacting me.

beckylevine said...

I just had this discussion with some writers at the East of Eden conference. Here's my two cents. I really recommend going through most, if not all, of your own revision process before hiring an editor. I believe a (good) critique group is the best way to do this. The longer you work with your story and the more you think about it (which is what a good group gets you doing), the more you know your story inside and out. Then, when an editor talks to you about what you might need to work on/change, you have a solid context for those recommendations to fall into. I did freelance editing for a long time, and--while I tried to give the writer as much help in one shot as I could (since a lot of writers just have money for one editing pass), it was always tricky not to overwhelm a writer who hadn't gone through enough of the revision/critique process before contacting me.

Anonymous said...

If you don't have an agent or connections to the industry, who do you ask or where do you go to get a list of reputable, good editors? Especially if you live in a flyover state?

T

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Hi, Anonymous 10:16. One good source is the member directory of the Editorial Freelancers Association. You can search the directory by several parameters, including area of specialization and location (if close proximity is important to you).

I've been in publishing for almost 25 years, the last 13 (almost 14) years as a full-time freelance copyeditor, so that is the background from which I say this: You'll want to interview potential editors, by phone or by e-mail, as to experience, working process, cost, and compatibility. Many freelance editors are willing to edit a short sample of your manuscript (2 to 5 manuscript pages, at 250 words per page) at no charge so that you can get an idea, before you hire them, of how they work. Always ask to see a résumé, and ask for references. Ask to see a list of projects they've completed and publishers they've worked with. And when you're ready to hire, iron out all details in advance in writing—by e-mail or by a contract that each of you signs and then faxes to the other.

Anonymous said...

Your advice makes sense on one level, yet I can't help thinking about a fellow on a yahoo! group who paid $3000 and ended up realizing $100 in profits from the book. He went with a vanity press, but from what I have seen, most "writers" can't write their name on the back of a pay check. It seems to me if you can't write, you don't need an editor. You need a new hobby. The thought of most of these jokers dropping thousands on editing services to put lipstick on a pig fills me with dread. I would encourage anyone to hire an editor with great caution. Better yet, keep the money and spend it on smokeless tobacco and shotgun shells.

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Well, Anon, no one here has said that hiring an editor guarantees that a manuscript will be picked up by a huge publishing house. And no professional editor would guarantee such a thing.

Editing does not come cheap, unless it's of poor quality or the editor is vastly underselling his or her skills because of being independently wealthy. No one should expect to hire an editor who will accept the equivalent of Wal-Mart wages. Besides needing to make a living, we have overhead to cover: up-to-date computers and software, the services of an ISP, web site hosting fees, membership dues for professional associations, fees for continuing-education courses, office supplies, reference books or online subscriptions to them, etc.

Julie Weathers said...

"Well, Anon, no one here has said that hiring an editor guarantees that a manuscript will be picked up by a huge publishing house. And no professional editor would guarantee such a thing."

Well said.

Anonymous said...

I'm a multi-published fiction writer with a major NYC publishing house and I hired an editor for my first two books AFTER they were sold. Why? To make them better. I learned so much from this woman about structure and character--it was worth every penny.

After two manuscripts, I felt as if I could hear her voice in my head. I had gotten everything I could out of her. So I felt I didn't need her for the third book.

We're never as good as we could be--there's always something to learn. When I think of all the dubious money I've spent on promo...and when I see all these unpubbed or e-pubbed authors spending big on promo...I'm sure the money for the editor was the biggest help for my career.

If I could find another great editor, I'd do it again.

AJ Macpherson said...

I'd like to add that if you're writing in a genre or sub-genre such as Romance or Urban Fantasy, for instance, to ask if the editor has worked in that area. A friend of mine had an expensive and unsatisfactory experience with an editor who simply didn't understand the conventions of her genre.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that writing has become slanted so much toward people with money. How many great writers are out there who can't afford an editor or a writing class. It is so hard for anyone without money to have a chance. The next thing would be to tell the editor your ideal and pay them to write it. But I guess that already happens.

Anonymous said...

Hi Katherine,

Yes, I agree that editors should be paid for their time. Not much, but they should be paid. My concern was that someone with meager talent and no chance would pay thousands for an editing job on a book that returns maybe a hundred or so. That has in fact happened, which is the reason it disturbs me. It is not a merely theoretical possibility. I still say people who cannot write need a new hobby instead of an editor. Maybe they could get a can of Red Man and practice for a spitting contest.

Leave the writing to the writers.

Julie Weathers said...

"It's a shame that writing has become slanted so much toward people with money. How many great writers are out there who can't afford an editor or a writing class. It is so hard for anyone without money to have a chance. The next thing would be to tell the editor your ideal and pay them to write it. But I guess that already happens."

This is a fallacy. I assume you mean idea, not ideal and I doubt most editors would want your idea.

Books and Writers' Forum

Is completely free. It's populated with published authors, new writers and people who just enjoy the creative process. They have discussions about the craft and workshops as well as exercises. It doesn't cost a nickel to get involved and the help you get is friendly, knowledgeable and invaluable. All you need to do is get involved.

The novels workshop is a critique exchange program.

I decided Barbara Rogan's workshop was right for me at this time, because my novel is nearing completion and I wanted to do everything I could to get it the best possible shape. Barbara is an author, a former agent and editor so she knows the various facets of the business.

Even so, I highly recommend Books and Writers. The discussions are fascinating, educational and best of all, free.

If you want to write, there is help and encouragement.

kelley said...

"It's a shame that writing has become slanted so much toward people with money."

Not true. Writing has nothing to do with money. Go. Write. Have fun.

Publishing, however, is a business and has everything to do with money. You're creating a product which you hire an agent to sell for you to a publisher who will produce it to sell to readers. And to make this happen you need to create a product, via writing, that people will want to buy and people can make money off of. Don't like that? Don't publish. Just write. It's your choice.

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