Thoughts on Private Book Editing–for potential editors, clients and all writers-in-progess of publishing

Why a private editor?

After doing private editing work for nearly 10 years (and book review work for publication for over 20 years) I strongly feel that most book authors (especially if it’s their first) need writing coaching or a workshop, not manuscript editing. Most novice writers, even once they have completed their manuscript, have never done any rigorous outlining of their book, nor developed coherent character studies nor are they very articulate about what they wish their work to say–even if it’s non-fiction. If the writer lacks clarity in their overall vision, the book may read beautifully sentence to sentence, but it’s still very unlikely that this writer knows how to sustain a readable narrative of 80K words that an agent would want to represent on spec or a publisher would want to buy.

All too often, the novice writer hires a private editor for the wrong reasons. Usually this writer has no perspective on the work, has not done even one revision yet, and they are (understandably) giddy and eager after all that time alone in their garret to receive validation from an editor that they have a bestseller in the making. And they are even happy to invest a lot of money–oddly all too often BEFORE they have the courage to show it to anyone else in their lives–in what they hope will be unqualified praise. Now the editor is set up to be a buzzkill. And once the editor’s report arrives delineating problems with the book, the writer is very likely to become angry with themselves (or the editor) that they spent thousands of dollars on a manuscript that needs fundamental rethinking.

However, If the novice writer learns first (from a book, a coach, a workshop) how to build a better book and is supported along the rewriting process with engaged readers (can be friends, a coach, or workshop) keeping the writer on track along the way, the writer is far more likely to generate a much more original work that is organically built from within, having solved many problems along the way. Retrofitting a work around an outsider’s input after the fact is far more labor-intensive; much like having to redo the foundation of a house after the upper floors are built. While the best editors strive to provide connections and make suggestions that help the writer solve major problems, more often than not, all editors are inevitably offering solutions from the world of clichés–like a lawyer who argues a case based on precedents–which generally does not help the writer create the best work possible.

Given the nature of today’s publishing marketplace, most agents and editors at publishing houses can no longer afford the time to make sure a book is fluent and coherent (which you can sadly tell in most books!). And if you wish to become a career author, your first book has to be good enough and sell well enough to warrant a second contract, so investing in a private editor is increasingly necessary for an ambitious author’s self-education and the longevity of his career.

So the question then becomes when is the best juncture in the creative process for the writer to invest in a private editor?
• The writer honestly wants to refine their work and is ready to hear that the work is not perfect
• The writer is self-publishing and wants to make sure the work will read professionally
• The writer wants to learn and considers this manuscript edit a good investment in private tutoring
• The writer has clarity about their work, has outlined it, and has already done at least one substantial revision on their own and investing in an in-depth, outsider’s assessment is the logical next step before sending it out for agent consideration
• The writer feels that the book is as good as he can make it on his own and he knows it still has problems he doesn’t know how to solve
• The writer is on deadline and his editor as his publisher is giving him no intermediate support (or has said he only wants to read the whole manuscript once) and the writer wants someone to keep them on schedule and creatively thrives in dialogue
* The writer can’t to be in a workshop (because of the time involved reading others’ work, scheduling conflicts, childcare issues)
• The writer doesn’t like workshops (very shy about/dislikes/gets demoralized when sharing his creative work in progress to public scrutiny and wants to present a finished whole for critical evaluation)

Notes for the potential manuscript editing client:
• Have you already done a manuscript edit on your own?
• If you haven’t first sent it to friends for their feedback, why not? If you are too shy to share your art with your friends, right there, you may be learning that you have no audience base for your work. Today, every author should be thinking about cultivating a fan base–even if it’s just your family or old friends to start.
• Be honest with yourself about why you are hiring an editor: is it just to get praise, or do you genuinely feel this is a necessary step for preparing your work for agent consideration?
• Have you heard other good recommendations from others about this editor? Has this editor been involved with projects you respect?
• If you have no prior relationship with the editor, audition the relationship with a consultation and/or consider a mini-paid trial of, say, 25 pages (the synopsis and first 25-odd pages or so?) to see if the editor “gets” the project and will deliver feedback you can use.
• Remember you must write the book you want to write and work only with an editor whom you trust wants to help you write YOUR book, not use you as a channel for their own thwarted creative impulses. Personally, I think it’s a good idea to hire an editor that’s worked on a variety of books, which means they are good at channeling the AUTHOR’s agenda, not their own. While some editors are indisputably brilliant specialists, more often than not, the editor with limited interests can be like a one-note interior designer where all the projects look the same.
• If your editor makes suggestions you don’t like, DON’T DO THEM. It doesn’t matter if the editor has a great reputation; it doesn’t matter if he was the brain behind other bestsellers. It’s your name on the spine and it’s your work that’s auditioning for these agents and publishers. Also, the private editor is not the buyer. So you should apply ONLY the editorial suggestions that you feel make a better book; never do them “because my editor told me to.” If you rewrite your work trusting your editor’s opinions over you own, you run the risk of having a manuscript that you don’t like–and one that still may not sell. It’s hard enough to seduce an agent and then a publisher, so at the very least go to market with material you can stand by with conviction as you probably will be facing some rejection in selling process. And if you don’t believe in the work you’re submitting, every rejection will trigger tons of insecurity and make you feel you have to rewrite again.
• Get the most out of your editor by sharing with them up front what you believe the problems are in the work, don’t just drop off the manuscript, withholding any commentary as a test to see if you can get away with not addressing certain problems. The editor is there to work WITH you to address all your concerns, they are not your bookstore naked-eye reader hoping to be entertained–so you don’t have to worry about spoiling their experience by addressing flaws or by telling them the ending up front.
• Pay the editor in phases to incentivize them to finish in a timely manner–typically half on drop-off, half upon completion. It’s standard to take 2-4 weeks to review a manuscript, which I think is a good idea–the editor can read the work and give it space in their own minds to let their thoughts percolate rather than respond too quickly.
• Once you send out the book to an editor, DO NOT work further on it. Give your brain a break. Also, if you continue to work on it, you will then no longer be on the same page with the editor’s feedback which is frustrating for everyone.
As for editing rates:
I think the link Anastasia Ashman sent
is a good departure point, but at those rates–you would be charging more than most private writers can afford–especially if they didn’t receive a large advance. For what they call “developmental editing,” (which is what I believe most writers want/need) so for an 80K word book (320 manuscript pages), if the editor went at was 5 pages per hour @ $80 per hour, you would end up with at least $5,120 tab.
If you scroll down, you can see how I calculated my editing fees (which reflect an hourly rate that is reduced for the large job)–and you can see I scale them to different manuscript lengths (all listed on my website on the SERVICES page).
The rates I came up with are considered very reasonable by the various editors and agents I talked to before setting those rates 5 years ago. However, for many authors these rates are still too high, so this is yet another reason why I recommend a workshop or coaching which can be provided far more cheaply. Bottom line: I recommend negotiating with your client for a package rate (again, another good reason to have a test-drive of 25-odd pages for both of you) that won’t make you feel exploited–and that won’t break their bank.

Here’s how I generated my fees:
–when reading critically and for retention, I read btw 15-25 manuscript pages an hour
–as is standard, I read the work at least 3 times:
• once through to learn the story, and any line-edit level comments
• second time to edit for pacing and considering each part in context of the whole
• the third time, I’m re-reading the work as I write a report covering overall comments and line-edit comments
(the report can be both comments on the page and/or referenced to the page using MSWord editing software, as the client prefers–in any case it can be 50 pages of comments or more, depending on the state that the manuscript was submitted in)
–finally, I include time to talk/meet with the writer to go over my comments  (usually at least 2 hour session)

Of course anyone can contact me if they wish to discuss a personalized package.

Posted in Book Biz, Writing, Writing Education.

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