Yes, you need an editor for your book, and here’s what you should know

You’ve finished your book and you’ve done as much as you can on your own. Now, you need to know how to hire an editor to give it a “once over.”

At least, that’s what you think an editor does.

Here’s what they really do: A good editor is the difference between a book that sings and a book that falls flat. Solid editing is the difference between a mess of ideas on the page and a united theme and supporting points that illustrate your experience, methodology, and overall brilliance. A good editor can find the holes in your thesis, make sure your book flows in a way that reaches your unique audience, and call out the best in you.

It’s not all typos, grammar, and syntax, is it then?

But what to do? A first-time author has likely never had to hire an editor, and perhaps they’ve never hired anyone at all. How do you know what to look for, who does the best work, and the crucial question: what to pay?

Don’t fear, my dear. Let’s begin with the most burning question.

Do I really need an editor?

It’s not uncommon for a first-time author to wonder if they need an editor at all. Without having worked with one, it’s difficult to see the point. With a good read-through and a few proofreaders, who needs it, amIright?

You wouldn’t be the only one to think that, but you’d be wrong. Even professional writers need an editor to reflect the quality of their work back to them.

Most books need a structural, line, and copy edit. What’s the difference between the stages of editing? As my friend and fellow editor James Ranson likes to say, structural editing is about what you’re saying, line editing is about how you’re saying it, and copy editing is about the clarity with which you’re saying it.

  • Structural editing: A good structural edit will involve evaluating the flow of the book, the organization, the development of the message. This is where any holes in content are identified, or any over-explanation (first time authors tend to over explain some areas and gloss over others).
  • Line editing: A good line editor can tighten your sentences and help you find the right way to say what you want to say. This is not typos and grammar… this is about word economy, about finding the best way to deliver your message.
  • Copy editing: This is about typos and grammar and whether to follow the rules… or break them, if it serves your message.
  • Proofreading: This is the final stage, where your proofreader is just looking for oversights that were missed during the first three stages. You can hire professional proofreaders (and there are benefits to that approach), or you can select a few beta readers to do this for you. If you’re going to go this route, select people who are either members of the ideal audience for your book or professional writers or editors. Asking your friends to read it has a lot of downfalls, so avoid this unless you have reason to believe that they will be a good proofreader and provide useful (that’s the keyword) feedback.

Most editors will specialize in one and incorporate another (such as structural with line editing).  It’s not unusual for a freelance editor to serve many functions, but understand they will have limits to the number of times they can read a document before they get normalized to the writing and fail to see any typos or errors. If you find a structural editor you like, you can ask whether they also do line edits or if they have a partnership with someone who does.

Editors range wildly in expertise. Some are cut and dried, no bones about it, reading and feedback only. Others serve as publishing partners, helping you understand the entirety of the book process from the seed of the idea all the way to the marketing and launch of the book. Some have great connections and can introduce you to the other partners you will need – the cover designer, the layout designer, the marketer, etc.

You’re going to have to evaluate what you need for yourself. If you’ve chosen to publish your book through a provider like Idea Press or BookPress publishing, both of which are services that help authors through multiple stages of the process, you might not need much help – you’re paying them to provide those partnerships for you. If you have no idea what you’re doing and are truly going it alone (as in, you have no team to support you, and no one in your immediate circle of friends has published a book before), you’ll probably want an editor that can help at the very least provide you with guidance.

When should I hire an editor?

Yesterday. Kidding!

But in all seriousness, getting your structural editor on board early can help you avoid lost time on the back end. There are those of us out there who also help create the book from the beginning, consulting with the author on the outline and the content. A structural editor can review your table of contents, outline, or general flow and help you develop your ideas so you get them down clearly from the beginning, rather than having to go back and write additional pieces after the first round of edits. This saves you time in the end.

If you’ve finished your book or are close to doing so, get started right away. A good editor may not have availability at the time you’re reaching out to them. Many have waiting lists, or at the very least need to conclude another project before they can take on yours. If you can start reaching out to editors before you finish the book, it will be more likely that you can hand it off to someone to begin the editing process as soon as you’re finished.

How do I find a good editor?

First and foremost, if you have friends who have published a book before, start there. Ask them about their process, how they published the book, and who they worked with in their publishing process. You’ll find out a lot about what they liked, didn’t like, and what they would never do again. And hopefully, they can give you the name of a fabulous editor (or tell you who to avoid).  

If this fails, check out some of your favorite or most well-known self-published books. Very often the author will thank their editor in the acknowledgements section of the book. If you like the book, you probably like the editing. Research those editors to see if they would be a good fit for your book.

Look for the following:

Experience: What kind of experience do they have? How many years have they been editing? Do they also write? What subjects to they write or specialize in, if any?

Education: Did they go to college, graduate school, or none of the above, and are you okay with the answer?

Presentation: How do they present themselves? Is their writing clear and easy to understand? Do you like their style of writing?

Connection: This point can’t be underestimated. Do you vibe with their style, or does it fall flat for you? Do you two truly connect when you speak on the phone, or does the conversation feel forced and stiff? Do you like them? This is someone with whom you will have to trust your most precious ideas. Liking them is not too much to ask.

Previous work: What books have they edited? Can you search for them and find any of their previous work on Amazon (although keep in mind: this isn’t always a direct indicator – sometimes they don’t get editor’s credits)? What are the content, style, and tone of the books they’ve edited? Are they in the same wheelhouse as your book? What other interests do they have that might make them uniquely qualified to edit your book?

How long should I expect it to take?

Timelines. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked an author about the prospective timeline for their book, and they tell me something like, “I want to publish in two weeks because it’s my birthday,” or “I said I would have it done by the end of the year (and it’s Thanksgiving).” This is where a lot of authors get tripped up. Many authors assume the editing process can be wrapped up in a week or three, and in fact there are schools of thought out there that actively teach this mentality.

Don’t do this.

If you find an editor willing to work on such short notice, you will pay (or should pay, if the editor is worth their salt) exorbitantly higher amounts than you would if you gave the book ample time for review. With such a tight turnaround, the work will likely not be up to the standard that you want it to be.

Depending on the quality of your writing and whether the ideas are complete, give the editing process anywhere from two to six months.

Two to six months for editing? I can go on vacay, right?

No. (Ha!) Well, yes. Vacations are always encouraged, but what I mean is this: You can’t drop the book off with your editor and expect not to be involved.

Given that your book will likely go through two rounds of revisions (or more, depending on what it needs), you will need to be responsive to your editor.

When I edit a book, I’ll do one read through and make general notes and suggestions based on problems I see with the structure and flow, areas that need further depth or that need to be cut, problems with tone, errors in thinking, or research concerns. I’ll prepare an editorial memo for my author and meet with them (over the phone or zoom) to discuss it, so they’re clear on what they need to do next: i.e. write more content, clarify an idea, fix the voice, add research, etc.

Next, I rearrange the content so that the book flows in a logical and engaging way, based on our conversation. If the author is providing me with additional content or clarifying content, we’ll work together to make sure it flows into the content in a logical way.  

Finally, I start the copy and line edit. I won’t do this until I have all of the additional content needed from the author.

See why it’s important to stay engaged? Your editor will need you to be a partner in refining your book. They will have good ideas, but they may also have ideas that are off mark and could take your message a way you never intended. So, while it’s important to trust their experience and intuition, it’s equally important that you stay involved to provide the right guidance.

In the meantime, you can also work on your cover design, write your marketing copy for the front and back covers and title, and spend time gathering your testimonials and blurbs from influencers, and current and former clients to help promote the book.

What is this going to cost me?

Editing costs can vary widely, depending on who you hire. Some editors prefer a per page rate, while others charge by the hour or project. In general, you can expect the following ranges for a 75 page manuscript:

Low: $1000 to $5000

Mid: $5000 to $15000

High: $15,000+

Most editors will expect a percentage of payment before they ever start working with you, so be prepared to make an upfront investment. This is security for them and for you. They know you have the ability to pay and will feel more comfortable starting their work, and you know you’ve secured their time and energy for the project.

Your editor should have a contract for working with you. If the editor you choose to work with does not have a contract, you should A. think twice about working with them, and B. (If you’re really committed to working with them) work together to create one.

A good contract should cover the following at a minimum:

  1. Payment terms and timelines: These are preferably tagged to tangible milestones. For example, you could say “25% of payment due on the delivery of the manuscript,” but that begs the question when will the manuscript be delivered? Better to say the estimated date of the manuscript delivery. When estimating dates, keep in mind that flexible deadlines are best… things will come up for both you and the editor.
  2. Intellectual property: The agreement should make clear that the work product is the property of the author, and that the editor retains no rights to the work.
  3. Kill fees and termination of the agreement: make clear what happens if one party (either you or the editor) wants to terminate the agreement, and how payment is completed or reimbursed.
  4. Clear explanation of what the editor is expected to do. This makes it clear as day what they will and won’t do for you, and what you can expect.

What else should I know?

It can seem like a daunting task trying to hire an editor who you will enjoy working with and who will do good work. It’s okay to go with your gut. If you click with one editor who seems newer or less experienced by comparison with the editor who has a stellar resume but seemed condescending… listen to your gut.

Your relationship with your editor is important. It’s an intimate relationship; this person literally has access to your thoughts and ideas and is helping you mold them to convey your message in the clearest and most impactful way. Your editor will have a direct line into your thoughts, experience, and methodology. If they don’t treat you and your ideas with respect, the work will be harder on you.

There will come the inevitable moment when your editor tells you something you don’t want to hear. If you have a good working relationship, your editor should be able to deliver the news to you in such a way that you understand their reasoning and can consider their ideas.

Editing can be stressful and emotional, just like writing. Choose someone who has an understanding of the process and the emotional journey of creating a book, and who can help you navigate both.

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