How much does it cost to be a writer?

I got to thinking about this the other day after I talked to a freelance editor about working on my book. These days everybody says you need to hire an editor to fix up your book before you send it to agents and publishers. Critique groups are good, but you need to hire a pro to look at the whole book to help you shape it, cut the fat and find the “narrative arc.” Or so they say.

Years ago, an editor helped me with one of my previous books, and it was good. So I thought I’d try it again.

But here’s the problem. The editor I talked to charges $100 an hour. She thinks it would take 10 to 20 hours to do the job, which is only to look at the big picture, not to do any actual editing on syntax and sentences. That’s $1,000 to $2,000, for those who can’t do math without their calculators. I’m sure she’d do a great job, but that’s a lot of money. Her rates are on the high side. Others might charge less, but it’s still quite an investment. Check out this chart from the Editorial Freelancers Association.

My previous editor was expensive, $700, I think, but she did everything, from the big picture to the typos. If she edited the kind of book I’m working on now, I’d try her again.

It used to be that editors at publishing houses took your shapeless but promising manuscript and helped you rewrite it until it was perfect. That’s what happened with my book Stories Grandma Never Told, published by Heyday Books a few years back. The editor helped me make it much better, and I didn’t have to pay for the privilege. In fact, they paid me. Now, apparently editors at larger publishing houses don’t so much edit the books as advocate for them with the marketing folks.

So does this mean that unless you can afford to spend thousands on editing, you’re never going to get into a major publishing house? I pray to God it’s not true.

The cost of editing might explain why so many less-than-stellar books are self-published these days. And why we see so many typos in our books. Most of us think our books are fine after we finish our own revisions. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t, but I can’t believe we have to spend so much money to find out. Let’s go back to the critique group idea. Maybe we could trade manuscripts with each other to get the big picture view. You read my book, I’ll read yours, and we’ll compare notes.

I started out to write about the cost of being a writer. Editing is certainly not the only cost. Let me take a peek at my expense charts. The main expenses:

  • Postage to mail my published books at $2.72 apiece via media mail. As for submissions, I rarely submit anything by snail mail these days so that cost has gone down considerably, but then there are . . .
  • Submission fees. Not every publication charges a fee to submit, but more and more of them do, even ones that only pay in copies. It may be only $3 or $5, but it adds up, especially when I’m also paying . . .
  • Contest entry fees. These keep getting higher. Most are $15 or more. I have seen book competitions with $40 fees.
  • Internet-related fees. You’ve got to keep the Wi-Fi going, and it isn’t free. You may pay for a website or domain name (I have several). WordPress charges $18 for those domain names and that’s not even a premium account.
  • Office supplies and office equipment, including computer gear, tablets and phones.
  • Business cards, brochures and other printed matter.
  • Professional memberships at $30 to $300 a year.
  • Books and other publications (you don’t want to know how much I spend on this)
  • Education: University degrees, conferences, workshops, etc. are not cheap.

You can keep your writing low budget, but not as much as in the days when all you needed was a pencil and some paper, envelopes and postage stamps. You can refuse to submit to contests with entry fees or publications that charge submission fees. You can skip the domain names and paid websites. You can get all of your reading material at the library or buy only used books. You can trade critiques with friends. But alas, being a writer is not free. Neither is anything else, however, whether you’re an artist, a quilter, a gardener or a golfer. If you love it, you find a way to pay for it.

I’ll figure out what to do about the book. Meanwhile, it didn’t cost me anything to put these words on the screen, and it doesn’t cost you anything to read them. Isn’t that wonderful?

Let’s go write.


Just because you can publish a book doesn’t mean you should

I can’t wait to start reading my friend’s first novel. I happily empty my wallet to buy an autographed copy. I inhale the new book smell and flip through all those pages looking forward to what I expect to be a wonderful experience. I brew a cup of tea, settle into my comfortable chair with the dog at my side and turn to Chapter One.

That’s when I realize the writing is bad. Really bad. By page three, I still don’t know what’s going on. My critique group would tear it to pieces. Bill would say he doesn’t get it. Dorothy would cross out most of the pages, saying it’s not interesting, it doesn’t go anywhere. I’d ask for scenes, for specifics, and for dialogue that sounds the way people really talk. I would note the many grammatical errors, the mismatched modifiers and the typos. We would send the author back to his computer to start over.

But it’s already a published book. It’s going out into the world as is. Book-signings, publication parties and readings have been scheduled. It’s too late. Where was the editor? How could he or she let this book go out into the world this way?

Another author sends his book to me via Kindle, asking for a review. By the end, I’m so frustrated I’d throw it across the room, except I don’t want to break my Kindle. It has bad characters and bad dialogue. It raises questions that are never answered. I vow to never read another book by this author.

The next one, also an e-book, has good content, but the writing and the typos make it painful to read.

I turn to an old classic for some literary relief. I have two more new books to read and review, but I can’t stand it anymore.

You know what makes me even more nuts? These authors get their friends to offer five-star reviews that make them sound like Pulitzer Prize winners. I read them and think: Did they read the same book that I read? Do readers just not know the difference anymore?

These books are self-published. They give self-publishing a bad name. After a while, even though I have self-published some of my own books, I check the copyright page, see that a book is self-published and don’t want to read it.

The problem is two-fold. First, everybody needs an editor. No matter how good a writer you are, you can’t see your own mistakes. You can’t back away from the story and see the big picture. Your brain is programmed to see what you want it to see. Start with a critique group. It hurts to have people point out your writing flaws, but it helps so much in improving your writing, so get your work critiqued before you publish it. Run it by some non-writer readers, too. See if they react the way you hope they will, laughing at the funny parts, loving the characters, getting wrapped up in the story. If they don’t, you need work on it some more.

Before you self-publish a book, get it professionally edited. It can cost quite a lot—over a thousand dollars in some cases—but it can make the difference between a well-written book and one that needs work. As I read recently in a brilliant article by Russell Blake called “How to Sell Loads of Books,” “If you’re too cheap or too broke to pay an editor, barter something of value to get someone qualified to do it, or (gasp, here’s an idea) save some money so you can do it right. Skip these steps and you won’t sell much, if anything. Or if you do, it won’t last very long, because word will spread, and then you’re dead.”

Of course, not everyone who calls herself an editor is a good one. Ask for recommendations from writer friends, get referrals from the acknowledgements of books you admire, or check the Editorial Freelancers Association.

The second problem, a deeper and more difficult one, is that people are putting out books when they haven’t laid the groundwork for a writing career. It’s like some guy who wants to be an electrician expecting to rewire the White House without having taken any classes or served an apprenticeship. Good writers spend years working on their craft. They take classes and workshops, earn degrees, read the works of the masters, and write reams of prose or poetry that never gets published. Like pianists practicing their scales, they practice their craft and never stop learning. They don’t dash out 60,000 raw words and start designing the cover. They spend years revising and polishing.

Yes, with today’s technology, anyone can write a book and publish it. You can do everything yourself or pay one of the many companies offering to give birth to your book—no matter how bad it is or how unready it is for publication. Years ago, I talked to Donald Maas, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, about print-on-demand publishing. With POD, all the rage at the turn of this century, companies like iUniverse and Xlibris would publish your books but not print them until orders came in. They offered marketing help for extra fees but no editing. What you sent them was what got published. Now with e-books and Amazon’s CreateSpace program, you can put out your books for free. There’s nothing wrong with that if they’re truly ready for publication.

Maas said most self-published authors don’t take the time for that last much-needed rewrite. There are a lot of good reasons writers avoid the big publishing conglomerates these days. The competition is fierce, and it can take years for a book to be published, but for God’s sake, don’t jump into print (or cyberprint) until your book is the best it can possibly be. Don’t make me want to throw it across the room.

And if you haven’t developed your craft or gotten your book edited, please don’t ask me to review it. No matter how pretty the cover is or how much I want to say good things, if I see problems with your book, I’m going to tell the truth. You have to earn your stars from me.

Now go write.