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.
In the olden days–maybe 20 years ago–it was hard to get a book published. It could take years to write the book. Then you had to query, submit the best work you could produce and pray that a publisher would some day call or send that precious letter saying, “We’d like to publish your book.” I’ve had a few of those calls and letters, and I can tell you it’s the best feeling in the world. Yes, it is better than sex.
There used to be a form of a self-publishing known as “vanity publishing,” but only the foolish indulged because it cost a fortune, and nearly everyone knew those pretty hardbound books were tainted with the stink of vanity, an ego trip. They weren’t necessarily any good; if they were, a real publisher would have printed them. Bookstores would not sell them, and individuals could not afford to buy them.
Then came the computer, print-on-demand, and e-books. Suddenly, for very little money, anybody could publish a book. You, me, the guy down the street. And they did. Because it cost nothing to produce an e-book and not much to publish a paperback with a company like Amazon’s CreateSpace, you could offer the books practically for free. Wahoo! Finally the business was democratized, open to everyone.
Yes, but wait. In those not-so-long-ago olden days, writers trained to be writers. They worked for newspapers or magazines. They published short stories, poems and essays. They took classes. They wrote and revised and revised some more. Because publishing a book was a big deal, they made sure they were ready.
Show of hands: How many of you have read a new self-published book that was terrible? The sentences were lame, the grammar flawed, and the plot unbelievable. Maybe you got it for free, but that’s all it was worth. Yes, I see you waving your hands.
I’m not saying all self-published books are bad. Some are wonderful. Sometimes self-publishing is the best way to make a worthy book available to people who want to read it. But don’t leap into book publishing before you’re ready, and for God’s sake, hire an editor. You’d be amazed at the magic a good editor can perform on a so-so book.
This rant was inspired by an article I read online called “The Vanishing Apprenticeship” by E. Stevens. The author laments the loss of newspapers and other publications as training grounds for writers. Hemingway, Twain, Orwell, and many others learned their craft writing articles every day. They learned to produce clean, readable copy on deadline. They learned how to please their editors and their readers.
I benefited from that kind of apprenticeship, too. I started writing poetry and fiction at a young age, but honed my skills writing for newspapers and magazines. Not only did my work have to be good enough for the editors to publish it, but I had to face angry readers if I didn’t get my facts straight. I learned to write whether I felt like it or not and to revise what I had written until it was smooth and correct.
I’m not saying everybody should go work for a newspaper. As Stevens points out, newspaper jobs have decreased at an alarming rate, from 455,600 in the U.S. in 1988 to 253,500 in 2010. I’m just saying don’t leap into publishing a book until you become a good writer. Practice, learn, do your apprenticeship, earn your journeyman status. Then give your readers something worth reading.
Now go write.
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.
A dear friend heard that I had finished the manuscript for my novel and immediately wanted to know when she can buy a copy, as if it would be on the shelves next week. It’s a bit longer process, I told her. But I did email her a PDF.
Self-Publish or Not?
Once you’ve written a novel, or any book of prose, and revised it until you’re sure you can’t revise any more, it’s time to think about publishing. Many people self-publish their books these days. I have done that. I have also had books purchased and published by traditional publishers. The latter is better. They handle design, printing, and distribution, going far beyond what I’m able to do alone from my home office. The imprint of a traditional publisher gives your book credibility, gets it reviewed in important places,and gets you publicity and at least a few promotional events that you don’t have to arrange. Also, instead of having to pay to publish, they pay you. Even in these days when you can put out e-books or publish through programs like Amazon’s CreateSpace for almost nothing, that matters.
There’s another thing about self-publishing. Too many authors rush their books into print before they’re ready. I have read too many self-published books that need copyediting and proofreading. The writing might be good, but a little more time and the help of professional editor would have made them so much better. With traditional publishing, you get that.
So I advise everyone to try getting a publisher to buy their books. If that fails, if you have limited time, or if you have a small, specialized audience waiting for your book, then go ahead and self-publish. You will have total responsibility for your book but also total control. You can get it out quickly and into the hands of your eager audience. You will also spend a lot of time on marketing, money and other non-writing concerns.
Otherwise, let’s try the traditional method first. What does that mean? Querying agents and/or editors.
Do You Need an Agent?
Here’s the deal. Agents help you polish your pitch and your book. Then they offer it to the publishing houses they think most likely to publish it. They handle all the submissions and let you know what happens. If/when they get a yes, they negotiate your contract. They also make sure you get paid your advance and royalties and help you negotiate future sales of foreign rights, movie rights, etc. Plus they support and encourage you while you focus on the writing part instead of the business part. For these services, they collect 15 percent of the profits. A good agent is worth every penny.
Yes, but do you need one? The big publishing houses will not consider books that are not pitched by agents. Even smaller houses prefer agents for fiction and creative nonfiction. With straight nonfiction, you have a little more leeway, and no agent will represent poetry books because there’s not enough money in them. You can pitch your novel to smaller houses yourself, and you can also enter many contests that promise publication to the winners, but I recommend trying to get an agent.
How Do I Approach an Agent?
With agents and editors, the process is the same. Most want a query letter–aka your pitch–and sample pages from the manuscript. Click here for my previous discussion about writing your pitch. We hear tales of synopses, longer descriptions that describe what happens in every chapter. These are a pain to write, and most agents don’t want to read them. They just want a one-page pitch and a few pages (anywhere from five to fifty) from the book to see whether the story grabs them. If it does, they’ll request more pages or the whole manuscript.
In the old days, authors had to put together a printed package which they sent by mail. Thank God we can do it all online these days, but that means before we click “send,” we need to be absolutely sure that what we’re sending is the best we can make it.
We’ll talk next week about how to decide which agents to pitch and what to send them. We’ll also look at pitching in person at conferences and other events. Meanwhile, go work on your pitch and take another look at your manuscript.
Now go write.
Once a week I offer three quick tips that you can take and use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Alison Baverstock’s “Ten Ways Self-Publishing has changed the Books World,” published in the UK’s Guardian online last week, offers a great overview of the changes wrought in publishing by the emergence of self-publishers. As an author who has some books that are self-published as well as others published traditionally, I find it both fascinating and comforting.
The Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press, 2012. “Flash” writing is hot these days. If you can writing something powerful in under a thousand words, you’ll find a lot more markets than you will for longer works. Dinty W. Moore, editor of the long-respected webzine Brevity, has put together essays from some of the best writers of short creative nonfiction. Each author talks about the craft, offers examples, and gives a writing exercise that will get your pen moving or your fingers dancing on the keyboard.
“I had a blood test this morning.” “You had a blood test this morning.” “She had a blood test this morning.” It’s surprising what changing one pronoun can do. Shifting the point of view from its original first, second or third person can bring new life to any kind of writing. Take a poem or bit of prose that you have written and rewrite it in a different point of view and see if that doesn’t give you a whole new perspective.
Now Go Write
Our previous posts have covered editing your books, designing a cover, and formatting your books. It is possible, although not always wise, to do all of these things ourselves, but we’re probably not equipped to print our own books. Unless we’re doing print on demand, which we discussed in July, our next step is to get the book printed. This is the biggest cost of producing your own book, so it pays to choose wisely.
Where do I find a printer?
There’s always the phone book. If you look under “printing,” you may find several listings, a lot if you live in a big city But not all printers are equipped to print books. If they say they do books, ask to see some samples. Are they well printed and bound? Does the ink come off on your hands? Is the print consistently clear and dark? Can they do full-color covers or are they limited to one or two “spot” colors?” Will they help you prepare the book for printing? Ask to see samples of paper and cover stock. Don’t settle for junky-looking books.
You don’t have to settle for a local shop. Lots of publishers, including big-name traditional publishers, get their books printed out of state or even out of the country because it’s less expensive. These days, book files are sent online, so it doesn’t really matter where they are. Ask other authors where they get their books done. Look on the copyright and acknowledgment pages of published books for mentions of what company printed them. Visit their web pages or call them to see if they might be the right printers for you.
How much is this going to cost me?
Approach several printers to get estimates for the cost of printing your book. You will need to know how many pages the finished book will be, how many copies you want, and how much you can afford to spend. It helps to figure out how much you will charge for the book so you can see how much you will make on each copy once you subtract the printing costs. The more copies you print, the lower the per-copy price will be, but be realistic about how many boxes of books you want piled up in your house. Remember, you can always go back and print more.
By now, you’re grinding your teeth, wanting specific numbers. Okay, I’ll lay it out here. My newest book, Childless by Marriage, cost me $8.19 per book for 300 copies, totaling $2,458. In addition to this, I paid $103 for them to design the cover, another $100 for promotional postcards and $60 for three stand-up foam-backed posters. I’m charging $15.95 a book. Most retail stores will ask for a 40 percent discount. Amazon demands 55 percent. You do the math.
To be honest, prices at the small-town shop I use are a little high, but they’re local, they help me a lot with the formatting and other details, they design fabulous covers, and I have a long history with them. When I want more copies or more promotional materials, all it takes is an email and they start printing. But I won’t lie. As we say here in Oregon, it’s “spendy.”
A Google search will yield lots of companies offering to publish your book for as low as $2.94 a copy. They may be great. Check them out. All of them will give you a free estimate. But watch out for hidden costs–shipping?–and ask for a sample of their work before you trust them with your book.
How long will it take?
One of the big advantages to self-publishing vs. having a traditional publisher do it is that you can have your printed book in a few weeks vs. a year or longer. One of the disadvantages is that most of us don’t have warehouses or a shipping crew. You will receive all of the books at once and will need to find a clean, dry place to store them. Having all of these books underfoot should inspire you to get busy marketing your new book.
Opening that first box full of the book your wrote and published is going to feel fantastic.
So you’ve decided to publish your own book. Excellent choice. You will have control over every aspect of the project, from writing to sales, and you will see your book in print within months instead of the year or more it can take with a traditional publisher. Now, roll up your sleeves; you’ve got a lot of work to do.
The most important thing is to write the best book you can. That means writing and rewriting until it’s ready, no matter how long it takes. There’s no point in worrying about cover art or advertising if you don’t have a good book to sell.
Aside from writing the book, the next most important thing is good editing. You may think you can edit your book yourself. You may even be a professional editor. I am, but I still hired an editor to look at Childless by Marriage before I published it. With her input, I wound up doing a major rewrite, but she also gave me the confidence to know this book was worth publishing.
No writer can see her own work the way other people perceive it. We’re too close to it. A good editor can see the book as a whole, noting things that are missing or that don’t fit, marking bad transitions, thoughts that are not complete, places where our egos cloud our writing, etc. She can also find our typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. You think you can do this yourself, but you can’t. It’s like a doctor trying to cure himself or a lawyer representing himself in court.
I found my editor through a book she had written about writing. When I discovered she did editing, I hired her. It wasn’t cheap—approximately $1,200–but it was worth it. We worked both online and on paper. She sent me my book marked up with corrections and also sent a long detailed letter with her suggestions and corrections, just the way an editor in a publishing house does.
If you Google “book editors,” you’ll find dozens of listings, but anyone can call himself an editor. Check with professional writing and publishing organizations in your area. Look in the acknowledgements of books you admire. Use your social networks, such as Facebook, to get recommendations. Before you commit to working with someone, check their credentials. What is their training? What else have they edited? Most reputable editors will do a sample section so you can both decide whether you want to work together. If they balk at this, move on.
Here’s a great article by C.S. Lakin, “4 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Editor.” Read it and follow directions.
There are other ways to get editing help that don’t cost money. Many writers I know trust their work to writing groups in which they critique each other’s work. The trick is to find a group with the necessary skills and knowledge of the genre in which you’re writing, but this can work very well. One can find critique groups online as well as in person.
If your work contains specialized jargon or sections in another language, you may want to ask experts to help you make sure you get it right. With my novel Azorean Dreams, for example, I asked several Portuguese speakers, including a professor of the language, to check my Portuguese dialogue. Good thing they did. My rudimentary Portuguese contained a lot of errors.
We all have doubts about our writing. Even if we have published a dozen other books, we worry about whether the new one is any good. Your editor can help you make sure that it is.
What comes after editing? Find out in next week’s post.