This week in Ask a Publisher: “Do I really need a book editor?”
Well. We haven’t read all of the 320,000 books published in North America last year but our sample suggests that the vast majority of them were unedited or poorly edited.
There are a number of reasons for this. These days, it’s relatively easy for someone to write a book, run it through spell check, and slap it up on Amazon. That is how some self-published authors work. It is also how a lot of amateurish publishing houses work. Even established publishers are not editing as they once did. It takes time. It costs money. Fewer editors are properly trained, and even the very best tend to be overworked, handling twenty-some books a year in between meetings and reading submissions. A few New York houses, led by Knopf and Farrar Straus & Giroux, still edit to the highest standards but their numbers are dwindling.
So great question: if many books are being published without being properly edited, why do you need an editor? To be honest, for some genres, you don’t. Audiences for romance, self-help, sports, and how-to business books appear to be forgiving of shoddy workmanship. But if you want your book to be taken seriously by intelligent readers, submit it to the best editor you can find.
A good editor does more for a writer than you might expect. It is almost absurd to describe in simple terms a craft people spend a lifetime mastering but there are three distinct phases to an editor’s work.
First, the big picture. Why are you writing a book? What is the subject? What are you trying to say about the subject? Who will read it? That sort of thing.
We’ve all read non-fiction books that make promises that can’t possibly be met. Books determined to state the blindingly obvious or things not worth knowing. Books where the author seems bored with his subject, or painfully out of his depth. Books pitched at general readers that assume specialized knowledge. Books that would have been better as blog posts. Books only a thesis advisor could love.
There is no end to the number of ways a book can fail in conception. A good editor will not only ask the right questions at the start of the project, but challenge the author’s ideas and assumptions and help her hone her answers. Only when it’s clear in her own mind why she’s writing a book, what she’s trying to say, and who she’s trying to say it to – only then will it work for readers.
The second phase of a good editor’s work concerns execution. How best to tell the story? What voice should you use? Is your anecdotal style as funny as you think? What material should be included? What needs to be chucked? What is the most effective way to organize everything? Shouldn’t this crucial bit of background be delivered early? What will keep the reader turning pages? Does this section blow your credibility? Are the conclusions supported by evidence?
At minimum, books require a few hours of undivided attention from readers. That is a lot to ask of anyone. You’re chances of earning that attention are much improved if your book is properly executed. Even the best writers benefit from having another set of seasoned eyes scrutinize a text to ensure that all of its parts are essential, that they fit together, and that they add up to what you think they do, and make the impression you want to make.
The third service a good editor provides is line editing, which covers spelling, grammar, sentence structure and variety, word choice, paragraphing, and so on. Done right, it makes your text lucid, precise, persuasive, and enjoyable to read. A reader’s faith in an author’s intelligence and ability can be seriously undermined by poor line editing.
A number of apps are trying to eliminate the need for line editing. Pro Writing Aid, Grammarly, and other services can identify a surprising number of problems in a text, at a reasonable price. It is one thing to limit mistakes, however, and quite another to bring out your best voice. There is no substitute for human line-by-line editorial expertise.
In sum, the most accomplished writers require editing so odds are that you need it even more. Finding the right editor should be your primary concern if you are fortunate enough to have a choice of publishing houses. If you are self-publishing, there are good editors available on services such as Reedsy and Upwork. Hire the best you can find. And if your editor writes “Ugh” beside your egregious metaphor on page 110, as the wonderful Andrew Miller did on my last manuscript, don’t complain. Thank him.
Ask a Publisher is a weekly feature of Sutherland House’s newsletter, SHuSH. Send your questions to email@example.com