An American Editor

June 28, 2010

I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors

I received a telephone call the other day from a self-published author who was concerned about her book. She had already published her book and sold some copies, when numerous errors were found by her and by readers. She was concerned that the errors were causing readers to focus on them rather than on her message.

She was surprised to discover such a quantity of errors as she had followed the “recommended” process of having friends and colleagues read the manuscript several times before publication. However, having found numerous errors after publication, she conceded it may have been a mistake not to hire a professional editor before publication.

What she wanted to know was how inexpensively her book could be professionally edited in that she and her friends and colleagues have probably now identified most, if not all, of the remaining errors and this would be a quick job as kind of insurance.

Her question was good but her understanding of the editorial process was flawed. Think about it this way: I already have a bag of flour in my pantry so I probably don’t need another bag, but maybe I’ll buy another bag just to be sure. Surely this just-in-case bag of flour should cost significantly less because I don’t really need it; the bag I already have is enough. Try that line of reasoning on your grocer and tell me how you fare.

When an author hires a professional editor, they are hiring the editor’s expertise and experience, something that is valuable and needs to be paid for. More importantly, to edit a manuscript, the editor needs to read every word. Think about how unhappy you would be if you paid an editor for a “quick” and “light” edit as insurance against embarrassment only to discover that the quick and light edit didn’t catch that suddenly, out of the blue, on page 122 the hero is missing an arm but that arm miraculously reappears 3 pages later.

As I explained to this author, without carefully reading the manuscript how would an editor know whether, for example, brake or break, seam or seem, scene or seen is correct? (See, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) The author’s question then was, “but if the editor finds no errors or only a few very minor errors, haven’t I wasted my money?”

No, because you have received the reassurance that you sought; your manuscript is as good as it gets. On the other hand, suppose the editor finds several truly egregious errors. Does the editor then deserve a significant increase in the fee? A bonus?

I suppose one solution is to find an editor who will charge by the found error. I don’t know any professional editor who works that way, but anything is possible today. But how much would you be willing to pay per error found? And who would decide whether an error was to be paid for? Should a minor error cost as much as a major error? What is the difference between a minor and major error? Who will decide an error’s classification?

The per-error-found payment scheme strikes me as unworkable; I certainly wouldn’t be willing to work on such a basis, and I doubt any professional editor would either. In fact, I’d suspect an editor’s qualifications and skills should that be the basis of payment.

There really is no getting around the fact that an experienced professional editor brings a lot to the table and needs to be fairly compensated. Few of us would want to use a neighbor whose primary job was running a daycare center to completely rewire our house; instead, we would want to hire a qualified electrician. So why, after spending many hours writing a book that we want to sell to others, would we rely on that same neighbor to “edit” our manuscript? We do it because we have little respect for the editing profession; we believe that because we caught errors in a book we bought we are capable of doing the same in our own work or in a friend’s work. To me, it is similar to thinking that because I can replace a faulty light switch, I can wire my house. The required experience and skill levels aren’t the same.

The bottom line really is that it is hard to spend money on something that isn’t making money or is unlikely to make money. In other words, as an author, you don’t really believe in the quality or value of your own product (which makes me wonder why readers should; see Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers) or you would hesitate to accept the “good-enough” standard for your book.

Just because you published your book and are now discovering the errors is no reason to expect a professional editor to do any less work on your book than had you given the manuscript to the editor before publication. Isn’t it an advantage of ebooks that they can be updated and corrected? (See eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite.) It is never too late, with an ebook, to get it right. It certainly is better to get it right than to suffer the embarrassment of being noted for poor editing (see Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important).

If you think you have something worth saying, which is why you wrote your book originally, isn’t it important to make sure that readers actually get to what you have to say rather than focus on side issues such as poor grammar and spelling? Perhaps hiring a professional editor should be high on the to-do list. Remember that your book is your face to the world!

(For additional information about professional editors, what they do and what to expect, as well the difference between an amateur and a professional, see the following articles: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); and Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

7 Comments »

  1. A good editor doesn’t just find mistakes. A good editor can improve even error-free writing.

    Comment by Laura — June 28, 2010 @ 10:19 am | Reply

    • Laura, that is very true but most authors approach it from the mistake angle. I can’t tell you how many times in my 26 years of editing an author has insisted that their writing was perfect as is and was not to be touched.

      Comment by americaneditor — June 28, 2010 @ 10:54 am | Reply

  2. “We do it because we have little respect for the editing profession.” That is not quite accurate. Most people, such as your author here, proceed as they do because they have very little understanding of editing. They don’t know what it consists of besides good spelling and understanding how and when to use a comma.

    Your author’s concern about finding and fixing errors is mainly proofreading and copy editing. Editors also analyze the organization of the book, the flow of the prose, and it’s gracefulness or lack, the tenor of the author’s voice, not to mention such mechanical matters as parallel lists, maintaining the authorial voice (not switching from first person to second and then third, a very common bad habit I’ve seen among academic writers).

    Here’s another analogy, much closer to this situation. Many people think that if they can sing pretty well in a karaoke way, they can perform on stage. But they don’t know the first thing about working on a stage, facing the audience and the lights, making clear gestures that are large enough to be seen, not singing upstage (away from the audience) when they turn or cross, not covering their face or mouth, using make-up properly, hitting their marks and being well lighted, etc. That’s the work of the performer, and it’s the same thing as using good grammar and rhetoric, using subheads and bulleted lists judiciously, correctly structuring tables, spelling accurately, etc. Actually, as I give this a second thought, the editor is like the record producer. The author is in the sound room belting out the song and someone has to be in the control room mixing the tracks, watching the sound levels, making decisions about blending the instrumental tracks, etc.

    Comment by Michael Brady — June 28, 2010 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  3. I’ve had one or two clients who wanted to dock their editors and proofreaders for any missed errors, which I thought was logical from their perspective, but not a very pleasant attitude. I promise excellence and a high quality of accuracy, but I never promise 100-percent perfection, although sometimes I seem to achieve it, because sometimes “perfect” just isn’t possible, no matter how good an editor or proofreader someone is.

    Being paid by errors found might create an incentive for working carefully and thoroughly, but might also encourage someone to make unnecessary changes. Either way, I’d want a substantial amount per error if that’s how I’d be paid for editing or proofreading!

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 28, 2010 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

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  5. My version of this is: in this area, editing is like having someone inspect or appraise your home. You pay those folks based on their expertise and knowledge and on the size and condition of your house. You don’t get to pay them less if they find few problems to fix.

    (Analogy breaks down, of course, because the editor also serves the role of the contractor hired to fix the house’s problems. But we don’t have to overanalyze here.)

    Comment by Pete Gaughan — June 29, 2010 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  6. *Standing ovation* Bravo! Yes! I yell about this all the time. Self-publishing does *not* mean self-editing. Be a pro or get the hell out of the way of those who are.

    Comment by Mike Cane — August 10, 2010 @ 5:58 am | Reply


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