An American Editor

September 30, 2022

Thinking Fiction: Finding Your Audience

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:16 am
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© Carolyn Haley, Fiction Columnist

Anyone who writes fiction and is serious about publishing it has surely seen advice from many “gurus” about how to sell their work.

The core concept is something most of us have heard in different areas for all our adult lives. In general business: Get the right product or service into the right people’s hands. In traditional publishing, it’s more specific: the right book on the right person’s desk on the right day. Indie fiction publishing broadens it to: the right book in front of the right genre audience.

Finding that audience is a challenge. I’m still not sure how to do it after many years, especially since I write cross-genre novels. But one day, I accidentally received a clue from out in left field.

It came through Facebook. I use this social media platform only for personal interaction, not for business promotion. Well, not 100% true. On the occasions that I get a nice review, win an award, or run a promotion, I post it on my personal page and get a handful of “Likes” (but usually zero book sales in response).

In comparison, my cat postings get from 20 to 50 Likes per photo or story. When I post more-serious subjects, rarely two or three respond, and usually the same folks. For interesting general subjects, perhaps 10 to 30 will react.

But then …


My spouse chanced upon a Facebook enthusiasts group for B-17 Flying Fortress WWII bombers. This is an interest we share, and we’ve had many interesting and intense experiences related thereto, so we joined the group.

Sharing our stories and photographs with them instantly brought tens to dozens of Likes, many Shares, and lots of miscellaneous Comments. Wow! Best response either of us has ever received for our postings on any subject. Cool!

Then I posted a photograph of myself peeking out the cockpit window of the B-17 that I arranged to visit at our local airport. It was a big deal on several levels and took four years to achieve. But what astonished me was how big a deal it was to other people. Over the course of a week, that posting received more than 800 Likes, two dozen Comments, and a dozen and a half Shares before it flattened out.

Holy moley! Who’d’ve THUNK???

The big question is: Why?

The surface answer is obvious: I delivered the right content to the people who most want to see it.

The same phenomenon occurred when we hosted the B-17 itself at our local airport in 2019. That turned into the biggest event ever to happen in the entire state aviation system. Not only that, our event was the fifth most successful on the plane’s national tour that year. Amazing for our little city of ±20,000 people! We moved 3,500+ of them through the aircraft on the ground, and flew 150+ of them in the plane, all of whom paid many dollars for the privilege.

That event remains my greatest personal success. The Facebook repeat on the micro scale with Likes reflects the same thing. In both cases, I never saw it coming. I never even tried for it. But I’m party to the proof of the sales bottom line: Give people what they want and they will respond positively.

We see this over and over in literature and entertainment with genres and tropes. People buy what they want to read/see/listen to/experience. My B-17 story illustrates the importance of identifying a receptive audience. I’ve known this intellectually forever, but to actually see it and experience it, albeit in the “wrong” context, has driven home the lesson more effectively than anything else.

It doesn’t solve my fiction marketing problem, because I still don’t know how to find the audience for my mixed-genre novels. But now I understand the value of identifying audience in a way I didn’t before.

The aircraft experience raises new literary questions. Should I write an aviation romance or adventure featuring B-17s? No, this Facebook audience is into historical nonfiction, as are most enthusiasts we’ve encountered elsewhere. Am I qualified to write nonfiction about the B-17 that hasn’t been covered already? No.

What is it about the image of my little head peeking out of the cockpit that triggered such a warm reaction? Is it simply because it’s cute? Or because I’m female in a predominantly male context? Is it because so few people alive today — especially civilians — have the privilege of being in that position?

Should I write an article about how I got to be in that position? Would the same 800+ people care? Would any folks outside this particular Facebook group care? Would a full-length novel about the experience be interesting to anyone? Do I want to bother?

The answer to these questions is likely, or certainly, to be no.

So what does the experience actually teach me? And how could AAE readers benefit as well?

Time to go back to the starting line. My new perspective — frosting on the cake of studies about marketing and promotion — has moved me to look at my novels from a different angle. This would be problematic if the books were traditionally published. Initially, two out of three of them were, but years ago, when those contracts expired, I took back the rights and self-published the same material in new packages.

Now I have full control of what my covers look like, what my blurbs say, and how I place the novels in the marketplace. I can change all of these elements, as well as revise or rewrite the novels, any time I want.

The unrelenting reality for indie authors is “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” My B-17 Facebook surprise has motivated me to try yet again, rather than settle for “whatever.” I’m feeling my mind stretch in a way it hasn’t before. I’m agitated by ambition I haven’t felt before. All because 800+ people I don’t know and will never meet, in an arena I considered secondary in my life, surprised the heck out of me with their vigorous response to my accidentally giving them what they want!

How have AAE readers reconsidered and revamped your marketing efforts, whether as author or editor? Feel free to comment!

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania.

August 24, 2022

Thinking Fiction: An Open Letter to the Fiction Publishing Industry

© Carolyn Haley, Fiction Columnist

Dear authors, editors, publishers, and readers:

I think we can all agree that novels exist for entertainment, enlightenment, and education — ideally in balanced combination.

Authors, your job is to create those stories. Take your vision — whatever it might be — and write it out with all your heart and soul, in the best language you can compose.

Editors, your job is to help authors refine their vision and language so their stories are clearly and easily comprehensible to the people who want to read them.

Publishers, your job is to convert authors’ visions into consumable products aimed at the people most likely to be receptive to the content and appreciate it. (For authors who self-publish, the idea is the same.) Then help get the word out.

Readers, your job is to seek out the kinds of novels you enjoy reading, expanding your tastes and horizons now and then — and support the people who provide the works by purchasing and/or reviewing and/or referring their stories to other readers and influencers.

The one thing that none of you can rightfully do is stop anyone from expressing themselves and putting out their work to the public, nor stop any reader from selecting what they want to read. No book banning or burning. None of you are the thought police.

Here’s how it works instead.

Authors, who usually are readers first, don’t have to read or write about what doesn’t interest or compel them. Their best efforts arise from what does interest and compel them, usually resulting in their most powerful stories. Such stories might prove to be controversial, which can make or break a book’s sales or even an author’s career. If an author isn’t willing to accept that possibility, then they should not release the book.

Independent editors are under no obligation to work on manuscripts that don’t interest them, or that offend or repel them. Their business goal should be connecting with authors who are producing materials that do interest and excite them. If they see an incompatible book coming or receive one (whether unsolicited or discussed beforehand), then they should decline it. If they make the wrong call and end up with a project that upsets them, then they should get out of it by whatever means. Having contracts with escape clauses helps with handling this aspect of the project or interaction.

The problem is different for staff editors at publishing houses: To keep their jobs, they might have to work on material that upsets them. In such cases, they must act according to their principles. That means either sucking up and dealing with the upsetting book, or waving good-bye to their employer.

Publishers can reject manuscripts that don’t support their business or editorial positions. There is no moral obligation for them to publish everything.

Readers have the option of not buying a book that doesn’t work for them, and to close it midstride if they realize it’s the wrong story for them. They can also publicly diss or not recommend any book they feel is unworthy, just as they can praise and promote one they admire.

Designers have a role to play in this equation, too, by helping authors and publishers produce covers and descriptions that convey to readers what lies within. Done properly, this eliminates the need for “trigger warnings,” which in turn eliminates catering to political trends.

Everybody in the chain from first idea to product-in-hand has a responsibility toward the story content. Art — a broad umbrella that covers fiction — exists for people to view and respond to. It reflects the myriad qualities of the world, like it or not. Just because we disagree with an author’s work of fiction or find it uncomfortable doesn’t make it wrong or something to burn/ban or declare unpublishable.

It boils down to free choice in response to free speech in a free world. Unless the country you live in has a totalitarian regime, then writing, editing, publishing, and reading fall within the “to each their own” philosophy, letting us savor the vast and wonderful choice of creative works out there across the globe.

“Thinking Fiction“ columnist Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania.

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

December 4, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 2

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:50 am
Tags: ,

Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this essay, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/thinking-fiction-the-indie-editor-author-equation-part-1/.

Almost every time an indie editor and indie author first connect, they are likely to have different understandings of what “editing” means, so the editor’s first and most-important task is to decide what services to offer, by name and itemized description, with a value assigned to each, and to provide that information to the author.

Since editorial vocabulary varies, the same service might have different task specifics or names among individuals and groups. Editors must make sure they and their prospects are talking about the same thing, or else a world of misunderstanding can ensue.

Both parties need to ask and answer questions until mutually satisfied. Authors need to know what they’re getting, for how much, and when; editors need to know what an author has written — genre/type of novel, state of its development, plans (or dreams) for it, and any writing/publishing experience they already have. This information gives the editor an idea of the service to propose and what to charge.

Regardless, an agreement should be done in writing. As most adults know, verbal deals have a way of drifting off course despite both parties’ best intentions, so it’s valuable to have a document that defines the deal, especially since some editing jobs can extend for months, and memories can get hazy.

An agreement can be as informal as an email exchange stating terms, conditions, schedule of payments, and delivery or a formal contract to be signed. Either way, best practice is to lock the agreement into both electronic and printed pages for file and storage in a safe backup location.

I prefer a contract for a first job with a new client, and will accept an email agreement for later jobs with the same person if our initial experience is successful. My contract is a combination of templates made available by colleagues that I tweaked to make relevant to my business, and update as times change.

Learning from other editors’ advice and some bruising experience, my basic agreement is now a 50% deposit to reserve calendar time, and payment of the balance upon completion of the work but before I deliver the files. I take a check or PayPal, and don’t start work until the deposit payment has cleared and I’ve received the signature page of the contract for my files.

This combo has worked well, but there are other ways to do any step of it. What matters is to define a basic deal package that works for you, but is not so rigid that you can’t tailor it to individual circumstances.

You can be certain that those individual circumstances will be a big factor in editing indie fiction. Storytellers’ imaginations are limitless, and their business, publishing, and financial knowledge fall across the board.

Defining services

An indie editor’s service definition includes the categories of novel you are willing and able to edit. You don’t have to be an expert in any genre; the craft of storytelling is universal, and it’s only when trying to hone a manuscript toward a specific audience that genre expertise becomes important. Focusing on a particular genre(s), though, can help in marketing your business.

Knowing your genres not only helps every project but also helps avoid getting work you don’t want. I turn down horror, erotica, and children’s fiction. Many novels cross genres, so it’s smart to ask the author to provide a short synopsis of the story and a sample from it before taking time and energy to explore the job further. For example, I love mystery and adventure, but can’t handle extreme violence or cruelty in gory details. A sample and summary usually give enough clue to whether a manuscript will be something I can handle — or not.

How much of a sample is required to make a judgment? Some editors want to see the entire manuscript. I’m unwilling to give away that time on spec, so I ask for opening pages or perhaps first chapter, just like agents and acquisition editors do. How an author launches a novel can give a good feel for their skill level and the story’s promise, and whether you want to spend weeks/months with it.

When in doubt, an alternative approach is to offer a non-editing manuscript evaluation. That way, the author gets helpful feedback and you get a paycheck for reading the book, without either of you having to invest more than might work out well in an editorial partnership.

About those sample edits

When you’re still in the wooing stage, you need to decide whether to offer a sample edit. I go on and off with that, depending on circumstance. Some prospects require it so they can compare editors’ approaches — a wise thing to do from the author’s point of view; not every author-editor combo is a good team, even if you feel compatible. That’s why the more you discuss up front, the better the chances you’ll make the right choices on your own and each other’s behalf.

Once the project is under way, you have to decide what style guides to apply to it and include this information on your style sheet (creating a style sheet is an invaluable aid in ensuring consistency and accuracy throughout a manuscript). Most novelists don’t care, but some care a lot and will give explicit instructions. Pre-contract conversations and sample edits help suss that out.

Before quoting for an editing job, determine whether it will include the extra time and labor of a style sheet. I always create one for myself, to keep track of details throughout the manuscript, but presenting it organized and useful for the client’s (and future editor’s or proofreader’s) use adds value that should be covered. Some levels of edit — such as copyediting — need this clarified more than others — such as developmental editing.

Occasionally, when I really want a line editing or copyediting project but the client’s budget won’t stretch far enough to cover my full rate, I’ll offer the edit sans style sheet and give them a discount. But I’d rather not.

Tools and techniques

Well before accepting client jobs, you need to commit to your hardware and software tools. It used to be that Microsoft Word was the universal program for writing and editing, PC or Mac, but as times change, more clients are writing in off-brand applications that might not work gracefully with Word’s track changes feature, nor some macros designed to make editing faster and more accurate. Examples are Pages for Mac, OpenOffice or LibreOffice, Scrivener, and GoogleDocs.

I’ve had trouble with all of these and reached the point where I won’t take them anymore, even if they are “compatible” with Word and come in .doc or .docx file formats. I’ve added a clause to my contract that incoming files must be native Word only (at which point, I learned how often clients don’t read every line in a contract!).

If you have the tools, skills, and knowledge to handle mixed packages, use that as an added value in your business marketing. It will become more important in the future, as will having the ability to help clients turn their manuscripts into ebooks and other forms of reading media. If going that direction doesn’t suit you, then start building a referral list of reliable and reputable colleagues who specialize in your areas of weakness.

Editor and writer?

To be an effective indie fiction editor, it’s a great asset to be a fiction writer, too. Better yet, a published one. That gives you insight into what your clients are experiencing or need to prepare for down the road, and sharpens your understanding of craft. It’s hard to transfer from nonfiction to fiction editing without a solid base in storytelling and story structure, with “story” being the key word. The bottom-line difference between nonfiction and fiction is: Nonfiction provides information, and fiction tells a story.

If you don’t write stories, then read-read-read-read-read them. Study the many “how-to” books available. I have a list of preferred guides I hand out to almost every prospect and client. These help a lot during long lead times between scheduling a job and doing it, because the author has a chance to learn more and recast their manuscript into a stronger story, which makes the editing go more smoothly.

Another important area indie editors have to understand about themselves is mental and emotional flexibility. How much can you stand when dealing with different or difficult personality types? There’s no project manager as a buffer between you and the author, who might be pouring their guts out in their novels to a point that makes you embarrassed or ill. As well, an author might be unreliable in answering emails or making payments. They might have sexist or other “-ist” characters or viewpoints in themselves or their work that offend your values. They might be dreadful writers who are only paying you for a copyedit or a proofread when what they really need is a ruthless developmental edit. You know they’re going to get bad reviews, or have their dreams shattered by trying to interest an agent or traditional publisher in a novel with maybe one chance in ten million to sell. (Lotto-type wins do happen, though, so you can never assume there’s no chance.)

In sum, know your tolerance levels and have prevention practices in place and escape clauses in your contract.

Establishing transparency

The simplest way to tame the Wild West factor of indie editing with indie authors is to be transparent. Talk as much as you can before committing to a job. Get a feel for the author and the story. Tell them directly what services you provide for what costs. Answer all of their questions. Don’t let anyone snooker you.

Most of all, take authors seriously about their art and craft. Even the most masterful and successful novelists started somewhere, and as an indie dealing with indies, you’ll find that a lot of authors are going to start with you, and rely on you to direct them. You can have a meaningful influence on their confidence and careers.

Remember, too, that many creative writers have tendencies often considered clichéd but remain generally true despite that slur. Novelists are mainly artists, not technicians or businesspeople. An editor’s job is to help the author channel their vision into a product for other people to read and enjoy.

Without the resources and support system built into a traditional publishing house, indie editors working from home offices are mainly online with invisible clients and must figure out how to manage people of hugely diverse types who consider them experts in publishing — without fully understanding how many stages and people and skills and dollars are involved. That disconnect introduces a big “bumble fumble” factor, and it’s on the editor’s head to direct discordance into partnership and manage it throughout a project.

Resources

Because indie editors work alone, they gather in online groups to help each other. Here are some resources I have drawn on or know about that colleagues might find helpful.

Copyediting-L (email discussion list)

Facebook: Fiction Editors of Earth, Editors Association of Earth, EAE Backroom

Organizations: Editorial Freelancers Association, www.the-efa.org; National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, www.naiwe.com

AbsoluteWrite

SheWrites

An American Editor: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com (my essays on AAE: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/tag/carolyn-haley/

Blogs with helpful newsletters for both editors and authors:

The Book Designer, www.thebookdesigner.com

Alliance of Independent Authors, www.allianceindependentauthors.org

The Passive Voice, www.thepassivevoice.com

Jane Friedman, www.janeFriedman.com

Writer Beware, www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/

Funds for Writers

Ivan Hoffman (legal), https://ivanhoffman.com/

Janet Reid, https://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/

Kristine Kathryn Rush, Business Musings

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

November 27, 2020

Thinking Fiction — The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 1

Carolyn Haley

In the business combination of independent editor and independent author, especially in the realm of fiction, both parties quickly learn that there are no rules to the game.

Yes, there are best practices we should all consider; and yes, editors and authors must adhere to the legalities and tax responsibilities required by their locations; and yes, there are generally accepted ethical guidelines in conducting financial transactions for services.

Aside from those, indie fiction writing-editing-publishing is the new Wild West!

That’s because anyone can open shop as an editor, just as anyone can write a novel. There are no educational or technical qualifications to be either; no licensure mandated, no expertise needed beyond functional literacy. No official entity is watching or managing; no sanctioned organization or employer is mentoring, evaluating, or penalizing. Individual editors and authors must decide on their own how to operate together, and make personal judgments on what constitutes “good enough.”

This combination almost guarantees messy relationships and novels. The negative results are well-represented in the marketplace, and well-covered in other articles and blogs. This essay focuses on how to avoid those messes and succeed as an indie editor working with indie novelists.

First steps — understanding each other

It starts with understanding what “indie” means. On the surface, “indie” is merely shorthand for “independent.”

For editors, that means “self-employed” (aka “freelance”) versus being on the payroll of a publishing house.

For authors, it means essentially the same thing — they are not writing on behalf of a company, only for themselves. They might plan to self-publish their novel from the start or decide to do so after failing to interest traditional publishers in their work, or they might seek to publish traditionally and persevere toward that end. Any of these authors might seek indie editors to help them advance toward their goals. That’s why we can’t consider “indie publishing” to be synonymous with “self-publishing.”

Options and efforts

It frequently falls on indie editors to help indie authors distinguish between their options and guide their efforts. The main distinction between traditional and indie publishing is in which direction the money goes, combined with author involvement and control.

In the traditional publishing model, the author never parts with a dime. The publishing house bears all of the editing, proofing, production, marketing/promotion, and distribution costs, and eventually the author gets royalties on sales (after earning out any advance), at a modest percentage.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that no money ever comes out of the author’s pocket in traditional publishing (trad-pub). To gain access to the best houses, and often any house at all, novelists need to sign with an agent. Agents offer many valuable benefits to an author, but in exchange they take a commission of 10–20% of the author’s earnings. That indirect tap is often overlooked in the trad-pub vs. indie-pub decision.

Because trad-pub has become extremely competitive, with more authors struggling for fewer slots, many authors hire indie editors before submitting their work to agents and acquisition editors to help get their novels onto the playing field. They also might purchase help to navigate the bewildering maze of queries and synopses. Sometimes that pre-submission investment pays off — big time! — but most authors never recover their investments.

When their novels do get picked up by a trad-pub house, they’ll likely have to pay for their own marketing and promotion to keep their books available over the long term. Although this happens a lot with small publishing houses, it’s becoming increasingly true with big houses, too, so the original economic advantage of traditional publishing is slowly being eroded by changing market forces and consumer practices.

On the control and involvement side: In traditional publishing, authors (or their agents) must negotiate what rights are granted to the publisher for what terms. Assuming they reach a satisfactory contract, the book goes into production and out of the author’s control. They might have some say in the cover design or marketing campaign, and/or acceptance/rejection input over editorial changes, but in many publishing deals, authors are left out altogether between signing the contract and seeing the finished book.

Indie publishing is the reverse. The author pays for everything up front, but gets the full return of any income after expenses, and retains full control of rights, and full or semi-control during production.

For example, if the author is publishing through an author-services company, such as BookBaby, then that entity might perform tasks the author isn’t involved in (e.g., editing, design, production) as part of a purchased package. But most times, authors get authorization control.

Danger comes if an unsavvy author hooks up with an unscrupulous company, which might confuse authors into signing away rights out of ignorance and deliver a sloppy, unprofessional product as well.

Authors who pursue true self-publishing are their own business: a micro-size company with full decision-making authority and retention of all rights. These author-publishers are wholly responsible for hiring editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, typesetters and formatters, audiobook narrators and producers, publicists, promoters, schedulers, accountant, attorney. Not to mention ensuring that all tasks are performed, and managing the outgo and income of the enterprise.

Real costs

Many new authors have no idea how much money publishing requires (thousands!), because for generations, those costs were buried in publishing house salaries and administration overhead — information not publicly available. When indie authors move outside that model to get indie help, they are often rocked back on their heels by “sticker shock.” This is a regular problem for indie editors seeking clients, because appalled authors who haven’t done their homework aren’t prepared to pay professional rates.

Originally, all book editors worked in-house for publishing houses. Over decades of economic, cultural, and media changes, editorial staff began getting pushed off payrolls and forced to go freelance or change occupation. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet made it easier to work remotely, drawing more editors into the field from myriad directions.

This change was accelerated by the entry of Amazon into the arena along with other author-service providers and aggregators/distributors, which transformed indie publishing from a pure vanity exercise to an intentional option for authors. In turn, it has increased demand for editorial support outside traditional publishing houses.

Today’s indie editors are predominantly sole-proprietor businesses who might contract with a publishing house, or an author-services provider, or directly with an individual author — maybe all of the above — to perform specific editorial services at self-established rates.

Editing roles

When working for a traditional publisher or author-services provider, indie editors deal with an intermediary, who might be called any combination of production or project manager/editor/coordinator. The indie editor has no contact with an author beyond the back-and-forth of files (sometimes not even that — indie editor provides edited files to the coordinator and never sees or hears about them again). The institution pays the editor, under terms that may or may not be negotiable. Editors must adhere to house rules of process and style (sometimes flexible; most times not), and usually wait weeks or months for their paychecks.

In contrast, when an indie editor works directly for an indie author, nobody else is involved. It’s a one-on-one private arrangement with lots of room to go smoothly — or horribly. Both parties are responsible for communicating what they want and need and expect; for establishing and agreeing to rules of engagement, and adhering to them; and being willing to discuss changes in a grown-up and flexible way.

In other words, they must make their own rules.

Time and experience among indie editors and authors are establishing successful approaches. Still, choices must constantly be made, be they for basic operation or how to organize an individual project. See Part 2 of this column for insights into what those choices could be and how to navigate them.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Friday, December 4.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for theNew York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

May 24, 2019

Thinking Fiction: Protecting an Editor’s Rights — If Any

By Carolyn Haley

A subject that comes up from time to time in publishing circles is whether an editor has any copyright interest in an author’s manuscript — that is, the edited version of the manuscript. Some editors believe the edited version is unique to them and forms a new and different work, which can give them leverage in demanding payment from a recalcitrant party.

I first saw this tactic suggested as a last-ditch measure against publishers that don’t play fair — those that pay late or try not to pay at all. I’ve since seen editors adding language to the same effect in their contracts with independent authors, to protect themselves from clients who change their tune after the job is done and refuse to pay, or take way longer to pay than was agreed. As part of the language, the editor’s claim to having a copyright in the edited version becomes null and void upon receipt of full payment.

In my opinion, attempting to conflate copyright with payment is irrational and unprofessional, regardless of whether a given case is winnable in a court of law. My opinion comes from my combined position as an author, an editor, and a self-employed business entity.

How Copyright Works

Consider first that copyright applies to intellectual property. Per the U.S. Copyright Office, it pertains to “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

“Original” and “tangible” are the key terms, because ideas themselves are common and fluid, and expressed in myriad ways by myriad people, and have been so over centuries, if not millennia. Copyright law only protects an individual’s unique presentation of an idea, not an idea itself. (Nor are titles protected by copyright.) In addition (italics mine), “copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

A work qualifies as derivative “if the changes are substantial and creative, something more than just editorial changes or minor changes. . . . For instance, simply making spelling corrections throughout a work does not warrant a new registration, but adding an additional chapter would.”

With those criteria in mind, how much does an editor have to change in a manuscript before it becomes a different enough “tangible medium of expression” to acquire uniqueness, and thus give the editor a copyright?

How Editing Works

Adjustments in punctuation, spelling, subtleties of phrasing, consistency — the tools of line editing and copy editing — all serve to clarify an author’s unique expression of their ideas, not change them. Perhaps developmental editing can get deep and gnarly enough to significantly change an author’s presentation, but does it change the book’s concept, audience, characters, or plot, or the author’s essential language and style?

If so, then the contract between author and editor should be about co-authorship, not editing.

The main thing to understand is that in an editing job, the author has the right to accept or reject the editor’s changes and suggestions. That gives the author ownership of the content by default. In some draconian contracts out there, an author may have signed away that right and must accept whatever a publisher’s editor or an independent editor does to the work — but in that situation, the author has made a regrettable mistake. In the absence of such contract terms, the agreement between author and editor generally is based on the editor helping improve the author’s work, not alter it.

Understanding Editing vs. Revising

Another argument against claiming copyright of the edited version of a work is the nebulous relationship between editing and revising. A manuscript is a work in progress until it’s locked into its published form and released. Until that point, starting with the first draft, most authors revise their work numerous times, and may have other parties, such as friends, family, colleagues, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and pre-publication reviewers — paid or unpaid — participate in the process. These helpers, individually and collectively, contribute to a version of the manuscript different from the one before, which is different from the one before, as often as needed to complete and polish the work.

Should each party in that revision cycle get a copyright interest in the work? Should the parties involved in the next cycle supersede them because a new, copyrightable version has been created?

What if the author desires to register their copyright after the first draft? Registration is not required for an author’s copyright to be valid, because copyright is automatically granted the moment a work is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression.” Registration is recommended to protect the author’s interests in the event of a legal challenge, but is not conditional for protection. Nonetheless, many authors register their copyrights because doing so makes them feel more secure. Imagine, then, what the paperwork and costs would be if they had to register every updated version of a work in progress, each one involving different people!

The whole idea is silly, because all editing occurs before a work is deemed complete. As such, it is subsumed into the overall development and revision process. Without a legal structure to define and support the many layers of building a publishable work, and the many people who might be involved, there is no basis for giving anyone but the author a copyright in the work.

The Alternative to Claiming Copyright

Having copyright-related language in editing contracts might be effective with publishing companies that employ accounting departments and lawyers, who fear legal action and can’t or won’t take the time to research the efficacy of defending copyright claims. Such language also might discourage individual authors from playing head games with independent editors.

More likely, the language would chase away independent authors of good will who are paying out of their own pockets for professional editing services, and who desire a personal, supportive, and honest relationship with their editors. Many writers have been coached by other writers or online gurus to fear that editors will steal, or drastically change, their work. Adding the threat of somebody claiming a copyright on their work will just reinforce their anxiety and give them a reason to look elsewhere — or go without editing at all.

In which case, an editor won’t have to worry about getting paid.

Getting paid does remain the bottom line. It can best be assured through transparency and a straightforward contract. My contract states: “Unless a co-authorship arrangement is made in writing, all royalties and monies gained from the sale of the book will be the sole property of the book’s copyright owner. Editor acknowledges no rights to the manuscript beyond the right to withhold delivery of the edited manuscript until final payment for work is received.”

In other words, the politically incorrect expression “no tickee, no shirtee” applies. I consider this a reasonable business position (i.e., I do the work, you pay me for it), and that claiming a copyright for something that isn’t mine is needlessly aggressive. It is also not trustworthy, owing to the copyright claim’s dubious enforceability and the specious element of “oh, that claim disappears as soon as you pay me.”

From an author’s standpoint, I wouldn’t hire an editor who would hang that kind of threat over me. My book is my book, and somebody who thinks they have the right to hijack it is somebody I wouldn’t deal with.

A Balanced Approach

Editing is — or should be — a cooperative profession, not an adversarial one. Editors stating plainly that they expect to be paid are declaring themselves professional businesspeople. Editors stating plainly that they are prepared to co-opt an author’s copyright are inviting trouble. Most publishers and indie authors will pay for services rendered. The minority who won’t pay are the reason that editors consider using the copyright-claiming ploy.

One way to avoid needing such a ploy is to require a deposit before commencing work. This usually isn’t an option for independent editors dealing with publishing companies, which state the terms that editors must take or leave. In such cases, editors need to weigh the pluses and minuses, negotiate the best they can, and be prepared to accommodate a loss should the project go awry.

When making deals with indie authors or amenable companies, however, editors should state their terms and stick to them. I have found that a signed agreement delivered with a 50 percent deposit demonstrates a client’s intention to pay. They go into the deal knowing that I will sit on the finished edit until they pay the balance, and if they don’t pay, they lose the work and have to start all over again.

In the event they don’t pay, I may have wasted time but not suffered a total loss. The less-than-expected final compensation might end up being a painful learning experience, but still, learning can’t be discounted. Meanwhile, I still have something in my pocket to show for the effort.

Nine times out of 10 (more accurately, 9.999 times out of 10), I end up with full payment on time, a happy client, an open relationship, and future work from the client or someone they refer. These benefits come from respecting authors’ work and position, and not messing with their heads. Better yet, their work goes to publication; and with luck and a good story, cleanly edited, they enjoy publishing success. I doubt I would have this track record if I made it a policy to step on their writerly toes.

How many of our readers have invoked copyright claims on edited work with authors who have not paid as promised and planned? Has it worked for you? What other techniques have you used to ensure being paid?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

March 4, 2019

Lazy Writing, Part 2 — Something to Combat, but Sometimes Appreciate

By Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this article, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/thinking-fiction-lazy-writing-part-1-something-to-combat-but-sometimes-appreciate/

Extra padding

Sometimes lazy writing involves using more words than needed. Characters give a sigh or give a wink instead of just sighing or winking. They make their way somewhere instead of walking, driving, climbing, wending, etc. They have a feeling of dread about something instead of dreading it, or haven’t seen someone for a while instead of for hours, days, weeks, months, or years. Readers soon get tired of such lazy usage and yearn for some brevity and specificity.

The same effect occurs with over-creativity, by which I mean referring to a character in too many ways. Joe might be a short guy with black hair who is also a police officer in Chicago. As paragraphs about his action go by, he’s referred to as Joe, the short man, the black-haired fighter, the cop, and the Chicagoan. In trying to avoid repetition, the author ends up confusing the reader by introducing too many variables. This tends to happen in action novels, where a character is lightly sketched at first appearance and never developed to the point of being easily recognizable later. Such variability again makes the reader have to work hard to keep track of who’s who.

Loose ends

The most common lazy writing I encounter is false suspense, although this is a result less of laziness than ignorance. It usually occurs in a first novel, when the author doesn’t yet understand the difference between suspense that generates the “What happens next?” question and suspense that generates the “What’s going on?” question.

I recently challenged a client about why he kept starting new chapters in new places and times without telling us who was talking or where/when they were. That information came several paragraphs or even pages into the chapter. He said he liked dropping readers straight into the action. That’s fine if readers can follow the logic leap. If not, it’s a head-scratcher that is certain to leave readers impatient and confused.

Lazy writing occurs also in matters of verisimilitude. When writers get carried away with the excitement of their story and don’t later verify facts and logistics, it falls on the editor to burst their balloon by pointing out that a scene can’t happen the way it’s described.

Most such bloopers are easy fixes, such as adjusting the scene to account for moonlight (or lack of), or whether it’s possible to maneuver with bodies lying around underfoot, or how a specified gun type might behave, or accounting for vehicles left crashed in the middle of the road when the hero then zooms down said road unimpeded. Sometimes a technical blooper might require a major recast of scene or even storyline; but, thankfully for both writers and editors, bloopers usually are of the “duh” type, such as cigarettes lit but never put out (or smoked in 30 seconds or 30 minutes), or the consequences of a major wound (people who don’t bleed, or continue running around when they’ve had a lung shot out), and the like. Fixing those items doesn’t require revising the whole book.

The subjectivity factor

The laziest of lazy writing, in my passionate opinion, is the cliffhanger, be it the ending of a scene, a chapter, or an entire book. I acknowledge that this can be a matter of taste, and I struggle with determining whether that’s truly the case or if the story is hurting itself by using that device. How to respond to cliffhangers is, perhaps, the most difficult decision I must make as an editor. Do I let it go, or flag it as a criticism or item for discussion? As a recreational reader on my own time, cliffhangers inspire me to simply toss a book over my shoulder, but as a professional editor, I can’t do that.

Cliffhangers strike me as a cheap shot, as manipulative, as author intrusion into a story. They occur most often in series novels, used as an attempt to bribe readers into reading the next book. I consider cliffhanging a lazy technique because, as a reader, I want resolution. I am willing to keep turning pages if the author keeps the suspense and interest mounting, but I don’t need to be compelled to continue by force. I want closure of the individual volume’s story with promise of more to come, not major components left dangling to provoke me into reading the next book.

As with almost everything relating to writing and editing novels, subjectivity is a big factor. My job as an editor is to inform an author about any spot where other readers might bark their shins. It’s up to the author to decide whether those places are things they want to think about and change.

If the author chooses to let an issue stand, I’m fine with that. I care only that they make an informed choice. The marketplace will decide whether it’s the right choice. Most of us know that you can’t please everyone, and the author’s goal is to connect with the audience who wants to read their stuff. My job as an editor is to help them achieve that end.

The editor’s role

It’s a rare editor who doesn’t encounter lazy writing during their career. Those who work with indie authors, especially new ones, encounter it often. Tolerance for editing lazy writing should be considered when deciding what kind of editorial work to do for a living. That tolerance level also an important component of structuring contracts — defining exactly what the editor is going to do to the client’s manuscript is essential to a good working relationship.

If you have the heart and soul of a developmental editor, and you find clients willing to pay the cost, then you can dive into someone’s early work and help them avoid symptoms of lazy writing. This not only gives you job satisfaction, but also helps line and copy editors down the road, who might not be developmentally inclined and have a harder time sorting out the material, defining the boundaries of their work, and helping their clients.

Line and copy editors do sometimes have to deal with un-developmentally-edited texts, because their clients are unwilling or unable to pay for the higher level of edit that would catch and help the author fix instances of lazy writing. In all cases, no matter what level of editing is involved, editors have to define terms and expectations carefully in the work they propose to provide. Copy editors are generally limited to making comments and queries instead of rephrasing, and both editor and author might end up tearing their hair out if the “edited” manuscript is overloaded with changes and queries attacking the text when that’s not part of the agreed-upon scope of work. A client expecting the mechanical focus of copyediting might not be open to the heavy hits on their prose by an editor who recognizes lazy writing and tries to improve it, while a client expecting deep involvement in their prose might feel cheated if all they get are mechanical edits.

Appreciating the lazy …

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate lazy writing. It forces me to concentrate on a story and think hard about the details, get engrossed in the characters, take the author seriously. Addressing the questions that lazy writing triggers and talking with the author about them brings out the best of our relationship, letting us blend the artistic and analytical elements that bring out the best of the work. Ultimately, we all — author, editor, and the story itself — end up more muscular and vibrant. How can that not result in a better book?

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

August 31, 2018

The Value (or Not) of Beta Readers

Carolyn Haley

Many novelists enlist the aid of beta readers after completing the first draft of a book. A beta reader, according to Wikipedia, is:

  • a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues . . . . so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.

Beta readers usually precede professional editors in a novel’s path to publication; sometimes they replace professional editors for self-publishing authors on low budgets. A few professional editors offer beta reading as one of their services. I don’t, preferring to offer manuscript evaluations or developmental edits for work in its early stages.

Beta reading, in my opinion, is more subjective and freestyle than professional editing should be. I engage in it only with my writers’ group, whose members return the favor. Through long-term, piecemeal, opinionated back-and-forthing, we help each other convert our messy first drafts into manuscripts coherent enough to be professionally edited.

While beta reading can be immensely helpful to authors, it can also throw them off course or even change their progress to regress. The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” might come into play. The following two cases illustrate the possible effects of multiple contradictory responses to a person’s first novel.

Case #1: Counterproductive Overload

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Henry, has been working on his book for several years. It is the first volume of a science fiction adventure series aimed at young adults, set in an alternate world with lots of action wrapped around a social injustice theme.

Henry hired me for copyediting and paid his deposit. In the weeks between scheduling the job and its start date, however, he had an unknown number of adult friends beta-read the manuscript. Their feedback knocked him from self-assurance to quivering uncertainty. He decided to postpone sending the manuscript to me so he could recast sections in response to the beta reader commentary.

Good idea, in theory. Copyediting is supposed to come at the end of a book’s development, giving it the final polish needed before sending it out the door. Henry was discovering that his story needed more development than he’d thought. His initial two-month postponement stretched into two years.

Eventually Henry finished the book to his satisfaction and delivered the manuscript. Since he didn’t want to change our original scope of work, I copyedited the novel. I thought he was still a long way from his goal of being traditionally published, but you never know, so I gave him my best effort and wished him the best of luck.

Two years later, he came back for a second copyedit of the same novel. Not only had my editing inspired him to make significant revisions, but also, while I had been editing, he’d been having another crop of people beta read the book.

Because of that response overload, Henry spent months revising in different directions. The conflicting information caused him to lose sight of his original vision and eroded his confidence. He started to wonder why he had bothered trying to write the book in the first place, and despaired of ever succeeding.

Eventually he bounced back, reaching a point of satisfaction and deciding to self-publish. That’s when he hired me for the second copyedit. But history repeated itself: During the weeks of waiting between hiring me and the job start date, he took in yet more beta reader feedback, which thrust him back into indecision. This time, he postponed copyediting for six months. (And this time, I inserted a cutoff clause into his contract, so if he bailed out again, he would forfeit his deposit.)

Luckily, I was able to fill the holes in my calendar caused by both of his postponements. It distresses me, though, to see an author get undermined and derailed by an invisible crowd of others whose opinions outweigh my professional observations, explanations, and encouragement.

This author is willing to pay twice for a service he doesn’t seem to believe has greater value than unqualified people’s feelings. He’s also willing to possibly lose a substantial amount of money if he can’t set priorities and boundaries, and hold tight to his own vision, before the time limit on his deposit runs out.

I question whether he will ever be able to own his work and find the courage to expose it to the world through publication, never mind acquire the storycraft skills to convey it. As well, the money he has already laid out would have covered a professional developmental edit. Had we done that in the first place, perhaps by now his book would be several levels farther along and he’d still be excited by its prospects. Even if I’m not the ideal editor for him, he would be making progress rather than riding a merry-go-round, trying to satisfy all readers in all things.

Maybe his time on the merry-go-round will ultimately result in a finished novel. Sometimes that happens, as it did with a member of my writers’ group.

Case #2: Productive Overload

This author, whom I’ll call Henrietta, has also spent many years on crafting her first novel. Unlike Henry, her book is a stand-alone story, set on contemporary Earth. Instead of action and adventure, it presents a deep character study written in a literary style.

Henrietta is trained in the commercial graphic arts, which gives her a seemingly infinite capacity to reformulate a concept. Like Henry, she’s new to creating personal art through words and is insecure about its validity. Also like Henry, she can’t resist the temptation to gather opinions. Thus, she’s had beta reader after beta reader, and goes through much psychological hand-wringing in trying to decide whose opinion matters, seeking to accommodate all of them in her work.

My opinion holds extra weight for her because I’m a professional editor. I provide my services gratis in this case, because in this writers’ group, we all volunteer skills in mutual support. Our personal creative works exist on spec — no guarantee any of us will publish, or earn a dime if we do — versus professional services provided under contract, where performance and delivery are part of an economic exchange. In the writers’ group, we are friends exchanging favors.

Regardless of my professional status, Henrietta routinely ignores my opinion because it disagrees with her vision. In this regard, she differs from Henry, who struggles to hold his vision at all. Her professional training enables her to weigh and measure and ultimately assimilate diverse opinions, while my professional training lets me leave her free to do it (copyeditor’s mantra: “It’s not my book, not my book . . .”). I serve instead as sounding board and devil’s advocate, with my real contribution being copyediting and proofreading.

Henrietta’s willingness to consider options kept making her book stronger — until the day came when she had incorporated too many opinions, and both the story and her writing voice began to unravel. That not only added months to her writing time, but also burned her out on the project. I invested a lot of time in pushing her to embrace her work and believe in herself.

After many more revisions, some of which brought sections of the book back to where they’d started, her manuscript was ready for submission to agents and, in my opinion, worthy of being published by a Big Five house. (I also believe that if she wants to skip the agent and submit directly to smaller publishers, she could sell the book in five minutes. If she chooses to self-publish [an option she is rejecting because she understands the huge and long-term marketing work involved], she could probably make some serious money.) But she knows what she wants and is staying her course.

Problem is, she can’t stop collecting beta reader opinions. Even as I was mechanically editing the “final” version, she continued to run every little late idea past multiple people. It took coercion to get her to send out her first query letter, after which she immediately started second-guessing how an agent would react to dialogue and scene details, and sneaking her fingers back to the keyboard. I’m hoping her future agent and house editor can manage this tendency, so the book can make it to publication.

Positive Outcomes

Most of my clients claim to use beta readers, without providing details. Occasionally they also refer to a writing class or a previous editor. A recent author mentioned using all three resources. He, like Henry, had signed up with me and paid his deposit, then suddenly postponed for two years. But when he came back, both his book and his confidence were strong. Like Henry, he’s launching a science fiction adventure series. Unlike Henry, I expect him to be a self-publishing success.

Another self-publishing client revealed that his novel, volume two of a historical fantasy, had been through developmental editing with a high-end professional I recognized. The investment showed, in that the manuscript I received for copyediting needed nothing more than token spit-and-polish.

I do not know if this client ever used beta readers. Possibly not, because unlike many authors, he has the wherewithal to spring for pros at each stage. He went through the same developmental-editor-to-copyeditor sequence when self-publishing his first volume, which came out beautifully and has been well received. I expect volume two will build his audience.

Yet another client seems to have the complete writing skill set hardwired into him. He cranks out one or two novels a year without help, and all of them are exciting, well-crafted stories ready for copyediting. He’s another self-publisher, and his sales are growing.

In general, whichever publishing path my clients choose, the newer they are to writing and publishing, the more beta readers they’re inclined to use. I believe there has to be a limit, though. As Henry and Henrietta show (and I can confirm from my own creative-writing experience), beta readers can be helpful or harmful. It’s important to restrict their numbers, and select readers who can couch their personal opinions in writerly terms. Otherwise, the author is just getting consumer reviews too soon.

Reviewing only should occur after publication, just as copyediting should only be done on a manuscript ready for submission or production. It’s tough enough for an author to weather a storm of diverse opinions once the book is finished; being hammered by that storm while still writing can impair an author’s creativity and zeal — right when those attributes are most needed to give a book its voice and vision.

Voice and vision are what make a novel unique, and, ultimately, draw the audience that defines an author’s career. Beta readers, like editors, may not be the book’s target audience no matter what their relationship to the author. They can inhibit or confuse authors by pushing them to satisfy the readers’/editors’ personal tastes. Beta readers and editors alike need to remember whose book it is, and work within the author’s frame of reference. Their collective goal should be helping authors achieve their individual goals.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

June 11, 2018

Thinking Fiction – To Specialize or Generalize?

Carolyn Haley

I am a fiction editor. I wear that label with pride because it took many years to earn it, via a long and zigzag road. I love my job and don’t ever want to do anything else.

I can’t claim to be a fiction-only editor, because I still work for long-term clients in other realms. This maintains diversity and provides security, because keeping some nonfiction clients avoids the risky business position of having all of my eggs in a single basket.

I thought I had the mix in a nice, stable balance, but then I had an experience that rocked my editorial boat and revived questions about my professional choices; questions I believed I had answered long ago.

The Curse of Complacency

Late last year, the dreaded “freelancer famine” occurred after a long-lasting feast. Several scheduled jobs were canceled or postponed, and I failed to win new projects I’d pitched for. Suddenly I was facing a shortfall right when I needed an infusion of cash. Like a blessing from the gods, though, an old client appeared who had a similar problem: The editor for a book had backed out, and other editors they’d asked to step in were unavailable. They desperately needed help in a hurry. Voilà: I was available, and we merged into a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

The project involved a book type I hadn’t handled in a long time: academic. I’d done a few similar books for this client over the course of a decade, and our track record together was excellent, so I knew I could do the job competently, even though it wasn’t my daily fare.

Wrong.

By the end of Chapter 1, I was in trouble. My fiction concentration had drawn me far enough out of nonfiction that I’d forgotten many of the conventions used both in scholarly works in general and this client’s projects in particular. I hadn’t kept good notes for past jobs so I couldn’t brush up. The procedures and macros I’ve built for novels were irrelevant for academese, including references, citations, figures, and tables. I didn’t have time to study and develop the software tools that could help me, since this was a rush job.

The only smart thing I did was inform the project editor (PE) up front that I was stale on this type of editing and might need her help. Good thing, for I wallowed and flailed all the way through. I did get the job done, and on time, but I was inefficient, made stupid mistakes, and failed to ask the right questions; the PE had to do extra work to compensate for my inadequacy. She was a dream about handling it, but I was severely embarrassed, and my self-confidence took a wallop.

Yet even before we were done, the PE asked me to do more work for the company. I can’t imagine why, given my performance. Perhaps my openness was a factor. Thankfully, her next project conflicted with a novel I’d already scheduled, so I had to decline. But more projects were in the pipeline and the editor wanted to offer them to me. I had to decide fast whether to remain open to those opportunities or close the door.

That’s what brought old questions back onto the table, starting with: Is specializing in fiction the right plan, or should I go back to being a generalist editor? Which makes better business sense?

The Pathway to Decision

There was no business sense involved at the beginning of my work life, beyond the imperative of getting a job. I did not finish college, nor did I have a professional goal. I discovered editing in general through decades of corporate document production work, along with reading and writing novels. Once I learned that copyediting in particular was a valid occupation, I gained the professional purpose I’d been lacking.

I acquired a copyediting certificate from a local college, then began incorporating copyediting into my production jobs. Through work experience and self-education, I converted my production jobs into editing positions. The companies I worked for exposed me to an enormous range of documentation and subjects, providing the foundation I needed when the surprise of downsizing came along. Then I had to acquire business sense fast, because the only way I could continue as an editor was to freelance.

Like many people who find themselves abruptly self-employed, I first worked as a contractor for former employers while slowly establishing a broader clientele. I was free to pursue my real interest — editing novels — but lacked the credentials to move directly into that sphere. Thus I began as a generalist editor, starting with business documents, then adding magazines, catalogs, textbooks, memoirs, newsletters, résumés, transcription, science journals, white papers — if it led to a paycheck, I did it. And if it didn’t pay, such as editing friends’ novels, I did it anyway for experience.

I also accepted terribly paying jobs for the early author-services companies, because this gave not only hands-on opportunity to edit novels for pay, but also exposure to the novel-publishing side of the book industry. Whatever type of work I did, I performed it capably enough that no client expressed dissatisfaction, and every one of them paid in full and on time. Eventually, after taking many editing and proofreading tests, I got onto the freelancer lists of a few fiction-publishing houses, and qualified to join editorial networks that helped channel desired work in my direction. By these accomplishments, I rated myself a success and was on the road to achieving my fiction-specialist goal.

What about School?

After several years of generalist freelancing, I proved I could earn a living as an editor. To increase my income to a more comfortable level, however, I had to upgrade my expertise. That brought up the questions: Should I go back to school? How much influence would a degree, and which degree, have on my earning potential?

Research showed that best editing rates were being offered in the technical fields where I had no experience or aptitude. Simultaneously, I saw rates offered to editors with advanced degrees in any field that were no better than what I was earning without a degree.

The editors who seemed to command the best rates had specialist knowledge in a particular area, had many more years of experience than I did, were either in conventional full-time positions or solidly established with clients who provided steady work, and/or were savvy businesspeople who knew how to market themselves. What I didn’t see was any direct correlation between educational degree and income.

I calculated the rate increase I would need to offset the cost of returning to school, for either a degree or advanced certification. When I factored in the time commitment as well, I realized I would spend more time and money on upgrading my qualifications on paper than I could earn back in an equivalent amount of time, if ever.

The other element to consider was stress. The circumstances of my personal life made adding the long-term strain of schoolwork on top of full-time professional work potentially hazardous to my health.

After weighing all of these factors, I chose to keep working and self-educating toward specializing in fiction, because the combination of editing it, writing it, reading it, reviewing it, and teaching it brought joy. I inched my rates upward, and enjoyed successful project after successful project. Even on the worst day of editing the worst novel, I could still plow through the job with a sense of challenge and satisfaction. That was not true with any other form of work.

By the time I accepted the project recounted at the start of this essay, my project proportion had settled at around 90 percent fiction, 10 percent nonfiction. My poor showing on the textbook shocked me into realizing how, in upgrading my qualifications for fiction, I had downgraded my qualifications for nonfiction. I had to do something to prevent such a professional gaffe from happening again.

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

The obvious solution to my specialize-or-generalize dilemma was to stop accepting scholarly book work. The equally obvious alternative was to learn or relearn tools, techniques, and knowledge to bring my nonfiction qualifications back up to snuff. The first option jeopardized my financial security, in that I would lose periodic income that would have to be found elsewhere, and marketing is my weakest skill. The second option jeopardized my state of mind, in that I would have to endure misery for money. I find scholarly work painfully dull and frustrating, even though I always learn something useful from it. Not only would I rather avoid such work, but I’d spent my entire pre-freelance career enduring misery for money and didn’t want to backslide to that status.

I’d learned from concentrating on fiction that the joy of doing what you love for a living is a luxury beyond price. As well, loving one’s job creates the motivational difference between a carrot and a stick. Pursuing a carrot — reward — is much easier to do, mentally, emotionally, and physically, than evading a stick — punishment. Even if you make better income because of the stick, what value is it when your life is dominated by dread, resentment, boredom, and, often, health or relationship problems? If you’re motivated to keep doing what you love, then you can find it within yourself to do what you need to do, such as marketing and self-educating, because the reward is getting to do more of what you love.

Looking at it that way resolved my dilemma. Instead of eschewing nonfiction altogether, I reexamined and affirmed my priorities: fiction first, general nonfiction second, academic and technical nonfiction last. That enabled me, in turn, to prioritize my marketing and education efforts and expenditures.

It also allowed me to keep a good client. I told the PE that I’m happy to keep working together and would brush up on the appropriate skills. She expressed willingness to help. I updated her on my current workflow, dominant focus, and average lead time for taking on new projects, so she can reasonably anticipate what to expect when projects come in for assignment. I’m also helping her find other editors to call upon in case her main roster falls short again and I’m not available for backup.

Whether it all comes together in a successful future project will depend on timing. For now, I’ve weathered a jarring wake-up call, saved a good relationship, and laid the groundwork for better. I should send that PE flowers and a thank-you note for inadvertently pushing me to make an overdue but important mid-career evaluation and course correction. Now it’s by design, instead of impulse combined with accident, that I am a specialist fiction editor. And I have a much better idea of how to apply that commitment to maintaining and growing my business.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

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