An American Editor

April 12, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Three — Themes and Variations

Carolyn Haley

Dialogue is a big area of editorial focus in fiction. It presents multiple technical issues — making sure all open quotes are paired with close quotes; punctuation is inside or outside the quote marks as appropriate; terminal punctuation is there at all; quote marks are right-side-up and/or have no spaces around them, and are “curly” (typographer style) versus straight.

It also presents issues regarding who said what and how, and whether that information is needed. The primary content elements are identifier tags (the who part) and writing style (the how part). Two simple examples: “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he said quietly, versus, “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he whispered; and “Ready, aim, fire,” he shouted loudly, versus just, “Ready, aim — fire!

My house style regarding dialogue is to emulate what I see in the hundreds of traditionally published books I read and review annually. The accepted wisdom is to minimize tag use (e.g., he said), use an appropriate tag when needed (e.g., he whispered), and/or bracket the words with an action so the reader can follow the exchange (e.g., The general stood behind the troops and counted down with his arm. “Ready, aim — fire!”).

Dashes and Ellipses

Em dashes (—) and ellipses (…)occur often in novels to signify broken or interrupted speech or thoughts (em dash), or hesitant or trailing-off speech or thoughts (ellipses). Regardless of purpose, they have to be handled consistently in a manuscript. They are handled differently in manuscripts destined for electronic versus print production, which adds a formatting element to the editor’s equation.

My default practice is to edit for print production. More and more, though, my clients intend from the get-go to self-publish in e-book and/or print. I now need to negotiate up front how I will format the edited material I deliver. Some authors prepare e-books themselves; others send out their edited manuscripts for formatting, or publish through a service that does the e-book prep work for them; while some want me to do that prep as part of the edit.

In manuscripts intended for submission to traditional publishers or for self-publishing in print, the em dash without spaces on either side (closed up) is the preferred style. At production time, a typesetter will finesse line length and word spacing so line breaks occur correctly. MS Word files containing em dashes transfer well to page-layout programs; in submitted-for-consideration manuscripts, an author using em dashes (vs. double hyphens or en dashes) sends a subliminal signal to the acquiring editor that they either know what they’re doing or have worked with an editor and the manuscript is in respectable shape.

In manuscripts intended for self-publishing for e-readers, however, the em dash without spaces can be a hindrance. It adheres to the words on either side, and in text that will be enlarged or shrunken at will by the reader, the clumped-together words plus em dash can cause some funky spacing on the reader’s screen because of word wrap on variable scales. The dashes, therefore, have to have spacing around them, and ideally be attached to the preceding word with a nonbreaking space so word and dash will wrap together. In some cases, the e-book producer prefers an en dash ( – ) with spaces around it. For .epub files in particular, the ideal is for any dash to be a Unicode character.

Whatever the situation, somebody has to take care of dash detail. I offer value-added to my clients, where viable, by taking care of it myself.

The same is true for ellipses. In conventional print production, ellipses comprise nine elements: word+space+point+space+point+space+point+space+word. Typesetters insert hard spaces in this sequence to avoid line breaks between the points. I can do that in Word as part of grooming the text during an edit, and often do. Manuscripts slated for e-book production, though, work best if the ellipses are coded as a single character — a three-point unit without spaces between the points, with or without spaces before and after. Spacing around the three-point character allows for better wraps during enlargement or shrinking.

Again, this is a formatting detail I can provide or ignore, depending on the client’s desires. Where it applies to house style is establishing with the author what route to take, then performing the task and recording the choice in the style sheet.

Putting It All Together

I communicate my house style through the style sheet I produce for each manuscript. I start by listing my core references.

References used for general style

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, online unabridged, first variant used unless indicated
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed.
  • Multiple online sources

Some manuscripts are clean and simple, so I stop there. Others require lookups from throughout my library and the Internet, which I don’t list unless a particular project requires heavy, repeat consultation.

For example, one militaristic science fiction novel included many biblical quotations. In checking the quotes for accuracy, I discovered there are multiple versions of the Bible, and quote checks among them showed variables in phrasing. The differences could be just a word or two, or complete sentences. In this client’s book, a few checks against his phrasing showed that the King James Bible matched his work most closely, so I made sure that all the quotes in the novel aligned with the phrasing of the King James version, which I listed on the style sheet as a resource.

In the same manuscript, I had to check a lot of firearms, too, so I listed my primary resource: the annual edition of the Gun Digest catalogue. Another author switched back and forth between metric units and other measurement systems. After checking which the author wanted, I converted those numbers in the text. Years ago, I found a website I like to use for that purpose (; when I use it a lot, I list it to show the author where I got my numbers.

This information is all I provide on the style sheet for references. I don’t think a client needs to know every single book or website I use to check something. I list the top three or four resources to make the point that I employ the tools of my trade and have indeed checked items that needed verification. This signals the same point to other publishing professionals who might follow me in the chain, such as a proofreader or an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher’s in-house editor. My resource list tells them the manuscript has been professionally edited and which frame of reference the editor used.

Next on the style sheet, I provide a bullet list of applicable generalities. While these mainly concur with the core references, they accommodate any dominant deviations and reflect things done globally to the manuscript. Here’s an example from a contemporary time-travel fantasy.

Conventions followed in this manuscript

  • add ’s in singular possessives ending in s (Dr. Jones’s, Professor Albates’s, his boss’s)
  • cap first word of full sentence after colon
  • cap honorifics and titles in direct address or referral (Father vs. my father; King Ageis vs. the king)
  • cap university class and division names (Modern Physics, Thermodynamics, Psychology, Biochem; but: the medical school, the business school)
  • cap software or keyboard commands (Run, Stop, Send) and lever positions (Drive, Park)
  • comma after long introductory phrases (4+ words) and to separate long compound sentences
  • comma before last item in series (friends, students, and professors)
  • comma before terminal too, anyway, though, either [untracked]
  • distinction made between each other (two) and one another (several), except in dialogue
  • ellipses = traditional print version ( . . . ) with hard spaces between points to prevent breaking at line ends
  • italics for book and media titles; foreign languages; ship names; emphasis; sounds (pop); telepathy; thoughts/inner speech/remembered speech; unspoken language (she mouths, Everything is always okay); words as words (To her, okay is the male equivalent of the female favorite, fine.), letters as letters; dreams; text messages
  • no comma between easy-flow coordinate adjectives where meaning is clear (hot clammy darkness, large green leaves, low sweet sound)
  • no comma in common informal expressions (“Oh my,” “Oh yes”; but: “Yes, sir”)
  • no s in –ward words (backward, upward, toward) [untracked]
  • no single quotes used except for quotes-within-quotes
  • numbers spelled out zero through one hundred, plus round hundreds, thousands, fractions, and any in dialogue (except years and other special items, e.g., firearms and ammo [.50, 9 mm])
  • numerals for dates, decimals, huge numbers (1043), alphanumeric combinations (3-D, Fortune 500, room 603, I-82, serial number 34321-KT-14133, section 9B5, DL99 maintenance drone)
  • title caps in quotes for signs (“No Trespassing”), including tattoos

After this summary, I provide an alphabetical list of terms. These cover anything I look up to confirm that the dictionary or style guide differs from what the author uses, along with proper nouns that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the style sheet, words unique to the manuscript, foreign-language terms or phrases, any word including a diacritical mark, technical terminology, and whatever else might be relevant. Here are a few examples from a contemporary fantasy novel:

amid (vs. amidst)

among (vs. amongst)

ax (vs. axe)

back seat (vs. backseat)

blond (masc. & generic); blonde (fem. n.)

co- (hyphenated; co-anchor, co-worker [contrary to MW, save for co-opt])

decor (vs. décor)

facade (vs. façade)

naive (vs. naïve, but: naïveté)

And so on. In complex novels, the terms list can run for pages. Likewise the sections for characters and places, which I subdivide as needed for clusters — families, companies, opposing forces, human and alien societies, flora and fauna, spacecraft; whatever is appropriate for the book.

I also include chronology for stories with complicated timeframes and changing viewpoints. In simpler stories, which might take place in a few hours or a few days, in an obvious progression, I take care of any hiccups by querying in the manuscript rather than map out the complete timeline.

Balancing Act

Most of the time, dealing with variables is just a balancing act between upholding professional editing standards without interfering with a client’s voice and vision, and it occurs without client involvement. If something is especially sticky, or requires a global change throughout the manuscript, I contact the client and we work it out while the job is in process, rather than after I deliver the manuscript, so the client isn’t surprised.

As noted above, there are times when author preference prevails over house style. If the author keenly prefers something I object to, they can have their way. It’s not my book, and English is a complicated and fluid language. Authorities agree that they disagree on the fine points, so my house policy is to not slavishly adhere to something that isn’t critical. If I get too carried away with enforcing my preferences, I might exceed the scope of work and create deadline or payment problems with an alienated author. Who needs that?

Another factor to consider is that many fiction writers are passionately protective of their work. Indeed, some of my clients have come to me after bad experiences with other editors who got overzealous about “the rules.” The authors don’t necessarily know what the rules are; they only know that corrections were applied arbitrarily and heavily to change their prose for no apparent reason. I find being the replacement editor an uncomfortable position to be in. I work just as hard as other editors to learn my craft and might be inclined to heavily change the author’s prose, too. This is why I’m careful about defining the scope of my work with my clients.

Even with well-defined boundaries, though, occasions arise when an author wants to keep something that I know to be technically wrong according to acknowledged authorities, or silly/stupid/counterproductive/embarrassing according to my own common sense. In those cases, editorial rules have to be trumped by human ones, such as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the copyeditor’s mantra (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”).

The bottom line is customer satisfaction and paid bills. If I can see a problem client coming, I’ll decline the work opportunity, but if something conflicting develops during an otherwise going-well job, I will concede that “the customer is always right” and give them what makes them happy. (To guard against that policy getting out of hand, I’ve inserted a clause in my contract that holds the client responsible for the ultimate content of the book.)

Absent passionate client feeling about a particular point, I focus on choosing between correctness and appropriateness. As long as the text is clear, consistent, and using variations allowed by reference works honored by the publishing industry, I find no need to interfere with an author’s writing style and overload a manuscript with markups. After all, a writer’s choice of spelling or punctuation may be perfectly correct according to one authority but not another, such as one or more of the core references underpinning my house style.

Why a House Style Works

Having a house style, I’ve found, allows greater efficiency when editing a novel because I spend less time looking up rules and spellings, and weighing alternatives against each other. The act of establishing and fine-tuning a house style forces me to make both macro and micro choices about my editorial approach, and following a house style makes me consistent within a single project as well as across all projects. The combination gives me the editorial equivalent of what novelists seek for themselves: an individual voice.

We may never discuss the nitty-gritty of my editorial choices, but on the rare occasions when clients do question a choice, I have a basis upon which to answer and discuss. This increases their confidence in my ability and helps us communicate better. The result is a mutually satisfying editing job that often brings a client back with their next novel, and encourages referrals. That achieves my ultimate goal: a win-win relationship between author and editor, resulting in a better novel with its best chance for success in the author’s chosen market.

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 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.

February 16, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Two — The Author Factor

Carolyn Haley

Part One of this essay discusses the baseline of establishing an indie editor’s house style. Part Two expands to discuss examples of why, when, and how to apply house style vis-à-vis author variables.

In the main, my choice to allow, disallow, or discuss a given point is driven by the author’s attitude and writing technique. The majority of my clients care more about their story content than the nuts and bolts of their sentences; they want their manuscripts “cleaned up” in a generic way, and leave it to me to decide what that means.

A handful of my clients, however, care ferociously about the small stuff, and this group divides into two. The first group wants me to follow all the “rules” precisely (without specifying which authority to follow), and the second wants me to follow their rules precisely. The latter are the trickiest authors to work with.

In a recent episode of working with a technically focused author, my sample edit saved us both a lot of trouble. The author’s response to my sample edit made it obvious that our “rules” differed, but, since we liked each other’s personality and attitudes, we had many lively conversations defining scope of work before starting, and I extra-customized his contract to reflect our joint decisions.

My standard procedure, when it comes to spelling, is to follow Merrian-Webster (MW) online unabridged and correct an author’s variant spellings to MW’s main listing of a word. The author I was working with, however, used more variant than standard spellings, so we agreed that as long as MW allowed his spellings at any level of preference, they would stay in his book. This gave him his preferred axe instead of MW’s preferred ax, and the like.

Our agreement also allowed him odd spellings for lingo in his characters’ dialogue, particularly two he was adamant about: looki and pardn’r (as in “Looki here” and “Howdy, pardn’r”). To my surprise, MW contained both these terms, but included no variants matching the author’s spellings. MW had lookee with looky as an option, and allowed pardner as an alternate to partner. Had MW not included these terms, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time searching them out elsewhere to validate (or not) the author’s use, which I didn’t care to do because we were on a tight deadline with a lean budget. Since the author’s meaning was clear with his own spellings, and he was self-publishing his book, I felt no need to challenge him. What mattered to both of us was that his historical facts were accurate, he got to keep the tenor of his story intact, and I was able to provide a clean, consistent manuscript that aligned with generally accepted authorities.

We also had to negotiate some punctuation details. My house style generally follows Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which treats the possessive for singular words ending in s the same way it does singular words ending with any other letter; thus, James’s horse instead of James’ horse. The author, however, flip-flopped between styles, so we discussed this, and he accepted my house preference. That worked fine until we came to Four Feathers’s shirt. I was all set to accommodate the author and drop the second s on this one, creating a single style inconsistency in the book with Four Feathers’ shirt, or else to suggest recasting the sentence to avoid the construction, but then he solved the problem himself by changing the character’s name to Knife Blade.

How Authoritative Are Authorities?

Sometimes my house style disagrees on points where the authorities I consult agree with one another, and I don’t happen to like their choice for fiction. An example is capitalizing God in the exclamation “Oh God!” In most instances, this is an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with deities, and to me, spelling it with a lowercase g is appropriate in the same way terms like godforsaken and goddamn have become accepted in lowercase.

Other times, when I can’t find a majority agreement among the authorities I consult, or the authorities don’t take a stand on a particular subject, I apply my house style. Common examples occur in dialogue, such as all right versus alright, and okay versus OK, ok, O.K., o.k. I prefer all right and okay and correct all manuscripts to those spellings. To date, no client has objected. Similarly, when authorities disagree on abbreviations, such as Ph.D. versus PhD, or U.S. versus US, I go with my preference, which is the version with periods.

Sometimes my core references don’t take a stand on a point, leaving me to choose. This occurred when I searched for a guideline on whether to capitalize endearments and pet names like sweetie, honey, darling, and sugar, which crop up frequently in dialogue. I couldn’t find a guideline on this in half-a-dozen reference works, or in online searches using half-a-dozen search keywords, until I consulted the FAQ section of the online CMoS, which declares: “Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names, but you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule. Please see section 8.39 of the 15th edition. (The issue is not addressed in the 16th.)” There is nothing further in the current edition — the 17th — either.

Ah. That explained why I couldn’t find an answer in one of my core references. At the time, I was using the print copy of CMoS 16 and never thought to go to an older edition. The exercise showed the value of keeping old editions as well as having both the online and print versions of a resource. I wasted time I didn’t need to waste, but did finally get the information I was seeking. It helped me decide that lowercase would be the DocuMania house style for endearments.

Then there are occasions when no reference resource can answer the question. This occurs often in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), where authors make up their own vocabulary. For example, a recent manuscript contained a special author-invented metal, which he spelled xenite, zenite, and xynite on different pages. There was no contextual difference to warrant variations, so all I could do was query which spelling he preferred, then make sure it was used throughout the story. (In case you’re wondering, it was xynite.)

A common occurrence in SF/F where I choose my own solution is when leapt, dreamt, and burnt arise. These -t constructions of past tense, instead of the conventional -ed version, are deemed archaic or obsolete in American English according to my core references, and thus should be corrected. Their persistent appearance in client material, however, gives me pause. Do those authors use -t spellings because their SF/F novels are set in environments, cultures, or worlds modeled after ancient Europe or America (a common scenario in the genre)? Or because the authors were influenced by other novels in the genre that were published in different eras or countries? Or is it merely a coincidence that a batch of SF/F authors who happen to be my clients use different dictionaries than mine, or their word processors’ spellcheckers are set to a different version of English?

It only matters because I edit to first-preference standard, so I have to choose whether to impose my standard on the clients or accommodate their style(s). My choice usually depends on the author and the book. As an example, one of my prolific clients, who is several volumes into both a science fiction and a fantasy series, uses leapt, dreamt, and burnt in all of them. He does so intentionally to achieve a certain tone. Once I understood this, I made sure that all his manuscripts use these spellings. Conversely, he doesn’t give a hoot about hyphenation or commas or other mechanical minutiae, so I correct to my first-preference standard at will for everything else.

(Interesting aside: The same authors who use the -t constructions of past tense usually reverse style when it comes to the past tense of kneel. With that word, first-preference spelling is knelt and second is kneeled, yet the authors prefer kneeled. Go figure.)


As an American editor who works predominantly with American authors, I default to American language preferences as expressed by my core reference resources, unless it’s clear from the project that other versions of English (British, Canadian, Australian) are at play. Thus, in American manuscripts, I change grey to gray, colour to color, whilst to while, travelling to traveling, cheque to check, and so forth. I also remove the terminal s on words such as towards, backwards, and upwards, and remove the hyphen on prefixes, such as non-profit, re-engineer, counter-measure, and multi-colored, making them all solid. I call out any exceptions out on the style sheet.

With punctuation, I use the American system of double quotation marks around dialogue instead of single quotation marks (ditto when words appear in scare quotes; for some reason, many of my American clients put dialogue in double quotes, but use single quotation marks when calling out words in scare quotes). I also put commas and periods inside close quotes of either type, and employ the serial comma in series ending with “and” (e.g., red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue). I feel strongly about these practices and only deviate from them if the author expresses a strong preference to the contrary.

When it comes to spellings in transition (words that are still spelled one way in my core references but are transforming through common usage), I let context be my guide. Examples of transition words are electronics-related terminology such as those mentioned in Part One (e-mail to email, Internet to internet, cell phone to cellphone) and the vocabulary of modern institutions (health care to healthcare), along with words like duffel bag (which I’m betting will become duffle bag first-preference spelling in MW within a few years) and Dumpster (a trademark succumbing to genericization like xerox, google, and photoshop).

(Another interesting aside: Genericize hasn’t made it into MW online unabridged yet, but I can find it all over the Internet and hear it in conversation. If I adhere too closely to my core references, then I can claim a word doesn’t exist!)

Mechanical Minutiae

House-style decisions involving italics, dialogue, dashes, and ellipses come up so often that I’ve standardized my practices and keep a checklist on my style sheet template to remind me to address them every time.


I follow CMoS for italics use in general, which in fiction occurs commonly in media titles of complete works, ship and aircraft names, foreign languages, words as words, letters as letters, sounds, and emphasis. What I encounter most often, though, is silent speech: thoughts, remembered or nonverbalized remarks, dreams, and telepathy, all of which are conventionally italicized. It only gets problematic when telepathic communication goes on for paragraphs or pages. That much italic text is tough on a reader’s eyes, yet nonverbal communication must be set off from the main narrative by some system or other for the reader’s comprehension.

Before desktop word processing, authors only had underscore and all-caps available, later bolding, to indicate what would end up as italics when the book was typeset. Nowadays, if they use those styles for emphasis, they announce themselves to readers as amateurs whose work is not yet ready for submission or publication. I therefore ensure those styles get stripped from the manuscript and replaced with italics, or otherwise set off for clarity.

Direct thoughts can be handled in different ways, such as:

What’s that all about? (no tag; speaker identified by context)

What’s that all about? he wondered.

What’s that all about, he wondered.

What’s that all about? he wondered.

“What’s that all about?” he wondered.

I favor using italics and dropping the tag where possible. The important thing about thoughts is that they must be in first-person voice, regardless of whether the voice of the narrative is in first or third person. If not, then they are considered indirect thoughts and kept in roman (e.g., What was that all about? he wondered).

A recent project challenged my standard italics practice. The main character had long psychic dialogues with an alien entity on another planet light-years away, and we needed a way to make it clear who was “talking.” In these dialogues, the characters were disembodied, so the usual gestures, actions, and expressions that make speakers obvious weren’t available to use. The option of inserting “he said” at changes got intrusive.

After experimenting with different combinations of italics and quotation marks, none of which worked gracefully, I recalled a trick I’d seen in a short story I’d edited the year before, where the author distinguished between an individual character’s thoughts and his psychic dialogue with another character by using European-style quotation marks, guillemets (« »). I ended up putting these around the alien’s communication. They instantly and obviously distinguished his words from the human character’s words, providing a visual break in block italic text while enabling readers to follow the story.

Part Three continues with examples of when and when not to apply house style, and a summary of the benefits of having a house style.

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 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.

October 23, 2013

Business of Editing: Editing in Isolation

I am constantly perplexed at how people who want to be acclaimed as editors or writers can pass on material to readers that is less than clear. In the editors’ case, I hope it is because the author ignored queries or left queries unresolved — but I cannot be certain of that except in my own work.

I suspect that the problem is that the self-editing author, as well as the “professional” editor, is “editing” in isolation. What I mean is that the author is looking at each sentence in isolation rather than looking at each sentence as part of the global mix.

What brought this to mind was a sentence I recently read: “I prefer epics.”

By itself, the sentence is complete and clearly understandable by me, the reader. But placed in context, I wondered whether the author meant “epics” or “e-pics.” The problem was that the article was talking about both books and pictures, thus both or either could have been meant. This was a case of the editor and/or the author not looking beyond the sentence — any editing that was done was done in isolation.

Isolation editing is a clear sign of nonprofessional editing. Professional editors know that no sentence stands alone; every sentence must be considered in context and as part of the more global text, as well as being complete in and of itself. Increasingly, however, I read books that suffer from the narrow view. In its most blatant form, a character is 5-foot tall on page 10 and 6-foot tall on page 25; has brown eyes on page 11 and blue eyes on page 27; spells her name Marya on page 3 but Maria on page 50. We’ve all come across these types of gaffes, but they seem to be occurring with increasing frequency as traditional publishers and authors make price, rather than quality, the number one consideration.

There are many answers to the problem of changes in character descriptions, not the least of which is a comprehensive stylesheet. Yet that is another red flag as regards the quality of the editing: the skimpy, incomplete stylesheet.

I have been working on second and subsequent editions of books in the past few months. With two exceptions, none of the manuscripts were accompanied by a stylesheet that was created by the editor of the prior edition. One exception was the book that was a second edition of a book whose first edition I had edited. In this instance, the client didn’t send the stylesheet from the first edition, but I had a copy because I have stored online every stylesheet for every book my company has edited since at least 2006 and often earlier.

But it is the second exception that signaled a poor editing job was likely done by the original editor. In this instance, the client sent a copy of the stylesheet for the prior edition. However, the stylesheet was one page. I knew immediately that it was incomplete as the manuscript for the book ran more than 3,000 pages and was medical, with each chapter written by a different author or group of authors. It is not possible to do a comprehensive stylesheet of such a manuscript in one page.

As I edited the manuscript, my initial reaction was correct — the prior (existing) edition clearly had not been professionally edited (or proofread). There were numerous sentences that should have been flagged and/or corrected, sentences that were like “I prefer epics” and thus potentially misleading, in the manuscript. The more I progressed into the manuscript, the clearer it became that the editor edited in isolation: If a sentence was grammatically correct, it was accepted as is, even if a more global view would have raised queries or caused the editor to modify it.

I am sure that some of you are thinking, “but are we talking about developmental editing or copyediting?” I am talking about both. True, the primary function of the developmental editor, but not the copyeditor, is to think globally, but even the copyeditor has to think globally. We are not talking about reorganizing a manuscript, which is the realm of the developmental editor; we are talking about ensuring that the author’s message is clearly conveyed, without confusion or uncertainty, to the reader, which is the realm of both editors.

Professional copyeditors will not rewrite paragraphs, will not move paragraphs or sections of text (i.e., will not reorganize) except on rare occasion. Yet professional copyeditors do have a responsibility to at least query the author and ask whether “epics” or “e-pics” is meant, which cannot be done in the absence of a more global perspective. A sentence-centric perspective views sentences in isolation: the previous sentence could talk about women, while the current sentence talks about men. Whether that change in gender is correct depends on what was said in the prior sentence, what is said in the current sentence, and, perhaps, what will be said in the following sentence.

Isolated editing is a sign of the nonprofessional. Isolated editing is on the rise because of the rise of the nonprofessional editor, which is driven by making cost concerns and limitations, rather than quality, the primary decider of whether and whom to hire as an editor (see What is Editing Worth?). We have discussed this several times, and you know that I believe that quality should be the initial driver when hiring an editor, with cost taking a secondary role. I recognize, however, that because of publisher and author misperceptions about the value of editing, those roles are reversed and cost is the primary driver.

At one time I thought the way to combat this was to send the publisher or author a few corrected pages as examples, but I quickly learned that publishers ignore the corrected pages and authors too often reply with a “how dare you question my writing!” I also quickly learned that the problem rests mostly with professional editors who fail to educate publishers and authors on the value of editing. (The value of editing was discussed in greater depth in What is Editing Worth?)

Yet even those authors who do understand and appreciate the value of quality editing are often stymied by their budget. Authors are being asked to gamble money on a service that will have some, but not a compelling, impact on sales. Self-publishing is making it clear that even poorly edited books can sell a lot of copies and that well-edited books can sell few copies — there are just too many other variables in play, such as how the author markets the book, the quality of the story and the writing.

In the end, editors are between a rock and a hard place. Do they lower their fee to meet author budgets and to compete with nonprofessional editors? If they lower their fee, do they move closer to isolated editing? Or do they stick to their more reasonable fee schedule and the more global form of editing knowing that they will lose a significant number of clients by doing so? This is the dilemma of the professional editor. It is a dilemma that is not easily resolved because of market pressures and the ease of entry into the profession of editing.

October 10, 2011

Competition Gets Keener: Agents, Authors, & Perseus

The world of editing is a tough, competitive world that is getting tougher and more competitive. The toughness and competitiveness I refer to is that of finding paying work as a professional editor. The Perseus Books Group has created yet another new wrinkle for the professional editor.

Previously, if a major publisher wasn’t interested in an author’s work, the author was on his or her own. For some authors, agents who believed in the project would act as publisher, but this option was limited. One problem with agents for freelance professional editors is that the agents often do their own editing of client manuscripts. This is not to say that an agent never hires the freelance professional editor, just that it occurs with less frequency than traditional publisher hires.

For professional editors, Perseus is changing the editorial world. It has created a new unit, Argo Navis Author Services, and is offering agent-represented authors whose agency has signed on with the unit an alternative to wholly self-publishing ebooks. Argo Navis is offering marketing and distribution services — key items in the world of self-publishing — to these authors, even as the authors remain the ebook’s publisher. It is a hybrid of traditional and nontraditional publishing.

This is good for authors, but makes it significantly more difficult for professional editors to connect with new clients. Argo Navis is not offering editorial services; each author is responsible, along with the author’s agent, for obtaining such services independently.

The setup shifts the production burden. In exchange, the revenue split is 70% author/30% distributor. (I’m not quite clear on whether or not this is 70% of 70% as the retailer needs to get its cut, too.) The traditional publisher no longer provides the author with financial support, and what services the publisher does provide are fewer than under a conventional publishing contract.

We knew this was coming. There had to be a change in the way business was conducted because top-tier authors see self-publishing as a way to maximize their revenues and publishers need a way to capture a part of those revenues while simultaneously cutting costs. When cutting costs, the first thing to go is editorial services.

Editorial services are the invisible services. They have no perceived value on the publisher’s spreadsheet because no one can point to a particular book and say: “This book sold better than expected because of the high-quality editing.” or “This book sold fewer copies because of a lack of editing.” The average reader is numb, for example, to homonym error — the difference between seam and seem doesn’t register high on the annoyance scale for most readers; there, their, were, where, your, you’re are just interchangeable words that mean what they mean to the reader in context. (“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’” [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press, 1872, p. 72.]

With this new role for a traditional publisher, the professional editor will have a harder time finding clients. Where under the traditional model 100 agents funneled 300 author manuscripts to one publisher and editors sought work on those 300 manuscripts by discussion with the one publisher, editors now will need to find and approach the 100 agents and the 300 authors, and hope that the agent doesn’t already provide editorial services, which many do, in-house.

It isn’t clear to me how to approach this changing market. What is clear, however, is that it not only needs to be approached if professional editors expect to survive the transition to ebooks and the world of self-publishing, but that professional editors need to rethink their compensation as agents have a worldwide reach and professional editors will be competing globally, not locally.

May 2, 2011

The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?

Today’s guest article is by Australian author Vicki Tyley. Regular readers of An American Editor will recall my review of her mysteries in On Books: Murder Down Under. She has 3 books available and you can buy them at a significant discount until May 15, 2011 using the codes found in Worth Noting: A Gift from Down Under or in Worth Noting: A Gift From Down Under Redux.

In previous articles (too many to list here, but you can see Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem and the articles cited therein), the need for professional editing has been discussed, but primarily from an editor’s perspective. Vicki Tyley provides us with the author’s perspective.


The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre?

The digital age opened the floodgates to all those writers who’d been trying for years to break through that almost impenetrable publishing wall.

No more “does not suit our current publishing programme.”

No more “we’re too overcommitted, and as a result, can’t take on any new projects.”

No more “sorry, not for us.”

Screech! Wait. What about quality control? Where once upon a time it was the role of the publishing house to hone and polish a manuscript until it gleamed, in the case of an Indie publication it now falls to the author to produce that high quality, marketable product.

Readers love the opportunity to sample fresh and new authors, books that cross genres, books from around the world. However, they (and I am one of them) expect those works to be up to the standard of mainstream books. Unfortunately, the complaint I hear most about self-published works is that many fall a long way short in the editing department.

In the Amazon Kindle store alone there are 750,000+ titles. That’s a lot of choice for a reader. So why then, I asked myself, would a writer not give his/her book a fighting chance and have it edited?

Initially, I thought that maybe it was the expense. For a writer struggling to make ends meet, the investment of hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars can make the idea of employing an experienced editor out of reach. I soon discovered that whilst this does hold for some, it isn’t the major deterrent.

First, do writers even need editors? How essential are they in the publishing process? To answer that, we need to understand the editorial role and the different levels of editing services available.

According to the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, the tasks that an editor performs can be grouped broadly into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading. A comprehensive edit involves all three levels of edit. [For the An American Editor perspective, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.]

Substantive editing (sometimes called structural or content editing) aims to ensure that the structure, content, language, style and presentation of the document are suitable for its intended purpose and readership.

Copyediting aims to achieve accuracy, clarity and consistency in a document. It does not involve significant rewriting, providing a single authorial voice, or tailoring text to a specific audience—these belong to a substantive edit.

Proofreading (usually called this, but, more accurately, known as verification editing) involves checking that the document is ready to be published. It includes making sure that all elements of the document are included and in the proper order, all amendments have been inserted, the house or other set style has been followed, and all spelling or punctuation errors have been deleted.

Shelley Holloway of Holloway House sums it up simply: “You need another pair of eyes on your work to see what you don’t.” [For the An American Editor perspective, see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud.]

Or as freelance editor and author SM Jobar puts it: “Most of us think we’ve written the best/most entertaining book ever, and then have the scales fall from our eyes when the failings are pointed out. It’s far better to publish a work you are sure you can be proud of than something that falls short of its potential.”

And most would agree with them. So why would any writer serious about his/her career skip this vital step? Are editors that scary — ogres to be feared? Well, that depends on the editor. Every industry has its good and bad operators; editorial services are no exception. I’ve heard mention of editors who have pressured writers to change his/her name, and of others who’ve tried to sway an author’s career in a completely different direction.

But by and large, the biggest issue is that of an editor changing an author’s “voice.” A good editor doesn’t do that. I learned a very expensive lesson about six years ago when I commissioned an editorial agency (I was never given the name of the editor, although I did later discover this through a slipup in removing document properties) based on an advertisement and testimonial in a writing magazine. No sample edit. No references. No anything. More fool me.

You can imagine my shock when I received the manuscript back to discover that the assigned editor had decided my book should be a dark thriller and not the mystery I’d written. I have no doubt that this particular editor was skilled in her job, but we weren’t a good match. She wanted to make the book into something it wasn’t.

Fortunately, I’d had a wonderful editor previously (sadly, she passed away), so I knew Ms/Mr Right existed. After a couple of days of licking my wounds, I decided that if I wanted to succeed, I had to find another editor. This time, though, I asked for a sample edit and references. I also decided not to mention the experience with the previous editor.

This time when the manuscript came back, I decided my new editor was a fairy godmother in disguise. The changes she’d made (using “track changes”) improved the book no end and added a shine I couldn’t have achieved on my own, yet it was still my voice. Thin Blood is my bestselling novel.

As William Campbell, author of the Dead Forever trilogy, points out, there are also two other kinds of editors to steer clear of:

1.Editor in disguise who really wants to ghost write.

The job of an editor is not to write your work. Copy editors and proofreaders will correct typos and change words to correct usage, but you shouldn’t see entire sentences rewritten. Even a developmental editor won’t. They might make large-scale suggestions to flesh-out a scene or character, or drastic cuts when you’re being redundant, but not write it for you word-by-word. That’s not an editor; that’s a ghostwriter. If that’s what you want, fine. Just don’t confuse one for the other. Me, and I imagine plenty of others, are NOT looking for ghostwriters. Any editor needs to be clear about their intentions for your work.

It’s these kind of disguised editors who strip away the author’s voice. If that’s the goal, fine. Just be aware.

2. English teachers who can’t stop teaching English.

While they may be helpful in correcting grammar, they can also ruin a novel. Business reports, or a college thesis, are not novels. Novels are by nature more colloquial and good editors understand that and take it into consideration. This is not to say grammar can be thrown out the window, or these editors will ignore it. A good editor knows the boundaries of what will “feel wrong” to the reader, in either extreme — bad grammar the same as grammar “too good.” Common people’s dialog does not sound like a college professor. Just hang out in any diner, listen a while, and you’ll see what I mean.

I also think some writers feel intimidated by editors. Not surprising as a skilled editor has a lot more experience than the first-time novelist. But just remember that if the author (versus a publisher) is paying for the editing services, the author is the one who has the final say. Editor Shelley Holloway of Holloway House agrees:

I am very clear that the author is the boss, and I am respectful that it’s his/her name on the cover — not mine. The control lies in the “accept/reject” buttons! If I make a word change, I explain why. If the author doesn’t like it, he/she can click the “X,” and it’s gone forever. I take full advantage of the “Insert Comment” tool! If there are paragraphs that are confusing; scene changes or voice changes that seem to come out of nowhere; dialogue that doesn’t sound like the character would say it; too many pronouns in a sentence or paragraph to know who’s who; excessive use of certain terms or phrases…and more — I point these things out. I often offer suggestions. Again, the author can accept or reject. I strongly believe it’s these sorts of things that an editor should provide in addition to grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.

Lynn O’Dell, Red Adept Editing Services, bills herself as an Indie Editor:

This means that while I make suggestions to ensure that books follow the common rules of writing fiction and presenting it to the public in good formats, i.e. using correct viewpoints, I do not try to force authors to change their actual plot, subject matter, or storyline. I tell my clients that I am going to make their story the best it can be.

In other words, I talk to the author (yes, by phone) and find out what their goals are with plot, storyline, and characters and use that information to edit or give suggestions.

See: they’re not all that scary. A good editor only wants what’s best for you. Not all editors are created equal. The author/editor partnership is like any other partnership — some work and some don’t. Each just needs to find the right fit. But don’t leave it until the last minute to start looking. Many editors — especially good ones — are booked months in advance.

I’ll leave the last word to freelance editor and author Rhonda Stapleton: “Don’t be afraid to ask around and get quotes. And ask for samples or references too. But please, take your work seriously. Even if you don’t hire an editor, get a trusted critique partner. They can find a lot of that stuff you miss.”


I know that fellow editors will agree with Vicki Tyley, but what about her fellow authors — do you agree? Is it cost that is the determining factor as to whether or not you will hire an editor?

One thing that is not addressed in the above article is the difference between having a professional editor work with you or the next-door neighbor who is an editorial dabbler. I know I wouldn’t presume to be capable of writing a novel at the high quality level of an author of Vicki Tyley’s caliber, but I do know authors who assume that their self-editing skills or the editing skills of friends and neighbors are on par with that of a professional editor. Speaking generally (there will always be an exception who demonstrates contrariwise), do those of you who are authors believe there is a difference between editors that breaks down into the professional and amateur categories? Do you view an editor as an ogre or a fairy godmother? Tell us what you think.

August 18, 2010

Getting to Paradise in eBookville: Overcoming Barriers

In other articles we have discussed the effects of professional editing, cover design, and the problems of self-publishing. We’ve discussed what makes great literature. And we’ve discussed the more obvious impediments — or barriers — to paradise in eBookville such as DRM (digital rights management), incompatible formats, geographic restrictions, lease vs. ownership, and pricing.

But what we haven’t really talked about are the  less obvious barriers to eBookville paradise such as the psychological price-point barrier. Oh, we’ve talked about it indirectly, but not head on. What brought it to mind was my looking to pluck the next pbook from my to-be-read pile. It struck me that it was much easier for me to buy hardcover books without debating the price point than it was to buy most of my ebooks, where price was/is always a major factor.

There are several factors in play that formed a foundation for the psychological price-point barrier. First, of course, was Amazon’s setting of $9.99 as the ideal price point for New York Times bestsellers. Here the interesting phenomenon to me was not that Amazon set a price point but that it became the adopted price point — the psychological barrier against which all other prices would be/are compared — of ebookers, virtually without challenge. Why didn’t ebookers say, for example, “No, not $9.99. It must be $7.99!” or some other number? Amazon announced it and it became the magic number. Perhaps we ebookers are really part of the herd and not part of the herders. Something to think about for another day.

Second, is the difficulty ebookers have in accepting/believing any claim that ebooks can legitimately be priced higher than the paperback version and certainly, under no circumstance, as high or higher than the hardcover version of the book. eBookers believe with all their heart and soul that ebooks should be priced no higher than the paperback version and preferably lower. No amount of argument will budge most ebookers from that price point or from the belief that the savings reaped by publishers by going digital are “huge,” not “nominal.”

A third factor is the new version of the direct from author-to-reader model of publishing — self-publishing — which is a modification/modernization of the original self-publishing model of just 5 or so years ago.

All of these, and other factors, too, contribute to the psychological price-point barrier that currently barricades eBookville, preventing it from becoming a paradise. Yet, there is another factor that is less prominent in our thinking about the price-point barrier, but is, I think, quite potent: the ephemeral nature of ebooks.

Consider this: I recently purchased two hardcover books without thinking twice about the cost. I saw them on the shelves at my local Barnes & Noble. They stood out not only because of their subject matter but because of their size. The two books are A Lethal Obsession by Robert S. Wistrich (which comes in at 1200 pages and a list price of $40) and Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch (which comes in at 1161 pages and a list price of $45). 

Think of the heft of books that size; the spine widths must be 2 inches and the weights more than 2 pounds. The pricing with discounts at B&N were $28.80 and $32.40, respectively (with Amazon being a couple of dollars cheaper) for the hardcover versions. I bought them without blinking an eye over the price.

But I would have blinked, blinked again, and ultimately not bought either of them as ebooks because of the price (B&N: $32 and $29.99, respectively; Amazon: $23.19 and $29.99, respectively), which is higher than the established psychological price-point barrier. The difference is that with the hardcovers I can subconsciously correlate mass with value, even though I know that with books there really is no such correlation, but with ebooks it is hard to imagine the value of bits and bytes — they are ephemeral. Even DVDs and CDs give you some mass in exchange for the price, so the price-point barrier is less powerful, but ebooks give you nothing — nothing to hold, nothing to see, nothing to weigh, nothing to correlate with value.

And this nothingness is a significant barrier to price acceptance by ebookers, even if only subconsciously.

When I talk to fellow ebookers, we all seem to agree that there is a sliding price comfort scale for ebooks that we do not notice with physical product purchases, even when the physical product is something as little as a DVD or CD in substance terms. We note that we have no hesitation whatsoever with ebooks priced up to $1.99; we give half a blink’s hesitation to books at the $2.99 level; a full blink at $3.99; and things start going downhill rapidly at the $4.99 mark. By the time we get to the $12.99 mark, we are not only doing multiple rapid blinks but we are struggling to find any reason whatsoever to justify making the purchase and almost never do. For several of us, we no longer even consider any ebook priced above $7.99 and will only consider ebooks priced $4.99 to $7.99 on rare occasions.

It appears that Amazon did its job too well when it set the psychological price point at $9.99 and the publishers did their job too poorly combatting it (and ebookers didn’t do their job at all when they acquiesced to Amazon’s price point with hardly a whisper in opposition).

It is hard to overcome that psychological price-point barrier when all I receive is air (bits and bytes) in exchange for money. I understand the advantages to just having air, but that is the rational part of the buyer in me. Unfortunately for the ebook industry, it is the irrational part of me, the part that wants to see some physicality, some sense of ownership, some something in exchange for the price — just air just won’t do.

The questions are this: Will this psychological price-point barrier fade to history as ebooks continue to grow market share or will it become a more signifcant barrier in the future? Will the low-price expectation negatively impact authors and publishers in such a way that quality is sacrificed by the authors and publishers because of the imbalance between cost of production and sales price? Both questions are worth pondering.

August 9, 2010

The Times are Changing! Will Editors Change with Them?

Everyone knows that time doesn’t stand still, except in science fiction and fantasy. Time keeps marching on, even for the publishing world.

The first pebble in the pond appears to be Dorchester Publishing. I admit I hadn’t heard of the company, but then its focus is on mass market romance books, not a category I read (although I have always wondered why the cover models romance books so often use should be physically what I should aspire to in order to have that “hot, passionate, romantic adventure of a lifetime”). Dorchester announced the firing of its 7-person sales force and most importantly for Bookville that it was going 100% digital — only ebooks and POD (print on demand).

Although  there is speculation as to what was the impetus for this move by Dorchester, it really doesn’t matter. Dorchester’s move to all digital is a portent of the change that will overcome publishing during the next decade. Sales figures indicate that the two medium of growth in publishing have been hardcover books and ebooks, with ebooks showing triple-digit increases nearly every month.

Why does this matter to editors? It matters because just as the introduction of the personal computer altered our world, so will the move to all-digital publishing. When PCs (used generically to mean personal computers, not Windows OS computers) became commodities, nearly every editor was expected to own one, to have mastered the necessary software (remember WordStar and WordPerfect?), and to change how editing was done.

I remember when I started offering my services as an editor to publishers 26 years ago, how I promoted myself. Every editor was doing paper-based editing and minimal coding. I advertised my services as online only — I wouldn’t accept paper-based editing projects — with a willingness to do more extensive coding (largely SGML, Standard Generalized Markup Language) that would enable a publisher to bypass the typesetting stage, all for a small premium over what my paper-based colleagues were charging. And it worked when I gave small demonstrations of how using my services could save publishers thousands of dollars in production costs.

But to do that, I had to learn new and different skills and adapt them to the editing process. Today, those skills are minimally required of any editor, so I am constantly looking for ways to differentiate my services from that of my colleagues and to justify a higher price (at which I am not always successful).

As seismic as the change from paper-based to online editing was for professional editors in the 1980s, this change to all-digital publishing, as it overtakes the publishing industry, could be cataclysmic for professional editors. The question is whether professional editors will be better prepared this time.

Dorchester’s switch to all digital is just the first pebble being tossed in the massive pond of publishing. Its ripple is barely noticeable, but like the shamans of old, I find it to be a sign of a vast change that is about to overwhelm professional editing like a tsunami, and one for which few editors are well prepared. I expect to see a rapidly increasing number of small publishers follow Dorchester’s lead, with medium- and large-size publishers not too far behind. But an even larger force in the tsunami will be the author-driven market.

The trend will, I expect, follow this path: Increasingly authors will “abandon” the large publishing houses and strike out on their own. In the beginning, they will believe they can do it all themselves, with the help of a few friends, and they will be encouraged to believe so by their organizations, such as SWFA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America). But as fewer authors succeed in making a living from their writing, the trend will begin to alter and authors will start seeking professional help. (For past discussions along these lines, see, e.g., I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors and Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers.)

When should editors start preparing for the trend changes? My belief is that they should start as soon as they identify the change that is coming. To devise a strategy to address the coming changes and to become proficient in the techniques that will be needed to to ride the change waves takes time and effort. The earlier the start, the more likely the success.

The switch from pbooks to ebooks won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen in the next decade, perhaps even in the next 5 years. There are too many pluses to going digital from the perspectives of consumers, authors, and publishers, even though all are currently struggling to find the right path through the current morass. But once that “right” path is found, movement will go from a turtle’s pace to rocket speed as everyone tries to maximize their experience.

Which brings me to my original question: Will editors help lead the various groups through the current morass or will editors simply be followers who react, as they have done in the past? Will editors change with the changing times? I can only speak for myself, but I’m already working on the problem; how about you?

(The topic of professional editors in an ebook world will be part of my discussion at the upcoming conference “Finding Your Niche/Expanding Your Horizons”, which was discussed in A Gathering of Freelance Editorial Professionals. If you are interested in joining the discussion and learning more about the effects of all-digital publishing on professional editing, join me and other editing professionals at the conference.)

July 27, 2010

Editors and the Amazon Paradox

In a recent tête-à-tête with a couple of publishing colleagues, the discussion turned (unsurprisingly) toward the business of editing and whether good-paying editing jobs are harder to come by in the Internet age. I asked a question that sort of chilled the conversation: “Don’t you think that by buying books from Amazon you are depressing your editing market?” This is the paradox of Amazon for editors.

As a consumer, Amazon has one great virtue: low(est) pricing on books (actually, it has a second great virtue — unsurpassed customer service — but this virtue isn’t germane to the discussion). But as good as that virtue is from the buying side, it has many negative ramifications. And before you tear into me about how there are no collateral negatives, think Wal-Mart, because that is what Amazon is — the Wal-Mart of books. And unlike Wal-Mart, which doesn’t do its own manufacturing, Amazon is crossing the line and adding publishing (i.e., manufacturing) to its stable of businesses.

Wal-Mart raises hackles because its low pricing pushes local businesses out of business and because suppliers, in an effort to meet Wal-Mart’s pricing and quality requirements, put downward pressure on pay and work conditions. And so we Americans get on our high horse and try to keep Wal-Mart out of our backyard and picket Wal-Mart to improve supplier conditions. We also complain about other high-profile companies who use low-pay, poor-factory-work- conditions suppliers in developing and third world countries. But we don’t complain about Amazon and its wal-martian attempts to influence the supply chain.

Yet for editors and others in publishing, this push by Amazon is leading us to our own Donnybrook. As I have noted in other articles (see, e.g., Viewing the Future of Publishing, eBooks & the Future of Freelance Editors, and Editors in the Offshore World), the pressure on publishers has ripple effects and has been a significant force in depressing the wages of editors (and other publishing professionals). When I first entered publishing 26 years ago, I never thought the day would come when I would be offered editing work at an hourly rate of 50% of the minimum wage, yet that was an offer made to highly skilled, experienced, specialist editors just a few months ago.

So isn’t it paradoxical that the people whose livelihood is based on earnings made in publishing buy their books from the company that is leading the charge to depress pricing? I think so. Reminds me of the autoworker who picketed carrying a sign “Buy American” but then got into his foreign-made car.

The one truism about us Americans is that we are equal opportunity suiciders. We want someone else to make the sacrifice as we turn a blind eye to our own acts that lead to our own economic hara-kiri. I realize that boycotting Amazon/Wal-Mart and shopping at Barnes & Noble/Target doesn’t address the problem. This is really, fundamentally, a philosophical/ethical conundrum. I also realize that there is no truly satisfactory resolution available. So I focus what little boycott energy I have on those who are most visible and leaders in their retail sectors and simply choose not to buy from them.

I grant that my single voice is not worth much in this fight, but it is a matter of principle. I don’t buy from Amazon because I see Amazon as the behemoth who will ultimately, if successful, destroy my livelihood. I think there needs to be a balance, a fair price that is midway between low pricing and pricing sufficient to enable producers to earn a fair wage.

Interestingly, Amazon’s pressures aren’t good for authors either. As the book market’s tipping point pricewise continues downward (Does anyone really think that $9.99 for a New York Times bestseller is as low as it will go?), so does the pressure on authors to lower their prices to be competitive. Look at how many authors are pricing their books between free and $2.99 today. At a 70-30 split, $2.99 seems to be a great price point for an author, but is it really? The net proceeds the authors receive may be better than what they have been receiving from traditional publishers, but that doesn’t equate to a fair return for their labors. A fair return is an animal of a different stripe.

To break free from the competition requires a lot of work on an author’s part. To make a book that gets rave reviews from up and down the reading spectrum takes a significant investment. The work needed to publicize and distribute the book takes a lot of time and effort. The lower the price, the lower the return and the harder it is to devote the time, energy, and money necessary to turn a labor of love into the next Harry Potter.

And we’ve had these discussions before about the editorial quality of many self-published ebooks. No matter how the chase is cut, it always boils down to the author being unable or unwilling to spend several thousand dollars on professional help because the author really can’t see that he/she will sell enough copies to earn back the investment plus a decent profit. Isn’t that what underlies the problem discussed in I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors?

So, I ask again, albeit a bit differently: Although Amazon’s pressure to move pricing downward is great for consumers who love a bargain, isn’t it a mistake for those of us who work in publishing to support Amazon by buying our books from it? I expect most of you will say “no” and tell me how wrong I am, but as an editor whose livelihood depends on publishers and authors continuing to need my services, I see Amazon as wanting to be the Wal-Mart of the publishing world.

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.)

March 16, 2010

Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe?

Before the printing press and moveable type, we relied on scribes (in the broader sense of being more than just a copyist) to record words and to copy manuscripts. This was a one-person operation, even if there were many scribes tackling the same document.

The advent of the printing press and moveable changed manuscript production. Now several people working together produce numerous copies of the same manuscript, each having a hand in the whole project.

But ebooks are changing our world again. eBooks in the age of the Internet puts us back to the one-person endeavor. One person can be author, editor, publisher, marketer — just what a scribe did 700 years ago. The question is: Is this progress?

The problem with the scribe system is that two scribes didn’t record the same event identically. And scribes were simply recorders, not investigators, so they did no verifying. Scribal work lacked assurances of credibility; if scribes recorded an event and then rerecorded it but did so differently, which version was the accurate record? And what about the third and fourth transcriptions? The printing press increased accuracy by creating a single record that was accurately replicated multiple times.

You can get a better sense of the problem by considering this: One scribe writes “Giving her the book or the candle is giving her a great gift.” A second scribe, at the same lecture writes: “Giving her the book and the candle is giving her a great gift.” Two scribes, two possibilities, two different meanings. Which is the correct transcription of the lecture? On which transcription should future readers act? What happens if more than one transcription is preserved and repeated in the future? What happens when a scribe 50 years later decides that since both can’t be right, the best thing to do is to combine them into a third possibility: “Giving her the book and/or the candle is giving her a great gift.” Perhaps this doesn’t matter much when talking about the gift, but it surely matters when discussing what the law is and what happened in history.

The problem in the Age of eBooks is the rise of the self-published author. This author is akin to a scribe. There is no assurance that the book I buy today will match the book you buy tomorrow and there is no book against which we can compare to determine the correct version. More importantly, once we stray from the world of fiction, there is nothing to assure the ebook buyer that the ebook author has done any fact checking. When a self-published ebook declares that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 6, 1941, how will the reader of the future know the truth or falsity of this assertion?

Granted the problem is less dire with “obvious” facts such as the Pearl Harbor bombing date, but what about with “less obvious” facts? How many of us know, for example, the years of the First Crusade without looking it up (1095-1099)? Or of the Children’s Crusade (1212)? Or the year Pompeii was destroyed (79 AD)? Or Rudolph Hess’ rank in Hitler’s Germany (Deputy Führer)? Or when Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama and wrote his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)? 

The scribe, like the self-publisher today, exercised great control over his or her individual endeavor. At-whim “improvements” could be made to the next rendition of the work and no one would know because there was nothing against which to compare the current work. It was a replay of the oral storytelling tradition, the handing down of stories from generation to generation with each adding its own embellishment, just done in written form.

But how good is this for consumers and scholars in today’s world? Revised editions, noted as such, are, of course, useful and acceptable. But the unnoted revised editions that can be expected with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, will create havoc in the marketplace. As reader’s catch an author’s errors and the author corrects his or her work (assuming the author does make corrections), what will be the effect of the errors on those who have read uncorrected versions? Suppose your child bases an essay on a college entrance exam on incorrect information gained from reading a self-published ebook about the Crusades?

Yes, it is clear that other scholars and authors can protest the inaccuracies and even correct them in their own work. But that assumes (a) that the number of sales of the incorrect work will rise to such a number as to attract attention, (b) that those who digested the mistaken information were made aware of the errors, and (c) that the correctors themselves are more than simply misinformers themselves.

eBooks are a great leveler of the playing field in the sense that the combination of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet lets anyone with the dream of being the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen Ambrose have the opportunity. This trio of opportunity can, however, cause chaos that is uncontrollable. Conversely, the trio can be the savior of education by combatting the flow of misinformation as is happening in Texas (see, e.g., Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change).

But no matter how the problem is cut, the question of whether a reversion to the scribal days that the trio of ebooks, self-publishing, and the Internet permits is good or bad remains to be seen. If self-publishers adhere to the more traditional publishing model of fact-checking, professional editors, and high (relatively speaking) quality production, the return to the scribal role will be positive. On the other hand, if the model of “push it out the door as fast as one can” prevails, ebookers and the public in general will suffer, albeit perhaps unknowingly.

Until ebook self-publishing settles into a more formal method of quality control, I think it will be effectively limited to fiction and nonscholarly work. The opportunity to expand into a recognized scholarly venue will be the catalyst that will change self-publishing in the wild to self-publishing on a more formal, certifiable basis. I predict that within the next 10 years we will see a certification process for self-published ebooks — perhaps even for all ebooks — designed to assure the ebook buyer of the quality and accuracy of the content and to assure that revisions and new editions are noted. I expect that future ebook self-publishing will more closely align to current pbook standards than is currently the case, all for the betterment of self-publishing.

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