An American Editor

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.

January 19, 2014

Worth Reading: Lifting the Ladder

Mercia McMahon’s essay, “Lifting the Ladder,” is well worth reading, especially if you are interested in targeting the indie author market. McMahon offers an interesting idea, writing, “Instead of trying to lift the ladder up from the working classes, these middle class authors should seek their validation in a simpler and more traditional answer; establishing a publishing house.”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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