Defining the job of editor is a tricky one, because it isn’t always what it seems to be. Most people consider the job of an editor to be correcting grammar and typing errors, and it can be just that; but there’s often much more to the job. To add to the confusion, there can be many names for the same thing, and the same name can refer to many things.
For instance, the person who corrects grammar and typing errors is a copy editor, a desk editor, or a proofreader, but this person will do much more than this. He will make sure that headings, sub-headings and sub-sub-headings follow a sensible and consistent pattern, and he will rationalise the crazy fonts that authors use and replace them with something that works, such as Times New Roman or Arial. He will ask the author to make captions to go with illustrations and so on. In fiction, he will make sure that something that the writer says on page 349, that connects with something that happened on page 21, makes sense. He needs to ensure that the time-line works, and that the names of the people don’t change half way through the book, and much more.
What we at Zambezi Publishing Ltd and Stellium Ltd call a “structural editor” may have different names in other publishing houses. This kind of editor has a great deal of input into the books. In non-fiction, he may change sections around, and he may go back to the author and ask for sections to be rewritten or for additions to make the topic clearer. Some sections may need to be enlarged while others need to be trimmed; the editor may be able to do it himself or he may go back to the author. Sometimes he has to ask the author to stick to the point.
I remember commissioning an author to write a “how-to” book on a particular subject, but when the manuscript came in, it contained a long discourse on the life and times of the original inventors of the system, and it kept repeating the reader’s need to be “spiritual”. Needless to say, I tossed the MS back and asked the author to write a book that showed the reader how to use the system, which is the whole point of a “how-to” book. I remember thanking my lucky stars that this particular book wasn’t needed in a rush!
When I was a child, I didn’t have the kind of family that could help me with school work and I found most teachers unhelpful, so I usually resorted to trying to figure out what was wanted from the text books that we were given, and I discovered that this wasn’t always easy. Those experts who wrote on maths and science subjects were the worst offenders in the muddled writing stakes; they would explain how to do something, then go on to give the homework exercise, but… more often than not, the exercise would bear little or no resemblance to the example or the earlier explanation. It struck me even then, that the writer had left out segments of linking material, or he had simply moved on to something else – due to boredom or because he was writing the book too quickly and too carelessly. It’s all well and good for the mathematicians who write this stuff, because they know the subject backwards, but the poor souls like me had to guess at what was needed. This kind of lazy writing should have been picked up by the editor and sent back to the author to be put right, but editors can be in too much of a hurry to bother with this kind of thing, or they can be young people who are overawed by the letters after the author’s name.
Eventually, I grew up, got married and had children, and then I started the habit of attending evening classes to improve upon the sketchy education I had received as a child. One year, I decided to have a go at maths “O Level”. Blow me down if I didn’t encounter the same problem, with a course book that was as disorganised as the stuff I had struggled with at school. Once again, I was faced with examples that were all very fine and dandy, followed by exercises that bore little relation to the examples and were sometimes on completely different topics.
Many years later, I found myself editing a “how-to” book on one of the psychic sciences. The writer was a retired maths teacher, and sure enough, he jumped from one segment to the next without proper links. He also jumped from one topic to the next just as he fancied, without following a logical pattern. Fortunately, I knew the subject well myself, so I sent the MS back to him with suggestions about how to improve it, and that way we ended up with a book that made a difficult subject nice and clear to the reader.
I learned that many of those who are experts in their subjects (especially if the subjects are mathematical or scientific) don’t know how to write, and it’s a crying shame that kids still have to put up with it. We make every effort to make sure that nothing comes out of Zambezi that leaves the reader confused or lost.
When it comes to hiring an editor for yourself, how much should you pay for this service? This is very hard to say. A publisher who is pushing out one book after another will hire a freelance copy editor to sort out a complete book for £70, but what kind of job can an editor produce for such a small amount of money?
Some selfpub firms offer a service for less than £100, and when you read what this comprises, it typically offers a good job of work on the first three chapters and a quick read-through for the rest. I guess this is useful to an author who wants to send out a synopsis and three chapters to a conventional publisher or agent, and who therefore only needs the first three chapters to be in good shape, but if the author intends to selfpub the book, what is the point of having only a small part of the book properly edited?
We sometimes use an outside editor if we’re too busy to do the work in-house. I have been quoted as much as £20 an hour for copy editing, which is ridiculous. The lady who does our work charges us around £10 per 1,000 words, and while this is on the expensive side, I know she will do a good job for us, so it’s worth it. Therefore, if you wish to selfpub a non-fiction book of 50,000 words, and as long as the manuscript doesn’t need to be rewritten, the right price for top-notch editing could be around £500. True enough, one doesn’t always need a Rolls Royce job, so a figure somewhere in the middle should be fine. Just don’t expect the world for a pittance…
Where fiction editors are concerned, an editor may only need to tweak the book a little, or he may end up having to rewrite much of it. He will certainly need to focus carefully on the story and the content of the book, as well as grammar and typing errors. We in the publishing business know that there are several much-revered and highly successful authors who owe their success to their editors. Book titles can be very important, and most of them are created by editors rather than authors. It is essential today to take into account such things as current trends in titles, clear indication of content, keywords, similarity and much more. When you are competing with millions of books, and discovery involves search engines and the Internet, titles are incredibly important. Even Jane Austin called “Pride and Prejudice” something else, and it was an editor friend who suggested the change! Interestingly, Jane Austin self-published her first few books and was only picked up by a publisher later on.
Writing or rewriting a book isn’t the job of an editor, so if you have something important to say, and you know in your heart of hearts that you can’t write, you should hire a ghostwriter. Whatever you do, you must ensure that your book is in the best possible shape, long before you send the book out to a publisher, or long before you selfpub it.
Most selfpub authors resent spending money on editing, and the result is all too obvious. If you want to see the difference between properly edited and sloppy, cheapskate books, read a few self-published ebooks – even those that tell you how to write an ebook! You’ll soon see what I mean.