Indie authors all agree: hiring an editor to work on your manuscript is one of the best and most necessary investments an author can make. Editing takes both time and money and can encompass anything from a substantiative (i.e. structural or content) edit—where the editor makes suggestions on character and plot development, chapter organization, and big-picture issues—to copyediting and proofreading. We talked to eight successful indie authors who shared their editing experiences and offered some tips and advice as well.
Hugh Howey is one of self-publishing’s biggest success stories—and one of its greatest champions. The author of the bestselling Wool series is a Kindle Top 100 author and a #1 bestseller in Amazon’s science fiction category. His series was also optioned by Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian for a feature film. Howey hires an editor, David Gatewood, for all of his books, and sees the process as one that benefits not just his own writing but the creative industry as a whole.
“The most satisfying part of becoming a successful artist has been the chance to support other freelancers,” he says. “My editor started out as a beta reader, working with me for free,” Howey relates. Howey insisted on paying him for his work and began recommending him to other authors—and Gatewood now works as an editor full-time. “And my former editor at Simon & Schuster is now doing freelance work,” he adds.
“The market is really changing and allowing individuals to work together cooperatively and in a way that benefits both parties more than the old system did,” he says. “It’s a wonderful time not just to be a writer, but to be one of the many creatives out there who help books come to life.”
Lisa Renee Jones
Lisa Renee Jones, a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, has written more than 40 books, including the Inside Out series, which was optioned for television—and she uses not just one editor but four.
“I have found that no matter how expensive one editor is, they don’t catch everything,” says Jones. “Each catches something different.” Two of her editors are skilled at line editing, she says, whereas the others might catch logistical issues like a character’s eye color that changes mid-novel.
Jones says she doesn’t employ a content editor, but advises it might be helpful for new authors. “The joy of having worked many years in the industry before self-publishing is I worked with New York editors at almost every house and wrote over 30 stories. I had time to learn my craft. Someone who didn’t have that experience might need help in content,” she says.
Jones notes, “I’ve tried editors at all price ranges and I find they are all human. They miss things.” Her solution is to hire a cost-effective service for a primary edit, followed by a “backup proofer.” She uses one main service that employs two editors for $1.50 a page. A second service charges 60¢ a page for one person. And she keeps a fourth proofer on deck if needed. “This gets me more eyes, and I find each person has a strength.”
Penny Reid is the author of the Knitting in the City series, a Chicago-based romance series about a group of young women who are all members of the same knitting group. After uploading her first book, Neanderthal Seeks Human, to Amazon—and offering it for free—it was downloaded 8,000 times in four days.
The book was initially meant for a select group of friends, but when it took off she noticed some reviews made mention of typos and punctuation problems. “I think it is inappropriate for me to expect people to purchase my books if I know the books contain copious typos,” says Reid. It was at that point she enlisted the editing services of CreateSpace so she could upload a corrected edition. “I [didn’t] want my book to suffer lower reviews because of something so easily fixable,” she says. Reid chose CreateSpace because it seemed like the safest bet, and she had no contacts in the publishing world to advise her—the company charged 0.016¢ per word, which meant $1,800 for the edit. The drawback was that the service didn’t allow contact between the author and editor—so she never knew who was editing her book. She eventually connected with IndieGo Publishing, which charges the same rate as CreateSpace.
After her first book, Reid figured out a system to ensure her manuscript was properly edited. She first sends the manuscript to five beta readers who she enlists through Goodreads or Amazon, and they provide a content edit. “They review the first draft for consistency, characterization, flow, pacing, overall impressions, etc., and provide feedback via a template form that I’ve created.” She rewards these beta readers with $10 Amazon gift cards or a signed paperback. Once she’s incorporated their suggestions, she sends that draft to IndieGo Publishing for a second look.
“Know the difference between a content edit, copy/line edit, and proofreading,” Reid says. She advises that while beta readers can save an author money by taking the place of a content editor, it’s more labor intensive for the author. “A professional content editor is extremely expensive.”
A U.K. humor writer with five titles under his belt, and winner of the bronze award in the adult fiction category of the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards for his title The Hole Opportunity, James Minter says that no author can do without an editor.
“From day one I was aware of the need to respect my readers and do justice to myself and my storytelling,” he says. With his first book, his wife recommended an editor who was affordable and who also lived nearby. “Not knowing any better,” he says, “I submitted my 90,000 word manuscript to her. It came back several weeks later with an invoice for £400.” While his editor had marked punctuation and grammar corrections, she hadn’t addressed many larger issues like POV shifts, verb tense slips, and general overwriting. “It was my first book. In my heart of hearts I knew I could do better, but I was keen to get it up on Amazon, and I accepted what she’d done since she was, after all, the professional.”
For his second book, he had a better understanding of the difference between a copyedit and a structural/content edit. He contacted the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and researched its database until he found a senior editor with experience editing humorous fiction. “Several weeks and £1,200 lighter I had a heavily red-penned manuscript, but with little regard for structural corrections,” he says. “She had been thorough, but there was no conversation, no interaction between us.” Minter felt disappointed with the experience. He’d also reached out to an editor online who had agreed to do a sample edit for him—and she replied with extensive annotations and addressed various content issues. “She was the first to show me the power of the edit,” he says.
He finally connected with a prize-winning literary fiction writer who also excels at editing. “Submit your work to her and she produces a detailed report including why something is not working, or points out where a POV is breached, and any of the other myriad things you as a writer can fall foul of.”
“Remember, a structural editor is an essential part of your writing toolkit, so choose wisely,” Minter says. “Appreciate the difference between a copy edit and a structural edit—and understand the edit process is as important as the writing process, and can take months.”
The author of three science fiction novels that have sold more than half a million copies through Amazon alone, A.G. Riddle uses both a content editor and a copy editor.
Riddle is one of Hugh Howey’s beneficiaries, finding his content editor, David Gatewood, through Howey’s recommendation. Gatewood offered suggestions about plot changes, character arcs, shortening and removing chapters, and chapter transitions, as well as flagging logic and continuity issues and offering word choice suggestions—for a total cost of $2,700. “I believe that David’s edit added a ton of value,” says Riddle. “I learned a lot during the process, and he improved the novel a great deal.”
He advises authors to find an editor who has worked on books in their genre (ideally, books the author has read and liked)—and then to be patient. “Be willing to wait if the editor’s calendar is crowded,” says Riddle. “Releasing a higher-quality novel later is better than releasing a grammatically correct draft now.”
T.L Haddix, who lives in Indiana, writes romance and romance suspense and is the author of the popular Firefly Hollow series. “The more eyes you can get on a book prior to publication, the better,” she says.
When she published her first book in 2010, she acknowledges there was a stigma attached to self-publishing. “Common knowledge then was that writers who wanted to be taken seriously in the business were edited,” she says. “I knew that in order to provide readers with the best possible book, I had to have more than just my eyes on a book.” To do this she uses beta readers, copy and line editors, and a proofreader.
She confides that content edits can be tough, but they’re worth it. “I had a lot of suggestions to move scenes or chapters around. The most painful thing I heard was ‘this isn’t important to the story and it needs to go.’” Once she learned from that experience, she says her writing became tighter. “After a while, the focus became less on moving large chunks around than on cleaning up clunky sentence structure and the like.”
She’s also learned “not everyone who hangs out a shingle as an editor is worthy of the title.” She mentions editors who introduced errors or tried to alter her writing voice. “There’s nothing more frustrating than paying good money for an edit only to find yourself in worse shape than you were before.” She says authors should look at the reviews for books with a particular editor. “A huge red flag is if several of the authors an editor works with have tons of reviews that focus more on the errors in the books instead of the stories themselves...multiple authors using the same editor who have those errors is not just a coincidence.”
Finally, she encourages writers to hone their craft. “Do whatever it takes to learn writing English so you know if your editor is good or not. The only thing worse than having to ‘fix’ bad edits is not knowing they’re bad in the first place.”
The New York Times and USA Today bestselling indie author of the With Me in Seattle series and the Love Under the Big Sky series, Kristen Proby is a firm believer in the value of a good editor. “It will mean the difference between being mediocre and being a professional to be taken seriously,” she says.
Proby admits that because of her own inexperience, her first novels weren’t professionally edited—something she says she regretted as her career progressed. In 2013, she hired an editing service called the Formatting Fairies to copyedit all of her previously published novels. “I know without a doubt that it increased the value of my earlier books, taking them from acceptable to polished, and it makes me feel more confident in the product I’m releasing to the reader.”
While she says editing for content is important, she finds the line editing and copyediting part of the editorial process the most important. “Line and copy edits are where I find I need the most help, to find typos and to correct my grammar.”
She recommends authors send a sample of their work consisting of a few pages to several editors and ask for a complimentary sample edit before committing to an editor. “It’s important that you and your editor work well together, and that the person you’ve hired understands your vision and your goal.”
A former deputy sheriff in Central Ohio, J.M. Madden began her writing career when she decided to join the Kentucky Romance Writers group—and today she is a USA Today bestselling indie author of 16 romances. The necessity of a good edit is something Madden says she believes strongly in.
After initially placing a few pieces with a small e-book publisher, Madden decided to switch to self-publishing in order to take control of her royalties, cover art, and the editing process. While she admits she learned a lot from the various editors at her e-book publisher, she realized that in order to publish independently, she’d need to hire an editor to enable her to publish a professional product. “I realized as I went through all the levels of editing there that I didn’t know as much about writing as I thought I did.”
One of the first groups she employed was Author’s Red Room, now called NovelNeeds. “They only charged a couple hundred dollars to edit a novella, and they were unique in that the manuscript went through two editors,” Madden says. “They made content suggestions as well as punctuation and mechanics suggestions, and the manuscript was definitely better off from the attention.” She later went through several personal editors. “Some were okay and some made me cringe at what they sent back,” she remembers. “The advantage to being an indie author is that you can take the edits that you want, and you aren’t obligated to take everything.”
She finally settled with her current editor, Mary Yakovets, who re-edited a book of Madden’s that had already been released in order to prove her worth. “She sent me three pages of developmental edits, time shift issues, and punctuation issues we had missed. I hired her on the spot. And at 0.006¢ per word, she is very affordable.”
She advises other indie authors to talk to their friends and other authors to see which editors they use: “Word of mouth is fabulous in the indie community.” Most of all, she advises every author to go through the editing process—it’s an opportunity to learn.
Jennifer McCartney is an author and editor.