Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Critiques and Freelance Editors

A week or two back, I discovered that one of the people who had joined in the discussion on a post here was freelance book editor, Rob Redman. Never one to miss an opportunity, I persuaded him to write a post for us about what a freelance editor (sometimes, especially in the US called "a book doctor") actually does, and what you need to bear in mind when you choose one.

I reckon that this is very useful for those of you who write to know about, as good editors who can give you proper advice that will help you to develop your manuscript are few and far between in Malaysia.

Here's Rob's piece :
This is how the story goes. Freelance fiction editing began to bloom a couple of decades back, when downsizing publishers sacked many of their in-house editors. Publishers were now more reluctant to take on manuscripts that were in need of development, and there were dozens of experienced fiction editors in need of work. It was only a matter of time before those editors began to advertise their services directly to hopeful writers. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, where more prospective authors than ever before compete for the attentions of fewer publishing houses, hiring an editor is seen as one way to increase the chances of success.

I think this has led to a slight misconception regarding the role of freelance editors, and it's one that the less scrupulous editors are all too ready to exploit. You see, editors aren't really there to help you sell your book, but rather to help you improve it, to develop your abilities as a writer, and progress towards that point where you can sell your book for yourself. Personally, I'd say that 90% of the critiques I do are about helping writers in the early stages of their development, rather than polishing almost-perfect manuscripts before they're submitted to agents.

It's best to think of an editor is as a writing coach, and the process of the critique as a focussed writing course, based around your novel.


You'll find plenty of opinions online about what makes a good editor. All good editors should have worked in a publishing house, or have an MFA in creative writing, or have published novels themselves, or... Ultimately, that's all rubbish. Any one of those might be a good founding for an editor, or it might not. What you should look for in an editor are: an understanding of the way fiction works; genuine enthusiasm for your manuscript, whatever its level; a willingness to exchange ideas, an ability to communicate clearly; and a working knowledge of your genre, both in terms of the classics, and what's happening in the market now.

The best way to find out how an editor matches these criteria is to request a sample edit. Many editors offer these for free, others charge a token sum (say £10-£20, or US$20-40) for editing the first few pages of your manuscript. I don't think there's any harm in charging a token fee for this, as it does help to weed out time wasters, but be wary of anybody who charges anything more substantial, or doesn't offer a sample edit at all. (If you end up hiring the editor, you can often get the fee deducted from the price of the critique.)

Critiques themselves can vary hugely in terms of both price and style, so look closely before making your choice (and don't be afraid to ask questions). To give you an idea of the sort of differences involved, both of these are real critiques, from real editors: For a critique of a 70,000 word manuscript, Editor A charges £175, while Editor B charges between £525 and £700. Both critiques come with a report, of about 6-10 pages, which examine the manuscript according to a checklist of factors: character, plot, opening, language, etc. At first, it looks like Editor A is the one to go with, and editor B is some kind of shark.

However, Editor A actually farms its manuscripts out to subcontractors, to whom it pays about half its fee. These guys skim through the manuscript and then fill in the form in the space of an afternoon. Meanwhile, Editor B spends a week or two with each manuscript, annotating it throughout. After the critique, Editor B is available to discuss their comments, while Editor A is not. The services are entirely incomparable, but both have the same name. In fact, Editor B is the professional, and Editor A, well, I wouldn't hire them. This is one of the reasons why it pays to shop around, and to check the small print. The critiquing business is entirely unregulated, and the only way to know what you're getting is to ask, every time.

Here are some things to consider when shopping around for an editor:

Do they offer a sample edit? (either free or for a token payment)
Do you get just a report, or a report and annotations to the manuscript?
Is the editor available to discuss their suggestions with you after the critique?
What's the editor's experience?
Does the editor work in your genre?

(Regarding this last question, my website's called "The Fiction Desk", but I still get a surprising number of requests to edit non fiction. I've even had a request to edit a hip hop video!)

Don't ever hire an agent or a publisher for any kind of critique or reading. The same goes for self-publishing outfits, who have an interest in making you think your book is publishable when it may not be.

Draw up a shortlist of two or three editors who look like they meet your requirements. Send them an email asking for the sample edit, and don't be afraid to ask any other questions you might have. (Requesting more than two or three sample edits at a time isn't really fair, because these do eat into editors' workdays, but if your first round doesn't turn up anybody you'd like to work with, you can always try again with more editors.)

When the editors reply, they'll probably have some questions of their own, about your story, who you're writing for, that sort of thing. It really is worth trying to answer these, because they'll help the editor to do a better job for you. It's also worth getting into the habit of writing professional, responsive emails about your work, because you'll need to do this when you're looking for an agent or a publisher. Sometimes an editor will turn down the sample edit request, simply because it's not their genre. That's okay.

Once you've got your sample edits back, compare both the edits and the emails you've received, and decide whose working style suits you best. If none does, start looking for another couple of editors. (If you decide not to hire an editor, it's nice to send them a quick email to let them know, and to thank them for the sample anyway.)

If you find an editor you like, ask again to confirm the details of the edit, what you'll get and when, then sign up!
Rob Redman offers editing services and advice through his website, The Fiction Desk.

He has promised to drop by and answer any questions you may have about freelance editors, so please go right ahead and ask. And some of you might have experiences of your own to tell us about.


dreamer idiot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dreamer idiot said...

Oops bad grammar... how could I ever be a book doctor?

Reading this makes me think of possibly becoming a book doctor myself, though I doubt that it would be possible profession in Malaysia.

Anonymous said...

Who would pay Rm140 for a sample edit? athough if there was a market, just imagine :)

bibliobibuli said...

dreamer idiot - it is viable here and you would probably be very good at it though you would need professional experience. there are plenty of people who want manuscripts editing and will pay for that. (i know because i keep turning them away! i hate this kind of work!)

and it's a good message to send out, that if you want something doing well, you should be prepared to pay for it.

Argus Lou said...

Was one-quarter into editing someone's life story but the person didn't respond to requests for additional passages.
Lesson: Take a deposit at the start, and periodic payments (progress payments?) from thereon - if you're starting out as a book editor.

bibliobibuli said...

i sometimes do stuff for free, but it's hard not to used - partic as sometimes folks don't remember (or choose not to remember or publicly acknowledge that you helped them once the stuff is published).

even friends should be prepared to pay for your time and computer ink or be prepared to pay forward to another writer in equal part. (i think that for me that is a better solution than payment)

and they always want it doing in a big rush and at their convenience!!

Rob said...

Argus Lou, yes, I agree. I actually take the full payment in advance. It's not always a popular option, but it gets the financial business out of the way before the creativity starts. Writers do get a shock sometimes when they see the amount of work that's still ahead of them, and I think they're less tempted to flake out or disappear if they've already paid.

There's also usually a bit of back and forth to discuss ideas after the critique, and I really can't see that as being a good time for invoicing!

Anonymous said...

Rob, what an.. er.. interesting name for someone who takes "full payment in advance" :)

(just kidding, eh ? :) )

Anyway, you're probably right. If I ever write a book, I'm afraid I shall have to impinge on the hospitality of Ms Bib, in return for generous praise and credits (and maybe a piece of the pie ?)

Rob said...

Payment in advance of service isn't theft—you're thinking of payment in absence of service! :-) (and I promise I don't do that...)

bibliobibuli said...

anon - in your case i shall demand a big piece of the pie now and my name on the front cover bigger than yours

seriously i am really grateful, Rob, for this insight and it makes me feel that if i do this sort of work again, i should put it on a more professional basis.

Anonymous said...

Oh incidentally, 700 pounds is what a middle-management type earns a month over here :)