December 14, 2011

On Editors & Editing: a Call to Arms for Indie Authors

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 11:57 pm

This is how my Thanksgiving holiday was spent.


Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had turkey. And all the fixings, thanks to my giving and devoted mother, who was willing to do almost all of the cooking, while I hunkered down in the basement of my childhood home and…edited.

For about twelve hours a day through the holiday and for another two weeks after that.

Let me say at the outset that although this was probably the hardest work I’ve ever done on anything fiction, I was grateful for every second of bleeding, hair-pulling work. Grateful to have a book coming out. Grateful to have the time to make it better. Grateful to have an editor smart enough to know that the book needed more editing.

I’m one of those writers who feels insanely lucky to get to be doing this all day, not quite for a living yet, but hey, my book isn’t even out. I liken writing to the combined joy of summer vacation/Christmas morning/falling in love/finding out you’re having a baby (when you want to be). I flipping love it.

I did not love this. Steam poured from my ears, blood seeped from my pores. But my editor has on her list–I’ve been trying to count–maybe 7 NYT-bestselling and award-winning authors? The woman is brilliant. If she says my book needs work, then my book needs work.

During those times when I was staggering around, pulling out my hair, I started thinking.

I started thinking about good friends of mine, like indie political thriller author Steve Piacente, who has recently raised on his blog the issue of traditional media not reviewing self-published manuscripts.

I started thinking about an author on a FB group I’m part of who cautioned indie authors from uploading their early drafts.

And I thought about screenwriting guru Richard Walter, who said that the #1 mistake he sees writers making is submitting their work too soon.

I came to some tough realizations about myself. For one thing, I realized that if I didn’t have an editor of this caliber telling me my book needed more work, then I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s too hard. The closer a book comes to good, the harder it is to go back and pick it apart. (One editor/writer friend likened it to un-weaving cashmere. Or solving the Rubik’s Cube when you’re only one square away). Whichever simile you prefer, I know I would’ve called my book satisfactory at draft 19. Or 10.

I have many indie author friends, and I know how spectacular their books can be. Many write books whose level I aspire to. I want these books to attract the attention they deserve.

One thing I believe is holding that attention back is the flood of books which aren’t at the same level. Books that didn’t get revised twenty times–or even twice. And I think what is called for is a system to separate the wheat from the chaff, the serious indie writers who labor over their work–as Rick Murcer, Karen McQuestion, or Thomas Knight did, as I did in that basement on Thanksgiving–from those who have uploaded a volume in a weekend.

I don’t know what such a system would entail. An independent rating schematic? Reviews by a governing body that oversees independent authors? Some kind of algorithm, a Good Housekeeping-type seal of Approval? Reader opinions, averaged out over a massive group, such as the Amazon Vine?

The challenge will be to avoid replacing one form of gatekeeper with another–to retain what is precious in the indie world, which is democratic access to publication.

But books need to go through many drafts, and they need hard eyes upon them, eyes that will not blink before the final i is dotted. I know that now. And so does every author who’s sweating–and bleeding–out there to make sure her work is the best it can be.

Books like that deserve reviews and recognition and attention.

What kind of system can be put in place to ensure that the best of the best get that attention–no matter how they come to be in readers’ hands?


  1. I tweeted this post a few moments ago as it raises good question and looks at the dilemma indie writers face – when should I post? Is my work ready? Am I being a responsible writer or do I just want my name out there? And the review process, now that is another issue that needs to be brainstormed. There are no easy answers but the more dialogue that happens, the better. Now I hesitate to say this (my head may roll) but should some sort of screening process be in place before books go live on the system. I’m not talking the rigidity of getting through the big six, but an Indie Board that could give helpful advice, guidance about when a book is ready. Anyway, my two cents worth. Thanks for the great post.

    Comment by H.L. Banks — December 15, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  2. It does make a person think of how to police indies, but that must come from within first. It’s where the mechanics take priority over the “desire” to get the book out. The ability to take the time and not rush to publication. Some are so impatient, it doesn’t matter what others say. And those badly written books that DO sell, only reinforce the notion of write and publish and skip good, hard editing.

    Comment by Shawn — December 15, 2011 @ 8:58 am

  3. I released my first book on Halloween, and have sat in the top 5-10% of Kindle sales ever since. I made #17 on the top 100 new releases in November for Epic Fantasy. I would love a top 100 or even a top 10 hit, but that will require a lot more more on my part.

    A number of indy authors have asked me for marketing advice along the way. The first thing I do, is buy their book and read through it. And I almost *always* tell them that their books need a good editor. Often I don’t have to read beyond the first page.

    To all the indy authors out there with books on Amazon: If your book isn’t selling, it’s almost certainly because it needs more editing. Because people are looking at the preview, and seeing mistakes, and deciding to take their money elsewhere.

    As indy authors, we have an advantage over traditional publishers: Price. We can charge as little as $0.99 for our work. But know this: Just because we are charging 1/10 the price, doesn’t mean we can get away with 1/10 the quality.

    Comment by Thomas A. Knight — December 15, 2011 @ 9:03 am

  4. Interesting ideas.


    Comment by Arthur Levine — December 15, 2011 @ 10:02 am

  5. I’m in the trenches right now doing my umpteenth edit of Forever Young: Blessing or Curse. This time I had it sent to my kindle. I keep the document open on my computer as well, and make changes when I find things wrong. Amazing how I’ve found extra letters in spots that I thought were all right before.

    It will be worth the effort when it’s all done, but right now, it’s the pits.

    Morgan Mandel

    Comment by Morgan Mandel — December 15, 2011 @ 10:05 am

  6. Great post, Jenny – lots of food for thought.

    And congrats on getting to that level!!! :)

    Comment by Leah Rhyne — December 15, 2011 @ 10:19 am

  7. Jenny, I recently went through the final edits on my manuscript, so I have a good idea of what your Thanksgiving was like. Exhausting,but worth it–I agree.

    As far as standards are concerned, I think these are going to come solely from the marketplace. I also think it will be up to those of us who, like you, care about books and maintain a web presence to bring those books to the attention of readers. So thank you for what you do, and the best of luck with your book.

    Comment by Anita Page — December 15, 2011 @ 10:57 am

  8. I know not every indie author can afford an editor, but I strongly recommend that no matter how good you think you are — at least try to swap manuscripts with a trusted reader who will tell you the truth. (Let’s be honest, most of us have friends/family members who will happily lie to our faces about how good something is.)

    Comment by Judy — December 15, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  9. Jenny, You made an excellent point, but brought up a system which couldn’t be implimented without industry standards which probably could never be agreed upon. Anyone can publish anything. Lacking acceptance at a traditional publishing house, wouldbe authors can self-publish with anyone from large legitimate well-staffed presses to side street print shops who wouldn’t know the word edit if it bit them in the . . . Most of the self- publishers, vanity presses, etc. are not making big money if you sell a few more books, they cover their costs and make what they need from the initial run the writer pays for personally. So, although they may provide editorial services someone can pay for, they seemingly could care less if your book is spotless or horrendously flawed. And not every writer operates under the creed that they would die before seeing their book show up with glaring errors. In today’s market even mainstream publishers print major works with errors. I just read one of my favorites latest book from Harper-Collins. I counted 13 big errors. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something even close to that perfect world so we could all glare at the newspaper critics and tell them every author deserves an even break and the opportunity to be read and reviewed.

    Comment by Wayne Zurl — December 15, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  10. First of all, I want to thank Jeny for linking to the YouTube video for my moment in Sandy’s Spotlight. And thanks to Sandy for spotlighting me. :)

    You raise some excellent points, Jenny. A good editor is worth their weight in gold. Unfortunately most writers do not have that gold in the bank to pay for a good editor. That is one of the drawbacks of publishing Indie vs publishing traditional. The traditional publisher provides an editor. Going the Indie route means you are solely responsible for what you publish.

    With that being said, I’m glad that I chose the Indie route. Not knocking anyone for wanting the traditional route but that is not the way for me. Each to their own. Diversity is the spice of life. :)

    Kristie Leigh Maguire
    Indie Author before Indie was cool!

    Comment by Kristie Leigh Maguire — December 15, 2011 @ 11:58 am

  11. Jenny,
    I agree that indie books should be edited, but can’t offer any suggestions re how this might be implemented.

    Comment by Marilyn Levinson — December 15, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

  12. I do so wish I could afford a fabulous editor -I’m going to have to get a cheaper one and just hope they do a fabulous enough job. My first book is to be published next year – its a nerve racking experience. I have been to hell and back with this book so far, it’s been a huge learning curve to go from writing the odd poem for catharsis and fun to writing a whole novel. I had a LOT to learn!

    Good luck with yours :) X

    Comment by Shah Wharton — December 15, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

  13. I think there’s also a difference between typos — ALL books have typos, including those pubbed by the big six — and really substantive, developmental editing. Much more goes into editing than making sure everything is spelled right and the grammar is flawless. Yet people often think that once they’ve dealt with spelling errors and grammar issues, they’ve been “edited.” Not so.

    Comment by Judy — December 15, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

  14. Great post – I wrote something similar and got hammered by some people,
    but all I was really trying to point out is that indie authors need to put out a better product. In my opinion, it comes down to the author needing to learn his/her craft – and you don’t this by just writing a book without any classes, or reading other books about writing, and so on – AND getting quality feedback from people who will give you an honest review of your work. And as someone said about not having the money to pay for an editor, that shouldn’t be an excuse. The author should care enough to have it in the budget. This is, if you want to sell books, a business, and any business has to have capital to invest in itself. Just my thoughts :)

    Comment by Renee Pawlish — December 15, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

  15. The wonders of technology have empowered reviewers as well as writers, Jenny. Online critics thus may be the ones who ultimately set higher standards, either officially – through a document approved by some network or association – or unofficially, as a parent looks at a child who goes for dessert before finishing dinner.

    Comment by Steve Piacente — December 15, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

  16. I wonder if it would be possible to create a website where the first chapters are submitted anonymously and then read and rated for quality editing (not content). The rating system would work such that the highest quality work would rise to the top of the lists and the lowest quality work would linger toward the bottom. People would have access to all the chapters after they rate three chapters. This way, the author could see and possibly read about the errors that need correcting.

    Comment by Stan Morris — December 15, 2011 @ 2:51 pm

  17. Great post, Jenny! It’s a difficult dilemma. I applaud your desire for really good indie writers to have the opportunity to be recognized. But I don’t know that having another form of gatekeeper is practical–who would they be? What are their biases? By what criteria do they judge merit? How do you avoid the movie-critic syndrome, where those “in the know” pan a box-office smash that millions of people pay to see, and love? In book terms, wouldn’t that mean that the new gatekeepers might prevent the publication of books that could have been popular successes? Even the current gatekeepers (agents and major publishers) often turn down books that later become huge successes. That’s one of the things that indie publishing is about–letting the readers decide, not someone who thinks they know better than the readers.

    As a self-published novelist, I know how much I went through to get my book as perfect as possible before publication. But as a freelance editor, with an MFA in Creative Writing, I also was lucky enough to have the skills and experience to self-edit. People may or may not like my book, but at least I know I’ve presented the best of which I’m capable. And it took a busload of revising and picking apart, and six or eight proofreading passes.

    But Judy also brings up a good point–developmental editing vs. copyediting/proofreading. In my editing practice, I see many people who are good writers in the sense that they have good language skills, but who have major weaknesses in the craft of novel-writing, whether that’s not understanding how to create a character arc, or how to drive the story through creating conflict and narrative tension, or how to create a workable structure, or a dozen other things. Some others lack both skill sets. With either group, you can tell them what’s wrong, but it doesn’t do them much good if they don’t have the skills and knowledge to fix it. And those skills take years–and work and desire–to develop. And even when they pay for developmental editing, Ive seen a surprising number of writers who only do a fraction of the revision work that needs to be done, and then are shocked and disappointed when they get rejections.

    Years ago, when I was studying ballet, I was in class in a non-air conditioned New York ballet studio on a 98 degree summer day. We were tired, hot, and stumbling half-heartedly through a sequence of steps. In the middle of it, the instructor yelled, “You want to be a professional dancer? One day you’re going to have to get onstage and perform with a 102 degree fever. Come on. MAKE YOURSELF DO IT!” And suddenly, we all found that we weren’t too tired and hot to do it right after all.

    I was sixteen years old, but that day I got it. Nobody’s going to do it for you. And nobody’s responsible for making you do it. If you want to succeed in a ridiculously competitive artistic field, you have to make yourself do the work. Relying on some kind of seal-of-approval board to make us do it seems like regressing to grammar school.

    I think that various ways of sifting through the slush will evolve. There’s a lot of crap on You-Tube, but people still find stuff they like. As with the rest of the internet.

    Comment by Lauren S — December 15, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

  18. Along with many other people, we have discussed this on Writers Who Kill blog spot too. Unfortunately, one not-quite-ready book can turn readers off so that they avoid everything a writer does. I think having a body of work including books or short stories published by more traditional publisher will eventually act as a cue for readers that an independently published book might be worth reading

    Comment by Warren — December 15, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

  19. Good points, Jenny. I had an editor and there were still a few typos. As I work on getting the prequel ready for self-pub, I’m seriously thinking of jumping it through a few more editors hoops. I did a lot of revising based on the notes I got from my editor for the first one. The hardest work ever. I have wondered sometimes, though, if the sample at Amazon is an older version.

    Comment by JLOakley — December 15, 2011 @ 3:18 pm

  20. Jenny, I think that’s the hardest thing for any author to realize – it ain’t easy or fast to put out a good book. And putting out a good book is no guarantee of sales. If anyone deserves to make it to the top, it is surely you! Good luck.

    Comment by mountainmama — December 15, 2011 @ 3:20 pm

  21. I always think that, as a former English teacher, the book edits I do before I ever submit a novel are quite thorough. Editors always find errors I somehow failed to see. What can I say? No matter how hard we work, none of us is perfect. An extra set of eyes, another mindset, is very helpful. Writers need editors and vice-versa.

    Jacqueline Seewald
    THE INFERNO COLLECTION, THE DROWNING POOL, now available as e-books as well as hardcover

    Comment by Jacqueline Seewald — December 15, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  22. Wonderful article, Jenny! And most authors would give their right arm (or at least a couple of digits)for the chance to have their work dissected by an agent of her quality!

    Comment by kathleen barker — December 15, 2011 @ 3:59 pm

  23. Great post, Jenny. And you mentioned my name! :-)

    For myself, I swear by having multiple critique partners. Collectively, they point out problems with POV, continuity, clarity, pacing, and dialogue, as well as punctuation and grammatical errors. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve met some wonderful writers over the years, and we routinely exchange manuscripts for critique. It also helps that I’m now aware of my own shortcomings, so I’m vigilant when it comes to certain things.

    When my self-published works were picked up by my publisher and edited professionally, the editor said my pages weren’t too bad, and yet, believe me, there was a lot that needed fixing. Luckily for me, readers either hadn’t noticed or were forgiving. For most people, the lack of a comma is not a dealbreaker. But when the dog’s name changes halfway through the book, that’s a problem.

    In short, I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that when you think you’re done, you probably aren’t even close. Then again, no one said it would be easy.

    Comment by Karen McQuestion — December 15, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  24. Jenny, you know how much I like this idea. So much so that I just tweeted it. Every work can benefit from a good set of second or third or fourth eyes.

    One of the hardest part of being an indie author is getting people’s attention. I think an overall rating system would go a long way towards separating the books that were written during NANO and uploaded on December 1 from the books where author’s have slaved away (in basements or otherwise) over them for years upon years and versions upon versions.

    Comment by Johanna — December 15, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

  25. I think the hardest part about being one’s own editor is having the distance you need to do a thorough job on that book. That’s why critique partners/readers/professional editors are so important. I always think my manuscript is pretty damn good until someone — a trusted reader, a paid professional, etc. — edits it for me!

    Comment by Judy — December 15, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

  26. There is much to be said for taking a writing course. Unlike family or friends, other students have nothing to gain or lose from falsely praising your work. Honest feedback and professional guidance helps you get over yourself, roll up your sleeves, and learn how to revise. It surprises me how much money writers are willing to pay for PR or go to a conference and meet agents, yet how stingy they are when it comes to taking classes.

    Comment by Sara — December 15, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

  27. Thanks for all the wonderful comments, everyone–this is exactly the kind of discussion I hoped to provoke.

    It’s interesting that people seem divided as to whether some sort of filtering/(governing) body for indies would be antithetical to the indie ethic and so quality control must be left up to the author’s discretion, versus the feeling that such a governing body will one day need to crop up, much as the wild west was first an untamed land, but ultimately the sheriff came to town.

    I wonder how history will show this plays out?

    Having impartial eyes on your work is, I believe, a necessity, for anyone–multi-published bestselling authors included. I believe that all writers have blind spots. Some might be terrific at psychology and emotion but their plots have holes [waving hand now]. Some might write wooden dialog, or stock characters, or slip in POV. We learn to look out for the things we’re weak in, but even after 8 novels, and probably 100 revisions following feedback from some pretty top agents/editors, I can say that my blind spots will always rear up. Perhaps I’m a little slower than the average bear, but as creator of the product I think I’m too close to see everything, no matter how many months a ms is put away in a drawer.

    The cost issue is a real one–in the traditional model you’re paid to edit, instead of vice versa. I like some of the suggestions in this comment stream for critique groups and writing classes (which can be quite inexpensive at a community college or online writing school–I recommend my own, New York Writers Workshop, as having some incredibly gifted editors as faculty). There are also internet writing exchanges and sites like Authonomy, although various issues tend to pervade these.

    Whether indie or traditional, I’m so happy to have the community this blog provides. We have such differing experiences and perspectives, but the conversation is always a respectful, deepening one.

    Happy holidays to my wonderful readers!

    Comment by jenny — December 16, 2011 @ 9:18 am

  28. Most of my books have been edited, re-edited, re-re’d, because they were published by a small publishing house, then I recently took over the rights and had to put all seven books into e-book format. Piece of cake, right?

    Nope. After all those edits (some were for 2nd editions!) I still found a missing period here and there, and even misspelled words or typos. Hopefully all is well now, but I spent untold hours with Text Aloud, looking for those nasty little surprises. Thanks for the article, Jenny, it validates what some of my friends (and even some fellow authors) call my obsession with finding errors and stomping on them.

    Comment by Jinx Schwartz — December 17, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  29. Hi Jenny. Great post. I haven’t experienced indie publishing other than as a reader, but even when my senior editor and the line editor were okay with my latest book, I still spent five weeks of 14 hour days editing until I was finally satisfied. And this was after 6 mystery authors and 10 mystery readers also read through the manuscript. I can’t imagine any type of regulatory system. Perhaps a line could be added naming the book’s editor. For now, I diligently read all reviews, even before I make a 99 cent purchase.

    Comment by Cindy Sample — December 18, 2011 @ 12:35 am

  30. Great post. I agree. It was 7 years from my first draft to publication (of course, if I was working full time, probably closer to 3 years). Worked with 2 editors and an agent. Many times thought I was done. Then I got it back from one of those three people saying it wasn’t done. Usually after I swallowed my pride I realized they were right.

    I think a big point is the pricing. I believe authors who have gone the rounds and put in the work should keep the higher price point of at least $2.99. Let that be a symbol of quality (or at least an author who is claiming the quality). If it’s not good, it will get weeded out (or they will weed themselves down to the .99 point). I believe quality writers shouldn’t be fighting over .99 scraps. We should set the market standards. Sorry, I know this is widely debated (and I’m putting together my own two cents for a future post), but I think this argument ties into your reasoning and how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Hope all is well.

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    Comment by Paul Dail — December 18, 2011 @ 10:42 pm

  31. Jenny:
    Couldn’t agree more. You really just said what every indie author knows, but isn’t sure how to articulate sometimes. Way to go, and good job on those edits!

    Comment by D — December 21, 2011 @ 4:50 am

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