This week, I was asked to write a guest blog for Writing4all, a free online resource for writers. Given that I make my daily crust as a freelance editor, I thought, for a change, I’d focus specifically on the important of the editorial process itself, which has become all the more crucial now with the advent of self-publishing as a real alternative to traditional publishing.
As the website Writing4all has since been discontinued, I’ve included the full blog below:
Self-publishing and the Editorial Process
The publishing world is going through major change at the moment, not dissimilar to the radical change that has transformed the music industry in recent years, and the next decade promises to deliver us into a literary landscape that will offer a much wider array of platforms for the presentation of fiction and non-fiction. The very nature of literature may well change in the process.
For example, one consequence of this change, so far, has been the resurgence of the self-published political pamphlet, those relatively short personal views of burning issues of the day that were popular over a century ago. The technology is there now to cheaply produce small print runs of books that the big, and not so big, publishers wouldn’t glance twice at. And the advent of the eReader has enabled the proliferation of virtual books, deliverable at the press of a button, and for a fraction of the price of a physical book.
Given the fact that publishers are even less likely these days to take a risk on an untried author or book and that they are shunting more and more of the risk onto the shoulders of the writers they do pick up (in terms of marketing and promotion, signings, interviews, etc.), many authors are looking at the idea of self-publishing as a viable option. Of course, the reality is most writers won’t get rich doing this, but at least what they do make is all theirs and they are masters of their own destiny. And there are some real success stories in this approach. One such example is John Locke, the first self-published author to pass the one million mark in eBook sales, who now hires Simon & Schuster to publish his books and pays them a small commission on sales.
Now while that’s very much an unusual story, it does demonstrate that the proverbial shoe can be put on the other foot, another reason for self-publishing. Several authors have been able to push sales of their eBook to levels that make big publishers sit up and take notice.
All very well and good. But the downside to all of this, as publishers constantly state, is the poor quality of much self-published work. And here we get to the nub of this particular blog: the editorial process. Publishers are jumping up and down about the fact that self-published work is inherently weaker for not having gone through the editing process that traditional publishers impose on a book prior to publication. And they are right.
But this situation is rapidly changing. Orna Ross, who published two novels with Penguin, decided to self-publish her next novel after Penguin put a bright pink Chick Lit cover on the second book, which was in fact historical fiction. The key issue in going down this road, as she saw it, was the lack of an editorial process. So she hired an editor to work through the novel with her, ensuring that it was as good as it could be before going to print.
A writer may be convinced of the merits of their work, and may have had good advice or constructive criticism from friends, family and/or a local or online writers’ group, but as an editor myself and having gone through the editing process as a writer, I can attest to the value of having a professional tackle your work on a line by line basis. A good editor can elevate a writer’s work to a truly professionally publishable level.
Even long established writers are generally too close to the trees to see the forest, so to speak, and still benefit from a fresh pair of professional eyes being cast over their work. A professional editor offers a dispassionate view of the manuscript, a distance from the fevered act of creation that can spot all manner of things that need fixing. This does not demonstrate any failing on the part of the author; writing and editing are two very different disciplines that use different parts of the brain. A writer may well be able to edit their own work, but the very fact that their work is their own creation often blinds them to a lot of what might need to be done to get the story to that professionally publishable level.
An editor will read through the manuscript and highlight the larger structural issues that need addressing and that affect the pacing of the story. They will point out inconsistencies relating to the characters and the plot; often the writer will know what’s happening but won’t have actually written down some salient point and the reader is confronted with a leap in logic or a plain old gap in the plot.
An editor also does a copy edit, which is a line by line tweaking of the manuscript. This picks up on tone, anachronisms, consistency of style and dialogue, and any penchant for the overuse of particular words (a common blind spot in writers – I used to be very font of the word ‘myriad’, for example). This process will also highlight sentences that the writer plainly loves or thinks are very clever or arty or profound and that may need to be deleted if they stick out like sore thumbs (I recently had an editor suggest I take out what I thought was a very witty bon mot relating to a family butchers, which was completely out of context to the story being told).
When all the changes to the manuscript have been made (and a writer may not necessarily take absolutely everything on board that an editor suggests), a final proofreading will be needed before going to press. This is usually done by another person skilled in this area.
It is this one key issue, having the manuscript edited, which is de-stigmatising self-publishing. Orna Ross has set up an organisation called the Alliance of Independent Authors, which promises a website that will become a major resource for those considering self-publishing. Apart from advice on the technical aspects of self-publishing, such as printing and eBook platforms, and on marketing yourself, the one big message that is pushed vociferously is that writers must put their work through an editorial process. Authors owe it to themselves to make their book the best it can be. And while this will cost them money, in the long run it betters their chances of building a readership for their work and just maybe securing a big publisher or agent if they want one.
The more this becomes an integral part of the standard and accepted model for self-publishing, the more self-published books will be accepted by the reading public as a viable alternative to traditionally published books.
There is a bold new frontier opening up for writers now. Like anything new, there is risk and there is danger, but there is also excitement and adventure and limitless possibility.