Cautionary tales of indie authors and editors

“Your editor is your first, best reader.” So said Sophie Weston in a Libertà post on editing and editors that bears rereading. And it reminded me of a few recent instances related to indie authors and whether or not they employ a professional editor.

I’m not proposing to preach at you in this blog. (Sighs of relief all round?) I’m just going to set out a few cautionary tales and let you reach your own conclusions.

Cautionary Tales #1

cautionary tales emerge in writers' groupsI belong to a number of groups where writers meet to exchange information, news and (of course) gossip. At one of these, a few years ago, a new writer appeared. Let’s call her Mary.

Mary had written and self-published a historical novel, set in a period that interests me. She’d not only epubbed it, she’d also had copies printed. And she’d brought some to our meeting in hopes of selling them to us. She’d even brought along her credit card reader so none of us could get away with the excuse, “Oh I’d love to, but, so sorry, I don’t have any cash with me.”

Waterloo soldiersre-enactors

Waterloo re-enactors

I listened to Mary enthusing about her book and how involved she was in the historical period it was set in. (She said she was a keen re-enactor.) I looked at the printed book and read the back-cover blurb which made the main character and the plot sound interesting.

As we were in the middle of our meeting, I didn’t have time to read any of the book itself. But Mary was a full member of the Society of Authors which meant she’d had at least one book published commercially. So she had a track record, no?
Reader, I bought it.

Did Mary need an editor?

When, days later, I started to read Mary’s book, I discovered that the main character was almost nowhere to be seen in the first part of the book and that, while the writing was quite fluent, the story didn’t seem terribly coherent or well plotted. As a reader, I couldn’t engage with it. I didn’t get beyond the first few chapters before I threw it in the bin.

There may have been a story in there—I didn’t persist long enough to be able to say, one way or the other—but Mary’s book was very clearly in need of a tough structural edit. I came to suspect that Mary’s previous commercially published book was not a work of fiction.

I learned two lessons that day. One was positive: to carry around a portable card reader so I can have more luck with persuading readers to buy my books. I’ve implemented that. The second was negative: don’t buy indie-pubbed books (especially pricey printed ones) unless I’ve checked out a sample. I’m trying to implement that one, too.

Cautionary tales #2

This one of my cautionary tales is about me and my self-publishing. I’m not without experience. Over the years, I’ve had 13 books commercially published. I’ve also self-published another 5. (That’s nothing compared with other authors in the Libertà hive. Sophie and Sarah each have more than 50 published titles out there and Liz is well past that marker and on the way to her century.)

But to our tale…

I had written a book in a new genre. I’d done a lot of self-editing and taken advice from Sophie, my crit partner, and others. I thought the MS was pretty good.

The professional editor didn’t. Oh, she loved the premise of the story. And she was very kind. She stressed that the criticisms were just her personal views and that others might think differently. But stripping away all the diplomatic niceties from her comments, what she pointed out was:

  1. pen in razor shape, text criticI’d written the story with 2 narrative voices, one first-person, one third. It didn’t work for the reader. I should use either first-person for both strands, or third for both.
  2. The romance element in the story was too tame and low-key. It needed to be bigger. And also sexier. (And since Joanna Maitland had a reputation for doing sex and romance well, I had no excuse for being timid.)
  3. One important sub-plot didn’t fit well with the main story. It felt like an afterthought, tagged-on. It needed to be better integrated into the narrative or dropped altogether.
  4. Key characteristics of the main protagonist weren’t strong enough. Basically, I needed to beef up key aspects of my hero.

Yes, I needed an editor

Once I’d come down from the ceiling, I realised that my editor was bang on the money with her points 1-3. Her point 4 was valid too, but I did have good reasons for not going quite as far as she recommended. I could see that my hero did need more oomph, though.

Not even a score-draw. It was, at best, editor 3½ points, author ½. Possibly 4-0.

So I reworked the MS and fixed the 3½ points.

It took weeks and weeks.

But I think it’s much better as a result. And I am hugely grateful to the editor for her objective, professional advice. My “first, best reader” indeed.

Cautionary tales #3

This happened in another of my writers’ meetings. A new writer, not commercially published, arrived. Let’s call her Alice. She was struggling to make sales of her self-published books. She’d paid to have them printed. She’d paid for advertising. And she’d done lots of social media stuff. But it wasn’t working. Could the group help her to get an agent?

The group tried to help but had to admit that getting an agent was really difficult, even for commercially published authors with a good track record. It needed a very strong pitch. And an even stronger manuscript.

Alice had taken professional advice, she said. She’d been told she needed to know where her books fitted in the grand scheme of genre fiction so she’d done a lot of research. When she showed us her draft agent query letter, there were loads of comparable books listed.

But the pitch for Alice’s own book was short and pretty generic. Not, on the face of it, the kind of pitch that would enthuse an agent about her book.

Did Alice use an editor?

That was when one of the group asked the $64,000 question. “You’ve spent a lot of money on printing, and on advertising. Did you have the book professionally edited?”

Yes, she’d paid to use a copy editor and a proof reader.

But a professional editor? No. And Alice didn’t seem to be sure what a structural or developmental editor did.

Oh dear. We tried to explain the benefits of using a professional editor, before spending money on printing, advertising and the rest. But it’s difficult to explain what such an editor will actually do for an author.

I wish now that we’d been able to point Alice in the direction of the sample editorial report on the Jericho Writers website, to mention just one example of the many editorial services available in the UK. Reading the insights that an editor has brought to a real MS is far more illuminating than any amount of vague descriptions of the areas an editor might advise on.

woman tearing hairBut Alice thought using a professional editor would be (a) hugely expensive and (b) unnecessary for her MSS. Her writing had won prizes and she has a degree in creative writing. (And had possibly missed the lecture about what professional editors do and why they’re so valuable to authors?)

We pointed out that it’s not like writing a blank cheque. Most freelance professional editors will do a sample edit for a new client for a very reasonable fee and provide a quote for editing the full MS. Alice still didn’t look convinced. Unfortunately, that was where the meeting ended. What Alice would do next was left up in the air.

Did Alice need an editor?

I did not buy Alice’s book.

But I have subsequently read a sample on Amazon. Alice’s book would certainly benefit from a professional editor’s advice.

The first few chapters hop about all over the place. They’re full of backstory and info-dump that I, as a reader, didn’t need to know. Alice had introduced a villain, but I had no idea, from the first few chapters, what the actual story was going to be about. It’s very sad.

I don’t know whether we’ll see Alice again, but I hope she will think seriously about taking a professional editor’s advice. It might help her sales.

Cautionary tales conclusion?

OK, I said I wouldn’t use these cautionary tales to preach. I lied.

Inexperienced writers need professional editors.
Experienced writers need professional editors.
ALL writers need professional editors.

As a very young Sophie was told when she asked, naively, what editors did: “They teach you to write.” And, nearly 20 books in, I’m very grateful for the huge amount my various editors have taught me.

Joanna Maitland author


4 thoughts on “Cautionary tales of indie authors and editors

  1. Liz Fielding

    That last sentence is so true, Joanna. I was hugely fortunate to have engaged the interest of an editor at Mills and Boon for my first book and she worked with me on that manuscript -, sending me back again and again. She used the word “cut” a lot – mostly about the location. I will be forever in her debt, not just for my career, but also for the huge learning experience. Every editor I’ve ever had has made my books stronger. Each one of them – I’ve been writing a long time and there have been quite a few – has made my books stronger. They pick out the plot holes (I spotted a huge one myself watching McDonald and Dobbs last night), show you where you’re in a muddle and suggest a fix. They just make the book better. Eighty books in and I’m still learning from my present editor.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I rather wish that Mary and Alice would read your comment, Liz, and realise how much a good editor could help them. And that, even 80 books in, a writer can still learn from an editor. Really experienced authors, like you, know they still have to learn and can’t get the book publication-ready on their own. Some authors who’re just starting out don’t think that way. Lack of humility? Naivety? Dunno…

  2. Sarah Mallory

    An interesting post, Joanna, thank you for those cautionary tales! I agree with you, even experienced authors are so closely involved in their books that they can’t always see the bigger picture, or the little details that can make all the difference.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Mary and Alice’s books showed the kind of basic mistakes that most experienced authors would know to avoid. Doesn’t mean experienced authors always get everything right, though, as you say. And it’s one of the great advantages of commercial publication over indie, that the author gets the services of an editor for free.

      I will admit that not all editors are great. Some, as Sophie said in that “Dear Editor” post, go too far. The indie author has an advantage there. If she’s paying, she can sack an editor who wants the author to write the editor’s book.


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