Self Editing

I think that Hans Christian Anderson might have a thing or two to say about the directions being taken by the indie publishing world. In The Emperor's New Clothes, he tells of the fear of the people that prevents them from pointing out the obvious fact about the emperor's new clothes. Finally, a child points out the obvious and the short story comes to an embarrassing end. Indie publishing is a new world to me, so in a sense I feel like that child, not knowing the polite etiquette or possible repercussions of not stating the obvious. My philosophical background also makes me an inherently systematic thinker, so that I easily spot the contradictions in the information being presented. Those contradictions were obvious to me when attending a variety of seminars on self-publishing at the Northwest Bookfest in Kirkland, Washington State. My comments here are not based on one seminar, but the overall picture presented at the eight sessions that I attended. Some of the advice will work for some people, but not as the must-do rules that the sales pitch represented it as. The link to Anderson's tale comes from one particular set of contradictions:

  1. Indie publishing allows you to break free from the content control of the corporate publishers.
  2. You need an editor.
  3. The great thing about the crisis in corporate publishing is that you can employ an editor who previously worked with them.
  4. The great freedom of indie publishing is that you can fire your editor.

Whether you see a contradiction in the above will depend on why you are drawn to indie publishing. If you want freedom to break away from traditional restrictions on form and content, then there is a major problem. Do you really want to pay for an editor who has been trained in the system that you want to avoid? How do you know that the editor has freed themselves from the tram line vision of their former employers? To answer that you have the freedom to sack your editor is inadequate, when limited funds and legally binding contracts are taken into consideration. Limited funds are an important factor to take into account when considering paying for any professional help to polish up a debut novel for e-book self-publication. Take another set of contradictory claims made in the seminars:

  1. Do not expect to make more than $500 per year from indie publishing.
  2. Do not publish anything until you have three books to sell.
  3. Strongly consider giving your first book away for free.
  4. You must have a professional editor.
  5. You must have a professionally designed cover.
  6. Do not scrimp on your first novel as it will determine the rest of your career.

Points 2 and 3 show just how ridiculous the sales pitch can become. To fulfil those criteria requires that you pay three times the editing and design fees for two-thirds of the income. Neither of them have any basis in fact, but are what is said so often that no-one wants to be the innocent child saying there is a problem with the editor's new clothes. It might help that someone who reads one novel looks to see if there are more to purchase from you, but unless you are writing a series, they are not necessarily going to want your book as their next purchase. The main follow-on sales you expect from a delighted reader is that they insist that their friends buy your book as well. After all, in the realm of traditional corporate publishing, there is no expectation of having three books completed before the first is issued. In fact they often drop the further book options of an author, if the sales of the initial book disappoint. More to the point, the evidence suggests that bringing out a new book gives a spike to sales of the back catalogue, a process that is negated if you publish your first three books in quick succession. Giving a book away for free is not the guaranteed route to success, either. It is true that free books massively outperform paid-for books in terms of downloads, but many of those free downloads are never read. Meanwhile, many people make a decision on a book, rather than an author, so the free sample download is more likely to determine a purchase. In a debut novel, the writer may not yet have honed their style, and so giving it away free may not be much guidance as to the writing standard of subsequent books. The rejoinder here is that if you write your first three novels at once, then all three probably have a similar style, as you have not been confronted with the court of public opinion. Those issues aside, the better selling nature of free downloads does not necessarily assist the discovery of a new author. It is true that many major e-book sellers make it possible to search only for free books, which makes the new author a slighter bigger fish in a slightly smaller pond. This slightly bigger fish is, however, surrounded by even larger fish, known as established authors, who can more readily promote and afford free giveaways.

So leaving aside these dubious rules about publishing your first three books together and only charging for the second and third, where does that leave us with needing to have a professional editor and cover designer? As this article is about editors, I shall quickly pass over the cover design question. In the e-book world, updating a cover is quite simple, and you can bring in some money first with a simpler design before spending money you do not yet have on a graphic designer. Changing a book's contents is much harder after the original publication and so editing is a bigger consideration for your limited first novel finances. The value of having an editor for your first novel will depend on your needs, your skills, and your finances. As a former university lecturer, I have a lot of experience editing work with those who find composing English sentences a difficult task, no matter how well they are taught the rules. If your skills in grammar are not improving, then you may need to have an editor, but you do not necessarily need to pay for one. If a friend has a talent in that area and is prepared to do it for free to help you publish your first novel, then that may be the way to go. Ignore the sales pitch that says that only a professional editor who knows the book industry will do. At the Northwest Bookfest, one presenter lost sight of the sales pitch in her haste to damn corporate publishers, noting that the worst editing of one of her novels was when she was traditionally published. If that is the case, why does the editor have to know the book business?

If your grammar is poor, your primary aim should be to ensure that it is not so poor that those downloading your free sample will refuse to buy your novel. You may find all that you need from a friend with strong grammatical skills, such as a humanities academic or business report writer. They may also be able to help your style, unlike the least expensive editors who will only check grammar and spelling. You are on your own for style, unless you pay a higher rate. For that first novel, do not worry too much about style, as beauty is in the eye of the free sample reader. I will use an example from the print world that I tell against myself, to show how some readers are far too fussy. I bought Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code when it was making news headlines. When I sat down at home to read it, I got as far as the penultimate line of the first page, decided that his writing style was appalling and grabbed my car keys to immediately take the novel to a book bank, as I refused to have it in the house a moment longer. I tell that story against me, not against Dan Brown. He sold tens of millions of copies of The Da Vinci Code. To translate this into e-book terms, I treated his book like a free download sample, decided I did not enjoy his style and chose not to download. Millions bought the book, and I am sure that most of them actually read it. So your style will probably not put off many. Yes there are fussy readers like me, who have ridiculously high style standards, but we are a tiny proportion of the buying public.

The blanket assertion that you must have an editor ignores the fact that some indie authors may possess significant transferable skills in that area. For example, I honed my self-editing skills through working with a very rigorous supervisor for my humanities PhD, which was finally whittled down to a 85000 word text from a high of about 130,000. At my viva voce (face to face) examination, I was particularly praised for the standard of writing. I then applied those skills as a lecturer, and was criticised for pointing out too many grammatical errors to students. I have never worked in the publishing industry, but my inclination is not to employ an editor, as I would probably only harangue them for their poor grammatical standards. Nor do I plan on working as an editor, as I would probably be hyper-critical of a lack of grammatical purity, and do not get me started on style. My own writing style is to play with the rules of grammar, which is something that I do from the basis of knowing more about English grammar than many editors. I am certainly not going to gain anything from paying someone recently graduated from an editing course.

Taking care over whom and what you pay is very important. Indie publishing might give you control of your writing, but it also means that you have to control a business. It is foolish to gear a business with debt, unless you are sure of future earnings to cover it. If you have a day job or savings that you are willing to invest, you may be able to afford to listen the mantra that you must have an editor. Otherwise, start the question at the other end of the spectrum, "Do I need to pay an editor?" Why not seek out self-help books and/or talented friends to get your text to a level where it is no poorer in style or grammar than some of the other e-books that are being downloaded? Search for the most downloaded books on an indie e-book seller, such as Smashwords, and download free samples from the non-free novels. Learn from their standard whether your text is ready to be published. Your debut novel needs to be edited, but, as you set out on your career, it may not need a professional editor. I am encouraging you to self-edit before you self-publish for the first time, and then if you make reasonable sales, you can afford a professional copy editor for the second novel.

Clearly, I am ignoring the claim that you must not scrimp on the first novel as it will determine your whole future career. Basically because it is arrant nonsense. Most novelists produce their best work mid career, with the standard a bit more ropey at the start and end. With the ease of self-publishing, there are more books available than there have ever been in human history. Amidst that great forest, I am sure that you can find a secluded glade to hide the deadwood of a dodgy first novel. If not, you can just remove it from e-book sellers and most of your readers will be none the wiser that it ever existed.

So I have been the child saying that there is something wrong with the editor's new clothes. I am the new kid on the indie publishing block, with no more than a published work-in-progress full of typos to my name (other than that PhD). In the process, I am rejecting the rules asserted across multiple seminars at the Northwest Bookfest by presenters with experience as indie authors and/or providers of indie publishing services. Why should you believe me? Wrong question, you should be asking why you should believe them. Those who have experience as indie authors are more established than a new novelist. So they may have numerous publications already trickling in the money to afford editing fees. Maybe they have a decent day job that means they can vanity publish today in the hope of sales jam tomorrow. Or maybe they need your custom to support their publishing services. The life of an indie author is financially precarious, so do not assume that it is only the publishing professionals who are after your business. Just as many actors subsidise their art through working in other aspects of their industry, so many indie authors see editing as a way to subsidise their wait for the big breakthrough. As you prepare to publish your first novel, remember that they may not have much more financial security than you. They may need your editing payments more than you need their editing skills. You pays your money, and you makes your choice. Or in this case, you can choose not to pay and save your money for a less rainy day.