The New World of Publishing: Editing and Proofing

Just for fun and giggles and to help kill a few myths, I figured I would take a few areas of publishing and compare them across, from indie to traditional. The differences, the beliefs, how things are actually done.

I’ll do this with cover design, with blurb writing, and other areas that are common between the two forms of publishing. One area per short post.

But first off, let me talk about editing and proofing.

One of the great new myths is that traditionally-published books are cleaner and better proofed than indie-published books. Traditional publishers use this myth as a selling point to keep writers mailing them books.

Well, maybe it’s true, but not always.

Of course, this is impossible to actually get data on, since every book is different and goes through a different path to a unique publication. Most of the time you can’t take the same book and put it out traditionally and indie at the same time.

However, that said, a lot of us old traditional writers are indie publishing our backlist now. And that’s leading to some really eye-opening discoveries. We are finding tons and tons of problems in traditionally published books that were not in our original manuscripts. Problems introduced by the editing and proofreader of a traditional publishing house.

How are we discovering this? Simple, actually. We give our hired proofreader a copy of the original, traditionally-published book and an original electronic file. Then we tell the new proofreader to compare the electronic file to the published work and try to get the electronic manuscript as clean as possible.

Our proofreader is finding mistakes that got missed and mistakes that were added in. Thus our books being done indie are now far cleaner than the ones originally done traditional.

Kris talked about this when she talked about how there is no perfect book on her blog. You can find that great post here.

Now I’m sure almost every indie publisher already has a story about this sort of thing. But in the hopes of keeping this on topic, I’m going just go through how a manuscript gets proofed in the two paths to publication.

Traditional Publishing

Step One:

Your manuscript gets read by an editor. (Please do not say anything about agents in this. That topic is too ugly to handle here.)

Often this editor is young, just out of college, and filled with the myths of how there is a perfect book. (Again, read Kris’s post about perfection.) If you are lucky your manuscript finds a more experienced editor and the editor goes through trying to make your book a better book for what you wrote. Editors do find mistakes, but most of them are not good copyeditors.

Sometimes in this stage you get an editor who thinks they are a writer and tells you how to rewrite your book into something they think will sell better, or is more to how they would have written it if they had enough courage to be a writer. (There are tricks to getting around this type of editor. You learn them after getting stuck with a few of them.)

Step Two:

There will always be a rewrite.

Let me repeat that. No matter what you book is or how well-written or perfect, there will always be a rewrite that you must address in one fashion or another. Why? Contracts, that’s why. They give you money on signing and money on acceptance. They have to divide those payments apart for cash flow reasons. You know… business. So the editor MUST find something for you to do, even if she loves the book. In over 100 books I had less than five of them not go through a minor to completely-stupid rewrite.

Sometimes the editor found good stuff that needed fixing, sometimes the editor was just marking time until she could put in for the next check for her writer. Those marking-time rewrites cause more damage than good when the writer is too new to stand up to the editor.

Step Three:

When all that is done, your manuscript goes off to a copyeditor for a copyedit. If your advance is low, chances are they are testing out a new copyeditor that is cheap. If your advance is high, you might get a more experienced one.

The publisher will pay anywhere from $500 to $10,000 for the copyediting, again depending on your advance. I have heard of some charging a lot more, and it happens, but more times than not that’s a myth fed to beginning writers.

If your advance is low, you are rolling the dice on getting a decent copyeditor or not. If you get a copyeditor who wants to be a writer and has no respect for your writing, you will find yourself in a hell you can’t even begin to imagine.

If you get a good one, they will find all kinds of stuff and mistakes you swear you never knew were in there.

You must always spend the time, sometimes days, to check through the copyedited manuscript sent to you by the publisher.

Step Four:

In the old days there was another step when someone had to type in your manuscript with all the corrections included. Now that step is a person keying in the corrections, more than likely using the computer program of their choice.

Mistakes are added in here still, but not near as many as the old system. Now usually the writer gets a copyedited manuscript that they can accept or change the corrections. The hope is that the manuscript the writer did the accepting or changing got into the book and not another copy.

Indie Publishing

Let me say this right here, right up front. Every book and story published needs a good copyedit.

When I did the first Challenge Series of short stories, I put those stories up without a copyedit. I just had my first reader read them. Now I am going back and having them copyedited and finding all kinds of small mistakes. And a couple big ones. (grin)

With the Challenge Two series just starting, all the stories will be read by my first reader and also copyedited before I put them up and into book form.

So what is the process for indie publishing?

Step One:

You have a manuscript. Give it to a couple good first readers. Friends that you also read their work, or just friends that don’t write but love to read. Listen to them on the mistakes and then only fix what you want.

This step is how indie writers go around the editor part of traditional publishing. An editor is only a good reader. Two of your friends are often, combined, a great reader as well.

Can some books be better with some good professional level editing? Yup. But not all. Many a great book has been killed by bad editing.  And those you never hear about.

There are many great and experienced editors in traditional publishing who can help a book become better for the author, but at this point, with traditional publishing in the state it’s in, I’ll take my chances on a couple of friends reading the book.

Step Two:

Find a friend who loves to find nits in everything they read and give the book to them to read with the instructions to find everything. There’s usually one of those in every workshop that starts talking about a comma in the wrong spot on page forty-seven. You know the type.

Or hire a good freelance copyeditor.  The going rate is around $25.00 for a short story, $50.00 for longer stories, and around $5 per 1,000 words for longer novels. So the range is $500 to $1,000 for a long novel to get a good freelance copyeditor. Caution if the rates go too much higher.

By the way, most freelance copyeditors also work for traditional publishers. Traditional publishers NEVER have copyeditors on staff. It’s always farmed out just as indie publishers do.

Step Three:

You accept or reject the corrections from the copyeditor. If you add in mistakes in this step, you have no one to blame.

The big difference with indie publishing is that you are in control of the copyedit and with traditional publishing you are not.

So those are the editing and copyediting differences between the two routes.

Make your own choices.

It’s wonderful in this new world that we have the choices to make.

Back soon with a post that will shock you. How are cover blurbs and back cover copy done in traditional publishing? You really don’t want to know. But I’m going to tell you anyhow.

Have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

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61 Responses to The New World of Publishing: Editing and Proofing

  1. Funny you should mention this. Just Sunday I received an email from a reader who read my last traditionally published novel, Trouble Down The Road, and asked me about a mistake (wrong character name) on a specific page. She was correct! That error slipped through (and it’s not the first time it happened).

    I’m ancient enough to remember the days when there were never any errors in books. The late women’s fiction author Helen Van Slyke reported having received hundreds of letters from readers pointing out that she’d had a character send regrets to a wedding after World War II when it was previously stated that he’d been killed in action in France. This was a rarity. Just as Americans dress more sloppily today than they did sixty years ago, the quality of book editing has decreased.

    As a consumer, I have read books that appear only to have been spell checked and sent to the printer with no other editing done to them. Factual errors (like there being two hours’ difference in time between Ohio and California–there are three), phrases repeated to distraction, character’s names that change mid-book, and overuse of passive verbs like “was” are just a few examples of mistakes I’ve seen in books recently…and these are books by bestselling authors in their genres. Publishers are cutting back, which means that the author has to work harder than ever to put out a quality product. So it is absolutely a myth that traditional publishers offer better editing than indie publishers. If anything, it becomes more obvious which writers have more talent.

    I have been very fortunate to have excellent copyeditors during my years of trad publishing. But my only book that required extensive revisions was my first, At Long Last Love, back in 1998. I am very proud that the manuscript for my second book, A Love of Her Own, aside from standard proofreader marks for breaks and such and grammar changes like that/which and lay/lie, only had a mere two words changed, one of which was a word much too sophisticated for the 8-year-old character speaking and another that escapes my memory at the moment. This represents a personal best for me that has never been equaled. My copyeditors have caught contradictions, the aforementioned use of wrong character names (one of my bad habits), repititiousness…

    The intense job done on my first foray into general women’s fiction, Once Upon A Project, was so thorough that I praised the copyeditor’s work to my editor, who passed it the compliments. That freelancer asked me for a quote for her website, which I gladly supplied.

    I have also objected to changes recommended by copyeditors. One that comes to mind is the multiple forms of the word “had” into my manuscript during a flashback scene. I strongly feel that in a case like this, a few insertions of “had” at the beginning get the point across is sufficient; it’s not necessary to continue use of that word to the point of distraction. My editor honored my wishes.

    I also want to point out that while a good copyeditor does an excellent job, they are not perfect. It is up to the author to go over their copyedited manuscript and fix things the copyeditor may have missed. For instance, while reading the manuscript I noticed that I said a character was at the movies, then quickly backtracked a page or two and saw that I’d explained that character’s absence by saying they were spending the weekend with a friend. This doesn’t mean the copyeditor didn’t do a good job; it means that they are human. My manuscripts tend to be long, and this copyeditor caught a heck of a lot of other inconsistencies throughout the story.

    The three most important pieces of any book, indie or trad, book remain: 1) a good story, 2) a professional-looking cover, and 3) editing.

  2. Like any other professional author with a few books under their belt, I have a ton of editing horror stories. The worst was for a history book where the “copyeditor” introduced several errors of fact and didn’t use track changes on the manuscript. Guess who had to go through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb? Yeah, the guy whose name appears on the cover and who had the most to lose if the errors remained.
    A friend wrote a travel book that was published by one of the Big Six. I was quoted in it, but there were no end quotes so it looked like I was narrating the rest of the book!
    I have a hundred more stories like that. You probably have a thousand.
    My first indie novel came out pretty clean. My writers group is great at nitpicking. Some slipped through as some always do, but a very kind reader emailed me a list of mistakes. The great thing about indie publishing with POD and electronic editions is that you can correct those mistakes. That reader is getting the sequel for free.

  3. Carradee says:

    On one forum, I mentioned that of two authors I like, the self-published one has fewer typos, and the traditionally published one is particularly prone to homophone problems, and sometimes even nonsensical sentences. The response was a scoffing, “How do you know [there are fewer grammar problems in the self-published book]?” I didn’t even bother pointing out that, as a copyeditor myself, I was perfectly qualified test the two, counting errors on random pages from each book. Which I’d done before saying anything. *rolls eyes*

    Evidently, some major publishers even lack consistent style sheets for their outsourced work. I have two from one big US publisher on my Nook, and one uses em dashes properly; the other uses AP style spacing with en dashes (–) where em dashes (—) should be. Ulgh! Love the story to the point of re-reading, but those wrong dashes drive me up the wall. (Note: It wouldn’t bother me if the book were Australian or some other nationality where that use of an en dash is acceptable. But it’s a US publisher, the book’s set in the US, the author’s from the US, and the POV character is a US native. So the dash usage comes from…where?)

    I know a few small presses where the author actually goes through a separate line edit and proofread or three, but even those are mostly all outsourced. The one that I know has on-staff editors and proofreaders is a university, so they use students (who have to go through rigorous testing on grammar to gain and maintain their jobs).

    But I also know a few small presses where the copyeditors are paid proofreading rates and where the proofreaders are unpaid volunteers. (The things you learn when you’re cold e-mailing.)

    Granted, my experience on that end has been as a copyeditor and proofreader, chatting with my peers and seeking companies to work with.

    And, speaking of copyeditors… Certain details of spelling and grammar have options. If you’re self-publishing, you get to pick how to handle them. (For example: T-shirt or tee shirt? It isn’t t-shirt.) Ideally, if self-publishing, you want to tell your copyeditor your style preferences before he or she starts the copyedit, but if you don’t know the options, the editor should either point them out or tell you their default grammar handbook and dictionary for such situations.

    Short version of the above comment: Dean’s right. ;-)

    Thanks, sir, for giving me another source to point to as backup when I get jumped on. ^_^

  4. Dean, love this post; especially where you say “Find a friend who loves to find nits in everything they read and give the book to them to read with the instructions to find everything.”

    I’m fortunate enough to have found some of those people and their input has taught me a lot. I also appreciate their efforts more than I can tell them – - and if they read this comment, they’ll know who they are. They’ve helped make my choice to go the indie route a very satisfying one. Now all I need are the sales.

    I think links to this post may find their way onto my FB page and blog, too :)

  5. Vera Soroka says:

    I have not published my first novel yet and editing has been on my mind. I’m thinking of hiring an editor to copyedit. Some of these editors say they can do both. I found one off Passive Voice’s blog on the side of his website. She’s canadian like me and has been in the business for over 25 years and belongs to the editor’s association and seems very experienced but charges 2 or 3 cents per word on a novel. I think copyediting is cheaper but that can add up when it’s out of pocket expense. So maybe just copyediting for now and see how that goes. I think right now what is important to me is to have no typos or grammer errors. I do have verb tense issues.

    • dwsmith says:

      Vera, trust your own art and don’t let another person into it unless you have no choice. A copyeditor and a couple good first readers to find basic mistakes will be enough. Trust your own voice and art. I know, tough to do when you are starting out. But try anyway. You do not need to hire an editor. Just bribe a couple of friends to read it and give suggestions and comments and then hire a good copyeditor.

    • TL Stone says:

      Vera, being a member of the EAC (which I assume is the editor’s association that you are talking about) means the editor has $260/year to spend on membership dues–that’s all. There’s no exam or qualification needed unless the person wants a voting membership. (I point this out because too many people assume that an EAC membership means more than it does.)

  6. Mike Zimmerman says:

    Very good points here and aside from the subject of money, this delineates the main differences between traditional and self publishing. In traditional, you have no idea who your editor and copy editor will be. In self-pub, you know exactly who they are. If they’re good and you work well together, you can work with them on your next book. That’s not generally the case in traditional.

    And FYI, when you do happen upon a really good copy editor, you know it. Buy this person regular adult beverages of his/her choice. I’ve had a lot of stupid mistakes caught over the years by one guy in particular. I try to play golf or go out for happy hour with him a few times a year (it’s easy since we work in the same office, but still).

    • dwsmith says:

      Got that right, Mike, on holding onto a good copyeditor when you find one. They are worth their weight in gold and will save you a ton of time. Good point. I assume you don’t agree on my money numbers. (grin)

  7. Dan says:

    As an Indie, that’s been precisely my experience, and I’m so glad to have control of the copyedit process. I will say that I had a fabulous copy editor (for $300), but one issue we disagreed. I had a fictional title (akin to Senator), and the capitalization seemed inconsistent to her, so she capitalized them all. However, since I had final say, I was able to confirm the proper rule in each case, i.e. he is a senator, and we address him as Senator Taylor. But other than that one thing, she was fabulous, and I got to go forward confident in every other change she made, having approved each of them.

  8. My favorite story about traditional editing involves the legendary Maxwell Perkins and the equally legendary Thomas Wolfe. I was taught in college that Wolfe turned in a huge mess of a manuscript, a hopeless stack of nearly incomprehensible gibberish. Perkins, a genius, pulled the masterpiece that is “Look Homeward, Angel” out of that stack.

    Not so. A couple of years ago, two scholars pieced together Wolfe’s original manuscript submission and published it as “O Lost” (Wolfe’s original title), and in doing so added back several thousand words Perkins had deleted. The result is startling — Wolfe’s original story was much better, more poetic, a better read. Perkins, rather than polishing a diamond in the rough, had cut Wolfe’s book to fit the assembly-line standards of his publisher. I wouldn’t call it butchery, but it went well beyond what a reasonable person would expect of “editing”.

    Dean, I love your posts, and your insight into traditional editing/publishing. Nothing resounds like the voice of experience.

    • Lyn Worthen says:

      One of the most challenging tasks I face as a copyeditor is not tampering with the author’s voice. I’ll often read several pages into a manuscript just to get a feel for the author’s voice and style before I turn on Track Changes and start editing. My goal (and really, the goal of every copyeditor I know) is to help *the author’s* manuscript shine, not turn it into “how *I* would have written the story.”

      I have to also echo Dan’s and Carradee’s comments above about the author having final say about accepting/rejecting the copyeditor’s recommendations is so very important – whatever your copyeditor says, in the end it’s *your* story and *your* name that’s going on the cover.

  9. “When all that is done, your manuscript goes off to a proofreader for a copyedit. If your advance is low, chances are they are testing out a new proofreader that is cheap.”

    I must respectfully disagree with you here, Dean. Perhaps my experience (employment by a textbook publisher, a religious publisher, several consumer magazines, and, back when copyediting was a management job and proofreading was a union job, journeyman standing in the International Typographical Union) merely differs from yours, but a copyeditor and a proofreader do not perform the same tasks and one does not send a manuscript that needs copyediting to a proofreader.

    A copyeditor prepares a manuscript for publication by finding and correcting errors in style, punctuation, and grammar.

    A proofreader reads printers’ proofs (typeset galleys or page proofs), to detect and mark those instances where the typeset material does not match the copyedited manuscript. While a proofreader might catch and query an error of spelling, punctuation, or grammar, it is not the proofreaders’ job to do so.

    Changing publishing technology has caused some duties and responsibilities to change in recent years, but even today I would never send a manuscript that needs copyediting to a proofreader. I would send it to a copyeditor.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ahh, crap, Michael, caught me on that one. I meant to say copyeditor and have now gone back and fixed it. You are exactly correct, and in fiction there are very few proofreaders anymore. They still exist in nonfiction, as you pointed out, but not in fiction. One of the cutbacks many years ago.

      So thanks for the catch. You were right. I fixed it on the main post.

  10. Annie Reed says:

    Jennifer Baumer and I were talking a little while back about typos I found in manuscripts I swore were clean. Jennifer blames the Typo Fairy, a mean little thing that delights in messing with clean copy. I think it’s just because my fingers and my brain have yet to learn how to truly communicate. I’m trying to fix this problem (the fingers and brain thing; I have no idea how to placate the Typo Fairy) by studying the grammar and punctuation rules I know I’m weak on (hyphens, anyone?) and proofing hard copies, not the text on the screen. I’ve also learned that even if I have a nitpicky friend copyedit something for me, I still need to go through the entire hard copy and do my own copyedits, not just look at the copyeditor’s changes and ignore the rest of the manuscript.

    • Chong Go says:

      While revising a book for it’s third edition, I came across “clam faith.” (Didn’t mean to talk about bivalves, it should have been “calm faith”.) I was begging and hoping that this was a recent addition by the Typo Fairy, but no, there it was in the previous two editions. Sigh.

    • Reading aloud helps. Better yet, there’s free software that will read your MS aloud to you. Amazing what you catch! :) Also, put the hard copy in a different font than the one you’re used to.

  11. PA Wilson says:

    Love the post. I get annoyed at the assumption others seem to make that indie publishers don’t bother with edits or proofreads. I want my book to be as good as I can possibly make it. I have readers who tell me whether the story works, the pace is appropriate and the characters are strong. I have a proofreader who finds the errors in grammar and typos. I have someone who does the marketing copy and cover art. None of this costs me more than I want to pay.

  12. John says:

    Don’t make me wait. Tell me about blurbs. =D

    • dwsmith says:

      John, nope got to wait. I’m going to tell the Pitches and Blurbs workshop people who will be here Saturday first, then while they all work on how to write great blurbs and pitches and back cover copy, I’ll tell the rest of you the ugly truth. (grin)

  13. joemontana says:

    Not to derail the conversation, but this whole bit brings up a great point (to me anyway!).

    As Dean points out, a copy edit could be 500-1000 bucks. His warning about more than that amount is necessary, because I have seen copyeditors that advertise as charging 50-75 bucks an hour and read 5 pages an hour. So you 100000 word book / 250 words per page is 400 pages or $2000+ to have copy edited.

    The point? I’m getting there…

    Dean has long warned against basement pricing – as if he hasn’t laid out enough reasons against it let’s look at this…

    You pay $1000 bucks for a copy edit. Let’s also say your cover cost you $250 (made up number). You have 1250 bucks invested before you even hit the upload button.

    You price your book @ $6 and make ~ $4 per sale. When you sell 313 copies you start making a profit (obviously, we are ignoring any other costs like your time and overhead if you are running this like a business. Dean had laid all this out in other posts..)

    Now let’s play the discounter’s game. You pay 1250 bucks to bring your 99 cent 35% royalty book to the masses. @ .35 profit per sale, you need sell over 3500 copies of your book to make any money.

    Frankly, paying for a copy edit on a 99 cent novel is a waste of money. Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, I’m not likely to be the first to come to that little revelation. So, when folks buy 99 cent books and complain that many read like no one ever edited them – it’s probably because only a sadist or some fool with buckets of money to throw away would invest 1200 bucks in something he or she is never likely to see recoup that investment.

    Just a (long) thought.

    • dwsmith says:

      joemontana, very good thought. I have a hunch you are correct. If I was forced to sell my book for only 99 cents, I sure wouldn’t spend the money to proof them either. Great thought. And more than likely spot on. Another reason to keep your own books out of that discount bin area.

    • Copyeditor says:

      What’s your goal in writing? To present the best possible story in the best way possible, or to make a few bucks?

      • dwsmith says:

        Copyeditor, a balance, actually. I always work to do my best on every story or novel. Always. Past that, I do what I can in getting it to readers in the best possible form. After having over a hundred novels through traditional publishers, I have learned that process is far, far, far from perfect. I’ve sent back complete copyedited manuscripts because the copyeditor rewrote me and told the publisher to have someone else do it. I’ve had wonderful copyeditors who made my books better by finding all sorts of little problems. But we all do what we can do, and paying a lot of money does not, and I repeat NOT guarantee any kind of quality. And in this age of scams on indie writers, it often does exactly the opposite.

        So to answer your snide question, I try my best on everything I can do on every step. That does not mean I have to pay someone a lot of money. The two do not equate. Sorry.

  14. Thanks again for the reality check amidst the haze of accusations and counter-accusations that fly between the increasingly entrenched traditional and self-pubbed camps.

    I write and I publish others, and it is very difficult for me, a perfectionist in my own work, to do less than pick the nits in my authors’ manuscripts into oblivion.

    Do self-publishers care less? I would say that most of us care more.

  15. Jerry says:

    I really enjoy these posts and find them useful, particularly all the commentary after the posts. I was wondering what your thoughts are on automated proofing services like ErrNET. Is it just a glorified spell check? I would think that nothing could replace a human for editing. But an option like this might be feasible for someone with budget constraints. These sites certainly make claims to do a lot, though I’m skeptical.

  16. Meryl Yourish says:

    A friend and I were discussing this very thing. He is now in possession of my manuscript, which he will scan for typos and homophones, since I told him how clean my copy generally is.

    But in discussing the typos we’ve seen in published novels, I just realized that I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in Patricia McKillip’s novels. I love her work–she is my favorite living author–and I have reread all of her books. Maybe there might be one or two in the older version of the Riddle Master trilogy, but I can’t think of one. Nor can I think of any in the Harry Potter books.

    Sometimes, traditional publishers do hire the best.

    I want their proofreaders.

  17. Dean – you have had a 30 year career. You have written over a 100 novels and probably more short stuff than you can count. You have dealt with dozens of editors and you probably have a lot of horror stories to tell. You also (per you recent comment) write about 1 million words on average per year. So you have a ton of practice when it comes to writing. Your stuff probably comes out close to publishable and you won’t need an editor. Especially since you have experienced the horror stories yourself.

    The same goes for most of authors who have been in the game a while.

    My point though is – do you really want to advise first time authors and writers who have just started out with their first novel/story/whatever that “you don’t need an editor”? This seems a little dicey. Sure, every new writer always thinks his stuff is the best out there – but sometimes they really, really need someone to tell them that what they have written is just crap and they should try better.

    I really don’t think “you don’t need an editor, trust in your art” can be applied universally.

    • dwsmith says:

      Frank, you didn’t read very carefully did you? (grin) I said substitute two good first readers for an editor.

      You clearly believe in the myth that editors are superior creatures of some sort of another. I know I thought that early on as well. Then I became one.

      Trust me, editors are just good readers. Some of us like my wife have the uncanny ability to tell a writer how to take their story from good to great. But it first has to be good. I have the ability to see good and great stories and buy them out of piles of not-so-good stories.

      And the ugly secret??? We just buy what we like. Doesn’t make what we don’t like bad, just means it doesn’t suit our tastes. Nothing more.

      Those writers who come to the Anthology workshop every year in February learn this in a stunning fashion. Five editors, all buying for one project or another, sit up front and go over stories the pros who are attending have turned in. I’ll hate a story and right beside me an editor will love it and offer to buy it. Sometimes the five editors get in great fights over a story. That’s how the pros there learn.

      And the main lesson? Not every story will be right for every editor, but if you keep a story out there, someone will eventually buy it. (Oh, yeah, that’s part of Heinlein’s Rules isn’t it?)

      Editors are not super-human in any fashion. We just love to read and have tastes and a checkbook behind us. Nothing more.

      For indie publishing, readers are out there and love to read. I, for one, trust readers. They can make their own decisions just fine.

      So what I am telling writers is to get good first readers who can spot mistakes and holes in plots and boring areas. And then have the writer fix those areas if he agrees. Then hire a good copyeditor to find the nits and publish it if you are going indie. If you are going traditional, skip the copyedit step is all. Traditional publishers will do that.

      And if you have troubles not having an editor because of some myth still floating around in your head, then give your two first readers the title of “Editor.” Trust me, more than likely they will have more reading experience than a bunch of the new editors in traditional publishing offices. So just call your first reader your editors. Works for me.

      So yup, I stand by what I said even though you didn’t read it right or agree. I’m an editor, been an editor for twenty of the last thirty years as well as writing. And I will be an editor again shortly on this great new project that is starting up. Trust me, all I know is what I like.

      Juts like all readers.

      • FWIW, on my one of my early (released) novels I hired an editor to teach me what editors do. She was excellent, did a thorough job, and was very open with how the process worked on her end. I took careful notes and then, over drinks at a con, picked the brain of another (multiple award-winning) editor about how typical the experience was–what the editor’s duties were, what different kinds of editors looked for, etc.

        Doing this I got a great education in how to procure and shop for beta readers, and working with them sense is slowly teaching me how to balance the stable to make sure I don’t have a huge hole in my defense-against-my-awful-typos-and-continuity-errors line (typos and continuity errors breed in my books according to manuscript length. Every extra 10k words = an extra two generations. It’s like watching a yeast culture grow). The gist of this somewhat-expensive ($1000+trade for the editor, + $50 in drinks for the consult at the convention) expensive is…

        1) Find a couple anal-retentive readers who are great on continuity in its various forms.

        2) Find a couple more (if necessary) who take typos personally, and keep them supplied with red pens.

        3) Produce enough stories to keep them interested.

        In other words, I spent the equivalent of $1500 to learn what Dean just covered for free. While I can think of a couple scenarios where I might again hire a pro (all for projects that require specialized expertise of some sort), for the most part, I gotta say:

        Save the money and find some friends — or fans — who are competent to do what you need, and treat them like gold. Not only does it cost less, you can build some excellent relationships that way :-)


  18. RD Meyer says:

    “The big difference with indie publishing is that you are in control of the copyedit and with traditional publishing you are not.”

    I like this line. When I hire a copyeditor for my work and they tell me something I disagree with, I can push back and always win. Yes, it’s on me at that point, but it’s MY story anyway.

  19. Ken E Baker says:

    Wow. First of all, thank you for such a candid experience. Most of the articles you read these days are about self-published authors attempting to get into publishing. The authors who were previously affiliated with traditional publishing, and have now moved to self-publish are mostly mum on topic that you have spoken about. I did not know that much of the copy-editing is outsourced, so thanks for that insight. I thoroughly enjoyed the post, and I hope that you can share more of this experience. One question though – how did you feel about the ‘marketing of your book’ that the trad publishers did? Was that also something you felt was weak, or is this still very much a strength with trad publishing companies?

    • dwsmith says:

      Ken, marketing by traditional publishers goes on at lots of levels, and except for the highest levels of advances, you can do it as well.

      I’m not talking about posting on Facebook or Twitter or stuff like that. Does little good and just annoys your friends for the most part.

      What traditional publishers do in marketing is put your book on a publishing list and then make sure bookstores get that list. They show the bookstores your cover and the blurb for your book and then let the stores decide. You can’t do that much as an author, but if you have started your own publishing company, you can do it just fine.

      Also lots of indie distributors starting up, so that will help once that part of this new world levels out some.

      Except for putting my books on publishing lists and getting that to stores, my traditional publishers did almost uniformly nothing to promote in any way my books. I got two display dumps in over 100 books. (Display dumps are displays full of books put in the front of stores.) I got a few end-cap placement on a couple books. (End caps are the ends of shelves in stores and publishers pay bookstores to put certain books there.)

      That’s about it. Yet I have made a living with my writing for most of thirty years.

      Except for making sure bookstores know your paper book is out there, promotion is a myth. Best promotion you can always have is the next book. And a lot of books and stories published.

  20. Editors, copy editors and formatters, oh my! Another thought-provoking post, Dean. Funny how people are getting into absolutely massive battles over this.

    The thing about this new world of self-publishing is writers have to know their own weaknesses, and learn how to get around them. If you know you can’t spell or don’t know horse from hoarse, you get an editor/first reader/proof reader/whatever that does. If you don’t know a good cover from moldy cheese, and couldn’t draw stick people with a gun to your head, you hire an artist.

    Simple business practice. :)

  21. Brian says:


    Great post as always and much gratitude. Question though: Do you have a list or ideas of where to get a good editor? I am finishing the rewrite of my first short and need someone to go over it, but don’t want to spend big money on something that may only be sold for $1.99.

    Also, where to find good beta readers? Anyone else have thoughts or ideas?

    Thanks in advance.

    • dwsmith says:

      Brian to find good first readers, look around at your friends, or get out to some writer’s conferences and meet other writers in your area of writing.

      To find a good copyeditor, Dan Sawyer below gave some good suggestions. Caution on the ones you find out trolling the beginning writers at writer’s conferences. Sometimes they are great, sometimes they are scammers.

      And never hire anyone who says they are an “editor.” See my answer below. You want to only hire a copyeditor and there are two vastly different areas. A couple of good first readers and a belief in your own work can replace an editor for the most part. No one can replace a copyeditor. They are needed.

  22. I came across this blog post as a hit in a Google alert for editing-related content.

    $500 to properly copyedit a full-length novel is low. $1,000 is more on the mark, but even that is on the “light” end. For examples of current professional editing rate guidelines, see:

    I understand your point about how expensive copyediting is when you may only be selling your work for 99 cents a pop. However, editors aren’t necessarily out to gouge writers by charging $50 an hour or $5 a page or whatever rate they’re quoting. Many of us, rightly so, charge according to our skills and expertise. Not everyone can be a good editor, even though many think so!

    Editing is a professional service. I like to relate it to plumbing: you could hire a cheaper plumber, but what quality of work will you get?

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, I agree, Kristine. But from the writer’s side of the picture, there are so many scammers out there who call themselves “editors” that the best way to tell a good copyeditor is reasonable pricing, and even then it’s a good idea to test the copyeditor on a short story for $25.00 than pay someone two or three grand and then not like the results.

      Scammers are all over the place in this business at the moment (actually, always have been, but more now since writers tend to be shouting to the world that they are bad at business.) Scammers call themselves agents and editors to beginning writers. Does that mean there are not great real editors and agents? Of course not, but price is a key warning sign.

      $5.00 per thousand words is a fair price for a decent copyeditor. Much past that and a writer needs to be on alert on what they are paying the extra money for.

    • Lyn Worthen says:

      Obligatory disclaimer here – I *am* a freelance copyeditor, and I *do* charge $5/1000 words. I crossed the “million words of fiction edited” for 2011 in August, and am rapidly closing in on that same milestone for this year – and that is only the *fiction* side of my business. I write/edit much more than that in nonfiction every year, and have done so going on 25 years now.

      To Kristine’s comment regarding EFA rates (that’s the Editorial Freelancer’s Association, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the organization). The EFA’s list of recommended rates freelancers should charge is entirely appropriate for editors working with BUSINESSES who are hiring their services, and allow the freelancer to earn a decent wage, pay for their office expenses, insurance, self-employment taxes, and all those other costs that are part of running your own small business.

      All that said, the EFA rates are *not* structured for freelancers working with INDIE AUTHORS, primarily because the indie authors don’t have the budgets to support those costs. For example, let me illustrate with two novels I edited this year that were of comparable length:

      Author A
      Novel length: 54,200 words
      Time to copyedit: 5.83 hours
      Fee @ $5/1000 words = $271.00
      Fee @ $50/hr = 291.67

      Author B
      Novel length: 55,830 words
      Time to copyedit: 16.57 hours
      Fee @ $5/1000 words = $279.15
      Fee @ $50/hr = $828.33

      Did Author A circulate her novel among her beta readers before sending it to me where Author B did not? I suspect so, but does that really justify me, as an editor, charging Author B nearly three times as much for reading his manuscript? Not at all.

      So I earned less than the EFA-sanctioned rate on Author B’s manuscript – Author A’s book made up for it. And I’ve found that when I average out my earnings across the books I copyedit each year, I end up with an hourly rate that allows me, as a freelancer, to cover my business expenses *and* pay my mortgage *and* put food on the table. At $5/1000 words, which is a rate my indie authors can afford, budget for, and eventually expect to see covered through their book sales.

      In my opinion, Dean’s absolutely correct when he cautions against going with a copyeditor who is charging higher rates.

      But that’s just my $.02 – YMMV.

      Lyn Worthen
      Camden Park Press

      • Carradee says:

        Also, EFA rates are geared for editors working in businesses, namely non-fiction, and often that can include fact-checking. Editors who charge that much might be able to find clients to suit them, but it won’t be in your average self-publishing author.

        As for me, $5 per 1k words is actually the lowest I earn as a line editor or copyeditor, because when an author needs more work, I charge more. And most of my clients—sadly, including some who have already been edited—need more work.

        But they’re happy with me and come back, despite the knowledge that there are cheaper options. I’m also a bit slower than you, Lyn. ;)

        • Carradee says:

          P.S. And for the record, when I say “I charge more”…I’m talking a dollar or three per 1k words, so we’re still talking <$1,000 for a copyedit.

  23. joemontana says:

    Just to add a little to what Dean is responding to…

    I have 2 family members with advanced English degrees (one a Master’s the other a Doctorate) who have dabbled in copy editing. Now keep in mind, they are not doing this as a full time job… Neither one of them would dream of a 75/hr fee or some of the other things I am seeing out there. When I ran the $5/1000 words number by one of them I was told it seemed fair.

    I am not trying to tell editors what they should charge. However, a writer needs to look at things as a business person (again, no offense to editors, artists or proofers as I say this) and realize that what you pay for services should be what YOU think they are worth.

    If I decide to pay $200 for a book cover – that’s all I’m paying. Period. Artist X can swear up and down she is the greatest and I am going to be happy forever if I just pay $500 for the perfect cover, but as a business person, I have budgeted $200 for a cover and that’s it. Does that mean that artist X (or copy editors or whoever) should lower a fee to meet my demand? Only if they want to. They are in business too they have to draw lines in the sand.

    Personally, I am pretty strong when it comes to nuts and bolts grammar and spelling. (my posts here probably wouldn’t convince you of that, but I swear I am!) I will not be paying anyone for copy editing. I look my stuff over and send it to by Phd sister-in-law to copy edit. In exchange, I am their home improvement slave… errr… worker… when the time comes. Is she perfect? Nope. But she’s good. As Dean has pointed out many times, most traditional novels get good – not perfect – copy edits.

  24. I was so happy to read this post because it validated my plans. I’m not published yet, but, thanks to you and Kris, have learned to look at my dream as a business. That included determining the amount of money I could afford to invest in this business up front.

    When I looked at the costs for the various services involved in publishing my first book, it was obvious that some things I couldn’t hire anyone to do. High on that list was a content or developmental editor. I decided that I could do a manuscript swap with some writers in a group I already belong to and accomplish the same thing.

    I was still feeling a little uncertain about that decision because, you know, “everyone” says you need to have that if you’re going to put out a book as good as those published by a traditional publisher. Thanks for posting this.

  25. To me, a better guide than price to weed out scammers is professional standing: Do they have a LinkedIn profile? Are they a member of a professional editorial organization like EFA or SfEP? Do they have a professional website, ideally with testimonials.

    Another possibility is to send a few test pages to the prospective editor as a sample. Many colleagues of mine are perfectly willing to do this kind of thing for free as a way to reassure potential clients of their abilities, communication skills, and so on.

    Like any other business transaction, caveat emptor applies. A little research never hurts.

    Again, $5 per 1,000 words isn’t outside the realm of reasonable. But it is on the low end. If you’re looking for major help with language, structure, etc., you have to pay more to get a quality editor. Perhaps we’re talking here more of simple mechanical copy editing.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kristine, I suppose that if you were buying a car, price might be an indicator of quality, sometimes. But not with copyeditors. Often, sadly, in this business, the higher the price a copyeditor is asking, the worse they are and the more of a scam they are pulling. Not always, but high price is more of an indicator of a scam than quality.

      Copyeditors who work for traditional publishers can get higher rates from the big corporations. Nature of that beast.

      Reasonable rate is in the $5.00 per 1,000 words area for fiction. Give or take. For nonfiction, rates go up of course, but this is a fiction blog.

      • Copyeditor says:

        What data are you basing this opinion on, that the higher the rate, the greater the chance of a scam?

        • dwsmith says:

          Copyeditor. Yes, honestly. At least that’s what I have seen over the last few years. Good, solid copyeditors tend to work for around $5.00 per thousand words, give or take. And copyeditors, of course, working for New York big publishers with deep pockets make a ton more because that is worked into the profit and loss statements. New York publishers wouldn’t think you were good if you didn’t charge from $2,000 to $10,000 for a copyedit, depending on the book. But for indie publishers, you get into those numbers and you are often looking at a scam. Sadly.

  26. LC says:

    I have a degree in English, a doctorate and extensive freelancing experience, but that does not qualify me as a copy editor. I work with three copy editors with years of experience in a large publishing house that was taken over by another large publishing house making them available to freelance. I am constantly amazed by their attention to detail. Their tools include The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. When I questioned why “forelimb” was one word and “hind limb” was two, the copy editor had a ready explanation. She also added the terms to the book’s style sheet so the next volume would follow the same spelling and save checking. When the dictionary provides two spelling choices, they add the author’s choice to the book’s style sheet to ensure consistency.

    When one of the copy editors edited my manuscript recently, I was able to appreciate her skills on a deeper level. I do know grammar and usage—I once taught grammar and usage—but copyediting my own writing is not effective. When I received my marked-up file, I just said, “Wow!” and smiled.

    So copy editors are different than the rest of us!

    I also appreciate the distinction between copyediting and proofreading. The copy editors were used to being just one pair of eyes for a manuscript that went through many hands before being sent to print. They convinced me to offer low-cost proofreading (always by a different editor) to at least add a final check before publishing. They were used to being part of a process and not the only check for correctness.

    One more point, ebooks can be easily corrected—print books not so much! When your readers find those annoying little errors (like when I misspelled the author’s last name on the first version I uploaded to Amazon—shush! She doesn’t know), just thank them and fix your file and upload again! One of the unsung joys of epublishing!

    • dwsmith says:

      LC, you are spot on the money. No one, no writer, can copyedit their own work, even if they do it for others. Our brains just can’t see the mistakes because the image, the story is there, so we skip right past stuff in our own work that we would see in an instant in anyone else’s work. Nature of the beast.

      I also appreciate a great copyeditor. And I really appreciate a couple good first readers.

      In all the books in New York traditional publishing, I’ve had a couple of good editors and a couple so bad I swore after one book I would go back to tending bar before working with them again. Honestly, I’d rather have two first readers and a great copyeditor to get to the same or better place with anything I do.

      Thanks, LC

  27. Speaking of traditional publishing being less than perfect: my copy of John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River (UK edition) is riddled with OCR errors (Irving types on a manual typewriter). Every few pages there’s a “thc” for “the”, or a “belicve” for “believe” and others that are even more quirky. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them. I don’t mind a few (most books seem to have something), but this was really distracting from the experience of reading the book.
    Irving is one of those writers who does a huge amount of self-editing, so it astonishes me that a reasonably major work from a big publisher got released without someone having even done a final spell-check.

  28. Daniela says:

    The friends-route is definitely a good way to go, but even with them one should be careful and aware of the limitations friends might have. Fellow writers might have been through numerous creative writing classes, are folllowing the myth and are striving for their version of a ‘perfect’ book. And then they want to teach you how to write the “perfect” book. Just like with an editor in a publishing house they might have their own agenda, tell you to rewrite the whole book, tell you to take out things just because that’s something they personally don’t like or have been taught by creative writing courses writers shouldn’t do. They also might have their own pet-peeves and haven’t yet learned to look beyond them when dealing with someone elses work.

    It’s very interesting when one gives one story to very different readers and to then see what kind of feedback one gets and how very different reactions can be to that one story. A lit-writer will often point out different things than someone who’s writing in the same genre.

    I think that sentence should be bolded: Listen to them on the mistakes and then only fix what you want.

    I just had a beta-reader tell me to cut one of the key-scenes in a short-story. Guess what I’m not going to do.

    When it comes to hiring an editor I would definitely go the route of asking them for a sample of their work. Send them a few pages and then look at the edits and see how that works for me. As a translator I sometimes get requests like that and think that’s perfectly fine and reasonable, as long as it’s within a certain limit. But don’t send out mass-mailings to editors. If they are like translators they talk to each other. Research editors and then contact the ones you’re interested in working with personally.

  29. Ryan Casey says:

    Good post Dean! I totally agree. With the responsibility all on us as indie authors, it’s important that we don’t try to cut corners, and make sure we employ a professional to do the job. A bad cover and bad editing can ruin an author’s career, so it’s a worthy investment to make that will benefit in the long run.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ryan, sorry, but a bad cover or a bad copyedit can NOT ruin a writer’s career. That’s just a myth. They won’t help the book sell, but the cost otherwise is minor. Trust me, I’ve had so many bad covers and bad copyedits on books, I can’t begin to count. The only thing that can kill a writer’s career is the writer stopping writing and publishing.

      But I agree, the responsibility is on the indie publisher now.

  30. Copyeditor says:

    Five bucks per 1000 words is absurd. Average page is 250 words, so this works out to $1.25 per page. Ten pages per hour means the CE gets $12.50 an hour. Sorry, no way is that realistic.

    And if you think 10 pages per hour is slow–no, it isn’t. It takes time to do a decent job.

    • dwsmith says:

      Copyeditor, then you need to stay working for New York publishers. And if you are taking that much time, you are doing more rewriting than copyediting I’m afraid, and most of us don’t want you doing that. Sorry, we are going to disagree on this one. But if you work for traditional publishers, charge what you can get away with since they seem to think your thinking is what makes a book good. You know, the slower the better in all phases. Sorry, I’m sticking with $5.00 per 1,000 words and many really good copyeditors are working for that rate and doing great. And it’s far and affordable for the writer as well.

      • Copyeditor says:

        I am not rewriting, I am copyediting, and for you to imply otherwise is absurd. It just shows that you know very little about copyediting, but that’s been apparent in all your comments, especially this insane idea you have that a copyeditor for a New York publishing house can make $10,000 on a single job.

        • dwsmith says:

          LOL… Do you have any idea where and how long I have worked in this business??? All my years and experience are right out in the open, while yours are hidden behind a silly pen name and an e-mail address that means nothing. So this is the last comment I will allow through from you until you actually tell me who you really are and how much experience you actually do have. Chances are I was working as an editor for Pocket Books before you were born. And I know for a fact that copyeditors who are established and well-known working on larger books can get $10,000 and up for the work. Just because you don’t tells me something about your skills and demand.

          I have never said I was a good copyeditor. That’s a skill I do not have and that I admire in others. But I do know about it and since I have had over a hundred novels copyedited by different levels of copyeditors over the years, and hundreds of short fiction stories, and hired copyeditors for thousands of projects as an editor and publisher, I certainly understand copyediting. Show yourself, put your snide comments in front of a real name and maybe then we can talk. Otherwise, we are done.

  31. Dayle says:

    Sorry for coming late to the party…. I just wanted to add another suggested step: If you’re doing POD, have your proof copy proofread. Not only will a good proofreader find any last little tweaks, but s/he will look at formatting as well—fun stuff like breaks (hyphenations), ladders, widows/orphans, etc.

    Otherwise, I agree with you 100%. A good copyeditor is worth his/her weight in gold by saving you from embarrassing gaffes. A bad copyeditor…oy. I think I got a copyeditor fired once, by politely requesting nearly all the changes (unnecessary ones, mind you, not actual error corrections) be stetted. And there were a lot.

    (For reference, my background: published author, former production editor for a scholarly publishing company, currently also a freelance copyeditor/proofreader. I’ve been on both sides of the desk, and I know I can’t copyedit my own work.)

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