If you can’t afford an editor, you shouldn’t be publishing

This review of R.L. Mathewson’s book over at Dear Author and the comment thread made me want to pound my head on my keyboard.  Especially the fangrrls who seem to think that commenting on abysmal copy editing is an attack on an author.  Not long after reading that head-scratcher, my daily browsing led me to this article at Galley Cat on the need for editing in self-published work; in the comments an author noted that many authors (presumably herself included?) cannot afford an editor.

An author cannot afford an editor?  I cannot take that claim seriously.  In fact, I call foul on it:  even if a wannabe author can’t pony up the cash for a professional editor, he or she can and should have a circle of partners/readers who are capable of catching at minimum problems like punctuation misuse, homophone errors, etc.  An aspiring author who has made no effort to acquire something like a critique group or professional support network has bigger problems than a bad review, and probably should be questioning their professional strategy.  An author who “cannot afford” an editor is an author who is saying that she is not interested in investing in her work and should not be attempting to publish.

Look, I know some authors think of their books as their children, meaning they believe them to be utterly perfect and beyond criticism.  But to the extent authors are looking to make a living writing, i.e., by selling their books, they need to be business people.  And self-publishers more than any other authors need to understand that producing a book requires quality control; their adoration for their own words doesn’t absolve them of that necessity, especially if they want others to pay to read those words.

I’ve complained before, here and on Twitter, about how poor copy editing in books will cause me to DNF them, and poor copy editing in samples will cause a lost sale.  It’s demoralizing to realize that readers are becoming inured to crappy production values in books, self-published and otherwise, as noted in the comment thread at Dear Author.

I haven’t read anything by Mathewson, and I’m unlikely to, especially in light of the fact that s/he seems to think that editing on the fly AFTER publishing a book is acceptable.  It isn’t a defense to an author that they edit or fix poor production values after publication; it’s an admission that they were too cheap/sloppy/lazy/interested-in-making-a-quick-buck-without-quality-control to do it the first time around.

Frankly, I’ve reached the point where I’m reluctant to purchase any self-published book by any author based on the sloppy copy editing.  Why waste my time and money on wannabe authors who don’t respect their work or my time and money?


Filed under Book related

35 responses to “If you can’t afford an editor, you shouldn’t be publishing

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  2. Word seconded.

    There are exceptions. If you’re publishing a memoir that you only intend for your family to read, they’ll excuse the occasional typo. (Heh … Unless they’re like my family.) In that case, letting your cousin who’s an English teacher look it over and leaving it at that is fine.

    If you actually intend the sell the thing? Yeah, hire a professional. And note well that being a high school English teacher, or a college English teacher, or holding a PhD in English, does NOT make someone a professional copyeditor. I’ve known people who thought they were qualified, but didn’t know that the period goes inside the quotes.

  3. Could not agree more! Poor copy editing is a dealbreaker. Sadly it’s not limited to self-pub. I’ve read some books from publishers that really should do better. I don’t mean the odd typo – those can slip by all of us, even with rounds of editing and proofing (as much as it pains me!), but consistent sloppiness throughout a book. I recently read an excerpt from a prominent ebook romance house with a character discussing the books of “Hemmingway.” I shit you not. And this was in the EXCERPT! Inexcusable.

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  5. Great post! I completely agree with you. Every business needs an investment to get started. Heck, even Avon or Gold Canyon Candles or whatever salespeople need to come up with upfront money to get themselves going. Being self-published is NEVER an excuse for poor editing, so self-publishers need to put their best work out there, somehow, someway.

    I’m tired of people coming up with excuses for why they couldn’t have anyone check their work. As you point out, if their “network” is so poor that they couldn’t come up with a single beta reader to help them for free, they’ve got bigger problems. Namely, their book will disappear into obscurity because writers can’t make all the sales themselves.

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  9. Colin Leonard

    Your comments have a valid point. However I am busy loading a novel onto lulu for self-publishing and just do not have the funds for editing. Do I give my family a holiday or get my book edited? No contest. I price my book at what I personally have put into it. Plus I believe people want a good story and will pay for it. If some readers life is ruined by a misplaced comma so be it. At least my novel will be copyrighted.

    • First, I made in clear that “affording” editing is more than a financial decision.

      Second, choosing not to have your work professionally edited is your business decision. As a consumer, I don’t care about your personal finances any more than you care about mine. However, announcing that your family holiday is more important than editing certainly gives me insight into the respect that you hold for your work and for the readers who will be paying for it. As a reader and consumer, choosing not to waste my time and money on books/authors who don’t value quality control in production is my business decision.

      Does a single misplaced comma “ruin” a reader’s life? No, but it goes back (again) to quality of the good produced and the reading experience as a whole.Grammar and punctuation are basic building blocks of the craft of writing. Weakness in them leads to weakness in the story; if a storyteller’s writing is bad enough, it becomes a distraction to the reader and a detraction from the experience of reading the book.

      Think of it this way: if a baker uses salt instead of sugar, will her cookies still be edible? Probably…but if I bit in expecting a sugar cookie and got a mouthful of salty dough, I certainly wouldn’t finish the cookie. No, I’d complain to the bakery, ask for my money back, and be wary of giving the baker a second chance. Why would my response to a poorly edited book by a self-publisher be any different?

      • Colin Leonard

        Thanks for you honest reply. You are right of course. I wrote a stupid reply. I was irritated with myself,work and my financial position regarding editing. 122,000 words is an expensive edit. Please accept my apologies.

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  11. I’m going to say somethign different. I want to invest money in my novel, but I have family who believe it’s still a pratice novel and I have no money of my own. And I can’t find myself a criqitue group because I don’t have transportation besides my parents. Online criqutes require me to criqute 3 pepole before I can get a few chapters reviewed.
    I have no money to pay for my novel and you’re demanding I get somebody? You’re crazy, or maybe I’m just ranting.

    • General observation: the people who are cranky about this opinion seem to be the people who want to be published, who want readers to pay for their writing, without wanting to deal with the actual hard work of writing and publishing.

      I’m not demanding anything: more than a year ago, I wrote an opinion piece from the point of view of a reader irritated with sloppy, lazy, unprofessional work self-published by aspiring authors, and explained my perspective; you’re the one taking it personally. My perspective has not changed. To the extent that anyone publishing their work expects to be paid for that work, they are producing a product for consumers. Consumers have a right to expect a certain quality control to the products that they buy; the standard QC for publishing is critique, proofreading, and editing. “Affording” those things, either by the investment of time or money, is a business decision for the writer. My business decision as a consumer is to not buy, or to return upon discovery if I have bought, sub-par work. An author’s personal financial or work situation is irrelevant to me as a reader; certainly authors do not take readers’ personal financial situations into account when writing or pricing or selling. (I’m laughing at the idea of any author offering lower than market price on their books just because I complained that I can’t afford to buy as many books as I like.)

      When I read your comment, I first considered deleting as trolling; surely it must be trolling, because no one could be that naive, entitled, and immature. But upon second read, I considered that maybe you are young, which would explain those things. I don’t know, and I don’t really care.
      Here’s how your comment reads to me: “I want to be a Writer! But people won’t make it easy for me! No one will fork over to me money and/or time without expecting something in return! I want to join a crit group long enough to get critiqued but am not willing to actually participate legitimately. Boo hoo!”

      Reality check #1: No one has to give you anything or support your dream.

      Reality check #2: Online critique groups might reasonably be wary of new joiners who abuse them, and require that new members critique others before being able to receive critiques themselves.

      TL;DR — If you want to be a “professional” writer, start acting like a professional rather than whining that your problem is that people either won’t help you or are crazy.

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  13. ironicstar

    Some of us have been putting as much efforts into our writing as one could possibly put without breaking our wrists. You’re being very narrow minded when you assume that all authors can afford an editor (or should give up). My reason for not affording an editor is that I spend THOUSANDS of dollars pursuing my education. I’m sorry that my choice to get an English BA means I should not publish.

    • Did I say authors had to give up writing anywhere? No.

      As a consumer, I don’t care about the cost of an author’s BA or their broken wrists any more than an author cares about me and my life/financial situation aside from the choice to buy their book(s). Frankly, I’m confused by the idea that this is supposed to be relevant to me at all. The purchase is an arms length transaction in the marketplace, where products are judged independently of their creator-seller. It is a business transaction.

      As a reader-consumer, I don’t owe an author the charity of ignoring poor SPAG or plot holes big enough to drive a truck through just because they worked hard or paid a lot for their education. To me, an unedited book is a defective product and will be treated as such.

    • Prioritizing your education over professional editing doesn’t make you a bad person. A lack of funds for professional editing doesn’t make you a bad person. Hell, even deciding to blow off editing you can afford doesn’t make you a bad person in the broad scheme of things.

      But readers don’t buy books on the basis of how virtuous the author is. They buy based on how much they’ll enjoy the books. Many readers will find a lack of copyediting too annoying to deal with. That was jmcbks’s point.

      • ironicstar

        I understand that. I believe editing is INSANELY important. However, let’s not assume that professional, purchased editing is the only route.

        I think what we’re all really annoyed with here are the so-called ‘author’s’ that pump out a book, don’t have anybody re-read it, skip betas, and just decide “Hey, I’m a published author!”.

      • @ironicstar: It’s true that you can improve your book with informal feedback. Beta readers generally aren’t going to copyedit your work, though … and even if they’re willing, they might not know what they’re doing.

        On the bright side, if they’re decent, betas can help you improve your work enough to make a serious dent in what you’d need to pay editors.

      • The only thing that can replace a good editor is… another good editor. Beta readers and crit partners are great, but editors have different skills and talents. There’s even a vast divide between a content editor and a copy editor.

  14. Late to comment but still…

    I’ve spent two plus years researching writing advice and commentary while I am writing on my own, first, self-published works.

    There are people who will stop reading if prologue chapter is in a book because “that is forbidden”. There are people who will stop reading if they see two typos in the first hundred pages.

    There are people who will refuse to read any author not “published” with an established print publisher.

    Others will reject certain story lines without reading them if they are perceived as “overdone” or cliched within their genres.

    In two years, I have yet to stop running into new reasons why so-and-so won’t read your book and is right to not do so while also telling you to stop writing.

    Here’s my advice: write the story YOU love. Write because you desperately want to read that story yourself. Listen to critical people for the revelation they can provide you and ignore them when their advice stops you from trying. Look for and take help when you can get it but help yourself as a first option. Be your own hardest critic but always keep moving forward on doing your work. Study the craft and business–A LOT. Accept the possibility of a finished book that won’t sell, that gets harsh reviews, that is flawed and even fails completely. Count it all in advance as part of your personal writing experience. Do the best you can and see it as only the first step. Learn from your mistakes and then keep writing.

    Anyone who says, “You cannot write if you do not do this” is entitled to their opinion but no one can tell you not to write. You have to decide in advance how badly you want to and then start stepping out in doing it.

    I worked in sales for years and there were always potential clients who were “too expensive to sell”. Over demanding…Over critical…Over controlling–you simply brush them off. You hear them and when it is clear they aren’t an asset then you move on..

    Can a poorly educated homeless person write a book? Yes. Can a child write a book? Yes. Can a poor person write a book? Yes.

    They may nor end up being successful as “products” (or even successful in any way as read literature) but the writing itself is the first step everyone has to take. Look for people who tell you HOW and not “why you can’t”. The latter are a waste of your time, brush them off.

  15. Alex O'Rio

    So, what you’re saying is that your title is misleading – or maybe not? I’m someone who probably will never be able to afford an editor in my life because, like most people, I’m poor as dirt. Yet, you better believe I do everything in my power to clean up my manuscript as best as I can, get as many people as I can to read it (which is pulling teeth on it’s own because nobody seems to read anything anymore) and I will spend months, nearly half a year taking a week break before re-reading my own book over and over again attempting my own editing.
    Sorry I can’t afford to invest half of my financial existence every time I write a book, which would take me about ten years to replenish. And sorry I can’t just stop writing because it’s my favorite thing to do in the world. And I’m still going to self-publishing because I sound like a total tart when I tell people “Yeah, I’ve written two books, but I don’t think I’m going to let anyone buy them or read them.” I usually just give copies away for free anyway, yet still, no one ever finishes reading them because nobody reads. And trust me, I constantly asks “Do you just not like the book? Please tell me because I can take it.” and I always just get “No, I just don’t really read.”
    So really, what’s the point of committing financial suicide for an editor if no one’s ever going to read my books anyway? But even if people don’t read my books, I’m not going to stop writing because I like writing.

    • I don’t think my title is misleading; I make it clear that “afford” means more than cash on the table, it’s also social capital.

      As a self-published writer, it is your business decision to spend (cash or social capital) on editing or other aspects of your book. As a consumer, my decision is whether I am willing to pay for poorly edited books. You make your decision; I’ll make mine. It’s a commercial transaction in which our own personal financial situations aren’t relevant to each other.

      Nowhere have I said that writers have to stop writing. But it would be nice if writers stopped expecting readers to care about their personal financial situations, or to take that into consideration when criticizing or reviewing a book that they found lacking.

    • Just a suggestion: There are layers and differing types of editing. The most basic is line editing where someone checks punctuation and basic grammar. If cash is an issue (and it sure as heck can be) be creative.

      I’ve not seen anyone suggest this before but go to your local high schools and colleges and see if someone with an English major who likes the genre you are writing in might work out a deal. Offer them a limited commission/payment against your sales for a limited period of time. Point out that editing your book might get them to editing books for others and will put there name in printed credits.

      A really bright and naturally talented English student in high school might even pull off a basic editing job. You don’t have to go with “no editing” or only hire professionals. This sort of editing won’t cover things like a pro but it might be just enough to cover getting you out there.

      If you’re using non-professionals, try to find one to read over what the other has done. I got a short story edited once by a very “cash only” local author who has been a NYT best seller by arranging for him to meet an online friend of mine who resided in Ukraine–an area he happened to have a big interest in.

      Editing is something you will want to have if your writing is going to be a career effort, but don’t let the lack of it stop you from starting at all.

      As to the advice above, “they” may not buy your book but the question is, “Might not someone else?”.

      I just finished a cringe worthy six book series by an author who started out really rough. As I went on to the next book, I’d see story elements, dialogue and character slightly improve each time. But the fact is, I had to grit my teeth to finish the books. All that said, this series was her biggest seller (and I have read other books by her that were much better). New readers in the genre and younger readers (teens) loved her books so much that she ended up selling pins and coffee mugs due to the requests she got for them.

      I personally want to get an editor myself, but like you, I am going to have to figure out some creative options if I don’t win the lottery. Writing to establish yourself as a ‘professional writer” is more stringent but you can self publish with a slightly less stringent effort.

      If you’re really worried about what the literati scorn, just put a book blurb out saying you’re a low income, new author and would love for readers to suggest improvements for your lower priced as you grow.

      Additionally, put a trigger warning for the literary purists on your sales page warning them to o elsewhere if they are looking for Tolstoy or Hemingway.
      Just don’t let some person in a different life who hasn’t walked in your shoes tell you to quit because you don’t meet their standards.

      Writers should have real editing–in a perfect world. It absolutely would help you and everyone to have real editors. But the world isn’t perfect and time is short. do what you need to do. Listen to advice, don’t be shackled by it.

  16. Anthony Alexander Coss

    i can’t afford an editor, so i use legend fire 2000 words at a time every one trades a critique for a critique.

  17. ru_serious

    You people really come off as writing snobs. Its appalling that you recommend that people give up since they cant afford an editor. There are people that are lazy and don’t value their story, sure. There are also people who legitimately cant afford it. Shame on you people. The next time you post something like this, put the names of all your works on here so others can know not to buy it.

    • 1. Given your handle, the hypocrisy of demanding real names is staggering.
      2. I’m not trying to get anyone to buy anything.
      3. I disagree that wanting a product I pay for to be produced at a professional level is snobby; I think it’s reasonable consumer expectation.
      4. As a consumer, I owe booksellers nothing other than the cost of the book. Their individual situation is as irrelevant to me as my personal financial situation is to them.

  18. ru_serious

    I said the names of the works, half-wit. Not people’s names. I don’t disagree with producing the work on a professional level either. But suggesting that people not create because they cant afford an editor is completely wrong.

  19. Tammy Bradbury

    I agree books should be edited. But calling a foul on people who cannot afford one is wrong. Money does not grow on trees and sounds rather privileged on your part. Many people where I am from cannot afford basic necessities let alone an editor. You are stating people should give up on their passion simply because they are poor? Why? It almost seems as though you are attacking those who do not have deep pockets. Not good advice. At all. Why not rather publish an article advising people on how to work around a financial situation? You are ranting and that is fine but you sound very privileged. There are lazy authors out there – but some really do not have money and that should not dictate their passions. Stop generalizing. You are not being helpful.

    • Nowhere did I say people should give up on their passions. Nor did I say they shouldn’t have dreams because they are poor. I also made clear that even cash-poor writers have other options in terms of critique and assistance.

      Setting aside my presumed privilege, since you don’t know me or my background or history, what I am is a reader-consumer. This post is an eight year old statement of opinion and explanation of why I abandoned reading self-published new authors. It’s not here to be advice. As a reader-consumer, it is not my job to be helpful to aspiring writers, and I don’t owe authors money from my reading budget just because publishing is their dream.

      This is my blog and I’ll generalize all I want, thank you. If you are looking for help, check out a library or critique group.

  20. L.T-P

    I think the issue that most people have (and why they have been very stand-offish in responding) is that your post isn’t actually very helpful. I think other people (like myself) have stumbled across this post because they are trying to find a way forward and have googled for answers, only to be met with the attitude that if you don’t have the money, don’t go further! (that is exactly what the title says)
    Maybe instead of telling someone not to bother, why not point them in another direction.
    I see you KIND OF do this by suggesting a friendship network, but it really reads as like you’re saying “Get your friends to do it, idiot!”

    I understand, it’s your blog and you can say what you want in it, but I just didn’t see the point in this post. It neither offers insight into your life nor offers anything constructive to those your post is pointed towards. it’s just a rant.
    People are going to get defensive about this.

    • Yes, it’s a rant. As I made clear at the time it was posted. I’m not clear why anyone expects a reader blog (clear in my about page) to offer professional advice or help to wannabe authors.

      People who want to write/publish but are offended or insulted by my opinion (posted on my own blog – it’s not like I invaded writerspace) can get as defensive as they want. I’m not apologizing for being unwilling to subsidize their learning curve with my money or my time.

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