If I pay you, will you make me bleed?

The first step on the Yellow Brick Road to Self-Publication is to find an editor who will whip your manuscript into professional level prose. From everything I’ve read THIS IS A MUST-DO. As one website pointed out, the reason why self-published books have such a poor reputation is because they’re badly written, badly worded, and badly designed. Pretty much every book you’ve ever read has hit the bookshelves only after it has been through a long and rigorous editing process. The book that we read as ‘readers’ isn’t ever-EVUH!-the same manuscript the author originally turned in .

As readers we’re used to–and (rightly) expect–the prose we’re reading to be word perfect, grammatically correct and punctuationally (is that word?) proofed. So when we find a book that falls anywhere less than that standard, we’re pretty quick to write it off as amateurish and happily give into the urge to toss it out the nearest window.

So why shouldn’t self-published books be expected to adhere to the same standard? Of course they should, otherwise everybody’s time and effort and money is all but completely wasted. The only way that can happen is if you get (i.e. pay) an editor to go through your manuscript and haul it up steep and rock-strewn slopes to the top of Mt. Perfect.

After reading various blogs on the subject, the consensus seemed to be “hire an editor who comes to you through a referral.” So I emailed the three writers I know to see if they could recommend someone. Two came back and said they didn’t and the other one did, but I never heard back from his recommendee (is that a word too? See? I do need an editor) so I was back to Square One.

Honestly, what did we do without Google???

It didn’t take me long to discover there was something called the Freelance Editor Association whose website revealed itself to be a veritable cornucopia of editors for hire, so I started emailing them, telling them where I was at on my own Yellow Brick Road and asked them what they could do for me.

Pretty soon emails were flying back and forth across the country but, natually, none of them worked the same way.

  • Editor A charges $90 per hour, but how many hours does it cost to edit 101,000 words…?
  • Editor B–a Canadian–charges per project, but in Canadian dollars
  • Editor C charges per word
  • Editor D charges per project – his quote came in at $1000 which made him so cheap I had to wonder how good he was
  • Editor E charges per project too – around $7500 which made me wonder if I was getting ripped off.
  • Editor F is with CreateSpace, the self-publishing arm of Amazon with whom I’ll be publishing my book(s). For a manuscript of 101,000 words, they charge $3300
  • Editor G was one I found via Craig’s List. She charges per word and came in at $3000

While a flurry of emails were doing their bit to fill the ethers, it also became apparent that I needed to know what sort of editing job I needed. Exactly which of these options did my manuscript require?

  • Light copyediting (proofreading)
  • Moderate copyediting
  • Heavy (stylistic) editing
  • Manuscript consultation
  • Initial critique
  • Combined edit and critique
  • Manuscript evaluation

Fortunately some of these editors offered to do a sample edit. The ones who didn’t got lopped off the list like a diseased branch. “Send me your first 5 pages/first 1200 words/first chapter,” they said, “and I’d edit it for free. That way I can see what sort of shape your MS (manuscript) is in and I can give you a better idea of what the edit would look like and how much you’re looking at in total.”

At the start of this process, I’d have said my MS was in “pretty good shape.” After all, it was now in its 12th draft–how bad could it possibly be?

Famous last words.

My blogging buddy Jaye – http://jwmanus.wordpress.com/ – wrote to me and told me, “Editors who make the manuscript bleed are editors who are doing their job. The more they like something, the more red ink they’ll use.

My dear and gentle readers, that’s all very well in theory but let me tell you that when you take your first chapter, which you think is in “pretty good shape,” and you send it off to be professionally edited for the very first time, I suggest you take a deep breath and chase it with a double gin before you click ‘Open’ when that editor sends it back.


Gone are the days when editors pick up actual red pencils and edit actual paper manuscripts. These days they use a feature of Word called “track changes” which is a very efficient and clever process whereby they can make their corrections and suggestions and with a click of the mouse you, the writer can ‘Accept’ or ‘Reject ‘ their edits. And it’s all done in red so that you can tell the difference between what you wrote and what they’ve slashed-and-burned. And let me tell you, there was as much RED on the pages that came back as there was black.

<insert EEK! here>

The upside to this alcoholism-inducing process is that once you’ve recovered from the shock of your MS bleeding like a train wreck victim, you start to look more closely at what she’s done to your “pretty good shape” MS. You quickly find how deeply and sadly deluded you’ve been all this time about how well you think you can write. You also find out how desperately you need an editor.

I can see now that the Yellow Brick Road to Self-Publication is going to be a long, long, long one…may we please make a stop at IHOP?

About Martin Turnbull

The Hollywood's Garden of Allah novels blog is by Martin Turnbull, a Los Angeles based historical fiction author of a series of novels set at the Garden of Allah Hotel, which stood on Sunset Blvd from 1927 to 1959. Check him out at www.martinturnbull.com and Facebook: "gardenofallahnovels"
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2 Responses to If I pay you, will you make me bleed?

  1. JW Manus says:

    I’m not laughing AT you, Martin, I’m laughing WITH you. And giving you a virtual shoulder-hug to let you know it’ll be okay, really. The very first novel I sold earned me effusive praise from the acquisitions editor. Then she sent a 15 page (single-spaced) revision letter that stuck a hatpin right in my big ol’ swelled head. We worked together for six or seven books and she taught me tons about story structure and character development. I eventually learned to stop dreading the revision letters. Didn’t like them, but didn’t dread them either. They’re just part of the process.

    $3,000 is a lot of money, but it’s reasonable for a 100,000 word novel. (I’d love to know the qualifications of the editor who charges $90 an hour. YIkes!)

  2. Jo says:

    I am interested in your emotional response to your first “reply” from your editor since I am editing and, being a former English teacher/composition instructor, I can’t stop myself from the “red ink syndrome.” The new way to edit, “track changes” is so impersonal, isn’t it? I have my own color coded approach. I have edited master’s theses, a book of essays, a book proposal for an agent
    (you know the routine!), memoir, mostly poetry.

    More later when I get to September–

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