As an author whose books are set in the past, servants and masters often come up, and the idea of a hierarchy based on who pays who. (see this post) Also as an author I rely on my editors to help me make my book the best it can be. I love editors, and most authors will say the same – that a good one is like the holy grail!

I’ve been edited by an in-house editor at a traditional publisher, and by a freelance editor when I self published, and many others sorts of editors in-between. I’m interested not in individual editors, but in the status of the editor in relationship to the author, and therefore what dictates the relationship we might have with this most crucial of co-creators in our publishing journey.

My first relationship with an traditional publishing editor was very definitely one of collaborative effort to improve the book, and the editing was long, and comprehensive, over approx. 10 weeks, consisting of a structural edit, a line edit and a proofread, all done by different people. Each contained style sheets and references, and I got the impression from this that no expense was spared in making sure the book was as perfect as it could be. We had a back and forth dialogue which discussed character, plot and use of language. This was however, a long time ago, before digital, and times have changed.

Master or servant – it comes down to money

I was lucky, as I’ve just heard from a friend about her traditional publisher whose editor refused to let her book go to publication unless she agreed to the edits, which involved what she thought of as ‘too many substantial cuts’ and removal of one character and their arc completely. In the end, she acquiesced, but is now worried the book is no longer her vision, or the best version, of the work. In the traditional publishing model then, the editor can sometimes be ‘the master’. They are paying for the book to be published and are upholding what they view as certain ‘standards’.

On the other hand, when I was self-publishing one of my own books, I hired a freelance editor. His services were every bit as professional as the traditional publisher, and though it was a copy-edit not a structural edit, his edits included a style sheet and copious notes about what might make the book clearer or better for the reader. He also wrestled with my out-of-kilter timeline and suggested well thought-through corrections. My book had his attention for a specified amount of time, and I could quantify the time he spent because of his invoice. Because of his professionalism I have no doubt that if the book was too terrible to publish, he’d have told me … or would he?

And would they all?

The downside of this ‘author hires the editor’ relationship is that in this situation the editor is, technically, the servant. As I am paying for his services, it is unlikely he will tell me if my book is really bad and needs re-writing. Why? Because I’m paying him. There is a limit to what he can do in the time I’m willing to pay for, and my repeat business depends on me being happy. The power dynamic is distinctly different.

An author’s ego can be fragile, and it may be hard to ask for a ‘no holds barred’ edit, particularly if, after the harsh (but realistic) feedback arrives, you have to actually¬† pay for the privilege to hear your book needs a lot more work.

Deborah Swift Editing

Illustration by William Thomas Smedley, 1906 Wikipedia

The computer is my editor

Recently I heard from another self-published friend who said that she was unhappy with her freelance editor. The editor seemed to have merely run her novel through a Pro-Writing Aid type program, and hadn’t given her work the personal attention she felt it deserved, at least not for what she was paying them. In this situation, she clearly thought of herself as the master, and that her servant had ‘cheated’ her and hadn’t done a good enough job.

Publishers don’t always have the best editors

Fast forward another few years. Newly-minted digital publishers (both independent and from big traditional houses) are pushing out books left right and centre. I had experience with one of these once that gave me no editing whatsoever, merely uploaded the manuscript to kindle and POD, which I then had to retrieve and re-edit (not my current publisher I hasten to add). Other people are telling me that their ‘editors’ have no editorial experience at all, but have merely have done an English Literature degree and ‘read a lot of books.’

A publisher’s editing costs are invisible to us as authors. We have no idea if the editor has spent a hastily-crammed few hours with the book, whilst dealing with twenty others, or sat with it for three weeks mulling over every last word. Though there are often clues in the ‘track changes’, that show the book was edited in less time than it takes to brew a coffee!¬† And I suspect most authors can tell if they have been given less time with the editing than they would wish.

It’s our choice

There are brilliant, insightful editors out there, both in-house in publishing houses, and working freelance for self-publishers. As authors I think we should always consider what sort of status relationship we want with our editor and how much that matters to us, when we consider the bigger picture and the pros and cons of our publishing journey. The quality of editing really affects the final outcome of what has taken us perhaps as long as a year of daily grind to write. As authors we all hope for an editor that will take our voice seriously, that will read and consider our novel carefully, and one who is fully qualified for the job.

Authors are often in a vulnerable or ambiguous position re their books (e.g. Do you choose your agent or do they choose you?) but now we can pay for our own services, or choose to be published, we don’t need to be blind to our choices. Although we always hope for equality, and the situation where author and editor work together to produce the best book they can, we need to be aware of how different publishing structures affect the author/editor relationship.

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