“Cheap at the Beginning Makes for Expensive in the End” (A Commentary on Self-Editing Your Manuscript)

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” Abraham Lincoln once said. In that same vein, it can also be said that “A writer who is his own editor invariably looks foolish as an author.”

Or, to quote another adage, “Cheap at the beginning makes for expensive in the end.”

At 3 to 5 cents per word (a not-uncommon fee for freelance editors), paying for a professional editor can be expensive, especially for a first-time author. So a book that is 75,000 words in length can cost as much as $3,750 for one round of editing, depending on the kind of editing you are having done (at least two rounds is recommended by some editors).

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript very tempting and very appealing.

But before you toss away the idea of paying for an editor, consider this…

An author of my acquaintance (I’ll call him “Bob”) was able to self-publish a novel he had long been wanting to see in print. This author said he had already been published professionally by “the trades,” so he certainly would have had dealt with the publishing industry—including editors—before.

All throughout his draft-writing process, he commented on many Facebook and other social media posts where writers were asking about hiring an editor. “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He told countless writers that “self-editing” was not only possible, but just as effective as a professional editor, and perfectly acceptable for self-publishing. He made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, doing far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published this book. It was a story he had been wanting to write for a long time. He paid money he said he could not really afford, to have 10,000 copies printed up and have the ebook posted online.

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He went on social media, spending the entire day promoting his new book online.

Because it was my favorite genre, and I rarely get to read many new authors writing in that genre, I was looking forward to reading it. As soon as I read his announcement about his new book, I downloaded it and began to read.

…And instantly became so very embarrassed for his sake.

While there were almost no spelling errors, it was rife with punctuation issues. The first few pages alone had several sentences that were confusing and poorly worded. Even the paragraph-long blurb for his dust jacket had numerous errors, and was not engagingly written the way a promotional blurb should be, in order to get people to buy the book. The book was painful to read, and I did not get past the first chapter.

While I was trying to figure out how to tell him that his dream book was… not the best quality work, I went onto his post announcing his new book. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and needed a good editor.

“Bob” was floored.

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Now that he saw the problems with his book and had some of them pointed out to him, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 copies of a book that was an embarrassment to any professional author. He would have to either eat the huge loss or continue to humiliate himself online, in hopes of making a few sales.

He chose to delete his promotional posts, stop promoting his book, and slink off into the sunset by leaving social media for awhile.

This scenario is a too-common occurrence. Writers try to be cheap and apply “do it yourself” mentality to publishing, or just don’t realize the vital and incredibly powerful role editors play in the publishing process. However, this time, this writer’s humiliation was even worse. Remember, this particular writer had gotten on social media on numerous occasions, claiming that “self-editing” is more than sufficient for self-publishers. And now “Bob’s” hubris-driven blunder was out there on the internet for everyone to see.

To make matters even worse, this author who had said he was a published professional, now had a book that made him look like a vanity-press-printed amateur.

Don’t get me wrong. “Bob” is a good writer. Overall, his ideas and stories are very good. He has a quick wit and a great sense of humor in his blogs & posts. So it’s quite believable that he has indeed been published before.

But submitting to “the trades” is very different than self-publishing.

A Submissions Editor at a publishing house expects to see an unpolished work. They expect to have their editorial staff go through every manuscript and make tons of changes, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) ms to “the trades” is perfectly acceptable.

However, in self-publishing, your initial readers are Joe and Jane Average. They expect (and very rightly so) that every book they download or buy at a store will have been written and perfected, prior to their reading the opening sentence. They expect (again, rightly so) the same quality of writing and professional publishing that they would get from a book published by any of “The Big Five” publishing houses.

So for you, a writer looking at venues for your book, this means that you must ask yourself:

Can you afford to be a professional author by self-publishing, or should you submit your work to “the trades”?

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Because if you can’t afford to pay for a good editor to polish your manuscript, then—to be brutally honest—you either don’t want to be taken seriously as a professional author, or you just don’t belong in self-publishing.

However… This is not to say you don’t belong in print. As I said before, “the trades” are a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, and you always receive some kind of payment for the time you spent writing (this is never the situation with self-publishing). The person first reading your manuscript there expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Yes, “the trades” will probably reject your manuscript—if you do things right, various publishers will probably reject it more than a few times. But if you research which imprint/publisher you are submitting to and how your manuscript fits into their image & product offerings, and if you write a good query letter, then a good writer stands a good chance of being published (and polished) without paying out of your own savings to do so.

…And you will never have a book on the market that makes you look like an amateur hack.

Anne Fisher-Ahlert is a freelance editor who is happy to look over several pages of your manuscript for free, in order to demonstrate how much you need an editor, and with hopes that you will hire her. Anne’s email is Anne_Ahlert@Yahoo.com .

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