“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.”

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

How Much Does an Editor Cost? What to Expect for Pro Services – Reedsy

When “Inexpensive” Becomes “Overworked and Underpaid” – Nikki Auberkett | Pen & Quill

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript or using only editing software very tempting.

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

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

All throughout his draft-writing process, he made lots of comments on many social media posts (whenever writers were asking about hiring an editor). “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He praised the capabilities of editing software. 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. “Bob” made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times when myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, and do far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published that 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 e-book posted online. (I suspect he was vanity published, despite his claims otherwise.)


He went on social media, spending the entire morning 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. His first chapter was basically an “information dump,” without any characters being introduced, and was incredibly uninteresting. Even the paragraph-long synopsis 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 didn’t even 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 first post where he had announced the release of his new book, less than a few hours before. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and desperately needed a good editor. Some were not very kind about it at all.

“Bob” was floored.


Now that he had some of the problems with his book pointed out to him and could see them more clearly, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 printed 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. (Apparently, he didn’t believe in doing things by halves.)

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 repeatedly claimed he was publishing his latest book as a 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 traditionally published before. But submitting to traditional publishers 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 lots of changes, with several rounds of edits, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) manuscript to a traditional publisher 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.

Your book is competing in the same marketplace as books that have been through several rounds of editing, beta readers, and marketing professionals. A lot of money was invested in those books, and they are your competition.

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 while self-publishing, or should you submit your work to traditional publishers?

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, traditional publishing is a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget– the best option, in my opinion. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, market your book for you, 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 at these places expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Remember: If a company is promising to do all the editing & printing, while also charging you a lot of money to “publish” your book, they’re probably a “vanity press” and definitely a SCAM. You will pay far less to hire a freelance editor and publish your book for yourself online.

Yes, traditional publishers will probably reject your manuscript at first— and if you wisely and stubbornly keep sending it back out the door, 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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