Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can’t Beat Subjectivity

Desperation and/or frustration send many writers to writers’ loops and to Google in search of a freelance editor. Which may or may not be a good thing depending upon the writer’s expectation.

Freelance editors charge anywhere from $4/page up to . . . I don’t know what, but it’s far from inexpensive. For a 350-page manuscript, that’s $1,400. And that’s on the cheaper side.

Anyone considering using a freelance editor must understand three key things that should help build realistic expectations for the experience. Firstly, there are no guarantees. It is HIGHLY unlikely that any freelance editor can guarantee that after having worked with her, you will produce a work that will definitely be bought. Not immediately or even in your lifetime. Too many unpredictable things go into the purchase of a book for ANYBODY to guarantee you that they can help you improve your book enough to sell it.

Secondly, you must consider your ROI—Return On Investment. Selling your book puts you in business. You have a commodity—your book, and you sell it to a publisher. You are going to give a freelance editor a LOT of money to help you whip your story and your writing into shape, but how much will you most likely sell that book for? The grim reality is that most authors are offered an advance of less than $10,000 on a first book—and more often the advance is closer to $3,000. If you paid the freelance editor $1,500 to help you whip your story into shape, you’ve eaten up most—if not all-- of your advance. Don’t forget the $3,000 is pre-tax dollars and the editor’s fee is post tax dollars.

Lastly and most importantly to keep in mind is the subjectivity element. You simply can not beat subjectivity. The publishing market is a very fluid entity, meaning that editors are constantly looking for something new and fresh that they think will be the “next big thing”. And each editor has different tastes. You could revise a story such that one editor thinks it’s absolutely perfect. But you give that exact same story to another equally qualified editor and I guarantee, she’ll want to see different things emphasized, and will have suggestions to improve the “perfect” edited work.

Now throw agents into the equation, because if you want to sell to a major publisher, you’ll need to get to the editors through the gatekeepers. The agents are another whole level of subjectivity. Another whole level of important people who may not agree with the edits your freelance editor felt were absolutely necessary.

So when considering employing a freelance editor, one needs to go into it with her eyes completely open to the reality of the situation. Sure, your freelance editor can open a few doors for you by recommending you to an agent or two. She can guide your story towards industry professionals who might enjoy it, but that’s still no guarantee. To not accept or downplay the importance of the truths of the three points above is a recipe for disappointment and bitterness.

I have used a freelance editor years ago and it worked out just fine. I did not get a publishing contract from the experience, however she was helpful to me. When we finished, her recommendation opened a few doors and got the work read by agents, however the agents had a different opinion of the story than my editor—and that’s okay. That’s just the nature of the business. You cannot beat subjectivity. You can’t.

What about you guys? Has anybody used a freelance editor before? What was your experience like?


Donnell said...

Theresa, I used a freelance editor in my second year of writing on a manuscript that I still think is very good, but is now dated. She agreed, saying it was was clean and gave some suggestions. Still, it wasn't anything I couldn't have gotten from a critique group, frankly. I was just so darn curious what an industry professional would say.

What she did do for me was give me confidence that I was a storyteller and on the right track. So I don't regret spending the money. But...$4 a page? Wow, it's gone up since way back then.

If you do decide to submit, you must still remember as your title implies, it's subjective. And submitting to a freelance editor won't promise your manuscript will fill a slot in this competitive market.

What I think is helpful, and only if you can afford it, is if you have a manuscript you believe in and you want to know if it's ready for submission, this type of feedback can be helpful. Otherwise, a great and knowledgeable critique group is equally, if not more valuable than a freelance editor in my opinion.

Ramona said...

I am a professional freelance editor. I'm experienced, with good credentials and a good track record with my clients.

First, there are different types of editors and editing services. Some are developmental editors who will assist an author in brain-storming and story building. There are also copy editors and line editors, whose work is to polish a manuscript for submission.

Second, the fee range does indeed vary greatly. I charge nothing close to $4.00 per page. I probably could--and perhaps should--but I like to work with new writers. I keep my fees as low I can while justifying my time and effort.

Third, at no time would I EVER guarantee that a work I've edited will be purchased. Any freelance edit--or agent, for that matter--who guarantees that a work will be published should be considered suspect.

Hiring a freelance editor is certainly an investment, both financially and emotionally. Just as you would when seeking any other service or commodity, it is the responsibility of the writer to investigate an editor's credentials and background. My best suggestion for this is word of mouth, not blindly searching around the Internet. Ask other writers about their experiences. Ask for a name. Check out the editor's website and credentials.

As to your comment about ROI, I agree that writers need to consider this carefully. But, please consider this: Let's say an author wants to attend a conference that will cost $500-600 for two days of workshops and networking. Perhaps the writer meets an agent or editor; perhaps not.

For the same $500-600, an author can have a manuscript edited--that's every single word read, with the four elements of story considered and suggestions/comments made to make it a stronger work. Is that also a viable ROI?

There is no correct answer. It's a choice. But I do dispute that what a professional and experienced editor can provide is equal to what one can get for free from peers. Critique groups are valuable (I know; I belong to one), but it's not the same as working one-on-one with someone whose job is to help you create the best story possible.

Donnell said...

Ramona, I have to salute you. I don't even like to critique with new writers because they're too close to the manuscript and in most cases can't comprehend what a critique partner is saying. So here's a question for you. Would you prefer a new writer or an experienced one?

I'm pleased that you keep your rates affordable. Heaven knows most writers aren't rich.

As for your issue with an editor vs. a critique partner, my CPs are multi-published and have had the benefit of editors and revisions.

I think even in our discussions it's subjective. But I'm glad you commented. Oftentimes I come across new writers asking for a freelance editor, and I can send them your way for a conversation, and ideally more.

Vince said...

Hi Theresa:

“The publishing market is a very fluid entity, meaning that editors are constantly looking for something new and fresh that they think will be the “next big thing”.

As a marketing person I would say this is not the case. Publishers and movie producers do not want to take a chance of something radically new. What they want to do is be the first to jump on the bandwagon of a proven new trend. They want everyone else to spend a fortune trying to discover a new trend and then they want to rush in without the R&D expense and scoop up the gravy. Most new things fail. The question then is: do you want to publish bad enough to write to the market? Can you write quickly? Can you analyze a hot selling new trend book and understand exactly what it is that drives the book sales?

As for paying a freelance editor, that depends. Some books are hopeless and an editor would be a waste of money. Other books, even if written perfectly, are unsalable. I think an editor is a marginal expense. If you are close enough to get published (and you have objective evidence of this) and you believe a freelance editor can push you over the top, pay the editor.

Now as far a ROI, consider two types of investment. Direct cost and investment. If you are a new writer the cost of a freelance editor may be considered an educational career investment which should be amortized over many books – if you become a published author.

If you think your book is ready, and you think readers will love it, then you can publish it as a Kindle book for almost no money. If readers do love it, it will sell. If it sells a lot of copies, editors will be interested.

BTW: nonfiction works very well this way. Show a publisher you sell 5000 books a year at your seminars and you’ll find a lot of doors opening.


Ramona said...

Donnell, thank you for that response and that very nice offer.

To answer your question, on a working level, I have to say I have no preference when it comes to experienced vs. new writers. It depends on the personality of the author. Some new authors argue every point; some experienced authors are very open. On a personal level, it's extra pleasing when a new author gets a first sale, or feels they have grown as a writer, from a story I've edited.

With both, I take care to keep in mind that this is the author's story, not mine. My job is to point out what is and is not working, as objectively as possible. But as you point out, there is no such thing as true objectivity in art. It's all subjective, which is good, too, because it gives us more choices.

Theresa said...

Thanks for sharing your experience.

I have to agree that a trained freelance editor would probably give different quality feedback than most critique groups. Even experienced multi-published authors are necessarily going to look at work with the same editorial eye as an editor. But then it depends upon what the writer is looking for in an editor. Donnell was happy with getting validation from her freelance editor. That might not be good enough for another writer.

You make a great point about publishing wanting to be the first to jump on a NEW trend. I agree that VERY few want to take that first risk on a Harry Potter or Twilight

cttiger said...

I used a professional editor who charge me $5 a page, did not provide a line edit, and 50% of her comments were stuff anyone could find in 5 minutes on the Internet (for example how may series there are featuring caterers or cooks). She made a couple of valid points (sagging middle), but I really felt ripped off. She was recommended by someone I trust, but we write in different genres, so that may have been the problem.

morganalyx said...

This is a great post, Theresa. For a new kid in the neighborhood, these numbers are good for me to keep in mind.

I have someone who works as both a beta reader & copyeditor for me. I've found her notes & critiques as helpful as her grammatical corrections. But yes, I am starting to grasp that this business is extremely subjective.