Hiring an editor is one of the most difficult tasks when self-publishing. In commercial publishing, usually (not always) your initial editor is someone who specifically wanted your book, and so a lot of the time you’re getting someone who believes in you and understands your vision. Your copyeditor and proofreader are usually assigned to you, so there may not be that same rapport, but they’re all professionals who know how to do their jobs.
If you’re self-publishing, and particularly if you’re new and haven’t built up industry contacts yet, this can present a bit of a challenge. How will you know if this editor will dig your work? How do you know if they’re even competent? How expensive is it going to be? How long will it take? What type of editing do you need? How do you even find an editor in the first place?
Let’s break this down a bit.
How will I know if this editor likes my style of writing?
The short answer…you don’t.
You can look at what other genres this person has worked on and what genres they SAY they like to work on, and that should give you an idea. If they don’t list genres? Ask. Seriously, if you’ve scoured their website and don’t know what they like, just ask what genres they have experience in. No matter the experience and skills of the editor, everyone has their preference, and each genre has its own tropes and conventions. You want an editor who is knowledgeable about the area you write in, first and foremost. Secondly, a copyeditor used to working on literary books might not be the best choice for fantasy, whereas a fantasy or science fiction editor–who is used to made up jargon and titles–is probably going to be a little more flexible for your needs.
Even within genres, however, it’s hard to say whether or not this particular editor will connect with your work. Reading the books the editor has worked on or getting familiar with his or her favourite authors might help. It’s also important to remember that editors are supposed to be fairly objective–their job is to find the message you’re trying to convey and help you clarify that message, regardless of what their preference is.
Another good question to ask a potential editor is what their style is. Some are very hands on, some are very hands off; some might offer some suggestions and leave corrections up to you, others might go in and rearrange things for clarity. Some will flat out tell you what’s incorrect while others will more gently guide you through the process. One way isn’t better than the other, it just comes down to what style works best with you.
Some research ahead of time will save you some headaches but at the end of the day, you have to take a bit of a leap with your work and cross your fingers, like hiring any other kind of independent contractor.
How do I know that this editor is competent?
Another fun question! Because I can’t tell you the number of editors who hang up their signs and say they know what they’re doing, when they don’t.*
First, look up their credentials. How many books have they worked on? Were they ever with a publisher? What kind of publishers did they work for? (I apologize to those I know in small press, but the average small e-publisher is not known for their quality editing because they pay so little, and I say that as someone who worked for one.) Do they list schooling or training?
Another consideration is seeing if they have a lot of repeat clients. Sometimes (not always), it can indicate they have a good rapport with the people they work with, and that’s usually a good sign.
Next, look up some books they’ve worked on and read samples (with the caveat that, especially with self-publishing, authors may not take their suggestions; when I hand over an edit letter and marked up manuscript, I have no way of knowing whether or not the author accepted my edits, and I get paid either way so I don’t lose any sleep over it). If it’s riddled with typos and poor grammar, be cautious about hiring that copyeditor.
Third, see if they offer a free or inexpensive sample editing service, where they’ll look at five or ten pages and give you a taste. Not all editors do this (I don’t because I have enough work on my plate and I can’t afford to do freebies) but plenty do and it’ll help you decide whether they’re right for you or not.
The additional problem here, however, is that if you’re an inexperienced writer, you might not know what competence looks like. I do not say this to be mean, it’s just a fact. If you have several books with the big five, well, yes, you know what copyediting looks like, and you would know pretty quickly if the editor you hired knows what’s she’s doing. OTOH, having worked for small press and overseeing freelance editors, I can tell you a whole host of them hadn’t a bloody clue what they were doing and the newer authors didn’t realize their work was coming back in worse shape than when they sent it.
So if you don’t have experience, how do you know if you’re getting back thorough, competent editing?
I…don’t know, honestly. I have never been in that position; when I had incompetent editing, I was so new I didn’t know the difference. Now, I wouldn’t stand for that shit. So doing your homework ahead of time, talking to other authors, and getting a sense of the editor’s reputation, will help you out a lot.
This has already gotten incredibly long, so I’m going to post part two next time and answer the questions, “How expensive will it be?” “How long will it take?” “What type of editing do I need?” and “How do I find an editor in the first place?”
*Do keep in mind, however, that editors are HUMAN and they are going to miss something. This does not make them any more incompetent than you were for missing the error in the first place.