When Your Editor Sucks

Today I wrote a tough email to an author who sent me a review copy of her book. I probably won’t post the review (although if she decides any publicity is better than none, I’ll write it up) because to me the book felt like an unfinished work in need of a good editor.

But here’s the thing—she credited an editor.

Several other self-published books I’ve read have had similar issues, but one in particular stands out. Despite the work of two paid editors, the plot was sprawling and needed a hundred or so pages cut from it. Although I think this book has the potential to be really interesting and solid, the author just doesn’t have the time and money to invest in reediting a book she’d already put out there. (I suggested she work with John Adamus for the sequel; I hope this interesting series will find its wings.)

As a reviewer, I’m on the outskirts of the self-publishing world—I see the products that authors submit to me to review, but I don’t know what all goes into getting a book to print. Sometimes it looks like people just stick a spell-checked second draft on Amazon for $.99 and call it good enough. Sometimes books are obviously crafted, often with more love and effort than goes into many traditionally published books.

In my naïveté and biased point of view as an editor, I assumed that the difference was whether or not the author worked with an editor—besides having the book proofread by a well-intentioned friend who majored in English 20 years ago.

But several of these books that really need to go back into the oven a time or two do have editors who are credited and thanked. This raises a couple questions for me.

  1. Is it an issue of label? If you don’t know what an editor really does, maybe you’ve called the proofreader your editor. Should my criteria for whether I’ll read your book be how you answer the question “Please define the role of an editor”?
  2. Are editors shafting self-published writers? This worries me because it preys on authors trying to do it right, and it feeds into the idea that you don’t really need to work with an editor because it’s just a waste of time and money. It seems pretty obvious that working with these particular editors was a waste of time and money.

The label issue is fairly easily solved. There are lots of good discussions online about the role of an editor, working with an editor, etc. I won’t repeat them here (but please feel free to include links to your favorites in the comments). To sum up, though, there are several levels of editing that should happen before your book goes to print. The first should challenge aspects of your story on a very fundamental level, probably on a level that makes you want to throw your laptop and/or your editor out the window. This is the level that usually seems to be lacking from the poorly edited self-published books I’ve read. Only after this can you get into the copyediting and finally the proofreading levels.

I don’t know for sure that the issue of editors shafting writers exists, but it seems likely. I suppose one answer is to find editors who come highly recommended. Here’s where the community that’s built up around self-published and small press authors can come in handy. Find books that seem to have been really well edited and see if the author would recommend that editor. Maybe you should only work with editors whose work you’ve seen and who other authors have had great experiences with.

On the other hand, I got into RPG editing because someone took a chance on an untried editor and I rose to the challenge. I’ll need someone to take a chance on me again if I start to get into fiction editing. I’d hate for it to be harder for good editors to break into the business.

Authors, I’d love to hear from you. What experiences have you had working with editors? How do you choose an editor? How do you make sure you’re working with a worthwhile editor? What are the danger signs that you’re getting shafted and what can you do about it?

It makes me sad to read books that have potential but have fallen short. It makes me furious on behalf of the author and my profession when it seems like the person hired to prevent that didn’t bother to fulfill expectations.

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