Navigating the modern business of book publishing

Self Publishing Part 3: Spinning Straw into Gold – The Magic of Editing

Spinning straw into gold

OK, so I recycled my Rumpelstiltskin metaphor from yesterday’s article in the title of this post but let’s not get too carried away with any broader literary allusions – a professional editor can do wonderful things for your book but very rarely do they ask for a first-born son in return for their services. In fact, when you consider that your editor will most likely be the single most important contributor to your book (after yourself of course), the rates that they charge are extremely reasonable.

Which brings me to my first point: if you are serious about the business of self publishing, then act the part and pay professional freelancers the correct rate for their services. Editors and designers are tertiary educated professionals who work extremely hard on chronically low rates of pay in the book industry. So don’t do what so many first-time authors do when they approach an editor and ask them to ‘have a quick look at my book for free’ or propose some future royalty sharing scheme or ‘payment upon publication’ deal – that’s not being clever with your money, that’s being disrespectful. Ask them what their rate is, agree on a price for the editorial services that you require and then pay it. Even if they’re a friend, treat this as a business relationship and you’ll get a much better result (and get to stay friends too).

One of the advantages of self publishing over traditional publishing is that you only have to pay for the editing and design work as a one-off fixed cost and so, once you sell enough copies of your book to cover this up-front charge, every other sale beyond this is profit. Compare this to a traditional publishing house where you receive essentially a fixed royalty, no matter how many books you sell. While the publisher takes on the risk if the book fails, if it succeeds and makes back its production costs, then they are the ones who pick up all that profit on the extra sales, while you are still left with a flat percentage. Given the fact that a modest up-front investment with a good editor can make all the difference between ‘Instant Fail’ and ‘Self Publishing Success Story’, it’s simply an essential cost of publishing a marketable book.

So now that you’ve committed to hiring a professional editor you need to give them a very clear brief about the nature of your project and the different jobs that you expect them to do. Many first time authors have a limited view of an editor as simply a proof reader, but this is only scratching the surface. An experienced editor will offer varying levels of edit service (for example, Verification Edit, Copy Edit, or Substantive Edit) as well as a huge range of additional editorial and production tasks and even full project management of the book production process. I don’t have the space in this post to begin listing these in detail but the Canberra Society of Editors has a wonderful checklist that you can download and use to construct a brief for your editor:

As you can see from the checklist, you can easily outsource pretty much every aspect of the book production process to an experienced editor and as the publisher you need to be able to manage this resource within the budget that you have set yourself in your business plan. Your editor should be able to give you an assessment and a quote for the project before you start but there are a lot of things you can do to ensure that you are not wasting your editor’s time and your own money:

  • Clearly identify all the editorial and book production tasks that need to be performed and list those that you are confident of performing yourself so that you can limit the number of tasks that you need to outsource to an editor.
  • Make sure your work is up to a near-finished standard before hiring an editor. If you are still writing and making changes or if your manuscript requires a lot of structural work then your editor will need to spend a lot more time on it. Develop a group of Alpha and Beta readers to help you put your manuscript in order first. You can do this through writing groups, writer’s networks, conferences, mentors and so on. This 15 minute podcast from Writing Excuses gives a great introduction of how to use Alpha readers.
  • Ensure that you set up a clear communication channel and make sure that you are both on the same wavelength. You will need to have many difficult and often delicate conversations with your editor about changes to your book so when considering an editor, pay attention to their communications with you and, if you feel that there is some barrier or friction there, find someone else.
  • When selecting an editor find out what they’ve previously worked on to assure yourself that they have experience with your kind of book – someone who’s only edited science fiction novels might not be the best person to edit you cookbook, for example.
  • Start with a clear and mutually agreed upon brief that outlines the project and the editor’s tasks and get a quote from the editor based on this brief. If any changes need to be made to the scope of the project, discuss them fully and agree on the new pricing before going ahead.
  • Be open to your editor’s comments and respond to their queries and suggestions with due consideration and timeliness. You are paying them to make a professional assessment of your work and you need to be able to accept criticism objectively and work collaboratively to make improvements.

When looking for an editor the best place to start is usually the local Society of Editors. These organisations maintain up to date directories of qualified editors and provide some excellent advice and resources to help you in your decision. Below are the links to the major Societies in Australia and you should be able to find similar organisations around the world:

Go to:

Self Publishing Part 1
Self Publishing Part 2
Self Publishing Part 3
Self Publishing Part 4
Self Publishing Part 5
Self Publishing Part 6

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Categorised in: All Posts, How to Self Publish Series, Self Publishing

4 Responses »

  1. I enjoyed reading today’s post very much. Have a great day.

    Writers Wanted – Writing Jobs Available

  2. Thank you for this. This is very helpful. You can check out excerpts for my new book Mr Wrong at 🙂


  1. Self Publishing Part 7: The Consonant Gardener – The Three C’s of Internal Book Formatting « Fiction et al
  2. Self Publishing Part 1: For Fun or Profit? | Fiction et al

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About Richard

Richard Bilkey has been selling, marketing and distributing books for over ten years, managing independent bookshops, a major online retailer and, most recently, one of Australia's largest Independent Book Distributors, Brumby Books.

Contact Richard directly at
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