Book Editors Alliance
Frequently Asked Questions
IF YOU'RE AN AUTHOR who is thinking about working with a freelance book editor, you probably have many questions. Here are some of the questions members of the Book Editors Alliance (BEA) are asked most often, along with answers we hope you'll find helpful. Scroll through the entire page for a complete education on what an editor or ghost-writer can do for you . . .
What is a freelance book editor?
A freelance book editor is an independent publishing professional who provides editorial help, advice, and guidance to authors. Often a freelance editor is engaged directly by the author; in other cases, a literary agent or book publisher may play a role in teaming up an author and editor.
Most freelance editors launch their own practices after honing their craft as in-house editors at publishing companies. The members of BEA all have at least fifteen years' experience in publishing, which means that they bring to each project an enormous reservoir of knowledge about what works, what doesn't, and how to develop every book to its greatest potential.
Why might an author need the services of a freelance editor?
Not all authors do. But an increasing number of book authors find that their literary and professional success is enhanced by working with a freelance editor on their writing projects. Especially in today's highly competitive publishing marketplace, there are three compelling reasons for an author to retain the services of a skilled freelance editor.
First, a freelance editor can help develop your book or book proposal so as to make it attractive to a top-flight literary agent. Most agents aren't willing to take on projects that require significant editorial work. In fact, many agents will recommend a freelance editor known for expertise in the author's field when they encounter a promising book idea that needs further editorial development. As you probably know, finding a strong agent to represent your book can be an important stepping stone toward achieving commercial success as an author.
Second, a freelance editor can help improve your book or book proposal and thereby improve your chances of selling it to a publishing house. While in-house editors once frequently signed projects that showed promise and then edited them personally, this practice is now rare. At most houses, the manuscript has to be in excellent shape before the editor acquires it.
Third, a freelance editor can work with you to enhance the quality of your book even after you have signed a contract with a publishing house. Nowadays, with in-house editors increasingly pressed for time, many authors find that engaging a consulting editor is the best way of obtaining the kind of personal, professional feedback, coaching, and advice they need to ensure that their books achieve the highest possible level of quality. Thus, even some authors with many years of successful publishing experience enjoy the benefits of working with a freelance editor on their newest projects.
How does a freelance editor work with an author?
There is no single answer to this question. The possible roles of a freelance editor include the following:
1. Ghost writer. In this role, the freelance editor does most of the writing work in developing a book manuscript on behalf of an author who has the ideas or knowledge but not the time or ability to write a book. For more on the work of a ghost writer, see the question, 'What does a ghost writer do?'
2. Book doctor. Sometimes an author creates a book manuscript that is potentially publishable but is inadequate for some reason: it may be poorly organized, awkwardly written, difficult to understand, repetitious, or boring. A book doctor takes such a manuscript and thoroughly rewrites it, sometimes calling on the author for help (for example, if some of the information needed is missing) but often working basically independently and simply turning in a completed, fixed-up manuscript after several weeks of work.
3. Developmental editor. A particular manuscript may need a less drastic overhaul than the one performed by a book doctor. This calls for a developmental editor, who will read the manuscript, make changes and corrections in style, organization, and content, and usually mark up the manuscript with queries and suggestions for further work by the author.
These three roles overlap quite a bit, and often a project may begin as one sort of job only to change, by mutual agreement, into another. The nature of the working relationship depends on many factors, including the kinds of improvements the manuscript needs and the easiest and most practical way of accomplishing the work; the personality and preferences of the author; and geographic, scheduling, and economic limitations.
Do freelance editors work on all types of books?
Absolutely! Freelance editors, including the members of BEA, work on all categories of books, including fiction and non-fiction. However, most freelance editors specialize in particular areas of the market. You can check the Our Specialties page of this website to learn what categories each of the BEA members focuses on.
Sometimes it's easy to identify the publishing category in which your book falls: a cookbook, for example. But sometimes an author doesn’t know what category his or her book belongs to. For example, you may be writing a novel that an editor would classify as "literary commercial fiction," even if you've never heard of the category.
If you're uncertain what type of book you are writing, visit an online bookstore like Amazon.com or a traditional brick-and-mortar store and browse until you find a selection of books similar to yours. Then note which section of the store these books are shelved in, or ask a knowledgeable sales clerk to identify the publishing category they belong to. Chances are that your book fits into the same category.
Is it really necessary to hire a freelance editor? Won’t my publisher provide me with an in-house editor?
Yes, you will be assigned an editor if your book is accepted for publication. However, writers are finding it increasingly difficult to get thorough and careful editing or substantive help with structural and plot problems from their in-house editors. Like many other businesses, book publishers have downsized their staffs, so that fewer editors are forced to handle ever-greater workloads. Freelance editors like the members of the BEA are prepared to perform functions that publishers are no longer equipped to do. A freelance editor works intensively on each book, helping to bolster its strengths and eliminate its weaknesses.
Of course, if you engage a freelance editor before your book is sold to a publisher, he or she will be able to help you make the book as saleable as possible, probably enhancing your chance of negotiating an attractive publishing contract.
I've seen references to substantive editing, line editing, and copyediting. What's the difference?
If the content of your book needs organization, pacing, completeness, a brighter writing style, and embellishments like snappy subheads, that's a job of substantive editing.
Line editing concentrates on the nuts and bolts: things like paragraph and sentence structure, errors of syntax and grammar, repetitions, overspecialized vocabulary, cliches, sexist language. Of course, anyone who does substantive editing of a manuscript will give attention to these things, too.
Before the book goes to the printer, the publisher will send it out for copyediting to be sure it's consistent throughout in its style of punctuation, use of italics and capital letters, use of arabic vs. written-out numbers, etc.
What does a ghost writer do?
A ghost writer is a skilled writer who collaborates with an author who needs help in turning a book idea into a finished piece of work. Ghost writers are commonly employed in many fields of book publishing, including both fiction and non-fiction; in fact, at any given time, a large fraction of the books on national best-seller lists are likely to be products of an author / ghost writer relationship.
The collaboration between author and ghost writer may take several forms. Sometimes, the author creates a draft manuscript that the ghost writer thoroughly rewrites, perhaps adding and discarding sections as well as reorganizing the sequence of materials. (A less-extensive revision shades into “editing” rather than ghost writing; there is no precise rule as to where the line is drawn.)
In other cases, the ghost writer will interview the author extensively and write a manuscript based on information, ideas and stories drawn from those interviews. In the case of a non-fiction work, the ghost writer may also interview other people and conduct other forms of research.
In some instances, the author may contribute little beyond the basic idea; the ghost writer is responsible for virtually the entire intellectual and literary content of the book, and the author is a mere "figurehead"--often a celebrity whose name will help to market the book.
The form of authorship credit received by the ghost writer also varies. Sometimes, the ghost writer remains completely invisible, with only a mention on the author's acknowledgements page (perhaps described as an "editor" or "advisor"). More commonly, the ghost writer receives a partial or secondary authorship credit: "Joe Author with Jane Ghost," for example, or "Joe Author in collaboration with Jane Ghost." If Joe is famous and Jane is not, Jane's name may be in smaller type.
Can a freelance editor help me find a publisher or literary agent?
If you consult a member of BEA on a book project, he or she can often draw on lengthy publishing experience and a good working knowledge of your manuscript to suggest appropriate potential literary agents and/or publishers. Please keep in mind, however, that no freelance or independent editor can ethically guarantee to secure you either representation by a literary agent or a contract with a publisher. Your editor may well be able to suggest likely agents and/or publishers for you to approach, but there is no way to promise that they’ll be receptive. Book publishing is simply too idiosyncratic and unpredictable a business for that.
Can a freelance editor advise me on self-publishing?
Yes. A member of BEA can help you first of all by helping you to prepare the most publishable book possible, that is, one that is as marketable, appealing, and satisfying to readers as possible. In addition, our members have years of experience dealing with the full range of publishing issues, including production, marketing, publicity, and promotion, and they can draw on this experience in consulting with you on self-publishing strategies and follow-through.
What should I look for when considering engaging a freelance editor?
In the final analysis, your choice is bound to be subjective, but there are certain guidelines you can follow.
Study the editor’s resume for clues to whether his or her background reflects your particular needs. Has the editor worked on successful books that are similar to yours? A Yes answer is a positive sign.
Consider reading excerpts from other books the editor has worked on. If you are impressed by the style, tone, and organization of those books, you may well enjoy working with the editor who helped develop them.
Before making a final commitment, have at least an extended telephone conversation or email exchange with the prospective editor so that you can get a sense of the personal chemistry between you. Do you trust this person? Do you feel comfortable letting him or her influence your literary work?
Finally, clarify the business arrangements. Will the fee be based on an hourly rate, a flat sum, or a royalty participation? What services will the editor provide in exchange for the fee? What schedule or deadlines will be followed? Be certain you understand the terms of your agreement before you start working with an editor.
How are a freelance editor’s fees determined?
Every freelance editor has a preferred method for determining fees. Some will quote a flat fee for a particular job based on an estimate of the amount of time and work involved. Others prefer to bill on an hourly basis. In most cases, the editor will require a portion of the fee at the start of the project, with subsequent payments required when specified milestones are reached (for example, when fifty percent and one hundred percent of the project is completed). On some projects, a freelance editor may receive a specified percentage of the publishing royalties earned by the author.
When considering engaging a consulting editor, ask about fees. On request, the editor will draw up a simple letter of agreement outlining the work to be done, the total fee, and how and when it is to be paid.
If I want to consider engaging a freelance editor, what material, and how much, should I send to him or her?
Start with a brief query letter to the editor you think may be right for you. Include a brief description of your book and a little background about yourself. If there appears to be a fit between your project and the editor, he or she will ask to see more materials. These will probably include:
1. A biography or resume of the author
2. Any newspaper or magazine articles by or about the author, preferably recent ones
3. A list of any previous books by the author, including dates of publication, publishing companies, and sales histories
4. Any manuscript materials that currently exist, including draft chapters, a table of contents, and any written description or prospectus for the book
When a freelance editor receives an extensive package--one that runs a few hundred pages, say--he or she will usually read sections of it and skim the rest so as to get a general idea whether the project appears appropriate for the editor and promising in terms of quality and commercial potential. This would usually suffice to determine whether or not there's a likely fit among the project, the author, and the editor.
If desired, a more thorough reading, evaluation, and analysis would be performed on a fee basis, with the cost based on the length and complexity of the material and the amount of time and work required.
Authors sometimes ask whether they may phone or visit the editor to discuss their book rather than sending a written package. The answer is generally no. A conversation is usually not productive unless it's preceded by an opportunity to "get a feeling for" the project by scanning some written material. So write first--if there is a good reason for you and the editor to speak, you'll be called promptly.
Is it appropriate to query more than one freelance editor at a time?
Yes, provided you let each editor know that you are making a multiple submission.