Recently my beloved editor L.J. Sellers told me she could no longer take in freelance work. As her own novels have exploded in popularity, it has grown more and more difficult (and less profitable) for her to take time out of her schedule to edit for someone else. I completely understand. I too don’t take on editing anymore, except for existing clients.
I lucked out when I found L.J. She’s a real pro and I chose her based on reputation and her professionalism, but without doing any vetting. She’s an amazing editor and I was so lucky to have found her.
But the truth of the matter is, anyone can call themselves an editor. Sadly, many who do aren’t qualified. Now that I’ve been in and around publishing a little longer, I’ve started hearing horror stories of people shelling out hundreds of dollars to an “editor,” only to find the person acted as little more than a paid beta-reader.
Because I didn’t want to regret my decision, I made a plan.
Step 1. Made a list of every editor I could find.
I have a lot of people in my various networks, including some bestselling indie authors. I wrote to them and asked if they had an editor they could recommend. I also went to online groups and searched for authors who have raved about their editors. And then I went through my own friends list on Facebook, looking at anyone who listed freelance editor on their profile as their “workplace.”
I did NOT place an open call saying, “Hey, I need an editor. Who wants a few hundred bucks to go over my manuscript?” I wanted a list of professionals, not people who were doing it on a lark or who thought “hey, I can do that” on the spur of the moment because they saw my post, or writers who weren’t qualified, but needed the cash.
So over the next week as authors started writing back to me with their recommendations and I kept at my search, I realised I had quite a long list. This drove home to me that folks who say, “but I don’t know any editors,” as an excuse not to hire one aren’t really trying.
Step 2: Narrowed this down to twelve impressive professionals
I narrowed this list down to twelve, based on recommendations and their online presence. If their “professional” website looked like it harkened back to 1995, I crossed them off the list. Why? Surely editors aren’t expected to be web designers too! Well, again it comes down to professionalism.
So then I wrote twelve letters. They went something like this, but each one was different, based on how I’d found them:
We’re friends on Facebook (in case you don’t recognise my name.) I’m a self-publishing fantasy author. Sadly, I’ve just found out my editor is no longer taking in freelance work, so I’m in the position of forging a new relationship with an editor. (I wanted to point out the importance of the relationship. This isn’t a one-night stand for me. I want someone I can work with for years to come.)I know you do some freelance editing, so I’m wondering if you:1. Have experience with fantasy / spec fiction? (As much as I loved L.J., fantasy wasn’t really her thing, so this time I wanted someone who felt comfortable with the conventions of fantasy writing.)2. Are available some time in May for a freelance job? I have a finished draft and will be working on it with betas over the next month or so. (No point in finding someone only to discover they aren’t available!)3. Have references from editing clients I could contact? (I’ll get to this in more detail below.)It would be a bonus if you are comfortable with British English. It’s not mandatory that you have perfect “Queen’s English” skills, because most of my beta readers are British and my last editor was an American, and that worked out fine. That being said, my books are written with British spellings/expressions. (Be sure to point out any special requirements like this or concerns you have. You don’t want to go through all this only to find out the editor isn’t comfortable with some tangential element of your project.)And also what are your rates for copyediting? What I need is someone to help me achieve the final polish before self-publishing, to hunt out typos and errors, of course, but also let me know if I’ve done things like repeated words or if a passage is clunky or confusing. (I included this because different editors use different terminology. What one calls copyediting, another may call proofreading. What one calls line-editing may be another editor’s copyediting. I’d recommend being clear what level you’re looking for to help combat miscommunication.)If you don’t think you are the right person for my work for whatever reason, can you recommend anyone you think will be a good fit? (Always a bonus to ask… many editors know other editors and if the rest of your list falls apart, this could be a good way to find additional candidates.)
Step 3: Based on the replies, I narrowed it down to three top candidates.
Actually, this isn’t as difficult as you might think. A couple of people wrote back saying they weren’t taking on any new clients. Some wrote back with astronomical quotes. (I was prepared to stretch my budget for someone whose skills blew me away, but some of the quotes were just way beyond what I felt comfortable with.)
Here are some of the reasons an editor might have gotten crossed off the list at this stage:
- Charging more than I felt I could afford.
- Not feeling comfortable with the fantasy genre.
- Snarky comments about, well, anything. This isn’t the stage in a relationship for sarcasm.
- Replies with obvious grammatical errors.
- Refusing to engage in conversation, instead referring me to a website for answers
- Refusing to provide references
- Not wanting to deal with someone outside the US.
- Not accepting paypal.
In many ways, I was surprised how quickly the editors crossed themselves off the list.
But, I narrowed it down to three qualified, professional editors and was ready to procede.
Step 4: I checked references
Now, the next two steps were simultaneous. Each of the top three candidates provided references and offered a sample edit. While I was preparing my first chapter for them to take a crack at, I checked their references.
But, I didn’t just write to the people they provided. I googled the editors names along with the phrase “editor” and “my editor” and “freelance editor” and “indie editor”. I tried all kinds of additional phrases like “unprofessional” or other complaints I thought an author might make about an editor. I found names of people who had used them. Because honestly, they’re mostly going to give me names of people who have great things to say about them. Right?
Well, you’d be surprised.
Here’s the letter I sent to the references (phrased differently according to how I’d found them, of course):
X gave me your name as someone I could contact as a reference about her editing services.
I have a few questions, if you don’t mind.
- What did you like most and least about working with her? (Gives them an opening to give something other than glowing praise)
- Does she communicate clearly about issues in your manuscript? (Very important!)
- How does she handle follow-up questions?
- Do you generally use all her recommendations, or do you take some and leave some?
- Would you say her main strength is flow, structure, pacing, grammar/technical, spotting errors…or something else? (This allowed me to find out if the type of editing I needed was the same type this person had received.)
- Is it easy to book a project with her, or do you find you’re having to be squeezed in around a busy schedule?
- What do you receive on a full-length manuscript? A report? A document with tracked changes, etc? If a report, how long/detailed is it?
- Do you recommend her and plan to use her again?
Thanks very much for your time.
I have to confess, the replies surprised me. Even the people whose names had been given to me by each editor didn’t contain 100% glowing praise. Although I didn’t cross anyone off the list based solely on these replies, they did rearrange the top candidate’s standing in my mind. If someone were to go to the trouble to tell me in a letter of recommendation that their editor was incredibly qualified (and otherwise wonderful) but could be difficult to deal with, I would listen, believe you me.
Step 5: I asked them for a sample edit.
While I was waiting for replies to letters of recommendation, I polished up my first chapter and sent it to each of the editors for sample work.
Honestly, I expected them all to come back with virtually the same results. After all, a mistake is a mistake, isn’t it?
Well, no, it isn’t. Editing is incredibly subjective.
I was truly surprised at the difference in the marked-up manuscripts I got back, but so glad I went to the trouble of doing this. As I said, all of the editors were qualified, but comparing these was very useful in making my final decision.
In the end, I not only chose a new editor
(I’ll give you her name as soon as we hammer out our agreement–gotta make sure the feeling is mutual first!), (See the end of the post!) but I also have some fall-back editors, people I would feel confident writing to again if I’m ever in this position again.
Along the way, I was 100% clear with all my candidates where I was in the vetting process even up until the stage where I was getting samples, because I wanted people to know that I had other candidates. This was NOT to engender competition, but because I wanted to be up front about it. If someone didn’t want to be considered in a situation like this, I don’t mind. But you know what, NONE Of them minded when I let them know I was getting samples from others. In fact, most seemed to appreciate that I wanted to make sure I had a good fit.
So, if you’re in the position of hiring an editor, take your time. Be thorough. Listen to your gut. The best part of it is that I never felt like I was picking someone out of desperation. I felt like I had a lot of qualified candidates and could choose one out of a truly great field.
EDITED TO ADD:
I spoke to my new editor, and I feel 100% confident that we’re on the right path. So I can blissfully announce that Susan Helene Gottfried will be working on Enemy of the Fae, and I hope she will continue with me for many many more books to come. Her rates are incredibly reasonable, her sample edit was amazing (I’ve already incorporated 97% of what she suggested into Chapter 1), and I’ve found her professional on every level–and yet friendly and easy-going at the same time. If you’re looking for an editor, check out her page and read this list to see if she works in your genre.
As much as I’ve already come to respect and appreciate Susan, I’d still recommend you contact several editors and get sample edits. Susan is a perfect fit for my work, but you need to find the right editor for you. But yes, absolutely, drop her a line and discuss your current projects. I’m certainly glad I did!