What to expect from an editor, Part 6 - Are you paying too little?

For the second time in as many months, a new customer has said to me something along the lines of:

"You weren't the cheapest option, but I guess good work costs."

In reality I suspect that there are two ways of getting a good edit: for free, or by paying what the job is really worth.

You can get a good edit for free. Generally speaking, when someone does you a favour, they do it conscientiously. (Is that really naive of me? I hope not.) I'd be inclined to suppose, though I admit on no evidence,  that this is more true for a copy edit than for a literary* edit.

If you pay someone for an edit, there is a very simple way to work out if you are paying enough.

(1) In the USA, the minimum wage is $ 7.25 an hour. If someone quotes you $ 200 for an edit of your 75,000 word book,
(2) that's a total of 27 and a half hours or 2,727 words per hour.
(3) That sort of speed is perfectly "possible".

For a writer who is experienced and reasonably competent at narration, I won't need to make notes more than once every few pages - and mostly on story and characterization at that rate, I can read and take notes at more than 5,000 words an hour. If the writer is less experienced, or makes lots of errors or there are generalized narrative or stylistic problems, my speed can be cut down to about 2,000 words per hour. This is excluding time that I take to think (anything up to 2 days for a book of that length), the time taken to organize, structure and write up my notes (1 to 2 days) and time spent discussing all this with the writer (2 to 6 hours, though sometimes as much as 25 hours; I don't count this however as writers' needs can vary so much).

So for an 75,000 word book with average problems, I would need just over 40 hours. I base my prices on my estimate of the amount of time a book will take me, because it does vary a very great deal.

Going back to (1) above, if you paid me at the same rate as someone flipping burgers, I'd still need $ 293. But you ought to expect to hire an editor with qualifications and experience that are more difficult to acquire than those needed for flipping burgers, and such people are not all that easy to find. In short, someone who is going to help you to add value to your work is going to cost more than the minimum wage.

In my case, my lowest rate would, based on the figures above, be about $ 28 an hour. Someone charging you $ 200 dollars at that rate would have to work at a rate of 10,500 words per hour! That sort of speed is not possible.

In my opinion, there shouldn't be much difference in cost between a copy-edit and a literary edit. The skills, knowledge and experience required may overlap, but they aren't different degrees of the same service. They are different services provided by different specialists (many editors offer both, and I assume in my usual naive way that that means that many editors are equally or nearly equally good at both; I am not). In both, you require a degree of specialist knowledge, thoroughness and attention to detail that is relatively uncommon.

Ultimately, you should pay what you can reasonably afford, and of course, you get what you pay for. What I hope to have done with the above is show that you can, to some extent, work out if you are being charged too little. This is only possible because you know that the job requires both time and undivided attention.

I don't think there's any meaningful way to judge if you've been charged too much based purely on the price. You have to see the completed edit before you can tell.

* yes, I'm still using this term as an umbrella for story development, content editing and writer mentoring.


Why unpaid beta readers are indispensible

Beta-reading has become a stable and staple part of the indie publishing process, and a good thing, too. Whether you pay for it or not (a few of my peers offer it as a paid service) it is a reasonable and efficient way to get a view on whether a book is "working".

There is a fundamental difference between reading a book that is published, and that you have chosen to pay for and read, and reading a book that someone has asked you to read, or is paying you to read.

Who (of the countless myriad readers of my modest blog) has never picked up a book and begun reading, out of curiosity, boredom, on a recommendation or a whim, only to abandon it after a few pages or even after a few chapters?

When that happens, at least some of the time it can be blamed on the book, and if I want to be really generous, I will say: "that book didn't work for you."

Before you engage the services of a content editor (which ought to be costly - another post is in preparation about that), its good to get some idea of whether the book is working, and the beta reader can do that for you.

So why "unpaid" ?

A volunteer beta-reader can do something that a paid editor cannot do. He can turn round to the author and say "I just couldn't finish it."

To me, the value of this is beyond measure. So often I find that after getting off to a good start, a book starts getting bogged down in details, or the plot loses it's way, or what looked like a promising action thriller becomes a repetitive brassfest. A paid beta reader or a content editor is going to keep going to the end in spite of this. Actually a book doesn't even need to go downhill for a reader to give up. Some books are so patchy in the quality of the narration that eventually the good parts - where the narrative flows well or the author really settles into a groove - no longer outweigh the weak, clunky or "experimental".

An unpaid beta-read should be a "test read". The beta reader should read "as if" reading for pleasure. And you should tell him that if at any time he wants to give up, then he should do so, say so, and try to explain why.


Free Alpha Version: Search multiple online resources with one keypress

A translator friend asked me to do this so that he could look up words and references rapidly, without having to go to loads of bookmarks or Google. It occurred to me it could be useful to authors and editors.

 You just select a word or phrase and then press a windows shortcut, and it searches whatever resources you have preselected (e.g. Wiktionary, Webster online, Cambridge online, etc)

You can create your own groups of resources and associate them with specific shortcut keys.

The alpha version only works with the "windows" metakey.

Download it here: http://www.densewords.com/test/denselookup.zip

There are instructions inside the Zip.

It is based on AutoHotKey, which you will also have to download. I would hugely appreciate any feedback of any kind, but especially, your suggestions of resources to add to the (very small) selection currently available. I can add new ones very quickly; all you have to do then is download a new definitions file.

Where the market is at - and is "indie" the right word?

This vaguely grammatical title comes with the following health warning: my access to "industry insiders" is limited to a handful of people who either don't want to be quoted or will only comment anonymously. I'm trying to change that but I suspect more trust has to develop first. My own experiences, vicariously through my clients, however, give me a pretty good view of the current state of the marketplace, and, of course, I rely heavily on the statements of contributors to forums like KBoards.

But before I look at that, here's today's Home Truth:

There is not now, and never has been before now, a mechanism whereby an author who deserves to be read can be sure of being read by the readers who deserve to read him.

Because books require a medium, regardless of what it is, some additional work that has little or nothing to do with the process of creating literature is always required and someone has to do it. The availability and competence of those people (whether the author himself or a third party) can all to easily have an effect on distribution and sales that is not in proportion with the quality of the art.

The same is not true of storytelling. If what you want is to be a pure storyteller, you can, you really can, make a living from telling stories, live, to real people. All you need is a place to do it and a hat to pass around. Why is nobody doing it? Some people are. You probably ought to.


I'm going to start by summing up the state of trad publishing in a single word: flummoxed.

They aren't panicking. They aren't keeping calm and carrying on, either. What they are doing, as any business in a changing marketplace does, is using up some of their capital to try out new things: new types of contract, new distribution models, new technologies. Some of the ideas are a little silly, but many of the people in trad pub are experienced businesspeople. They know that markets change. They know that you adapt or you fade away (or someone bigger swallows you).

What they don't have is any kind of meaningful view of where the market is going, less still of where it will be in a few years from now.

Initially, the reasons for this flux, these changes, was just the advent of electronic publishing. For the last couple of years, however, indie publishing has started to have an effect on the market. You don't need me to give you examples, I'm sure. The major effect of indie is not to dent the profits of the "Big Six"; it is to increase the total amount of books sold. This has an effect on trad pub, but mostly that effect is the industry starts looking for ways to take a slice of those new sales ("Other people are selling books when it should be us!").

I've been comparing the indie market to varies models used to describe and predict the behaviour of new marketplaces, however, because I think it is a new marketplace, not an evolution of an existing one. Indie isn't competing with trad. It's not just a new marketplace, it's a different product.

I was going to do a convoluted comparison with the arrival of tobacco in Europe, but I'm going to try to keep it concise. A new market, from the seller's point of view, has the following stages:

  1. The early bird: a seller's market with big demand for any novelty. Almost any sales/promotion strategy you try will work. People being people, will assume that they got lots of sales because of their clever strategy, so they repeat it and it keeps working.
  2. The bandwagon (or if it is fast and furious, the scrum): others notice the new market and either want to sell the same product or have a similar product to sell. The number of sellers increases very very fast. In some cases, however (this was true for Tea and Tobacco), the supply never quite matches the demand, and some features of the early bird market remain. In other cases, supply is flooded with product of doubtful or clearly inferior quality, or even flooded with product of identical or better quality. As supply begins to catch up with demand, sales and promotion strategies that worked in the past start to fail. This isn't because they don't work any more, but because they never worked in the first place, or, like many strategies, were only capable of working once. This is a hard lesson, but you have to let go of what seemed to work in the past.
  3. The slog: if supply matches or exceeds demand, a gradual evolution takes place from the scrum (where the number of new sellers arriving  each year increases) to a state where the number of new sellers arriving each year becomes constant. At this point the market is already near saturation, and sellers will start to drop out. This is initially slow, and the sellers' reasons for leaving can be very varied, though usually they just aren't making any money. I imagine that in our marketplace there are other complicating factors since not all of us (!) are in it for the money. Eventually, the dropout rate begins to increase. Those who have stuck it out and concentrated on increasing the value and quality of their product will start to gain more market share. There are a few reasons why this happens, but the most important one is that the buyers become more knowledgeable and the market and product becomes more familiar.
  4. The settle: eventually, the dropout rate levels off. When this happens, the base profitability of the product is finally established. Right now we have no idea what that will be.

There are some curious parallels with Tea and Tobacco. Initially, the market was one of many small producers and a few very large distributors. (Including the most powerful corporation that has ever existed, the British East India Company.) In publishing, up to now, the model has been the same. But the Amazon model is something new. It's roughly equivalent to the plantation owner paying a small proportion of his profits to the EIC to transport his product to market, where he then has to promote and sell it. Notice that he is still dependent on someone to transport it for him.

Maybe "indie" is the wrong word. It certainly seems to be misleading. We are dependent. We are absolutely dependent on the e-book sales platforms; without them, this market and this product would not exist.

What we are actually doing is non-corporate, intermediaryless or individual publishing. I find the term "independent" guilty of creating a false expectation. True, our artistic freedom is absolute. But for distribution we are shackled to Amazon.


Just finished editing: The Downtown Deal by Mike Dennis

Another dose of Vegas Noir from a writer who isn't far off being a great writer. What I love about Mike's work is his sensitivity; his characters have an emotional depth that is typically missing from thrillers and detective fiction, and is almost characteristically absent in Noir. If you like this sort of thing, Man Slaughter is a true gem, go read it now.

The Downtown Deal follows on from Temptation Town and Hard Cash, and continues to follow the, ahem, fortunes of ex-PI Jack Barnett.

Working for Mike is always a pleasure, not just because his books appeal to my personal taste, but also because he always gives me an intellectual challenge. The Downtown Deal will give you some thinking to do, and you will have to pay attention to follow the details of the "deal" in question, but doing so is very rewarding indeed.

I started work yesterday on TBA (it has a working title but I don't normally reveal those) by new author Jarmila Zaricka.