Where to Get an Editor

Oct 9, 2023 | Business, Writing

People often ask me this question. And many of them get disappointed by the answer.

Most recently, I was asked about it on a podcast. And, unfortunately, this subject doesn’t lend itself to interview questions. It deserves an in-depth exploration.

Because every writer needs the answer to this question. Failing here too often means failing overall. And it’s the kind of thing that, if not handled well, can sink a career before it gets started.

So let’s answer this question, in a definitive way, with real steps that anyone can take, beginning with the question itself:

“Where do I get an editor?”

But before we can do that, we have to clear up some popular misconceptions about what an editor is, and how authors meet them.

Where Amateur Authors Think Editors Come From

The traditional notion of editors posits that an author acquires one after landing a publication contract. In this fantasy, the author has no need of working with editors until the publisher obliges it of him. A few extra-naive authors assume that editors make changes to a manuscript without the author’s input. They take the author’s raw words, freshen them up a little, and send them out into the world.

This notion convinces the author that publishing is the work of others, leaving the writer with the sole task of writing.

Now, it’s true that publishing houses have editors. And those editors work on manuscripts that the publisher acquires. But these editors exist to help the publisher, not the author.

The purpose of an in-house editor is to adapt a writer’s manuscript to the publisher’s standards. Sometimes, those standards have to do with quality, but that’s ancillary. In most cases, a publisher will only consider a manuscript which already meets their quality standard. Rarely will an in-house editor edit for quality (usually for an A-list author whose name already guarantees him a place on the publisher’s docket).

No, the standards which in-house editors look to enforce are commercial standards. These include book length, content censorship, demographic balance, quotas of all stripes, and other changes to make the actuaries happy.

A few examples:

  • Book Length: A publisher’s editor will tell you your book cannot be longer than a certain amount of words. This limitation is enforced more harshly on new authors, even though, statistically, bigger books tend to sell better. Still, the publisher doesn’t want to spend a lot of ink and paper on an unknown commodity.
  • Content Censorship: After deciding which age group your book belongs to (you didn’t honestly think you decided whether your book was for children, young adults, or adults, did you?), the in-house editor will place content restrictions on what elements are allowed or disallowed in your book.
  • Demographic Balance: I was once told by a publisher that they would not accept my young adult superhero novel because one of the supporting characters was a geriatric man who serves as the protagonist’s foil. They insisted that Young Adult books can only have Young Adult characters. No exceptions. And they proved impervious to counter-examples, common sense objections, and the simple request to read the book and see why the geriatric character made the story great.
  • Quotas: The in-house editors get their marching orders from the actuaries in the marketing department. And those suits enforce quotas on the house’s authors, such as a minimum number of action scenes, a minimum number of romances, a maximum number of characters, demands for a proven setting (such as a magical school or a dystopia that centers around a yearly battle royale), and other numbers that look good on a spreadsheet.

If that doesn’t seem at all like a creative endeavor, it’s because its not.

The editors at a publishing house are the publisher’s editors. They serve the marketing department, not the authors. They edit to the market—or worse yet, a formula that simulates the market—not to the notion of producing great literature or unputdownable stories.

But in this, you find two silver linings. For one thing, in-house editors don’t tend to enjoy being dogs of war for the marketing department. As a prerequisite for their jobs, the publisher requires them to know how to edit for quality, but they rarely get to flex those muscles.

Secondly, most authors will never even get the chance to have an in-house editor. Meaning that most authors will never live out the horror of having their work watered down to flavorless pulp. And with the rise of self-publishing, new opportunities for authors to hit the market on their own terms have become practical.

Where Self-Published Authors Think Editors Come From

Do not make the mistake of thinking that in-house editors used to be different. Even in the days before the internet, or the days before computers, in-house editors were not the only game in town. For decades, the expectation in the publishing world is that before a manuscript is even submitted to a publisher, it has already been professionally edited.

Dang, that’s a polished manuscript!

Which means there is, and always has been, a different class of editor—one who works in the employ of authors rather than publishers. The purpose of these alternative editors is to bring the author’s manuscript as close to perfection as possible. They edit for quality, and while they take note of the publishing market, they do not get their marching orders from suits who wish to cookie-cutter every new book into a shape that fits their actuarial tables.

Submitting a manuscript unedited is like going to battle without armor. Or clothing. Publishers prefer not to pay their editors to edit for quality (since they’re already getting paid to edit for security), so they expect authors to pay for their own quality edits.

And self-published authors require quality edits anyway, so obtaining one’s own editor serves as a prerequisite, no matter which route the author takes.

To this end, the amateur or self-publishing author will shop for editors the same way they shop for everything else: a quick internet search.

And they get bombarded with a bunch of “editor peddlers”—people who advertise themselves as professional editors because they take authors’ money and have bad things to say about the manuscripts they’re sent.

These are your Fiverr editors, your Facebook Ad editors, your top-of-search-results-because-they-manipulate-key-terms shysters.

Under the covers, they’re nothing more than paid critics. And some of them do have a talent for criticism, which they think qualifies them for editing work.

Take my advice: you must treat these people like leprosy. They will not prepare you for any kind of publication. At best, they may be able to tell you where your weaknesses are. But they do not have the background or training to produce a professional-looking manuscript.

These are your iron pyrite. Now allow me to tell you how to find gold.

Where Editors Actually Come From

Most editors of quality actually have college degrees in editing.

I know this because my mentor, David Farland, invented the bachelor’s and master’s programs for editing.

As a young student at BYU, he took advantage of the university’s “create your own major” program to design a curriculum that would produce editing professionals who specialized in full books and could be hired right out of school by publishers, because he wished to become such an editor. The major he created ended up serving as the template for similar majors in colleges and universities throughout North America. Many of today’s professionals owe their employment to Mr. Farland’s efforts, and I have met many of his students.

Which brings me to the first way to get an editor: have a bunch of editor friends. If you move in the proper circles, you will know a few real and professional editors by name and face.

Far and away, this is the best method. Not only do you get an editor out of this deal, you also get friends—friends who share your professional interests. And even if none of your friends are available to edit your work, they can refer you to people who will, because your editor friends have other editor friends.

But sadly, cultivating a circle of editor friends is not an option for everyone. Unless you’re an editor yourself, it requires a lot of work going to public writers conferences and mingling with the editors there. Not everyone can manage that.

Which brings us to the final way to get an editor, though I’m sure you’ve guessed it by now. You did read the part where I said most in-house editors are frustrated with the work they do for publishers, right? They often feel the need to do actual, salt-of-the-earth editing.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

If not, then here’s the short version: instead of hiring an editor you found online and hoping they do professional-grade work, go to someone who already edits books for publishers and convince them to freelance for you.

That’s it. No frills. The only thing you need to watch out for is the fact that many of these already-employed editors are too busy to do freelancing on the side. But remember what I said before: all editors have editor friends. And they love referring people to their friends (it strengthens the friendship). And, being professionals, they seek to refer you only to editors with the proper education and experience to edit a book for quality. These include:

  • Retired editors who quit the publishers’ rat race so they could edit books in ways that don’t conform to statistical models.
  • Junior editors who have completed their college training but don’t get enough work from the publishers to fill their days, and are looking for titles to add to their pedigree.
  • Specialist editors who have a knack for specific types of books—westerns, poetry, military science fiction, etc.
  • Independent editors who have forsworn the mainstream publishing industry, but who have proven themselves enough to earn the trust of industry professionals.
  • Ghost editors. These are just ghost writers who can be convinced to edit an existing book instead of creating a new one from scratch.

Now you know how to obtain an editor.

But there’s one more catch.

Editors Cost Money

Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s true.

With few exceptions, editors do not work for free. And the good ones—the ones that can take a manuscript through the Cinderella transformation of scullery-maid-to-princess, do not come cheap.

And you cannot avoid this by having editor friends. Friends don’t let friends work for slave wages. To keep your editor friends, you must insist on paying them full price.

As an author, you are also an entrepreneur—an entrepreneur who attaches his personal name to his business. And you won’t find a quicker way to ruin an enterprise than by giving yourself a reputation for cheapskating. If you do that as a startup company, you may be able to escape that reputation by starting a new company with a different name. But as an author? No. That reputation follows you for the rest of your life. You would have to perform a hundred on-time payments in full to make up for one instance of lowballing a potential partner.

Becoming an author, no matter what kind of publication you seek, costs money. The stories of authors going from rags-to-riches are extraordinarily rare, and many of them have been exaggerated by publishers wishing to create buzz around this book or that. I tell you this so you won’t get caught by surprise when the check comes, and you see the cost of doing business.

I have told you where to find an editor, but it is your responsibility to act in a professional manner around them. That part is on you.

Because if you are not prepared to deal with your editor, then it would have been better if you’d never known where to find one. Make sure you can be an adult. That is part of the price.

And one other thing.

An Editor Can Reject You

The best editors can spin straw into gold, but they shouldn’t have to. And the cream of the crop get enough work that they can afford to be picky.

At the end of the day, you might not be all that. Your manuscript may be so amateurish that even an independent editor will refuse to touch it. They could fix it, sure, but they’d have to steeply increase their fee to cover the time expense of getting the book into shape.

Professional editors will find a way to say this with tact and poise. But they still have every right to refuse you, regardless of how much money you’re offering. If enough editors do this, then you should reconsider whether you, as a writer, are ready for the big time. You may need to work on your craft, take a few classes, or workshop with a writing group.

In the most extreme cases, you may have to question whether writing is your calling. Or you could always hire a ghost writer (you would not be the first).

You Have Your Answer

You now know everything you need to get an editor. You may encounter other roadblocks not mentioned in this post, but those will be custom-made curveballs that no one can prepare you for. The formal answer for “Where do I get an editor” has been given here. After reading this post, you have no excuses.

And while I have given you many warnings, keep in mind that getting an editor shouldn’t be scary. If the process feels scary, then you might be pursuing the wrong editor. Seek someone who appreciates your writing even when they give an honest and harsh opinion.

If you understand all that, then you’re ready.

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