Category: Notes on Publishing

Rejected, Or Declined?

Something that all writers have to deal with at some point or other is rejection. Your manuscript gets turned down by that agent who’d expressed such enthusiasm about the opening chapter at a writers’ conference. Or an editor says no, stating that they’ve just taken on a work in the same vein. Or you get a standard rejection letter. Or you wait and wait and wait, but just don’t hear back.

This is going to cause disappointment. Sometimes writers seem to take things personally, and self-pity and blame arise. I’ve heard writers who’ve had dozens of rejections say, ‘It’s not worth bothering – publishing is a closed shop.’ But no, that’s not true. Connections and an established profile can certainly help you get your book read, but I can cite plenty of instances of well-connected writers with profiles who have not got a deal from a publisher. And I can also cite plenty of instances of writers who’ve put in the work (which can include making connections from the ground up), and been discovered via the submission process.

But some reasons given for rejection can feel wrong-headed.

Sorry, there is a glut of Victorian crime fiction. (Until the next one comes along.)

Sorry, there have been a lot of books about witches lately. (Yes, and there always will be.)

Sorry, this subject matter is too American. (Well, maybe it’s time to try this idea in the UK? And maybe this British author might help translate it for a UK readership?!)

Sorry, the author of this book set in Spain isn’t Spanish. (!!!)

Sorry, the writer doesn’t have enough Twitter followers. (Bugger off!)

Maybe I underestimate the power of the marketing department (as my friends who work in-house warn). But I know that any editor who loves a book enough, however criminally Victorian, witchy, American, un-Spanish, or tweetless, will make a case for it. So such explanations can seem fundamentally unimaginative, and even a bit hollow. Cue: the frustration of the rejected writer, whose mind goes into overdrive cursing the crassness/cliquishness/dishonesty of the industry.

So let’s be honest with ourselves, and with clear thinking cut through some of the disappointment.

There are tons of manuscripts for Young Adult dystopian fantasies, for example. That glut is not necessarily a cause for despair. This could also be read as a sign that a particular category is popular. A lot of YA fantasy gets published, and read and enjoyed, and new books will continue to be published and read and enjoyed.

But we do have to be sensible, and acknowledge that too much of a good thing often leads to a saturation point. When I attend writers’ events, a large proportion of the audience often seems to be writing YA fantasies. I’m also thinking of the wide eyes and raised eyebrows of a bookseller I know when I asked her about the market for YA dystopian fantasy. Beautifully plucked, but raised very high. Your book might be good, but someone has to sell it to a crowded market.

What this means is that your book has to really stand out, to really click with someone, and in the case of YA dystopian fantasy, the emphasis is on really, as this genuinely does seem to be an oversubscribed category at the moment.

I have seen many writers, through their application in drafting, reach a stage where their craft and technique are highly professional and their manuscripts are publishable and ready to submit. We’ve read books that do get selected; we know that this one is certainly good enough.

Hereon, taste dictates what happens: finding an agent and then a publishing deal and then the success that comes with a readership. Such matters are (thank the god/dess of imagination) unpredictable. Something has to click with the reader, and feel very special, and that comes rarely. There is no blueprint – it really is an X Factor. Professionally produced manuscripts can sometimes still be a bit dull for some readers, and there are a lot (LOT) of manuscripts out there. And if that spark isn’t there for that particular reader, a writer has to move on until that reader is found.

The agent Jo Unwin expresses it graciously on her website:

Please do remember that the relationship between an author and agent is very personal, so you may write something fantastic that just isn’t for me. There are so many brilliant books that I’ll never read, bookshops are heaving with books that someone loves, but I’ll never get round to. So be as professional as you can, and try not to take rejection personally.

I think that’s a great analogy. My own bookshelves (and floorboards) are heaving with plenty of books waiting for me to read. And there are many I’ve started, and where my bookmark remains at page 10/30/70.

Something that I don’t think that helps the process of submission is the word rejection. (Slush pile is little better: it conjures up a pile of mush.)

Rejection: ‘the dismissal or refusing of a proposal’.

I am just dressing things up, perhaps, but I do prefer the idea of a book being declined. Maybe think in terms of someone declining a request to go on a date, or accompany you to the prom. (But maybe don’t think about declining marriage proposals. A realistic marriage proposal is, after all, made some time after a couple have got together and worked out their compatibility.)

Decline: ‘politely refuse an invitation or offer’.

It’s a subtle matter, but most of us prefer to be politely refused than to be dismissed. And on the whole I think agents and editors do refuse politely, even if it’s a standard letter that comes months and months later.

Some agents never acknowledge or respond, of course, and are clear about that in their submission guidelines. Ideally, I’m sure they would like to answer, and I’d like to think that if I were an agent I’d at least be able to decline a book with an email. But the sheer quantity of submissions and their commitments to ongoing authors mean they have to prioritise, and they really can’t spare the time. They are under no obligation, until a contract is signed.

When, in a century long ago, I was an in-house editor turning down manuscripts I did sometimes give a sentence or two of feedback to agents (who sent in most of the books I read) or authors. I think I was being dutiful in offering a reason, but, looking back, I’m not sure such explanations are always helpful either. A proper editorial conversation takes time, and, unless the offerings are really shrewd and specific, scraps of advice can confuse as much as help. They can sometimes give false hope, too, in that we latch on to possible fixes. (Perhaps, if I drop the present-tense narration he doesn’t like, he’ll take my book on?)

And besides, someone else might like it, present tense and all, and, sharing your vision, have specific advice that will be more helpful.

If I were an agent or publisher today, I suspect that the best approach to declining a manuscript would be to say some version of: I just didn’t love this enough to want to take it on. Or: I just don’t feel confident/passionate enough about the idea of selling this. Another possible reason: I’ve recently taken on something similar, and I don’t think I can do justice to both books/authors (another version of not being able to sell something, not least as you’d be competing against yourself). Or maybe, and specifically: collections of short stories or essays are a hard sell – at least in book form. (Which is kinda true, and kinda sad, because they are often my favourite books. But at least the writer can try literary journals for individual stories or essay; the book or the collection is always not the ideal receptacle for a short story. If I worked in-house again, I’d like to think I’d put in extra effort for good short fiction, because that is so often what I love.)

But really, these are pretty much the only answers. There are other reasons (like, the writer seems unrealistic, or a bit of an arsehole), but I might keep those to myself, because I’m not sure how that would help.

But if an agent or an editor sees something that they love, even if it’s a hard sell, they will take on a book, and find a way. If they don’t love it enough, that’s that. And if someone sees something that they think is shite, or simply unaccomplished, it’s entirely possible that someone else will love it. Just check out bestsellers on Amazon that get tons of five-star reviews as well as tons of one-stars. (There is a lot of shite on Amazon. But a lot of shiny stuff too.)

Yes, I am probably being pollyanna-ish, or maybe Moomintrolly. Declined or rejected, you end up in the same place. But I do think future success can be helped by the right attitude – or prevented by the wrong attitude. You do have to create your own luck.

If you are in the position of sending out work right now, and not hearing back what you want (or at all): don’t get down-hearted. Maybe replace the idea of rejection with the idea of being declined. Allow yourself a little time, but sometime soon pick yourself up, dust yourself down, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of bubbly, and send the book out again to someone else. Hold on to your own vision. It’s hard to do both things at once, but be hopeful, as well as realistic.

(And try not to be an arsehole. Nobody owes any of us anything that isn’t earned, really. If you act like an arsehole, karmic return may come back and bite your own. Bitterness is unattractive, and rots the soul, and nobody wants to work with an arsehole.)

(And yes, agents and editors as well as writers can be arseholes too. No names, but. They are found in every walk of life.)

Also remember that editing a book until it’s in the best shape for submission is a process that could go on forever. (Here is another post on receiving feedback on your work.) Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a start on a fresh work.

If you are a writer, don’t be deterred. If you are a writer, you will/should carry on writing anyway. If not right away, later.

But maybe, too, invest some time in doing other things that can raise your chances of success. Network, join genre organisations, continue to improve (link – uncomplicate your task of learning by not tackling pet projects). Research agents further, perhaps. (I will do another post on submitting writing in the future.)

And there’s always self-publishing, which is not second-best, though it can be a lot of extra work. There are many, many books out there. I think self-publishing authors facing the challenge of getting noticed can start to understand some of the challenges faced by authors and editors selling books – though at least they are taking charge of many of their own decisions.

And also note that a lot of perfectly good books that are published the traditional way disappear from view shortly after publication – or even before, it seems. They are published without trace. Sometimes authors feel that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing, but that sort of resource has real costs, and there are limits to what anyone can do.

Sometimes, if we look at things soberly, it’s just the case that readers didn’t love them enough either. This is a more subtle form of rejection, perhaps – being declined by readers. In the olden days such books would go out of print, or lurk in stacks of remainders in the author’s garage until said author flogs them for a couple of quid at library talks. At least ebooks and print on demand can extend the life of a book now, and perhaps make it easy for the work to be rediscovered. Look at the notice achieved by writers such as Lucia Berlin or John Williams long after they’ve died. Literary immortality is no small achievement.

But many writers will enjoy success in their own lifetimes! Take heart from the advice and real-life examples offered in the following links below. Yes, as one of the links describes, all of those books in the photo above were once upon a time rejected, or should I say declined. Until someone said yes.

Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong… (Huffington Post)

How to Survive Rejection (The Review Review)

Best-Sellers Initially Rejected (Lit Rejections)

Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time

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It’s felt a bit of a grim year for events in the wider world: terror, Brexit, xenophobia, squabbles on social media. So it was truly heartening this week to watch the documentary on Virago on Monday night: Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time. (It’s on YouTube too if you can’t find it on iPlayer.)

So many of my formative reads, dating back to the 1980s when I was at university, are Viragos: Maya Angelou, Marilynne Robinson, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters (Fingersmith is my favourite novel), Angela Carter, Mary Webb. And Willa Cather! So many of my favourite books have that half-eaten apple on the spine (what a great logo).

Though publishers take great pains in creating imprints as brands, it’s probably the case that very few names in publishing have real brand recognition for most readers. Maybe only two, I’ve heard said. Penguin is one (such exquisite design and canny marketing, as well as editorial nous). And Virago is the other.

Certain cultural institutions belong to us all: Penguin Books, the BBC, Virago. I imagine you must identify with Virago even more strongly if you are a woman, but men can just let Virago be that bright big sister who’s always there with a good book recommendation.

Virago was acquired by Little, Brown when I was working there, and us acquiring editors all attended the same weekly editorial meeting. I remember the Wednesday (for editorial meetings were always on Wednesdays, and smoke-filled) when Tipping the Velvet was presented – such a good idea, such strong sample material, and the excitement was infectious. I remember Maya Angelou visiting the office and wholly captivating the room with her height, her charm, and her recitation of a Shakespeare sonnet. I remember dancing with the publisher of Virago at my wedding (Lennie loves to dance). I remember that the last book I published when I worked in house was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (the reissue, of course – I could hardly believe it had been left to go out of print elsewhere, and that I acquired UK rights so cheaply, but at least I can say I published the bestselling novel in the world, haha); I remember feeling proud that a few years later it ended up on the Virago Modern Classics list, alongside Peyton Place – these books might raise a few eyebrows about their literary qualities, but they were gritty and groundbreaking in their time for their treatment of certain subject matters. Quality is so objective anyway.

I’m not always comfortable with men making affirmations about being a feminist, not least because various men saying things like that have been known to treat women like shit. Or maybe it’s the case that I’m just not comfortable with affirmations, which can feel too easy, or lazy. But watching this documentary made me feel yes, I am a feminist too. A lot of the writers I’ve edited or published are women, and a lot of the work I continue to do is invested in empowering women to raise their voices and tell their stories and be heard. This should not be a matter of gender, but it often seems to be the case that women writers need a certain boost of confidence to help their self-esteem as writers. (Actually, I think this goes for lots of men, too, though I dare to observe that male writers don’t always reach out for help in quite the same way as female ones.)

Book coverage on tv is often pretty wan, but this documentary really lit me up – it’s essential viewing for all bookfolk. It brought tears to my eyes at a couple of points: the dedication, the hard work, the brilliance of the brilliant publisher Carmen Callil, the sheer passion of everyone working there – the sacrifices that were made to publish good books well, and the commitment to making a difference in the world. This continues today with Lennie Goodings and her team and all the books they publish. 

And all those great authors.

Lennie wrote a lovely piece in the vein of the documentary, but it’s currently headlined ‘Feminism, pornography and lots of crying in the loos’. Come on! I know this is the Telegraph, but is it really necessary to get clickbait on the back of porn and tears in the toilet (which were only ever so marginally and jokily mentioned in this excellent documentary anyway).

And here’s a link to an older post with a writing experiment that seems relevant to the idea of books that change the world: Write! A Manifesto. Maybe write a manifesto for your book (a current one or a new one), and then write a key scene in which some essential change gets surfaced.

We can make a difference. This year, it feels good to know that. 

Should You Take The Job?

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Today I led a session called Should You Take The Job? at a professional development day on Editing For Fiction organised by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders here in London.

Freelancers usually know where their strengths lie, and what their skills and preferences are, so they can make sure any job is a good fit – most of us are suited to some editorial tasks more than others. At the start, I described those main tasks in editing fiction as:

  • developmental editing
  • structural editing
  • line editing
  • copyediting
  • proofreading

In practice, of course, various of these functions are merged as editorial stages – line editing can often be done with copyediting, for example. (I’ve blogged about this and various other matters in more detail in another post: Definitions in Editing: Key Terms.)

When working with less experienced writers or self-publishers, it can help to explain these terms to clarify what you can do, and what the book might need. And a clear brief can help when working for a publisher too. I am sure every freelance editor can think of a ‘light edit’ that needed more work than was bargained for.

I emphasised the principle of transparency in communication. Email can be useful, particularly for straightforward copyedits, but when working on developmental edits I often find that meeting clients or speaking to them on the phone or Skype at some point really helps us to clarify the intention and expectation of the writer (and/or publisher).

It’s possible for any editorial job to go on and on, of course – there is always room for improvement or experiment. We have to keep check on how we spend our time – and our clients’ money. So we often need to be clear about a budget too. Maybe the principle of transparency needs to be joined with the principle of sufficiency: what is enough to make the book work? (The idea of sufficiency is something I sometimes raise in another context, when working on a manuscript that can feel overwritten.)

Someone asked a good question about working with self-publishing clients who have a limited budget: thinking realistically, should they (we) focus on structural editing, or copyediting? On reflection, it occurs to me now that the above list of editorial functions moves from the idea of improving the writing (let’s say: making it more interesting) through to the idea of correcting the writing (making sure it abides by conventions of practice and usage). And though we all probably like the idea of making a book more interesting, I’m inclined to think an editor’s first duty is to make sure there are no howlers of spelling and grammar and punctuation. Deciding upon the merits of a book can be subjective; some books that I feel are overwritten are certainly enjoyed by other readers. But typos are typos, and are often read as the sign of a sloppy mind: they should be fixed. So perhaps this too is something to ask the author (tactfully!) – are you more interested in being improved, or in being corrected? (A good question, perhaps, to ask of the many imitators of Fifty Shades of Grey, hahaha.)

I do think it’s more important to prioritise structural editing on other occasions, e.g., when unpublished writers ask to get their manuscripts copyedited to increase their chances of getting taken on by an agent or publisher. Any book that is acquired should be copyedited by its publisher, so I often stress to such writers that copyediting might seem premature, and that an editorial report might be more valuable. This might cover matters of developmental or structural editing, and perhaps use a few examples of edits on the text to model ways to strengthen the voice in writing too, assuming that style as well as structure can be improved through future drafts (and that the writer is actually interested in doing future drafts). The occasional slip of the keyboard can be easily fixed, after all, and will surely not discourage a good agent or editor as much as a manuscript that lacks suspense or engaging characters or lively prose.

I discuss some of this in more detail here: When Does A Writer Need An Editor?

I also suggested that editors might gain from studying creative writing, either taking a course, or simply reading useful books in the field. Many of us became editors instinctively, learning from collating proofs and proofreading before diving into manuscripts ourselves, fixing clunky sentences or awkward transitions simply because they, um, sound clunky or awkward. But sometimes we need ways to describe matters more coherently, and we can also gain from a little guidance in what to look for. I don’t think I used the word ‘transition’ about writing until I was myself later studying for my MFA, for example, and it’s such an efficient way to describe features in writing that commonly present editorial flaws.

I have a post on creating your own programme of studies in creative writing here: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing, and I am also teaching an afternoon-long workshop on this topic at this year’s Festival of Writing in York. I recommend various resources on this site, and particularly recommend the following books on creative writing for editors:

  • Alice LaPlante, The Making Of A Story
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
  • Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax (fantastic for grammar and usage)
  • Ronald Tobias, 20 Master Plots
  • Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel
  • Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft
  • Harry Bingham, How To Write
  • Steven Pinker, The Sense Of Style
  • and good books on genre can be invaluable (and not just for specific genres, but for their practical grounding in craft as well as commerce), e.g., Emma Darwin’s Get Started In Writing Historical Fiction

And though I am sure all editors will have a copy of Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing on the bookshelves beside their desks, I also recommend the following American works on editing for their practical advice and detailed examples:

  • Carol Fisher Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Scott Norton, Developmental Editing (mostly nonfiction, but super insights on working with writers)
  • Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook
  • Mary Norris, Between You And Me: Confessions Of A Comma Queen

Copy-editing, copy editor, copyeditor: we can’t even agree among ourselves, can we?!

Thank you to Jane Moody and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders for asking me along.

Getting Published Day 2016

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Yesterday I book doctored at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published Day at Regents College. It was a lot of fun. I met some really lovely people and read samples from some interesting works-in-progress. One in particular was very exciting for me: witty, intelligent, and a strong story concept. My enthusiasm had no bounds! (Though the said writer does now have the challenge of writing the second-best opening line in English literature.) I hope the rest of the manuscript is as strong as the opening chapter and synopsis, and I also hope others will soon feel the same. At this point, the prospect of getting published comes down to taste, and finding people who share your vision (agent, editor, readers).

And before taste dictates, it’s usually important to get the craft right. Things that came up in the book doctor surgeries included: bringing more of an edge into the narrative style; deciding what should be revealed when within a story; building the pacing and narrative tension around key moments within the story; the importance of setting; establishing mood; sharpening the prose style. I found myself asking various writers: what are you giving a reader? A good question for any writer who wants to be published (hope it doesn’t prompt an existential crisis).

I also led an hour-long workshop on prose style: Style Brings Substance. There’s never enough time to say all that could be said on such subjects. So it was a brisk romp.

I discussed how I break down my thinking about any piece of writing in terms of: its context; its narrative content (including its dramatic situation); its narrative style (including its structure); and most important of all its prose style, because that is where writing is ultimately experienced – and judged.

I feel that the natural speaking voice is usually the best foundation for our writing, even if it sometimes needs adapting or embellishing. Mood is important in creating intimacy with the reader, and creating an impression relies on our use of style, moment by moment in a piece of writing. I suggested that style is as much about what we leave out of a piece of writing, and what we leave to the reader’s imagination, as what we explain.

Much is a matter of taste, again, but much too can be improved through a strong grasp of the craft, and I stressed the importance of understanding how the different parts of speech work. A few simple pointers:

* Verbs bring energy to a sentence, so aim to be energy-efficient. In fiction, sentences are often most effective when a strong and simple verb of action is used as the main verb of a sentence. A sentence such as ‘He realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ has less force than ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers were running at him’ or even ‘Half a dozen enemy soldiers ran at him’ – the realising and the easily being able to identify don’t add much, really, do they? They just get in the way. We often simply don’t need realise or remember or sense verbs (e.g., see, hear). Auxiliary verbs (e.g., can, must) can often be lost too.

(And while we were at it, we cleaned up that weirdly precise ‘at least seven’ – we usually want specificity, but I don’t think it works here.)

* Nouns serve as anchors, grounding the writing – which sometimes is necessary, and sometimes is not.

* Interrogate the need for every adjective and adverb in your writing. As Ursula Le Guin says: ‘Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.’

* Even prepositions have their moments, e.g., at in ‘Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’.

* Dependent clauses create, um, dependence within a sentence, and sometimes it makes sense to connect clauses in a simpler manner that creates self-contained action, e.g., by breaking the sentence down into separate sentences, or by using the simple conjunction ‘and’ between recast clauses. So (with a few other tweaks for tartness and economy): ‘When he glanced quickly over the top of the freestanding plexiglass partition of his cubicle, he realised he could easily identify at least seven enemy soldiers rapidly running in his direction’ could be improved as ‘He shot a glance over the partition. Half a dozen soldiers were running at him’. The edited version feels much less cluttered.

* It is usually good to let the idea or action within a sentence unfold chronologically.

* Think of the paragraph as a unit of thought or action.

We considered the use of parts of speech as we listened to the opening of Kent Haruf’s fantastic novel Our Souls At Night, whose plain style is beguiling. Here is a writer, I stressed, who gets out of his own way and lets a story simply tell itself.

Revision exercise: Take a piece of your own writing and reduce it to only those nouns it contains. Then the verbs. Then the adjectives, and then do the same for other parts of speech. (This reminds me of an article on reducing books to their marks of punctuation.) What does this tell you about the way in which words are working in your writing? Do you spot any words/habits that might need changing?

I also shared a couple of pages of the intense reading experience that is Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs To Me, (am very excited to see him read tomorrow). This book includes one section that is a 41-page paragraph – a stylistic choice that certainly pays off. As I also stressed: we don’t run marathons without lots of training! But it’s fun to try. And how about another writing experiment?

Revision exercise: Knock every paragraph break out of a piece of writing. How might what remains read differently? Does the new version suggest any changes? Then without referring back, add paragraph breaks back in.

I heartily recommended Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax to anyone who wants a refresher on grammar and usage. And here is a clear explanation of parts of speech from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

I also link lots of useful things for writers on this page: Resources.

Reading recommendations I made yesterday included: Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft; Stephen King’s On Writing; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; and Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots. I also suggested that people writing in that area take a look at Emma Darwin’s Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction from the Teach Yourself series, which comes out this week (I’ve not read it yet, but if it’s by Emma it must be excellent). In addition I recommended the Writers’ Workshop own online self-editing course, run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin.

My fellow book doctor Shelley Harris also signed my copy of her book Vigilante – out this week in paperback.

Only sad note of the day: losing my lovely linen scarf on the way home 🙁 so in memory of that one of the great poems from one of the great poets: ‘One Art’ by Elizabeth Bishop.

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop for asking me. Their events are always the best – meeting old friends, and making new ones, all of us joined in our love of writing and books. Stories shared, secrets revealed, dreams inspired – and sometimes set on the road to success. I always come away thinking how writers and book folk are the most interesting people, and the best fun.

A great day all round. I really love my job!

When Does A Writer Need An Editor?

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To round out this short series of posts on editing, I want to add something on the occasions when writers might think about forking out on the services of an editor for either developmental or structural editing, copyediting or line editing, or proofreading. I sometimes, for example, come across writers who are asking for copyediting, but after closer discussion that might seem premature, as any copyediting might be carried out on a draft that could still gain from revision. Copyediting is basically a tidy-up done to an otherwise final and agreed manuscript.

As I need to maintain the gardening analogy: when do you need the help of a landscaper, a tree surgeon, someone to mow the lawn? (In this instance, let’s say you’re too close to the grass to spot the daisies. Okay, bad analogy, but you know what I mean.)

* If you are preparing to submit a manuscript to an agent or a publisher with a view to getting published:
It should not be necessary at this stage to hire a copyeditor or a proofreader. If you know your spelling and punctuation are really dreadful, you might want to get a beady-eyed friend to pass an eye over the text to help your work look more professional. But an agent or editor is at this stage more likely to be looking for a compelling story told by an engaging voice, rather than prose that’s had every single error removed (along with most of its life). Lots of sloppy errors will, however, simply make you look … sloppy. But it’s hoped that you don’t need a professional copyedit to avoid looking sloppy.

Writers who are preparing to submit might gain more from a manuscript critique from, e.g., a book doctor or an editor. This could address matters of developmental and/or structural editing, depending on the stage you’re at in your drafting: be clear what you’re looking for. You might in fact already have this sort of input from beta readers, and feel confident enough to submit anyway – a critique is hardly a requirement. Having been read by another good reader in whatever form is a good idea, though. Sometimes even experienced and agented authors solicit the services of an independent opinion, e.g., for a fresh project that might be something of a departure.

Another alternative would be to attend a writers’ conference or similar event where writers can share a sample of writing or pitch a story idea with an agent, editor, or book doctor (as a book doctor, I meet writers in this capacity when I take part in the Writers’ Workshop Festival of Writing in York). Only a snapshot of your writing might be read, along with a synopsis, but this can give a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of a project, in the manner of a diagnosis of its strengths as well as areas for improvement. Plus feedback will be discussed with you directly, and little beats a face-to-face discussion, however brief it might be.

If you feel your style needs some serious help, maybe you are not quite ready to submit yet? Agents and editors can sometimes go for strong ideas and help you out editorially, especially with nonfiction, but help with your prose is something of a long shot and they’d have to be pretty committed to your concept in order to devote this much time to your writing. A freelance editor could help fix obvious mistakes and even tighten some of your baggy prose, but this does beg the question about the work writers need to be able to do for themselves. For me, style is vital to the way in which individual writers convey their personalities in writing, whatever genre they’re working in, and there are no quick or easy editorial fixes for that sort of thing.

So maybe there’s further work to be done in developing your own voice? And note that I don’t talk about finding your voice, as I don’t believe in that – you already have a voice, and it’s more a matter of using it confidently and working out how to put it into your creative writing. It might, for example, be worth taking some time to read widely in your genre (and others), figuring out how a particular style is achieved by another writer. You might also want to conduct a few experiments in voice and style, e.g., I Remember is a great exercise for this. And you could try your hand at some short stories (which of course have a value all of their own – a short story is not just trainer wheels for writing a novel). You might even want to do some broader studies in creative writing.

Also, though, matters such as style and voice are often quite subjective. You might just have to test your manuscript and wait for some reactions. At a certain point, you simply submit – try out your manuscript on the world. (Another post on that later.) You can always do further work, depending on any feedback you get.

* If you are preparing to deliver a contracted manuscript to your agent and/or editor:
Some contracted authors do have longstanding relationships with independent editors and might get a critique or some help with drafting or even a bit of a line edit. But on the whole editorial work is usually done in relationship with the publisher (and sometimes the agent too).

Any submitted project is likely to go through further editing and revising: maybe some developmental or structural editing with agent and/or commissioning editor, and definitely rounds of copyediting and proofreading with your publisher’s editorial department. Occasionally authors have preferred freelance copyeditors, and even though they have moved publishers they continue to work with the same copyeditor for all their books.

At the time of delivering your manuscript, it is worth asking how your book will be handled – keep channels of communication clear and open, and know what to expect and when. I always think it is a good idea for authors to see a copy of the copyedited manuscript before it is typeset (and I am surprised at how often this seems not to be the case).

Note: authors should not be charged for editorial (or other) work done by a publisher, unless you are working with a vanity press, which is basically self-publishing (see below).

Sometimes an author will be delivering a draft of a manuscript to an agent who hopes to sell it to a publisher. An agent should not require payment for reading a manuscript or other editorial work; an agent earns a living by taking a percentage cut from any deals made on the author’s behalf. Scams have been known; though in practice such dealings are rare, they can make writers unduly wary. In fact, agents do sometimes recommend the use of an independent editor for a critique or a fresh view or some other editorial input, and this can be sincere and helpful for the writer. As in all business relationships, this is a matter of trust.

It can be reassuring and informative for writers at this stage of their careers to join professional or genre organisations that can give advice on matters such as working with agents and editors. Sometimes a bit of networking or lurking on Twitter or other social media can be instructive (though I recommend that discussions about personal transactions are conducted privately rather than in more public forums). And you’ll also find many similar resources on writers’ blogs and websites.

* If you are self-publishing:
If you are self-publishing, do make sure you have at some point shared your writing with other readers before charging money to book-buyers or giving it away for free. Beta readers or professional editors see errors and incongruities that you miss in your own text. They will help you to improve your own work and avoid any embarrassment.

If you are publishing in print formats, certainly make sure your book is copyedited as well as proofread; typos and spelling errors make your book look amateur. Before that, you might also want to have done some sort of structural editing, or have taken the book through revisions after getting feedback from beta readers. It will undoubtedly be a good idea to make sure that at least the proofreading is done on hard copy. The human eye catches different things on a printed page.

If you are publishing in both print and ebook formats, you should also aim for a structural edit, a copyedit, and a proofread. In practice, the work for both editions can usually be combined.

If you are publishing in ebook format only, again aim for structural editing, copyediting, and proofreading. Though the work is being published in a digital format, it is still worth introducing a hard-copy read of a print-out for either the copyedit or the proofread. It might also be worth having a final proofread on files converted for reading in their ultimate format on an ebook reader or tablet.

When briefing an editor, be clear about whether you want a light or a heavier copyedit – you might discuss this with the editor and even ask to see a sample of editing (which might need to be paid for) to be sure that any work done is to your liking. You might also ask a proofreader to look out for specific things you might feel need double-checking, e.g., a change to a variant in spelling that you made after the copyedit was done.

Editing and proofreading are often offered by many of the self-publishing operations that also provide design, formatting, printing, and distribution services. It’s worth inquiring about who’ll actually do the work, and again asking for samples. In some ways, though, it can make sense to arrange your own copyediting and proofreading – it will give you more control over the outcome. It might be a little more expensive to use an experienced editor, but it can make a real difference to the work that’s done.

Whatever else you do (even more important than copyediting – and it pains me to say!): hire a good designer to create a striking cover image that will look good on screen as well as on a print copy (print copies need to be sold online too).

Of course, you don’t have to do any of the above. As I often stress, if you want to be published, you don’t have to write a good book as much as a book that other readers want to read, and we know there’s no accounting for taste, right?!

* Who to hire?
A personal recommendation is ideal – ask around, particularly of writers working in your field. It’s a good idea to know the editor’s track record: books they’ve edited or proofread, and publishers or writers they have worked for (sometimes discretion is required).

Rates vary significantly. I tend to quote on a job basis after seeing a sample of work, for example, while other editors set a page rate or an hourly rate. Don’t be afraid to say that you have a certain budget to work within. Don’t be surprised if an editor turns down a job, but too sometimes an editor can read opening chapters and a synopsis instead of a whole manuscript: this might help steer you in the right direction, whether this might be further work on your book, or some studies in creative writing.

I don’t give direct recommendations for editors on this site, though I do have various experienced associates whose services I can suggest, depending on the sort of book that needs help.