Caveat lector: Editing and “editing” in genre fiction

by Sunita

DA January’s review this weekend of a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad book led to a long and involved comments thread. A number of commenters focused on the fact that the book was self-published, and this led to a discussion about the quality of self-published work. Jessica also weighed in on the self-publishing quality question, having been burned recently by a local author’s highly touted but worse than mediocre YA novel. She’s resolved to stay away from all but trusted recommendations for self-published books now.

There are a lot of bad self-published novels out there. But guess what? There are a lot of bad books published by small, medium-sized, and large publishers as well. It would be nice if a New York imprimatur guaranteed at least a competently written and proofread book, but it doesn’t.

At the same time that the DA thread was exploding, I was reading a category romance. It had at least two errors which could have been typos or word usage errors; I treated them as typos because the author is a good writer. But either way, these should have been caught in the copyediting stage. If a large NY house isn’t producing error-free text, what hope does a reader have? And that’s the easy & cheap type of editing. Good content editing is even scarcer.

There is plenty of debate about who bears the responsibility/blame: authors, editors, publishers, or the readers themselves for continuing to buy books that are horribly written and edited. I’m not reviving that argument here. Instead, I want to think about how a reader might pick her way through the competent-or-not editing minefield.

I’ve talked about this before, but just to recap: There are content editors and copy editors. Read this post for a great summary, including insights from editors. Every press has very good and not-so-good editors at both levels. With e-publishers, you can sometimes find out who content edited the book by looking at the copyright page. But usually a reader can’t tell, so it’s no wonder we don’t pay attention. And for self-published works the editing process is even trickier to decode.

First rule of thumb: if an author doesn’t have a separate editor, forget it. The number of good books you miss will be vastly outweighed by the bad ones you’re saved from. Second rule of thumb: a previously published author should highly value professional editing for her self-published work. Courtney Milan makes excellent points about her process in an interview at DA, and Sherry Thomas’s comments to that review are illuminating as well.

It’s more difficult for the reader to tell the quality of the editing for newbie self-publishers. I was struck, and not entirely in a good way, by this exchange between self-published authors. The second author spent about $1500 for editing, etc. on his first novel:

[Author 1]: Do you plan on a similar investment for the second novel in the series? If not, do you have plans on how you are approaching the writing of the second novel that will affect the amount of editing that needs to be done?

[Author 2]: I’ll probably hire just one multi-purpose editor for the second novel. I’ve met one very successful indie author who uses a computer program called Serenity Editor to help her with her editing (she doesn’t even hire editors anymore—just a proofreader). After I hear from my beta readers about my next book, I might use a program like that and then see if I can find an affordable editor.

Readers, if you see the words “computer program” and “editor” in the same sentence without a qualifying negative, run far, far, away. If you don’t believe me, run a random paragraph through Google Translate and look at the results. Or take a paragraph from a classic novel and run it through Word’s built-in editor. Serenity might be a bit better than those, but come on. And it’s entirely possible that this author has improved so much between the first and second books that a human content editor’s input can be significantly curtailed, but I’m not risking my $$$ to find out.

Even when an author hires editors, it can be tough for readers to assess their qualifications. The above author hired three editors for his first book:

The first editor was a friend of a friend on Facebook. She doesn’t read fantasy, but she has a lot of experience and she possesses wonderful language skills. She’s mostly a copyeditor.

[the second editor] wrote a fairly critical review of my previously released novella. He’s also an indie [sic] fantasy writer. …

The third editor … is a friend that I met at the Superstars Writing Seminar. He’s a new editor, but he did a fantastic job at a reasonable price and he offered great suggestions.

That’s a lot of editorial input, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. The descriptions of their qualifications (Facebook friend of a friend, a writer/reviewer who reviews a book whose early draft he was paid to edit, newbie editor) do not fill me with confidence, but I could be entirely wrong. But I’m not going to track down their other work and their CVs to find out more. I read genre for fun, not research.

Still, I will keep reading self-published work. Why? Because there is some really good stuff out there. Josh Lanyon’s third Adrien English novel, The Hell You Say, was originally self-published. So was Tamara Allen’s Whistling in the Dark. And Bettie Sharpe’s Ember. Moriah Jovan self-published her Tales of Dunham series. And while I don’t like Ellen O’Connell’s first self-published novel, Robin did, so that’s probably an issue of taste rather than quality.

And don’t forget the very small presses, either. Jordan Castillo Price’s JCP Books publishes excellent work, and my understanding is that she uses an outside editor for her own books. After 6 installments of The Rifter series, I would read anything Nicole Kimberling of Blind Eye Books edits.

Bottom line: I pay attention to word of mouth. Like Tumperkin/Joanna, I read a lot of excerpts. If a book looks promising then I go to the author’s website or blog to see if I can tell how she approaches the production process. It’s not fail-safe, but then neither is buying from publishers. So far, for me, it’s worth the effort. And I’m always looking for more, so if you have recommendations for me, please mention them in the comments!

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