Caveat lector: Editing and “editing” in genre fiction

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!

13 thoughts on “Caveat lector: Editing and “editing” in genre fiction

    • Oh, excellent! I think we both should. I’m in the middle of a conference paper right now, so I could even give it a draft ms. What am I saying. I have loads of drafts available.

  1. I respect that some authors may not be able to afford a well seasoned editor, but I think those authors need to be more pro-active and aggressively seek out beta readers who are willing to highlight problems.

    Mind you, some authors don’t want to be told that they are wrong and just want a sycophantic adulation of their “baby” before they send it off into the world.

    I don’t see self publishing as a “giant slush pile,” maybe because I try to choose books carefully. Well, that is not always true, I have been know to buy books just based on cover and blurb. I am an adventurous sort. Unless the book is medieval-y and then I tend to be a bit reticent and wary.

    I will NEVER buy a Lora Leigh book again. There were more typos in a St. Martin’s Lora Leigh book than most of the self published books I have read (the only one that was worse was a very poorly formatted typotastic book by Christie Craig that was a re-issue that I am still stunned over).

    • I do think it’s an important point that NY-published books are getting sloppier in the copyediting. And from what I hear from authors, the quality of content editing is pretty variable too. There are some great editors out there, but not all authors get to work with them.

      • This!

        It’s what I hear and it is one of those hidden aspects of ePubs which I wish was more well known. A good genre editor can make a run of the mill ePub one of the best for the author who gets lucky.

  2. I’ve read relatively few self-published books. That I’m aware of, that is. And of those, one was very well-edited, while two were so-so. Frankly, the sloppy editing of small e-publishers bothers me considerably more, since in theory editing is one of the services that e-publishers are supposed to be offering their authors. I always think twice before buying anything from MLR or Torquere, because of poor formatting and copy editing.

  3. Do a lot of epublishers skip content editors? Because I’ve definitely read a few books recently by epublishers who I generally consider good, but the particular ebook(s) in question desperately needed a content editor to tighten up the storyline and/or fix major plot issues.

  4. I’ve been disappointed by epub presses lately as well. There are some presses which clearly do very little content editing, while others consistently have format and proofreading errors. It’s not so much that they *skip* content editors as that they seem to have different standards. Or some presses give their editors a much heavier workload, so the content/line editing is necessarily going to be less thorough for each book

    I don’t know why some are so much better than others. Maybe the pay scales are different, but *that* different?

    But like both of you, I am becoming seriously frustrated with editing at epubs, especially in m/m. Books that definitely need a second go-round are being put forward as the finished product.

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  6. Content editing is very subjective — just as subjective as reviewing. What one reader might despise (a character’s flaws, a particular story arc, the use of a certain trope, the balance of narrative to dialogue), might be exactly what another reader will adore about the story. What one editor will reject might the book the next editor will snap up. My issue with people complaining about content edits is that it seems like they want the story custom-tailored for their particular likes and dislikes, and if the editor didn’t mold the story to meet their expectations, then they’re a “bad” editor. Bear and Otter is a good example – I haven’t read it, so for all I know I might agree with you, but it seems, based on the reader reviews, that most people are enjoying this story, so…did the content editor really do a bad job? Or is it just not the way you would have liked the story to have been written?

    • Oops, I should say, I followed this link from Teddypig’s blog about Bear and Otter, and I’m appalled that I made a typo! “What one editor will reject might BE the book the next editor will snap up.” My bad… Sorry!

    • Well, yes and no. I agree that there are highly subjective and individualized aspects to content editing, and that’s probably why there are strong, long-lasting editor-author relationships. And when you hear about ones like Raymond Carver had with his editor, it really becomes clear.

      But there are also aspects of editing that are pretty uniform. For example, if a scene contains a lot of internal monologue by the narrator (or from another POV in multiple-POV books), and it isn’t in service to the story, it probably shouldn’t be there.

      The problem I have with a number of DSP books is that they feel padded. Not to increase word count, necessarily, but in the way that manuscripts can be when the author is working through the story. This is the kind of thing that gets excised in mainstream publishing. You may not *mind* the extra stuff. But it doesn’t advance the story, and it bogs down the pacing and I would argue that it detracts from the effectiveness of the narrative.

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