Beware of Snake-Oil Salesmen in the Editing Biz

In the past week I came across two websites that offer unusual editing services. Unusual isn’t bad, but in these particular cases, unusual is definitely NOT good for authors.editing

One of these companies is a membership site that proposes to save authors money on professional editing by trading editing with other members; in other words, you and another writer edit each other’s books, thereby eliminating the cost of having your manuscript professionally edited.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as you understand that the chances of having a professional edit your work are slim to none. In reality, this service is a beta-reader service, which is very useful in its own right—but let’s call it what it is. And it is no substitute for professional editing or proofreading.

How to NOT save money on professional editing costs. #writers #editing #amediting Click To Tweet

“Oh, come ON, Candace,” I can hear you say, “I’ll still get editing, plus I can save hundreds of dollars on editing costs.”

No, you won’t. You won’t get editing, you’ll get critiquing. Maybe even really good critiquing, if the writer assigned to your manuscript is good at it. But what if that writer’s comments are more in line with what your teenager’s best friend would say about your writing: “Really, really good story. I like the part where the werewolf turns into an alien and falls in love with the librarian. But I got confused about who was talking, so you should put ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ after every sentence of dialogue.” Oh yes, that is helpful editing. Not.

And you won’t save money in the long run. Remember the old adage “It takes money to make money”? If you skimp on editing, you’ll spend more time and money in the end—read about one of my clients who did that here.

© 2012 Hugh MacLeod's gapingvoid
© 2012 Hugh MacLeod’s gapingvoid

“Snake-oil salesmen” is a term that has come to refer to someone who sells a product that has a questionable benefit. As a professional editor, I believe this particular company is run by a snake-oil salesman, one who hopes to get your money by promising you a product that just isn’t available. And in the end, you are the one who pays the price—in lost sales, a tarnished reputation as an author, and poor reviews.

Reviews are another matter. One of the other sites I came across this week offers a review/editing/marketing service for authors. The marketing copy that took me to the site was so poorly written that I had to click on the link just to see what this company was all about. (Hint: if your marketing copy is riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, don’t expect me to hire you to professionally edit or market my book for me.)

Honestly, I was still confused after visiting the site; the price to read and review a manuscript was so low that I decided it must be a loss-leader to get authors to buy other services. And much has been written on other blogs about paid reviews; I’ll save that discussion for another day.

In his guest blog at The BookDesigner, David Kudler writes about 7 Deadly Myths and 3 Inspired Truths About Book Editing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes; the first is in answer to Myth #1: A good writer doesn’t need an editor.

If you want your book to be strong, clean, professional, and appealing, for it to affect the readers as you want it to affect them, you need to have it professionally edited. There’s never been a text written that didn’t need editing. By the time you’ve spent weeks, months, or years on a project, you can’t see the words any more.”

And in response to Myth #2: I don’t need the expense of paying an editor. I had my wife/dad/neighbor/high-school English teacher read it through, and they didn’t find anything, he says:

There’s no doubt that the more eyes you run your manuscript past the better. Those readers know you and love you; that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s a disadvantage as well.

A professional editor’s primary connection to the book is the manuscript itself. Your friends are all going to give you wonderful support and advice (especially that English teacher, for whom I hope you made cookies), but they’re not going to approach the text with the kind of eye for detail that an editor brings.”

He also addresses the myth that editors are interchangeable, as well as other myths about editing, so I hope you’ll take the time to read the whole article here.

Once you determine your editing needs, you must find the perfect editor. Personally, I’m a believer in referrals for everything; dentist, house painter, handyman, hairdresser—all of mine were referrals from people I know whose opinions I value and trust. So ask other writers for editor referrals, and then check out websites. Many self-published authors blog about their own editing experiences, so that might be a great place to start.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about things that are important to you: Has this editor worked in your genre? Has he or she edited books for traditional publishers? Does he or she work in collaboration with you, the author, to maintain your unique voice?

When you think you’ve found the perfect match, ask for a sample of that editor’s work (some will do this for free while others may charge a fee). You wouldn’t let just any mechanic fix your car, so don’t let just any editor fix your words. Ask for references from other authors who have hired that editor for the type of work you need. Before you hire someone, ask for references, ask about other projects he or she has edited, and ask for a sample; any editor worth hiring is proud to provide all three.

Don’t let a snake-oil salesman “save” you money!

Happy Writing!


5 thoughts on “Beware of Snake-Oil Salesmen in the Editing Biz”

  1. Great post.

    The thing an editor gives me me (and any writer), that I can’t create, find, or buy, is objectivity. You need that brutal look at your work from strange eyes to really cut out the fat and tighten that bad-boy up. The longer and more complicated the work, the more you need a brave, objective editor.

    I love concept of community and peer critiques for learning purposes, but for anything you hope to sell, you need real editing. The sad truth is that most people don’t even know what makes good writing good (down to syntax and dialogue and strong voice) so by definition they won’t be able to give you effective feedback.

    1. Sadly, I fear you are right, Oliver, that many people don’t know enough about good writing–and therefore they don’t understand the need for editing. There are many very talented editorial professionals out there, but this Wild West of independent publishing has also brought out the wannabes and the con artists. Caveat Emptor!

  2. I’m so glad that you found that my post rang true — and let me say that I think yours does too.

    That first company you mention raises my hackles as it did yours; charging a group of writers so that they can “beta” each other’s work seems disingenuous at the very least.

    The second company? It really, really bothers me that there are so many “services” out there that are willing to take advantage of a writer’s passion, wringing money out of them while providing very little (if anything) in return. Reading/review fees are a red flag — professional literary agents are prohibited from charging such fees, of course, for very good reason; and I would hope that a legitimate publisher would either be willing to accept the challenge of the slush pile as a part of the cost of doing business, rather than as potential revenue stream. Other than a member of those two professions, who could possibly provide a benefit to an author through a “review” that was worth paying for? (Reviews-for-pay of published works are similarly disquieting.)

    Another brand of snake oil makes me deeply uncomfortable is the current vogue for “writing coaches.” There seems to be very little incentive for them either to turn away someone who they don’t feel they can work with on the one hand, or to give a thumbs-up to sell a project on the other. I’m absolutely certain that there are ethical writing coaches; unfortunately, I have yet to run across any of them.

    (Writing workshops run by a professional author, editor, or writing teacher are different: you’re paying them to teach you something, not to help you make your manuscript better, even if that’s an indirect result.)

    Hiring a professional editor should be a clean transaction: the author (or publisher, or agent) is contracting an agreed-upon service that the editor will in fact provide — or not get paid.

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