Need Your Book Edited? Don’t Fall for a Snake-Oil Salesman

why hire a freelance book editor
© 2012 Hugh MacLeod’s gapingvoid

If you’ve searched the Internet looking for an editor for your book, you’ve probably come across a few of the more unusual editing “services” available. Unusual isn’t bad, but in some cases, unusual is definitely NOT good for authors.

One blogger I found by accident runs 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 chance of getting a professional edit of your work that way is 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. I’ve written about my enthusiasm for beta readers here, and I personally encourage my clients to use them before they hire me or any other professional editor for their WIP.

But beta readers are no substitute for professional editors or proofreader.

Beta readers are no substitute for professional editors or proofreader. #writetip #editingtip #amwriting Click To Tweet

“Oh, come ON, Candace,” I can hear you say, “I’ll still get editing, plus I will 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—you can read about one of my clients who did that here.

“Snake-oil salesman” 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. I came across a website that 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, I won’t hire you to professionally edit or market my book.)

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 you to buy other services. And much has been written on other blogs about paid reviews; that’s a discussion for another day.

Why Pay All That Money for Editing?

In his guest blog at The Book Designer, 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 any editor is an editor, as well as other myths about editing, which was something I discussed in “Hiring an English Major to Edit Your Novel is Cheating Yourself.”

How Do You Find a Professional Freelance Editor?

Once you determine your editing needs, find the perfect editor. Personally, I’m a believer in referrals for everything; dentist, housepainter, handyman, hairdresser—I’ve found them all through 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, too.

You want to answers to questions such as: 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 small 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, and then 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.

Happy Writing and Editing,


A version of this post originally appeared in February, 2013

If you enjoyed reading this, please subscribe to my blog and never miss a post! It’s easy: Just enter your email address on the right side of this page. And please know that I’ll never sell, share, or rent your contact information—that’s a promise!

Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, ghostwriter, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining an author’s unique voice while helping him or her create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.

For more great writing and publishing information, check out Change It Up Editing and Writing Services on Facebook, where I share interesting articles and links about writing and publishing.

33 thoughts on “Need Your Book Edited? Don’t Fall for a Snake-Oil Salesman”

  1. I am an average blogger and I have been wanting to create my own book ever since I was in high school. I have never done that for a few of reasons: 1) I know my english is not perfect; 2) I know that my hyperactive highly-distracted mind can get overwhelmed with details, ergo a haphazard plot or a crazy and unorganized delivery of facts; and 3) I don’t have that much resources for professional editing services. I recognize the need for hiring quality editors because they can definitely make the book worthy of publishing, and definitely easy for the readers to read and enjoy. I’m not writing for myself, I know that I am writing for the pleasure and education of others out there. And if that is accomplished by hiring a good editor, then definitely I would not hesitate to ask for the services of one to improve my book for my readers.

    1. Hi Donna, and thanks for your thoughtful comments. I encourage you to follow your dream and write that book, and here’s why: 1) Your command of English doesn’t have to be perfect; you’ll learn a great deal about grammar as you revise and edit your own work; 2) Many creatives suffer from hyperactivity and distractions, but as with other parts of your life, you’ll develop techniques to deal with those, like outlining plots or only writing for short periods of time; 3) While professional editing is important, there are some good ways to save a lot of money on editing, including the use of different types of beta readers at different stages of your writing process. Here are two posts I wrote about that: How to (Almost) Instantly Improve Your Writing and Readers for Writers: Beta Readers, the Superheroes of Your Writing Team Then when you are finally ready to hire a professional editor, your money will go much farther because your manuscript will need more polishing and less structural work. Editors don’t have to cost an arm and a leg—you just have to focus your editing budget and find the right one.

      1. All I can say now is, wow! I will read those topics, definitely, when my husband is done with his Scarlet Blade PC game. I want to read it full screen in its 1920 x 1080 glory.

        Right now, the hyperactivity is getting ahead of me. I want to edit pictures, post a topic on my gardening blog, write about this obscure marble craft trader, create compost, shower my plants with organic liquid fertilizer, and learn how to sketch. Yup, that’s how hyperactive I can get, and I am also dying to read your suggested blogs.

        Actually, I started earlier but my husband shooed me from the pc, hehehe. And thanks for encouraging me to write. I am going to start with a gardening ebook and take it from there. 🙂

        1. Reading my post on a full screen is a great idea . . I just hope you don’t blow my photo up into its 1920 x 1080 glory! 😉

          Calming and focusing the hyperactive mind is difficult; I have an adult daughter who is bipolar and another who suffers from ADHD and anxiety, so I’ve been around it for many years and truly understand how debilitating it can be. One trick that works for them (and me, too, when I feel anxious) is to give yourself permission to do it all and schedule everything. You might be surprised how liberating that can be.

  2. excellent article, and for those of us working on manuscripts, much needed ‘food for thought’.

    As much as I like to think I can ‘do it myself’, I’m now convinced finding a good editor when the time comes is an important step which will save me many future headaches! thank you…

  3. Having a good editor is invaluable, as well as the advice to check the editor’s previous work. I’ve seen some novels from highly professional publishing companies that still have the occasional error in them, despite the fact that they’ve been edited by someone within that company. *shudders*

    1. Sadly, even with numerous eyes on a manuscript, errors do sometimes get through. I spoke with an author yesterday who dutifully sent galley corrections to her publisher but found they had not been incorporated into the final, printed version of the book—talk about upsetting!

      The best way to avoid having mistakes go to print is to hire a professional proofreader and proofread the galley yourself before publication. At that point, you should NOT be changing anything except gross errors, but you’ll be surprised how different your manuscript looks in galley form from the way it appears on screen. There are plenty of proofreading tricks you can use to read your own work “with fresh eyes,” including reading backward from the last page and reading out loud (my personal favorite). But there is no substitute for a professional proofreader, who will also check for consistency in layout, spacing, and other elements in additional to spelling and punctuation; no matter how careful you’ve been, a proofreader always finds things you missed.

  4. Thanks for the tips. I think it’s true that, just like everything else, you get what you pay for. Will an editor give advice on whether a book is good enough to publish and offer ideas on fitting into a specific genre?

    1. Great questions! The type of advice you’ll receive depends on the type of editing you’ve chosen; for example, a developmental editor will not line edit for punctuation or check spelling but will help you mold your content for your target reader. A professional editor should have enough knowledge of your genre to know if your manuscript is ready for publication or still needs more work, and developmental/content editors do advise when important elements for a specific genre are missing or weak. Every genre (in both fiction and nonfiction) tends to follow certain conventions; if your manuscript is missing something vital, a developmental/content editor will know that . . . but if you hire copyediting/line editing/proofreading, missing or weak content is beyond the scope of those jobs. Many freelance editors who work with self-publishing authors blend the lines a bit more and are willing/able to help you on several levels of editing, but it’s up to you, the author, to explain that’s what you’re looking for. I find that many authors who contact me for “proofreading” are actually looking for content editing in addition to line editing. And that’s okay—you don’t need to know the exact terminology, but you should know how to describe what you’re looking for when you’re shopping for an editor.

  5. There are no shortcuts when it comes to having a trusted critique partner, beta readers who aren’t family and friends and most importantly, an editor who doesn’t sell snake oil.
    Great stuff here, Candace, as always! Boy, your last post almost crashed my e-mail with all of the follow-up comments. 🙂

    1. Thanks Jill, and sorry your inbox was so loaded with comments! Not only was it a topic that sparked plenty of discussion, but it was also selected for Freshly Pressed, which brought many new visitors to my site (and I was thrilled to be selected!).

  6. “I like the part where the werewolf turns into an alien and falls in love with the librarian.”

    Thanks. You just stole my hook!

    But seriously folks, asking a literature expert who has never edited anything to edit your manuscript… That’s tantamount to asking an artist who can draw cars really well to fix your engine.

    1. *Slaps own head Why didn’t I think of that great analogy? Thanks, Eric, as always, for a spot-on comment. And sorry about stealing your hook . . . perhaps if you throw in a Martian zombie, nobody will realize how in-sync our brains are?

  7. Great post Candace. I think the worst thing about the ads you mention is that they prey on first-timers; writers who may be going the self-publishing route who don’t know the difference between all these “services” or the people who claim to offer them. Like you suggest, writers must do their research! I’m certainly glad I did!

    1. You are right about some of these services preying on first-time authors, Eva. I spoke with an author the other day who wants to revise his published book because the service he used did such a poor job of editing——the editing he had to pay for! Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, Eva.

  8. I can attest to everything you said here. I had a horrible experience with an editor that I found through a referral. After lost money and a still unedited manuscript, I have a hard time trusting someone to edit my work. I know that this is an important part of the process for self publishing so I will have to eventually take the leap again.

    1. How awful, Michelle! I don’t blame you at all for being very skeptical about hiring another editor. In the past year I’ve worked with two authors who had similar experiences, but I assure you that there are many, many wonderful, talented, ethical, professional freelance editors, so please don’t give up! Be sure you ask for a sample edit, references, and a phone conversation before you settle on someone, and don’t hesitate to explain why you are being so thorough. You’re spending your hard-earned money for something that is very important, so be choosy and don’t settle for less than the best you can find. Good luck!

  9. You know, it’s amazing how simple that sounds. “You wouldn’t hire any mechanic to fix your car, so you shouldn’t hire any editor to fix your words.” So simple, and yet, something that has never once crossed my mind. For that reason alone, I thank you.

  10. Great post as always, Candace. You know, there’s a lot of discussion about editing books, but what about short stories? When I took writing workshops which were focused on short stories, there seemed to be a fair amount of editing going on as well as critiquing. Granted, we were all students and likely not always turning in our best work. Still, if I have a few stories that I want to submit to literary magazines, would it be a good idea to have them professionally edited?

    1. Great question, Marie, and the answer is yes, it’s a good idea to have short stories professionally edited before submission. There are so many little things that writers can miss that an editor (who is reading both critically and as a reader) will catch. I recently edited a short story that was great from a structural point of view, but it needed a bit of tweaking for punctuation and syntax issues. The competition for publication in a literary magazine is so steep that I can’t imagine sending in a manuscript that wasn’t as close to perfect as the author could make it. Added bonus: because a short story has a much smaller word count, both the time to edit and the cost to do so are considerably less terrifying than they are with a novel, so that’s also a great way to “test drive” your potential editor.

  11. I completely agree and cannot wait until my ms is ready for a pro editor! I think their is a great process in writer’s groups (workshopping the ms) and beta readers! But NOTHING will beat a pro-editor. If the self-pub world would wake up to this, it would gain the prestige and respect it deserves, but unfortunately too many new authors fall prey to the snake oil. Thanks for this wonderful and necessary blog post!

Leave a Reply