Finding a professional book editor

How long should you wait? What’s reasonable?

There comes a time in every good editor’s life when they build up a backlog that’s weeks or months deep, with customers waiting patiently (or not) for their services to become available. I know of one two-year backlog. When it comes to freelancing, it’s always great to have more than enough work on your plate. It’s nice to be wanted, and it’s even nicer knowing you’ll have interesting, paying work for a while yet. That’s what just about every freelance editor aims for, except for those times when we make a hole for a vacation or to handle an important life event.

That said, I doubt there’s a book editor in the Book Editing Associates network who hasn’t lost a potential gig because they were backlogged. It’s happened to me more than once. After going to the effort of providing a sample edit while juggling existing projects, I’ve had people tell me, “I really liked your edits and would have chosen you, but I don’t want to wait that long.” That’s assuming I ever hear back from them. (Some people prefer to ghost you rather than tell you they chose someone else — that’s a whole ‘nother topic for some other day.)

Now, I don’t mind providing sample edits; it’s a part of the job, and I get to play in other people’s universes for a little while. I know I’m not going to snag every gig. I don’t consider the time I spend on any submission wasted; I consider it an investment, and not all investments pan out. C’est la vie. But it’s annoying to realize after the fact that I didn’t even have a chance to begin with.

That’s why nowadays, whenever I’m backlogged, I mention it in my initial contact with any author, especially those who specify a fixed date for project completion. I realize some authors just enter something to fill that field on the questionnaire and don’t really have a hard-and-fast due date, but I still let them know in advance that I can’t complete their project by their posted due date due to my current workload. I don’t like doing that, because I know that some people will simply blow me off right then and there. But what other choice is there? Even a virtuoso can only juggle so many projects at once before all the projects start suffering.

Unless you have a pressing reason to finish early, I suggest you accept your favorite editor’s backlog and work around it. As annoying as it may be, there are valid reasons to wait if you can. Here are just a few.

1. It’s a mistake to settle for second best.

We all “settle” too much in life. “Good enough” is for government work, where the low bidder wins. But ask the people of New Orleans how happy they were with “good enough” during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when government-contract levees breached, and cleanup was handed over to no-bid and low-bid contractors in the aftermath.

Your manuscript deserves the best possible care you can afford. A skilled editor can save an otherwise moribund book. By the time you get your manuscript back, it’s too late, unless you want to invest more in another edit. I’ve done re-edits before, and I suspect many of my colleagues have as well.

2. Everyone loves a winner.

If your favorite editor has a significant backlog, it’s probably because they have an excellent reputation and do such a good job that many people want to work with them. They often have repeat business, people who come out of the blue to request them. All this may fill their schedule quickly, so you’d better grab their time while you can. You have to expect a backlog of any decent craftsman or artisan. Paul Revere might have taken a night off to warn Concord “The British are coming!”, but by day he was a master silversmith whose works were in demand—and that everyone was willing to wait for.

3. They’re not just blowing you off.

If your preferred editor tells you they need time to clear a backlog, it’s because they’re servicing the clients they accepted before you and meeting contractual deadlines.

4. They honestly think they can help you and are willing to try.

I hate to pass on projects, but pass I will if I don’t think l can help a writer improve a manuscript and prepare it for publication within a specified budget or time-frame. Some manuscripts are so unreadable that putting them in order would be a full-time job for the editor and very expensive for the author. In such cases, doing a sample edit might take too long to be worth it.

I assume most busy editors treat offers much the same way I do, since sample edits are an investment. If you receive one from an editor, it shows he or she takes your manuscript sample seriously, is confident of their ability to help, and has put a substantial amount of time into reviewing it and preparing the sample edit. If you choose them as your editor, the investment pays off for both of you; so why not choose the best fit, even if their schedule isn’t what you’d prefer?

5. The time until they’re free to edit your work will pass quicker than you think …

… especially when you’re working on something else.

Experienced publication editors typically suggest you work on another story while you wait to hear the verdict on something you’ve submitted, and the same works here. Again, neither type of editor is blowing you off; people like you are their lifeblood. They’re just busy. The important thing to remember is that the editor will be happy to work with you … if you’ll work with them.

6. It may be cheaper and faster in the long run to wait for your desired editor …

… especially if you end up spending time and money fixing errors.

This may become an excellent long-term relationship. The writer-editor relationship is always intimate. It’s two people sharing each other’s thoughts and creativity. Just as you would (or should) in marriage, take the relationship seriously.

7. A better editing job is more likely to sell your book …

… and set you up for the next sale.

I read constantly, and sample a lot of independently published books on my Kindle. Some are more than worthy of professional publication. Many aren’t. While a book’s quality depends on much more than how well it’s edited, I know that I’m more likely to finish a book if I don’t constantly stumble over typos and poor writing, or have to stop every page or so to figure out what the author is trying to say.

Bad science and inaccurate history also turn me off; that’s another thing a top editor well-versed in the subject/genre can help you with.

If the editing is bad enough, I’ll stop reading, delete the book or sample, and move on to the next novel. I rarely go back to an author who’s disappointed me with bad editing or writing, unless the story and characters are just plain extraordinary. Even then, I may abandon the series if the editing becomes too egregious. I know I’m not the only one. On the other hand, I eagerly buy books by authors I know I can count on for an easily-legible, “transparent” read.

The better your edit for this manuscript, the more likely you are to retain readers. And the reverse is true, too:

8. A poorly edited book will make you look bad.

You’ll have fewer readers following your later work if you disappoint them with the editing this time.

After all:

9. You owe your readers the best story possible.

A good professional edit can help you fix plot holes, infodumps, misused tropes, continuity issues, and inaccuracies.

When I edit nonfiction, I most often work with memoirs and history manuscripts; in that realm, getting the facts straight is absolutely necessary. It isn’t an editor’s job to fact-check, usually, but I always fix any factual errors I find and ask the author to check the rest of their assertions.

I mostly work within Science Fiction and Fantasy as a fiction editor; in SF/F, future or alternate history “facts” aren’t as big a deal, since I’m dealing with inventions. But they do have to be internally consistent, and the basic trope must be used properly. Everyone who reads or watches a lot of SF/F knows what a stargate, hyperspace, FTL, ansible, TARDIS, neutron star, wizard, McGuffin, dwarf, elf, etc. are, so a writer need not over-explain them. Though again, they have to use them properly—and part of a good editor’s job is to help you with weaving these elements effectively into your story, as applicable.

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Like any other business-person, a professional editor must stay busy to stay in business. So don’t take it personally when an in-demand editor tells you they won’t be able to start on your project for a few weeks or months.

The best people in any specialized field are usually booked solid weeks or months in advance. Rather than settle for second best, take the opportunity to either work on something new, or polish your existing manuscript. Either way, you’ll come out ahead.

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