The Montagues and the Capulets. The Hatfields and the McCoys. Gryffindors and Slytherins. The Yooks and the Zooks. Some people just don’t get along very well.
The self-publishing industry has its own pair of loggerheads: authors and editors. Like many groups, authors and editors are capable of doing amazing things when they’re willing to work together. But that willingness can sometimes be hard to find.
As we learned from Hugh Howey recently, there are authors who feel like editing is optional or a low-level priority, even worthless. Some authors feel threatened by the idea of working with an editor, others question why they need to bother with it, and some of the loudest voices in writing and self-publishing tend to marginalize it. And many of the authors who do hire editors often treat them unprofessionally. I’ve heard many editors relate horror stories of clients who demanded unreasonable levels of work, impossible turnaround times, and ever-increasing project scopes…and either withheld payment until/unless those Herculean tasks were completed, or found excuses not to make payment afterwards. I’ve had authors do all of those things (and more) to me at various times.
And we editors aren’t blameless here either. We can be snobbish and elitist, self-righteous and sanctimonious, clear that our way is the only right way and anyone who disagrees is a moron. We simultaneously love and fear authors, depending on them for our livelihood while despairing that they see us as expendable. Many of us snicker behind our hands at how little most authors seem to know about writing, conveniently forgetting that we too once had to learn the tactics and best practices we now take for granted. And when our services are necessary (as they nearly always are), many of us deliver them so harshly and bluntly that authors feel personally attacked. I know I’ve been guilty of many of the sins I just described.
And yet every time I’ve spoken to an author who had a great editing experience, or an editor who worked with an amazing client, they both say more or less the same thing: “This was such an awesome experience. I’m so grateful I got to work with them!”
Why aren’t there more of those kinds of statements? Why do authors and editors struggle so much to get along — especially before they actually start working together? Why does each side see the other as antagonists rather than partners? And what can we do to change that view? Is it even possible?
I think it is. And to start us on that path, I want to share five factors that play into this relationship on both sides.
1. Ignorance and mistrust
The first reason authors and editors struggle to get along and work together is that they don’t actually understand each other very well. Many authors tend to think of editors like grouchy high school English teachers: condescending, stuffy, arbitrary people who live to make their charges feel stupid. Many editors, meanwhile, tend to look at authors the way missionaries historically looked at indigenous peoples: quaint, backward, unwashed souls who need the guidance of a superior mind to accomplish anything worthwhile.
This, sadly, leads to a lot of situations where the two parties find it really hard to trust each other. Authors fear that editors will change their books in ways they don’t want those books to change. Editors fear that authors will try to get out of paying them what they’re worth. Authors fear that editors just want to tear their books apart, perhaps to feel better about themselves by making the author feel worse. Editors fear that authors won’t take good advice that will improve their writing because it sounds like criticism. The list goes on, on both sides. And both sides find it easy to believe that the other side only has its own interests in mind and won’t follow through on its promises.
The solution: Both sides can work on giving the other side the benefit of the doubt. Authors, keep in mind that most editors do what they do because they want to help make your work the best it can be. Treat your editor and their edits with respect. Editors, remember that most authors have done the best work they know how, and that it’s an honor for you to be trusted with improving that work. Treat the work and its author kindly. And most importantly, both sides: if you want to be trusted, you need to be trustworthy. Whether you’re an author or an editor, do what you said you’d do, when you said you’d do it, the way you said you’d do it. Treat everything you say to each other as your word, and never, never go back on your word.
2. Unrealistic expectations (especially relating to time and scope)
Even if you understand that an author or editor is basically a good person and worth working with, you may not understand exactly how they work. This disconnect tends to lead to either or both sides having unrealistic expectations for the other.
For example, it’s common these days for authors (especially ones going through self-publishing programs) to expect editors to give them content editing, copy editing, and proofreading all within a few days or a couple of weeks. As these are three different types of editing that require individual efforts and individual responses from the author, trying to cram them all into such a limited amount of time is impractical if not impossible. Only the most inexperienced or desperate of editors will take on that kind of work schedule. Many authors also try to add extra tasks to projects, often at the last minute and rarely for additional pay, such as extra editing passes, interviews for further content, and even non-editing tasks like book description copy and book design. Editors feel trapped when this happens — afraid to say no for fear of losing the client, but afraid to say yes because expecting them to expand project scope for free is unfair.
On the other hand, some editors often assume authors have unlimited time to dedicate to their books, and insist that any author who won’t commit to a months-long collaborative editing process is missing the point. Some editors forget that authors hire them to make the book process easier, not harder. Haranguing an author to spend hours on the phone with you, giving them extensive rewriting assignments, and/or continuously extending the editing process (unless these tasks are part of the project contract to begin with) are really good ways to be an ineffective editor and piss your author clients off.
The solution: Communicate up front about how you work best, what you need from each other, what working together will look like, and how much time each phase of the editing process will take. Don’t be afraid to stand for what you need (on either side), but don’t be so inflexible around your own timeframe that it comes off as your way or the highway. Authors, be willing to put in enough time that your editor doesn’t feel horribly rushed, and if you find you need extra speed or an extra service from them later on, be willing to pay extra for them. Editors, be willing to work a little faster if your client is on a deadline, and if it’s clear the author wants to be more hands-off, let them. And both sides, keep communicating throughout the process. Stay open to each other’s needs and boundaries.
Let’s face it: authors and editors both tend to think pretty highly of themselves. And to a degree we should do that, because what we both do is in fact quite epic. But it’s easy to take that thought pattern too far. An author might think “I just wrote a book, I’m freakin’ amazing!” An editor might think “I’m gonna make this book way better than it was to start with, I’m freakin’ amazing!” Both thoughts are (usually) 100% correct and totally justified. But the problem arises when those thoughts each then become “Because I’m so freakin’ amazing, I am the most important person in this partnership, so the other person better treat me like it or else!”
As fun as that thought may be, it’s the kiss of death to the author-editor partnership. An author with that attitude will come off like a dictator and make their editor feel like a slave. An editor with that attitude will come off like a lecturer and make their author feel like an idiot. I can’t think of anyone who would enjoy being on the receiving end of either of those attitudes.
A real partnership is a collaboration of equals, people who not only know their own value but also know the value on the other side of the table. More importantly, a partnership is a union where each side’s strengths fill in to support the other side’s weaknesses. Authors know their topics, but they may not know how to write clearly about them. Editors know clear writing, but they may not know the topic well enough to know exactly what to say about it. So most of an author’s content will probably be worth keeping around, and most of an editor’s advice will probably be worth following. And putting both together is going to create something much, much stronger than either one could create alone.
The solution: Celebrate what you do, but be humble enough to know that the other person is just as necessary as you are — and treat them that way. After all, without authors editors are out of work, and without editors authors will have a damn hard time reaching their audiences clearly. You both need each other, and you both help each other get somewhere you couldn’t get alone. As Gallery Press founder Peter Fallon said in 2015, “I see the relationship between author and editor…as less a duel than a duet.” Think about what music you could create together, not which of you gets more applause. Authors, be willing to accept constructive criticism even when it hurts. Editors, cushion your blows as much as possible. Both sides, keep in mind that the real star here is the text, and that both your jobs are to make that text the best it can be.
This is a sneaky factor! Most authors and editors don’t see it coming until it hits them in the face. But it can cause some serious contention between the two parties if it’s not handled well, because it emphasizes one major difference between most authors and most editors in a potentially antagonistic way.
See, one of the main goals an author has is just to finish the book. Especially for first-time authors and authors without a lot of extra time to write, anything that prolongs the writing process is the enemy. And perfectionism is the #1 way for an author to prolong their writing process. Perfectionism for authors typically means making endless revisions and rewrites to their first draft, trying to get their book exactly right the first time, and thus never actually finishing the book. I know authors who have worked on books literally for years and never finished or published them because “they just weren’t right yet.” To combat this tendency, several self-publishing gurus have embraced and vehemently promoted the phrase “done is better than perfect” as a rallying cry for authors who struggle with completing their writing processes, urging them just to finish instead of worrying about whether the finished text is good enough.
Editors, meanwhile, tend to see perfectionism as a good thing. Their job is not to finish a first draft, their job is to take a finished first draft and make it into a final draft. That is an exacting, painstaking, meticulous process that takes a lot of time, a lot of close attention, and more than a little perfectionism. For an editor, the idea of “done is better than perfect” is blasphemy and sacrilege, a cavalier statement that sacrifices the quality of the text on the altar of expediency. For an editor, you’re done when the text is perfect, or at least as close to it as you can get, and not before. An author who suggests that a text is “good enough” partway through the editing process, or pushes back on many edits because they just want to be done, has just labeled themselves a heretic.
As you might imagine, putting these two attitudes toward perfectionism in close proximity can lead to fireworks. Authors wish their editors will just hurry up and get through with the editing already, while editors wish their authors will get it through their heads that simply writing a first draft doesn’t mean the book will be ready to publish after fixing a few commas. And it gets worse the more editing is needed, as the author pushes to speed up while the editor begs to slow down. Ultimately, an author can get so frustrated that they drop the editor and publish an unedited or partially edited text, and an editor can feel so taken for granted that they snap and quit outright. I’ve been through parts of this scenario more than once. It’s not fun for either side.
The solution: For the love of grammar, both sides please take the other one seriously! Editors, if your author really just wants to finish a book quickly, don’t push them to draw it out. Better not to work with them at all than to give them a frustrating experience where they feel like you aren’t aligned with their goals. And authors, if your editor tells you your book needs a lot of work and that it will take time to accomplish that work, listen to them. They aren’t telling you that to scam you or bog your book down in the mud.
In other words, both sides can give a little when it comes to perfectionism. Authors can and should accept that done is only better than perfect when it comes to their first drafts, not their finished books. And editors can and should accept that even the most patient authors have limited tolerance for long editing processes and ultimately want a finished book sooner rather than later. It will take flexibility on both sides, but it really is possible not to blow up projects over this issue.
Now we come to the crux of the author-editor disconnect. Issues of money and value make up the biggest and harshest factor in author-editor frustration and distrust. I’ve lost count of the authors I’ve heard say that they can’t afford (or shouldn’t have to pay more than a certain amount for) editing, and I’ve lost count of the editors I’ve heard bemoan the fact that authors just don’t pay enough for the work they get. Plus, as both an author and an editor myself, I can see the issue from both sides…and both sides have valid points. Many, many authors are bootstrapping their books and just don’t have more than a few (or at most a few hundred) dollars to spend on editing. And many, many editors have to take on so much work at those bootstrapper price points that they literally work 16+ hours a day, 7 days a week, just to pay their own basic living expenses.
This situation is intolerable. It causes more strife than the other four factors put together. It makes authors feel dissatisfied because if they can only pay for cheap editing, they often only get cheap results. It makes editors feel devalued and underappreciated because if they can only find cheap editing work, they have to sell their valuable skills for pennies just to be able to eat. It’s frustrating to all, as both sides feel like they can’t easily change their financial circumstances (and thus shouldn’t be expected to). And it makes both sides trust each other even less, each thinking the other is out to take them for every last dollar they can.
To make matters worse, this is where many of the self-publishing gurus and program coaches come in (not to mention the freelance job sites like Upwork and Fiverr), saying things like “authors should only have to pay editors half a cent per word” or that $100 for editing (or even ghostwriting!) a full book counts as a premium rate. These smooth, self-assured “expert” voices say they represent the market, that prices are so low because lots of people out there are charging them, and that price is the biggest or only determining factor in either choosing an editor or being one.
These voices are also completely full of shit. They may have some valuable advice on how to write a book quickly or how to put it up on Amazon or how to do a book launch, but at the end of the day they are neither authors nor editors by nature, they are marketers. Their job is one thing and one thing only: sell the most for the least. They may care about whether you join their program, but most do not care about the quality of your book. Because what they aren’t telling you is one of the fundamental laws of the market they claim to represent: you get what you pay for.
The solution…is a bit complicated.
Now authors, I want to be clear here: if you can’t afford editing, don’t let that stop you from writing. Especially if you write for fun, for love, for the joy of it, to tell stories and build worlds, to use words in fun and innovative ways, to share with your friends, to exercise your creative muscles, or just because you can. Money should never be a barrier to creativity. But I also need to be clear that if you want your book to accomplish any kind of financial or business-related goals for you, to position you as an authority or attract clients or get you booked as a speaker or anything along those lines, and you don’t have an editing budget of at least $500-$1000 (or potentially the ability to offer that much value in trade), you are going to struggle. Hundreds of unedited or barely-edited books go up on Amazon every day, maybe sell a few copies, and either peter out quietly or get enough negative reviews for being unedited that their sales drop like rocks. Without an editing budget in that range (if not higher, depending on how experienced an editor you want to work with), yours will likely be one of those books. If your budget is much less than that, you’ll most likely only be able to hire (1) desperate, overworked editors who won’t have the mental focus to give you their best work, (2) inexperienced, unqualified editors who may talk the talk but probably won’t know how to walk the walk, and/or (3) editors who speak English as a second or third language and may not be able to grasp what your text actually needs. These are not good options. So if you have business goals for your book but you don’t have a solid editing budget in place, your best move is to wait to publish that book until you do have one.
And editors, let’s be clear as well: if you want to be paid well, you must make sure your authors get their money’s worth. As much as we all wish they were, premium rates are not our birthright. We have to earn them. It’s fine to have clear boundaries around what is and isn’t acceptable, but within those boundaries your job is to give the client the best experience they could possibly have. Go above and beyond for them. Make them feel like the most important people in the world. Find their pain points around writing and editing and do your damnedest to heal them. If they’re going to pay you top dollar, be sure you show them how you’re worth their money every moment you work together.
Above all, both sides: don’t listen to the gurus and program coaches and slick marketers about what editing is worth. Listen to each other. Authors, if an editor has high rates, don’t just assume they’re gouging you — talk to them about what they offer for those rates and why they are as high as they are. As much as you can, be willing to pay an editor what they say their work is worth, not what a self-publishing guru might tell you it’s worth. Editors, if an author hasn’t budgeted for your rates, don’t just assume they’re a cheapskate — talk to them about why their budget is what it is. Work with them to find a middle ground that you both feel good about. And if you can’t find one, if there’s no overlap at all between how much they can afford and how little you’re willing to charge, do them and your colleagues a favor and send them to another editor you trust who would be comfortable working at that price point.
Oh, and if either of you decide not to move forward with the other, especially for financial reasons, don’t storm off and badmouth each other to your fellow authors or editors. That doesn’t serve any of us. We can all work together even when we aren’t working together.
To wrap everything up: Writing a book, especially a book that will position its author as an authority, grow their business, and bring them clients, requires the talents of both an author and an editor. Without the first, there will be no big idea for the book to be about (and no book to be about it). Without the second, there is no guarantee the big idea will be clear and commanding enough to move and inspire its audience (and thus there’s a much lower chance of the book making money, growing a business, or starting a movement). The more disharmony and distrust there are between authors and editors, the fewer quality books will come into the world and the fewer people in either camp will be able to make a living and enjoy their work. And by the same token, the more trust and harmony and teamwork and equity we build between our camps, the better things will be for both of us — and for the current state of the Amazon Kindle store and the literate world. Or as the children’s song says: the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.
So let’s work on that. All of us, on both sides. Who’s with me?