Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

You want to get your stories out there and make some money as well. Self-publishing seems like a great way to do it: you can make the decisions on every aspect of your book and receive the bulk of the sale price in royalties too.

You’re sure that if you work hard – starting with writing a great book – with a bit of savvy marketing the sales will come. Then positive reviews will stack up and help to close more sales, and, if you’re really lucky, some word-of-mouth will begin to be generated, and suddenly, readers will be talking to each other about your book and recommending it to their family, friends, and colleagues.

What might prevent your book or series from doing as well as it could? What are the things that readers complain about, in reviews and to their friends, that might hurt your sales and stop its progression in its track?

Here are five types of reader complaint that show up in reviews very commonly, and are often blamed on the editor, or the lack of one.

  1. ‘The story was great, but there were several typos and it interfered with my enjoyment of the book.’
  2. ‘The story was great, but the writing was a bit clunky.’ Or ‘it was repetitive’, or ‘the dialogue was a bit unnatural’.
  3. ‘The story wasn’t interesting’, or ‘the characters were flat’, or ‘there was a plot hole’, or ‘it was terribly slow in the middle and I gave up’.
  4. ‘It wasn’t interesting. I was bored and stopped reading.’
  5. Some combination of much of the above.

So, how could this kind of response be avoided?

There are various different types of book editing, which seek to help a writer in the various ways their writing could be improved. It is important for the author to be honest with themselves about what might be preventing their book from really connecting with their reader. If an author gets the same feedback from different people, it’s definitely time to address the issue.

Here are potential solutions for the obstacles outlined above:

‘The story was great, but there were several typos and it interfered with my enjoyment of the book.’

It’s such a shame when an otherwise good book doesn’t reach its potential because the reader keeps being fistracted by misteaks.

There are people who didn’t notice the errors in the previous sentence, and there are people who did notice but don’t care. You might think it doesn’t really matter as long as the book is otherwise good. However, there are plenty of people who do notice errors, and they do care, and they will loudly complain about them in the reviews, and that will affect your bottom line. If your readers keep finding mistakes in your book, get it proofread.

Once a writer has been over their own text a number of times, it becomes impossible to see it clearly anymore, and they just don’t notice missing words, transposed letters, or that they habitually mix up effect and affect. That is when a fresh pair of eyes is needed. It is also for this reason that an editor who has completed a copy-edit on a book will suggest that the proofreading stage either be carried out by another editor, or that some time between these stages of book editing is allowed to pass so they can come to it fresh again.

‘The story was great, but the writing was a bit clunky.’ Or ‘it was repetitive’, or ‘the dialogue was a bit unnatural’.

Here, the reader is happily sailing along before suddenly tripping over some part of the text. They have to stop, and go back a bit, or otherwise regroup, before continuing. They gamely persevere to the end because they really are enjoying the story. Line editing smooths out these bumps: flagging the repetitions, helping to unwind the tangled sentences, addressing the superfluous dialogue tags, and so on.

This stage of the book editing process can take a book from good to great, but only if the foundation is there. It’s not unusual for someone to be great at the big picture but need help with some of the finer detail, or vice versa. Knowing where one’s own strengths and weaknesses lie is half the battle, the other half being getting and then using some help.

‘The story wasn’t interesting’, or ‘the characters were flat’, or ‘there was a plot hole’, or ‘it was terribly slow in the middle and I gave up’.

When there are snags with the big items, such as the pace (that baggy middle bit), the character the beta readers feel is flat, or the plot that needs ‘something’, a structural or substantive editor is the answer. A structural editor will provide commentary and suggestions covering larger sections of the book, so they will not spend time correcting the grammar. This stage will be followed by re-writes by the author to address the matters identified by it.

It is crucial that these big elements become sound and solid before moving on to editing at a paragraph and sentence level – if the fundamentals aren’t there, any other work on the text is just window-dressing.

‘It wasn’t interesting. I was bored and stopped reading.’

Sometimes an important element of the book is just not very compelling. Perhaps the story is too slight to engage the reader’s attention, or the main character is just rather dull. In this case, the author may benefit from a manuscript assessment. This will identify the parts that need beefing up and suggest ways to improve those necessary elements, as well as provide the encouragement the author needs to let their imagination run freer.

Some combination of much of the above.

Usually the result of impatience, this book has problems because it has never progressed beyond a first draft. The attraction of being able to publish easily and cheaply has confused and over-excited the author and, as they don’t know what they don’t know, they haven’t done the work to produce something worth buying.

This type of book is the main complaint about self-publishing and contributes to the difficulties the sector has in achieving wider acceptance. Just because a person can write several thousand words and publish it straightaway doesn’t mean they should.

When an author cannot see any way to begin improving what they’ve written, it may be because it’s perfect (can you think of a perfect book?) but more likely, they need help from outside to see what needs work. This help may come from writers’ groups, or a writing coach, but an alternative is a manuscript assessment by an editor, which may help by showing the author what is working and what isn’t, and give solid direction to their further work. Lots of reading in and around their genre should go without saying.

Will having my book edited help my sales?

Hiring an editor before self-publishing your book will not guarantee more sales. And we can all think of books that have been massive successes despite widespread criticism that they suffer one of these five difficulties. But those books are outliers – it so happened that the story was so appealing that the fact that the book could have been better (in some cases, a lot better) simply doesn’t matter. The story is crucial, and no editor can make a book really good if the story is not appealing.

It’s a jolly big gamble to rely on the success of those outliers for the success of your own book.  Instead, try to write the absolute best book you can, and don’t skip getting feedback and help with improving it, including from hiring an editor.

A steady flow of sales for your first book provides a basis from which to improve the sales of your second book, and then your third, and so on. Choose the right editor to help, and you could have a partnership that turns your novel into novels, and your side-hustle into a career.

Getting some help from the right editor is not some admission of failure – all successful writers are edited – it is a professional approach to a wildly competitive market. Bank on the idea that if you present your best work to the market, you might be one of the writers who keeps on selling books year after year, until after their nth book they’re suddenly being called an ‘overnight success’.