Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator

Self-publishing seems like a great way to make some money from your writing: you keep creative control of your book, you receive a higher share of the royalties, and it doesn’t have to be expensive, and so lots of people are doing it. But let’s be clear: there’s ‘publishing independently’, in which an author will hire an editor, buy a professional cover, plan their marketing and otherwise invest in their book before self-publishing in order to give it its best chance in a crowded marketplace … and then there’s ‘publishing for free’, in which the author doesn’t do any of that and then wonders why their book isn’t selling.

If you decide to take on the role of a publisher, then in exchange for your creative control and higher share of royalties, you become solely responsible for the quality of your product. When you cut corners, it shows. One place it shows is in the reader reviews, and all too often, readers will perceive that the problem with a book they didn’t enjoy is the editing, or rather, the lack of it.

Here are five types of reader complaint that show up in reviews and how they correspond to different types of book editing. Hire an editor before self-publishing your book, and you can avoid reviews like this:

‘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, but it is a quality issue. There are plenty of people who want to support independent authors, but who do notice errors and who do care about the quality of the products they buy. They will loudly complain in the reviews, and that will affect your bottom line. If your readers keep finding mistakes in your book, get it proofread.

In traditional publishing, several editing passes are performed before a book is published, and still some errors can remain – if you hire an editor you stand a better chance of publishing a book without embarrassing mistakes in it.

It is completely understandable that typos get missed: once a writer has been over their own text several 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 clunky.’ Or ‘it was repetitive’, or ‘the dialogue was 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 might gamely persevere to the end because they’re enjoying the story, or they might not.

The author should hire an editor who does line editing and copy editing, which smooths out these bumps: the editor will flag the repetitions, unwind the tangled sentences, address 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 from an editor.

‘The story wasn’t interesting’, or ‘the characters were flat’, or ‘there were plot holes’, or ‘it was really 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 readers feel is flat, or the plot that needs ‘something’, the answer is to hire an editor who does structural or substantive editing. 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 rewrites by the author to address the matters identified by the editor.

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 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 kind of book has problems because it has never progressed beyond a first draft. The author may not have even considered that they might need to hire an editor. The attraction of being able to publish easily and cheaply has confused and overexcited them 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 chief 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 – much 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 to hire an editor to perform a manuscript assessment, which will show 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 (and 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 an enormous 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.

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.

It is not some admission of failure to hire an editor – 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’.

This article was first posted on 31st August 2020, and has been updated.