Self-Publishers Beware

by | Feb 15, 2012

Here’s a comment I received on the blog yesterday:

… I am a self-publishing enthusiast. I encourage newbies to publish for free by doing everything themselves… I believe the majority of those “millions” of writers are amateurs who will be lucky to sell a hundred books. If one is lucky enough to write a winner, one can always go back and hire professionals to enhance their writing and their book design.

And, as it turns out, the commenter does indeed run a website that teaches writers how to publish their own books for “free” using the resources of CreateSpace.

I’m a supporter of entrepreneurial self-publishers, and know exactly how much drive and tenacity it takes to make it successful. And it’s certainly admirable to want to empower others to do as you have.

On the other hand, I don’t think I would ever advise even a hobby or personal self-publisher to publish unedited manuscripts.

And I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to “write a winner” that’s completely unedited and cheaply produced.

If you’re planning to publish any kind of book, editing is where you have a chance to make your book better. And for hobbyists, it’s how you create a book that people actually want to read, one that they will pass from one generation to another.

Editors play a key role in the development of most books, and those books can go through a thorough editorial process whether they are published by a traditional publisher, or by your own publishing company. As a self-publisher, editing decisions are up to you.

What’s Really Going On Here?

It’s actually pretty rare to come across completely “amateur” books, since most of these authors really do want to sell their books, they just don’t want to pay for editing or anything other than the cheapest possible production.

In fact, the whole thing is pretty much a commercial calculation: if you keep the costs close enough to zero, you should be able to make something from publishing these books. But that’s not really “amateur,” is it?

That kind of self-publishing seems depressing and pessimistic to me. To my mind, every book worth publishing deserves to be published decently. Bringing your stories into the world is a celebration, something to take pride in, to do to the best of your abilities.

Something Comes Out of It

Whether you’re a hobby publisher, commercial publisher or a writer trying to augment your career, don’t settle for books that are unedited or thoughtlessly produced.

If you produce lousy books, no one will want to keep them anyway. They’ll be embarrassing to have around. Instead, produce books you can be proud of and people will want to keep them.

I’m going to be starting my new Self-Publishing Roadmap course in a few weeks. It’s a video-based training course covering the entire self-publishing process.

If you want to find out how to make books people want to buy, how to make print on demand and ebooks work for you, go over and put your name on the advance notice list. Here’s a link:

Click here to get on the Self-Publishing Roadmap Advance Notice List

Photo by Timmy Hamster

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Henry Hyde

    It’s entirely possible to sell a book littered with typos and errors and not give a damn. Just pray that your audience is also made up of the kind of people who either don’t notice, or don’t care.

    For my part, if I pay for — or even download for free — a book in which it is clear that the author didn’t give a damn, I feel conned.

    Will I ever buy or download anything by that author ever again?

    Nope. Plenty more fish in the sea.

    Not everything about the digital publishing revolution has been good. The indescriminate massacre of the quality controllers may seem liberating, but risks having us all swimming in mediocrity.

    Drumming up quotes that talk about the pursuit of perfection being hopeless misses the point entirely. I’m a professional designer, writer and editor and I know full well that perfection is elusive, especially when working to deadlines (and my life is full of deadlines).

    But at least I try, and I respect others who do the same, because I find that those who ignore the little things are often wrong-headed about the big things too.

    Caveat emptor. I’ll spend my money with those who *do* give a damn.

  2. Mary DeDanan

    Thank you, Joel, for another interesting discussion. I’ve spent the better part of two (oops, now three) days browsing, and I’ve barely dented your archives. I’m impressed with the depth and quality of information you’ve made available, as well as the patience and civility you consistently show. Pretty amazing in this age of snark, bait, and hard sell.

    As both a writer and editor, I wonder if the explosion of self-published books is the latest expression of that fine literary tradition, the slush pile. It was once part of my job to deal with slush. I was conscientious; I was generous; I’d been there myself. I gave every last one at least a peek. It took uncountable hours of slogging. All you’ve heard is true: I made a decision based on the first page, often less. A very few were good, most were crap. A writer needed to show mastery of her craft before I would read on. On those rare occasions where I read to the end, it had to add up to something special, or else why bother.

    Now we’re skipping this sort of vetting and jumping straight to the publishing stage. The slush pile all gets into print, brilliant or painfully bad. But most readers are quickly turned off by the slush pile ambience. Democratization of publishing is the brave new frontier of books, but it will never gain credibility until most of its writers go pro.

    For a writer to be taken seriously, she has to get serious about the tools of her trade. A master carpenter understands how to use a saw to cut complex angles and construct rafters; I know how to use the Chicago Manual. Grammar, punctuation, usage — these are my hammer, drill, blades. Then the pro writer has to construct a workable, dare I say beautiful, structure.

    Yes, it’s possible to do it all yourself — if you put in the work and build the skills — but it ain’t easy. At any of these stages, it’s hard to go it alone. This is where a well-seasoned editor really earns her fee — if the writer will listen. Many will not.

    Liz, in this thread, wished for a “good housekeeping seal” for well-edited, fully competent, self-published books. Coincidentally, I’ve been wondering the same thing. (Notice we’re both editors.) It is both the blessing and the curse of self-publishing that there is no vetting process. Perhaps this is one role of writing contests? Meanwhile, it is so, so true. You have only the first page or two, and the design of the book, to convey this critical message: “I am a professional and you, reader, can trust me.”

    Finally, a thought or two on the cost of editing. Editors have rent to pay and cats to support. Careful, detailed work takes hours. If you get a really cheap estimate, someone’s probably just running it through a computer program. Freelance editors can’t work on promises that we’ll get paid when it’s a bestseller. (I’ve turned down that offer more than once.) But I am flexible. I’m working now on an indie publishing project where the author and I are exchanging our skilled labor. So get creative. Any dentists out there?

    • Henry Hyde

      Beautifully put, Mary.

  3. Michael N. Marcus

    David: most of your “minimal” numbers are much too high — or unnecessary — including proofer, ISBN, press release, book review, marketing package, books to give away, website.

    Most people in the USA already have internet access, even if they are not authors.

    Also, prices for copyediting and formatting vary with the number of pages, and some very nice cover designs have been done for a few hundred bucks.

    I think you are unnecessarily scaring people.

    The $195 and $199 self-publishing packages from such companies as Outskirts and Aachanon leave out a lot, but your suggested “five to ten thousand dollars” is not realistic either. A budget of two to four thousand can be used to produce and promote a decent book, and will provide a much better chance of making a profit.

    • David Bergsland

      Yes, you’re right, Marcus. I overstated a bit for drama. But two to four thousand is a lot of money. Most of the people I work with have trouble coming up with a few hundred.

      The main point is that the size of the niche determines a lot. My “Writing In InDesign” book, for example, may have a total niche size of less than a thousand people (2,000 at most). I may sell a couple hundred books. It would be silly to invest even $2,000 for a gross profit (over several years) of a couple thousand dollars. But my total publishing costs so far have been $25 to get it out in Amazon, Lulu, Kindle, Nook, and so on. Actually, sales have been better than I thought—but that’s not a bad thing.

  4. David Bergsland

    The good thing about self-publishing is the same good thing about desktop publishing, the original concept: one person can do it from his or her desktop.

    Now I certainly agree it would be nice to be able to afford some help.

    A lot of this has to do with budget:
    So, what is a writer to do? Here are some rough and probably minimal cost figures if you go with the traditionally necessary services:

    Copyeditor: $1000
    Book formatter: $1000
    Proofer: $500
    ISBN #: $100–$250 per book unless you buy a large block
    Cover designer: $500
    Press release: $500
    Book review: $1000
    Marketing package: $2,000 to $10,000
    Books to give away: $1000
    Website: $2000 plus $50 to $100 a month for ISP, Web access, site maintenance, et al
    & on & on & on
    So, what do you do if you do not have five to ten thousand dollars with which to gamble?
    You must learn to produce your own books.

    You get it done the best you know how.

  5. Gerhard

    Thanks for pulling the rug from under me. So my eBook is worthless because I can’t pay for professional editing services, I used CreateSpace, and I did the cover design by myself?

    So first we break free from the stupid big house multi-year procedures, just to be herded back to a bunch of online book editors?

    My book is as good as any other, in every respect. When I say SELF-publishing, I mean SELF-publishing.



  6. Phil Steer

    Interesting discussion.

    I have recently completed the draft of a book, and it has always been my intention to self-publish it via Lulu. Whilst, of course, I would like the book to be read by as many as possible, I did not write the book because I wanted to be a “published author”; rather, I am publishing the book because it’s there to be published. Lulu seemed (and still seems) ideally suited to my needs – a quick, easy (and, let’s not deny it, cheap) way of making the book available to any who might wish to read it.

    I have sent copies of the draft to a number of people (some known to me , some not) and asked for their feedback (especially regarding anything that they don’t like about the book), and to my surprise and pleasure this has been uniformly positive.

    I have no doubt that the book would be better for being published “properly”, both in terms of production quality and editorial input. Nonetheless, I’ve already been told that the book is “a keeper”, “one of the best I’ve ready this year” and “better than many of the books out there”.

    Undoubtedly my book will contain some grammatical errors and poor punctuation; undoubtedly the design will look amateurish to those “in the known” (although, it has to be said, many professionally produced books look decidedly amateurish). But my grammar is not bad, and my punctuation is not bad, and I have reasonable idea of what constitutes good design. How many of my readers will have better grammar, and punctuation, and design ideas than me? How many will notice these “failings” in my book? How many will care?

    This is not meant to be an excuse for producing shoddy work; I will make every effort to publish something that is – in every way – as good as I can make it. But, ultimately, “content is king”, and as long as the production is not so poor as to drive many potential readers away, perhaps it’s not *quite* as important as some might think?

    Finally, many thanks for this excellent resource; my book will certainly be better for the information that you make available here.

  7. David DeRosa

    Thanks again for this discussion. Ernie makes a good point. But I think he’s making your point, too, when he says, “…used some of my friends to help me edit the book.” Am I wrong?

    If not, then the question becomes: Do I burden my friends with the work of going over my work? Or, do I hire someone whose job that is?

    Either way, I think the point here is that we can’t get the quality we’re after without a little outside help.

    And, Ernie, I absolutely agree on your thing with perfection. Ain’t none of us is that good; not editors, not authors. If you wanna sell books you will, at some point, hafta publish. It won’t be perfect. Live with it.

  8. Ernie Zelinski


    I have to disagree with you here even though most of the people who have commented agree with you.

    First, I am a self-published author of at least ten books and have had four of my books published by major U.S. publishers. My books have sold over 700,000 copies worldwide and have been published in 28 different countries in 21 languages.

    One of my mottos is: “Do It Badly — But at Least Do It!”

    I actually did the keynote opening speech called “Do It Badly — But at Least Do It!” at the Edmonton District Convention of Toastmasters International. For the record, I have never belonged to Toastmasters and had never ever taken any speech-making training. I delivered the speech anyway because perfection is for idiots.

    In my pursuit of self-publishing, I have always remembered this great advice by a self-published author who has sold millions of his books including “Winning Through Intimidation” and “Looking Out for Number 1”:

    “It’s better to do a sub-par job working on the right project than a great job working on the wrong project.”
    — Robert J. Ringer

    One of my “right projects” was my second self-published book “The Joy of Not Working” which was released in 1991. Instead of getting it perfect — or even remotely close to perfect — I kept to my schedule and followed my motto “Do It Badly — But at Least Do It!”

    At the time (1991) that I first published “The Joy of Not Working”, I used a desktop publishing program that had no spell check. I did not hire any professional editor and just used some of my friends to help me edit the book. Three years later. I purchased an update of the desktop publishing program that had a spell check. When I ran the spell check on the book, I found out it had 150 spelling errors. Did it affect sales? I don’t think so. It had sold 30,000 copies in its first three years — and that was in Canada with one-tenth of the population of the U.S. Incidentally, I received only one complaint about the book. It was from some school teacher. She complained about the spelling errors and how good she was at spotting these spelling errors. But she only spotted about ten of the 150.

    Here is the key to having a bestselling self-published book: Create a book that has great content, something that really stands out and is so far ahead of your competition that it owns the category. If you can do this, people willl overlook spelling errors. The best promotion is still word-of-mouth advertising from readers who love your book.

    Recently, I purchased a copy of Brendon Burchard’s “The Millionaire Messenger.” Brendon had the book published within 10 weeks after he started writing it. The book was released in March 2011 and has now sold over 50,000 copies. I spotted a number of spelling and formatting errors. Did I mind? Not at all — simply because it has great content.

    Here are a few quotations about perfection to put perfection in proper perspective:

    “And in fact, I think the more we start to worship perfection the more soul leaks out of art.”
    — Kathy Mattea

    “Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.”
    — Gustave Flaubert

    “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.’
    — Salvador Dali

    “Perfection is a trifle dull. It is not the least of life’s ironies that this, which we all aim at, is better not quite achieved.’
    — W. Somerset Maugham

    “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
    — William Shakespeare

    Incidentally, if there are any typos here, enjoy them.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  9. David DeRosa

    You would consider me a hobbiest, given my nonexistant credentials. But I can say without reservation that another set of eyes is never a bad idea. Spellcheck for typos and thesaurus to be certain the word you use is the one you want does not an editor make.

    The trouble is for the first time novelist to compile an entire book the rewriting is more than the writing. Having survived that grueling process one might think they’ve been editing all along. Why then should they need another opinion?

    Because every potential reader is another opinion. If you start out with more than just your own take on what you’re trying to say, you double your chances (at the very least) of coming across the way you intend.

    I’m all for editors. Financial concerns, however, for most of us wannabes makes the decision to hire one difficult. Add to that that there are editors not worth hiring and you have the self-publishing industry. Let the audiance be the judge.

    • Anjasa

      Yes, that becomes the biggest problem. Finding an editor you trust, that’s in your budget, is a daunting task. I’ve heard so many horror stories about people who have hired editors only to find HUGE problems when they go through after it – entire words or sentences missing, completely botched changes with characterization that isn’t consistent through the book (like changing a character’s hair colour half way through the book by accident), etc. etc.

      It takes a lot of time and effort to find an editor you can trust, and that understands what you’re trying to do with the work, that’s for sure.

      • David DeRosa

        The important thing to remember is that credibility starts with your first published work. Storytelling is tricky, and every written work is a story. The images in your words might not be the ones in your head. An editor, even a bad one, could help you resolve those issues.

        That said, one should always reserve the final approval on what goes to print. It is your credibility on the line.

        Of course, you can self-edit. It’s a mistake I’ve made more than once. Some of us are slow learners. The reputation of self-publishers requires that we take better care.

        Excellent discussion, folks. Thank you all.

  10. Liz Alexander

    Doris — you make a very important point, one that I had alluded to earlier when I talked about focusing on the reader, not yourself as author. I believe that just “knocking off” a book and putting out it there with no editing or other concerns for the readability of the work is incredibly disrespectful. And I agree it sullies the whole arena of self-publishing.

    We can’t stop folks doing whatever they want, of course, but I do wish there was some kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for self-published books these days.

    But maybe there is, lol. Joel – would you agree with me that the quality of a cover, back matter and the first few pages can fairly easily identify those authors who take their work seriously enough to get professional help, and those who don’t?

    Oh, and having just picked up some books for review from AMACOM, I happened to look at the Acknowledgments page for one and read: “Thank you [name of person], who cleaned up my writing so well, it actually makes sense to readers now….”

    • Joel Friedlander

      the quality of a cover, back matter and the first few pages can fairly easily identify those authors who take their work seriously

      Absolutely. And as a writer, I am endlessly grateful to the editors who help my work speak more clearly to my readers, and who keep saving me from myself LOL.

  11. Doris

    Thanks Joel for writing about the importance of editing.

    I find not editing before releasing a new book is disrespectful to your readers. And at the same time these authors bring a bad reputation to self-publishing.

    When I write reviews on Amazon, I mention badly formatted e-books, spelling and grammar errors, and deduct a star or two.

    Some readers even return their books and notify the retailer.

  12. Anjasa

    The idea of putting out some of my work unedited is just ridiculous. I’ve been writing and putting my stuff out there for years and I would never do that, no matter how casual the writing, without at least two editing passes. Even if it was just something I was writing for a private site for friends to read.

  13. Will Entrekin

    Nice post, Joel. I used to think writers could self-edit until I found myself an editor. I was lucky; mine is a former classmate-turned-colleague-turned-executive-editor of the Press I recently founded. She has an advanced graduate degree from the same program I do, so when she calls herself a professional editor, I think there’s some value to that. I do fear that there are a lot people hanging out an editor shingle over their doors without actually having the requisite expertise, but I hope that writers will be able to parse the situation, and I think posts like this can help them ask the questions they need to.

    One of those questions is often whether editors are even necessary. I’ve often wondered this: was Carver’s “Beginners” really altogether better after Lish made it “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”? Honestly, I can’t answer that. I know that Fitzgerald swore by Perkins. I read fewer writers gush about their editors, but that may be due to the changing role of editors in so-called “traditional” publishing. I think fewer editors nowadays serve the same role as people like Perkins.

    My editor has a great eye. I wouldn’t publish anything without her seeing it first. But I think maybe if you have a great editor, you see the value in one. And I was lucky; I wouldn’t have met my editor if not for my writing program. I didn’t actively look for one. And to be honest, if I thought I needed an editor and started to look for one, I’m not sure I’d know how to. Mainly because I think I’d want certain qualifications, and a certain history of work.

    Also, it’s worth noting editing is way more than catching a typo or three. Working with a good editor demonstrates that.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Very interesting, Will, and you are indeed lucky to have partnered with someone with the ability to help make your novels really shine.

      There are many kinds of editors and many types of work they do on manuscripts. While the role of a developmental editor is often overlooked by self-publishers, many of whom have created their books in a kind of isolation, most people do know that they need copyediting and maybe even proofreading.

      Just another reason why education—like knowing how the editorial process works—is what will help authors wanting to make the leap into self-publishing.

  14. doug_eike

    By no means do I believe that all authors need editors, but I do know that all good writing is edited. I agree with you that self-publishing without editing is a bad idea. No one wants to eat an undercooked meal. Why would anyone want to read an unfinished book? Thanks for the insight!

  15. Liz Alexander

    Here’s the thing I’ve found (and bear in mind that I work with corporate executives and business people on books that enhance their status as subject matter experts and thought leaders, so some of my comments don’t necessarily pertain to novels):

    Many people have an overinflated sense of their own writing ability. And most have very little clue what makes for a readable book. Let’s remember we’re in the age of “customer experience.” I think it would behoove authors who take themselves seriously to remember that it’s not about what they want, but whether or not the reader (and here I’m talking specifically about nonfiction) a) easily finds the gems (aka solutions) they were promised by the book in the first place; b) doesn’t become irritated or thrown off by repeated typos, grammatical errors, and suchlike.

    It’s really horses-for-courses, though, isn’t it? I recently reviewed one self-published book, edited by the guy’s wife, that was — in my opinion — an absolutely appalling read. Frankly, it was nothing more than a stream of consciousness culled from his blog…one amazon reviewer called it “little more than an angry rant.” The author considered it his “best book ever” (!) and had plenty of folks commenting on his blog (and on amazon) congratulating him on his “honesty.”

    On the other hand, I’ve just interviewed the managing director of a leadership consultancy who told me:

    “I like to fancy myself a decent writer but I was blown away with how wonderful the editors were and how much more compelling they made my work. It’s not just typos and spelling that they fix – they helped tremendously with structure, clarity, and brevity too.”

    Of course, his book was published by a well-respected niche publisher (not one of the biggies) and they did a job worthy of the many 5-star reviews (and only 5-stars) this guy received.

    So — bottom line. Go ahead and publish without editing or focusing on good design. Someone, somewhere will presumably buy the book or think it’s wonderful for reasons other than those that concern people like me (and perhaps Joel). If an angry, poorly expressed rant that’s nevertheless “honest” and meaningful to them rocks some people’s boat, then great!!

    On the other hand, there are those like the professional I interviewed — whose reputations are too hard won and are tied to the success of their business — who wouldn’t think of putting out an unedited, poorly crafted, badly designed book.

    There are no hard and fast rules to any of this. But someday soon (and I know Joel has covered this in previous posts) I think we may get to the point where, to better navigate the considerable “noise” going on in publishing, readers can select books in a way that replaces the old “legacy publisher versus vanity” distinction with “hobbyist versus professional” or some other classification.

    BTW, as someone who has written nine commercially published books over the past 20 years, I’ve never worked with any editor under those circumstances who was other than a consummate professional…if publishers who find it hard to stay in business start to shed those jobs, there will presumably be plenty of talent in the marketplace for reputation-focused authors to tap into. Maybe competition will help costs come down…or maybe it’s always going to be a question of you get what you pay for :-)

    • Joel Friedlander

      Liz, thanks for your thoughtful comment and common-sense advice. I can’t read books that are full of errors, they leave me feeling bad for the author who thought they didn’t need help. What a waste.

      And I have the same hope that readers will exercise their new rights as “gatekeepers” to drive those books to the bottom of the pile.

      I just finished a memoir for a fellow who has been a professional writer for over 30 years. His book was edited and proofread but, like most books, early readers continue to find errors that we continue to correct. I expect this to continue until (and perhaps after) the book goes to press.

      Most people (including most new authors) have no idea of how much effort it takes to produce a book that’s even close to “error-free” and they are shocked when these mistakes just keep showing up.

      But any professional knows this and acts accordingly.

      • Liz Alexander

        It’s hard not to be aghast at the… well, I’m not sure if it’s complacency or arrogance or what, but some kind of self-focused belief that many folks dipping their toes into publishing seem to have these days that their books (having done everything themselves) have merit.

        I wonder if what we’re seeing is a further manifestation of the “self-esteem” movement (the one that Steve Salerno wrote about in SHAM) whereby if you’re told often enough that you’re “special” and “gifted” and even the most minor of efforts is lauded then you don’t really try that hard to excel, because you think you already do :-)

  16. Niki

    Like it or not, people publish books without editing them.
    I do not think that is likely to change anytime soon, unless the ereaders and places like Createspace refuse to publish anything that is not up to standard.
    Maybe we should petition them!

    • Joel Friedlander

      Perhaps as self-publishers become more sophisticated with the process, readers will reward the better-quality books and pass by the one full of errors. One can hope.

  17. David Bergsland

    The choir’s sounding good today, but I believe a major point is being ignored. There are some very good reasons why self-published books are not edited.

    If you are writing to a tiny niche (like writers who write in InDesign;-), hiring an editor would be very bad stewardship. There are probably less than a thousand people in the world who write books in InDesign.

    If you are writing about an esoteric topic, editors will be more hassle than they are worth trying to get you to change things which are common terminology within the niche. The worst experience (with editors who didn’t understand the topic) I ever had was for a book on InDesign I wrote for McGraw-Hill.

    Time constraints can also be an issue.

    But the big thing is budget. As a retired graphic designer, art director, teacher, font designer, and self-publisher, the money simply is not available for an editor or even a proofer. I just do the best I can. Thankfully I can upload revisions quickly and easily. If Lulu or Createspace balks at making the changes, I do another edition or redo the book under a different title.

    I also do that to target new niches, or to focus the writing towards a recently refined niche.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, David, and you’ve made choices that make perfectly good sense for your own situation. That’s what every self-publishing author needs to do.

      My problem is in giving advice to all authors that they can just edit their book themselves. This would be the ultimate in “bad stewardship” for some books, and that’s what I was trying to get at in the article.

      • David bergsland

        I certainly agree with you. Going without an editor is a bit like bungee jumping without a will (sorry I couldn’t resist ;-) Hiring an editor is certainly the best practice.

        Finding one who understands what you are talking about is sometimes an issue. A good proofer who can proof for things like inconsistent paragraph alignments and the like is also essential. The same is true of cover designers, publicists, marketers and all the rest.

        I would love to be able to hand my books off to a team, but that luxury is long gone for me. Plus, I am actually selling more books than I did when I was writing textbooks for large traditional publishers.

        • James

          I’m with David on this point–even if you *need* an editor, finding a good (and appropriate) one is difficult even for traditional publishers.

          However, every writer at least needs a good proofreader. A *good* one.

  18. James

    ‘And most self publishers are now finding out just how hard it is to fly without the net of a quality editor.”

    And I should add–that includes me. I can’t afford the services of a developmental-level editor today, even if I could find a good one working freelance.

  19. James

    “And I think it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to “write a winner” that’s completely unedited and cheaply produced. ”

    The person you quoted didn’t say “completely unedited”; he said “do it yourself”.

    Also, Amanda Hocking’s first million-selling book was “self edited”.

    Lastly, I’d have to agree with Esmerelda above–editing isn’t a magic bullet at all, and for most self-publishing I’ve seen, would have incremental value.

    The truth about editing for self-publishers is that few or none are hiring developmental editors–they’re hiring *proofreaders*. Professional editors know the difference between these two. I *rarely* meet a self-publisher who doesn’t define editing as I would proofreading.

    But, if there are a significant number of self-publishers out there hiring developmental editors, I’d be grateful to hear about them.

    And though it’s mostly gone the way of the dodo, that kind of editing–where a writer was paired with a real *editor* to help develop and shape a book–was one of the chief benefits of the routinely derided “traditional” publishing. And most self publishers are now finding out just how hard it is to fly without the net of a quality editor.

    • Will Entrekin

      Just have to jump in here, because “Also, Amanda Hocking’s first million-selling book was “self edited”.” is untrue, at least according to Hocking (who pretty much threw her editors under the bus [though she then edited to retract]):

      And her books were badly edited, with grammar and spelling errors noticeable in sample chapters.

      • James


        I’d encourage you to read Hocking’s blog more closely. I can see how you might misunderstand that blog post, but it’s unequivocal that she released the first version of her million-selling book *self-edited*. Did she release “updated” versions later? I don’t know for sure.

        • Will Entrekin

          My point, James, is that if your example of editing (self-editing or otherwise) is Amanda Hocking, you’ve already lost the argument. Even after she hired an editor, there were still problems with her books. We’ll see how much better they are when Saint Martins (Martin’s? Not sure) publishes them. My wager is they’ll do well financially, and they’ll probably get decent reviews, but in the end they’re meant to appeal to the same demographic Twilight did, and regardless of how much they sold I didn’t think very highly of their quality.

          If your goal is quantity over quality–selling a million books versus producing a good novel–you’re probably right. Lots of not-very-good novels sell millions of copies.

          Me, I want to make damned sure anything I put my name on is worthy, and that’s why I always use an editor.

          • James

            “My point, James, is that if your example of editing (self-editing or otherwise) is Amanda Hocking, you’ve already lost the argument. ”

            What’s my argument, Will? Because your comment seems to assume I’m arguing having an editor = automatically better book–despite me having said the opposite in both my comments. Read them, and let me know if that’s not clear.

    • Joel Friedlander


      I know several very good developmental editors, so if you’d like a referral, let me know.

  20. CC Carlquist

    I read a blog comment once where the commenter was a high school teacher and planned to teach (as in part of his curriculum) all his students how to self-publish a book. They would be required to write the book, upload and publish it, and be graded on this assignment. Scary.

  21. LJCohen

    Yes. This.

    I feel like a broken record when I keep saying that to self-publish you either need to have all the skills that a publishing company brings to the table, or you need to outsource them.

    Editing–not just proofreading, but true developmental editing.
    Cover Design–unless you are also an artist/designer, hire someone and vette their work first
    Formatting–print and eBooks are different animals. You have to understand the constraints of eBooks (limited html set) and how font and spacing choices effect print readability.
    Converting–with little know how, the easiest of the skills
    Marketing–the bane of most writers’ existence and hard to get right

    Of course, all this presupposes you’ve written a good story.

    • Sharon Beck

      You really nail it with your post. My publishing company performs all these functions, and the receptivity of authors to this really varies.

      We are currently working with an author who is allowing us to work as true developmental editors. We collaborate with him, ask him to write new sections or develop better backstories for characters, discuss possible story lines, and he writes or alters what it needed. Now have asked him to consider altering the ending to allow for the creation of a series using these characters. It all may well happen.

      Then, we have another author who refuses all our suggestions that we perform even light copy editing. She just wants us to design the cover and interior, and have it printed. We can’t let obvious errors appear in something that has our credit on it, so we fix the most glaring errors anyway (with the author’s “appreciation.”) I hope that we can convince her that she needs editing for the five other books she will be doing with us.

      I question the notion that a person can “self-edit.” Very few people are sufficiently trained to perform such a function. Even the very best writers will generally admit that they too have benefit from working with a good editor. I am related to a writer with about a dozen books published by major publishers, and while he is quite good at self-editing, even he has been grateful for copy editing.

  22. Esmeralda

    I have to mostly-disagree with you on this one. Of all the independently-published books out there, many (many!) are so poorly written that no amount of “editing” could ever salvage them, and paying for a professional editor would just be a sad waste of money. And there are others where the author is perfectly capable of doing all the editing and proofreading him/herself, so a pro editor would be an unnecessary expense (though certainly a darn nice service to have, if you can afford it).

    And then, undoubtedly, there are some that fall in between those two groups, where a professional editor will make the difference between a good book and a poor one. But to suggest that ALL books are in that middle category is logically unsupportable, IMO.

    I’ve sold a number of short stories to professional publishers and thereby had them professionally edited. More often than not, those editors have suggested either no changes or only trivial changes. So it’s not a given that an editor will always improve a manuscript.

    You also make a few implicit plugs for getting your book professionally produced, which is a whole ‘nuther topic.

    • Joel Friedlander

      As someone whose profession is professionally producing books, I’m not surprised “plugs” sneak in there, it’s perhaps an occupational hazard.

      And sure, it’s not possible to generalize too much about books because there are so many, published for many different reasons.

      The first question I have for authors when we talk, meet, consult or work on a project together is: what will make this book a success for you? The answer to that question guides the editorial, production and marketing plans for the book.

      Thanks for your input.

  23. christopher wills

    Very important message and I agree with what you say but I think you are generalising a little. There are amatuer writers who take a great deal of care and pride over the editing process of their books, just as there are professional editors who are not that good. I have seen websites devoted to ‘errors’ in books by well known and very well sold authors, where the books have presumably been professionally edited by their publishing company.

    A couple of simple examples include bestseller Jeffrey Archer books see (this relates a case where the errors are condoned by the publisher just to get the book out by Christmas to make money…)

    ‘Jacqui Graham, Lord Archer’s publicist at Macmillans, insisted Lord Archer was no more prone to factual errors than the average writer of popular fiction.
    “If you conducted this exercise on writers in a similar area, not just necessarily our authors, but fiction writers in general, I think you would be surprised by how many mistakes are made. It would be an interesting exercise,” she told BBC News Online.
    She said writers were often more interested in getting on with the story on than in checking every fact. And editors were often under “a lot of pressure” to get books ready for publication.”‘

    Also consider the hugely successful Patricia Cornwell whose main character Kay Scarpetta ages 6 years in her first 6 books whilst her niece Lucy ages 20 years, and there are many other factual errors. The list of errors in bestsellers is long. So much for professional editing.
    I’m not taking away your message which I think is very important; I’m just suggesting that professional versus amatuer is not as clear as your post might suggest.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, Christopher. The lack of editing in many traditionally-published books has been a concern for years during the consolidation of the publishing industry. Self-publishing authors have the chance to not fall victim to sloppy editing because we’re running the process. I’m trying to encourage authors to take that seriously.

  24. Michael N. Marcus

    Excellent advice, as usual, Joel — but I hope you’re not just “preaching to the choir” here.

    The books, websites and ads that tell newbies that they can “SELF-PUBLISH FREE” are dishonest, and destructive.

    Regardless of the free admission to Lulu and CreateSpace, and inexpensive (i.e. no-editing) packages from companies like Outskirts and Xlibris, if you can’t afford to hire a professional editor and designer, you can’t afford to publish.

    The world does not need more bad books.

    Michael N. Marcus (information, help and book reviews for authors)
    — Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:

    — New: deluxe hardcover edition of “Stories I’d Tell My Children (but maybe not until they’re adults),”

    • Esmeralda

      “if you can’t afford to hire a professional editor and designer, you can’t afford to publish.”

      Gosh knows there would be fewer bad books in the world if everyone believed this, but that doesn’t make it true.

      There’s no magical power imbued upon a person when they become a professional editor, and there’s no law of the universe that says a person can’t do a good job of editing their own book.

      I’ll concede that a good editor will generally be able to make any book better. But then again, a bad editor will make a great book less great, and no editor can make an awful book into a good one.

      Editors aren’t magic, in other words.

      • Joel Friedlander

        Obviously there are many kinds of writers and publishers. My complaint here isn’t that people are acting as their own self-editors, or that editors should be held in high esteem. The problem is in the dispensing of advice that is questionable, at best.

        Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  25. Colin Dunbar

    Hello Joel

    I completely agree with what you say. It’s actually sad when I see books that have quality content, but so poorly designed it’ll almost be impossible to give away the book. And this is so relevant with PDF ebooks.

    Nice post, and look forward to the news of your course.


    • Lorilyn Roberts

      I believe in self-publishing but if you go that route, it’s extremely important to pay for a good editor and a great cover designer.

      That is the only way to ensure that POD and self-published books are on par with traditionally published books.



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