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Do you need an editor?


That was a short article, wasn’t it?

At the MPIBA conference last weekend, just about everybody had stories to share of authors who don’t think they need an editor, or copyeditor, or proofreader. Most of them, in fact, don’t know the difference between those three (more on that in a moment). Well, if Stephen King needs an editor and a proofreader, so do you.

Let’s say you’ve just banged out an absolutely amazing 100,000-word novel. You have created unique and believable characters. Your have brought each scene to life, so that readers feel, see, smell, hear, and even taste the places in your book. And with the average word being about five letters long, you have pressed a half-million keys (not counting spaces and punctuation marks). The odds of doing that without a mistake are infinitesimal.

I’m sure you proofread your own work. If you’re like me, you’ve probably proofread your book many times. But there’s a problem with proofing your own work: you see what you think you wrote instead of what you actually wrote. You know the book inside out. You will often read right past a typo or continuity error. That’s why there are three people you really need to enlist (sometimes one person may fill more than one of these roles):

An Editor

Your editor is the one who reviews the book for continuity and flow. It’s the editor that might say, “spend more time explaining what’s going on in Chapter 3” or “I think Chapter 14 is completely superfluous.” Editors look at your plot structure if you’re a novelist and clarity if you write nonfiction. If you write YA or children’s books, it’s the editor that can tell you if you’ve hit your target age group. Good editors are experts in their genres. You may choose not to take their advice, but you should always listen to what they have to say.

A Copyeditor

Your copyeditor is the one that goes deeper than plot elements and structure. Copyediting involves checking your book for formatting problems, factual errors, style consistency, and other mechanical issues. If you say “see page 142” and the thing you’re referencing is really on page 144, it’s the copyeditor that will catch it — although in this era of ebooks, you really shouldn’t reference page numbers!

A Proofreader

Your proofreader puts your work under a microscope, looking at spelling, punctuation, grammar, and the minutia of language. Treat your proofreaders well, because they’re the ones that catch the really embarrassing typos!

An Example

There’s a book we’ve been selling for years in my bookstore. It’s called Scats & Tracks of the Rocky Mountains. Here’s what the cover of the 2nd edition looks like:

Scats and Tracks 2nd ed cover

The publisher has a new look for their Falcon Guide series, so they decided to redesign the cover. In general, it’s a good look. Everything went well until someone told the cover designer, “add an animal footprint on the front.” The designer added one, and they sent the book off to the printer. Unfortunately, there was a problem with the placement of the track:

Scats and Tracks 3rd ed

Yep. It covered the first letter of the title, changing the book from Scats and Tracks to Cats and Tracks. Even the big publishers need to use proofreaders more often!

Symbiosis, Indies First, and Part-Time Indians

Indies FirstI have often said that indie bookstores have a symbiotic relationship with 2nd and 3rd tier authors. I suppose that symbiosis got a little out of hand when I bought a bookstore, but that’s another subject entirely. When Stephen King writes a new book, it doesn’t matter to him whether a little store like mine promotes it. His publisher will throw a fat marketing budget at it, his massive fan base will be all abuzz, and the book will hit the New York Times bestseller list before it even comes out. It’s a different matter for most authors.

When I write a new book, it makes a huge difference if a few independent bookstores pick it up and hand sell it. Small stores can launch an author. And one big author event can pay off that last big bill that pushes an indie store into profitability for the month. Don’t get me wrong; indie bookstores need J.K. Rowling and John Grisham and (sigh) Dan Brown. But authors like them aren’t going to show up in Red Lodge, Montana to do a book signing. Craig Johnson, on the other hand, still remembers the stores that hosted him back when he was relatively unknown, and still does his “outlaw motorcycle tour” each year where he signs at little stores like mine.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie models an Indies First book bag in this photo from the American Booksellers Association.

A few months ago, Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, among other books) wrote an open letter to other authors suggesting that Small Business Saturday would be a perfect opportunity for authors to show their support of indie bookstores by becoming an honorary bookseller for a day. He said we could call it “Indies First.” His idea, in the e-parlance of today, went viral. Authors jumped on the idea, and the American Booksellers Association stepped in to help pair up authors with stores.

On Small Business Saturday, which fell on November 30th this year, over 1,000 authors showed up at their favorite bookstore to sell books. Not just their own books. These authors did what the people in the stores do every day: they talked to shoppers and helped them pick books for themselves and for gifts.

Craig Lancaster came to my store that day — and it warmed my heart that an author published by Amazon still loves the brick & mortar stores! Craig introduced himself to everyone that came in the store and told them about Indies First. Normally, when Craig is in my store, I’m telling everybody about his books: Edward Adrift is as good as (dare I say “better than”?) 600 Hours of Edward. I really enjoyed his short story collection, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, and I think you’ll like it, too. That day, however, I got to listen to Craig helping people find good books by other authors. Sure, we sold some of his, but I enjoyed hearing what other authors he recommended.

I think that the Indies First program is a wonderful idea. It does sadden me a bit that we need to do it. A section on a website entitled, “People who looked at this book also bought these books,” isn’t a substitute for talking to someone who’s knowledgeable about books, and that’s what indie stores are all about. Back before I bought a bookstore, I used to seek out the indies because shopping at the big stores was frustrating. I could never find anyone who actually knew their inventory or knew how to answer my questions. Even though I own a store now, I still visit other indie stores when I travel. After twelve years in the business, I continue to learn from people in those other stores, and they often recommend books I wouldn’t have thought of reading — or giving as gifts.

The timing on Indies First was also just right. Most of us manage to muddle along finding good things to read for ourselves. But finding good books as gifts can be more challenging. That’s where the perspective of the authors helps. They can come up with ideas for gift-giving that the store staff might not have thought of. With Christmas approaching, that’s invaluable.

Thank you to Sherman Alexie for coming up with the idea, to the American Booksellers Association for promoting it, and to Craig Lancaster for bringing it to my store. It made a difference to us.

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