The Editor–Author Relationship: Five Reasons Why Self-Publishing Authors Need an Editor

By Dick Margulis

Don't tell me you don't need an editor. I've heard that one before.

1. "I don't like being edited."

"My manuscript represents months of work. That's my blood on the page. I feel like I've given birth.… No editor can possibly understand how it feels..." And so forth.

Get over yourself. First of all, your editor is not your ninth grade English teacher (at least I hope not) and is not there to rap your knuckles for forgetting some arcane rule. Editors are professionals who are accustomed to interacting with authors in a mutually respectful relationship. Editors have to make a living, and they would quickly find themselves unable to if they went out of their way to hurt authors' feelings or insult them.

Throughout history, authors have relied on their editors to be their sounding boards, to represent the eye and ear of the reader, and to bring a viewpoint that can't arise spontaneously in the author's head. Do you think that has changed because words are written electronically?

More important, though, the point at which you engage an editor is the point at which you take off your author hat and put on your product developer hat. You and your editor are a team, trying to put out the best product you can, so that it will be embraced by your target audience. The editor is there to help you, not to get into fights with you about the way you write. If you are the parent of your manuscript, engaging the editor is when you send your child off to college to learn from others.

2. "I'm self-publishing."

"So I have to edit this myself."

Not at all. Self-publishing doesn't mean do-everything-yourself publishing. If you want to publish a work you can be proud of, you are going to have to engage people with experience producing books. One of those people is an editor. Yes, you want to spend as little as you can on outside editing. And that means you want to do as much self-editing as you can before you send your manuscript out for an editing quote. This self-editing may be based on reading books about self-editing; or it may be based on feedback from a writers' group you belong to; or it may be something you do the old-fashioned way, by putting the manuscript in a desk drawer for a couple of weeks and then rereading it (surprising how many things you'll want to change if you do that).

One of the ways to make self-editing more productive, of course, is to be a master of your tools. Take advantage of the power of your computer to help you spot problems. Use a good spell checker. Use a macro package to automate routine tasks. Use a consistency checker like PerfectIt. Editors use these tools to speed their work and save you money, and you can use them first to present a cleaner manuscript to the editor.

3. "My manuscript is perfect."

Uh, yeah. Right. You should definitely make it as good as you can before you send it to an editor, but assuming you're human, you have erred, probably in a big way, somewhere in that manuscript. No one is perfect, and no manuscript longer than a few pages is likely to be perfect. Our brains are designed to do many wonderful things, but generating error-free prose is not one of them.

Here's something you might not realize. Editors aren't perfect either, and there is a commercial standard for editing quality. That standard is somewhere around ninety percent. If an editor catches ninety percent of the errors in a manuscript, then the editor has done as good a job as the publisher has any right to expect (even though many editors exceed this standard every day of the week). Now what does this mean to you as an author? It means that if you submit a manuscript with a hundred errors, the editor is expected to catch ninety of them. And the proofreader who later checks the typeset pages should find nine of the remaining ten, leaving you with a book that has a single error in it. That's not bad. If your manuscript begins with a thousand errors (not unusual), the same arithmetic generates a finished book with ten errors (pretty common, but not great).

Anything you can do to produce a clean manuscript is going to help get you as close to an error-free book as possible.

4. "I can't afford an editor."

Really? Can you afford to produce a book full of errors? Or is this just a polite way of saying you hate being told you made a mistake?

If you really don't have the cash, then you should probably be sending queries to literary agents rather than trying to publish the book yourself. If a mainstream publisher picks up your book, they'll pay the editor. But if you are determined to self-publish and you decide to do it without an editor, you may come to regret that choice.

Self-publishing is a business - the publishing business - and if you hope to succeed in it, you have to manage it like a business. You have to look at your skill set and decide which of the many tasks associated with publishing you are suited to doing yourself and which can be done more effectively and more economically by others. Your time has value, and you have to decide how it is best spent.

Errors have valueFigure 1: Errors have financial consequences

Editors check documents for a living. They can do it faster, better, and more cost-effectively than you can possibly do it yourself. In economics terms, the opportunity cost of employing an editor (or a designer, compositor, proofreader, indexer, or any of the other specialized book production people) is very low to anyone who is self-publishing. That's because you can use the time you save to sell more books and increase your revenue. Focus on your marketing, optimize your website, or get started on the next book. When you count in the time you save and what you can do with that time, using an editor just makes sense.

5. "It's just an e-book."

"I haven't invested anything in typesetting or printing, and I can always fix the mistakes later."

Yes, you can. But every time you upload a new version of the book, it takes time and in many cases costs money to do so. In the meantime, the people who caught those errors and wrote those negative reviews and want their refunds are not doing anything for your reputation as a writer.

An e-book is a book. It's every bit as much a conversation between you and your reader as a hardcover or paperback book, and you owe your reader the same degree of respect as any author ever owed any reader.

Don't tell me you don't need an editor. I've heard that one before.

Dick Margulis is chief cook and bottle washer at Dick Margulis Creative Services. He began correcting his elders as a small child and has been editing one thing or another for over half a century. As his handwriting is execrable, he learned to set type at an early age and has been studying and practicing typography ever since. His website is

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