Does my editor understand my audience?
You’ve finished the rough draft of your book. Now you’re ready to find an editor to clean the copy up. Whether the assignment calls for substantive editing, copy editing, or proofreading, rolling the dice and choosing the first person who looks like the Grammar Police may not be the best business move. You need to find an editor who is both qualified to edit your book and understands how to market the material you’re writing. While your editor should be qualified to cross your T’s and dot your I’s, this should also be a person who is passionate about your project.
Here are five real-life experiences I’ve had with private clients who taught me valuable lessons about why an editor needs to be able to meet both requirements before being hired.
Make sure your editor can relate so you don’t lose core audience.
When a new author reached out to me on a freelancing site, he had an unwavering goal with this book. He wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of African-American women, but he also wanted to provide some tough love for his African-American male readers. He specifically wanted an African-American woman to read the content for two reasons: to avoid mansplaining, and to make sure black women would learn both known and unknown historical accomplishments.
Ideally, his goal was to write the book for his wife and women like her. But when I opened the manuscript for the first time, several chapters were filled with complaints about non-black people. Once I got to the point of it being about 75% complaints about white people and 25% discussing black women’s history, I sent back several chapters and asked him if he was sure of his angle. I genuinely do not believe he would’ve been able to handle this kind of criticism from a non-black woman. It would’ve been too easy for him to believe a white editor was taking his work personally and just couldn’t handle the truth.
I had a unique perk (being black and a woman) that made my feedback both constructive and sincere. If the goal is to celebrate black women, then I want to read that.
Regardless of what he wrote, I could’ve just gone through the copy and collected a paycheck. But I knew this original draft wasn’t going to meet his original expectations. He took a few weeks to rewrite some chapters, and I lost out on a chunk of money waiting on his book to come back to me. When I received the revised copy, it was a totally different book and suitable for his target audience. Of course, I re-earned the money I’d been missing, but my bigger goal was to make sure he ended up with the book he dreamed of writing. And I was quite proud when he sent me a message letting me know the book was designed and ready to sell.
Your editor should be able to help you discuss sensitive topics.
A client contacted me to ghostwrite his own book. While I traditionally shy away from ghostwriting anything, this was a biographical look at his own life dealing with sexual assault, child abuse, and mental health challenges. Clearly this was not my story to tell, nor was it something I had a right to put my byline on. I was hired to operate as an interviewer, transcriber, and editor for his work. He just didn’t feel comfortable re-telling this story to three different people, so I agreed to wear three hats until the project was complete.
Full disclosure: Although I’d written extensively on race and social justice issues, I’d pretty much shied away from the kinds of graphic topics he wanted to speak on. But through several conversations we had beforehand and me understanding where he wanted this book to go to, I was able to learn how he wanted the content to be laid out. Casual conversations with him not only made him feel more comfortable telling me the trauma he went through — it also helped me feel more confident in asking him some very intrusive questions so I could write from his perspective.
On my own, I would’ve written a statistically heavy book about how every 73 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. I would’ve pointed out how every nine minutes, a child is the victim of sexual assault and only five out of every 1,000 perpetrators would go to prison. I’d have written a full chapter on why it’s important to know that one in 10 of every rape victims is male.
But that was not his story. This client wanted a first-person narrative, and statistics like those would scare his audience off. The goal was to make his readers feel like they were not alone instead of running off stats and the odds of arrests. And when the book was complete and ready to be self-published, I completely understood why he backed out and decided he would prefer to share his copy voluntarily at a mental health facility he’d previously attended. In his mind, he’d gotten exactly what he asked for — a completed book to share with his peers.
Let your editor know what your book plans are.
I had a particularly frustrating conversation with a client recently who told me he was “not one of those traditional writers” and “people like me don’t read books.” However, he wanted to hire me as the editor for his “book.” Our first hourlong conversation did not get off to a great start once he told me it was only 20 pages. Telling a bookworm that people don’t read books is a terrible way to start a conversation, especially with an editor.
I bluntly told him that 20 pages was not a book. That’s a pamphlet, and children’s books can be longer than that. He insisted that he knew “plenty of authors with 20, 30, and 40-page books.” I groaned when he started asking about book covers and photographers for this 20-pager. I insisted that he flesh out his work until he had something long enough to at least be the size of a novella.
But I finally understood where he was going with this 20-page project after he told me he’d be passing his “book” out during live speaking events. While I was so hung up on the average size of a paperback book, in retrospect, I should have asked him, “What is your larger goal for presenting this to the public?” Understanding that his project was intended to be a guiding tool, as opposed to something sold in bookstores, would’ve eliminated a lot of confusion.
Tread lightly with potential editors who don’t check off every initial qualification.
A couple of years ago, I was hired by a mother who wanted to write several legal letters in a child custody case. I am neither a mother nor a lawyer, and initially, I thought a project like this was not in my wheelhouse. But she believed, after reading my past civil law blogs, that I could do this assignment. (I’ve never had a writer fight for me to be their editor before, especially when I felt I was so unqualified to do so.) I’d co-written legal copy before, but I always relied on my writing partner (who was my own attorney) to handle the specifics. But she didn’t practice family law, so I knew I couldn’t use her as a reference.
However, I had a general understanding of what this mother needed to send to government officials. I was no stranger to talking to local politicians and had interviewed enough family lawyers to have a general understanding of her initial needs for a child custody case. When I read her initial letters and talked to her, she was too emotionally invested to be able to write her own letters. I understood why she needed an unbiased third-party.
At one point, her child custody case became so intense that she decided to opt-out of being interviewed about it anymore. She enlisted a longtime friend to speak on her behalf, who I worked with to prepare the rest of the copy. By the time I was done, they’d both gotten the content they needed. Although I would’ve never initially applied for a job like this, I became (almost) as passionate about her seeing her child as she was.
Your editor’s network base may be your next customer.
A literary agent is the mover and shaker for your work to get published (for mainstream publications). They handle the sales process and contract negotiations. A marketing “street team” can be used to get the word out about your book in the neighborhood and potentially help with book signings. The latter crew becomes especially important for self-publishers. But too often the editor is overlooked as a potential network base.
While I have edited countless assignments that I’ll admit were pretty dull, it’s the ones that I would’ve read for fun that made me do unsolicited advertising. Working with an editor who is already interested in your book projects, articles, and events could be just the networking audience you need. Don’t be afraid to invite them, even after the work is done. They’ll usually tell a friend who will tell a friend.
I’ve lost count of the number of networking events, parties, and/or book signings I’ve been to simply from being affiliated with a project. I’ve used my own connections to spread the word about my clients’ events to other people who I think would like to hear about them — free of charge.
Choosing an editor is a bit of a gamble. With a traditional publisher, you may end up working with someone who just works for that editing company. Typically this person is trained to edit whatever kinds of manuscripts the owner has agreed to. You two will usually have a one-on-one working relationship where you’ll depend on this person to help get your copy to its best version.
If hiring your own editor just sounds too exhausting — or is not an option for a traditional publisher — ask about what kinds of projects this editor has previously worked on. While every editor may not be your liaison for marketing goals, this person should always understand and respect your book marketing end game.
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