Columns > Published on October 24th, 2012

The 3 Most Popular Editorial Services and Do You Need Them?

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Three years ago I headed toward the ‘advice for writers’ shelf at Barnes and Noble. I was beginning my research on advice for writers as I was finally leaving my literary agent mantle behind and making my casual role as publishing counsel official. I was and wasn’t shocked to discover the genre had exploded. I felt as though I was seeing, at the very least, double the titles that were offered a mere five years before. My thoughts immediately shifted toward the market – why do writers need all this? Are they really reading all this advice in the hopes of getting published? Today there are myriad experts from burgeoning authors to former literary agents like me, to marketing and PR professionals – all making a living from dispensing their brand of ‘advice for writers.’ When Pearson, the largest traditional publisher in the world purchased Author Solutions, Inc., the largest self-publishing company in the world, we learned editorial services were big business. It was reported that Author Solutions, Inc. earns approximately two-thirds of its revenue through selling editorial and marketing services to writers - a service area that continues to grow as more and more writers feel they too can make a name for themselves in publishing. 

There are myriad experts... making a living from dispensing their brand of ‘advice for writers.’ Which services are truly worth the investment?

So which services are worth your time and money? Which services are truly worth the investment? I’ve broken down the top three most popular editorial services that may be worth saving for. Starving artist, are you? There are solutions for you, too.

Manuscript Critique

Whether you choose to approach traditional or self-publishing, your manuscript needs to be in the best possible shape before you submit or “upload.” Until recently, writers would gather their most well-read (and sometimes traditionally published) friends to read their work and offer valuable feedback. Now, writers can hire editorial professionals to give them an objective and careful read and critique of their work.   

What to Expect

Those who offer manuscript critiques give feedback on the broad strokes of a manuscript – does the plot work; are the characters believable and vibrant and do their arcs work;  are the loose ends tied up; is the POV effective and does it captivate; is the writing style authentic; and does the quality of writing pass muster. The editor who offers this critique will also be open to answering your specific questions about what is or isn’t working as objectively as they can. They will not line edit or copyedit your work. Typically, people who offer this service are former editors from publishing houses, ex-literary agents, freelance editors, published authors or publishing consultants who’ve had prior experience as an agent or editor. 

It’s imperative you have an in-person or phone conversation to make sure the temperament of the professional offering the critique is aligned with yours. Ask questions: What’s your experience in publishing? What books or authors have you worked with before? Are you writing your own book right now and are you on deadline? What is the usual turn-around time? What kind of notes should I expect and when will I get them?

The Benefits

The right editor will help you discover and address major and minor issues with plot, character development and the overall quality of your writing. They will discuss your concerns about the work and help you develop solutions that work for you and the manuscript. If you develop a positive relationship with your editor and you follow-through with a successful edit (or more), they may refer you to a few literary agents and/or editors as a courtesy (but of course, there are no promises of representation or a publishing contract and this courtesy is rarely advertised). It never hurts to at least ask for their recommendations on how to move forward and who you should contact.  

The Cost

These services usually range in price from $3 or $4 per page to $1000 or more for review of the entire manuscript. 

The Red Flags

If a literary agent or self-publishing service offers a manuscript critique for a fee, enter the agreement at your own risk. Ethical literary agents don’t charge their clients to edit their work and they shouldn’t prescribe major edits and expect you to follow-up with them without first offering representation. Literary agents make 10-15% from the sale of the book and all royalties thereafter. They also earn a percentage on foreign rights sales. This is how agents get paid for their work, which means agents prefer a manuscript that’s ready to shop.

As far as self-publishing manuscript critique services go, I would advise against it. You’ll be in far better hands working with a professional that’s worked in traditional publishing as an editor or literary agent or who has successfully self-published, who has specialized in your genre rather than someone trying to sell service packages with an agenda.     

Starving Artist Option

Reads and critiques from smart, well-read, discerning friends and colleagues are still a great option if you can’t afford a professional critique or just choose not to. If you're connecting with other writers on a site like this, chances are you can find someone willing to swap manuscripts for critique. Get involved and ask.   

Your Role

You signed on for an entire manuscript critique from a seasoned professional who most likely has a different skill set and professional perspective than you. Worse case scenario, you may have expressed that you “just want to see if it’s ready to submit,” but the person offering the critique isn’t going to hold back if they see glaring issues with the manuscript beyond a few blemishes. Be prepared to read the worst about your work. Does the person offering the critique think you’re a dolt for producing sub-par material? No. It’s not personal. Writing a novel is damn hard work and we realize that perfection doesn’t happen in a few drafts or even after several. Your editor will expect that you know this as well. If any of the feedback you receive is unclear, ask questions until you are clear. Whether you totally agree or disagree with the assessment, honor the intelligence of the professional you hired. 

It’s your choice to address the changes prescribed by your editor. Spend some time thinking about their notes. Talk about the feedback with others who have read the manuscript. Maybe you agree with everything they said, maybe you only agree with a few things, maybe you take some time to reflect on the work and you see something else entirely that needs to happen. Do your best to revise – really revise, not cut and paste edit – then send it off into the world when you feel in your gut it’s ready.   

Query Letter Review and Crafting

Ah yes, that all-important piece of introductory marketing that may or may not knock the socks off an agent or editor and prompt them to request the manuscript – or at least a partial. If you’re not used to writing query letters or pitching your work in general, writing a query can be intimidating. How do you start the thing? How do you wrap up 80,000 words in a few power packed paragraphs? How do you make darn sure that agent “gets” the emotional journey of your character? You’re a writer, not a marketer. Don’t despair! There are many wildly talented query letter writing professionals available to help you sum up your work and who you are in just a few succinct, powerful paragraphs. 

Whether you choose to invest in these services or not, whether you choose to self-publish or go traditional, be wise and take no short cut when it comes to quality. Do the work. Take the time.

What to Expect

The pro you hire will spend some time talking with you about your book and will want to review your previous attempts at query letter writing as well as a synopsis of your novel. From your discussion and the materials you’re able to provide, they’ll craft a piece of marketing that will hopefully prompt a literary agent or editor to request your work. 

The Cost

Usually $100 and up, as part of a “package” deal or by an hourly/word count rate. 

The Benefit

A professionally crafted query letter may allow you and your work to stand out among the heaps of not-so-well written query letters agents and editors review on a daily basis. It may make the difference between your work being seen or not.

The Red Flags

Any service designed to “get you in the door” is designed to make you and your work look good. If you receive more than a few rejection letters after an agent or editor has reviewed your work and expressed their disappointment with the disparity of what was pitched and what was literally on the page, then you know you’ve wasted your money. If you sign up for this type of service, please make sure the professional helping you has read the entire manuscript. If they’ve been around in the business, they’ll either guide you toward creating a more accurate query letter or guide you to a revision.

Another caveat worth mentioning…some high dollar publishing experts require you to do most of the work even after you’ve paid them upwards of a month’s rent for this service. Even though this is a skill you should eventually be able to do yourself, if you’re shelling out big money for an “expert” to help you craft a query letter, um, most of the crafting needs to be happening on their end. You’re paying for a marketing service, not a workshop.

Your Role

Understand that this is a marketing service. While an expertly crafted query letter may get your material read faster, there are no guarantees of representation or publication. There are no guarantees the agent or editor you sent your query to is actually the one reading it – in larger agencies and publishing houses, that’s the intern or assistant’s job. Ultimately, an agent or editor is going to offer representation or a contract based on the quality of the material (and platform, if applicable).  

Starving Artist Option

Some literary agency websites provide examples of query letters that led them to request a writer’s work they later signed and sold. Otherwise, there are many books available at your bookstore and at the library that will help walk you through the finer points of query letter crafting. If you have any friends who work in marketing, PR or publishing, ask them if they would please review your attempted query letter and offer suggestions that would improve the quality. 

Pitch Crafting

One of the most valuable services disguised as a marketing tool is Pitch Crafting. A popular workshop at writers’ conferences, smaller workshops, or as a one-on-one service; agents, editors, publicists and publishing consultants will listen to you pitch your novel and offer valuable feedback on your pitch and how to present professionally and confidently.

Keep in mind, pitches are not about the emotional or philosophical journey of the character(s) no matter how intriguing – it’s about the plot.

What to Expect

The person listening to your pitch will prompt you to begin pitching your book as you would during an official conference or other book event pitch session designed to help agents and editors connect with writers they’d like to work with. After listening to your pitch, the expert is going to either give you two thumbs up or more likely, ask questions about the book if the plot, hook or characters are out of focus. Based on the info you give them, they’ll show you how to sharpen your pitch so you’re clearly and succinctly communicating the juiciest meat of your book in a way that brings your novel full circle in just a few minutes. The expert may also give you tips or pointers on how to present yourself as a calm, confident writer – which is a very important piece of the pitch.

Keep in mind, pitches are not about the emotional or philosophical journey of the character(s) no matter how intriguing – it’s about the plot.

The Cost

Usually based on the expert’s hourly rate, free as part of a larger editorial services package or included in your event fees. Workshops focusing solely on pitching range from $25 and up. Sometimes free!

The Benefits

Knowing how to talk about your book and wrap up its finer points crisply and in a way that makes us say, “I have to read that,” is a very important skill to have. This marketing chore becomes so much easier and palatable when you truly know how to organize your thoughts about your book - which will lead you to a greater sense of confidence when you approach the wide array of industry gatekeepers, influentials and the very important reader.

Sometimes, though, a benefit can be disguised as work. Sometimes the professional helping you asks so many questions you may discover major holes in your plot or character development. If that happens, it may be worth re-reading the manuscript and having a few more people read it as well to make sure the work is sound. If those holes are really there, a revision is most likely necessary. 

The Red Flags

Once in a while you’ll encounter a surly agent or editor who you may feel treats you like an idiot for not “getting” it or you may run across a professional who is very kind and makes you feel great about your work but lets you off the hook with an easy A. If you’re paying for this service, make sure you have an opportunity to speak with the professional first so you understand where they’re coming from and get a sense of their personality. You don’t want a know-it-all brute with no bedside manner nor do you want someone who is totally easygoing. You want someone who is professional, yet kind, who will truly pick apart your pitch to make sure all the pieces really fit together.

Your Role

When you’re working with someone who hasn’t read your book but is giving you advice on how to present it, understand they’re trying to piece together all the information you’ve given them. It’s your job to communicate clearly to get the most out of this service. Try not to take the critique personally and don’t apologize for stumbling. You’re dealing with a group of people who are very passionate about books and their work – they are also very passionate about helping you succeed.

Starving Artist Option

Think of your novel as if it were a movie. Now, imagine what the trailer of your adapted-for-screen novel would sound like. Write it down. Shoot for something that can be said in about one to two minutes tops. Then, practice your verbal pitch (just as you would at an event) with a professional-minded, detail-oriented, outgoing friend. Ask them for candid feedback: Did the pitch hold their imagination? Did they understand what the book was about? Was the pitch concise or did you ramble and get sidetracked? Could they visualize the story? Did you look and sound comfortable? Presentable? Confident?

Writers, you have so many options to better your work at your fingertips today. Whether you choose to invest in these services or not, whether you choose to self-publish or go traditional, be wise and take no short cut when it comes to quality. Do the work. Take the time. Understand that it takes a hell of a lot of time and energy to build a career as a writer. Above all, realize the process of writing is special, it’s yours. Yes, there are a lot of great people in this industry and right in your own backyard who can help and there are those who would rather sell, well... services, but ultimately that fire and talent comes from you. You can’t buy that. 

About the author

ERIN REEL is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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