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. 

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lspieller's picture
lspieller from Los Angeles October 24, 2012 - 9:06am

i was recently at a conference w/ an agent pitch slam, and an agent asked me two questions after i gave my shpiel:

1. is your MS finished?

2. would you pay to have your ms professionally edited?

I said yes it's finished, and no i won't. He asked for a partial anyway. I think between this site,  blogs w/ helpful examples and tips, CPs, writing groups, and (with any luck) some "natural" talent, you can suceed without these services. Plus, never estimate the value of 800 drafts of every single thing you write.

that being said, if you can afford these services (which i can't) sure they can only help!

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2012 - 9:46am

Thanks for your comment and candor.

Partiality aside, LitReactor is a great place to go for tips, info and most of all instruction from some of the best writers being published today and/or other publishing professionals who have an interest in helping writers develop their craft. You really can get a full education here. So yes, this site is a great place to hang and learn as a writer. Eight hundred revisions can also be helpful. 

Writing services aren't for every writer and every writer does not need them. If you choose to go the traditional route, keep in mind a publisher is going to take a bulk of the percentage of your royalties to cover the cost of developmental editing, copyediting, cover design, marketing and promotion. You're actually paying for all that on the back-end. So, do you need editorial services on the front-end? Maybe, maybe not. Just like your writing process, what works for some writers doesn't work for others.

If you choose to self-pub I highly recommend some investment at the very least in copyediting and cover design. You just can't skimp on those areas. 

Another thing to add...when you work with an editor to help you develop your manuscript, they should be asking you lots of questions to help you discover what needs to happen with your work. They can share their perspective with you about the work, they can make suggestions as to what may or may not work with the plot or characters, but ultimately, their subjective preferences should not enter the discussion. Any direction you take with your work has to feel right to you. 

rmatthewsimmons's picture
rmatthewsimmons from Salt Lake City, UT is reading I just put down 'A Game of Thrones' after 6 chapters....Couldn't do it. October 24, 2012 - 10:14am

I seem to fall a bit between both Erin's and Ispieller's sentiments and after some searching found excellent help, for free mind you, at the University and at the City Library.

The help and coaching offered isn't necessarily going through and finding every spelling or grammer mistake so much as it was having a 'professional' reader and writer go through my work from an outsiders perspective. My biggest fear, besides the work being absolutely horrible, was not having what was in my head, and now on paper being, understood by others-and in that manner they have been absolutely beneficial in their feedback.

I should preface all this by saying that it wasn't quite so beneficial until I found a woman who was into and a fan of the genre I am writing-her greatest contribution so far has been to push me to run even more wild with the idea I had in my first draft and venture that much further down the rabbit hole and not be so conservative with the approach.

Granted, because the service I'm receiving is free-the process is rather slow and drawn out. But that would be my only complaint.



Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 24, 2012 - 10:53am

Matthew, I'm glad you found someone to offer you in-depth feedback who also LOVES your genre...that's a must. Every writer should have at least a handful of trusted readers who will offer insightful feedback.  

The library is a wonderful place to receive a free education. In fact, I think everyone should start there if the can't afford a membership to a site like this or if they just don't care to live online. I finally checked out Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. And yet, you have to know when to pull away from the resources and just write your heart out.

It's hard to give advice to writers about an industry I'm a part of because I certainly don't love everything about it - I'm very partial and sometimes a little too outspoken about what works, what doesn't and what just isn't worth the time or investment. But I will say, there are a lot of great people, agents and consultants, who truly want to help writers and will spend a lot more time on your work than what was contracted - they want to see you do well.

And hey, some agents, although a very few, will help you develop your work if they love it enough and see the potential. Should you find an agent like that, thank your lucky stars and them...often!

Thanks for your comment.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs October 24, 2012 - 7:28pm

Are these services really more popular than copy editing, content editing (although I assume manuscript critiquing is similar), and proofreading? I figure these things are more important for authors who self-publish rather than authors who want to get published by presses (since in-house editors will do these things, although taking advantage of these services will certainly increase the chances of acceptence). Perhaps not many self-published authors hire editors for their work. Are most editorial services being used by authors seeking agents?

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 25, 2012 - 5:25am

If a writer decides to self-publish for any reason, especially to earn money from their work, they MUST develop some level of publishing/marketing "team" to help them approach the business the appropriate way or else be very well informed about the entire process. I would strongly encourage an indie author to budget at least for a copyeditor, and cover design. And then of course, they need to be active via social media, writing communities, etc. Word of mouth marketing is what sells books. Getting feedback from other well-read readers before publishing is of course not even negotiable - it's a must.

A critique can lead to content or developmental editing if the writer wants to take the coaching to that level. Or, they can take the notes from the critique and work solo on the manuscript. I've worked in-depth on developmental editing with writers all over the literary spectrum, you might be surprised who signs up for these services. Usually, most of the writers I work with, for example, want to publish traditionally - that's the goal. They'll move to self-publishing if they've tried everyone and have had no luck with that. But some do want to self-publish and bypass traditional publishers. We always have a discussion on their goal and general plan and I'm very honest about what they can expect and what they'll need for both processes - and most any coach/consultant who's worked in publishing as an author, agent or editor will do the same. 

On the whole, agents and editors want work that's pretty much ready to go. Like I said earlier, there are agents who will work with writers to develop the manuscript but you shouldn't approach them with the expectation that they will help you fill in the work- whether or not you decide to invest in these services, make sure your work is as perfect as you feel you can get it before you submit.

Thanks for your comment! Hope my response answered your questions.