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Editorial: The Next Frontier

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Most PMA publishers now thoroughly understand the need for professional-looking covers on their books, and know that the only way to produce such covers is to hire a professional cover designer. Most also now understand the importance of high-quality interior design, which can only be achieved by hiring a professional or by very carefully imitating a successful and appropriate design from a similar sort of book.
The next frontier for many independent presses, however, is first-rate editorial work. I am not referring here to substantive editing-the work the editor does with the author to pull the manuscript into good basic shape in terms of content and structure-but rather the copy-editing and proofreading necessary to bring the tricky bits of spelling, grammar, and punctuation into conformity with standard usage.
I asked the person responsible for supervising the editorial and production work at my company for the last 20 years to comment on the basic issues:

  1. You can’t do it all. Developing the content, rewriting paragraphs or sentences, copyediting or at least correcting spelling and punctuation, creating a design and setting the type, outputting pages, proofreading and making final changes, preparing a disk for the printer-no single person should try to do all of this.
    My impression is that the majority of small publishers lavish time and effort on the book’s design, often producing the pages themselves. These publishers should hire a freelance copyeditor to go over the text before it is designed and paged, so that poor organization of material or sloppy sentences do not mar a visually attractive package. A good copyeditor can be hired for $15 per hour and up, the higher rate if you are doing a cookbook or other complex book. 
  2. A professional proofread is never a luxury. Even-especially-if you do all the other editorial work yourself, allow time and money for a professional proofread. The more your eyes have been on the manuscript, the more you will benefit from a fresh pair of trained eyes reading over your work. Good proofreaders can be hired for $12 per hour and up. Often a professional proofread will cost you less than $200 and take less than one week. You need it, and your book deserves it. 
  3. Minimize rewriting. Many publishers with a bent for editorial work find rewriting an author’s manuscript an almost irresistible temptation. Don’t do it. Read the submission carefully and note what is wrong with it, from big things, like missing information, sloppy organization, or terrible typing skills, to relatively small things, like the need for a final round of polishing. Then go back to your author and make every effort to get him or her to do the work. If a manuscript needs a line edit-that is, reworking and rewriting of nearly every line in it-maybe you should consider delaying or canceling the publication. The author has a right to a unique voice and style, but you as the publisher have a right to a decently prepared manuscript. That is what you are paying royalties for.

Is all the fussy attention that good editors give to manuscripts worth the trouble and expense? The stimulus for this article was a review in The New York Times of one of the books distributed by my company. The review was very favorable except for the part about the book’s poor editorial quality, which of course more or less erased the preceding praise. It may be that the average reader does not notice or does not care much about high-quality editing. But book reviewers certainly do, and it is my strong suspicion that even the average reader will mistrust a book full of typos.
When I have finished writing one of these pieces for this newsletter, I hand it over to an editor. Despite the fact that I have had a fancy literary education, the copy comes back with red marks all over it, like the chicken pox. Good editors have specialized talents and training the rest of us almost certainly lack.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor April, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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