About two years ago, I spotted a book on a shelf at my local Barnes & Noble on a health topic that I had earlier noticed hadn’t yet been covered in a book. Because of my interest in self-care and alternative or what is also called complementary medicine, I quickly looked inside the book, decided to purchase it, and took it home. But later when I examined the book more closely over a cup of tea in my kitchen, I felt disappointed by it. Despite a promise early in the book to deliver information relevant to the reader, the author had failed to do just that.
What I found instead was overly technical content that I had a hard time relating to my own health. I began to wonder why the publisher had gone to the trouble of producing such a book when the end result was sure to be dissatisfaction on the part of most readers.
One of the values of a good editor is that they can spot such problems before a book goes to press. In my editorial work, I regularly deal with content issues. Has the author said what he or she intended to say? Has information been provided that will be relevant to the reader? Has the author developed the points that the reader will care about? Has the author eliminated material that may cause the reader’s mind to drift or perhaps even provoke the reader into tossing the book aside in frustration? Is it possible that the inaccessibility of the material may prevent publication or later sales?
Will the Reader “Get It”?
Recently I was editing an inspirational book written by a first-time author. The author had wonderful ideas that had the potential of leaving the reader feeling truly inspired. In my work as an editor, part of my job was making sure her ideas came across.
In the first draft of one particular chapter, I just didn’t “get” what my client was going for. I handed the chapter back to her with my changes along with a general idea of what I felt was missing in the material. I hoped that with my input she could bring the chapter to life.
When I received her revision, I was at first puzzled at the chapter’s disorganization. But as I took a closer look, I saw that there were new ideas there which were allowing her concept to make sense to me. I was getting it! As I reorganized the chapter and did some rewriting, I grew excited as her concept began to emerge from the pages. Now the reader could get it too!
Let’s Start at the Beginning
One way to avoid problems with noncommunication with the reader is to allow an editor to become involved in a project at an early stage. I like to consult with clients when they are working on developing their original idea. How would they describe it in a line or two? What’s the best way to develop this concept into chapters? What will be our initial Table of Contents? If you work out what the chapters will contain at an early stage, it can save editing time and dollars in the long run. And a review of some early writing can also make a change of approach and style possible before much has been written.
An editor’s early input can be especially important with self-publishers, because there’s sometimes a step missing in their development of a book. Because of the nature of self-publishing, these publishers often don’t submit a book proposal to agents and traditional publishers. As a result, two things can occur. First, a book proposal along with its overview, chapter summaries, proposed Table of Contents, and sample chapters may not get done. (And there’s a certain amount of thinking through the project that may be lost.) Secondly, if no proposal is submitted to agents and inhouse editors, the author won’t get the feedback that a writer receives when publishing the traditional way. And so the freelance editor can step in and supply that missing feedback.
And for authors submitting book proposals to major publishers as well as mid-sized and small presses, input from an editor at an early stage can help clarify the ideas and make them shine so that the proposal gets noticed.
Regular publishers too can benefit from the input of a freelance editor at the development stage. The outside editor can provide an independent voice and opinion on ideas and early material or drafts. Their work may also free up time and energy of harried inhouse editors who need to attend to other duties. A freelancer can spend time with the material and focus on it.
The Competition Factor
Getting back to my original example of the disappointing book on complementary medicine, I later noticed better written and developed books on the same topic on the shelves of L.A. bookstores. Certainly a quick comparison of the material would prompt a reader to buy one of the competing titles.
Was the first book simply a pioneer without the resources to fully develop what the author intended to convey to the reader? It’s possible, although the publisher is well-known and has produced many wonderful titles on health topics. I’ll probably never know for sure why such material was published. I just hate to see a good idea partially hidden beneath what’s presented in a manuscript, particularly in a published book.
Robin Quinn is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Through her editorial company, Word for Word, she provides book development consulting, manuscript analysis, substantive editing, copyediting, proofreading and copywriting services. For more information, contact her by phone (310/838-7098) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).