Book Editors Share Tips for Authors

By Sandy Smith, President of Smith Publicity

Dan Smith and I had the pleasure of attending and participating at the annual Greenleaf Book Group Author Summit in Austin, TX in late September. While we spoke on the topic of book publicity, we were fortunate to hear publishing experts share valuable insights. Here are the highlights of tips/information for authors from book editors:

  1. Editors are looking for the same qualities that publicists are looking for in a project: focused message, defined target audience, and differentiation. For message, condense your book into one sentence, with three supporting points. For audience, define exactly who your target reader is (and hint: it’s not “everyone”). Think, too, about what is also known as an “aspirational audience,” which is when a book has the ability to reach unexpected readers and fans (for example, a title could be a diet/health book intended for women over 45 but may take on a new life and a huge fan base for those with thyroid issues). For differentiation, think about what you are offering readers: a new approach, provocative point of view, new research, etc.
  2. Before you write your book, check for originality! Visit your bookstore or Amazon and read the table of contents of competitive titles. You want to make sure you are writing something new to your target audience.
  3. Editors touted the importance of an outline for your book before the writing begins. The outline can be one to two pages, or expanded to 20 pages. At this stage, start thinking about chapter titles, ideas, flow, illustrations, appendices, etc.
  4. As you are writing your manuscript, keep a list of where you are sourcing illustrations, photographs, images, quotes, research, etc. It will help your editor make sure all permissions are in place.
  5. There are different kinds of editors, and although there are varying definitions for each role, here is a brief description:
    • Acquisitions editor—In the traditional publishing model, this person finds and signs on new authors he or she believes will be profitable for the publisher.
    • Developmental/Substantive editor—Works with an author to develop a book from an outline or first draft. The goal is to make the book functional, logical, and clear and complete for its readers, not just to make it correct and consistent.
    • Copy/line editor—Ensures that the manuscript meets style standards and corrects grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Copy editors also do basic fact checking.
  6. Two must-have resources for writers (the book editors passed around their much beloved, used and bookmarked copies):

    Provides recommendations on editorial style and publishing practices for the digital age. Now offering the full contents of the 16th and 15th editions, it is the must-have reference for everyone who works with words.

    With accessible, detailed, and up-to-date advice on thousands of language issues, Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading authority on current American English usage, grammar, spelling, and style.

  7. Whether you are independently publishing or want to polish your work before presenting to a literary agent or publisher, here are tips on how to find a good editor:
    • ASK! Talk to other authors and ask about their experiences/genre. You may have to “date” a few editors before finding the right fit.
    • Research editors at the Editorial Freelancers Association for potential editors.
    • Consult (for literary agents too!) Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents 2015
    • When talking with editors, ask for sample edits (and then see if they are returned when promised, with new insights and explanations), and ask for pricing. There is a price range for good editing, most charging per word.

The role of an editor is to make the best book possible out of your manuscript. Whether you independently or traditionally publish your book, finding a solid editor who can work with you to define your message to your target readers, communicate the reasons behind his or her recommendations, and is skilled at the type of editing you need is an essential part of your publishing journey.


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