This post, from Alan Rinzler, originally appeared on his The Book Deal blog on 7/2/09.
In the increasingly difficult competition to get published, writers know they must put their best foot forward by sending out only a professional, polished, and persuasive new proposal or manuscript to any prospective literary agent or publisher.
Many authors have come to understand the value of objective help before taking the plunge, and I don’t mean from family, friends, or the local writing group. Such support is valuable to have close at hand, but even with the best of intentions, it’s not as useful as professional feedback and guidance.
Full disclosure: I’m an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons and I also work privately as a developmental editor with selected authors.
But I’m not the only such practitioner, and not necessarily the best one for you. There are plenty of other developmental editors out there.
Ask for referrals from authors you know and from agents and editors you meet at writers conferences, expos, or book store signings. It takes hustle and discernment.
Some independent editors have websites that list their services and former clients. If authors are listed, you can try to get in touch with them through their agent or publisher. The authors may be happy to endorse their editors and may well want to lend a helping hand to a fellow writer.
I recommend you be very careful when evaluating and making a final choice. Here are some of the primary considerations I think are important when selecting an editor.
Evaluating a freelance editor
• Professional Status
Is this individual a developmental editor? A developmental editor works with a writer to improve the basic concept of the book, the way it’s focused and structured, the style and attitude of the narrative voice, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
In a non-fiction book they’ll help clarify and organize the ideas and information. In a novel, they’ll work on the plot, characterizations, dialogue, visual description, and literary style.
It’s important to distinguish developmental editors from copy editors, who take a manuscript that has already been developed and correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, and in some cases fact-checking.
Ask about the editor’s educational background and experience. A developmental editor is likely to have a vitae that includes a degree and perhaps graduate studies in literature or a related subject. It’s also very helpful to have in-depth experience as an editor working with a broad variety of authors in real-world commercial book publishing.
• Track Record
Has the editor worked on books that have been published successfully? Your prospective editor should be able to provide an author list of published titles that you can examine. Did the authors acknowledge the editor in their published works?
Ask the editor to provide references and endorsements, and be sure to follow up.
Don’t be shy. Get in touch with a prospective editor directly. If you live nearby, make an effort to meet. If that’s not feasible, have a good phone conversation. It’s important to see how they respond and to hear their voice, to establish a relationship you can trust and enjoy.
You don’t have to love your editor but it helps to like one another and have an open, honest channel of continuing communication. A good fit is important.
Humor and compassion also go a long way in forging a productive relationship!
If your candidate is slow to answer emails or never returns your phone calls, that’s a bad sign, a harbinger of future problems. Being busy is normal; being absent or invisible for long periods of time is not acceptable.
Remember: It’s your book
Once you’ve narrowed your search or made an actual choice, I always advise authors to establish the ground rules up front and take an ongoing proactive role in protecting their interests.
Good developmental editors subsume their own egos and enter the world of the writer’s consciousness. They’re not writing their own book but helping you create the book you want to write.