When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service

So there’s this book, recently out, looks exactly my cup of tea, and a friend I trust recommended it wholeheartedly. Woop! I zoomed off to one-click, saw the publisher, and stopped.

Oh, I thought. It’s published by them. Meh. I’ll get the sample first.

I’ve abandoned several books from this publisher in the past because I’d found the editing unacceptably poor. I now hesitated, very seriously, over buying a book that I wanted–because the publisher was a significant strike against it.

And yes, I’m a nitpicking editor, but here’s something I read just today from the excellent romance book/food blogger Elisabeth Lane:

I recently closed my blog to unsolicited ARC submissions and I’m slowly working through a very small backlog of Netgalley advance titles. I don’t think I’ll be opening it back up any time soon. The reason is at least partially aesthetic. There are a lot of badly-written, badly-edited books out there. … I’m tired of feeling like I have to sort through a ton of chaff to get to the wheat […]

I had stopped enjoying myself. I’d read so many bad books in a row–books with no conflict, books with glimmers of a strong voice that wasn’t fully realized, books with dubious or incoherent themes and moral positions, books with cardboard characters that never move beyond archetypes and yes, books with typos, grammar errors, missing words and other mechanical defects in inexcusable quantities.

Now, if you’re self published and you decide not to use an editor, that’s your business decision. But if you’re with a publisher who doesn’t edit–if they make the business decision to put out your book in poor shape because they don’t know or care that it should be better, if their imprimatur is not a guarantee of anything like quality, if their editing is no better than you’d get from your mate who reads lots of books, if bloggers and readers are looking at your book and saying, Meh…remind me why you’re handing over 60% net receipts again?

Publishing is an author service industry. Publishers provide a set of services to make the book good, an imprimatur to tell people it’s good, a sales and marketing structure to get the book to readers; and they take all the financial risk for these things. In return for these services, the publisher gets a cut of the book’s revenues. When publishers fail to provide these services, when their imprint is no longer a guarantee of quality, the reason for authors to give them money disappears.

There are publishers that don’t pay for proofreading. There are those whose editorial fees are absurdly below professional rates, which makes you wonder who’s doing the work, and how fast they have to do it to eat. There are some that don’t pay editors at all and simply use people who do it ‘for love’, or, to put that in French, amateurs.  I’m well aware editing is a huge cost, of course, especially to small publishers. But if I go to a cake shop and ask for a cake, I don’t expect to be handed a bowl of raw flour, eggs and butter, on the grounds that ovens are just too expensive so they decided not to bake the damn thing. (For the avoidance of doubt: I am not talking about my own publishers, with whom I am extremely happy.)

Of course, it’s very easy to say, ‘Don’t go with a publisher that doesn’t edit properly!’ but let’s be honest, most aspiring authors would sign pretty much anything, with anyone, to get the first book published. (“Beelzebub Books, Inc? My name in blood? Sure!”) But as you develop a few books, a readership, a sales history, you can look at the deal again, as well as at what’s being offered to the reading public with your name on it. Because if the trad pub deal ceases to be worthwhile–if it doesn’t include good editing, cover design, marketing support, the halo effect of being with a respected publisher, a decent royalty split–authors can and should move to other publishers, or self pub, or a hybrid publishing strategy without a second’s hesitation. Once again: the publisher’s split of the receipts is their payment for services. If you’re not getting adequate service, why are you paying?

Don’t get me wrong: I love publishing. I believe in it as a good thing for authors and readers and the future of books. As an author, I would far rather be with a publisher, big or small, and work and succeed together. (That’s not to disrespect self publishers, it’s simply my personal preference.) As a reader, I want to be able to one-click a book with a blithe certainty that it will be properly edited and proofread simply because it carries a publisher’s imprimatur. But to make that work, publishers have to serve their authors properly, because if they don’t they will lose both authors and readers. Which is why a publisher that skimps on those obligations to its authors  is chipping away at its own future.


ThinkOfEngland72webKJ Charles is a very happily published romance author with Samhain and, coming this summer, Loveswept. She’s also a freelance editor with twenty years’ publishing experience. Her latest book is Jackdaw, out now, and her novel Think of England just won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.

10 replies
  1. Kelly Jensen
    Kelly Jensen says:

    I hear you! There is the rare instance where a book truly shines, regardless of editing, but in general, I believe in the editorial process, even though as a writer, I hate it.

    I want every book to be the best book I can write and if that means waiting longer to see it published, or going with a smaller/different publisher because I think they have more talented editors, then that’s that. Patience, padawan.

    As a reader, there are a couple of publishers that are iffy for me. I might buy an author I already know, who I feel can do a decent job, regardless of editing–and I’ve been burnt, even on that!–but I’m much less likely to buy an author I don’t know unless the book is getting rave reviews everywhere else. Or it’s free. Even then, I sometimes regret it.

    I think it’s a shame because so many times I have discovered a new author and have been really excited to delve into their back catalogue. When those books don’t measure up, it’s disappointing.

    So, yeah, saying a lot of different things here, but all thoughts are in response to your post. 😀

  2. Erika
    Erika says:

    Thank you for writing this post! I agree so much with everything you’ve said. Nothing turns me off of a book faster than bad (or no) editing, especially where you can see that the book could have been excellent if they’d just paid more attention to the details. I’ve noticed recently that even popular authors with well known publishers are not exempt from poor editing. It’s like if they have a well received series the publishers decide that we, the book buying public, won’t notice or care if they put out an obviously subpar product. It’s extremely sad, and I’ve started buying less books because of it.

    Thankfully I know that when I buy your books I am confident that they won’t have these issues.

  3. helenajust
    helenajust says:

    This also works the other way. There is one publisher which I know always does an excellent job editing its books (all types of editing), so I know that I don’t have to hesitate before buying a book from them.

    If any author is hesitating: please don’t skimp on editing. Readers do notice, and do care, and they won’t give you many more chances, if any, née you let them down.

  4. anverie
    anverie says:

    As a reader, I’ve gotten sadly used to poor editing, especially since I read a lot of indie and self-pub. I don’t like the necessity, but I’ve kind of come to accept it. At first it frustrated me to no end, because releasing books that are so poorly edited struck me as lazy at best, but over time I’ve shifted to kind of feeling sorry for the poor authors without good support systems.

    That said, I’ve also been recently considering editing as a possible career move, but this makes me scared that I’d end up as one of those bad editors. Money aside, and given the state of the industry in flux, how does one learn to do it right? I know the mantra’s “practice, practice, practice,” but that only works if the habits one practices are good ones.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      You can legitimately be angry with the publishers while sympathising with the authors. Sigh. I see terrible books and the authors giving fulsome thanks and praising their editing and…sigh.

      Good publishers will still offer training to new people with potential. eg, pay half rates and supervise you on MSS, reading over your letters and checking your edits. That’s the ideal way to go. There are various publishing organisations that run short courses, if you can afford that?


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] I have discussed before, there are small presses who apparently feel that editing is not a skilled job. They pay $50 a MS […]

  2. […] When Publishers Fail: publishing and author service K.J. Charles talks about when publishers fall down on one of the biggest parts of their job – editing your book to be the best it can be. […]

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