Since a lot of people aren’t quite sure, I thought I’d write a few notes to help anybody interested get their bearings. Of course, everyone works differently, so you should only take these as things I’ve noticed in the course of my own work these last few years.
Essentially a free-lance editor does for a manuscript (or a proposal) what an in-house editor working for a publishing house would do if s/he had the time — that is, what she would do after she had signed a contract with the author for the book. With the increasing consolidation of the business into a few big houses in the last decades, in-house editors have had so many responsibilities heaped on their plate that they are often left with virtually no time to actually edit a manuscript page by page. This is one source of work for us free-lancers, as overburdened in-house editors sometimes call us in to assist. Also, with the pressure to acquire books increasing and the acquisition process becoming more and more one done by committee, it is often impossible for an editor to take on a promising manuscript or proposal that s/he might believe in but which needs work before it can be successfully shown to the acquisition committee. This whole process forces the editor to look for virtually finished and polished manuscripts or proposals when at all possible. Any need for serious structural or line editing tends to disqualify a manuscript from consideration, unless there are other factors that can strongly outweigh it, and a proposal that isn’t convincing on the first quick read is dismissed. The net result, it seems to me, is that the developmental editing that used to get done after a book was put under contract now has to get done before a manuscript has the chance to get a contract!
And this, of course, is what has led to the growth in the ranks of free-lance editors in the last decade, as developmental editing is increasingly pushed out of corporate publishing, indeed becomes a pre-requisite for a manuscript to be considered by corporate publishing. And while this is no doubt a gross generalization, open to all sorts of quibbles, I don’t think there’s much doubt that this is the direction things have been headed in for some time now.
This is where the free-lance editor comes in. If an editor or an agent tells a writer that the book they are proposing seems promising but needs work before it could possibly have a chance of running this gauntlet successfully, a free-lance editor can be very helpful. Increasingly, many writers want to work with a free-lance editor in the beginning before they undertake the arduous process of finding a publishing house, or even finding an agent. This is especially true if we are talking not about a finished book, but about a book proposal and sample chapters.
I’ve come to think that the best image for the free-lance editor is that of the coach — or at least it fits what happens between me and my clients better than anything else I’ve come up with. Consider it like hiring a personal trainer at the gym. I think my responsibility is to get the best performance out of a writer that they are capable of, at this time in their life, given their talent. I will not actually write the book (or proposal) for you — that is a completely distinct job, that of the ghost writer, and while some of us also do this, it costs a great deal more, since it takes vastly more time. No, my job is to see to it that you write at the top of your form; like any coach I need to bring out the best performance you are capable of.
But, of course, hiring a coach doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win the contest, far from it. Many people coming to free-lance editors are really looking for reassurance that either 1) this book will find an agent, or 2) this book will be signed up by a publishing house, or 3) when it’s published, this will be a successful book. Which is like asking your personal trainer to guarantee that you will win, or at least place, in the contest. But this is nonsense. I would no more guarantee that you would find an agent or that the book would get published than any honest agent would guarantee that she’d get you a contract or any sane in-house editor would promise to make your book a best-seller. There are no guarantees in publishing.
And it was your decision to enter the triathlon, after all.
1 December 2005