The Concierge (Blog)

6 Tips for Working with Book Publisher or Packager Clients

I’ve worked with a number of book publisher and book packager clients over the years and I’ve found a few basic rules help ensure that I complete each project satisfactorily. You may find them helpful, too.

#1. Understand your role. If an author has asked whether the plot entertains you and you tell them they have a lot of misspelled words, you may be right but you’ve failed at the job. By the same token, if a publishing company has hired you to copyedit a manuscript, they are not asking you to weigh in on the cover design or suggest that a change of setting would be a good idea.

#2. Ask questions. Early in my career I felt certain that professional editors knew all the answers ahead of time and to ask the client questions would reveal that I was inexperienced. Now, it is true that some questions will reveal your inexperience (“What do you mean by ‘editorial query’?”) but experience has taught me that questions about tools and processes are often necessary: what is the house style, do I send the ms directly to the author once I’ve edited it, do you have a standard style sheet, what other supplemental documentation do you need, etc. If these questions aren’t answered during the on-boarding process, I will collect them and set up a phone conversation with the person who hired me (or send an email, if that is their preference) before I begin the edit.

#3. Set expectations. You’re a freelancer, not a staffer, so you have to make sure that your expectations and the client’s expectations are in line. If they expect umpteen status conferences, the time that will require has to be included in your project quote. If they want you to shepherd the project from author’s final draft to production, you need to know that so you can schedule the time (and charge accordingly).

#4. No is a full sentence. This is related to #3. If you agreed to do one round of copyediting on a manuscript, and you have delivered your copyedit, you do not also have to review the author’s revision, proof the galleys, or any other task someone decides to heap on your plate. That said, some ways of saying no are more fruitful than others:

  • “This was not what we agreed to but I can do it for an additional fee of $x.”
  • “You told me that I could use any style sheet I preferred (see your email below) so that’s what I did, but in future I would be happy to use the house style sheet.”

#5. Respect your client. Setting boundaries, which is what both #3 and #4 are about, can help ensure that both you and the client are happy. But to set boundaries most effectively, it helps if you start from a place of respect: you want to work with this client and you are willing to be flexible. You are merely saying that once the edit has begun, the rules can’t change. Respect also means that the company publishes work you can be proud of. When I ran a romance imprint, I had a lot of people who wanted to get editorial work from me despite that fact that they didn’t read romance or (and they would literally tell me this) respect the genre. I had zero interest in hiring anyone with this perspective and found it annoying that they would waste my time.

#6. Work with people who value your work versus trying to convince them of your value. Most publishers understand that value of the editorial process, but I do encounter publishers and packagers from time to time who are merely paying lip service to the process. They just want to grind the work out and typically they don’t want to pay very much for it. I don’t waste my time trying to talk them out of paying $20 an hour for development. I move on. (And so should you.)

Working with publishers versus indie clients

Editors often want to freelance for book publishers and packagers as a way to have reliable clients who provide ongoing work. But there are some differences in working directly for the client (as with an indie author) and working for a publisher.

When I’m doing a developmental edit for a book publisher, I usually have a much more extensive familiarity with the acquisitions editor than with the author, so while I’m careful to keep my queries and comments neutral and polite, as far as I’m concerned, authors come and go. It’s the acquisitions editor I have to keep happy. I make sure I understand what the AE wants, how this book fits in with a series (if it does), what it’s supposed to accomplish, who its audience is intended to be, and so on.

I rarely have any opportunity to have a conversation with the author about how the project came about or what they are trying to achieve with it, though I will usually be part of an introductory phone call where we hash out logistics. There’s little personal connection and I generally have almost no sense of what the author is like in “real” life. I don’t have to have that to do the editing job. It helps, but it’s not imperative.

However, over the years a fair amount of my editing work has come from individual clients—people who are working on book proposals, novel manuscripts, memoirs, you name it. They’re trying to make their work commercially salable, but they’re also (usually) trying to achieve a vision for the project. They have a dream of what the book is going to be, and they want me to help them achieve it. They don’t want an uncredited coauthor, they want a mentor. My job is equal parts offering information from my experience, providing feedback on their project, and holding their hand.

In every case, you have to edit the project you have according to the expectations of the audience and the client. You can’t make it the project you wish you had or the story you would have written. Editing is not about being right, or proving that you’re right, but about helping your client create a ms that matches their vision and appeals to its audience.

When you work for a publisher, you’re usually freer to make changes to a manuscript and to suggest revisions to ensure the ms adheres to the publisher’s expectations, whereas if you’re working directly with the author, your goal is to help the author create the most polished work they are capable of creating, which is another thing altogether.

For example, if you’re editing a romance for a publisher, you can insist that the development of the love relationship must take center stage (that’s what a romance is, after all!) and show the author various ways this might be accomplished. If the author doesn’t find a way to meet these requirements, the publisher can cancel the book. Everyone involved in the process understands this, so everyone (ideally) works together to accomplish the goals.

That’s not the case when the author is your direct client. You can suggest, as a consultant, that romance readers will expect the love relationship to take center stage, and you can offer ideas for how such a revision can be accomplished, but you’re in no position to insist on anything. That’s not your role.

In general (this is not always the case), an indie author will need more hand-holding and less criticism. If they wanted to deal with gate-keepers, they’d be pursuing traditional publication. So you can’t act like a gate-keeper. You have to be their cheerleader and their teammate.

One question I’m often asked is, “If you’re editing for a publisher, can you phrase queries to say something like, ‘The publisher has asked that you overhaul x and y’? Or would the publisher have already communicated that to the author?”

This question is more complex than it may first appear. It will sound strange but you can’t actually assume the AE has read the full ms very closely. So, you can’t assume that the AE knows more about the project than you do. (The reason this happens is authors can be contracted for several books and the AE just passed the second one in the series off to you; or they can be contracted based on a proposal, but not the full ms and the full ms is just passed along to you; or the AE can have a crunch of deadlines, etc., so that a particular ms may not get much attention.)

In general, though, you and the AE will decide before you start your edit what the main issues you’ll need to address are. Sometimes the AE will have a list of things for you to attend to but most often you’ll work this out together.

What that means is that what you (the DE) say in your revision letter is what the AE/publisher will enforce as the standard for manuscript acceptance. That doesn’t mean the author can’t decide to reject an edit or can’t solve a problem in a different way or anything like that. It does mean that if the author hasn’t delivered a satisfactory revision, and it can be shown that they did not follow the revision letter, then the contract can be vacated. This is made clear to the author during the contracting process (and is almost always a clause in the contract—a “satisfactory revision” being one that basically meets the guidance you give in the revision letter.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to dump everything into the revision letter. On the contrary, you need to focus on those most crucial items that, if addressed, would greatly improve the ms. It does mean that you have to be sure that you’re clearly addressing each of the main dev issues in the revision letter.

The author is going to know that publication is contingent on a successful revision so you don’t need to state that. At the same time, the author also knows they have some leeway in how they do the revision. Occasionally the AE will decide (or you and the AE will decide together) that some items are deal-breakers. Those are items that allow no wiggle room. The author must address them or the book is doomed. You do need to call these out in the revision letter.

Generally, but not always, these are items the AE and the author already have agreed about, so you just remind the AU of that: “As you and AE agreed, the ms needs to be rewritten in the third person . . . .”

Sometimes you may discover things that were not discussed with the author ahead of time but which are important enough to be deal-breakers. You should discuss those with the AE before you deliver the edit and work out, with the AE, the language you’ll use in the revision letter: “Author, during my edit, I reached the conclusion that the part where you kill off the main character and let his dog tell the rest of the story does not work as well as you had hoped. I talked to AE and we agreed that this does need to change before publication. . . .”

If the nonnegotiables have been discussed ahead of time then you just remind the author that they “need to” make a certain change (as opposed to “consider making”). If the author returns a revision without the necessary changes, you will want to make sure the AE’s got your back before you say anything, then get the right language from the AE. For example, you would ask, “AE, you mentioned that the dog’s perspective has to go. The author is pushing back. Is this something I need to insist on?”

If it’s not a deal-breaker but the AE would really like to see the change, you would say something like that: “AE would really like to see Brenda take actions that would distinguish her from a mushroom so I’ve indicated places throughout where she could be shown doing something other than hiding under a log . . . .” (Perhaps more diplomatically stated than that.)

We would rarely just say “the publisher requires/insists” although sometimes the AE may ask us to do so. (That’s actually more common in NF than in fiction.)

One caveat: in the interests of not insulting people if you don’t have to, never ask the AE if they actually read the ms or how closely they read it or express surprise that they didn’t notice a glaring problem that you’ve spotted. You don’t want to put the AE on the spot or make the AE feel criticized (that’s not your role; you’re not their supervisor). I’m merely suggesting that you shouldn’t assume the AE has carefully read the ms. If you spot a big problem but the AE hasn’t mentioned it, don’t assume, “Well, if the AE wanted me to fix it they would have said so.” Maybe, maybe not.

When I’m working directly for the author and I’ve established a friendly rapport with them, I’ll be a little more relaxed in my approach, but I’m always mindful that a manuscript is a precious child to the author and just as you wouldn’t make fun of the bug eyes on someone’s kid, you don’t use their manuscript as a source of levity, even if you’re sure the author will find your remarks as hilarious as you do.

With an indie author, I usually have a conversation before I begin the edit where I find out the author’s purpose. This helps guide my edit. What is the ms intended to do? If it’s an inspirational novel, it should have an uplifting message. If it’s a romance, it must have a happily-ever-after.

I always ask for any supporting material the author has, such as a query letter (sent to an agent if the author is seeking traditional publication), book blurb (the brief description found on the back cover of a book or in the online catalog for it), and/or chapter summary/synopsis. These supplemental materials can alert me to a disconnect between what the author thinks they have and what they actually do have.

Consider the Client (Working with Publishers)

As a teacher of developmental editing, I want students to get comfortable with being able to advise big solutions to big problems. Often this is the best way to truly help an author produce superior work. It is also an invaluable method for stepping back to see the big picture (a poorly constructed conflict, for example) versus focusing on minor details (the author uses too many dialogue tags). The first is a failure of storytelling; the second is merely a housekeeping detail.

But when editing for the big picture, you have to consider the client. When I’m working for book publishers, they have almost always scheduled a book for production (and this includes getting marketing and promotion lined up) by the time it gets to me. I have a limited amount of time to produce my edit and the author has a limited amount of time to produce a revision. I have to consider these constraints in my suggestions. I may very well think that story was ill-conceived and poorly executed and that it needs to be completely reconsidered starting from page 1.

But the author cannot do this in the time they have. Most publishers only allow a month or two for this revision; most authors have other jobs/obligations and cannot devote more than a few hours a day to the process. And if I’m the cause of an author missing a deadline, even if the AE in theory agrees with me about the ms’s problems, I’m never going to work for that company again.

So I’m unlikely to tell such an author to rewrite her first-person ms in third, since that’s a fairly massive undertaking to do right. But if this is a coaching client committed to exploring her process, then that may be exactly what I recommend.

If I can’t use my big solution, I don’t just abandon the problem. I try to see if a smaller solution will work. For example, I once edited a novel with a first-person narrator who was in her head too much. A shift to third POV often solves this, but the author didn’t have time to revise that extensively. I did suggest the protagonist adopt a cat so she could have someone to say these things out loud to. Turning an interior monologue into some snappy patter at least gave the story a feeling of movement (and made the character more relatable).

I’m no fan of prologues (I feel these are a lazy way to work backstory into a novel) but for one ms, I had the author chop the first three chapters, then write a brief prologue to show the backstory rather than trying to figure out a way to make it more integrated into the forward action. It was a gimmicky solution to the problem, in my opinion, but the most realistic one.

So, while I am all in favor of picking the solution that will solve the most problems in the most elegant way, I’m also a realist: sometimes we need to come up with a shortcut.

Beta reading as training for DE

Many self-publishing authors look for beta readers to give them perspective on their novels before they go to a professional editor for further help. An author doesn’t need a developmental editor to say the whole storyline is implausible and they yawned from beginning to end. Any reader of fiction can probably relay that information.

Doing a few beta reads is a great way to get a sense of the kinds of problems you’ll encounter as a dev editor, and it will give you some insight into author-editor relationships. It’s a low-risk way to dip your toes in the water.

If you’re interested in doing fiction development for a career, try volunteering as a beta on a few projects. You’ll soon learn if it’s for you!

What’s the Difference?

A beta reader is generally just reporting their experience as a reader – “I thought too many events were implausible” – whereas in development, we try to give more guidance than that based on an informed opinion. That is, we understand how fiction works, how to solve problems that arise, and otherwise have professional expertise that sets us apart from readers who simply enjoy reading.

Often, beta readers are discouraged from trying to offer such guidance as without experience and training it’s easy to send an author down the wrong road or to simply not understand what an author is trying to accomplish. So, instead of trying to solve the problems in the manuscript, your goal is to find them and (for your purposes, not the author’s) try to figure out what’s causing them.

Doing beta reads can be a good way to sharpen your skills and even to start building a clientele. People who trust your beta reads will be more likely to be willing to pay you to do a dev edit.

To become a beta reader, hang out on Twitter and look for #amwriting hashtags. Many of these authors will be interested in finding beta readers. There are also beta reader groups like Writers Helping Writers on Facebook.

Building Your Editing Business

Finding clients as a newer editor is a challenge. Where do you start? I suggest you begin by asking yourself a few questions.

Decide Who You Are as an Editor

  1. What is your purpose? Mine is to help women find a way to tell their stories.
  2. What kinds of clients does your purpose suggest you should target? I target women who are transitioning from nonfiction to fiction or creative nonfiction.
  3. What do you want from your business? I want to work on interesting manuscripts written by professionals who can pay professional fees.
  4. What kinds of clients does your “what I want from my business” answer suggest you should target? For me, people who are already professionals and who see the value of editorial help.
  5. What is your area of specialization and why? Me: teaching women nonfiction writers to write romance because this is where my skills and experience lie and it is what people ask me to do.

Inventory What You Already Know

  1. What is your overall business goal?
  2. What are some overall marketing strategies you could use to get clients?
  3. What are some skills and experiences you have that might help potential clients solve a problem?
  4. What are five or ten things you can do in the next two months to give yourself some additional editing experience?
  5. Who are some people you could get to know who could help you build your business?
  6. What types of services are you offering/planning to offer potential clients?

Put It Together

  1. Who are your target clients and where are they likely to be found?
  2. What is one thing you can do this week to network with colleagues and/or potential clients?
  3. Identify an indirect way of finding clients (such as teaching a class) that appeals to you. What are some steps you need to take to get the ball rolling?





2021 Course Catalog Has Arrived!

Club Ed readers have overwhelmingly asked for more instructor-led classes, so 2021 will include a whole bunch of offerings. The catalog through May 2021 has been added here and you can also see it below.

Instructor-led classes for new and aspiring developmental editors

Instructor-led classes are held within a specified time period. They feature weekly assignments to practice your skills and individual instructor feedback on your work. All course materials are accessed from the online classroom.

Online discussions allow you and your fellow students to ask the instructor questions and to toss around ideas. These discussions are held asynchronously (read and post as you have availability); you do not need to be anywhere at any particular time in order to participate, although assignments will need to be submitted by the deadlines provided in the course materials.

If you have any questions about any of the classes, please email the Resort Director:

New! Naked Editing class starts January 4, 2021

NEW! Starts January 4, 2021

$50  4 weeks (through January 31), instructor-led

This class is intended for editors, new and experienced, who are interested in following along as an experienced editor performs a developmental edit on a complete fiction manuscript. It is a reading-intensive class and the more you participate in the online discussions, the more you’ll get from the class.

Note: Recent current events force me to point out that there is no actual nudity by anyone in this class.

You’ll follow along as the instructor:

  • performs a brief manuscript assessment and first read-through, showing notes and reactions
  • identifies the main developmental issues and begins the manuscript edit
  • completes the edit and drafts the revision letter
  • revises the edit to focus on the overarching argument/theme of the edit

Each week, you’ll have a chance to follow along and do your own practice, although there are no assignments. You will be able to participate in online (asynchronous) discussions of the issues raised throughout the edit and to ask questions about why the editor has made the choices she’s made or to describe your findings and what you might have done.

This is a new manuscript that has not been used in any other EFA or Club Ed classes.

Through November 15, 2020, for a $10 discount, use the coupon code TG2021

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Solving for X

A while back I took a class on the algebra of symmetries and it turned out to be taught by a philosopher masquerading as a mathematics professor. Algebra, he told us, comes from the word al-jabr, which means restoration by balancing. “Restoring the unknown,” the teacher said. That is what algebra is. I like to think of it as making the unknown known, which is not unlike editing.

He went on to talk about how having a zero around is very helpful when you’re solving for X. “Doing nothing is an important skill,” he said.

Who knew there was a Tao of mathematics? Doing nothing is an important part of the process of making the unknown known. True of mathematics and true of story development.

  1. Sometimes, when you’re not sure what is going wrong with the ms you’re working on, a good solution is to not do anything right now. Come back to the project tomorrow with fresh eyes.
  2. We don’t need to remark on every possible problem that we see in a ms. If we are already advising the author to create a stronger central conflict, develop clearer character arcs, and attend to the setting, we risk confusing and overwhelming them if we also talk about their overuse of adverbs and the number of unnecessary dialogue tags they’re using. Sometimes the best thing to do about a story problem is nothing.
  3. Often we try to be too accommodating to clients. They don’t have a big enough budget, so we cut our fees; they have a looming deadline so we rush to complete the project. But sometimes the best thing to do is just let the client make their objections and then . . . do nothing. I don’t mean, “Don’t bother answering them back.” I do mean, “Don’t do anything to solve their problems for them.” For a client with a tight budget, a sympathetic, “I understand, this is a big investment” shows you hear them without making you responsible for their problem. Don’t be in a rush to give away your work.


Using the Pareto Principle as a freelancer

The Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule, is a ratio used to describe certain economic and business situations, such as 20 percent of the people have 80 percent of the wealth, or 80 percent of your revenue comes from 20 percent of your customers. If you just knew which 20 percent of your customers to focus on, you could forget the rest, do well, and have fewer demands on your resources.

What the 80/20 Rule Means for Marketing

If you’re trying to make a living as a freelance editor—or even just make some side income—then you know that you’re supposed to do a ton of things to market yourself. You’re supposed to have a website and a blog, but not just any old website and blog, a GREAT website and a blog with 5.3 million unique views each month (and each day would be better!). AND you also need to be on Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and five other social media sites of your choice. You need to be able to write sales copy and sales pitches and know exactly who to send them to and when. And that’s before you even start your first edit.

Trying to do it all can quickly lead to burn out, to the feeling that you’re doing nothing well, or to completely abandoning the attempt. You end up wondering why freelancing is not working out like you hoped it would.

Instead, focus your efforts on those areas that bring the greatest rewards. If you enjoy Pinterest and follow lots of boards and have lots of followers, and these followers turn into clients from time to time, that is a place where your effort is rewarded. So there is no need to overextend yourself by also trying to be on Twitter and Facebook, too.

If you have a website that clearly says what you do and how people can get in touch with you, then do you really need to spend five thousand bucks and a hundred hours making it a little splashier? If you’re not interested in blogging on daily or at least regular basis, then try putting that idea aside and focusing your attention on other matters.

Do a few things well, see what happens, adjust your strategy as needed, and don’t beat yourself up for not having a clone. Look for what brings results and do more of that and less of everything else.

Using global queries for recurring developmental problems

For problems that recur throughout a series of paragraphs, a scene, a chapter, or an entire ms, developmental editors will sometimes use a shortcut: “You do a lot of info-dumping throughout; I recommend cutting it back.” The problem with this approach is that if the author could identify where the info-dumping is occurring, they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. The author needs more guidance.

Conversely, in an attempt to provide this guidance, editors sometimes provide a full description of the problem each time they encounter it. So, on page 1 they write a query that says, “The highlighted paragraph is an example of info-dumping, that is, providing more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I recommend deleting this paragraph.”

That’s a perfectly good query. But then the editor uses a similar one on page 2 and on page 3, three similar queries on page 4, and two on page 5.

This isn’t necessary.

I often use a global query that says what the overall problem is, why it’s a problem, and how the author can fix it. Then I refer back to that query when I encounter more examples of the same problem. Using a global query means I don’t have to repeat myself as much and the author doesn’t have to feel like I’m hammering them over the head with the problem – but I’m still doing my job.

A Global Query Example

Here’s an example of how I might phrase such a query:

“AU: Here and throughout, there’s a fair amount of unnecessary exposition – that is,  more information than the reader needs to understand what’s happening. This is often referred to as info-dumping. The problem with info-dumping is that it slows down the pacing of the story, interferes with the forward action, and risks losing the reader’s engagement. I’ve highlighted areas that can be deleted without affecting the overall story.”

Then, when the author encounters highlighted areas, they know this is info-dumping and can be deleted.

Some Caveats to This Approach

When using a global query:

  • If I think a particular bit of info-dumping doesn’t need to be deleted but needs to be placed elsewhere in the story or integrated differently, I’ll write a new query that says that. You can extrapolate this to mean that if any instance of a recurring problem requires a different solution from the one provided in the global query, you should write a new query regarding that particular instance. This is a good opportunity to educate the author: why is this instance of the problem treated differently from the others?
  • If it’s been a while (ten or so pages) since the last instance of the problem, I will remind the author about what the highlighting means (“As above, unnecessary exposition here. Consider deleting.”) I don’t need a full explanatory query, just a reminder.
  • If there is more than one recurring problem, do not try to color-code your edit (“blue highlights are for info-dumping and yellow highlights are for head-hopping.”) The author should not need a decoder ring to understand your edit. If there is more than one recurring problem, use highlighting for one and some other solution for the other. For example, in the info-dumping and head-hopping example above, highlighting could be used to identify the info-dumping, and line edits could be used to help the author see how to correct the head-hopping. In such an instance, you could use a global query to describe the head-hopping once overall and then use brief queries elsewhere in the ms (“As above, the editied section contains head-hopping. Edit OK?”)

The global query is placed where you first encounter the problem. You fully explain the problem and how it affects several paragraphs/chapters/whatever is true. Don’t worry if this query becomes lengthy. Unlike CEs, DEs don’t get brownie points for concise queries. We don’t need to belabor them but we do need to provide enough information for the author to understand what the problem is and to have a clear handle on how to fix it.

I generally use the phrase “global query” to refer to a recurring problem. For an overall query that summarizes the collected problems in a scene or chapter, you can use a general query, which we might call an overview or overall query: “AU: This chapter introduces us to Sweetie Pie, that adorable scamp, but nothing of consequence happens and the reason why Marcel takes such a dislike to SP is unclear. To solve these problems, I suggest . . . .”

I always place such queries where the author needs to encounter them in the revision process (for example, at the start of the scene that needs a rewrite) so that the problems don’t come as a surprise.