Authors, Writers, Publishers, and Book Readers

I don't know when, on the writing curve, Stephen King or Nelson DeMille might seek editorial advice, only that it is documented that they do. So it begs the question, for the writer trying to break into the business with a major royalty publisher--and who accepts that a professional editor looking at the manuscript might not be a bad idea--when is the right time to hire a book editor.

Generally there are Two Issues

For most people it's a matter of time and money. Let's look at the time element first. A common practice is for a writer to send a manuscript to an editor for a critique after it is felt that the material is in A-grade condition and ready for market--except for perhaps the slightest touch up. But if it is determined that there are problems with plot or character elements which cannot be remedied by modifying, deleting, or inserting a few sentences here or there, then the entire piece will often require a wholesale revision.

How Much Time Does a Writer Have?

If an author should seek an editor to review a story concept and its set up from an early point in the creative process, steps can be taken to keep the plot elements in focus. And the time saved can be substantial, since a rewrite can often require months. From a time standpoint, isn't it better to catch any problems early--and rectify them--rather than spend considerable time on a draft that will have no prospects in its current condition? If a writer has the discipline to work with an editor during a manuscript's developmental stage, this initiative can be a valuable time saving practice.

How Much Money Does a Writer Want to Spend?

No one likes to pay a second time for a process that failed initially. This is the most salient reason I can think of to justify bringing an editor into the fold at the start. The early-stage placement of a manuscript with a professional editor is almost always the most economical way for a writer to work, and usually substantially so.

Does Anybody Really Work This Way?

Unfortunately, many unpublished writers will consider an editor only after a series of rejections from agents, or publishers who accept unagented submissions. This article is not going to change the modus operandi of a lot of writers who are already ensconced within the publishing labyrinth. But I hope these contentions might motivate some others who read this piece to consider contacting a professional editor toward the beginning stages of the first draft and not when it is completed.

Editors are Becoming More Flexible

As with most everything facing a writer who is hoping to become published for the first time, there is no one size that fits all. And while I hate to close an article with a disclaimer, it is important to report that many well-respected editors only want to see completed manuscripts. Yet it seems like more and more highly regarded professionals in the literary industry are acceding to this article's primary premise, which is to encourage authors to present early-stage material for review.

By Robert L. Bacon, Founder
The Perfect Write ®

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Views: 123

Comment by Kay Elizabeth on February 15, 2010 at 4:53am
Interesting, Robert! Thanks for sharing that. I still want to pin you down a little here on how early is early. Would you say when you've written a quarter of your book, a few chapters, or what?
Comment by Robert L. Bacon on February 15, 2010 at 10:04pm
Hi Kay,

You asked a wonderful question. As I mentioned in the article's opening, I certainly don't know when the famous authors I listed use editors, only that they do. But so did Theodore Bernstein, who, while deceased for quite a while now, was a long-time editorial consultant for the New York Times. Mr. Bernstein was considered to be a true genius when it came to prose, yet in the acknowledgment page of his books on grammar, he proudly cites the editors who assisted him.

But to address your question as directly as I can, for the unpublished writer who is at the nascent stage of his or her effort, I like to see that person's storyboard and the first half-dozen or so pages of the draft as soon as the writer is comfortable sending them. From this I can generally tell if the individual possesses creative writing ability and how well planned (via the storyboard) the story happens to be. Most editors I know, including myself, do not charge for this service, and this early "look" during the novel's seminal stage can often prevent a budding author from making some egregious errors that require a lot more time to correct later.

And while rudimentary areas can be reviewed, even more complex structural elements such as pacing, transitioning, characterizations, and character development can often be ascertained by parsing a few pages of opening material--along with determining the overall readability of the prose. Consequently, I have to think it's best to look at material as early as possible so any problems can be recognized and corrected right away, the same as a doctor would advise a patient if potentially perilous symptoms were diagnosed.

Thanks for a great question!
Comment by Jeremy Vaeni on February 7, 2011 at 6:01pm

Stephen King and Nelson DeMille are famous authors. Their publishers (or agents) provide the editor.


It seems the best thing for undiscovered authors to concentrate on is the pitch. The query, the outline--all of that boring formal work we generally can't stand. If an agent or a publisher wants to see more, then you either have what you consider the best draft you can produce ready to go or the agreement that you're going to write it.


Even your best draft will be edited by the publisher's editor, if it's accepted. So why load yourself with expenses on a "perfect" manuscript when it's not the first thing a publisher or agent will look at and it's going to be changed anyway?


My advice is, ask some friends or family who like to read the genre you're writing in, and whose opinions you trust, to give you feedback on what works and what doesn't. But don't waste their time, since they will be doing it for free--Only give them what you consider to be the final draft. 


Lastly, know that it is not the absolutely final draft, but the last draft you can write without having another set of eyes on it. Keep that in the back of your mind, always, because criticisms can feel like rejection, which are depressing if you're unaware (or forget) that this is all part of the process.


The publishing industry is pretty backwards right now. You want to think like a writer but the publisher wants you to think like a salesperson. You want to sell your art; they want you to sell yourself. Your writing takes a backseat to business, unfortunately.


Ditto that for all of the arts in the U.S., now that I think of it. "Yeah-yeah, she can act--But does she look the part?"


"Yeah-yeah, he can write--But will it sell?"


This is what happens when vampires get abs - lol.


Comment by Robert L. Bacon on February 7, 2011 at 10:39pm
Hello Mr. Vaeni,

It's great to see a new comment directed at me on the site. There has been a dearth of activity for some time, and I hope your efforts to keep me and perhaps others on our respective toes will foster renewed enthusiasm for this site, which I think is a good one and woefully underutilized.

"Stephen King and Nelson DeMille are famous authors. Their publishers (or agents) provide the editor."

I couldn't agree with you more that after both these writers developed a following, and certainly when they reached "franchise" status, these men had editors provided by their publishers. My point was, each used independent editors at the nascent stage of his respective career. And I stand by this.

Related to the body of your post, to suggest to a writer--who is trying to become published for the first time by a major house or quality indie--that the firm will supply an editor is, from my experience, grotesquely inaccurate. Also, asking friends and family to review material is not the advice I would give anyone, unless those friends and family are agents, editors, or publishers. I don't think that someone liking a genre qualifies the person as an expert, anymore than asking a man who had a heart attack--but is not a physician--to diagnose another individual's chest pains.

Mr. Vaeni, many early-stage writers need developmental editing, which from the "global" perspective of a manuscript has nothing to do with line editing. Other writers have excellent story concepts, but their syntax requires a great deal of polishing. And while your understanding of the industry may be much different from mine, I respect your opinions even though I disagree with them. I hope you will respect mine as well, since they are based solely on my experiences during the past 20 years.
Comment by Jeremy Vaeni on February 8, 2011 at 1:54am

Hi, Mr. Bacon:


I wasn't suggesting that a publisher would assign a writer an editor prior to agreeing to publish the book. But after the contracts have been signed and you're in? Yes, of course they do. So the question is, What does it take to get in? The answer is... a lot!


I'm certain you're more knowledgeable on this topic than am I, so let me ask you: Do first time authors who hire professional editors up front have a better success rate with getting their books published than those who don't?

Comment by Robert L. Bacon on February 8, 2011 at 4:13am

Hi again Mr. Vaeni,

You have no reason to believe that I'm telling you the truth, but no more than ten minutes after I responded to you comment, I received an e-mail from a book packager, who like me has 20 years working in this industry.  She has sold over 2 1/2 billion dollars worth of books in her career (that's not a misprint), representing thousands of authors.  She wrote me to ask if I'd edit a book for someone she feels has written a breakthrough work--after just sending it to a top agent who read the full manuscript and to a vice president she knows at Simon & Schuster, both of whom rejected it.

Here are the exact words the agent wrote her:  "…picked extremely high real estate (the thriller) and it had to be perfect.  And I mean perfect."   I am now quoting what the book packager wrote to me about this remark:  "I am quite confused if it needs any correcting it is not done under contract." 

Isn't it inconceivable that someone at her level would be asking an independent editor about what publishers do or don't do for their signed authors? 

I am likely going to agree to edit this writer's work, but he has now lost two major potential prospects because he didn't send his best work.  And nobody ever wants to see material a second time, regardless of what some people might intimate. 

As to your original question, I don't know of any statistic that is reliable or could be quantified that relates to edited books being agented or published over unedited material, since in the current market I assume only edited material makes it when offered by previously unpublished writers.  But I have no way of knowing, or as to what each person considers "editing"--should it be an in-depth critique, developmental edit, or line edit.  As I'm certain you are aware, editing covers a lot of ground beyond correcting punctuation and flawed syntax. 

Hope this helps a little bit.  You are certainly correct to imply it's a complicated

Comment by Jeremy Vaeni on February 8, 2011 at 4:19am
Actually, Mr. Bacon, if anyone is going to believe you about that timing, it's me. "Unbelievable" trickster-ish timing happens so often that I do believe you.
Comment by Robert L. Bacon on February 8, 2011 at 4:29am
I don't understand what "unbelievable" trickster-ish timing means?  I'm an old man, so how about helping me with this one?
Comment by Jeremy Vaeni on February 8, 2011 at 5:48pm

I mean the type of timing that people won't generally believe. (As if there is a Trickster archetype hard at work. So you received good news that helps make your case, but the timing is too perfect for most people to believe you. I hate when that happens.)

Comment by Robert L. Bacon on February 8, 2011 at 8:07pm
Hello once more Mr. Vaeni,

You have misconstrued the intent of the preface to my follow-up post.  So be it.  But so you are clear, my case has been made over the past two decades, not by some propitiously timed e-mail I received yesterday.  Why don't you subscribe to my twice-monthly Newsletter (it's free) that focuses on writing prose at a level which would be appealing to a major royalty publisher?  I welcome comments, and you can enlighten those souls from all over the world who have followed my drivel for many years.  You can subscribe by scrolling to the bottom of any page on my Web site at  I also do free opening-chapter critiques and query letter analysis. 

Send me one of your opening chapters and I'll look at it from a developmental perspective, which is what I do.  Then I'll have my line editor review it (she had 12 years with Prentice Hall, 2 with American Standard Dictionary, edited for GQ and other major magazines, and she's had six novels published by major imprints such as Avon and Berkley).  Maybe between us two mere mortals we can give you some ideas that might help you get "in." 

And I'm going to repeat what I wrote earlier, which you chose not to respond to but offered your clever rejoinder instead.  I certainly can't cite any credible statistic regarding the number of books that are royalty published by writers who have never used an independent editor prior to submission, but I don't know of any successful authors who haven't had professional editorial assistance--prior to the publication of their novels--in one way or another. 


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