Post-publication editing for self-publishing authors


Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and copy-editor who specializes in helping independent authors of fiction and non-fiction bring clarity and consistency to their books. To get in touch, visit her website: Louise Harnby | Proofreader.

I’m a specialist author’s proofreader and copy-editor. I work primarily with independent fiction writers in a variety of genres including, but not limited to, crime, thriller, adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural and romance.

I reckon I have the best job in the world – a client base that never ceases to inspire me, enough projects to fill my schedule, the ability to work when and where I wish, and project fees that meet my needs and expectations.

I’ve worked with authors who’ve truly mastered the art of writing. I’ve also worked with others who, as technicians of the craft, are still emerging. They all have one thing in common, though – they’ve used words to build a world and populate it with characters who have their own personalities, voices and experiences. Then they’ve come to me for help.

The order of things

Not all those authors commission my services before they publish. To those of us who are au fait with mainstream publishing best practice, the idea of hiring an editor or proofreader after publication seems illogical. ‘That’s the wrong way round!’ we cry in dismay. It can go further – some editors’ conversations about self-publishers who’ve made non-traditional choices can extend well into to realms of snobbery and condescension. Instead, all editors should be thinking in terms of opportunity. After all, we’re the very people who can assist the author.

So why do some self-publishers take a non-traditional approach to the publication process? The reasons are numerous and include:

  1. Lack of publishing knowledge
  2. Budget
  3. Fear of being judged, or of the book being damaged
  4. Lack of knowledge regarding standard spelling, grammar and punctuation
  5. Different expectations
  6. Impatience
  7. Poor experiences with prior editors

Considering these reasons can help us to communicate effectively and respectfully so that self-publishers feel confident in hiring us and able to shift the order of things in any future publishing venture.

Showing understanding; offering solutions

If an author is seeking my services post-publication, they’ve already decided there’s a problem. Perhaps they’ve received critical reviews that praise the plot but damn the punctuation. My job’s not to tell them that something needs fixing – someone’s already done that. My job’s to demonstrate that I understand the problem and know how to fix it.

I frame my initial conversation in terms of zones – the green and the red. When an author’s in the green zone, their readers have enjoyed the book, have left positive reviews, and are ready to come back for more. When an author’s in the red zone, their readers have been frustrated with aspects of the book, have left negative reviews, and will reject further opportunities to engage with the author’s writing.

Readers have different expectations and levels of knowledge – some won’t realize that there are problems with the text, or they will realize but won’t care. Others will care very much and be frustrated by the lack of polish.

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Let’s assume for simplicity that the readership is split evenly between those who don’t know or care that there are mistakes or inconsistencies in the book and those who do know and care. Who’d want to alienate 50% of their readership? I tell my authors that by commissioning me they have a much higher chance of staying out of the red zone – simple as that.

Just as valuable is explaining the different levels of editing and how the mainstream publishing process works. Copy-editors and proofreaders (should) have this knowledge, but why should the senior nurse practitioner and the IT consultant who are writing in their spare time?

Bear in mind that the ways in which people can make their writing visible to a large audience have expanded. Take Wattpad – there, writers of all ages, budgets and abilities have equal opportunity to submit their stories. My 13-year-old uses the site to both access and produce content. The culture of Wattpad is about inspiring and supporting, and being inspired and supported. The focus (so she tells me) is on having a go, not having a gripe. For some of our authors, platforms like Wattpad might be their only indicators of what the order of things might be.

By creating content that summarizes traditional editorial routes to publication, we can educate our authors and help them to consider alternative ways of working when publishing via other distribution channels.

Building trust; showing respect for the right to write

I’m not an editor who thinks that some books have no business being published because they don’t meet some prescriptive standard of excellence or literariness. I love the fact that anyone can pour their soul into a piece of writing and make it available to others, whether via Wattpad, a blog, an online bookshop, or a website. I’m glad I live in a time when even if the genre isn’t fashionable, the author’s not a celebrity, or the writing isn’t crafted as well as Dickens’, a writer can still put their stories out there.

By telling our authors that we support their right to write, we can start the journey of building trust. We can reinforce this conversation with content that outlines our commitments. Why? Because in some cases we may be the first editor they’ve spoken to; they may feel vulnerable and out of their comfort zone. Or they may have had poor prior experiences with editors and, consequently, may fear the process.

My preference is to provide potential clients with a professional promise: to do the very best I can, within the agreed budget, to bring clarity and consistency to their books; to be sensitive to and respectful of their words, their voice, and the journey they’re taking; to be mindful of their readers’ expectations; and, above all, to do no harm.

Talking money

So what about the cost? How do we convince the author that the fee we’re offering is worth their investment?

Like most editorial freelancers, I’ve encountered the client who thought they were talking to Wile E. Coyote and that an 80,000-word novel could be proofread in eight hours. And I’ve encountered another who believed it would me take three times as long but that I’d be more than a little thrilled to do the job for less than the national minimum wage.

However, if we’ve succeeded in instilling trust in the author by explaining our ability to deliver the required solutions, half the battle is won. If the author wants to work with us, the issue will come down to whether they have the budget.

It’s important not to take money issues personally. Everyone has a budget – even the client with deep pockets. It’s our client’s right to accept or decline our fee offer, just as it’s our right to stick with or negotiate our proposed fee. Either the two of us will be a financial fit or we won’t. If the author can’t afford us, it doesn’t mean they don’t respect us or our services. It’s just business. Talking to self-publishers means being prepared to wave goodbye and wish them luck.

The nub of it … talking without criticism

Talking about and to self-publishers who search for editorial assistance post-publication requires a tone that focuses on solutions, not criticism. We must respect the reasons why they chose to publish before being edited, and acknowledge that twenty-first-century publishing, in its myriad forms, is a very different animal to that which we might have grown up with. If an author contacts me prior to publication, all well and good. If they get in touch after the event, I’m just as ready to help. That is, after all, my job.

Thank you to Norah Myers for sourcing this guest post.

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  1. Very interesting and inspiring! I have learnt to value the role of the proofreader and copy-editor as self publisher. This confirms what I have learnt. Thanks Louise.

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