The Evolution of Book Editing for Indie Authors

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Just over a decade ago, most print-on-demand (POD) service providers were cutting their baby teeth. It was exciting; it felt good to be a subversive, if small, cog in disrupting an industry where six traditional publishers (now the Big Five) had long decided, in no uncertain terms, what readers read and how. During the reign of traditional publishers, indie and hybrid publishing were dismissed as “vanity.”

To be clear: successfully publishing a book isn’t as easy as an author writing something, having it proofread, and then printing it. For all the creative and innovative freedom POD offers, to be competitive in the marketplace, beyond the mechanics of good writing, there is a tried-and-true short list that includes such elements as style, readability, reader engagement, and marketability. These “basics” strike at the heart of why countless indie books aren’t taken seriously.

There’s a marked difference between what traditional publishers bring to the editing table and what an indie author might not even know to consider. Even before a manuscript gets to a publisher, it’s conceivable that it’s been reviewed by a literary agent and an acquisitions editor. Add to these stop-gaps that big publishers have distinct departments that accomplish different levels of editing to finesse a book before it’s published. 

Over the years, I’ve educated authors on “best” publishing practices, and, as best I could, mimicked The Chicago Manual of Style’s publishing process to include manuscript preparation, editing, proofreading, and then later, as I learned of their importance, helping authors format and create book metadata. It’s been my experience that even when indie authors consider best book editing practices, they don’t necessarily have the budget or time to tackle all the rounds their manuscript needs.

Using history as a measuring stick, articulating old-school book editing terms has become murky. We’ve blurred a few steps in what was once a standard process. Editors began using the term “collaborative editing” to convey that editing is, indeed, a joint effort. I would add that, as it stands, an editor serving an indie book also fuses different levels of book editing into a single “round” or two of editing. For better or worse, line editing, copyediting and, yes, even proofreading are often lumped together to mean the same thing. While most authors understand there is, in theory, a distinction, the author wants to get as much editorial bang for their buck.

Typically, publishers hire me for either content or copyediting; during each round, I do what I can to perfect the narrative. Be it a global issue (where I chase words or phrases or punctuation an author inadvertently misused) or something more macro-driven (think storyline and character development). Very recently, I’ve begun to concern myself less with specific, industry-standard editing definitions to help authors better navigate an industry with drastically changing standard operating procedures. I’ve also become increasingly lenient, even indulgent, as to an author’s vision. If my efforts were summed up in a bumper sticker, it’s that: “I judge less and support more.”

Indie authors often depend on a single, custodial safeguard, so I have come to think of book editing in terms of “rounds.” Each one is a chance to strengthen some aspect of a manuscript to ensure its usage is consistent, accurate, what the author intended, and is as strong as it can possibly be. My role has morphed into something that’s part literary agent, part acquisitions editor, part copyeditor, part proofreader, and, every so often, part content creator, because with any given manuscript, I have just one or two “takes” to help get it right.


Experts in the Publishing Industry

Ellie Maas Davis

Ellie Maas Davis owns Pressque, a publishing consultation firm located in downtown Charleston that offers editing and ghostwriting services to authors and publishers.