How to Work with a Book Editor

Thursday, September 06, 2018

If I were to describe my editing goal it would be: editor seeks author for long-term relationship. I’ve worked with writers on second, third, and, this summer, even fourth books. And, while I like to think I am generous and accommodating, not every author responds to my editing style and that's okay.

Pick the Right Book Editor

I can be a tough cookie, and I don't always assuage authors’ egos. I value time and prefer to quickly get to the point. This can be unsettling, especially for first-time authors. I’m also not monogamous. I stagger pub-date deadlines and juggle a few projects at a time. With this being said, the first thing you should do when hiring a book editor is to make sure that you and the editor are a good fit. My editing style may sound like a dream to some and a nightmare to others, and the working relationship you have with your book editor needs to be one built on a foundation of trust.

Understand What's Acceptable

Over the course of a project, which is anywhere between six weeks and six months, things come up. As it happens, the art of writing is as subjective as the science of book editing. Think about it. Some days you knock out 5,000 words; the next morning you struggle to string five sentences together.

Book editing is far from a perfect science. Sure, most of it comes down to mechanics and style, but there’s a level of error, interpretation—and, sadly, interruption. 

Publishing emergencies come up. This spring, with a closing-in pub date, a former client asked me to review revisions she’d made to her novel, pushing projects with later deadlines aside. And too it happens that some projects—ones that initially seem straightforward—hit a literary wall, be it tense going wonky or a subplot going sideways, and an editor must reread/reevaluate/rethink earlier passages of the narrative. It happens, takes time, but a good book editor won’t rush. That isn’t how book editing works.


Throughout my career, whether or not a client responds to the constructive criticism demanded of me as an editor, clients always respond to my being able to communicate with them during the process about the process and, when kinks come up, that I give them a heads up. Sometimes this isn’t anything more than reaching out with an email to touch base.

For first-time authors, the book editing process is a new experience, so it's beneficial if you're willing to learn and to trust your editor and whatever his or her process is. There's always a reason an expert is an expert. If you don't trust their experience, they probably aren't the best fit for you. That said, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even if the when gets tricky, your editor should explain the how, why, and what.

What follows is a list that will help if you find yourself at the point where you'd like to break up with your book editor.

  1. Continue to be clear about your expectations.
  2. If you find that it's not working out with your current book editor, make a clean break, and don’t waste time. If you’re the editor, make a referral, and, if you’re the author, ask for one.
  3. Authors, make sure you have your files, and, editors, make sure you offer them.
  4. Set up an exit interview. This doesn’t have to be more than a ten-minute phone call to assess what the manuscript needs moving forward and to wish one another well.
  5. When it comes to a refund or partial refund, be fair. When editing projects go sideways, both parties lose time and the project loses momentum.

Breaking up is hard to do. Feelings get hurt. Egos get bruised. Whether you’re the storyteller who brought it into the world or the editor who tried to help it along, the important thing to remember is what really matters: the book.


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.