I usually tell them three things. First, paid editing can be expensive, so it makes sense to consider alternatives--a friend who’s not afraid to criticize, a local writers’ group or critique circle, an online writers’ group (such as Critters Writers Workshop for SF/fantasy/horror writers), a peer critique community (such as Book Country or Authonomy), or a creative writing course. Any of these may be able to give you the help you need, free of charge or at a fraction of the cost. (You should be seeking such sources of feedback anyway–while self-editing is an essential component of the writer's craft, no writer is capable of being completely objective about his or her work, and outside viewpoints are vital.)
Second, paid editing is not a magic fix. Editing is a subjective process--there’s no set formula for dynamic plots or well-rounded characters or even good prose style (beware of any independent editor who tells you there is). And even the most accomplished editor can’t turn a bad manuscript into a good one, or a mediocre manuscript into a blockbuster. They can only work with what’s already there.
Third, scams aren't all you need to watch out for. Competence--or rather, the lack of it--is an equally hazardous pitfall. The Internet is rife with editors who've set up shop without much--or sometimes anything--in the way of relevant credentials.
These folks are often entirely well-intentioned, sincerely believing that a lifetime of reading, or a teaching career, or some technical writing experience, is enough to qualify them to edit manuscripts. But it's much more likely that they don't possess the specialized skills that are essential for a useful critique or a professional-quality line or content edit. Some provide no more than glorified proofreading or copy editing--things you really should be competent to do yourself, if you're serious about writing. An inexperienced editor may also be unable to judge your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses for the trade marketplace (very important if you're planning on seeking traditional publication), or have strange ideas about what constitutes good writing. Some amateur editors I've encountered aren't even fully literate.
How to avoid unqualified or dishonest editors, and make sure the editor or editing service you're considering is right for you? Here are some common-sense suggestions.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
- Be sure the editor (or editors, if it's an editing service) is qualified. You’re looking for professional publishing industry experience--preferably, as an editor for reputable publishers--and/or professional writing credentials (legitimately-published books, articles, etc.). If the editor has a website, a resume or CV should be posted there. An editing service should post staff names and biographies. Be wary if you can't find this information, or if requesting it produces excuses or obfuscation.
Also, for individual editors, membership in the Editorial Freelancers Association (US), the Society of Freelance Editors and Proofreaders (UK), the Institute of Professional Editors (Australia), or the Editors’ Association of Canada are all indications of professionalism. (The websites of these organizations provide a lot of helpful information, including sample agreements and charts of recommended rates).
- If you've been referred to the editor or editing service, verify that they're independent. No third party (such as a literary agent or publisher) should benefit.
- Be sure the editor you're thinking of hiring has experience appropriate to your work. Editing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Good editors specialize, both on the basis of experience and taste. Someone whose main work has been with nonfiction may not be the ideal choice to edit your epic fantasy novel.
- Look for a client list, or a list of published books. Clients' work published by recognizable publishers suggests that the editor has professional expertise and standing. If the editor or editing service specializes in self-published authors, get hold of a couple of the books so you can assess quality.
- Ask for references, and contact them. This is important for obvious reasons.
- Ask to see a sample critique or part of a sample edit. Not all editors may be willing to provide this, but if they do, it'll give you an idea of what you’ll be getting for your money. Some editors or editing services have sample critiques on their websites.
- Make sure the business arrangements are clear--and get it in writing. You should know exactly what you’ll be paying for, including the scope of the work to be done, the charges you’ll incur, the time period involved, and who will be doing the editing (you don't want to pay for a well-known editor only to discover that your manuscript is being handled by an underling). This is important not just for you, but for your editor, who needs to be clear on what you want the edit to accomplish. You should receive a contract or a letter/email of agreement that covers all these areas. Be wary if the editor is unwilling to provide this.
WHEN TO BE CAUTIOUS
- If you receive a referral from a literary agent or publisher. This is not necessarily questionable. Reputable agents or publishers who like a project but don't think it's ready yet may suggest that writers consider hiring independent editors, and may recommend the name or names of qualified editors they’ve previously worked with and trust to do a good job.
But editing scams are out there. Common schemes include a kickback setup for successful referrals, where the scammer pays a percentage or a finder's fee, a la Edit Ink--or the agent or publisher may actually own the editing service under a different name, and send writers there without disclosing the connection. An editing referral should always prompt some extra checking.
- If the publisher or agent recommends his/her own paid editing services. This is a clear conflict of interest. If the agent or publisher can make money from selling you editing or critiques, how can you be sure that the recommendation is in your best interest? Again, your editor or editing service needs to be independent.
- If buying editing is a requirement of representation or submission. Some scam literary agencies require clients to purchase a critique as a condition of representation. Some devious publishers make buying a manuscript assessment part of the submission process. Again, this is a conflict of interest, allowing the agency or publisher to increase its profit margin by charging authors for extra services–which may not be of professional quality.
- If you can't find a resume or CV, or claims of expertise can't be verified. A reputable editor will provide a biography or CV that clearly states his or her experience--either on his or her website or on request. Ditto for the staff of reputable editing services. Be wary if this information is missing, or if it's too vague to verify. Claims like "Joe Editor has published ten novels" or "Jane Editor has worked for two major publishing houses" are meaningless unless they're specific. And if you request specifics and are refused--move on.
- If the editing is anonymous. Some editing services don’t just fail to provide the credentials of the editors who work for them, they won't even provide names. You may learn your editor's name only after he or she is assigned to you--or maybe not at all (I know of one dubious editing service where editors are identified only by number). This makes it impossible for you to verify your editor's credentials, or whether he or she has experience appropriate to your work.
- If the editor edits any and all genres, all comers accepted. Expert editors have areas of specialization that reflect their professional experience and their personal tastes. The skills required to edit or critique a romance novel, for instance, are quite different from those needed for a work of narrative nonfiction. That’s not to say a single editor won’t possess both skill sets–but it’s not very likely that one person will be able to edit any and all subjects and genres with equal effectiveness.
Also, within the basic scope of services, a good editor will tailor the job to the client. Standardized services and a lack of specialization suggest either a dearth of professional experience, or an editor who provides a widget-like service.
- If the editor tells you that agents and publishers prefer manuscripts that have been professionally edited. Dishonest or ignorant editors sometimes prey on the anxieties of writers who are seeking traditional publication by saying that agents and publishers give preference to professionally edited manuscripts. This is false.
For one thing, agents and publishers know the limitations of even the best editing, which can make a manuscript better but won't necessarily make it marketable. For another, they are well aware of the number of less-than-competent editors out there, and know that "professionally edited" may not mean any such thing. Plastering your manuscript with "Professionally Edited" or mentioning it in your cover letter is unlikely to improve your chances--in fact it may harm them, as savvy agents and publishers may assume you've been rooked, or worry that you aren't capable of producing a publishable book on your own. Your manuscript needs to be as perfect as you can make it, but no one will hold it against you if you accomplish that yourself.
- Vagueness about specific services. If an editor or editing service won’t give you a firm price, or doesn’t want to lay out a procedure and/or timeline, or won’t tell you who will be working on your manuscript, move on.
- Refusal of reasonable requests for information. A reputable editor or editing service should have no problem providing a resume, references, and work samples, or answering questions about prices and services. Be wary if you encounter resistance in any of these areas.