Quality Control–Who’s doing it? How much? Does it matter?

I’m nearly done revising Lord Langdon’s Kiss (my first book, published in 2000). I’ve tweaked backstory and motivations and cut about 13,000 words. The cutting has been very easy; fifteen years have softened any attachment I had to that old prose. I’d say I had no ego involved at this point, but I’d be lying, because I have been mulling the thought of buying up all the copies still available in used bookstores and burning them!

I wish someone had told me to tighten this book, but I suspect the acquiring editor’s workload did not allow much time to work on books (like traditional Regencies) that did not receive large advances. Once a manuscript was deemed good enough to acquire in the first place, it seemed to be a case of “candidate passes.”

And since that phrase bubbled up from memories of The Court Jester with Danny Kaye, here’s the relevant clip. Just in case anyone could use a laugh.

Only one of my traditionally published books received any editorial feedback, and that was from a young editor who was probably more energetic and conscientious than most. (I would have enjoyed working with her again, but Signet ended the Regency line soon after that book.) My increasingly experienced group of critique partners has done more to improve my work than any editor.

So I laugh when I hear arguments that traditional publishing is always better than self publishing, because of the editing. I personally see pros and cons in both models. (Courtney Milan wrote an excellent post on this topic: Traditional versus Self Publishing—Official Death Match 2014.) However, my experience (which is not unique) is that working with a large New York city based publisher is still no guarantee of scrupulous editing, unless perhaps a very high advance is involved.

Even their proofreading is suspect. For instance, I recently read a traditionally published novella that had 3 grammatical and/or typographical errors. In a full length book, that would have been 10 or more errors, way over my personal threshold for professional work, which is 1 or 2. This is the first time I’ve seen anything so error-dense from traditional publishing, so I don’t know if the quality of proofreading has declined in general. I’ve heard readers complain about it, though.

There’s a huge variation in quality in self-published work as well. An indie book I read recently had the same endless internal dialogue issues as Lord Langdon’s Kiss. There was a lot I liked about the book, so I wish someone had advised the author to tighten the pacing.

A lot of indie authors do use various forms of quality control. I’ve been using a combination of beta readers and critique partners, several of whom are traditionally published authors. It’s a challenge to process feedback from as many as 5-8 different people, but I find it worthwhile. Other authors I know have hired anything from developmental editors to proofreaders, free lancers who have often worked (or still work) for large publishers. So a lot of indie books are as polished as any others, and sometimes more creative because they tackle themes and settings and other elements that may not have been thought marketable.

I’ve also heard there are self published books that are selling well despite poor editing, grammar, typographical errors, etc…. I haven’t read any myself, but it is said that a lot of readers don’t care about those things, as long as the story grabs them. That may be true. I’ve definitely observed the same about historical accuracy.

What do you think? Has the quality of editing changed over the years? How much does it matter to you as a reader?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading her mother’s Georgette Heyer novels, but it wasn’t until she went on an international assignment to the United Kingdom that she was inspired to start writing her own. Her first Regency romance was published in 2000 and was followed by five more Regencies and a novella. Her books have won the Desert Rose Golden Quill and Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club’s award for Best Regency Romance of 2005. Elena lives in upstate New York with her stroke survivor husband and two daughters.
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15 Responses to Quality Control–Who’s doing it? How much? Does it matter?

  1. patty says:

    I confess! as long as I can read it and understand it, I can even stand words like “of,” “the,” and other small ones being missing. Typos are fine, again as long as I can read past it. It has to be pretty bad to interrupt the story. But I pretty much only read ebooks.

    • Elena Greene says:

      Patty, that’s actually rather reassuring, because I tend to obsess over these things. The story always comes first, though I also believe a good story deserves a good cover and professional presentation.

  2. Isobel Carr says:

    I’m never sure how to respond when I see readers/reviewers on social media bemoaning the “lack of editing” of self-pub books. Frequently the complaints are a jumble of editorial issues, some of which are copy editing mistakes, and some of which are simply newbie rushing to publish mistakes (and yes, the latter might have been helped by a developmental editor, or would have been naturally outgrown under the old system of toiling away on multiple books while trying to sell to NY).

    I got mired down in a discussion a few weeks ago about why I’m not using a developmental editor, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t able to convince the reviewers in the discussion that skipping a developmental editor is NOT always taking a short cut or cheaping out, or that beta readers are often more useful/insightful than professional editors.

    Skipping copy editing is not an option, but I really think a lot of writers (especially experienced ones) know their own books and stories.

    • Elena Greene says:

      It’s really about the final result. How you get there involves knowing yourself as a writer and figuring out the methods that work best for you, which may not be what works for someone else.

  3. Good post, Elena! I think a lot of people assume that the NY publishing houses did more editing than they really did. My experience was similar to yours. But I suspect you are right that the effort or lack thereof may have been time/money/genre-related. A friend who wrote suspense had a NY editor who made her jump through hoops –she agonized over the requested changes to the point where she almost gave up. Her book ended up on the NY Times bestseller list and really launched her career, so her struggle was worth it!!
    But also worth the investment for the publisher… One challenge now is how to determine which free-lance editors have that kind of talent. Another is determining if you need one. As Isobel points out, many experienced authors know their stuff!!

    • Isobel Carr says:

      I think a big challenge for historical writers is finding an editor who is knowledgeable about the time period the book is set in. Having to explain repeatedly why a change the editor wants won’t work/is legally impossible/etc. can become extremely frustrating. Or that was my experience. It wasn’t that I received no editing, it was that the editing wasn’t particularly helpful, and trying to find solutions by committee could be maddening. I would often go around and around trying to pin point what the editors exact issue was so I could attempt to solve it in a way that worked for the setting of my story.

  4. I agree that the most important thing is to know your story and to find an editor who KNOWS your genre inside and out. You should not have to spend weeks explaining simple things, things every historical romance reader knows, to your editor. (And this applies to editors you hire as well as those you encounter in traditional publishing.)

    That being said, while many readers don’t have a problem with poor grammar, poor spelling or poor anything else. (I HAVE read some of these books and it made me NUTS!) I, as a writer, DO care. For the same reason I refused to simply pass a student along because he was never going to college and didn’t really need to make a C in high school English because he was going to be a mechanic or work at McDonald’s. That student was my “product,” the result of my work. I take pride in my work and I refused to turn out junk then and I won’t do it now. Fortunately I have a couple or really anal critique partners with sharp eyes and no qualms about hammering me. And we have at least one historical accuracy Nazi who is even worse than I am so I can’t get away with much. :)

  5. HJ says:

    Quite simply, I find it unacceptable for a book to contain grammatical and spelling mistakes, especially those which indicate a fundamental lack of knowledge of basic use of English. I start to lose faith in the author and I am jolted out of the book. I am equally intolerant of historical errors. My view is that if someone has decided to write, and to write historical novels, then she must learn her craft and do her research.

    It can be more difficult for a reader to identify why she is losing interest in a book, or finding it difficult to like the characters – which can result from problems with pacing, information dumping, unlikely dialogue, etc.. I would think a good editor would be able not only to identify what is wrong but also how to correct it, and I should imagine that type of help is invaluable to a writer.

    • Isobel Carr says:

      I agree that line/copy editing is not optional. And yes, an editor with historical knowledge and an ability to do all the rest of that would be worth their weight in gold. If anyone ever finds one, let me know. I have yet to encounter such a creature.

  6. Janice says:

    Perhaps I’m a high stickler, but I have noticed a decline in editing standards since the internet. Books of 20 – 30 years ago vary wildly in quality and interest, of course, but mechanical things like grammar, spelling and usage are overall less painful. For my taste, most regencies being published now are also painful to read because they’re so rooted in 21st century values, chiefly sex without consequences. I find them ahistoric in content and unreadable in style, and the authors I still follow are few indeed.

    Editors had those jobs for a reason. The writer’s critique group girlfriends are not going to give her the same hardnosed criticism an editor would because that wouldn’t be “nice” or “supportive”, even if the writer benefited from it in the long run. Granted that the quality of editing varies with the skill and knowledge (including period knowledge) of the editor, judging by the number of execrable ebook only releases I’ve sampled, real editing is sorely needed.

  7. Janice,

    I tend to agree with you! There have been some truly awful historical romances published since the self-publishing revolution.

    I have, however, been fortunate enough to land in a critique group who have no qualms about being picky, nasty, bitchy and BRUTALLY honest when it comes to critiquing. I know how lucky I am in spite of the fact I sometimes receive my pages critiqued as if they were a juicy steak and had encountered a pack of hungry Rottweilers!

    • Elena Greene says:

      Louisa, I hope you are using the words “bitchy” and “nasty” just to make a point. Because I have seen CPs use critique as passive/aggressive sort of weapon and that’s just wrong.

      I view my relationship with my CPs kind of like my relationship with my dentist. We do what is necessary, as carefully as possible, while recognizing that it will probably never be completely pain-free.

  8. Elena Greene says:

    The replies are getting next too deep, so I’m just going to reply in a fresh comment.

    Although I think it would be great to have editors who understand the time period, perhaps it would be sufficient to have an editor who was good at identifying story issues who was also willing to step back and allow the author to find the historically workable solutions. This is easier when the author is the one hiring the editor, of course.

    The issue that concerns me more–since I like to write unusual stories–would be the editor who knows what is trending in a particular genre and would pressure me to write that, i.e. it’s nice that your hero is a gentleman farmer but could you make him a Duke instead?

    Janice, I don’t mean to start an argument but as described, my critique partners have been far more valuable to me than any editor and they don’t pull any punches.

    Let me start though by saying that a lot of critique groups don’t work that well. I’ve been in 2 bad ones. #1 claimed to be tough but was merely toxic, the aim being to discourage anyone from actually finishing or submitting anything. #2 blew up because some people wanted it “nice” and got upset when others, who were more serious about the craft, insisted that conflict and character motivation were indeed important in romance novels.

    It has taken years to develop, but my current set of CPs have the balance right. We tell the truth as kindly as possible, but no one holds back. I should add that the majority are now published, so there’s a lot of knowledge and experience there.

    The other thing is we don’t do group critique. Everyone sends comments to the author over email and there’s no sharing or discussion unless the author asks for it. That way there’s no ganging up on the author and there’s no “writing by committee.” For better or worse, the author is the one to sort out the feedback and decide what changes will work best in her story.

  9. Definitely using those terms to make a point !! (Wasn’t in a good frame of mind when writing it, but from my day job, not my crit group. Mea culpa!) My group is the most encouraging and cheer leading group to which I have ever belonged. I too belonged to previous critique groups. One did group critique and it didn’t work for me. And they were entirely too “nice,” for lack of a better term to really find serious problems with anyone’s work. The other group critiqued strictly by sending critiques to the author with no group critiquing. But the group eventually turned toxic and negative and I had to walk away.

    The group to which I belong now is an online group. We do get together at conferences and truly enjoy each others company. Each of us has strengths and weaknesses and most important, we KNOW it. We swap chapters and critiques via Dropbox and it works very well. We are tough on each other. We don’t let each other get away with much, but it is always couched in terms of “You’re too good a writer to do this or that.” After several years of negative experiences with other groups this group has been a total positive. We commiserate, but we don’t let each other wallow in self-pity and we don’t let each other give up. And we don’t let each other submit work less than our very best, whether to an editor or to readers.

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