Proofing, editing and cover art turn great storytelling into a great product

It’s March 2017, and we are still having this discussion. Yes, I’ve written about editing before. I’ve mentioned proofing before. I’ve talked about covers before. Now I’m not in a position to impose my views, but I am able to appreciate the work of proof readers, editors, cover artists etc. I know that if I were to ever publish a book that had not been edited, hadn’t been proofed, I’d be shredded by critics and readers alike.

The cover for my new novel Last Winter’s Snow. The book releases April 6. We’re in the final stages of proofing the text.

Yet I hear these stories time and time again. I hear them from friends, I hear them from readers, I hear them from editors:

  • Can you help me for free? I cannot afford your services!
  • I’m a professor/expert/etc. I don’t need help!

If you can’t afford a vacation, do you still buy one? People seem to take the first amendment to ever new heights. Yes, you are allowed to express your views, and the government may not censor you. But it doesn’t entitle you to get published. However, since Amazon and others offer free publishing tools, I guess you can go ahead and press the “publish” button. But with that also come responsibilities, consequences.

However, what about the rights of the reader? Don’t they deserve a story that has been polished? Editing isn’t just about grammar. I sometimes encounter the argument that “I’m an English major. I don’t need editing or proof readers.” Let me tell you this: this isn’t about your expertise. This is about perspective. An editor or proof reader approaches a text with a fresh set of eyes. They see things you no longer see, because you are so familiar with a text that you just don’t see the trees in the forest. Trust me, after fourteen books, I have missed almost everything!

No major in English will keep you from making mistakes, from getting things wrong. Not necessarily language-wise, but in the story. Allow me to exemplify. My publisher and I are currently working on my latest book Last Winter’s Snow. We worked on the edits all of last week and well into the weekend. I had worked on this book for almost a year. There were no plot holes to be found. However, things my editor commented on were, e.g.:

  • Some aspects of the story were long-winded and needed tightening. Since I wrote it, even my own major in literature didn’t save me from seeing this differently. Editing isn’t always about finding errors. It’s also about getting perspective, a different opinion. In the end, the author decides, but if you never get that perspective?
  • There was a question about catheter bags in Swedish hospitals. Are they emptied or replaced? Yeah. To just see this and highlight it. It took me another two hours of research into clinical equipment and finally, a phone call to a retired nurse to get the answer. In this instance, my text didn’t need changing.

I recall other stories when my editors would ask me to change the names of a character, because it was too similar to another, or they would point out expressions that might lead to misunderstandings or even accusations of being insensitive to someone, or a group. Not intentionally of course, but still. Great editing finds all those things you, as author, wouldn’t be able to see. They provide much needed perspective.

In the end, I’ve never had an editor tell me to change the plot of a story, or finding major plot holes. I think my biggest errors revolved about people’s aging, of how old children should be at a given point in a story. Not always easy to keep ages straight.

Point is, my books are so much better because of the editing, because of proof readers who spot those letters or words that disappear in the editing process. Those awkward “there”, “their” or “they’re” that autocorrect often change automatically these days, without us really noticing them.

A good cover not only stands out among others, it also gives you an indication of the genre the story is in. This is still one of my all time favorites, from my novel Willem of the Tafel. A Sci-Fi novel, my only one.

A word on covers. yes, covers are important. And if you’re not a pro, don’t expect your book to sell if you use a home made cover. I know there are gazillions of ways to create cover art. Rule 1: Don’t steal from Google or Bing. Pay for the art you use or create your own from scratch. If you’re as bad at drawing or sketching as I am, invest in a good picture. But even better: let a pro help you. Because no matter what: you’ll see that a professional cover stands out, attracts readers and gets them interested in learning more about your story. If you have a crap cover, they’ll never even press that first click, to read your blurb.

But I still can’t afford those services! Well, tough luck! I can’t afford a new car, or that sweater I saw the other day. Suck it up. But you can still publish that book. If you think the story is good enough, find a publisher, find a niche publisher specializing in your kind of story. And if you absolutely insist on self-publishing (why I don’t really understand), find help that might be willing to do a profit share.

I’ve heard of authors who asked friends for help and then were disappointed (and angry) at said friends when negative reviews start coming in. Did you pay them? If you had a professional editor, they’d re-edit the book for you. They’d proof it again for you, as part of their professional service. Just as you would expect a restaurant to replace a bad meal. Or a mechanic to fix a faulty repair job. But I am getting tired of hearing of all those people who complain about the cost of things, the sense of entitlement to get something published, because they’ve written it. No, there is no such entitlement. The first amendment (or your democratic country’s equivalent) allows you to publish it, but it doesn’t save you from being trashed if the product is crap. That is part of your readers’ first amendment rights.

It’s 2017, and I thought we’d moved past uploading word documents straight from the author to Amazon. Alas, I was wrong, and I’m ashamed for my industry. Because every crap product hurts the rest of us, from the largest publisher to the professional self-publishers.

What’s your take? Am I missing something here?

Have a great week!

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Hans

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