SFEditor.ca logo

Self-Publishing and Developmental Editing

Traditional publishers provide a variety of editorial supports; if you are going to take on the role of publisher, it is now up to you to arrange for these services for your authors—even if that's just you.

Almost by definition, authors cannot spot the problems in their own manuscripts, whether these are structural problems at the level of plot, characterization, setting, and so on; awkward or unclear passages; or simple typographical, spelling or grammatical errors. You owe it to your book, to your readers—and most of all to yourself—to provide the same level (or better!) of editing that a traditional publisher would have provided.

A development editor can provide several services that every self-published author requires.

Objective Appraisal of Readiness

It is difficult to know when your manuscript is ready for self-publication.

Some writers succumb to the temptation to rush into print while the book is still a preliminary draft. Uncritical praise from friends and family may encourage going with a draft that is 'good enough', rather than waiting until one has achieved the manuscript's fullest potential. Many self-published writers have told me they now regret rushing to publication a manuscript in which they subsequently recognize a multitude of flaws.

Other writers find themselves obsessively polishing their manuscripts, unable to let go, or to take the next logical step. Comparing their current manuscript to those of their favorite published writers, they fear theirs comes up short. What they fail to realize is that it is an unfair comparison: the test is not whether the manuscript stands with the three or four best books they have ever read, but whether it compares favorably to those currently on the bookstore shelf.

Traditional publishing provided a simple test of whether the manuscript was ready: one submitted it to various editors and awaited their decision. In self-publishing this step is absent. A development editor can fill this gap, however, by providing an objective and professional appraisal of both the artistic merit and commercial potential of the manuscript. The author is then able to make an informed decision whether to publish now or to revise further.

If you do not wish to invest in an appraisal by a development editor, here are some generic criteria for determining if your book is ready to be self-published. (Note that these guidelines are neither complete nor universally applicable: they are intended only to raise issues for your consideration.)

Manuscript Development

If a decision is made to continue revising a manuscript, considerable time and effort may be saved by seeking the advice of a development editor. Heinlien famously said never to change anything unless an editor demanded the change.1 It is not uncommon for writers to endlessly fuss over details that do not matter, while missing or avoiding gaping holes in, say, the plot or character development. A development editor can help direct an author's efforts to the precise issue that needs to be addressed, and offer suggestions for possible solutions.

Such suggestions do not constitute an appropriation of the author's artistic control. On the contrary, they allow the author to efficiently and effectively regain control over a manuscript that may have gotten away from them. Just as it is easier for an objective editor to identify flaws, it is often easier for someone removed from the writing to see the manuscript's full potential. Dispirited by a manuscript that fails to jell immediately, or that is uneven, or that has some fatal flaw, the author is often tempted to abandon the whole project. Throwing the baby out with the bath water, however, is generally the wrong solution. By suggesting possible avenues the author could explore, the development editor is often able to assist authors in connecting the dots when themes are not sufficiently clear, smoothing out rough edges when the writing is uneven, and in the surgical removal of potentially fatal flaws—without killing the patient.

Similarly, a development editor can often assist authors in overcoming writer's block, particularly when they are aready familiar with the manuscript or project. Writing is at least as much about managing angst as it is about craft. Provided you have chosen the right development editor, relevant moral support—appropriately intermixed with the occasional, well-time kick to the seat of one's pants—can mean the difference between successful completion and yet another unfinished manuscript.

Quality Control

Once the decision is made to procede to publication, it is the publisher's responsibility (that is, your responsibility) to ensure that the manuscript is properly copy edited. Very few authors can do this effectively on their own. It is well established that one sees what one expects to see when reading, and having written the page in the first place, spotting the random errors that are actually there is next to impossible. Friends and family may be able to assist, if you are fortunate enough to have friends and family well versed in the finer points of grammar and composition. If you wish to publish a professional quality product, however, you are likely going to require the services of a professional copy editor.

Buyer Confidence

Consumers are often reluctant to take a chance on an unknown author, or one with whom they are unfamiliar, even from established publishers. This reluctance is greatly increased if they believe the author is self-published, as previous experience may have shown them that self-published works often lack professional standards. Sample chapters posted on the web are a partial solution to increasing buyer confidence, as is professional coverart, book design (layout, font choice, etc.), a convincing-sounding press name, and a professional-looking logo.

None of these will help, however, if the opening page does not immediately engage the consumer's interest; a development editor can help ensure that first impressions are positive. Similarly, consumers and reviewers will quickly rebel if quality control is absent: opening the book at random and finding errors a copy editor could have caught quickly reveals the book to be an amateur production. Eliminating issues that undermine buyer confidence is one key to commercial success.

Consumers expect the quality control provided by professional editing. Listing an editor in the colophon therefore increases consumer confidence by suggesting that the book has indeed undergone professional editing. Of course, anyone can make up an editor, so it helps if the editor has an established reputation.


Given the vast number of self-published books on the market, many authors are searching for a competitive edge. One possible approach is to add an additional layer of branding.

Naturally, your primary brand is your own name (or pen name); if the book is part of a series, the series name or character ("A Joe Blow Mystery") becomes a second brand. A possible third layer is to identify the editor; the editor thus becomes a guarantor of quality. "Edited by..." not only tells the potential buyer that the book has indeed undergone editing, but that the editor in question stands behind this particular product. If the editor is a known quantity, consumers may well give the book a chance, even if they are unfamiliar with the author or series.

Corporate publishers are well aware of the advantages of editor branding and often raise editor's names to the status of imprints. Baen, Ballantine, DAW, and Del Rey, are all examples of labels named after their founding editors; Terry Carr or Tom Doherty are good examples of editors whose name on the cover guarantees quality. (And that's just the A's through D's....)

Thus, when choosing a development editor for one's book, it is important to know if they are prepared to stand behind their work; whether you approve of the other books they have edited; and whether their name on your book would be recognized within your genre.

Last updated August, 2015