Choosing your substantive editor may be one of the most important decisions you make in your publishing plan.
A substantive editor is the editor who digs into the manuscript with you, shaping your idea, suggesting changes to tone or content, and asking questions on behalf of the eventual reader. Stereotypically, they’re the editor you see smoking a pipe, feet on desk, in films about publishing in the 1950s in London or New York. They’re also your in-house champion, presenting your book to the sales team as well as describing it to the design and marketing departments.
On average, a book takes about two years, from conception to on-sale and distribution, and your substantive editor will work with you for most of that time. Add in an extra year after on-sale while you market your book and possibly publish other editions, like a trade paperback or audiobook, and you’re looking at three years with your editor. Your substantive editor will likely be the person who works on your future books, too, so we’re talking about a potential long-term relationship.
(Sweaty? Let’s continue.)
You will have less of a relationship with your copy editor and proofreader, who come in at the end of the manuscript development for a set period of time. These two editors are seen more as production editors, and are usually assigned by the publishing house, often in a freelance capacity.
The person who buys your book (we call this “acquiring your manuscript” or “acquiring your proposal,” for some non-fiction books) might not be your substantive editor. Sometimes a publisher buys the project and assigns it to an editor, or sometimes “your” editor moves on to another opportunity.
You have some say over which editor buys your book, especially if you’re a repeat author and you’ve built a relationship with the publishing house. But in traditional publishing the choice is often out of your hands. If you have an agent, they will offer some guidance on which editor will do a good job with your book.
In hybrid publishing, the publisher will suggest an editor to work with you. This editor might be freelance or working in house. That’s not a bad thing—the publisher has vetted this editor and knows they’re a good fit for your topic—but if you’re keen to work with a particular editor, even if outside that house, it never hurts to ask. Customizing your plan is one of the advantages of a hybrid publishing model.
If you’re self-publishing, you will need to source your own editor, which can be overwhelming. Professional associations, like Editors Canada, maintain a searchable database of editors for hire.
Regardless of which publishing style you use, here are six suggestions for how to pick your editor.
- Subject knowledge: Choose an editor who has worked on books in your subject area. By that I mean categories: history, memoir. The editor might not have edited a book about naval warfare, but they might still be a good choice for your book on WWII-era submarines because they’ve edited books on ships, war, or European history. If the editor has never edited poetry, don’t let them start on your poetry collection.
- Editing experience: Generally, editors start out proofreading, then move on to copy editing, and then to substantive editing. Make sure your substantive editor has been at it a while, usually about five years minimum.
- Related experience, interests, and mentors: An editor might be active in their community—for example, climate organizing—and that specific knowledge could come in handy for your book. They might be well versed in fine wines, or have had a previous career as a film producer, and that info could be helpful for your book. An editor might have also been mentored by a leading editor, which will have further developed their skills.
- Logic and creativity: Editors are in the service industry, but they’re also artists. Make sure your editor can think logically and creatively so they can sort through the problems of your manuscript, suggest alternative approaches, even come up with a title.
- Word-of-mouth: Ask around. Your author friends will likely have recommendations for editors who are talented and personable. This approach is key if you’re self-publishing and tempted to Google “best book editors.”
- Personality fit: Editors are not just wordsmiths. They’re also professional cheerleaders, therapists, and coaches. You’re forming a working relationship that will hopefully last years, so make sure—at minimum—you get along with each other.
I’m currently taking on clients. Poke around my site for a sense of my experience and interests. If you’re interested in working together, please reach out for a free 15-minute discovery call.
Photo by Marc Brenner/Roadside Attractions (from Genius, about the editor Maxwell Perkins).