In Editing, Erika's Dreams, For Writers

One of the awesome things about being a published writer (or so I hear) is that your publisher typically hooks up you with a staff editor who helps you shape your manuscript into a masterpiece before it goes off to the printer. So it can be said that one of the not-so-awesome things about being an unpublished writer is that if you want this type of help before you query any agents, you typically have to pay for it yourself.

Editors who work on a freelance basis and help unpublished writers, like me, are commonly known as “book doctors”. When I wrote my first book, I actively searched for a book doctor to help me get to the root of what wasn’t working in my story. Even though I didn’t end up hiring one, I learned a ton through the search process, namely that 1) editing is very a subjective  task and it can be hard to gauge just how well any book doctor’s advice is going to jive with you, 2) it’s a pricey endeavor (the estimates I got were anywhere between $1,500 – $3,000) and 3) there are a lot of scammers out there looking to make a quick buck off hopeful writers. Despite these challenges, I feel that the right book doctor can mean the difference between getting published or not.  

Let me start by saying that there are number of places you can find book doctors. I’ve used Writer’s Market, Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, and the classified section of Writer’s Digest. But at the end of the day, it’s up to you to determine who is the best fit for your project. The way to do this is to interview several potential candidates. Don’t settle for three or even five. Talk to eight or ten (or more!). Here’s a list of topics you might want to discuss in order to gauge credibility and how well you’ll click:

1. Genre/subject matter. Find out if they’ve ever worked on your genre or subject matter before and whether it’s something they’re interested in. You probably don’t want a sci-fi lover editing your historical fiction (unless, of course, they love historical fiction too).

2. Your needs. Let them know what you’re looking for (big picture edits, that is, a critique of your story as a whole or something more specific, like line edits).

3. Their process. Find out how they work and how they’ll provide their feedback to you.  Some book doctors will mark up your manuscript or provide a written summary. Others will sit down with you and have a discussion. Some will do all these things. Every editor works differently and it’s important to understand what the output of their work is going to be, so you’re both on the same page.

4. Timelines. Some editors have queues of projects clamoring for their attention and it may be months until they can even look at your work. Others don’t. Be sure to ask about this so you can manage your expectations. You’ll also want to find out how long their review period takes once they have your work in hand.

5. Money, money, money! Ask them to provide you with an estimate for your project. Most editors have a standard pricing structure that boils down to a cost per page. Ask for all estimates in writing along with a description of what’s included and what’s NOT. This will help ensure that they’re are no surprises once money begins changing hands.

6. Payment terms. A legit book doctor should be ammenable to flexible payment terms (e.g. half up front with the balance due upon completion). This one’s a deal breaker for me. If someone demands 100% payment up front and refuses to budge, I cross that person off my list. It’s not worth worrying about someone making off with your money.

7. References. Credible editors should have no problem giving you three names of past clients that can vouche for their work. You may come across some editors who, for one reason or another, can’t provide you with any references. One woman told me that her clients are too busy to talk with an unpublished writer. Ouch. Whatever the reason, no matter how logical or sincere, no references is a MAJOR no-go. If they do provide references, which most will, be sure to ask them all about their experiences. Find out what the process was like and how well it met their needs. What was the editor like to work with? What was the end result – did the person get an agent or get published? Don’t forget to inquire about the negative too! I always like ask what the editor’s downfalls are. This is a great way to uncover any ugly truths that the person might be holding back.

8. Get it in writing. After you’ve thoroughly interviewed the candidates and made  your choice, ask for the details of your agreement in writing. It’s funny how fuzzy memories can become a few weeks or months after the deal is struck. Protect yourself by having the editor spell out the details of your agreement and make sure you both sign it. With a contract in place you’ll at least have some form of recourse in case, God forbid, you need it.

Anyone else have any good tips to share about choosing a book doctor?


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Showing 3 comments
  • Suzanne


    Okay, I’m being a nag but I really hope that you will pursue the opportunity to become the new contributer at WriterUnboxed. I think these posts you’ve been writing about your journey to get published are terrific and deserve a wider audience over there. Here’s the link, check it out!

    • Erika Liodice

      Hi Suzanne,
      Thank you so much for recommending this opportunity! I’m so honored that you feel that my posts are worthy of such an amazing site. I will definitely take a stab at it.

      Thanks again!

  • cathisakson

    Hi Erika,

    Here are a few suggestions about finding a good book doctor:

    Will you feel comfortable working with this person? Do they seem tactful? If your manuscript needs a lot of work you’ll want someone who can give constructive feedback.

    What are their qualifications? Does the person have a relevant qualification, or at least a qualification that lends itself to this kind of work? My degree was in linguistics and a second language, and I’ve worked with a number of editors whose knowledge of grammar was lacking.

    Has the book doctor worked as an inhouse editor for a book publishing company? That person will be a good bet because they should have a firm understanding of what publishing houses are looking for.

    Thanks for your post, I’m sure many writers will find it useful!

    Cheers, Cathryn

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