10 Things I’ve Learned in 10 Years of Freelancing

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As I celebrate ten years of my career with bibliobibuli, the firm I launched in 2007, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I’ve learned—as well as some of the lessons that have been reinforced. I’ve learned a lot over my two decades plus in publishing, and so I thought I’d share some of those things with you today on the ten-year anniversary of bibliobibuli. Here goes:

  1. Professional Experience Makes a Difference
    I’ve had wide experience in publishing—as a production editor, a writer, a bookseller, a full-time, in-house acquisitions editor, a literary agent, etc. I’ve worked at a small, family-owned value publisher, a large NYC-based publisher, and an association publisher. I’ve worked as a contract editor for independent publishers in the United States and the United Kingdom. I’ve worked with hundreds of authors on hundreds of manuscripts on a variety of subjects. All of that experience matters. A lot. Heart matters, too, but that alone isn’t enough. An eager, just-out-of-publishing-school English major might have a lot of enthusiasm and some good instincts, but being able to speak with authors about the entire publishing process—and really know what I’m talking about—makes a difference. Having worked on hundreds of manuscript and having successfully published hundreds of books makes a difference. Anyone can call herself an editor. But writers in need of editorial expertise really do benefit from an editor who actually has some experience under her belt.
  2. Format Matters Less Than Content
    In the early 2000s, the prospect of ebooks was exciting. Then it became confusing. Then scary. Traditional publishers started freaking out that digital books were going to take over the world. They were wholly unprepared for this paradigm shift and spent countless hours and costly resources trying to figure out how to play this new game. But what so many people overlooked was the fact that, regardless of the format in which people consume their books, it’s still all about the content. If the manuscript isn’t any good, it doesn’t matter whether it’s published as an ebook, a paperback, or a hardcover. A good editor can help a writer ensure that his content is valuable, meaningful, engaging, and impactful, no matter the format in which it will be published.
  3. Community Matters More Than Platform
    An author’s platform can make or break a book deal. It can mean the difference between getting another rejection letter or getting an offer for a publishing agreement. It can make the difference between no advance and a healthy advance. Regardless of arguments to the contrary, agents, editors, and publishers look at an author’s platform as an indication of how well a book might sell. But there’s more to a platform than simply amassing a lot of connections on LinkedIn, a lot of followers on Twitter, or a lot of fans on Facebook. Today, authors not only have to build their platforms by establishing themselves as subject-matter experts (for nonfiction) or good storytellers (for fiction), they also have to prove that they have connected with readers and built a community of loyal fans who will actually buy their book. And they have to do this well before their book even comes to market. I can’t stress this enough. Too many books die on the vine because authors believe they can launch their publicity efforts on the same day their book publishes. Not so. Those publicity efforts—those community-building efforts—need to begin months, if not years, in advance of publication.
  4. Relationships Can Make or Break the Publishing Experience
    Over the years, during my decade as a freelancer and during a decade-plus as a full-time, in-house writer and editor, I’ve worked with hundreds of authors. I’ve been lucky enough that most of those collaborations have gone at least reasonably well. Many of my clients are repeat customers, and many come to me through referrals. I count myself lucky to be working today with authors I’ve been working with for years and years. I’m grateful for those relationships, because good relationships make the publishing process that much easier and more productive. Authors and editors who become adversaries for whatever reason can sully the entire publishing experience—for everyone involved. Of course, not every author–editor partnership is a match made in heaven. Sometimes they do turn acrimonious. This benefits no one. When relationships go sour, it’s no good for the individuals involved, and it’s no good for the book. It’s difficult for an agent or editor—freelancer or in-house—to keep championing the book of an author who has spent months giving her grief, arguing every point, challenging every issue, and assuming the worst. When you are going to spend anywhere from several months to several years working together as you collaborate to publish a book, nurturing strong relationships among agent, author, editor, production manager, publicist, marketer, sales team, and so on is crucial.
  5. Being Cheap Rarely Pays off
    I work with a lot of authors who either wish to have their manuscript edited before seeking an agent or before submitting it to their publisher at a publishing house or have decided to go the self-publishing route and know their manuscript should be edited before it’s published. That’s good news, because getting your manuscript edited can mean the difference between publishing a sloppy, disorganized, unreadable mess or publishing a polished, professional, accessible delight. Unfortunately, too many authors want to get published on the cheap. They seek the cheapest self-publishing platform. They don’t bother to pay for a developmental edit, a copy edit, or a proofread. They don’t want to shell-out any money for a professional manuscript critique. These authors end up self-publishing books riddled with typos, saddled with structural problems, and marred by bad writing. Or, they end up submitting to publishers a half-baked manuscript that needs a lot of work, delays the production schedule, and taxes the entire publishing team. In doing so, they may have saved some money, but they’ve cost their reputations plenty—not to mention the fact that they may have doomed the future of their book. It’s crucial to consider a cost-benefit analysis: What is the cost of getting your manuscript edited? What is the cost of not getting your manuscript edited? And which will cost you more in the long run?
  6. Publishing Shouldn’t Be About the Money
    Most of the authors I work with tell me they want to publish their book because they feel like they have something of value to say. They tell me that they want their book to be a way of giving back. They tell me that they don’t care who publishes them—big house, small press, or indie house—they just want to be published. I’m lucky that way, but it’s not just luck. When I ask authors why they want to publish, what they hope to get out of publishing, I look for answers that tell me it’s not about the money. If an author’s primary motive is to get rich, it gives me pause. Much pause. Because publishing really shouldn’t be about the money. Few authors become bestsellers. Few authors make millions of dollars from their book—heck, few even make thousands of dollars. But publishing can pay in intangibles, whether in an enhanced reputation, new clients or customers, new avenues such as paid speaking engagements, etc. Not that money isn’t important. Of course it is. I’ve even heard it said that it makes the world go ’round. But if your #1 priority in getting published is to make money, well, perhaps you need to rethink your objectives.
  7. Getting Published Should Never Be Done in Haste
    I’ve blogged about this at bibliobibuliblog, but I’ll repeat it here: Rushing to get published—which is usually based on some sort of artificial, self-imposed deadline—is rarely a good idea. There is no reason to slap-dash a manuscript together and then publish a half-baked disaster. Your anxiety to get published as soon as possible is rarely if ever matched by a reader’s desire to read your book as soon as possible. Take your time. Do it right. Unless your book is so time sensitive that in not publishing it you will be scooped by the competition, there’s likely no real reason—aside from your own desire—to publish right away. Remember, too, that if you must publish an instant book, chances are it won’t have very long legs. Although you might get some thrilling instant feedback, a rushed book might not do much for you—or for your readers—in the long run.
  8. We Can’t Be Everything to Everyone
    As an editor, my job is to edit your manuscript. As an agent, my job is to place your manuscript with a publisher. Most editors and agents also, at least at times, serve as therapists and publishing consultants, talking writers off the ledge and explaining the publishing process to their authors. But editors and agents rarely also serve as book publicists, book marketers, booksellers, and/or book distributors. There are, of course, book packagers who can and do wear a lot of hats, and they can be helpful for a number of authors. But publishing takes a village—a village of experts and professionals who, together, help you get from concept to manuscript to book and beyond. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to paint your house. You wouldn’t ask a physician to design your blueprints. Make sure that you’re using the right publishing professional for the right publishing task.
  9. Authors Don’t Always Know What They Really Need
    Authors often contact me and ask for an estimate on the price for a copy edit of their manuscript. My response is always to ask them to send me their manuscript so I can take a look at it—and then tell them what level of editing would benefit it. Sometimes that is a copy edit, which entails editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation, typos, consistency, etc. But sometimes it’s a developmental edit (sometimes called a substantive edit or a content edit), which entails some copy editing but focuses more broadly on such issues as format, structure, tone, flow, voice, use of language, etc. Sometimes a manuscript critique would do the trick at this particular juncture. The moral of the story: instead of telling an editor what you need, ask an editor what she would suggest for your manuscript. If you’re relying on a professional who knows what she’s doing, you should feel comfortable in discussing with her what your next steps should be in preparing your manuscript. You wouldn’t call a plumber and tell him that you wanted him to install a new sink when all you really needed was a new trap. Discuss with your publishing professional what you think you might need, and listen to her when she shares her insight and advice.
  10. Publishing Is a Team Sport
    It takes a lot of people to get a project from concept to finished manuscript to page proofs to published book—and beyond to marketing, publicity, sales, and distribution. Obviously the author is central to the publishing endeavor. But so are editors and designers and proofreaders and typesetters and publicists and marketers and salespeople. And readers. Let’s not forget the readers. A lot of authors write because they want to say something. That’s fine. But the best authors write because they want to share information with their readers, because they want their readers to benefit in some way from their work, whether fiction or nonfiction. Publishing is a process that involves a lot of players. But in the end, if you don’t write with your reader in mind, the rest of the game doesn’t really matter.

I could go on and on—I’ve learned way more than just ten things in these past ten years. But I’ll leave it here with a short bonus:

  1. Be Thankful
    Publishing is one of the greatest industries in the world, and I couldn’t feel more lucky or more proud to be a part of it. I get to work with all sorts of neato people to publish cool books. Books! Not that every day is all sunshine and flowers, but never once have I woken up dreading that—awww, man—I have to go help some big poozer publish his stupid book. No. Publishing is a joy and a pleasure, and I’m thankful for all the many authors I’ve worked with, all the many other wonderful publishing professionals I’ve worked with, and all the many interesting books I’ve had a hand in publishing. Being drunk on books … that’s a pretty good thing. I think I’ll stay drunk on books for a while yet.

 

—Kelli
March 15, 2017

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