Self-publishing in ELT: ensuring quality through the editorial process

The last decade has seen an explosion of self-publishing in the ELT world, which has created a multitude of exciting opportunities for teachers to become content creators and to produce more relevant, niche or localised materials.

In a survey I conducted a few years ago I asked a group of self-published authors why they’d chosen to self-publish. Here are a few of their answers:

Because [the topic] was quite niche, it seemed better suited to self-publishing than through a publisher. 

To have control over my project – I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do; because it’s considerably faster than finding a publisher and going through their system. 

The decision by my major publisher drastically to reduce author royalties.

But, as Nick Robinson, co-founder of LearnJam notes on the LearnJam blog: ‘Self-publishing has a quality problem.’ This is because traditional publishers pay for an editorial process that increases the quality of the materials they produce, while many self-publishers are too quick to click on the ‘Publish’ button in their haste to get their materials ‘out there’.

In this talk, we looked at the different levels of editing, what each involves, and why a self-publisher might want to invest in an editor.

What does an editor do?

There are various stages of editing. Some editors are able to perform all of those roles; others are more comfortable with one rather than another.

  1. A development/content editor:
  • focuses on the structure and content of your book
  • helps you to express the essence of your message
  • identifies disparities in style and tone
  • ensures you remain focused on your target audience
  • helps to make your book more marketable.

What development editors don’t generally do is spelling and grammar.

When you are working with a development editor, do expect to be challenged. They may ask you to justify your decisions on some occasions. This can be a really helpful process to go through. At all times, however, it should be a collaboration.

  1. A copy-editor:
  • makes your material ready for publication. The aim of copy-editing is to ensure that your manuscript:
    • does not contain errors
    • is easy to read
    • fulfils its aims
    • does not contain awkward, over-elaborate or wordy phrasing or repetitions.
  • identifies mistakes (spelling of names, etc.), vagueness and ambiguities
  • alerts you to possible legal problems
  • analyses the document structure.

A copy-editor will put themselves into the shoes of the reader and ask themselves:

  • Is the language pitched at the right level for the target readers?
  • Do any terms or abbreviations need explaining?
  • Are tone, style and vocabulary appropriate?
  • Do these things add authority, or do they undermine the writer (e.g. jokes, anecdotes)?

In terms of language change and register, a good copy-editor is aware of informed opinion on what is acceptable and what is best practice.

  1. A proofreader

After material has been copy-edited, you or a designer prepares it for publication, perhaps by converting the document to ePub (an ebook file format). The work that is then displayed is called the ‘proof’. Proofreading is the quality check and tidy-up. Proofs may be checked either on-screen or on paper.

A proofreader:

  • reads the proof for typos, punctuation, etc.
  • looks for consistency in presentation, and correspondence between text and images
  • checks the table of contents against the chapter headings.
  • checks or inserts cross references
  • checks that everything looks right and is logically arranged.

When you self-publish, a lot of the traditional stages often get conflated. So, for example, if you ask someone to edit your work, they may find that there’s quite a lot of content-editing needed, and so, once you’ve done any rewrites, another round of editing may well still be required.

For this reason, it’s really important to keep in touch with your editor, to find out how things are going and whether the fee needs revising.

Why does an author need an editor?

Here’s how a group of authors on Stack Exchange responded to this question:

You know, in your head, what you want your book to accomplish. But the challenge is writing your material so that anyone else who reads it sees the same things you do, without having you there to explain it.

An editor will make recommendations as to where the text can be pruned.

An editor will pick up on inconsistencies in argument.

An editor will point out areas of text that could be rewritten to improve flow and cohesion.

Editors are critical but caring. A good editor will care about the work as much as you do, but view it objectively and can therefore pick up on inconsistencies, grammatical errors, structural problems and all kinds of other issues.

And here’s what some of the survey respondents said:

It’s added security, knowing that it needed another pair of eyes to make it readable, especially as the subject was quite ‘niche’. 

We wanted the manuscript to be of a professional standard, equal to that of a mainstream publisher.

So, having established the worth of hiring an editor, the next question is how to find an editor who is a good fit for your project. In my talk, I mentioned three main ways:

Once you have a list of possibles, look at their LinkedIn profile.

  • What sort of books have they already worked on?
  • Do they have teaching experience?
  • What qualifications do they have? Masters in Applied Linguistics or TESOL or similar? A teaching qualification? Editing training?
  • Do they keep up with ELT methodology?
  • Do they have a blog/website?
  • Do you like the tone of their profile?

When you get in touch, ask if you can have a call. If an editor suggests doing this from the outset, that’s a good sign, but don’t take that as a rule of thumb as not everyone feels confident face to face.

If you do have a call, take the opportunity to:

  • find out a bit about the editor
  • tell them about your project – its aim and where it originated
  • describe any issues you have been experiencing
  • mention anything that you’d like them to focus on in particular
  • ask about their rates
  • establish expectations regarding:
    • how the work will be done (software, drafts, tracking changes)
    • style preferences (e.g. spelling, voice)
    • how you will communicate
    • when each part of the work is due
    • when payment will be due
    • how you will pay

Finally, ask yourself whether this editor:

  • understands your aim
  • knows what the audience needs
  • has the appropriate background and experience
  • can do the work in the desired time frame and within your budget.

For their part, the editor will need to know:

  • the subject area
  • the number of words
  • the format it is written in (Word, PDF, Google Docs, etc.)
  • when the file is likely to be available
  • your preferred deadline for completion

How much will it cost?

The editor will be able to give you an estimate once they’ve seen a sample of the material and established:

  1. what level of editing will be required
  2. how long the full text is.

They should keep you updated along the way and revise the estimate based on how things are progressing.

An ELT Freelancers’ survey in 2019 established that editors were charging on average £30 an hour, but now expect to pay £32–£35 an hour for a more experienced editor.

The CIEP publishes updated suggested minimum hourly rates every year. Here’s what they recommend for 2021:

Copy-editing: £29.70

Development editing: £34.40

How long will it take?

Adrienne Montgomery, a Canadian science editor, has a very helpful ‘client kit’ on her website. It includes a ‘Time Estimator’ (with plenty of caveats) to help you work out how long your manuscript should take to edit. Here’s what she estimates:

Copy-editing: 1000–1500 words/hr

Faster if: not many errors, non-technical or familiar content, no references or cross-references, no tables or figures.

Slower if: lots of errors, content technical or unfamiliar, working on hard copy or in a CMS (i.e. a content management system for creating website content), or if the reference style is inconsistent, incomplete or doesn’t match text.

Content editing: 500–1000 words/hr

Faster if: well written and organized, nontechnical or familiar content, single author, no references or cross-references, no tables or figures, working on-screen

Slower if: writing needs work, content technical or unfamiliar, multiple authors (but need one voice), hard copy or edit in a CMS

So, once you have hired your editor and established a fee, what can you expect from them and what will they expect from you?

Preparation

Between you, establish file management protocols:

  • Create folders and establish naming conventions.
  • Establish mark-up expectations (e.g. to what extent are you happy for your editor to make small changes without flagging them in a comment? Do you want the editor to use Track Changes?)

And finally …

How can I nurture a collaborative relationship with my editor?

  • Respect deadlines.
  • Respect the target market.
  • Write for the reader, not yourself.
  • Welcome constructive criticism.
  • Communicate.
  • Trust your editor.

In turn, an editor should be:

  • prompt
  • positive
  • clear, yet flexible.

And they should:

  • treat the relationship as fundamentally cooperative and constructive.
  • respect the author’s views
  • listen and be willing to discuss

Have you got any advice for authors or teachers thinking about working with an editor? If so, please feel free to share in the comments or on our social media channels.

Penny Hands is a freelance lexicographer, writer and editor. She started her career as an English teacher in France and the UK, and has a Master’s in Applied Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. When studying there, she became interested in dictionaries, and went on to become a senior editor in ELT dictionaries and reference. After going freelance, she worked on various large dictionary projects, and led a team of corpus lexicographers on the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. She also works in the domain of grammar reference materials, recently heading up a research team tracking the evolution of emerging aspects of English grammar. 

Penny’s other special interest is in editing teacher resource materials. She particularly enjoys working closely with authors to help them make their book the best it can be. She has spoken at various conferences about the author–editor relationship, and how it can be nurtured for the benefit of both author and editor, and, most importantly, the reader.

 

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