In more than twenty-five years working in book publishing I’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry, but the explosion of indie publishing and small presses has transformed it more than any prior shifts—and continues to.
One main change has been in the proliferation of services available directly to authors that once were offered only under the umbrella of major publishing houses, like editors, and the growth of services like writing and book coaches and beta readers.
The sea of writing services available for authors can be confusing—one author friend recently described to me her search for an editor that yielded a jaw-dropping array of price points and wildly different services all offered under the umbrella of “developmental editor.”
There’s no official designation or governing body for these fields, which means you may think you’re hiring someone to do one thing for you, only to discover the function they’re actually performing isn’t what you needed; definitions are used confusingly fluidly.
It’s up to the author to determine exactly what she’s hiring someone to do—and I’ll talk about that in next week’s post. But when you start your search for feedback to help you polish your story, it’s helpful to know the difference between the many offerings available—writing coach, book coach, beta reader, editor—and which one you’re actually looking for.
What’s the difference?
- A writing coach focuses on helping an author develop her craft skills in general—kind of like a one-on-one personal trainer guiding a client toward general fitness, offering objective and experienced insight to help hone and correct your form as you work out.
- A book coach focuses on a specific story or project—helping you in the writing/drafting process to get words on the page and complete your manuscript, the way a sports coach might help an athlete prepare for a specific season or match. A good book coach helps with motivation, accountability, and productivity, and may also steer you toward a stronger version of the story, the way a good sports coach can improve a player’s game.
- A beta reader will offer you her general impressions of your work: Did she like it, was it satisfying to her, was there anywhere her interest flagged, anything that struck her as not as effective as it might be, etc. It’s less detailed and intensive than any of the other services, and can be more subjective—meaning based on the reader’s personal take on the manuscript, rather than the more objective (ideally) approach of the other types of assessment.
- An editor works on an author’s finished product—a draft that’s as complete and polished as an author can make it—and helps ensure the story on the page fully actualizes the author’s vision and tells the story as effectively and impactfully as possible—and, if you plan to publish, that it’s marketable and competitive.
In the context of this topic I’m using “editor” to refer to developmental editors—which you may also have seen referred to as substantive editors, structural editors, or simply book editors (for a breakdown of the various types of editing, see this post). In a publishing house, developmental editing would usually be done by your acquiring editor or team, but the democratization of publishing means that this comprehensive deep-dive analysis of your story is widely accessible outside the confines of a traditional publishing contract.
A good, thorough developmental edit lets an author clearly see what’s on the page in a specific manuscript versus the vision in their heads, with a big-picture objective overview as well as offering detailed in-line feedback on every element of your story—on a macro- and microlevel—that gives you clear insight into what’s working most effectively and where the story may benefit from further development, clarification, or tightening, along with useful suggestions to guide authors in how they might address those areas to fully achieve their vision.
Are these services interchangeable?
An editor is not a book or writing coach any more than the conductor of an orchestra is interchangeable with the music teachers who helped each member get to where they are, or the director of a play or film with the acting coaches a performer may have worked with before getting cast. None of them are interchangeable with a beta reader any more than a performer’s friends, audience members, fellow artists, or reviewers are interchangeable with the director or conductor. They are different skills for different purposes.
Do I need all of them? Or any?
To create polished, marketable stories you need two basic skills: the ability to complete a manuscript and the ability to objectively assess that story and address any areas that may need development, clarification, or streamlining to make it effective and impactful for readers.
Both these key skills are things authors can and often do achieve on their own without hiring someone—even editing under certain circumstances, if an author has experience, knowledge, and the right kind of input.
This is where trusted readers can be indispensable to offer an objective set of eyes on a story you may be too close to for clarity. And although there are plenty of places now offering beta reading as a paid service, you can find helpful readers without having to hire someone.
These can often be your critique or writing partners or fellow members in a writing organization you trade reads with, or members of your writing-career team who can offer knowledgeable input: agents and in-house editors with your publisher. Offering good, useful critique is a skill, one I’ve written about here, so it’s important to know how to elicit actionable feedback you can use.
Writing and book coaches can also be highly useful for authors to help cultivate their skill, craft, and discipline. And a developmental edit can help you spot areas of a specific story not working as well as they could and offer ways to strengthen and polish your manuscript, along with specific, actionable suggestions that together can serve as an exceptionally useful road map to revising and honing the story and making it marketable.
Good professional feedback can be inestimably helpful. But it’s important to understand that money should never be a barrier to your writing or publishing career. Nor does shelling out big bucks for a variety of editorial and feedback services guarantee success, and you should eye askance anyone suggesting it will. Results depend on the professional, and they depend on you—and whether you find representation or are offered a publishing contract or reach boatloads of readers depends on a myriad of factors well beyond any one person’s control.
While constructive, knowledgeable, objective professional feedback is extremely useful, you can create effective, marketable stories without hiring a coach, editor, or beta-read service. (One exception—if you’re self-publishing I suggest at least a professional copyedit is indispensable; you can see why here.) In my book Intuitive Editing I even have an entire chapter (“The Frugal Author’s Guide to Getting Feedback”) dedicated to ways to get the kind of objective input that’s invaluable to an author in honing her work without having to shell out big bucks.
That’s not to say that these services are extraneous or don’t offer enormous value. You can hire trained professionals to remodel your house and get it done right in a reasonable amount of time—or you can DIY the project and save thousands of dollars, though it may be a lot of work to master all the skills involved well enough to make everything function the way you want it to and the project may take much longer. But you can still update your kitchen either way.
Next week I’ll look at assessing whether, when, whom, and how to hire a professional. And subscribers to my newsletter receive my free 13-page guide Get It Edited!, an extensive guide to how to find, vet, and work with a professional, what it should cost, what to expect, and where to find reputable pros.