It's not what you think

It's not what you think

A SELF-PUBLISHED novelist recently said to me that he hadn't hired an editor for his book because he had edited himself.

"I was an English teacher for 15 years so it wasn't necessary to pay someone else to do what I could do myself," he said.

Then there's the Singaporean publishing house that asked what my editing fees were and, when I told them, informed me that I was out of my mind and that they had an American editor whom they paid just a fourth of what I was asking.

In the eight or so years I've done freelance fiction editing for a living, it's only been in the last couple that I've started being paid fees that I believe match the level of work that I have been tasked to do.

Admittedly, my clients tend not to have clear idea of what they expect of me. Most of the time, I have a look at their manuscript, tell them the sort of editing it requires, and how much it would cost.

It used to be that no one would pay my asking price and there would be much haggling. I even started quoting fees that were much lower than what I knew my services are worth.

Why? Because I have kids and a whopping mortgage, and I can't afford to be choosy. It's just unfortunate that being "choosy" means insisting on being paid fairly. It's unfortunate that being paid fairly translates into "expensive".

But things are changing, and my fee quotations are no longer always met with shock and horror. In some cases this is because my clients have deep pockets and do not assume that I'm pulling a fast one.

On other occasions, the writers ask many questions about the editing process and decide that the work really is worth what I'm charging.

In practically all cases, the client has a very vague idea of what editing is. Most of my clients start off just wanting someone to check their grammar and spelling.

The aforementioned self-published novelist did do a pretty good job "editing" his book: No grammatical errors, spelling all in order, just a couple of instances of "the" spelt "teh".

However, there were other problems with his novel that he definitely needed a professional editor to advise him about.

Same for the Singaporean publisher who thought I was too pricey. You just have to read their books to realise that the American "editor" they're using is really a proofreader and, at best, a copyeditor.

Substantive editing, which is what is lacking in Malaysia (and, from what I can tell, the region), looks at content, concept, substance, and style.

It's a complicated process that requires time and patience, a great deal of skill and sensitivity on the part of the editor, and loads of communication and trust between the editor and writer.

Right now, it's not something that seems to be expected of Malaysian publishers/editors, or by publishing houses.

That is, writers don't expect their work to be edited in this way, and neither do publishers who farm out manuscripts to freelance editors - hence the disconnect between what they expect to pay and what they should pay.

In my next column, I'll be looking at what Malaysian publishers expect of editors in terms of services, skills and fees. Until then, happy reading, writing ... and editing.

Daphne Lee is currently editing seven manuscripts by writers from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Singapore. Her current local reads are the short story collections The Library Of Sighs and In The Courtyard Of The Sun by Wong Ming Yook.

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