Yes? No?

This was the question I asked of a number of people, mostly myself, after seeing all sorts of circumstantial evidence to prove that this was true. I say “circumstantial evidence” because what I’m responding to, mostly, are online complaints—and believe me, I know how many grains of salt must accompany online complaints.

Patti Thorn, in her article for BlueInk ReviewNo. 1 Reason Reviewers Trash Self-published Books,” wrote: “This may come as news to anyone who slept through high school English class, but grammar is not just a pesky annoyance, something akin to your mother telling you to clean up your room even though you’re perfectly fine just stepping over the mound of clothes you’ve dropped all over the floor. Anyone who has tried to read a book riddled with grammatical issues can tell you that commas, periods and quotation marks in the right places aren’t just formalities—they’re essential to conveying meaning.”

Real, trustworthy sales figures are difficult if not impossible to find, but there seems to be a feeling out there in the community of e-book readers that a significant number of self-published e-books, if not a majority of them, suffer from a lack of editing. And though e-book readers still seem happy to take a chance on books for a couple dollars or less, it’s a rare thing that they’ll go back for an author’s second, much less third book, after reading something like this:

Maybe a whole separate post on cover art.

Vampire Truck Stop

By Elixa Everett

Julie’s hand shook slightly as she closed the cash drawer and handed the burly, fifty-something, silver haired trucker his change back. He was a regular, she was pretty certain his name was Will, but wouldn’t have bet money on it.

The trucker looked up her with mild concern flashing in his eyes. “You ok Miss?”

Julie nodded. Get out of here, get out of her fast! She never spoke the words out loud. Would never dare. They would be at the Dusk till Dark truck stop soon. Just because she couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see or hear her. A chill ran down her spine, it felt like they had eyes and ears everywhere.

She looked out the large front window and into the parking lot. The shadows deepened. The sun was almost completely dipped behind the mountain now. The only telltale signs of daylight were the streaks of red and orange which filled the near-night sky.

Julia Martin, a friend and former coworker at both TSR and Wizards of the Coast told me: “I think [self-published e-books] are losing readers, but they are often not losing purchasers of the first book by an author or in a series. Although most ebook stores offer a free sample (part of a book, a chapter or a few), it’s often difficult to figure out you are a victim of bad editing (or nonediting) from just a sample unless you get “lucky” and the editing is just that bad that it’s immediately obvious throughout. And often I don’t want to bother with the sample and just buy. And then regret sets in. Ouch! Painful editing. Or lack of any.”

What if Vampire Truck Stop had just a little polish?

Julie’s hand shook slightly as she closed the cash drawer and handed the burly, fifty-something, silver-haired(1) trucker his change(2). He was a regular, and though she was pretty sure his name was Will, she wouldn’t have bet money on it.(3)

The trucker looked up at (4) her with mild concern flashing in his eyes and asked, “You okay,(5) Miss?”

Julie nodded. Get out of here, get out of here (6) fast! She never spoke the words out loud. Would never dare. (7) They would be at the Dusk till Dark truck stop soon. Just because she couldn’t see them didn’t mean they couldn’t see or hear her. A chill ran down her spine. (8) It felt as though (9) they had eyes and ears everywhere.

She looked out the large front window and into the parking lot. The shadows deepened. The sun had (10) almost completely dipped behind the mountain (11). The only telltale signs of daylight were the streaks of red and orange that (12) filled the near-night sky.

(1) My co-worker and copy editing mentor at TSR, Bill Larson, once said that most of a copy editor’s job is checking the proper use of hyphens.

(2) “Handed . . . his change back” might be some kind of local colloquialism, but unless he handed her the change first she’s handing him his change for the first time.

(3) Not a big fan of this sentence in general, but if you’re going to be colloquial in your description, be colloquial. “Pretty” and “certain” don’t tend to go together well.

(4) “At” was the obvious choice for the missing word here.

(5) Three things here, the first of which is don’t forget dialog attribution! Commas are confusing, I know, but sometimes you actually need them, and it’s not okay to spell “okay” “ok.”

(6) The bane of any writer’s existence: the mistake your spellchecker won’t catch because “her” is a word that appears to be spelled correctly. Your computer has no idea what you’re actually trying to say.

(7) It’s fine, as far as I’m concerned, to use sentence fragments for effect, and far be it from me to suggest the use of the hated semi-colon, so, yeah, I’ll leave this as is.

(8) Separate thoughts often require separate sentences.

(9) I once had Harlan Ellison yell at me when I used the word “like” in a similar context, and until you’ve been yelled at by Harlan Ellison, you’ve, like, never been yelled at.

(10) “Was” was just the wrong word in this sentence.

(11) I’m a big hater of the word “now” in third person past tense description. It’s almost never necessary.

(12) At least in American English (and yes, there is a difference) the word “which” tends to introduce an independent clause, separated by commas. What she was after here was “that.”

“I’m not asking authors to write at the level copyeditors edit,” wrote Eric Hammel in his article “On Editing” for Self-Publishing Review. “There is something wrong with people who know as much about rules as copyeditors know, who are as literal-minded as copyeditors tend to be. I’m not suggesting that anyone become bosom buddies with a copyeditor. I am asking that fellow writers and especially fellow independent publishers display a little care, show signs of respect for a reader’s time and sensibility.”

Another example, this one from:

Broken Chain Volume One: The Rescue of the Libertolian

By Brittan Knight & Christa L. Rasar

Her hands were bleeding. Her hands bled every day, since she became a slave. Every night she lay down with her hands wrapped in a wet rag, crying herself to sleep. This ends tonight. Tonight, she and Lottery will leave the camp behind, trading a life of servitude and degradation for one of non-stop running. In her eyes it will be a fair trade. And the plan was perfect.

Chicks with guns: a fine start.

Sentence one, third person past tense.

Sentence two, third person past tense (bonus comma splice).

Sentence three, third person past tense, with bonus points for proper use of “lay”.

Sentence four, third person future tense.

Sentence five, third person future tense

Sentence six, third person past tense.

Both of these examples come from Smashwords. Both were on the first page I came to when I clicked fantasy (Vampire Truck Stop) and science fiction (Broken Chain Volume One: The Rescue of the Libertolian). That was about 3-5 minutes’ work, which could lead one to believe that maybe this sort of lack of editing is a trend that avid reader “Tracey,” posting on a GoodReads group, identified as: “. . . incoherent book descriptions, god-awful cover art, and obnoxious and wrong-headed promotion tactics—all of this keeps my opinion of self-pub low. I know there’s good stuff out there. It’s just swamped in crap. It’s almost impossible, I think, not to have a bad impression.”

I’m really not trying to embarrass Elixa Everett, Brittan Knight, or Christa L. Rasar, whom I don’t even know. I’m sure they’re very passionate about their work, and are doing their level best to put their best foot forward. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t in need of an editor. Nor do I, like a reader who posts to GoodReads groups under the pseudonym “MrsJoseph,” think all hope is lost: “I don’t think that people who self pub are failures . . . I think that some of them fail to plan. That is a big difference. Most people—even heavy readers—are not editors so it is very difficult for self-pubbed writers to get good editing unless they are paying for it. And editing is so much more than just proofreading. It’s telling someone that their multi-year masterpiece needs another year or two of work. And most of the self-pubbed work I have read falls in the ‘needs editing’ category.”

I’m happy to admit my pro-editor bias, coming from more than two decades doing that job. I value editors not just because I am one, but because I’m an author, too, and I know I need one. I’m sure you won’t have much trouble indentifying typos and other gaffs in my various posts here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook. That’s because these posts come to you directly from me, unedited. Blogs are one thing—a series of personal notes from me to you—but books are something else entirely. I couldn’t imagine publishing anything past a blog post without someone I trust looking at it first.

Time and again I’ve advised authors not to pay for editorial services. This comes from my experience inside the (more or less) traditional publishing world. As an editor, I’m accustomed to reading first drafts—even rough drafts—and I know how to identify the things that can be fixed (spelling, grammar, sentence structure, word choice, etc.) and the stuff that can’t (a total lack of real talent, education, or ability as a storyteller), so even all the gaffs in that excerpt from Vampire Truck Stop would not have stopped me from acquiring that book if it is a good story that pays off in the end. But to me there’s a difference between an author out there looking for an editor—submitting manuscripts to professional presses big or small—and self-published authors. Once you choose to publish it yourself, you’re no longer only an author, but you’ve taken the step to also become a mini-publishing house, an imprint-of-one, and with that comes added responsibilities.

“Solutions?” Julia Martin went on. “Pay for an editor. Really. Yes, you can improve your self-editing. But writers need editors. They need a second opinion, someone to see the obvious and at the extreme, someone to tell them that the emperor is not wearing clothes here, bud—you need to change or fix this. And you need an editor with cred. Not just your best friend (unless your best friend is an editor).”

I’m in a rare and comfortable position that I happen to know a bunch of editors and experienced, professional authors. I have people I can impose on to read stuff for me, and those are people who know what they’re talking about. I understand that not everyone has that network, but if you choose to go the self-pub route, then gathering a network like that is essential. It’s going to be hard, but you have to do it.

What’s at stake here? “Good books well written (or well edited) sell good books,” Eric Hammel wrote. “Bad books badly written put us all in jeopardy.”

I think the person in greatest jeopardy is the author. If you put out an inferior product in Book One, you are not going to sell Book Two. Editors don’t expect authors to edit themselves, but readers expect books to be edited.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. SandySays1 says:

    Honestly, there’s more literary manure in some of the SP efforts than s–t floating in the Hong Kong sewer system. This is a real shame because it endangers what is potentially a great thing.

  2. As a writer, I am painfully aware that my work needs an editor. Often, I spot the problems, but I’m not always sure what they are or how to fix them, just that they don’t “feel right”.
    As a reader, I seldom buy self-published, or Indie, books except as a favor to an author I know, or self-published versions of out-of-print books. I’ve wasted too much money on books that ended up being crappy, even unreadable, to take a chance on others. I’m sure there are well-edited self-published books out there; I just don’t have the money to wade through all the crap to find them.

  3. Grace says:

    And it’s not only self-publishing… I’ve read plenty of books that could have used at least another good going-over by an editor before a company published them. If I catch more than one or two errors in a book, I start getting very frustrated and feel as if authors don’t care enough about the readers to put forth a polished version of their work.

    • Philip Athans says:

      I’d be careful blaming authors for typos in books from an established publisher. Too often now, publishers are cutting corners by skimping on the number of edit/proof passes and the length of time freelance proofreaders and even in-house editors are given to do their jobs, and in general sacrificing quality in the interest of speed and cheapness. Here’s a fantastic take on that subject from the blog “Copyediting”

  4. jakeescholl says:

    One thing I notice about a lot of self-published books, not all, had an editor who only found the grammar and punctuation errors in the book and didn’t say how to make the story better. I think a story shouldn’t just have one read through by an editor but also need to have multiple read throughs by fellow writers. For my book, I’m going to use Critters. After that, I’ll find an editor.

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