Gary Smailes on How to Hire an Editor for Your Book

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Editing company Bubblecow formed around a simple belief: Storytelling is an art, but writing is a craft.

When working with authors, the company aspires to impart the writing skills they need to make their books a success.

BubbleCow specializes in helping writers who are pursuing self-publishing a book. The company has developed a way of editing that not only shows what’s wrong with a book, but gives writers all the guidance they need to fix the mistakes.

The owners of BubbleCow believe quality feedback is crucial in the editing process. This is why they are the only company in the world to offer both line editing and a detailed reader’s report as standard (and at no extra cost), at the same price competitors charge for one or the other.

We sat down with Bubblecow owner Gary Smailes, who shared his insights on the book editing process.

Q. Why should someone hire an editor—especially if they are already an author or editor by profession?

I think the best way to answer this question is to first consider the steps a book goes through when issued by a traditional publisher.

In this traditional-publishing scenario, the authors will have carried out their own edits before submitting any books to their agents. An author’s agent will then apply at least one edit, though it is not uncommon for an agent to edit a book two or three times. I know of agents who will work for months with their authors, reworking their books in an attempt to make them the best they can be, though this is becoming less common.

Once the author and agent are happy, the manuscript will then be submitted to a publisher.

After acquisition by a publisher, here it receives at least one edit from the in-house editor—though, in my experience, a series of edits is more likely. Only after the author, agent and publishing editor are happy will the copyediting-proofreading process begin.

The first step of the copyediting-proofreading process will be for two or three in-house editors to read through the manuscript, correcting any mistakes they find. After the manuscript has received these “proofs,” it will be sent to a professional copy editor. The copy editor will then go through the book and fix the grammar/spelling errors found. The copy editor will also apply the publisher’s house style to maintain some level of consistency within each line (because a Christian novel differs widely from a mainstream one, as does a memoir from a mystery, and so forth). Afterward a proofreader will have one final pass to catch any remaining errors before the book goes to print.

The book is then sent to the typesetter, who will format and otherwise prepare the manuscript for printing/publication. Yet, even at this point, the book is still not ready. Before the Go button is pressed, the book will be checked by at least one in-house editor, as well as the author. Finally a professional proofreader will give the post-production book one last look over to weed out any persistent errors.

Why is this important for self-publishers?

For traditional publishers, each of the above steps eats into the book’s final profits. Each professional edit and proofread means that the house must sell more books to make a profit. Yet they do this because it is essential.

And, if traditional publishers are willing to invest this much energy into a book, why shouldn’t the self-publishers?

However, the reality of the self-publishing world is that authors publish on a budget. Authors can’t just throw an unlimited amount of money at their books. They must approach the publication of their work with a realistic expectation.

At BubbleCow, we’ve tried to solve this issue by providing clear pricing based on the word count of the manuscript. We offer two services: editing (a generic term which covers developmental and line editing) and proofreading (another generic term that covers the copyediting and the proofreading). We also throw in a free book cover, which saves the author a couple hundred dollars.

Editing (as we use the term) is the process of checking a book’s plot, flow and character development, plus line editing as well. This is where an editor will examine the structure of the book and provide detailed technical feedback on how to improve the book and, hopefully, make the author a better one in the process.

Proofreading (again, as the term is used by BubbleCow) is a little more straightforward. Grammar and spelling guidelines are applied to the author’s work (for American publications, The Chicago Manual of Style, Sixteenth Edition, is followed for grammar issues; and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, is used for spelling). The proofreader will not only correct the spelling and grammar but will also add a layer of consistency to the work.

One problem an author will face is that the edit and proofread must be done separately and in a certain order. The edit will stimulate some level of rewriting, and the proofread can’t take place until after the rewrites generated by the edit have been completed.

This brings us back to the opening question: why should someone hire an editor? The answer is that editing is an essential part of the publishing process, whether traditionally publishing or self-publishing.

I have never come across a book that was not improved by an edit. If the edit was optional, then tightfisted agents and publishers would skip the process. Yet they don’t.

We are in a golden age for authors. Amazon’s open publishing platform (and others like it) allows authors to have their work reach more potential readers than at any time in history. However, with this great power comes great responsibility. It is a self-publishing author’s duty to be the best he or she can be. If we are going to make self-publishing work, then we, as authors, must only publish work worthy of the time a reader is prepared to give. A sloppy book, poorly edited and stacked full of spelling errors, is simply a step in the wrong direction.

Q. What is different about editing a book as opposed to other types of texts?

All books, fiction and nonfiction alike, must communicate well with the reader. If authors are to write a good novel or nonfiction book, then they must follow a set of rules that, over the years, have been proven to work. The problem is that these rules are complex and often counterintuitive. An author must actively learn (or be taught) these rules.

For example, there are ways to write novels that naturally develop tension and narrative interest, like using the three-act structure, where an inciting incident forces the main character to act. The remainder of the novel is then the story of this incident being resolved. Though the three-act structure might not be suitable for every novel (but it is a nice place to start), a good editor will not only know but also suggest the changes best suited for that book.

As for nonfiction, the rules may differ somewhat, but the process is the same. A good example is a travel journal. We often see these books in which the authors are writing about the adventures they experienced while globe-trotting. They will often miss the fact that good travel books are actually about the emotional journeys of its authors, not just the physical paths taken. For these main characters to be interesting to the reader, these individuals must change during the story. The reader needs to see the evolutions of these authors as they become new and different people afterward. There are technical ways to do this, and a good editor will show an author the best way to apply each to a book.

Q. There are many different types of editing (developmental editing, line editing, copyediting, proofreading, style editing, in-house editing per the regulations for each line within a publishing house, etc.), and, in some industries, editors specialize in just several of those. How can an author make sure the editor being hired has the skills that are needed to edit the author’s specific work?

As in hiring any other service professional, authors should look at reputation and past experience. We ensure that we pack our site full of testimonials and examples of books we’ve edited. Authors should also seek a professional editor who is busy, who is known for excellent work, exceeding the expected results. Plus authors need to build in some extra days within their self-publishing timetable to allow more time, if need be, for the right editor to become available to review their work.

However, sometimes we say no to an author. Not all editors and authors are a good match. For example, we don’t edit short stories. The reason is that our editors’ skill sets are in the long-form book. We have three full-time editors, and they are all specialists in either the novel or long-form nonfiction.

If an author submits a short story, we suggest another editor who we feel will be a better fit. An author must be looking for this level of honesty from an editor.

I think the best way for an author to get a feel for the level of service provided is to get in contact with the editor and to strike up a conversation. It should be clear—pretty quickly—if that author and that editor will be a good match.

Q. How does BubbleCow differ from most editing services?

Our focus is on the self-publishing author. With the advent of the Internet, the world of publishing has become two very different subsets. There are traditionally published authors and self-published authors. Though this might be obvious, what is less obvious is that they play by two very different sets of rules. For example, if an author is looking for an agent and a publisher, then the type of edit he or she needs is very different from that of a self-publishing author. An author seeking to be traditionally published is looking to impress an agent/publisher. Once his or her book finds a home with a particular house, then the publisher will be editing and proofreading the manuscript. This is not the case for a self-publishing author.

We understand that difference.

For most books we edit, they will receive two levels of editorial input. The first will be the edit; the second will be the proofread. We also know that, for many authors, they don’t yet realize what they don’t know. For instance, authors may submit books, not understanding that they are telling instead of showing or that the punctuation of their dialogue is incorrect. Our editors’ responsibilities are to not only fix these problems but to educate these authors in the process.

To do this, the editing portion of our service has three parts. The first is a line edit where the editor scans for issues at a sentence level. The second is a wider structural edit, where the editor looks for bigger technical problems regarding plot and pacing overall. The third is our detailed editor’s report, where the editor paints a vision for the novel and guides the author toward the best way possible to elevate that book to the next level.

Q. What are the most common problems you find in book manuscripts, and how can authors correct those?

One problem we see often is incorrect punctuation regarding dialogue. This drives editors insane! If an author is using a comma where a period should be, the editor must stop at all such instances within dialogue and correct the error. This breaks the editor’s concentration and slows the whole process to a crawl.

We give tips on how to solve this in this article on formatting dialogue.

Q. What advice do you have for authors on how to make their books better before they get to an editor?

I’d suggest that authors read two books:

  1. “On Writing,” by Stephen King; and
  2. “Self-Editing for Fiction Authors: How to Edit Yourself into Print (Second Edition),” by Renni Browne and Dave King.

I’d also suggest that authors read the free e-book I wrote using PressBooks, entitled The Writing Manual. It is a collection of techniques an author can use to lift their book to the next level. They can get it free at

For more information on Bubblecow, go to