Why Do Publisher-Backed Books Still Suck?

Why Do Publisher-Backed Books Still Suck?

I saw a reader complain recently about publisher-backed books still sucking. The sticking point seemed to be the price—the publisher was charging $6.99 for the eBook and taking a cut of the profit. And yet, the reader lamented, the editing was less than stellar; in fact, she wondered if it had even been edited.

In this day and age, publishers are trying to present themselves as the legitimate gatekeepers of the literary community. They tell readers and authors alike to turn to them for quality products. They also want to charge an arm and a leg for their products. It does bear asking why, in a lot of cases, those products still suck.

Publishers: You Get What You Pay for

I know for fact the particular press in the above scenario doesn’t pay their proofreaders, so that right there goes a long way to explaining the quality of their product. As a proofreader myself, I have a university education, a post-grad certificate in publishing, eight years of experience as a freelance editor running my own business, and three years of in-house experience running a production department. I charge about $25 to $30 an hour for my proofreading services. You don’t get quality for free, folks.


The people who are signing up to work pro bono might be experienced proofreaders who just love the genre or want to give back to the reading community. For the most part, they’re likely people with limited experience or people who just aren’t that great at proofreading or editing. The editorial market is not well-regulated, so just about anyone can call themselves an editor and start billing for their services.


You might have a harder time getting gigs without experience and/or education, so offering your services for free is a good way to build experience. I’m not saying people with informal training or less experience can’t develop into great editors. It’s more that, at this point in their careers, they’re less likely to turn in a great edit. That translates to weakness in the final product.

Small Presses Have the Same Issues Indie Authors Do

I’ve been on both sides of the editor/publisher dilemma, so I’m in a position to explain this apparent discrepancy a little more. It clearly puzzles readers that a publisher could put out a subpar product; after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we have publishers and editors in the first place? This reader gave indie authors a pass: they’re working on a small budget, often off their own (limited) personal resources, so if their editing is kind of sub-par, well, we could probably forgive that. Quality editing, as I’ve pointed out above, does have a price tag attached.


But keep in mind that small presses are also struggling with freelancer price and quality. Quality freelancers charge more money because their experience and skill warrants it. I can charge $30 an hour for what I do because I’m good at it. Publishers will back me up on that.


Problem is, some publishers don’t want to pay that. The small press in question doesn’t even want to pay $10 or $15 an hour for a qualified professional to proofread. I guarantee they’re not paying very much for their copy editing—and it’s possible they don’t even have substantive/developmental editing in place. Those editors who are working in-house are acquiring editors—they sign new projects. They might give the authors guidance in creating their manuscript, but they’re not necessarily dedicated or trained. Trust me. I’ve worked small press; things get hairy real fast and not everyone is a trained professional. There are tons of people who simply “fall into” their jobs—and this is especially true in the era of digital-only small press.

The Budget Conundrum


All right, so small presses don’t always want to pay freelancers. And that’s legit—if you’ve ever seen a book budget, you’ll know that budgets are tight. I frequently authorized budgets of $15,000 to $20,000 to produce the book. About $5,000 to $10,000 of that is printing the book. The other $10,000? That’s editing, proofreading, typesetting, corrections, and indexing, plus the book cover.


Books aren’t effing cheap to make if you’re doing it right.


Those books typically retail anywhere from around $20 to $80 in print and the only hard and fast rule we had was that the book needed to be within a couple of percentage points on 50 percent. Yes, the press I worked for publishes books that don’t even break even. They take a loss on projects they really believe in.


So that small publisher, with their $6.99 price-point? They’ve got some tight margins to contend with. No wonder they don’t want to pay their proofreaders.


That means that, yes, this publisher is trying to contain their costs by cheaping out. But hey, at least they’re getting someone to proofread. Some small presses might even skip that stage. I’ve definitely had acquiring editors try to skip copy editing, simply to save on the cost and make their budgets work. It happens. People will cut corners wherever they can, especially in an industry where every product—every book—is a gamble.

A Higher Price Doesn’t Always Mean Better Quality


The other issue is that much as good freelancers charge in accordance with their experience and skill, so do “bad” freelancers. I have definitely had projects where the copy editor charged me $40 or more per hour and did shit all. I ended up sitting there, fixing the damn thing myself. And yet I paid someone else $40/hour to fuck it all up, while I was making $17 an hour.

A speech bubble with dollar signs.

In the editing world, you don’t always get what you pay for.

And here’s the biggest issue: You never know which freelancers are “good” and which ones are “bad” until they’ve done the work. Some people look fantastic on paper, but they simply can’t do the work. Some freelancers who were good suddenly go bad—they get too busy, they subcontract work, they hire a new person. Things sometimes just go south.

Who’s Calling the Shots?


Another barrier? Authors. Authors can be a huge issue in getting a quality edit done. Sometimes, a manuscript needs work—and you know it does—but the author simply won’t hear of it. They kick and scream the entire way down, and it ends up being much more cost-effective and much less stressful to let them have their way and publish a shitty book.

The Harry Potter books get longer as the series goes on.

As JK Rowling became more popular, her publisher gave her more free rein and didn’t force the issue of editing. That’s part of the reason the latter HP books are so long.

So you can end up with a combination of factors: a small press that doesn’t want to pay, a bad freelancer that charges way too much, a bunch of freelancers who are super cheap but don’t know what they’re doing, a press that’s cutting corners, and/or an author who refuses to have their manuscript changed.

Publishing Schedules


Oh, and there’s one more factor: time. Sometimes, you’re told to simply get something to press—it doesn’t matter if it’s a huge steaming pile of shit. And often, if it’s a huge steaming pile of shit, you want it off your desk because it’s been a problem project from the very beginning. So you’re a little more willing to let it go and let it be shit out in the world and let readers complain about it, because hey, yeah! You know.

I don’t recommend any of this to publishers or even indie authors; this is all bad publishing practice. I’m just saying stuff happens. If you want to publish a book the “right” way, here’s what you need to do.

  1. Don’t skip copy editing or proofreading. Just bite the bullet and do it.
  2. Pay for quality. There is a difference between a $15/hour freelancer and a $30/hour one–moost of the time, anyway.
  3. Weed out bad freelancers, especially those who insist on charging high prices like your best freelancers.
  4. Convince your author(s) their books will be better for having been edited. In my experience, most authors are genuinely happy and convinced they’ve got a better book in their hands once they’ve had a skillful edit done. That’s often true even if the author is initially reluctant.
  5. Try to leave yourself plenty of time to produce the book. Yes, stuff happens and schedules shift all the time. Book production is notorious for delays. But if you build in padding, you’ll have some “extra” time to deal with that steaming pile of shit and make it, well, less shit before it hits shelves.

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